In forty years of teaching at the UCLA film school, I've often had discussions with filmmakers and critics from other countries about the fact that, since the late 1920s, American films have generally received 85 to 90 percent of all the revenues from film distribution around the world. (What other major American industry has been that successful for that long?)
On a teaching trip last month to Europe, I once again heard the explanation that people outside the United States so often give for this remarkable fact: "You Americans spend so much money on your movies that it's impossible for us to compete."
Although few in America dare to speak his name any more, things are different in Europe, so I responded to my hostile audience member by saying, "That's vulgar Marxism. The capitalists who own the industry - about half of whom are not Americans - would gladly pull their money out of Hollywood and put it into some other country's films if they were as commercially successful. So much money is spent on American films because so much money is made on them."
Why do people around the world continue to prefer American films after all these years? I don't think it's because our films are "better"; I think it's because most American films sell something that people want, something they're hungry for, and can never get enough of.
What they're selling also explains why today, as always, there are a significant number of people who hate our movies. What American movies are selling is the Unstated State Religion of America: Individualism -- the belief that the most important power in the world lies within each person.
In the history of the world, the belief in the centrality of the individual is quite new and, as we are learning once again, quite tenuous. Orthodox believers of several religions, like orthodox Marxists, Nazis, Fascists and others, have told us for a very long time that that the most important power lies outside of the individual. Their belief systems say we must tune our attitudes, actions, and aspirations to the power of God, Jesus, Allah, History, The State, The Fuehrer, Il Duce, etc. Although they differ enormously from one another, such belief systems agree on one thing: the most important power in our lives does not lie within.
Not surprisingly, the orthodox followers of such anti-individualist belief systems have seldom produced great drama. This is because film, like drama since at least the Elizabethans, depends on individual will, action, and responsibility. It is also not surprising that the orthodox believers of many religious or quasi-religious "isms" have prohibited their followers from seeing popular American movies. Because they locate power within the individual, American movies offer a competing belief system.
Orthodox followers of religions and ideologies often see the individualism that is the bedrock of American popular films as self-centered, narcissistic, materialistic, shallow, decadent -- without any sense of obligation to Higher Things. Unrestrained individualism can indeed be all of these, as real life in America, especially lately, so often demonstrates.
But the memorable popular American movies - the ones that millions of people responded to when they first came out and continue to respond to -- do not encourage the attitudes and actions that the orthodox fear. As I demonstrate in my book, The Power of Film (thepoweroffilm.com), memorable popular films from America agree with most of the values of orthodox religions. They disagree about where the most important power lies.
For decades, I have asked a wide variety of audiences to name the most memorable dramatic works in history -- those that, if they are plays, continue to be produced, or if they are movies, continue to be watched by later generations. People most often mention Oedipus Rex, Medea, and Antigone, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, Death of a Salesman, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather.
What do these stories have in common? They are all about a single individual, around whom all the action, as well as all the other characters, revolve. More often than not, the work itself is named after this character. This is individualism in action.
I also have asked audiences for several decades to name the memorable films that have come out of Italy under Mussolini, Germany under Hitler, Russia under Stalin, or China under Mao. I usually receive blank stares, and it's not simply that there's nobody in the audience with knowledge of these countries' film histories. It's because, with a few exceptions, there aren't any. If you deny power to the individual, as these dictators did, you make it almost impossible for memorable films to emerge.
Societies that deny the power of the individual ironically tend to gravitate towards a single all-powerful individual who is allowed to hold the power of the nation in his hands. When this happens, there is no need to create heroic individuals in fiction because public squares, news broadcasts, postage stamps and flags all emblazon the image of the same hero on them.
Paradoxically, societies such as our own that trumpet a belief in the power of the individual seldom allow any single individual to acquire much power in real life. As popular culture in America demonstrates, there is an inverse rule that dictates that, the more power someone in real life has, the more there seems an urgent necessity to cut him or her down to size.
Individualist societies are uncomfortable with heroes in real life, and often don't know what to do with them. Perhaps, as a compensation, they produce a multitude of heroes in their movies and other popular media.
Everyone knows that American Individualism means that each person is expected to "look out for #1" -- himself. And yet, no memorable popular American film gives us a protagonist who is only concerned with himself throughout the film.
At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) utters that famous line, "I stick my neck out for nobody" but by the end, he's given up the only person he's ever truly loved for "The Cause." In Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), makes it clear early in the film that, "I'm the only cause I believe in," but he becomes a hero by running the Northern blockade to aid his countrymen, and joins the army even though he knows the Confederacy is doomed.
Early in It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) tells his father that he wants to get out of the small town he lives in and scorns, but then he devotes his whole life to it. Early in On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) says, "Me? I'm with Me" and he advises Edie (Eva Marie Saint) that his philosophy is "Do it to them before they do it to you." By the end of the film, however, he is beaten nearly to death fighting on behalf of his fellow workers. Finally, early in The Godfather, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) says of the story he has just told his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), "That's my family, Kay -- it's not me." But Michael then joins his family's violent business in order to save his father's life.
The pattern here is clear: characters often begin their story being concerned only with themselves; but by the end, they sacrifice themselves for their family, community, or cause. This is not that different from those with orthodox religious or political faiths, who also believe in the importance of sacrifice.
The difference lies in where each thinks the most important power lies. When Orthodox Muslims talk about their plans, they usually say, Inshallah, just as Orthodox Jews say, "God Willing." For the religious, the power to make something happen lies outside individual will or control. But where in America's memorable movies, aside from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ - about as orthodox a film as has ever been made - does a central character rely on God, Jesus, Mohammad, or some other force outside himself?
The sad fact is that, throughout history, and in much of the world today - even in so-called advanced societies - people do not feel they have power as individuals. It is no wonder, then, that they hunger for films that tell them that a single individual can matter, can be in control of his or her own destiny.
It is not surprising that those who believe the most important power lies in a deity, the state, or some idea should hate American movies. They are correct to see in them a competing belief system. What is surprising is that so many people who share the belief in the power of the individual fail to realize how powerful it is.