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Honeymooners Recast for the 21st Century
Emily Gertz, 18 Nov 04

hollywoodsign.jpgAmerican movies don't always do a good job of depicting American reality--and no, not just because a guy wearing a Spidey suit doesn't actually fling himself around the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Cultural observer Lynn Hirschberg argues that globalization has made it almost impossible for American movies to depict actual American life. Movies like The Ice Storm or American Beauty, grounded in the weirdly muted conflicts and compromises of life in particular American suburban cultures (and their ex-natural landscapes) are ever less likely, because the global audience will not relate to them.

Wandering through Cannes and fighting my way into screenings, I felt a growing frustration that what I loved about American movies (and, by extension, about America) was in short supply, and when I mentioned this to Walter F. Parkes, head of motion pictures at DreamWorks SKG, he said: "I know what you're talking about." Parkes, like most of the big studio heads, is in a bind: corporate finances dictate that they cast the widest net possible. That has become the mandate of the studio president. DreamWorks, for instance, made "Shrek 2" and is trying to parlay the $436 million success of the film (it is currently the third-highest-grossing movie of all time) into a profitable I.P.O. for its animation division. "Films are the one product that we have that's the first choice around the world," Parkes continued. "So, then, the questions to ask are: Is this the one place that people's fears about globalization are coming to fruition? Is America dominating world culture through the movies it produces? And if so, does that come with certain responsibilities beyond economic ones? These are questions that we have to ask ourselves. And they are different questions than we asked even five years ago."

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...When you look at the big international hits of the year, it is easy to understand why the world views America with a certain disgust. Shrek may be a lovable (and Scottish) ogre, but nearly every other global hero in American movies is bellicose, intellectually limited, stuck in ancient times or locked in a sci-fi fantasy. American films used to be an advertisement for life in the states -- there was sophistication, depth, the allure of a cool, complex manner. Now most big studio films aren't interested in America, preferring to depict an invented, imagined world, or one filled with easily recognizable plot devices. "Our movies no longer reflect our culture," said a top studio executive who did not wish to be identified. "They have become gross, distorted exaggerations. And I think America is growing into those exaggerated images."

That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, if you (no matter where you are) love movies that explore life in the U.S., whether via drama, adventure, or comedy. Given the reach of Hollywood--America's biggest exports are its films and television--it can't help but skew the way the world views the U.S.

There is a much more fundamental way that American movies fail to reflect American life, though: in the colors of the cast.

Although I don't have a reference at my fingertips, it's well-established that U.S. movies use white actors much, much more than those who are black, Asian, or Latino.

Actress Sandra Oh recently described the impact of global culture as well as local myopia on her career:

Q. Why are so few Asian actors working in Hollywood? The Screen Actors Guild just released new job figures that show a decline in the number of Asian actors. I mean there's you, Lucy Liu and Margaret Cho, and then I have to stop and think.

A. And can we even name a male Asian actor? It's because Hollywood imports Asian stars who already have worldwide appeal. They're wonderful actors, all of them, but Hollywood wants them because Hong Kong and Chinese action movies are so popular now.

Q. So it makes more sense to cast a Maggie Cheung or Gong Li from China than Sandra Oh from Canada?

A. Absolutely. And the same thing is true of Latino actors, except for J. Lo, who is a global entity. And Queen [Latifah.] She's got such credibility. A lot of women wind up producing themselves, but I don't. I just want to act. Just give me good writing because what I do well is [expletive] interpret words. But sometimes I don't think they know who I am.

Q. Who do "they" think you are?

A. People ask me what I'm writing. They think I'm Sandra Tsing Loh. Or they ask about stand-up. "No, that's Margaret Cho." I really think there is this kind of glomming, that they think we are somehow all the same person.

Even the spectacular evening at the Academy Awards a few years ago, when for the first time, two black actors--Denzel Washington and Halle Berry--took both the Best Actor and Actress awards, was not much of a victory in some eyes. Berry won for a portrayl of a prostitute down and out waitress (it's a truism that women of any ethnicity usually win Best Actress when they play prostitutes, sexpots, or victims), and Washington for a "bad cop," a character type he'd long avoided because blacks are so often portrayed as criminals or corrupt on American screens.

Not every story is about every kind of American. But each day I move through a city that includes people of all classes who are black, brown, tan, olive and pink. There are a lot of stories to tell there, and surely there's a creative and artistically valid way to tell them.

So I was excited to read about this film remake of an old American tv show, the Honeymooners, with a black cast. Cedric the Entertainer takes on Ralph Kramden, a character fused into the national psyche for generations by comic Jackie Gleason, and Mike Epps picks up Art Carney's mantle as Ed Norton. It's called a "grand risk" by the people involved, but it makes perfect sense if you want to transpose this mid-20th century story of economic aspiration into a 21st century mode. Director John Schultz told the New York Times, "This story, the one we are telling, has nothing to do with race. If one guy is a volatile bus driver who wants to get rich quick and the other is his happy-go-lucky friend, what does that have to do with race? It is a classic, quintessentially American story."

