Monday, December 21, 2015

How the West is losing its place in the World's Stage:
Lessons from Filmmaking

Or: Calling out my own self-importance as a "Westerner"

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, CANADA
Composition: I've been thinking about film cultures all over the world lately,
                    so here's an installment and synthesis of a few thoughts 

                    I've dealt with, here, here, and here. (And maybe here)
Previous Post: Thoughts on Racing With Legends

First, a quote:
You might have heard that China is about to surpass North America as the largest film market in the world. But what does this mean for the average North American moviegoer? How will movies change? ...The truth is, we'll see Hollywood studios fight tooth and nail to collectively claw their asses atop of a giant pile of money. And the whole spectacle will be embarrassing as shit to watch.
After reading that article, (along with this, this, and this) I have come upon this one realization: We – here in “The West” – are losing the culture ‘war’, losing place in the global hierarchy, and we will certainly not be top dog anymore in the coming new world order (or technically, ‘newer’ world order). At the very least we are in retreat after having lost much ground to other powers in ascendance nowadays, with China perhaps being the best example/case study, and which will be used extensively as an example in this piece of writing.

But first, a few definitions: The word “War”, as I have used it in the context of that first paragraph, is not a clash of civilizations type of epic confrontation, but rather a more organic and natural evolution of the global hierarchy. “Global Order” was a tempting term to use, especially when making big proclamations such as “The new World order!” but once again, I feel that is too strong. “Hierarchy” on the other hand comes off as more of a social construct, existing mostly in the heads of people and in the policies of a few gatekeepers, and that indeed will be the focus of my musings. About how populations measure themselves against others, and how they would place the world in a sliding scale of who matters and who doesn’t.

On the one hand, it’s not a disaster lose primacy in the global hierarchy. Geez… it’s not a freaking contest in the general sense of the term, ok? Sure, technically you ‘win all the things’ when you are the dominant culture, but I kind of feel it’s both as much a burden as it is a reward. So what if the next coming century becomes China’s? It’s just History, man. There have been countless dominant cultures that have come and gone. From Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, to all the European powers during the age of exploration, the British during the Victorian and Edwardian eras… empires have risen and fallen. But now that the age of empires have gone, that still has not stopped some historians from citing everything that has happened post-WWII as America’s era, and by extension, all of her allies in ‘the West’.

70 years hence, has ‘the West’ declined? Or at the very least simply hit a plateau? Sure. Some observers say so. And for me, that’s ok. So long as we face it consciously, I’ll be fine. If we let ourselves slide back from the world’s stage, so long as we are completely aware it is happening, I don’t see that as a bad thing. But ONLY as long as it is an inevitability we have accepted, made peace with, and chose to not resist belligerently. A natural progression. Que sera, sera.

Unfortunately we tend to be in denial about it all, thinking we are still king-shit in the grand scheme of things, and will continue to be king-shit in the coming ‘new world order’.

And it is just this arrogance I can’t stand.
So, using Cinema as jumping off point for this rant, here then are all the things that I have observed and annoy me nowadays about this somewhat prevalent attitude.


5.) We tend to not recognize that Multinationals and Hollywood pander for profit, NOT for political correctness.

Perhaps nothing irks me more than the accusation of ‘political correctness’. You only used to hear it from hardcore racists who feel as though undue and undeserved consideration is being given for the feelings of racial, religious, and sexual minorities of all kinds. Back in the day, such a combative attitude often arose from their resistance to hiring quotas (the “diversity” hire), or perhaps as a resistance to affirmative action. And if this is the context, sure, I guess I could see where it’s coming from – I for one, as a person of colour (P.O.C.) myself, would never want to be someone’s exotic P.O.C. to show off, as you would a collector’s item. Or a fucking pet.
Did you know that McCann hired a coloured kid? - Roger Sterling
I feel sorry for the kid - Don Draper

Although it is 2015. So get with the times, yo.

