Hearts and Minds vs. Shock and Awe at the Oscars

The climate shift taking place is that films by foreigners that make little at the box office are winning the top awards while the big Hollywood blockbusters, which make all the money, much of it abroad, are being virtually ignored.
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LOS ANGELES -- As if it were not jarring enough that cherry trees blossomed in Central Park in January while it snowed in the Malibu hills, climate change of a different sort is unsettling this year's Hollywood awards season as well.

No, it's not that Arnold Schwarzenegger has morphed from Hummer-driving action hero into greenhouse gas terminator, welcome as that is. The climate shift taking place is that films by foreigners such as "Babel,""The Queen" and "Volver" that make little at the box office are winning the top awards while the big Hollywood blockbusters, which make all the money, much of it abroad, are being virtually ignored. Even Clint Eastwood's acclaim this time around is due to his portrayal of the Iwo Jima battle from a foreign (Japanese) angle. That's topsy turvy, like the weather.

Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's "Babel" explores how the fates of the far flung from Mexico to Morocco to Japan are linked in unsuspecting ways by the threads of globalization. Using the death of Princess Diana as a foil, Stephen Frears' "The Queen" examines the uneasy clash between tradition and modernity that pits our most revered symbols against our casual and meritocratic, if celebrity -soaked, way of life. Pedro Almodovar's "Volver", for which Penelope Cruz has an Oscar nomination for best actress, is a convoluted tale of women coping with generations of abuse from husbands and fathers who find within themselves the resources to act and survive on their own.

In all of these films we see the world in transition as we are living it. All have managed to break the cycle of remakes in which Hollywood has been stuck by telling new stories -- something American filmakers, who have prided themselves on their imagination and originality, once excelled at.

Meanwhile, with ever fewer exceptions, American filmakers too often grind out formulaic, shock and awe blockbusters with the inevitable gratuitous violence sex and special effects that may be winning the battle of Monday morning grosses, but are losing the war for hearts and minds. For all their brawn, American filmmakers, like the generals in Iraq, are in danger of losing the battle of ideas.

In this sense, Hollywood's "Mission Impossible III" has a lot more in common with George Bush's "mission accomplished" than we might have suspected. Despite America's continuing, but diminishing, dominance it's ability to win hearts and minds is draining away. In cinema, as in politics during the information age, it is all about whose story wins.

Just as America's image has fallen in world opinion because of the Iraq war, audience trends for American blockbusters are beginning to show a decline as well, both at home and abroad. For years, the big blockbusters have grossed more abroad than at home, where infatuation with contrived spectacle has waned. Top grossing films like "Titanic," "Jurassic Park," "Star Wars: Phantom Menace" and "Independence Day" made more among foreign audiences than in the US. Last year, "Mission Impossible III" and "Poseidon" made 65-70 per cent of their revenue abroad.

But something out there is stirring. Even long-time American cultural colonies like Japan and Germany are beginning to turn to the home screen. For the first time in decades more than half of cinema admissions went to local films in Japan during 2006 while German admissions for domestic films hit a post-war high of nearly 25 per cent. This suggests they are headed to where TV viewers have long been. In South Korea, a close US ally, 92 per cent of television is domestically produced. And despite the long reign of "The Bold and the Beautiful," Latin American telenovelas now attract larger audiences around the world than US soap operas.

The heat is on in Hollywood due to this change in climate, adding further woe to the digital -distribution- "You Tube" -nightmares of the studios. (A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found in 2006 that "a large majority" of 12-24 year olds in the US were bored with their entertainment choices.)

What's happening is that globalization accompanied by technological change is hitting Tinsel Town just like every other industry. Just as the post-World War II American order that defeated communism paved the way for new economic and political competitors from Asia to Europe to Brazil, so too American-led post- Cold War globalization --and its backlash -- has led to cultural competition. This suggests that we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the century-long honeymoon of Hollywood, at least in its American incarnation, with the world.

Now that globalization has moved us all into the same neighborhood, more and more people out there on the former periphery want to see their own stories on the screen, to see what is in their imagination and culture, at least as much as they might enjoy the latest offerings from LucasFilm or Pixar.

Khan Lee, the director of Zeus Pictures, an indy studio in Taipei, has offered this blunt take on this issue: "Hollywood is a dinosaur that has destroyed and occupied our minds for too long," he says, "The world is full of new stories waiting to be told, and new audiences waiting to hear them, even if we use Hollywood's template to do so." Indeed, his brother, Ang Lee, made one of the first breakthrough films of this kind, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a globally-appealing movie which combines Asian sensibility, following traditional myths, with Hollywood production values.

But it is Babel's Gonzalez Inarritu who has best captured what's happening. "The world is changing," he says. "The film community is now a global film community. Its not anymore about cultural barriers or language barriers. Its emotion and humanity. We are using the power of cinema to cross borders. We are understanding that now there's a connection that needs to happen."

In our global age movies must expose "the point of view of others, of those on the other side," he says. And it must be done with dignity, as in "Babel", not portraying Third World faces as mere victims nor Japanese as cartoon caricatures.

Of course, there will always be a role for blockbusters just as there will be for aircraft carriers. But, in this new global order where America desires the spread of democracy, we're with Inarritu. Ultimately, its about hearts and minds, not shock and awe.

Nathan Gardels is editor of NPQ and Global Services at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate/Tribune Media. Mike Medavoy, chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, has been involved in the production of scores of films over the years from Apocalypse Now to Platoon to, most recently, Miss Potter.The authors are writing a book about the role of Hollywood and pop culture in the rise and fall of America's image in the world.

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