Divided By A Common Language
Back in 1951, Powell & Pressburger didn’t make a film called ‘Pandora & The Flying Dutchman’, but everyone thought they did. The film has the odd ethereal feel of one of their miraculous lightning-in-a-bottle movies, as Ava Gardner and James Mason find redemption from their respective mythologies in the present-day Riviera.
The interesting thing is that for all of its ‘European-ness’, American audiences loved it and made it a hit. Hollywood had looked to European talent since its inception, of course, and an even greater number fled the war in Europe for the safety of the West Coast. The cross-fertilisation of American know-how and European mentality paid big dividends and spawned numerous critical and audience hits.
Cut to the 1980s, and a new style of Hollywood movie appears which mines a rich seam of Americana, largely spearheaded by Steven Spielberg. Europe returns to making its own domestic product, selling the odd film here and there to the US. Britain retreats into the Downton Abbey school of filmmaking, conforming to stereotypes and reaffirming them. So, while France and the UK please their domestic markets with homegrown blockbusters like ‘Welcome To The Sticks’ and ‘The Inbetweeners’, they export ‘Amelie’ and ‘A Room With A View’.
And on to the present day. The major markets to please now are China, India and Japan, so most of Hollywood’s summer blockbusters have covert signifiers inside them for SE Asian audiences – recognisable stars and products that won’t interfere with domestic box office, but will also reap rewards domestically. This splits Hollywood in two, exactly as it has in Europe. Saturday Night Live alumni star in vehicles that don’t play beyond the US, and other films like ‘Kung Fu Panda’ are made specifically for export. You have no idea how huge ‘Frozen’ is in the Far East. Disney is marketing wedding dresses and endless spinoff albums from it. It’s still everywhere (not in the UK, though, which prefers to look forward to America’s autumn dramas).
In other words, just as Scotland and Catalunya and the Basque Territory and other parts of Europe seek to split away and find their own identities, the same thing is happening in the arts. Until recently, a single product could conquer the world – think of the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise or the brilliant ‘Lord of the Rings’ films – but it will be interesting to see what happens now. Do we honestly think anyone in Los Angeles would want to see ‘Wolf Hall’?
Me, I’d like someone to have a fresh look at Phillip Pullman’s astounding ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. The first film version, despite being critically lauded, was caught up in anti-religious accusations in the US which killed its box office, and bombed in favour of the more Christian ‘Narnia’ film, but that series also petered out. And I hope that the long-mooted script for ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ comes to fruition.