Death of a Culture
29, 1994 20:07
20:45 Toowong, Australia :: 3 AUG 94
OK. Rummage through your back issues of Wired magazine and whip out issue
2.05-May 1994. Turn to page 75 and read the Michael Schrage rage. Interesting,
For those of you subscribing to the paragon of gen-x techiedom, I here
supply a commentary.
Shrage titled his rant, "France's Jerry Lewis Media Policy,"
a snide, ironic reference to the French affinity for Lewis' comedy. The
French feel that America never adequately credited the American comics'
genius. Shrage is saying that the policy in question is a joke.
France successfully negotiated a "cultural exception" from
GATT allowing it to continue enforcing quotas and taxes on foreign film
and television content. France invests the tariffs and taxes in the French
Shrage words it a little differently:
Blending hard bargaining with fabled Gallic arrogance, France
successfully managed to carve itself a cultural exception to the GATT
treaty that allows it to continue its policies of special quotas and taxes
on foreign (i.e., American) movies and television shows. Those moneys,
in turn, go to subsidize French auteurs desperately struggling to preserve
a truly French cinema amid the crush of such imported media merde
as Remains of the Day, In the Name of the Father, and Schindler's List.
Shrage's knee jerks so hard here I'm afraid it's forced his boot into
his mouth. If he'd bothered to research the French government's position
rather than simply react to it he might have rethought his rant. The caliber
of the foreign productions matters less than a simple unavoidable fact
of the content: no foreign film can contend that it tells a French story
or that it's perspective, it's point of view is French. France appears
to be one of few countries to recognize that their culture is under siege
from "American popular culture" and the cultural GATT exclusion
is aimed primarily at maintaining France's ability to produce its own
cultural material in the face of a pop invasion.
Shrage goes on to reinforce his position:
American pop culture succeeds worldwide not because it is trash
designed for the least common denominator (although much of it undeniably
is) but because, as a nation of immigrants, our media are designed to
appeal to diverse audiences.
Sigh. This has to be the most simplistic analysis of the situation I've
ever encountered. The reality of American pop cultural dominance is of
course much more complex involving economic, social and political factors
spanning cinema's entire history.
The film industry in America has long been vertically integrated to the
hilt. That is, production companies form close ties with distributors
and cinema chains, or simply own them outright. In this way, a producer
can assure a certain number of screens will show their product at its
release. Since the end of WWII, Hollywood has been busily extending this
to a world-wide network. The reality for foreign film producers is that
to get access to marketing, distribution and screens in their own country
they may well have to go through American companies to do it. Since most
of these companies are pushing their own product through the same channels
they may be naturally reticent to provide that access.
To put it baldly, American pop culture is a product (in the business
sense of the word) of corporate America, particularly its marketing and
distribution megalith. The worldwide success of it is due in no small
part to the fact that corporate America controls much of the worldwide
media distribution channels as well as many of the theatres. For example,
American film distribution companies own more than 50% of both French
companies distributing feature films in France. In Canada the situation
is even worse since US companies also control the majority of screens
on which films are shown.
The consumers of popular culture expect certain production values from
its media and quality production doesn't come cheap. Rarely does a film
made on a budget of less than $1,000,000 make a dent in the worldwide
market. I've talked with several Australian producers and directors of
films. Each of them noted that acquiring the budget to make a film up
to pop culture's Hollywood production standards usually required getting
Hollywood involved in the production. Hollywood involvement/control generally
comes at the price of turning the production into another example of pop
By contrast, French media are too busy being French to care
what anybody else thinks. So let France have Quebec and Francophone Africa-we'll
take the rest of the world, merci beaucoup! France's Jerry Lewis
multimedia policy assures that-far from expanding French cultural reach-its
media will be as ghettoized and appealing as, say, Euro Disneyland. What
an irony for the country that gave us the word "entrepreneur".
"We'll take the rest of the world!" ??? Gallic arrogance, indeed!