The Times' David Carr writes:

At a time when the best rapper in the world may be a white guy and the best golfer in the world may be a black guy, it should not be surprising that the roles of two men who think their middle-class aspirations are just one caper away from fulfillment are black. Black life, which has been rendered by the movies in cartoonish ways - no more or less than thugs and sports stars - is, in the main, a working-class struggle.So while the original "Honeymooners" opened a window for many 1950's Americans on the "real" New York - a tough palooka of a city with a heart of gold where people struggled not to get over, but to get by - Paramount's new version catches up to the ways that the city has changed, while at the same time, underscoring the fact that the struggle is held in common by all sorts of people. (Although, film industry economics being what they are, the archetypal New York story, in which the city serves as something of a character in the film, was largely shot in ... Dublin.)The film also promises to become a milestone in a process that is slowly prying some of the strongest black film talents out of a cinematic urban ghetto and bringing them into the mainstream.

I'm looking forward to it.

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I actually think that US movies quite nakedly reflect US culture.

If you think about global disaster movies, which Hollywood churns out by the dozen, you'll see that the attitudes displayed in the film are actually what many Americans, including many worldchangers, believe will "save the world." You know, a small bunch of mavericks working against the odds coming up with an insightful technological solution. And so on and so forth with most other genres.

American movies accurately reflect what Americans think of themselves and the world -- and it's frightening.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 18 Nov 04

I may be getting old, but I'm pretty sure I remember Berry playing a waitress, not a prostitute, for her Oscar-winning role.

Posted by: Cat on 18 Nov 04

Speaking for myself, being entertained by stories about small groups of mavericks insightfully deploying technologies to save the world against the odds, and actually believing that this is how it will happen, are not not mutually inclusive.

If you follow Hirshberg's line of thought, these stories dominate Hollywood's output because they translate so well for a global audience. Is this "hero's arc" exclusive to American culture?

Posted by: Emily on 18 Nov 04

Cat, you are right. I was writing too fast. Leticia's character fits more into the victim (down and out variant) type that often nets actresses the Academy Award.

By the way, I do realize that there are prostitutes, sexpots, victims and bad cops in real life, from all backgrounds, and that using them as characters in movies is a valid creative choice. There's just a bigger context as well, of what gets acknowledged as "worthy" in the mainstream, and how it relates to race.

Posted by: Emily on 18 Nov 04

Typing too fast, indeed. Carney and Epps play Ed Norton (not Kramden). Should be a fun film, though. Will certainly be curious about the box-office receipts.

Posted by: Mike on 18 Nov 04

American movies, like American music, aren't getting 'better' or 'worse', there's just more and more product out there. it's not easy to sift through all the 'bad' stuff, but there's more 'good' stuff than ever before - we just need to become a bit more discerning in our cultural consumption. it's easier than ever to find examples of cultural degeneracy to 'prove' reactionary, anti-American cultural biases, but it's also easier to find the weird/awesome examples of 'indie' culture as well. moreover, as more big studios buy up little arthouse studios and distribute more 'indie' pictures, there are a lot more opportunities for 'little' movies to go big (and for big movies to tank!). while it's an open question whether the more 'truly' American, less globo-generic flicks will get through to the global audience, I feel like the state of American movies is as good as it's ever been.

case in point: HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, the greatest comedy of all time, released this year, starring non-whites, depicts the American dream of cultural integration in all its complex glory... seriously!!! if you haven't seen it, see it ASAP when it comes out on video, it is an AMAZING cultural allegory that is also completely 100% pitch perfect every scene. sometimes the great ones slip under the radar, but they're still out there.

Posted by: John Atkinson on 18 Nov 04

I'm mystified, because I pay attention to films, and I'm not aware of the dozens of Hollywood global disaster films of late. Looking quickly at a list of films in or near release, I see comedies, independents, horror, family films... nothing out there at the moment that focuses on 'disaster.' (Though some may *be* disasters.)

Re. the quote "nearly every other global hero in American movies is bellicose, intellectually limited, stuck in ancient times or locked in a sci-fi fantasy." - doesn't that completely ignore the fairly rich independent film offerings in the USA?

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 18 Nov 04

The "hero's arc" or "the hero's journey" is common across many cultures. Bollywood movies often have a lone hero who despite the gigantic odds laid against him, succeeds. The difference between the Bollywood Hero's Arc and the Hollywood Hero's Arc is profound though.

