Wednesday, September 10, 2003

High and Low Culture

The following humorous piece appeared yesterday in the pages of the British Times:

It takes a moron to recognise a good movie
by Petr Briffa

Why do more people go to see meretricious American films than exciting European ones? Answer: because they are better. No, not according to our Minister for Europe.

Today is the launch of the New Europe Film Season, one of those publicly funded shindigs that no one goes to. Denis MacShane has decided to co-opt it for his own dubious agenda. Instead of simply saying how worthy European cinema is, he has decided to have a go at those dreadful Yankees.

“My sense is American movies are quite tired now,” MacShane told a newspaper. “American culture is running out of steam. It has become meretricious and so obsessed with money-making. You can’t have a culture that reduces everything to consumption and hope you’ll find the space for art that allows great film-making.”

I suppose it is par for the course for some Eurogoon to use any excuse to bash the United States and indulge in crowd-pleasing rhetoric aimed at snooty, oversubsidised European intellectuals. But if Mr MacShane means any of this, and wants to turn this posturing into policy, we should all be petrified. He says he wants multiplexes to stop showing Hollywood blockbusters and “be more outward-looking and let people understand that Lithuanian, Estonian, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian and Turkish films are a pretty good thing”.

Of course, I stand second to no one in my admiration for Lithuanian cinema (though, for some unaccountable reason, I couldn’t actually name any of its hits), but the idea that cinemas should remain empty so that otherwise unemployable European film-makers are kept in beer and sandwiches is one that barely deserves taking seriously.

Owners of multiplexes do not fill their cinemas with American blockbusters because they are all part of a great neo-conservative plot to take over the world. They do it because they are popular. To take issue with this is take issue not with the owners of multiplexes, but with the public.

America dominates movies. Australia dominates cricket. Ethiopia dominates long-distance running. If Estonian cinema were better, it would put more bums on seats. You got a problem, buddy?

And this is really what Mr MacShane is about, when he tells us, in that revealing phrase, that American culture is “reducing everything to consumption”. Which is liberal-speak for “giving the public what it wants”. A guiding principle for the American film-maker but a positively subversive concept for those wedded to the European ideal that the public are basically morons.

That’s not to say that all European films are terrible. I, like many men of my age, have whiled away many an hour at some arthouse, pretending to be impressed by all the sensitive camerawork, understated nuances and delicate sensibilities, while secretly longing for any opportunity to gawp at a scantily clad Nathalie Baye or Catherine Deneuve.

But the sad fact is that if all the film cameras in Europe simultaneously combusted and no more films were made here for the next ten years, a bunch of paper- pushers at the European film councils would notice, but not those queueing for tickets on a Saturday night.

Why? Not because European film-makers are less talented than their American counterparts, but largely because they are chasing grants from the Euro elites who are more interested in providing films that are good for you, rather than films that are good.

Given the choice between Arnie killing lots of bad people, and a bunch of menopausal women going naked and talking about buns, I know which I’d prefer.

The author writes the www.publicinterest.co.uk website