NATIONAL CINEMA AND GENRE
In developing a distinctive and vital national cinema,
most countries have been forced to confront the global cultural domination of
American film in some way. Hollywood, especially since the end of World War II,
has successfully dominated numerous foreign film markets on every continent.
Inevitably, then, national cinemas must find space in the market, both at the
local and international level, in the context of Hollywood. Because Hollywood
cinema is overwhelmingly a cinema of genre films, this means, in effect,
working within the genre system. The frame of genre allows filmmakers the
multiple benefits of working in forms familiar to audiences both at home and
abroad, and thus it offers more lucrative potential to producers for foreign
distribution. Distribution in other countries is particularly important in
nations where the population is insufficient to sustain an indigenous film
industry, for it provides the only hope for films to return a profit. At the
same time, however, accepting generic forms from Hollywood also suggests the
loss of any distinctive national features that might be expressed in cinema.
This dilemma has informed the discourse of national cinema in many countries,
especially Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand, all of which
share the English language with Hollywood.
Filmmakers from around the world have responded to the domination of American film by adopting Hollywood genres and
“indigenizing” or reworking them according to their own cultural sensibility. Examples are the Italian “spaghetti western” or Hong
Kong martial arts films. Other national cinemas have created their own genres. For example, German cinema in the 1920s and 1930s developed a distinctive genre of the mountain film, involving a character or group of characters striving to climb or conquer a mountain. The Heimatfilm, or Homeland film, is another genre of sentimental, romanticized movies about rural Germany and its inhabitants. In
Indian cinema, masala (or mixed spice) films combine a variety of heterogenous generic elements, as by inserting musical sequences in a dramatic film in a way uncharacteristic of Hollywood.
In turn, Hollywood genre filmmaking has been influenced by some of these non-American genres. For example, Japanese samurai
films gained popularity in Japan after World War II and became known in the West primarily through the films of Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998) starring Toshiro Mifune (1920–1997), including Rashomon (1950), Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai , 1954), Yojimbo ( Yojimbo the Bodyguard , 1961), and Tsubaki Sanjûrô ( Sanjuro , 1961). Red Sun (1971) paired Charles Bronson (1921–2003) and Mifune in a buddy film in the American West, and several American genre movies have been remakes of these samurai films: The Magnificent Seven (1960) was based (as was the science fiction film Battle Beyond the Stars , 1980) on The Seven Samurai ; The Outrage (1964) was based on Rashomon ; and both the spaghetti western, Per un pugno di dollari ( A Fistful of Dollars , 1964), and the action film, Last Man Standing (1996), with Bruce Willis, were based on Yojimbo . Although many international genre movies remain largely unknown to western audiences, as the film industry and popular culture generally become increasingly globalized and populations become more
multicultural, inevitably genres will interact more intensively across national boundaries.
NATIONAL CINEMA, POLITICAL ECONOMY, AND IDEOLOGY
National cinema frequently takes on the responsibility of representing the nation to its citizens for the purpose of communicating what constitutes national identity in the context of an overwhelming flow of cinematic images from a globally aggressive Hollywood industry. In 1993, a year in which all the major Hollywood distributors earned more theatrical revenues offshore than domestically, some prominent European filmmakers insisted that the new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treaty include national film-importation quotas. This was not the first time quotas have been implemented to protect fragile national film cultures from the most financially successful film producer on the planet. The United Kingdom, for instance, attempted to protect British and British empire filmmakers from Hollywood with
the Cinematograph Films Acts of 1927, 1938, and 1948. One of the most extreme examples of Hollywood’s monopolistic incursions into foreign markets is Canada, which the US industry views as part of its domestic market and where less than 2 percent of all screen time is given over to Canadian film. In the interests of nation building and maintaining national cultures, countries such as Canada (National Film Board of Canada, Telefilm Canada), Australia (Australian Film Development Corporation), Britain (National Film Finance Corporation), France (Centre
nationale de la cinématographique), and Italy (National Association for the Cinema and Similar Industries) have created various state institutions to fund and produce national cinemas. This suggests that these states see cinema beyond its commodity value, as, after Fredric Jameson, a socially symbolic act where “the production of aesthetic or narrative form is to be seen as an ideological act in its own right, with the function of inventing imaginary or formal ‘solutions’ to unresolvable social contradictions” ( The Political Unconscious , p. 79).
The idea that Hollywood is somehow alien to the film cultures of most nations is troubled, however, by a number of
prominent film studies scholars such as Thomas Elsaesser, Stephen Crofts, and Andrew Higson. Elsaesser argues that Hollywood is a major component of most national film cultures where audience expectations shaped largely by Hollywood are exploited by domestic producers. Many national cinemas translate Hollywood genres into their own national contexts, or, as Tom O’Regan writes, “indigenize” them (p. 1). Perhaps the most obvious and well-known examples of indigenizing genres are the Italian “spaghetti” westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci starring Clint Eastwood. Canadian and Australian directors have also adapted the western to narrativize national cultural materials in The Grey Fox (1982, Canada) and Road to Saddle River (1993, Canada) and, more famously, Crocodile Dundee (1986,
Australia). Another highly successful Australian indigenization of Hollywood genre is theMad Max series (1979, 1981, 1985, Australia) and its
reconfiguration of the road movie in a postapocalyptic antipodean context.
One of the more critically and commercially successful practitioners of genre indigenization is France’s Luc Besson. Besson
first ventured into Hollywood territory with Nikita (1990), a made-in-France variation on the American action film. Following the
international box-office success of Nikita , Besson took on the American film industry by shooting The Professional (1994), a French version of
the Hollywood gangster drama, in English on location in New York, with French lead Jean Reno. The film went on to gross more than $19 million in the US market alone. Besson’s subsequent film, The Fifth Element (1997), was a $90 million science-fiction epic starring Hollywood actor Bruce Willis. With the involvement of US distributors Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment, The Fifth Element opened widely, on 2,500 American screens in its first weekend of release. These shifts in setting from Paris to New York, to a futuristic New York and, finally, to outer space, beg the question of whether or not the term “French national cinema” is a useful or adequate descriptor to apply to these two films, for in what ways may they be said to represent the nation space of France?
A similar problem is raised by the work of Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who played with American genre and capital
when his production company coproduced Moulin Rouge (2001) with Twentieth Century Fox. Although the film is shot on a Sydney soundstage with Australian lead Nicole Kidman and a largely Australian production team, the film is not set in the nation space of Australia, but the mythical, digitally generated space of fin de siècle Paris as seen through the lens of the Hollywood musical as reimagined by an Australian auteur. An Australia/United States co-production, Moulin Rouge ruptures the “stable set of meanings” or codes that Higson associates with conventional understandings of the term “national cinema” (Higson, 1989, p. 37). Moulin Rouge ,
not unlike Besson’s The Professional and The Fifth Element in their ambiguous relationship to France, steps outside of an easily recognizable
Australian nation space. Commenting on what he views as the limiting imagination of “national cinema,” Higson argues that “when
describing a national cinema, there is a tendency to focus only on those films that narrate the nation as just this finite, limited space, inhabited by a tightly coherent and unified community closed off to other identities besides national identity” (Higson, 2000, p. 66). Besson’s films and Moulin Rouge are what Higson would term “transnational” on the bases of their production and distribution; but just as importantly for Higson, their variant receptions globally as these are inflected by cultural context (pp. 68–69).This difference in cultural context exists not only outside of nations, but also within them.