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Published 22 September 2000

Cinéma Vérité in Europe: Rejecting US culture - Commentary

Highschool-format commentary by Vincent Smith of Richard Pells’s editorial published in the IHT on Dec.16, 1997 [You can also read Pells’ text and the debate between Vincent and Thomas about the issue of the US film industry and French protectionism]

This article was published on Tuesday, December 1997, that is three years ago, in the International Herald Tribune, an American daily paper published worldwide. It was written by Richard Pells, an American professor who teaches in Europe, and who has written books about the cultural relationships between Europe and the USA.

It comments on the lack of enthusiasm that European students displayed when Spielberg’s serious film, Schindler’s List, came out. For him, European students have a politically biased approach of the American mass culture, particularly cinema. However, we may wonder if Pells’ reasoning is not equally biased, and if his rhetorical talent does not conceal an arguable conception of cinema and art.

1- Pells’ reasoning

a- Pells bases his reasoning on the example of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which didn’t make a hit in Europe, unlike other films by Spielberg. It tells the story of a business man who first collaborated with the nazis to make profits out of the situation of war, but then used his influence and fortune to save Jews from the Holocaust.

b- Pells claims that European students should have cheered Spielberg’s efforts to be regarded as an artist, not simply an "entertainer" (that is to say someone who just makes films so that people can have for their money’s worth of fun). He blames European countries for having difficulties in confronting their past in World War 2, and he accuses European students of despising US mass culture because it’s too superficial and commercial.

c- Criticizing Europe’s State-supported conception of cinema, he advocates the American commercial approach, which takes the spectators’ expectations and tastes into account. For him, economic criteria are the best guide to quality, and there isn’t any contradiction between art and commerce, unlike what European students apparently think.

d- For him, the European students’ prejudice against US culture reveals their skepticism towards the free market, inspired by Marxist ideas. But he points out that their criticism of the US capitalistic mentality may be a problem for Europe’s future economic competitiveness when those students become policy-makers, because they may not contribute to the development of Europe’s economy - unless they have changed their mind by then.

2- Two conceptions of cinema

Pells’ article confronts two different conceptions of cinema: European artistic films versus American blockbusters.

a- It is definitely true American studios are very effective in making highly entertaining films. US blockbusters are often great entertainment, because everything is made to appeal to the audience: Good-looking actors - Humorous dialogues - Enthralling stories - Spectacular special effects - Beautiful settings (Give examples)

b- The studios invest a huge amount of money in super-productions to attract millions of spectators into the theaters. Films are considered as industrial goods, whose quality needs to be outstanding to suit the expectations and desire of as many customers as possible. This approach is also widely spread in the European film industry.
However, there is another conception of cinema which can be found in American independent films, and which is also very common in Europe. In that conception, the director is regarded as a creator who follows his own inspiration to produce artistic expression.

c- These artistic films cannot compete with blockbusters. That’s why in most European countries where films are still produced, they are subsidized by State agencies. It means that the State does not consider cinema as any other economic sector which should simply be left to the free competition of the marketplace.

d- In the mainstream American mentality, films are a sector of the global economy, and should be treated as any industrial product, whose success depends on the choice of the customers. American studios would like to increase their domination over European cinema. That’s why they condemn the European claim for a "cultural exception", which implies State subsidies. In fact, Pells wrote this article to support this view in favour of a complete free market dominated by the Americans.

e- But it would simply eradicate European artistic films, which also match the expectations of a minority. Why should they disappear, then? Most American films are made for teenagers and young people because most spectators belong to that category. But some people want to see other kinds of films. Pells’ arguments do not favour the widest variety of films: Pells sides with US blockbusters against independent artistic films, while both categories deserve to thrive - as they do in Europe thanks to State subsidies.

