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Monday, January 23. 2012

THE ARTIST and the Audience as a Reflection of Hollywood's Hegemony

Note: if you haven't seen The Artist yet, do not read this article. It will spoil you!

The Artist for me was something that really solidified the idea of imbalanced globalization that is often tossed around in academia today. I mean media imperialism, hegemony of Hollywood, homogenization - that sort of thing. All phrases which, as a media student at the LSE, are constantly being thrown at me.

The Artist is a phenomenal movie, with a mood that settles like a sparkle of mist as you register the expressions, the music, the detailed vintage splendor, the relationships. The point that made me leave the theater saying "that was amazing" - not just "clever" - was the social commentary it presented on the significance of being an Other in an American world - and I was actually quite surprised to find that so many people didn't catch the importance of George Valentin's last (and first) words…

First we need to consider how those last few seconds in the film were built up to, namely the use of sound. The Artist is a silent film. But it's still a quite modern one, and while it is melodramatic and over-the-top at times, this is accomplished with a taste that fits the tone itself, not laughing at the silent tradition but using it for its own ends. And the way sound is introduced was a very, very delicate matter that had to be executed carefully. It required cleverness, precision and creativity - the audience couldn't know when/if sound was going to appear or predictability would have killed the mood of novelty they captured so beautifully (going to see a new "old" film is a decidedly novel experience for us).

So that first introduction of sound is the clink of a glass, subtle yet utterly surprising. It spoke magnitudes. The first words - "Cut!" - were also fitting, in keeping both with the uplifting mood of the final scenes and the importance of film-making.

But what the whole film builds up to is arguably the earth-shattering first words of our protagonist, George Valentin. He is our hero, we want him to succeed, and what he says is the deciding factor of the film. We can't feel disappointed when he talks. We need a sense of ingenuity. Do those words, the only thing we ever hear from him in 100 minutes of his silence, justify the experience?

I was so surprised and just let out a startled laugh when I heard his words: "With pleasure" - in a very distinct French accent. This was undeniably the crux of the entire film. George Valentin is… French?

I am positive the film writers are making a definitive statement with those words, and it is absolutely relevant to today. And so clever!

Think about it. George Valentin's foreignness, which we don't know about until the very last moment, is the whole point of the film. It drives his descent into depression, his descent from pride, his ascent back to success as he chooses dancing over talking. Because he is foreign, he is convinced he cannot succeed in the talkie.

On the outside George looks typically American. Before sound, there existed a semblance of equality on the Hollywood stage. Never mind that Hollywood always had a head start (competing with post-war-torn Europe, Americans developed a complex, efficient film industry subsequently very hard to imitate). In terms of the actors, they all stood an equal chance, assuming they were Western.

But with the advent of sound, regardless of who decided it (the audience? Or the media gatekeepers?), the adage was that Americans only wanted other Americans. They didn't need an "Other" as their starring hero, they needed someone to relate to, that sounded like them. As a result, other countries' actors were almost permanently edged out. It was globalization on a large scale for Hollywood, which kept expanding overseas, but not for other countries.

Europeans symbolically can't even speak a word in the film world of The Artist, and in real life films often quite literally so, without getting pegged as a certain stereotype - think the Russian spy, the Latin American heartthrob, the kung fu fighter.

Translate this to the film industry today. American hegemony is fairly secure on the world stage, with a few holes being poked here and there. This is a whole other discussion in itself, involving ideas of counter-flow, hybridization, Nollywood, Bollywood, etc. But it's still generally accepted that Americans want American movies. It's gotten to the point that Hollywood remakes films from scratch - à la Shall We Dance? and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, reinventing whole products for its specific audience. Looked at from this perspective, it's absolutely relevant that The Artist is a French-backed production!

Some say the tables are turning, and of interest (something I'm writing my dissertation on) is the way Hollywood now feels the need to incorporate international elements even before production in order to appeal to a wider, overseas audience. But that doesn't change the entrenched hegemony of Hollywood - it's still at the top, and utilizing that hundred-year-old advantage in efforts to appeal to audiences everywhere (be it through Transformers-type blockbusters or foreign language co-productions).

The Artist is a French film: the creators are definitely commenting on the barriers to entry for non-Hollywood movies around the world when they give George Valentin a strong French accent. He's French. He was barred from success in the talkie. But ultimately the hope is that he succeeds again - makes it somehow onto the world stage - despite his foreignness. The solution in this film is that this must be done by circumventing the norms and the expectations of audiences. Therefore, George dances.

And in real life, The Artist danced to the top of the marketplace too. As Angelique Chrisafis of the Guardian puts it, the movie's success is partly due to its being "something of a Trojan horse, a French film that sneaked in the door because it seemed to be American" - in other words, Americans were quite literally tricked into watching it. It caters to American audiences by 1) being silent - no annoying subtitles to deal with; and 2) depicting subject matter very relevant to the "American dream." At the same time, though, it deals with universal themes that have the ability to garner worldwide popularity: it's a romance, it has a sense of spectacle, it's silent and easily tweaked for distribution. Not to mention the millions of viewers enchanted by the idea of Hollywood the world over.