Nowadays however, you tend to hear accusations of ‘political correctness’ even in the most inapplicable of cases. Eg: Good ol’ marketing, as evidenced by Multinational companies and Hollywood. I’ve ranted about this before, where I said in reaction to Coke’s multilingual version of “America the Beautiful” 2014 Superbowl ad:
“Let's not pretend that…any other large corporation, really cares about the social advancement of immigrants or anything. They care about the bottomline. And if they can grow their bottomline by appealing to the burgeoning market of P.O.C.... then hey! Why not?”
All the pricks who accused (and still accuse) Coke of being politically correct, are missing the point: The people they see as ‘minorities’ aren’t anymore.

Or at least they won’t be for long.

Soon, they will become the majority population, and with that means they will step up to being the main economic driving force, possessing all the power to determine market trends and market share. Might as well advertise to them now and plant the seeds of brand loyalty.

I’ll put it in the simplest of terms: Companies now figure they can make money off of them, more than off of you.

In so many ways, I see people who don’t see this one simple fact as kind of self-important, perhaps casually racist/sexist… whatever ‘ist’ they may be, but definitely in the habit of underestimating everyone outside of their group. They just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that somebody has surpassed them as an economic force. That somebody has beat them at their own game. And so, any concession to any outgroup is seen as simply ‘being nice’ or politically correct.

Fortunately, in the international stage, especially when it comes to Hollywood’s pandering to China, we at least somewhat recognize that their motives are profit driven. We know that when Matt Damon’s rescue crew is resupplied by a Chinese made rocket, we could totally see through it. We know the desire to pander to Chinese audiences isn’t because Hollywood wants to be ‘nice’ to the Chinese, but because they want to sell their film there.

While this might seem like a kind of ‘humility’ in our part, in that we are perhaps beginning to recognize that we aren’t the type of audiences Hollywood will target for their films anymore because we are just outnumbered as an audience, I feel as though we are still too arrogant to accept this fact to the point of refusing to adjust our actions and expectations accordingly. I mean, even though it’s probably beginning to sink in philosophically, I think most people still carry on business as usual.

And I think it’s in large part because…

4.) We tend to identify with and attach ourselves to our Allies’ successes (but not their failures)

This one in particular is most endemic to the English speaking world, with Canada in particular being perhaps the most guilty when it comes to Hollywood’s global domination. Save for the actual Canadian filmmakers and workers in the motion picture/broadcast industry, the average Canadian tends to ‘own’ the greatest Hollywood films as ours.

Just listen to the vocabulary: In a recent Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers (CSIF) Workshop, I heard a fellow member remark: “French Cinema is like this and that … whilst Hong Kong cinema makes such and such… and Korean productions tend to be miscellaneous etc.…” Then, when he got to American Cinema and Hollywood in general, he said, “…while ‘ours’ tends to be so on and so forth.”

Ours? What do you mean, ‘ours’? You mean, American Cinema, right? You mean, theirs.

Truth be told, I do slip up the same way too.

For the sake of brevity, I shorthand "North American Cinema" as though Canada is on equal footing with America's output, without consideration for the whole whack of other issues this raises. Hell, I'm doing it right now with this piece of writing!

It is the irony of ironies: Canadians are the most offended when we get mistaken for Americans, but would gladly associate with American successes. I for one, am doing it right now: Notice how the previous entry (#5) actually calls us the collective ‘West’? No doubt, suppose the coming century becomes some other allies’ century – for the sake of example, let’s say it becomes Australia’s century – we would chalk that up as the West’s success. …or a victory for the commonwealth. …or at the very least, a victory for one of our allies whose society looks a lot like ours and who speak something that is mutually intelligible to each other.

China is on their own, but our western civilization is a team effort.

To be fair, when it comes to American Cinema and the Canadian practice of shamelessly associating with it if they produce something glorious and beautiful, there are a lot of co-productions between Canadian and American production houses. A company like Lionsgate was in fact founded in Vancouver and takes its name from Vancouver’s most famous stationary sentinels, on guard at its most famous bridge.

