May 2008 Archives

I would go to see Sex and the City, the movie, if somebody paid me -- a lot.  Otherwise, no.  I've put in my time trying to appreciate the TV series, because it is always a challenge to figure out why anything is that popular.  But apart from the eye candy aspect -- all those dresses, high heels, cocktails, gourmet restaurants, ritzy apartments -- I fail to see the appeal.

I love New York, but this is not New York, it's the Upper East Side after the GEC (Great Ethnic Cleansing).  I appreciate strong smart women, but these women are weak and stupid: they never read a book, visit a museum, see a play or even a movie.  One of them is a "writer," but all she writes about is all any of them ever think about, namely their sex lives, which are a weird and pathetic hybrid of spinsterhood and promiscuity.

It is often remarked that these four characters are not women at all but gay men in drag (and not the sort of gay men who get married, either).  There's some truth to that, but it hardly excuses the show's dreary lack of wit.  After all, similar remarks have been made about one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Frasier, whose brilliantly funny characters, Frasier Crane and (especially) his brother Niles, are really gay men in a different kind of drag.

I could go on -- Sex and the City has been on my mind ever since an earnest young student in Beijing told me that she and her friends watch pirated copies of it as a form of sex education.  (Memo to Chinese government: you have your work cut out for you.)  But no one is paying me, so ... below find a pretty good swipe at the movie by the New Yorker's Anthony Lane, who would be a fine critic if he ever bothered to string more than two aperçus together.
May 29, 2008 6:53 PM |
Just a quick item: if you haven't discovered Turner Classic Movies, check it out, especially if you are fortunate or extravagant enough to have high-definition TV.  Old movies on TV were always so chopped up temporally (whole scenes cut to make room for commercials) and spatially (both ends of the picture sliced off to fit the TV screen), it was easy to think of them as somehow  crude and primitive.

But watch them the way TMC shows them -- "uninterrupted, uncolorized and commercial-free" -- and you will realize how beautifully they were crafted, and despite large amounts of fluff, how intelligent they are.
May 15, 2008 9:14 AM |
Dan Glickman, head of the MPAA, often points out that Al-Qaeda hasn't attacked movie theaters or other symbols of Hollywood, arguing that US films are not even as much of a target as McDonalds.

This is not quite true.  Along with consistent enthusiasm for Hollywood films, one finds hearty opposition.  For example, in South Korea, the 1988 release of Fatal Attraction caused riots and vandalism, including spray-painted slogans like "Drive Out Yankee Movies," and (from one especially creative group) the placing of live snakes in theaters showing the film.

In 1993, the Disney animated feature Aladdin was released globally, and set off angry protests in Islamic countries for the song lyric: "I come from a land, a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face - it's barbaric, but hey, it's home."

To be fair, there have been more protests in favor of Hollywood films than against them.  Over the years, one of Hollywood's most effective tactics against foreign protectionism has been the boycott.  In 1947 the Motion Picture Export Association's threat to withhold US films from Great Britain caused the British government to knuckle under and agree to eliminate restrictions on the import of foreign (Hollywood) films.

This threat has worked many times since.  Even the Cultural Diversity Convention led by Canada and France has turned out to be toothless, because theater owners in most countries know that their business depends largely on American films.

Yet this could be changing.  Overwhelming demand is not universal.  In some countries - India and Turkey, for example - it does no good to threaten a boycott, because the audiences in question have never gotten hooked on Hollywood in the first place.  In such cases, the major US companies follow what for them has always been Plan B: instead of overwhelming rival film industries (Plan A), they buy them out.  "Runaway production" and "runaway investment" are not new concepts; they date back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when many of the "foreign films" gaining market share in the US were largely or wholly financed by Hollywood.

Back in 1969, the historian Thomas Guback argued that this strategy of US domination of foreign production would, over time, affect content by muffling foreign voices deemed unmarketable in the US.  Has this happened?  Or has the sheer size of foreign markets made the domestic US market less important?  More anon ...
May 13, 2008 9:24 AM |
What is most striking about the whole attempt to regulate the globalization of media flows, from 1976 to 2005, is how it became more and more narrowly focused on audiovisual products, in particular those coming out of the United States.

Back in 1980, the 312-page report of UNESCO's International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems contains about seven pages on film and television; the rest deals with a myriad of issues, from journalism to technology to censorship.  (Point of minor interest: the lead writer of that report, Sean MacBride, was the son of Maude Gonne, the legendary Irish activist and muse to William Butler Yeats.)

