The Not-So-Global Globes

International Tensions in the Film Industry

by Suzanne Enzerink

23 January 2012

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011) / Margaret Thatcher as The Iron Lady 

Golden Globes Night was Like Madonna’s Accent: Oscillating between American and Foreign Throughout

The current tensions have to be read in the context of the hardships that the movie industry is facing globally: with ticket sales in decline, piracy running rampant, and audiences growing tired of its latest ruse to make up for falling revenues—3D—the industry is under pressure. While this certainly increases the (perceived) competition between various national industries, these are essentially problems that they all have to face together, and scapegoating does not solve a thing. Americanization, Europeanization, Asianization; all these words essentially come down to the same thing, i.e., the fear for the revenue of the own production masked in an irrational fear that foreign films will somehow prove detrimental to the national character.

Why do I say irrational? A case study of the very first feature-length film that became an international success, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, will prove my point and end these scattered comments. The main reason to discount the term “Americanization” it’s misleading; viewers still decode the films from their own perspective, which is determined by the specific context they inhabit. An American watching a French film will pick up on and emphasize different parts of it than a French person, a Ghanian man will watch an American production differently than a Swedish woman. Even in the same country, a film will not be seen the same way by any two individuals. In other words, context matters. All particulars matter.

Of course, the script writer and director can attempt to attach a certain meaning to the content, but that does not mean that this will be wholly picked up by the audience. In the case of The Birth of a Nation, even a distinctively American content cannot be transported unharmed with regard to its preferred reading. D.W. Griffith painted a picture of complete racial warfare, in which rapacious, lying and stealing African Americans were at the verge of bringing the country to ruin. It was a rewriting of the Civil War 50 years after it ended. Historian Joel Williamson identifies The Birth of a Nation as part of one of the three mentalities in the South regarding the Reconstruction Era, conveying a “radical conservative” mentality characterized by a paranoia of miscegenation (Williamsom, The Crucible of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

In the US, theatres showed The Birth of a Nation for unprecedented extended periods. The film became the most successful of its time and was even rereleased several times, as Melvyn Stokes has shown. It was also the first film that made a huge impact on foreign markets, with road show companies active in Great Britain, South America, and Australia by February 1916 (119). The Atlanta Constitution estimated in November 1916 that over 25 million people had seen the film outside of the US and that it was the “excellence of presentation” that could explain this success (19 November 1916). Within a year, road shows had reached not only South America, but Great Britain and Australia as well, an incredible feat for the time, especially as there were only a few copies of the film and traveling was a time consuming and delicate process.

The film thus became popular with audiences that did not readily understand the preferred reading, which is constituted by transforming social reality into a hierarchy of discursive domains, as Stuart Hall theorized in his seminal study of audience reception Encoding/Decoding (172). The structure of a work employs a certain “code” and contains a message, but it is the decoding at a different “determinate moment” that exerts influence over consequent societal practices (168).  The codes of encoding and decoding are not always “a perfect fit”, and a “misunderstanding” can occur through a lack of equivalence between producer and receiver (169-170).

The cross-cultural reception of The Birth of a Nation thus proves interesting in that it demonstrates how this absence of an equivalent context—the imprint/institutionalization of the institutional/political/ideological order—results in entirely different readings of the film (172); the dominant themes that were emphasized in foreign reviews were not miscegenation or the dangers of African American enfranchisement, but the battle scenes that Griffith had filmed on such an epic scale. In non-American societies, the naturalized reading of blackness as different and/or dangerous, which Butler has termed “the racist organization and disposition of the visible,” was absent, and instead the context of World War I largely determined the foreign reception of the film (“Endangered” 206).

For example, on 3 January 1916, The Toronto World reported that The Birth of a Nation had broken the audience record of Ben Hur in both Toronto and Montreal, and that the 92nd Overseas Batallion would attend a screening at the invitation of a Col. Chisholm and his staff, of whom some were French veterans. Chisholm is quoted as saying that “No better education for war service could be given the men than to see the war scenes in The Birth of a Nation” (“This Week at the Theatres”).

The importance of the film was thus seen outside of the US in terms of its realistic depiction of battle scenes, rather than in the race/class/gender paradigm structured by The Birth of a Nation, as this was largely ignored in foreign accounts of the film. The foreign reception is thus a prime example of a situation in which the encoding sets “some of the limits and parameters” of decoding—the battle scenes were central to Griffith as a “rite of purgation” needed to transpose familial unity into national unity—but cannot guarantee or prescribe a reading (Hall 173-174). Films can never completely Americanize or Europeanize the spectator. 

The real problem seems to be economic, surfacing mostly during award shows, as awards bestow a prestige upon films that will ensure increased attention from audiences. The battle for the spectator creates national rifts. However, the movie industry has to confront its demons not through competition, but through cooperation. In 1915, almost 100 years ago, millions of people inside and outside of US borders flocked to the theatres to take part in a new and exciting experience of moviegoing.

To get to spectators back to the theatre these days, the industry has to bring back this excitement, the wonder of seeing something unique that is enhanced by the shared experience of the movie theatre. It has to reinstate the type of immersion that a laptop and a bag of microwave popcorn can never provide. The Artist’s popularity is testament to the fact that the nostalgia for such a communal experience is at an unprecedented height, and the industry would be wise to heed the call.

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