Hollywood's high on action films, for global marke

Posted: Mar 23, 2001 12:00 AM
The Oscars ... ugh. For the last two months we've been treated to a steady stream of awards shows, Golden Globes, People's Choice, the Foreign Critics Who Hate America but Love to Live Here Honors, etc. All of these pageants are designed to contribute to, or feed off of, Oscar hype. Woops, I'm sorry, I mean Oscar(R) Hype.(TM) Nothing's necessarily wrong with a little mass-market buzz-mongering. But much of the oooing and ahhhing over the dresses and the misty-eyed musings over the nature of one's "craft" tend to obscure the fact that, if done properly, the whole show could run a half-hour - credits and opening monologue included. But, all the hype misleads in another way. The Oscars are the face that Hollywood wants America to see. This is the profile that blends glamour, style and art with easily digested social consciousness. Movie stars love to have the world think they are very serious people who, had they not chosen acting as a profession, would otherwise be employed as senators, novelists, civil rights leaders or renowned environmentalists. So they wear 50-cent ribbons on $10,000 tuxedos and testify before the world how much they care about sea turtles, sweatshops or the plight of puppies without good homes. But behind the testimonials and the tears there's an industry-wide trend that Hollywood doesn't want you to think about. And the best example of that trend is this year's only heavily nominated movie not made in Hollywood. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is the most successful subtitled foreign film in American history. Its legions of critical fans say this is because director Ang Lee masterfully blends all the elements of epic film-making while remaining true to Oriental aesthetics - or something like that. Salman Rushdie recently wrote in The New York Times that "Crouching Tiger" represents a real threat from a new generation of foreign filmmakers to Hollywood's "stranglehold" on the global movie market. And, yeah sure, it is a beautifully made movie. But it's also a kung-fu movie. And for all the talk of how "Crouching Tiger" is a breakthrough film for Eastern filmmakers, let no one doubt that if Ang Lee had crafted a Chinese "My Dinner With André" or "The Big Chill," complete with subtitles, nobody in America would have watched it. For years, Europeans - most notably the French - have argued that the American movie industry gained global dominance because of two things: bigger markets and better marketing. They whine that our domestic market is so huge, Hollywood can make a bigger profit and afford to spend more on marketing, crowding out smaller foreign flicks. Relatedly, they point out that our country is so diverse that we've figured out how to make movies that appeal to the broadest possible audience. French films about chance encounters in used bookstores don't make sense to everybody, but everyone "gets" American movies about cowboys and Indians. For the last decade Hollywood has been applying that lesson more and more to the new global market. Making lavish movies high on action, violence and sex and low on dialogue and acting has been the secret to Hollywood's success in the global market for at least a decade. This fact is often lost on social conservatives long convinced that Hollywood movies are lewd, crass and liberal because Hollywood is full of lewd and crass liberals. And while there's some merit to that argument, the reality is that making violent movies makes sense as a business decision because audiences around the world understand violence more than they understand obscure cultural references. For example, "Home Alone" was one of the most popular films in Turkish history, and men all around the world understand what's going on in a Three Stooges movie. But diverse populations would probably need to have "All the President's Men" explained to them. As the barriers between global markets come down and the incentives for global marketing strategies increase, it's only more and more likely that the universal language of sex and violence will gain more currency. There are no more "ancillary markets;" there is now just one market, and sometimes this will mean that Hollywood cares less about what America wants and more about what can be comprehended by people in any corner of the globe. So in this sense, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Gladiator," discussed by critics as being diametrically opposite films, are in fact two sides of the same coin. "Gladiator" is doing well around the globe, no doubt often with subtitles, because it is an epic action film that transports the audience to another time. "Crouching Tiger" is doing well here in America because it does the exact same thing.