In a Bollywood movie the definition of success also encompasses tragedy. In fact self-sacrifice and tragedy are often an integral part of the definition of success. Eventual conformity to societal norms and values is also a part of success - so the hero falls madly in love and at the end of the movie gives it up because society or the girl's family will not accept his love. Order is restored to the world but an old order, not a new order. The depth of tragedy that Bollywood protrays in its most popular movies is very rare for Hollywood movies.

While I don't watch a huge number of Bollywood movies, one trend I've noticed has been to increasingly demonstrate cross-cultural understanding through the story-line, often through a sub-plot. So Hindu's and Muslims rise above their petty quarrals to see each other as human - that sort of thing. I would hazard a guess that this was also prompted by the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat a few years ago. There is widespread concern across India about the rise of right-wing Hinduism. In the Hollywood equivalent (at least to date) has been the demonisation and alientation of Arabs on screen - you know, being defeated by the earnest Marine. This, unfortunately, accurately represents people's fears and their hopes.

Then there's the question of success at what? I don't recall a single Bollywood movie where the hero or a group of heros save the world. There are plenty of Bollywood movies where the hero saves a family, or a village, or a girl. But rarely if ever the world and rarely, if ever, through technology - like a cool car.

I guess in that sense, both Bollywood and Hollywood movies give us a real sense of a culture's aspirations.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 18 Nov 04

Mike: argh. Thanks for catching that.

Posted by: Emily on 18 Nov 04

Day After Tomorrow? Even I, Robot? Hmmm?

Also I'm referring to Hollywood - not independent productions.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 18 Nov 04

Although in neither of those did an "insightful technological solution" save the day. Definitely not in TDAT -- the day was not saved, only a few people. In I,R, the day was saved, but by (essentially) blowing up the bad guy AI.

I think you'll find that technology is more often the villian than the hero in Hollywood these days, Zaid.

As for Bollywood movies not involving saving the world, setting aside the argument that not all Hollywood movies (or even Hollywood action movies) rely on that premise, I think that you've identified a great "marker meme" for a transformation of Indian culture. As I noted a few days ago, the shift of India from "third world/periphery" to "first world/core" nation, which is arguably well underway, will likely trigger a shift in the kinds of movies Bollywood puts out. I think we should be on the lookout for the Bollywood versions of "save the world" stories.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 18 Nov 04

Hmmm my examples were of a general story type - pre-occupations with the world ending and being saved...or not as you pointed out. Movies like Armageddon and The Core are more representative of what I mean.

As for technology being the bad guy in Hollywood movies...well that's an interesting notion. In I,R the "good" robot turned the tide - by logically figuring out the answer, whereas the "bad" AI reasoned badly - a case of machine malfunction if you like. I will keep an eye out for The Great Technology Backlash though :-)

I think it's a little short-sighted to simply look at movies which came out in the last few months. All I'm saying is that there are some reocurring themes in Hollywood movies which reflect US culture quite accurately. There are always exceptions to every generalisation eh?

I think you're right about the shift in the Bollywood meme though. I think a similiar shift occurred in the 70s when the heroes in Bollywood films changed from being bright eyed inoocents to angry young men. There have been other shifts as well - such as poverty being a virtue to materialism now being a sign of success.

It'll be interesting to see if Bollywood will shift to more technocentric and world-centric plotlines. I have my doubts that it'll happen anytime soon - given that the bulk of India is still stolidly rural.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 18 Nov 04

If it does happen, I fully expect (and hope) that it manifests in a way that is entirely different from the American standard.

Oh, while you're looking for "The Great Technology Backlash" at the movies, you may want to amuse yourself by watching The Matrix trilogy, the Terminator movies, Star Wars (seriously)... there are a lot of 'em out there. Of course, there are lots of technophiliac stories, too. Shrug.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 18 Nov 04

Vijay Singh's the best golfer in the world and has been for the past two years. He's Fijian and has Indian ancestry.

Even though you start your article with Sandra Oh and the problems of cultural stereotypes, you over-generalize American culture and the movie industry. As so many commenters have pointed out, you're missing the boat.

Posted by: salas on 18 Nov 04

there was a neat take from the flip side of this from the late, great feed mag a while back when american beauty came out :D

...let us return to Togo, where the armchair cultural anthropologist eagerly awaits the opinions of his West African viewers. What will they think of the movie's anguished quest for beauty in the humdrum American suburb, in a country where such a suburb looks like a paradise of unimaginable wealth? What will they make of the movie's daringly ambiguous attitude towards sexual relationships between middle-aged men and minors, in a country where rural high-school teachers sleep with their students routinely and openly? What will they make of the homophobic gay marine, in a country where sex between men implies no fixed sexual orientation; or of the bitterness of the corporate drone, in a country where simply having a paying job is a terrific privilege?

there's a reason why bollywood films do well in africa, cheers!

Posted by: glory on 18 Nov 04



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