Reader Elver Loho writes from Estonia: “You’ve recently blogged a lot about old European cinema and… I gotta admit, with a few rare exceptions, all the names and titles are completely alien to me. Despite being European myself. “The question I’d like to ask you is… What’s currently wrong with
European cinema and how do we fix it? Hollywood is cranking out huge global hits every year, but nowadays only a few European films become popular in USA. (Or in Europe for that matter) Even Asian cinema is way more popular on the global market. What is Europe lacking that Asia and USA have?”
There are a lot of questions there and they have to be tackled individually. I think the first statement is interesting and points to the problem of finding out about older films: many more of them are readily available to buy than ever before, but it’s not easy to know WHAT to buy, and television doesn’t play the role it used to in introducing kids to old movies. But Elver is obviously more than usually interested in cinema and will undoubtedly find his way to the films that speak to him. The second point has many possible answers, and I can only attempt to offer mine.
At least as far back as the 1920s, European cinema has been dwarfed and dominated by the U.S. Hitchcock suggested that this was partly because the United States was composed of foreigners, so they could easily address the rest of the world. Certainly Hollywood could afford to buy up the best talent from around abroad, enhancing its own output and incidentally disabling the film industries of Germany, Sweden, Britain… But this isn’t to say that European film has always been in a state of crisis (just Britishfilm). There are clear roles for European films which are both commercially viable and culturally essential. We can and must tell our own stories in Europe, which can sometimes travel the world, or might simply stay within national boundaries and make their money at home. I’ve written already about some uniquely British cultural oddities which haven’t been much seen outside the U.K. All that’s necessary for the above scenario to work is for the European countries to make films which, at the very least, appeal somewhat to their own populations, at a level which allows recoupment. I would expect many of these films to incidentally also have international appeal, as most good stories can stand translation. So, if there IS a crisis, it would mean that European countries are not making popular films. On the whole I think some are, some aren’t. I think some countries, such as Britain, suffer from a rather strong division between purely commercial junk on the one hand and miserable downbeat “serious” cinema on the other.
I don’t believe, personally, that “serious” is or should be the same thing as “depressing”, and I find a lot of British film depressing, either because it tries like mad to BE depressing, or it tries to entertain in a mindless and sometimes vicious way. I don’t think either of those are great options for “commercial” or “art” cinema. In Scotland we have a whole, recognised tradition of “miserablism” which is driving Scottish audiences away from their own national cinema.
Note that I have blogged before about extremely dark films like COME AND SEE and SEPPUKU, which don’t seem to me to be depressing at all.
Roving back to the 50s, 60s and early 70s, when “arthouse” was at its height, we can see that a lot has changed, irrepairably. In those days, art cinema could be sold on sex. Nowadays, people who want sex can get it, in abundant variation, in porn. Sex only really sells if it involves movie stars, since that at least has novelty. And America can buy up all the movie stars.
But looking back at the cinema of those bygone glory years, we also see that art cinema was incredibly entertaining. THE SEVENTH SEAL is a very funny film. EIGHT AND A HALF is funny and dazzling and exciting. DAISIES is sexy and silly and hysterically funny. And filmmakers working in this tradition today are still getting small-but-sufficient audiences because they offer something different, unique. David Lynch’s films freak us out more than any mainstream horror film can. And they also provide sexual thrills far removed from anything likely to be packaged in a regular drama.
What I’m not suggesting is that we all go out and make American-styled films. I’ve seen British films with steaming manhole covers, and it doesn’t work. We don’t have that over here. We can by all means steal from the Americans, and from anybody else (somebody, steal from the Japanese! PLEASE!), but we have to be telling our own stories. There needs to be a core of Britishness, Frenchness, Germanity, Czechismo, Turkhood. Something that differentiates our stuff from the Americans’ — precisely because “everybody” prefers American films, nobody wants cheap knockoffs.
I’m not a huge fan of NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH, but my favourite bits are precisely those that have a Russian flavour. I find Luc Besson’s stuff absolutely intolerable, but there’s a soupçon of Frenchness that I guess stops them plunging forever into a midatlantic chasm like the hero of THE BIG BLUE. They don’t QUITE feel like calling-card films, and indeed Besson has remained a French filmmaker even though I presume he feels quite out of sympathy with the critical culture of Cannes and Cahiers.
This national identity is a delicate thing, hard to pin down. It doesn’t require that all Greek films should be full of people throwing plates on the floor like Jules Dassin’s NEVER ON SUNDAY (though I would support such a move — Angelopoulos’ films have great visual style but not nearly enough smashed crockery for my taste). It just means that a Dutch film, for instance, should be something that could not have come from anywhere else. Paul Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK satisfies this requirement admirably, whatever else one thinks of it.
One of my Central Tenets is that when a film is successful it’s because it appeals, not because it reflects the society it comes from. But reflecting society is a small but vital PART of the appeal.
I admit this is all pretty vague and on-the-surface. A more nitty-gritty approach to these problems shall be made manifest when I grasp the nettle and blog about producers and funding bodies…