Saturday, February 18, 2006

Attaque Américaine: “Super-size my Fois Gras!”

Quote of the day: “Nothing would be worse for humanity than to move toward a situation where we speak only one language.”
-Jacques Chirac

“Doo yoo speek eengleesh?” Anglicisms are ubiquitous in the French language: “le week-end,” “un hamburger,” “cool” for example. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked for the French translation of an English word and been told that the French word was merely the English word spoken with a French accent. In many of Paris’ central locations, restaurant menus are in both English and French, and English-language journals and newspapers can be purchased from every kiosk in the city. When I was trying to find a café in Le Marais the other day, I asked five different people for directions before I found someone who could help me because all five of these people were English-speaking tourists from America and the UK. Last month, a new, government-sponsored proposal to make English instruction compulsory in French schools was met by intense opposition among many French people. According to statistics from a recent TIME Magazine article, about 380 million people speak English as their primary language (and more than 250 million as a second language) whereas only 113 million people claim French as their first language (and over 60 million as their second). English has become, first and foremost, the international business language. It is almost impossible nowadays to find a job in finance without a résumé stating English speaking and comprehension ability. Not to mention the fact that most internationally successful films are English-language films of Hollywood origin. France has a $1 billion annual budget to promote French language and culture internationally, yet French ranks 11th as a language, only 4.6% of websites are in French (52% are in English), and large French companies such as Vivendi have adopted English as their workplace tongue.
However, the French refuse to back down. Many have fought against the new proposal for mandatory English language instruction, and French cultural imports have become more and more ubiquitous in recent years as crowd-pleasing films like Amélie and this year’s A Very Long Engagement warm overseas audiences. French cuisine will always be considered at a superior level, and croissants, baguettes and crêpes aren’t going away anytime soon. And, despite English’s gaining influence both culturally and economically, many French-speakers are opting for German, Russian or Spanish as their second language of choice, and refuse to learn English.
It is important, however, to note the threat of globalization rather than Americanization. Many blame the ubiquity of McDonalds, Starbucks and The Gap on a premeditated American threat to take over the world when really these popular international imports have been successful because they are reliable, well-priced (or at least Starbucks used to be) and easily manufactured. And if we’re all aiming for a state of global peace and international understanding, wouldn’t it help if we could all communicate in the same language? Yet, at the same time, without language and cultural barriers, we would be living in a homogenous, banal world where we’d all be eating Big Macs while wearing colourful sweaters and khakis and washing it all down with a mocha latte. Maybe Jacques Chirac is right; one language is not enough. Let’s just stick to Starbucks and reality TV as our international common ground, and leave conversation out of this. Ciao. Adios. Au revoir. Arrivederci.

World Cinema?
« While it is true that, on a given Friday, most of the world's multiplexes will be playing franchise products from American studios, it is not hard to imagine a future in which an American suburban marquee will boast a Chinese martial-arts picture, a Korean action thriller, a Mexican cop drama and a French romantic comedy. »
-A.O. Scott, “What is a Foreign Movie Now?” New York Times Magazine, November 14, 2004
I’ll admit: I secretly (or not so secretly anymore) want to be A.O. Scott. For years, this man has seen the same movies as me, experienced similar emotions upon viewing said films, and then expressed these emotions in a way I can only one day aspire to emulate. In laymen’s terms, the man is a genius. Not to mention that he has my (and every other aspiring entertainment journalist) dream job as chief film critic for the New York Times. On Sunday, I read an article of his in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in which he questions what exactly a “foreign” film entails. Are all foreign films foreign to someone else somewhere in the world? Or is there a universal language of cinema rendering no film foreign? I’ve been constantly asking myself this question since my arrival in France. While, in the United States, “foreign” films are usually associated with esotery, intelligence and often intellectual snobbery, a “foreign” film in France technically includes all of Hollywood’s exports, thus allotting the “foreign” label to films like FBI: Fausses Blondes Infiltrees (aka White Chicks) and Alien vs. Predator. Scott’s view is optimistic; “What we think of as Hollywood is already a hybrid of influences from elsewhere to an extent not seen since the great wave of emigre talent that was European fascism’s inadvertent gift to American culture.” According to Scott, Hollywood has already adapted techniques from all over the world – Japanese anime, Bollywood, martial arts, neorealism – so a universal world cinema may be possible in the future, event expected. While we cry Hollywood fascism, we forget the myriad “foreign” exports that do make their way – albeit in limited quantity – across US borders every year. Whereas many of the films climbing up the charts in the French box office are American, there are also myriad French films that have been equally as successful. Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles has been the top film for the past few weeks here, and more than half of the top 10 films here at the moment are French. Many French films have recently been successful in the states (think: Amélie) and the soon-to-be released Oscar-nominated Les Choristes will, mark my word, in true Miramax tradition, give reason to make a French toast. Chinese martial arts films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and this year's Hero have earned raves from American critics and moviegoers alike, and remake’s of Japanese horror flicks – The Grudge and The Ring – have risen to the top of the box office. So, even as most Americans get fatter and stupider, there are still others who possess a Nouvelle Vaguian appreciation for auteur cinema and give hope for a rising heterogeneous world cinema that transcends Hollywood's international dominance.
However, on the other hand, the 21st century has witnessed a migration on the part of young international filmmakers towards a more Hollywoodian, more stereotypically “American” approach to film. Mathieu Kassovitz, for example, whose success stemmed from films such as La Haine and Métisse that focused on youth violence and street life in urban France and provided a critique of the social and political evils of modern French society, has made a concerted effort to create a name for himself in the United States. While Kassovitz’s original works were in-depth analyses of human nature and studies of contemporary urban life, his latest films have been studio-funded, technologically simulated science fiction movies featuring big-name stars such as Halle Berry (Gothika). What can explain this move away from the auteur cinema of the French New Wave directors of the 1960s and towards this homogenous studio-dominated, star-based cinema based on box office success? Well, I’ll just ask Kassovitz himself! (see future entry, I will be interviewing him on Wednesday)