As well, Hollywood firms tend to shoot a lot here in Canada. Calgary and Alberta in particular have been used to portray everything from Superman’s Metropolis, Superman’s Smallville, Christopher Nolan’s Midwestern America, Christopher Nolan’s Dreamverse. Etc etc. And don’t even get me started about Vancouver!! That place has probably stood in for ‘Murica more than any other American city!

At the very least, our most talented people tend to move there and find success – usually by passing themselves as one of them. Not just us Canadians by the way – just look at all the Brits, Aussies, and all sorts of Europeans in Hollywood.

But that’s exactly the point: Brain drain. We lose people to the powerhouse that is Hollywood all the time. Canadians can ‘claim’ and ‘own’ these talents all they want – usually by busily proclaiming to people who scarcely care which A-listers and which superstars are Canadians – but the average global viewer may not bother to search where a certain performer was born and trained. The bottomline is that the people who have moved there are working in an American industry, earning American money, boosting the American image around the globe.

Not only that, American Cinema has actively killed off Canadian Cinema. As mentioned by one Canadian commenter on that article I first posted:
“The Americans came into our country and bought up all the movie theatre chains, overran the market with their bigger-budget films and locked Canadian competition out of the buildings, until it just festered in the shadows.”
So, I guess in some roundabout way, American Cinema is now our cinema too! But instead of being collaborators, we are its victims, swallowed up under their hegemony. Perhaps in this context, it’s true: Western Cinema = Hollywood.

Except of course, when Hollywood makes super turds like the Michael Bay movies, well, suddenly we’re reeling back and denying ownership of it by claiming it’s simply an American thing. That’s a Hollywood thing, we say. Big dumb and well financed. That’s their steaming pile of cultural excrement that’s only meant to make a profit overseas.

We’ll gladly claim ownership of something critically and artistically acclaimed because somehow, we imagine ourselves as capable of doing something similar – their culture and our culture very closely resemble each other, right? Just like that fellow CSIF member did, American Cinema is equated as our cinema. Yet whenever that same industry produces something we dislike, we totally disown it. Suddenly it’s their cinema.

Where’s the consistency?

Probably getting ahead of myself but, now that China is doing to American Cinema what American Cinema did to Canada, the Chinese are now the villain in the same scheme that Americans thought themselves heroic for having done.

Hypocrisy at its finest. But that’s to be expected because it’s not entirely unprecedented, considering…

3.) Everytime the West loses out on the game of our own making, we redefine that very game and rename what is ‘cool’ and/or morally upright.

When colonialism became so passé and uncool, the West invented neo-colonialism through third parties such as multinational corporations. We gave birth to free enterprise and exported it all over the globe. We invented means of control such as IMF-WB and told societies to copy our system, do what we want for them, or else. Under the guise of free trade, we told them they are ‘free’ to compete with us, the economic and manufacturing powerhouse, with their burgeoning and upstart small scale industries. If you fail, it just means you suck, unlike us.

Free from a Star Trek type of Prime Directive, we meddled endlessly in other economies’ affairs and dictated what was cool and what was a must have. We are at the core, and they are at our periphery. We introduced them to the game of consumerism and made a killing out of it for a long long time.

Unfortunately for us, such a game had at its core the only rule of “who consumes the most, wins”. Now that other societies are way more consumerist than we, now that they are a bigger market than us, well, slowly, we are realizing how uncool this game is, after all. Now that someone else is winning the game of our own creation, well, now it’s gone too mainstream. We hate it now.
In the global scheme of things, we are the world’s biggest fucking hipsters.

Just take the car for example: Usually the 2nd biggest household purchase, after only the house itself, it has long been the ultimate symbol of American and, indeed, Western freedom. It is one of the biggest indicators of status and identity. So many of our rites of passages have to do with cars, driving, and being driven in cars. Personal mobility became equated with personal freedom and the whole idea of democracy itself.

And yet once the Third world started becoming more mobile, well, we suddenly reworked the idea that maybe this whole driving business isn’t for everyone after all. Some crocodile tears were even shed for the environment.