Sure, there might be lookalikes after this Oscar season, but the novelty of those films will fade fast. We need films that mimic The Artist not in their attention to cleverness but in their attention to the audience at stake. Do we need to appeal to everyone? The answer lies in the goal - is it worldwide success or niche market returns? Both are worthy, but I imagine two ways to beat Hollywood: either using a barrage of niche market films from all over the world (one in China and one in Belgium and one in South Africa and one in...) or the consistent release of mega-popular films, like The Artist, that can stand up to the blockbusters.

If it takes films that are this mesmerizing to achieve success in a Hollywood-dominated world, this doesn't necessarily herald a new era in film-making. It's just too much work for other markets to be expected to keep up. But The Artist is still a great symbolic victory for non-Hollywood cinema everywhere.

Edit: And very definitely symbolic, because this was actually a Warner Brothers film (based entirely in France, but still Hollywood). It's an example of homogenized structure behind the scenes but heterogenization on a symbolic level. Think Herman and McChesney's culture of entertainment!
Posted by Natalie Meyer at 13:20 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)
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Friday, December 16. 2011

Couchsurfing & the Lyon Festival of Lights

I'm writing this from a 5:50 AM train out of Lyon, France, on the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport and then back to California for the holidays. It's pitch dark and I rushed to the station after saying a quick farewell to an amazing host and my friend still tucked up in bed. Oh, and I'm eating Lyon sweets and gluten-free macaroons too. It's been a great trip!

Last week I was scrambling to complete my marketing summative work at LSE - and it was the most pleasant change ever when I exchanged that stress for the positive travel-related stress of this week, which was really a crazy trip for me on so many levels!

It started out as a simple visit to see a French friend who studied abroad in Georgetown. But she canceled on me at the last minute - leaving me with 4 days in France and no where to stay. I decided to go to Lyon anyway. And got very lucky because a Singaporean friend in my programme decided she wanted to come, too. It was the Festival of Lights last weekend - the city was packed and we couldn't find anywhere to stay!

So we did what any pair of 20-somethings might do -- we couchsurfed. I've always been curious about it and this was actually a fantastic experience. Seriously. Our host was a girl from Reunion Island (neither of us had heard of it before)... Mel has 2 black cat kittens and a really comfortable sofa bed! She was so nice and actually trusted us with her keys within hours of meeting her!

Me, quite literally couchsurfing

On the third night we had what I think must be a quintessential couchsurfing experience, the reason people do this sort of thing. Mel cooked us some authentic food from her home -- delicious fish curry and veggies -- and we provided the white wine and cheese and dessert. It was soo good and a really nice, low-key thing to do after a hectic day trip out of the city. And I skyped with her family in Reunion Island in broken French!

The language is the other thing - my French is nonexistent but just being there in such a real setting, not a hotel, with true locals, made me see how attainable learning French would be. When you use it it is so satisfying to receive even a semblance of understanding in return. My Singaporean friend was super enthusiastic about it.

As for the crazy parts of couchsurfing, Mel actually had 3 Italians staying with her the first night, andher friend from Marseilles. I legit woke up at 4 AM to a mix of English, French and Italian and a stranger sleeping next to me and two guys on the floor by our bed!! We never actually met them - we left early and they were gone that day. It was pretty amusing. The second night, after they had left and it was so serene in Mel's little flat, was like heaven after a long day out.

I knew a Lyon guy from my time abroad in Japan and he was kind enough to meet me at the station and show me around before my LSE friend showed up. So, he was our bodyguard as we made our way over to the couchsurfing place, thank goodness he came because we were soo nervous!! We were wandering through dark empty streets and worried about what our host would be like etc etc. But it all worked out.

I think the thing with couchsurfing is that it cements a really strong thing in human relations. Think about it, you have to know someone very well before you can impose on them to spend the night. But couchsurfing skips over all of that and goes straight to something that has the potential for the highest stage of human friendship, without ever having met the person. It's a brilliant idea.

I was also thinking about how when you visit a city and there are one or two acquaintances there who can show you around... Of course it's useful. But more than that, there's a feeling of constrained time that makes you hang out with that person more. And all that concentrated interaction really does make you good friends. It's just sad that it all revolves around a few days here and there. Why are my good friends scattered around the globe!? This experience has happened to me a lot in the past few years -- I've generally been on the other end of it though. It's almost traumatic to say goodbye!

Old bookstore my Lyon friend showed me in the medieval quarter

And this all leads into a really interesting discussion we've been having in my media classes about the idea of a young, global, and urban elite. For students in my LSE programme this sort of experience -- speaking 3 languages at once, meeting random acquaintances again in a new city, traveling with friends you hardly know -- is not crazy. But my family at home is going to read this and not even be able to imagine being on that same sphere of internationalism, of access to varied experiences and people. More than that, it's about the mindset: the confidence and also the willingness on each side to really exchange with each other. It's an unbalanced and privileged way of experiencing the world... But I love it so much.

Next posts: our 3 day trips out out of Lyon and the other miscellaneous sightseeing we did! And food!