Screeds like this one show up almost as regularly as pronouncements of the impeding death of science fiction and they’re almost as silly. The thesis goes something like this: Hollywood films suck these days (true) and international performance is becoming an ever more important part of Hollywood’s finance model (true). In the next step, these two “trues” are somehow combined into one “false” by stating that international audiences are the reason why Hollywood films suck these days, because international audiences are just too dumb to appreciate the nuances in the work of Hollywood’s great screenwriters and directors.
It’s all a big load of crap, of course. International audiences have different tastes, true, but that does not necessarily mean that they have inferior tastes. What is more, international audiences aren’t one monolithic block. A moviegoer in Copenhagen will have very different preferences from a moviegoer in Bangalore and from one in Buenos Aires.
The actual occasion which triggered this latest article is a announcement of the Golden Globe nominations (which are awarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, i.e. evil foreigners with inferior tastes) which excluded a number of films the author considered award-worthy and included a number of films the author did not find award-worthy. More particularly, the author was very dissatisfied with the nominations in the comedy and musical categories.
Now I’ve always thought that the Golden Globes are much more on target with their awards than the Oscars whose decisions either baffle me or make me outright angry. I mean, L.A. Crash for best picture? The Blind Side, a stupid sappy film no one in Germany wanted to see even after it won Sandra Bullock an Oscar? The anti-abortion message disguised as a teen comedy known as Juno? What exactly were the Oscar voters smoking? There’s a reason beyond “It’s in the middle of the night” that I’ve stopped watching the Oscars, because they always make me angry. And why should I watch something which generally makes me want to shove golden statuettes up a certain part of the anatomy of certain winners? Though I’ve always put it down to the Golden Globes being awarded by critics rather than industry insiders, hence you don’t get any of that industry schmoozing. But the fact that the Golden Globe judges are not American either might certainly play a role as well.
As for American comedies being snubbed by the Golden Globes, because those nasty foreign journalists are just unable to appreciate the wonderfully nuanced work of auteurs such as Ben Stiller or Judd Apatow, that’s an even bigger load of crap. First of all, no one should ever use the word “nuance” in the same breath as Ben Stiller or Judd Apatow. Secondly, the Golden Globes are actually the only major award that recognizes comedies at all, because they have a separate comedy category. In the Oscars, whoever plays the most ailing victim of the most debilitating disease will always triumph over a talented comedian. Perhaps the true problem lies elsewhere, namely that the overwhelming majority of American comedies just aren’t funny. I don’t find the gross-out below the belt comedy of Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler or Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen or Jack Black even the slightest bit funny and neither does the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Nor for that matter do most Americans I’ve talked to. Comedy made in Hollywood is in a rut, plain and simple. Never mind that comedy in general does not translate well, because it’s too culture specific.
As for the other complaint, that westerns don’t do well internationally and are box office poison in much of the world, the author may be on to something there. America still has a largely nostalgic attachment to the western genre, but to the rest of the world westerns are basically one big illustration of American imperialism gone wild. To be fair, so are most Hollywood action flicks, but at least those have bigger explosions and actors who don’t take the whole thing so bloody seriously.
I find the classic Hollywood western, the sort starring John Wayne or Gary Cooper or some such craggy faced actor, the least relatable of all movie genres. I have enjoyed westerns on occasion, the vintage Hollywood B-westerns broadcast under the banner Western von gestern on German TV in the 1970s and 1980s, the German Karl May adaptions of the 1960s, some Italian westerns. But I have consistently found A-list Hollywood westerns extremely alienating, because most of the times they feature unattractive men kicking up a big fuzz over things which really aren’t worth all that anger and bloodshed, while women are either whores or brave pioneer women, but always background material.
True Grit, the Coen brothers’ adaption of which was “snubbed” by the Golden Globe nominations, is a special case. Because the original True Grit from 1969 is the reason why I hate both westerns and John Wayne in the first place.
I first saw True Grit on TV as a young girl. Okay, so it was one of those dull “men with big hats shooting at each other over incomprehensible problems” films (which is how I viewed westerns at the time), but this one looked actually promising. Because the protagonist was not a craggy faced old man but a young girl. Plus, there was a shudder-inducing gallows scene in the first few minutes (I have a weakness for those). But then, yet another craggy faced old man with an eyepatch appeared on the scene, treated the young heroine like crap, pushed her aside and even hit her at one point (another reason I don’t like Hollywood westerns. Their heroes are almost always misogynists). At the time, I must have been around ten and I had no idea who John Wayne was and that he was supposed to be a screen legend. All I knew that here was a relatable heroine shoed aside to focus on an unlikable and unrelatable character. Which pretty much summed up the entire western genre for me: films about unlikable and unrelatable old men with incomprehensible problems who hate women. Hence, the last thing the world needs IMO is a remake of True Grit, Coen brothers or not. I suspect many in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association feel the same, so they did not give a Golden Globe nomination to True Grit.
None of which means that Hollywood can’t keep on making as many westerns and gross-out comedies as they want. They will just have to accept that these films likely won’t appeal to non-US audiences and will have less chance to recoup their costs. This is the situation filmmakers outside the US have been in for decades. They know that what they produce has to appeal to the domestic market first, because most of the time there will only be a very limited international distribution.
Never mind that American critics and viewers try to impose the same strictures on foreign filmmakers that the author of the article accuses foreign audiences of imposing on Hollywood. Because only a very special type of foreign film does well (within limits) in the US and it’s not necessarily the best or the most successful films a country has to offer. Or why did The Life of Others win an Oscar, while the much superior and more accurate Good-Bye Lenin didn’t even gather a nomination. Because The Life of Others told a story (communism is evil, evil, evil) that Americans wanted to hear, while the more nuanced Good-Bye Lenin went against the prevailing narrative**. Why did a dull and hollow melodrama like Nirgendwo in Afrika win an Oscar, while a world hit like Lola rennt did not. Because Nirgendwo in Afrika was exactly the sort of film Hollywood wants Germany to produce, a hollow, unchallenging historical drama about our sorry national past.
And it’s not just Germany either. Take this article from a magazine entitled More Intelligent Life about The King’s Speech, a historical drama about George VI starring Colin Firth that looks almost too dull to contemplate and yet is considered a hot Oscar contender. Yet the author of that article (not the same guy as the author of the other) declares that finally Britain is making the sort of movies American audiences want to see from British filmmakers, historical dramas about the royal family. While no one, or at least not the author, wants to watch the flood of East End gangster films British directors keep churning out.
Now British gangster films (and not all of them are set in the East End, you also get the Northern version) are a genre primarily aimed at British viewers. They portray Britain or a slice of it as it sees itself, not as the quirky historical place with quirky royals that outsiders view it as. Plus, British gangster films or indeed anything featuring working class characters often feature strong regional accents, which American viewers tend to have problems with. Meanwhile, in historicals or royalty dramas, everyone speaks RP. In fact, I sometimes suspect that the main reason why British filmmakers and the BBC keep making costume dramas is that costume dramas do extremely well overseas, mainly in the US. Because certainly every single Jane Austen, Bronte or Dickens novel has been filmed enough times by now.
So in short, Hollywood and its tastes does not rule the world. Get over it.
*The western is still considered a living genre? I’d rather classify it as the zombie among genres, dead for thirty years but refusing to lie down.
**Though any American I know who’s actually seen Good-Bye Lenin loves it.