Look, I’m all for saving the environment – just don’t be hypocrite about it, is what I’m saying.

As Gwynne Dyer writes of how the Indian car, the Tata Nano, has sparked discussion here in ‘the West’:
“What will become of us when all those Indians start driving around in cars? There are more than a billion of them, and the world just can't take any more emissions. It's not the "People's Car," as Tata bills it, but rather the "People's Polluter," moaned Canada's National Post. "A few dozen million new cars pumping out pollution in a state of semi-permanent gridlock is hardly what the Kyoto Protocol had in mind."
But hang on a minute. Aren't there more than a dozen million cars in Canada already, even though it only has 1/30th of India's population? Aren't they on average twice the size of the Nano (or, in the case of the larger SUV's, five times the size)? Does the phrase "double standard" come to mind?”
And I think it’s the same with filmmaking. While I totally agree with the article I posted above, the fact is, they are not an objective list of how things are happening, but rather an editorial about “how much movies suck now, because China has gotten a hold of our industry”. Bottomline: It is framed as a negative.

It’s a negative for us, that much is for certain. But the point I’m trying to make is that we have no say anymore because we practically wrote ourselves out of the plot of this very narrative we’ve created. Remember: Who consumes the most, wins. And now that we consume far less than the emerging markets overseas, we are embittered and are now seeking to change the rules, or at least rework our value judgment system.

As one sarcastic commenter on the article writes:
“Now, let's see if I understand this correctly. Some other country is buying up your industry, usurping your corporate autonomy, and imposing its own cultural and ethical mores on you, all because they're bigger than you, have more money than you, and offer a much larger audience than you? Gee, that's terrible. I can't imagine what that must be like.”
Or another:
“ "America alone no longer dictates what goes on in American cinema." - Welcome to what it feels like to be the rest of the world...”
It’s our own Frankenstein monster that got out of hand. Now that it’s out to destroy us, well, we really only have ourselves to blame.

Although personally, I do find modern mega blockbusters as shittier.

There I said it!

However, I do try and be pragmatic about it all by accepting the fact that perhaps the only reason why the old mega blockbusters appealed to me was that I could relate to the culture which they are pandering to at the time – ie. the West.

But now that we are not the majority anymore in this global market of moviemaking, we don’t matter anymore.

And that’s not such a bad thing, if only the West could learn some lessons from those they have once subjugated.

Unfortunately however…

2.) Western civilization has been king-shit for so long, it seems to not know how to act any other way.

There’s a way to resist or coexist with a looming Hegemony.

Unfortunately for the West however, we have been that hegemony for so long, we are utterly clueless on where to even begin coping with a new one – an outside one. Not to repeat myself, but as mentioned in the three previous points: The usual reaction to shifting global entertainment markets is a mix of anger, confusion and denial, along with crying ‘foul’ over how other cultures and economies got ahead and managed to surpass us.

When we were winning the game, we say,"Though luck, rest-of-world, but them's the rules!"

Now that we seem to be losing, or at least falling back, we're the first ones to point out how the game is rigged, or bent.

But once we get over this denial, once we accept that we are not top dog anymore (or won’t be for long), there are a few simple things I think which we can do to mitigate our Western culture’s fall from the top of the hierarchy. A lot of it relates to taking a page from the survival guides of those other cultures which ‘the West’ has subjugated for so long.

In Tyler Cowen’s book, Creative Destruction, a whole chapter is devoted to how Hollywood rules the world, and how this was not always such a bad thing. As an invading force carrying ‘the West’s’ flag (at least before they discovered lucrative Chinese audiences) the big Hollywood machine has in fact helped other markets focus on their own cultural niche. While Hollywood movies provide the explosions, the special effects, the big budget spectacles that absolutely crush smaller foreign studios, these same smaller foreign studios (even some domestic American ones) very quickly realized that they don’t have to compete with Hollywood, they can just tell their own stories. And who better to tell their own stories than themselves?