The recent Cultural Diversity Convention, by contrast, is full of incredibly repetitive and (to my mind) vague references to "diverse art practices" and "diverse cultural identities," but as Canada's Globe and Mail put it, all that clotted language was really just "code for 'let's all get together and protect our national cultures against Hollywood."
May 12, 2008 11:00 AM |
Has it really been more than a month since I posted an entry?  If you are out there, fanatically loyal reader, I apologize.  This blog is a challenge, when all one does all day is try to find the next sentence in a book manuscript.

Nevertheless, good intentions spring eternal, and I hereby post an op-ed that appeared two days ago in the Boston Globe and will appear tomorrow in the International Herald Tribune.  It's a preshrunk version of a long chapter I just wrote for my book, called "The Washington-Hollywood Pact."  Hope it will hold down this page until next time.  (I vow to do better!)

Risky business for Hollywood

From the negative depiction of Washington in most Hollywood movies and the frequent criticism of Hollywood in Washington, you'd never guess the film industry and the U.S. government are an old married couple who quarrel at home but are united before the rest of the world.

This unity was on display last month in Washington at a contentious panel discussion sponsored by Vanderbilt University's Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy. The issue at hand was the export of American films to billions of people around the globe who both welcome and resent them.

Hollywood and Washington have cooperated closely on this export, now more than 10 times larger than America's import of foreign films, creating a balance of trade more favorable than that of any other industry save aerospace.

The problem, however, is that our old married couple achieves this by treating film like any other product - and in the process ignores foreign resentment toward Hollywood's enormous cultural power.

Many Americans assume that the popularity of American films is a natural outcome of global consumer preferences. And in much of the world, demand has always been strong. But equally strong have been the cajoling, persuading and downright strong-arm tactics that for years have been applied to foreign governments by the Motion Picture Association of America and various players in Washington, from the Defense Department to (most recently) the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

These tactics have fostered resentment - and resistance. On the Washington panel, one speaker was a former minister of Canadian Heritage, Sheila Copps, who recently lobbied Unesco to adopt the Cultural Diversity Convention, a resolution affirming the right of any country to exempt "cultural goods and services" from the rules of international trade agreements.

This is not the first such initiative, and to opponents, it is just an excuse to erect protectionist barriers against the "free flow of information" (especially Hollywood films). To its advocates, it is a crucial defense of national cultures against the onslaught of "global mono-culture" (especially Hollywood films).

The Cultural Diversity Convention was adopted by Unesco in 2005 by a vote of 148 to 2, with only Israel joining America in opposition. The resolution is not binding. Even so, such a high-profile endorsement of cultural protectionism should worry both Hollywood and Washington.

But Hollywood could care less. On the panel, Dan Glickman, president of the Motion Picture Association, jokingly recalled that when he was secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton, his European Union counterpart tried to block U.S. farm products on the grounds that "genetically modified food was cultural." The Cultural Diversity Convention, Glickman said, felt like "déjà vu all over again."

Yes, you heard right. The world's most powerful film lobbyist dismisses the idea that movies are culture and insists that they are mere commodities.

To repeat, this has long been the U.S. stance in high-pressure trade negotiations. After all, argues Curb Center director Bill Ivey in his new book, "Arts, Inc.," America has never had a ministry of culture, charged with supporting the arts at home and shaping their flow to the rest of the world. This is mainly because we've never wanted one.

Yet this lack of leadership leaves Hollywood and Washington talking about America's most important cultural exports as though they were so many bioengineered eggplants.

It is also ironic, because when the Motion Picture Association was founded in 1922, it was in reaction to a 1915 Supreme Court decision that defined cinema as "business, pure and simple," and therefore not eligible for First Amendment protection.

Because this ruling raised the specter of state censorship, the major film studios agreed to adopt the Production Code that restricted sex and violence. Only later did the courts redefine cinema as protected speech - which is to say, as artistic expression.

American film makers today have more freedom than any of their predecessors or peers. Sometimes the results are wonderful. But sometimes they are deeply offensive: empty spectacle, sniggering adolescent treatments of sex and ultra-violent imagery.

As a result, millions of foreigners - not just ministers of culture, but also ordinary people - feel assaulted. When Hollywood and Washington respond to their concerns by reducing film to the status of "business, pure and simple," they add insult to perceived injury.
May 8, 2008 2:33 PM |


Me Elsewhere


About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from May 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

April 2008 is the previous archive.

June 2008 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.