< Moving Pictures, Moving Merchandise


Friday, December 30, 2005

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Year in and year out, America's most durable export is churned out by the dream factors of Tinseltown. But Hollywood not only rakes in the world's dollars, it also has the ability to capture hearts and minds. Publishing mogul Henry Luce may or may not have had this in mind when he called upon America in 1941 to fulfill its destiny as, quote, "the powerhouse of the ideals of freedom and justice and the training center of skillful servants of mankind to create the first great American century." But, to that end, the Motion Picture Export Association dubbed itself "the little State Department" and went forth to sell the American way of life around the world. Sometimes it did its job a little too well. As early as 1934, Clark Gable played havoc with at least one nation's economy. It happened in "It Happened One Night." [CLIP PLAYS]

CLARK GABLE: Perhaps you're interested in how a man undresses. [CLIP PLAYS]

TOBY MILLER: [LAUGHS] Who can answer no to such a question? [LAUGHS] Especially from the king.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Toby Miller is the director of the program in film and visual culture at the University of California, Riverside. Okay, Toby. Here comes the part where Gable takes off his shirt, and thereby hangs a tale. [CLIP PLAYS]

CLARK GABLE: You know, I have a method all my own. If you'll notice, the coat came first. Then the tie. Then the shirt. Now, according to Hoyle, after that the pants should be next. There's where I'm different. I go for the shoes next. [CLIP ENDS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now when Garbo laughed and showed her teeth, "Ninotchka" soared. But when Gable stripped and bared his chest, an industry collapsed.

TOBY MILLER: Absolutely. Supposedly, the good burghers of Argentina found that their warehouses were overflowing with undershirts that up till then they'd happily been able to sell. Because Clark Gable didn't need one, so why would the average Argentine man need one? And they went off to lobby the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires to say, "We really can't have this. Do you understand the impact [CHUCKLES] that these people are having?" So you can see that in very remarkable ways, Hollywood really was able to sell a way of life, right down to the very undershirt that a gentleman of means would be seen in.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me ask you about the history of American film and cultural imperialism. What was the landscape like before World War I?

TOBY MILLER: Prior to World War I, the United States was a net importer of movies, and it was also a net importer of a lot of film technology - film stock, in other words. But what happened with the decimation of the European film industries, particularly the French film sector in the First World War was that suddenly our industry, which had been essentially untouched, was in a position suddenly to be a net exporter of movies and also a net exporter of technology. So that was a really key event. And the same thing with the Second World War, where again we gained a comparative advantage because European and Japanese and some Asian, other Asian film industries were deeply affected by that conflict.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, didn't the Marshall Plan actually include provisions that all recipients of aid also take American films?

TOBY MILLER: The Marshall Plan, which was the crucial lending and donation institution whereby the United States enabled the defeated powers of Western Europe to recuperate after the Second World War and not fall prey to the temptations of Communism, was only available if you agreed to take on board Hollywood product. And so in the three or four years after the war, Italy, for example, suddenly had 2,000 films from Hollywood essentially dumped on its market.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so did they like the films? Do they like them now?

TOBY MILLER: Well, of course that's the 64,000-dollar question, isn't it Brooke? Again and again, we're told, well, Hollywood's successful because people love its stories. Its stories are simple, there's romance, there's desire, there's the notion that you can, in a sense, pass away from your origins and become a new kind of person. There's a sort of secular transcendence that comes from the Hollywood dream of money, sex, power, commodities, love. Well, that no doubt is part of the appeal, but it's also about forms of distribution and exhibition that are not very competitive. It's about saying you can have the next Spielberg movie in your local theater if you'll take this, you know, Van Damme movie that no one else wants.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned Spielberg, so let's stay with him for a moment. "Jurassic Park" was an enormous international hit, but it also set up a terrible conflict between Spielberg and foreign filmmakers. There was a joint letter from a variety of important foreign directors - Pedro Almodovar, Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders - and the letter said, "Dear Steven, we're trying to defend European cinema from complete annihilation. There will be no European film industry left by the year 2000." And they lay the blame for that at the feet of "Jurassic Park." What did "Jurassic Park" represent?

TOBY MILLER: It represented, in a sense, the culmination of the blockbuster movie, the notion of there being massive advertising on television, not just in the newspapers; of there being tied-in merchandise; of there being, in a sense, the notion of an event film. And specifically, "Jurassic Park" represented the triumph of Hollywood in areas where it had never done well in the past - India, for example - a massive market and also a market with its own very successful film industries - not just Bollywood but other film industries as well. "Jurassic Park" simply overran the rest of the offerings that were available for film consumers at that time. What seemed to be encapsulated in "Jurassic Park" is this great threat to an auteur-driven or director-centered notion of film as art and not just as commerce.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But now New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman tells us that the world is flat, or that at least soon there'll be a level playing field. Do you think that'll also be true in the realm of film?

TOBY MILLER: Well, fortunately, I'm not responsible for the fantasy structures that Thomas Friedman has.


TOBY MILLER: But, to be more serious, although that in fact is a serious remark, there's no doubt that new technology and the breakdown of various barriers to financial exchange have made for a more open series of markets. However, in the case of the United States, we practice some of the most vigorous and, some would say, vicious cultural protectionism and state subvention of film, television, sport and any other aspect of popular culture you could name in world history.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are we stopping foreign film from coming to this country?

TOBY MILLER: The answer's yes, but not in the conventional way one might expect. If we go back 45 years, when there were lots and lots of independent movie theaters here in the United States, ten percent of the films that you or I, as a potential audience member, could go and see came from another country, ten percent. What do you think the figure is today? It's well below one percent. Now, what are the reasons given for this extraordinary closure of our borders to foreign cultures? The reasons given by, again, the hacks and mavens of the industry and their journalistic servants and the plenipotentiary lickspittles in D.C. - [BOTH AT ONCE]


TOBY MILLER: - is - guess what? - guess what they think? - it's the operation of supply and demand. Their answer is Americans have closed minds, are not interested in foreign cultures, will not tolerate subtitles and do not want foreign languages. Well, hello and excuse me. The efflorescence of languages, cultures and so on in the period since 1965 has been nothing short of extraordinary. The notion that these people are not interested in foreign films, quite apart from the fact that plenty of English native-speaking U.S. residents are fascinated by other countries, is simply absurd.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Hollywood has created one-way traffic, and it's all going out. But has Hollywood also changed its product to adapt to a changing global market?

TOBY MILLER: This is the other irony, Brooke. Because the original domestic market, which is still large and still wealthy, is no longer responsible for even close to 50 percent of the box office take and the overall return on investment for Hollywood movies, the foreign sector is now absolutely crucial. And so stories that are about our history, our cultures, our concerns - some argue - are actually being marginalized, and you're getting stories that fail to address questions of United States history, culture, politics and so on, lest they be either alienating to a foreign audience or in some way just hard to understand. So a lot of us feel as though it's not just the rest of the world that's having our product dumped on them. We're having our product dumped on us.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much.

TOBY MILLER: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Toby Miller is the director of the program in film and visual culture at the University of California, Riverside.