And so, you have this seeming concentration into different distinct foreign film cultures. French ennui films are French films. Indian musicals have a unique pattern to them that it’s sort of become a cliché… but at least it’s a cliché of their making. Korean romantic comedies are distinctly theirs. The English have their own quirky domestic market films. Hong Kong has its crime dramas… etc etc…

Again, as an English commenter on that article says of how American Cinema could recover, now that their own Hollywood system has seemingly betrayed them and shifted focus on making its money overseas:
“…soon you'll learn to create small independent films about the little quirks of your culture while exporting a few major stars for big roles in foreign films who will still come back home for the smaller roles. Though we're keeping James Bond, he's ours, we're not letting you Yanks at him again.”
Unfortunately, in the English speaking world, Canada is probably doing the least well (‘worst’ seems too strong) as already mentioned in #4. The casual Canadian moviegoer is perfectly content with Canadian Films’ death/non existence/complete unrecognizability when placed side by side to their American counterparts. No matter what Canadian Cinema does, it just never seems to do well enough.

Plus, as mentioned in #4, as long as American productions keep making things that we can relate to, Canadian Cinema-goers would never think we ‘lost’ the culture ‘war’. "Someone we know and are friends with is relatively successful? This must mean we’re successful too!" tends to be the assumption.

…which is probably as good a segue as I’ll get in bringing the final point.

1.) You may not owe Filmmakers anything, 
                    but they don’t owe you anything either.

How does that quote go again?
"Every nation gets the government it deserves"
“In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve”
-Joseph de Maistre

Well, in a free media, and a free enterprise, you get the local cinema and TV you deserve. If you have shitty local/domestic cinema and TV, it’s because you (or the collective ‘we’), have not proven to be a viable market which can support the better films you crave. If what you want to see never gets made, it’s because you have not proven to be worth making films for.

You only have yourself – the viewers – to blame.

While there is some gatekeeping involved in the form of how film financing works – ie. Producers and studios tend to always be conservative and only greenlight things that are sure to make money – there are always ways to buck that trend. Really dedicated filmmakers can pursue other avenues for financing, a creative mind can flourish more by working around the constraints of budget, and miscellaneous expenditures can be reduced by slashing funds for other things such as promotion and instead just relying on the power of hearsay and social media.

And if you really want the most democratic example, a lot of projects have been financed through crowdfunding. Doesn’t get any more democratic than that!

Personally though, I don’t want to harp on too much about how the really truly passionate filmmaker can and will get things done no matter the odds. Don’t get me wrong: I admire the ‘can-do’ attitude for sure. But something about that expectation just rubs me the wrong way, especially whenever I hear it from someone I call a ‘civilian’ – someone who does not work in the media/film/broadcast industry. Far too often, people have used it to use and abuse creatives, content creators, performers and all sorts of upstart filmmakers, or at the very least, used it as an excuse to not pay them their worth. …if at all.

By making everything just a simple black and white issue of ‘passion’ or a lack thereof, ‘civilian’ audiences are really washing their hands of any responsibility to reward talent, dedication, and hard work.

The cold truth however is that, truly talented, dedicated and hardworking filmmakers/actors/showrunners and other workers in the film industry could always go to larger centres that will actually reward them for their time. It’s a globalized world, nobody has to keep plugging away in a marketplace that doesn’t pay off, abuses its workers, and doesn’t feel like a respectful place anymore. Once again, there’s Brain Drain. As mentioned in #4, for Canadians, Hollywood has always been and will always be the promised land.

Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing because we still get to see those who have made their way there, right? Status Quo. It’s always been like that since the time of Shatner, Sutherland and Plummer. It’s almost as though we never really lost them at all! They have and will always keep appearing in things that are familiar and culturally relevant to us, even though they’re in the USA.

Ahhh, but then, going back to the beginning of this piece of writing, there are the emerging markets overseas now too!

Hahah! Take that ‘the West!’