3- Flawed arguments for a biased cause

If we study Pells’ reasoning, it appears that his arguments are not perfectly consistent or valid.

a- Pells’s example, in paragraph 1, is not a very representative illustration of what he wants to prove: in Schindler’s List, Spielberg, who was already immensely rich, especially longed for recognition as a ‘serious’ film-maker. The reaction of the critiques was more important for him than ranking first at the box office. So the conditions in which he made his film had nothing to do with the usual commercial pressure in the film business.

b- Pells is not logic when he implicitly blames the European audience for " their refusal to see Steven Spielberg’s most provocative film ". If he advocates the rules of the free market for films, he should accept the reaction of European movie-goers. Americans would rather see unimaginative remakes than the original European films, because they say they can’t stand subtitles or dubbing. Why should Europeans rush to a US movie just because it was a hit in the States ? Pells should understand that maybe Poles prefer to make their own films about Poland than watch how US successful film-makers see it. Why doesn’t he criticize the fact that Europeans best films are seldom shown on the American screens, that Americans don’t want to see anything but their own home-made productions, no matter how stupid or banal they are ? He asks Europeans to be more receptive to US culture, while our theaters are already full of US second-rate productions and US theatres hardly ever show European films !

c- Pells’ description of " European filmmakers who are cushioned by government subsidies and guarantees of screen time in theatres " is just a ridiculous cliché : in fact, it’s just the opposite. The US Majors have so much financial power that they can force their films into hundreds of theatres all over Europe, whereas a European film will have to struggle to gain access to a decent number of theatres. The American inner market is large enough for the studios to get a quick return on their investments and make profits abroad, thanks to the incredible influence of US culture worldwide. On the contrary, European producers can’t afford to spend millions for films which won’t be able to overcome the language and cultural barriers in Europe and on the American market. Europeans cannot compete as equals with the American Majors.

d- Pells claims that "Hollywood’s efforts to enthrall audiences ... result in works that are artistically superior..." as if the pure quality of the films attracted the audiences, but he doesn’t mention the marketing techniques and massive hype that are used to fashion the tastes and expectations of potential spectators.

f- Many US blockbusters have very little artisitic ambition: they are essentially made to advertise famous brands (see James Bond most recent movies) and to sell by-products (see Disney films or Star Wars). The pressure of commercial imperatives often leads to predictable situations and automatic stereotypes. All the money is invested on famous stars and visual special effects, but the story, the characters and the artistic treatment are often neglected because the director is more of a technical executive than an artist. That’s why many blockbusters are not artistically satisfactory.

f- On the other hand, Pells’ assumption that European students and intellectuals reject US films is not true: many American directors are regarded as artistic masters in Europe. Directors such as Coppola (Apocalypse now, The Godfather...) and Scorcese (Mean Streets, Casino) have always had a great reputation in Europe.

In fact, Pells’ views are subject to a political bias: as a dedicated US capitalist, he can’t stand the idea of activities which are not ruled by the laws of the free market only, and which may escape the total domination of the US.

Conclusion:

Richard Pell’s article about the so-called European "hostility to US mass culture" is interesting because it presents a typically American conservative point of view on a very sensitive issue between French and Americans.

a- Pells advocates a conception of cinema in which the director has to conform to the public’s expectations and to the entertainment industry’s commercial imperatives. For him, it guarantees higher-quality productions, because film-makers can’t be boring, pretentious, or self-indulgent. If they are, nobody will go and buy tickets to see their films, and they will be flops.

b- Of course, it is perfectly true that American films are often exciting and entertaining. The commercial motives of the US Major Studios lead them to produce thrilling films and make up new ways of appealing to the spectators.

c- However, there is no reason for US blockbusters to be the only kind of cinema offered to the public. Artistic films that do not conform to economic criteria are a necessary form of cultural expression that needs to be protected and preserved because trade and money can’t be the only values for the future.
The American mass culture is already dominant everywhere in Europe, unlike what Pells suggests. Does he want the US entertainment industry to be the only form of cinema? Artistic films have never threatened the US film industry. The reverse is more likely. That’s why Pells should accept that however powerful and successful the US film industry is, there is room for other cultures.