I think that what distinguishes American films from “foreign” films ( and by this I mean “foreign” to America, i.e. films made and/or funded outside of our borders ) is the fact that “foreign” films are made to tell a story whereas American films are made simply to please the widest audience possible. And I think that – wait, hold on, minor interruption… this just in: I HAVE RECEIVED AN EMAIL FROM A.O. SCOTT! Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie; it’s true, A.O. (I think we should be on a first-name basis since we are sending international correspondence, don’t you?) just wrote to me. Okay, okay so I wrote to him first, BUT he wrote back! And right away too! I simply wrote to tell him that I am a loyal reader of his film criticisms and that his recent article on the state of “foreign” cinema really influenced my Reynolds grant research, and he wrote back the following: “Dear Ms. Leffler,
Part of my optimism about the state of cinema and culture in general comes from the belief, or at least the hope, that my writing might reach intelligent and curious readers. Your note, confirming that at least one such reader actually exists, means a lot to me, and I thank you for it, and also for the many interesting ideas and questions it contains. The research program you describe sounds fascinating…” I will spare you the rest of this detailed response including his musings on the current state of French cinema which I will return to later throughout the course of my studies, but I just wanted to point out the overwhelmingly positive response I have received when I tell people what exactly I am doing in Paris, namely pursuing my dream thanks to a Reynolds grant. This grant has given me so many opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic. Just the other day, in fact, I dined with Le Monde editor and journalist Nicolas Weil who I have been in touch with ever since he came to Dartmouth early in the spring to give a lecture on Anti-Semitism in France. Weil recently finished a book titled La République et les antisémites and gave me a copy upon my arrival in a little brasserie in Le Marais, writing (and I translate from French) “To Rebecca, who was a part of the birth of this book.” Since the question of French anti-Semitism fascinated me both because I was writing my thesis on French films about the Holocaust and the Second World War and for more personal reasons, Weil’s work was of interest to me, especially in light of the recent stereotype that France, as a nation, is inherently anti-Semitic. Before leaving for France, I was warned by so many and family and friends to “watch out” because the French are anti-Semitic. While I have found these admonitions to be thus far unqualified, this stereotype does not come out of nowhere. I was here for the Dartmouth Foreign Study Program three years ago when Jean-Marie LePen, a racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic right-wing extremist, was elected in the first round of the French national elections. While LePen did not receive enough votes to pass the “deuxième tour,” the fact that so many French citizens would support such a candidate was scary to me. France, throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has always been more anti-Israel than the United States. I noticed this when I was here in the Spring of 2002, when I would turn on the television and see scenes of Israeli soldiers killing innocent Palestinians, when I was accustomed to watching scenes of Palestinians killing Israelis on television sets at home in the U.S. I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two different media portrayals of parallel events, but it was so interesting for me to see just what a powerful role the media plays in national sentiment. The family I lived with throughout my FSP were vehemently opposed to Sharon’s policies and made their opinions clear to me, which was difficult for me coming from a background where those around me were strong supporters of the state of Israel.

“A Very Long – and Controversial – Engagement”
Now I’m not normally one to seek out controversy, but I couldn’t have been more thrilled when I found out that Jeunet’s latest film, Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles, was embroiled in an international debate. Not because I didn’t like the film – read my musings above, it wasn’t terrible – but because this identity battle couldn’t possibly be more perfect for my project. It is as if Jean-Pierre Jeunet himself made this film because he knew I was coming to Paris on a Reynolds grant (really, that’s the only explanation). So here’s the issue: Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles was made in French, in France and with a French production team of over two thousand people. Yet many French producers and production companies (such as Gaumont and Pathé) have refuted the film’s claims of being “French” because Warner Bros provided the majority of the 30 million Euro budget. The French government commissioner has supported these protestors and has ruled that production of the film was dependent on Warner Bros. and therefore is not entitled to French assistance. An administrative court in Paris will make a final decision about this dispute in two weeks.
So why do I care about Jeunet’s film, you may be asking yourself. Well, this identity argument epitomizes the problem French cinema faces in today’s global entertainment market. French law stipulates that, with the new tax credit, most locally made French films can write off between 10% and 20% of below the line costs such as post-production, crew, transportation and set work. This tax credit was created in an effort on the part of the French government to boost the French film market and enable it to compete with Hollywood’s international dominance. However, without studio backing, it remains nearly impossible for French films to achieve the international success of its studio-funded, big-budget American cousins. With A Very Long Engagement, however, Jeunet hoped to “beat the system” by both receiving studio backing (read: Warner Bros.) and by cutting below the line costs by being produced on the Ile-de-France. The court ruling in a couple of weeks will determine the future of French film: If Jeunet gets away with this sly mélange of the best of both worlds, 2005 and beyond may witness a more homogenous Franco-American cinema (which I see as a positive thing for American cinema and an embarrassing plunge downward for its French counterpart). However, if Jeunet’s film is made an example of illegal activity, then French cinema may just remain on this side of the Atlantic, preventing it from ever crossing U.S. borders in the way Hollywood films have infiltrated Francophone nations everywhere.

I have a letter printed in New York Magazine! Despite the fact that the Editors so kindly decided to not only cut the majority of my letter, but also to completely change my words, here is what was printed… This is only the on-line version:

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