For far too long ‘the West’ has sucked dry the human resources of other nations, through immigration, international students, and all sorts of global investors who have found themselves within our borders. Now, the opposite kind of brain drain might just start happening in the creative realm – from an east to west migration of talent, we might just start seeing a new west to east pattern of movement.

And when that time comes, I would hope that everyone refrain from whining about it too much, and to think first before accusing anyone who does it as a ‘cultural traitor’ of sorts for selling out to the bigger market(s).

There’s that previously hinted at part about hypocrisy. We’ve benefitted all this time from the talent and capital flight that plagues developing nations. To whine about it when the flow gets reversed is a tad hypocritical.

Plus, nobody really owes you anything. Don’t you remember? The free market, as the West invented it, is supposed to be impersonal! Who consumes the most, wins!
"Well, Betty, I have some good news and some bad news.
...The client's moving the international work to London.
More Audrey Hepburn, less Grace Kelly."

And I’m not about to prescribe that you all get out there and become loyal patrons of your domestic arts/film scene or anything like that, because I truly believe that you don’t owe anyone anything. Let everyone (the audience) do their thing, spend money on what truly entertains you, and let the market react and decide.

Besides, no matter what you do, it won’t change the fact that other emerging markets are bigger, where the people are hungrier for entertainment, and where dedicated fandom is a real thing. No matter what happens, they are now the bigger film market, and there is nothing you can do to stop that.

(It’s funny: Piracy is waaaaaay more rampant in the same markets where Hollywood now makes its money. But despite that handicap, they are still able to get more butts in theatre seats and earn more money all because of the astonishing size of audiences outside of ‘the West’.)

The cold truth is you’ve lost ‘the game’.

I mean, why would *I* potentially make a movie for you, the global minority who reside in the First World? I’m here to service the majority elsewhere, the teeming masses with money to spend, the vast civilization with love to give. To try and please you, the minority, would just be unnecessary political correctness. And you hate political correctness, remember? ; )

Next Post: What's with all the Western Civilization Hate?

Further Reading/Viewing: 6 Bizarre Ways Chinese Audiences Alter Movies You Watch
                                             Cannes: Philippine Cinema Comes to the Fore, Clarence Tsui,
                                                  Hollywood Reporter
                                             The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Adichie, Ted Talks
                                             On The Job: It's 'bitter' in the Philippines, Phillip Cu-Unjieng, Philippine Star
                                             Side By Side, Directed by Christopher Kenneally
                                             Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover's Polemic, Joel David, The Manila Review
                                             The Situation and directions of Philippine Independent Cinema,
                                                  Francis Sollano,
                                             In The Claws of the City: Manila in Film, Adolfo Aranjuez, The Manila Review
                                             Interview: Erik Matti of On The Job, Bernard Boo, Way Too Indie
                                             Pinoy Filmfests Circa 2013, Joel David, The Manila Review
                                             Telescoping Empire and Diaspora: Revisiting Philippine-US Dialectics,
                                                  Nicole Cu-Unjieng, The Manila Review
                                             A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines?, James Fallows, The Atlantic
                                             How one Terrible Movie ruined Hollywood, David Wong / Tom Reimann,
                                             5 Hollywood Secrets That Explain why So many Movies Suck,
                                                  C. Coville / Maxwell Yezpitelok / M. Asher Cantrell,

Related Posts: Erik Matti's On The Job

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Blogger Aminoethylbenzene Hydrochloride said...

"king shit" - this is the first time I've heard the term.

I can see how majority of Americans (WASP's) have been lead to believe that there is nothing greater nor will ever be greater than America and that just by being born American (note: WASP), they're already great and should not have to lift a finger to earn it. And of course they have their ways of making sure you know that unless you are WASP, you will never be truly American.

It's this "entitled attitude" that is causing Western decline. Watch the first season episode of HBO's "The News Room". That response by Jeff Daniels struck a nerve in a lot of my co-workers.

" What I fear is complacency. When things always become better, people tend to want more for less work. " - Lee Kwan Yew

6:13 AM  

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