Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Subject: Death of a Culture
Date: August 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, eh?

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 production industry.

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 culture.

Shrage continues:

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 remain French.


...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 Americanizing?

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!

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --