Robin Buss on the struggle between Europe and the US for film superiority
This is an important book on a subject of significance to us all: the hundred-years' war between Europe and America for dominance in the visual media.
The core is a straightforward and readable account of how the industry developed (which in itself will be of value to anyone teaching that aspect of film and media studies). Broadly speaking, it contrasts Hollywood integration with European integrity: the moguls who built the American film industry quickly grasped the need to control the whole process (as far as they were allowed), from production through distribution to exhibition; and they did their best to import talent from Europe, where cinema was considered an art form, and the creative process as far as possible divorced from retailing and marketing.
Unfortunately, the nature of the medium makes the marriage indissoluble. "The nouvelle vague was an aesthetic rather than economic phenomenon," Puttnam writes; can you imagine describing Post-Impressionism in such terms?
In Europe, the tendency has been towards subsidy and protectionism (for example, the British quota system of the Thirties) even in countries not under Fascist or Communist rule. In America, the free market prevails and a can of film is an export like a can of Coke. Yet the American pursuit of profit has been the motor for fine popular art, and philistinism is by no means confined to one side. "Less rags, more legs," the Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti said as he cut subsidies to the Neo-Realist films that were his country's greatest contribution to world cinema.
How important is the American hegemony? Perhaps less than we fear, David Puttnam concludes, arguing for co-operation as we embrace a new audio-visual era; and he emphasises the educational potential of film and television. But the American threat looks less menacing from the point of view of an English-speaking country, especially one where people are only too easily persuaded that the threat to their way of life comes from continental Europe, not from America.
Puttnam is not in favour of French protectionism, but it is hard to tell just where he stands. In contrast to the rest of the book, his conclusion seems imprecise, over-conciliatory, its style more suitable to a chairman's report: "incalculable richness", "sustainable dream", "fulfilling future".
The struggle between cultures that are economically weak and the global industry that threatens to swamp them is real and will not be resolved by pious hopes.