What else are the French to be but French? If they wished to be American
they would move to Boise, Idaho. Shrage's implication is that for the
French film industry to survive it must make films in English. Unfortunately,
to reach the enormous market extending through North America and other
English language countries this may be true. North Americans simply don't
watch subtitled or dubbed films, at least not in the numbers necessary
to support big-budget film making. "Failure" in the global market
has little to do with whether the French can spin a good yarn. "Three
Men and a Baby," "Somerville," "My Father the Hero,"
"Point of No Return" are just four successful American films
remade from French originals. Is Shrage suggesting that the French should
have made the "pop culture" version in the first place? Why
should they? Without exception, I felt the French originals better than
the populist remake-but I don't mind subtitles.
I will ask a question: in the cultural melting pot that is America, how
would Americans respond to a French cultural invasion? It' a difficult
condition to imagine. Think of it from another perspective. Assume that
the threat is directed at "The American Way," which any cultural
invasion would necessarily undermine. Remember McCarthyism? Remember Vietnam?
Remember the Civil Rights movement? Remember the Alamo?
Shrage reduces the entire argument to the almighty buck. Like the militaristic
imperialists that once ravaged or outright destroyed unique cultures all
over the globe, the new economic media imperialists set about renewing
the onslaught. America's new manifest destiny is to expand its market,
and thus its cultural reach to the entire globe. France wants only to
...France's culture of subsidy guarantees that it will always
be more important for the artistes to be French first and creative second.
As industrial policies go, that's hardly a recipe for success.
Shrage goes on to support this argument with the failure of federally
supported French rock 'n' roll to make any impression on the American
market. Get serious. As if foreign language music could ever make an impression
on the American market. The next red-herring is Groupe Bull, the French
subsidized computer manufacturer that, though profitable at home, has
thus far failed to break into the American market. I doubt it has made
a sincere effort.
The flaw in Shrage's analysis here is that the French film industry has
been organized under this "Jerry Louis" media policy for quite
some time, and remained vibrant, creative, productive and, much to Shrage's
chagrin, very French. If it is France that is creatively bankrupt, why
does the great and powerful Hollywood production engine continue to repackage
French stories? America and English speaking countries seem to avoid subtitled
or dubbed films in droves. That is their failure, not the filmmaker's.
What's so great about popular culture anyway? Isn't this just something
of a clique in the global market? Of course the Americans don't mind that
the world is being over run by pop culture since it is the American media
barons who define pop culture in the first place. In short, Pop Culture
is nothing more than a marketing aphorism for American Culture. Why should
the rest of the world's cultures participate in their own demise by essentially
Here, Mr. Shrage, is the mechanical problem the unpopular cultures face.
If I as a Canadian, succeed in writing a sublime, moving and thought provoking
screenplay for a quintessentially Canadian story, I will almost certainly
have to console myself with no more than a small, independent production
budget to get it made. I would be ecstatic for that alone. The not insignificant
English language production industries in various Canadian cities are
geared almost entirely to shooting films for Hollywood. While hundreds
of films are produced annually in Canada, few of them are Canadian productions
of Canadian stories. Canadian television producers fare somewhat better
since Canada controls her airwaves, at least.
If I took my story to the barons of pop culture they would almost certainly
insist first that the story be set in Anywhere, USA. Hollywood produces
very few stories not set in America. Of course, all the interesting, uniquely
Canadian plot points and characters would seem ridiculously out of place
in Anywhere, USA, so they too would have to be "popularized."
If you know of Canadian English language film it is probably through
that infernally socialist and protectionist institution known as the NFB,
the National Film Board of Canada, which for a good many years funded
production of arguably the best documentaries on earth. It still maintains
something of a global reputation though the heydays are long past.
I wish Canadian cultural support was as effective as French. Did you
know that the highest grossing Canadian film of all time is Porky's? If
the world market wishes to gnaw on Hollywood and American Kitsch, let
'em! The French, at least, will remain French. Vive la France!
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