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Politics of Contemporary European Cinema

Politics of Contemporary European Cinema

by Mike Wayne

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How does contemporary European Cinema reflect the drive for political and economic integration and recent trends in globalisation, if at all? This book is a valuable excursion into the politics of European cinema and extensively addresses questions like this. Mike Wayne identifies some key themes pertinent to a study of the contemporary cultural and political dynamics


How does contemporary European Cinema reflect the drive for political and economic integration and recent trends in globalisation, if at all? This book is a valuable excursion into the politics of European cinema and extensively addresses questions like this. Mike Wayne identifies some key themes pertinent to a study of the contemporary cultural and political dynamics of European cinema from the mid1980's, including the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Soviet Empire.

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The Politics of Contemporary European Cinema

Histories, Borders, Diasporas

By Mike Wayne

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2002 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-822-1


European Cinema: In The Shadow of Hollywood

This chapter begins by mapping out the economic reasons for Hollywood's global domination and explores the UK film industry's subordinate position within that hegemony. I will situate the European film industry and film policy within the contemporary and contradictory drive towards economic and political union. The European Community has implemented a number of strategies designed to help sustain the European film industry in its unequal struggle with Hollywood. I will focus on a case study of one film, The Disappearance of Finbar (Sue Clayton, 1996), to show in detail, how the Eurimages scheme works to encourage European co-productions and what its limitations might be. This chapter focuses on questions of industry, its structures and strategies, for the simple reason that conditions of production, distribution and exhibition help shape the kinds of films which get made. But we must also engage with the cultural debates circulating around European cinema, since these also shape the kinds of films which get made, not least by shaping the industrial arrangements which make film production and consumption possible in the first place. On the one hand we must call into question the arrogance, the complacency, the assumptions and self-delusions involved in an uncritical celebration of Europe as the source and guarantor of Enlightenment ideals. On the other hand (and much less fashionably) we must call into question the mirror image of this position which is common amongst the western intelligentsia. This postmodern position can best be described as post- Enlightenment liberalism, in which cultural difference becomes the Holy Grail, the only debate in town worth having. It is an important theme throughout this book that questions of cultural diversity, while quite proper and important, must not be formulated in such a way that notions such as social progress, justice, and questions around social solidarity, become marginalised. Within this broader cultural debate, I will plot some of the cultural positions implied by various strategies for European cinema. We shall find a number of tensions particularly around 'big' filmmaking vs. 'small' filmmaking; tensions between commercial and cultural ambitions; between popular and high culture, and between Europe's differentiation from or influence by Hollywood.

Globalisation and National Culture

Before plunging into the details of European cinema and its economic and cultural relations with Hollywood, it would be useful to situate the debate within the wider context of debates around globalisation and national culture. For Hollywood is of course a major globaliser of symbolic material. In order to provide some focus to a large subject, I want to concentrate on an essay by the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson. This essay, 'Globalization as a Philosophical Issue', is a typically Jamesonian mix of eloquently crafted insights and curious blind spots. This combination will help identify some of the problems and issues surrounding current thinking on global, national and pan- national cultures.

Jameson's central concern in this essay is to try and formulate why globalisation appears to be simultaneously about two contradictory dynamics. This, as Arjun Appadurai has noted, 'is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization.' Jameson defines globalisation as centrally about the export and import of culture. At one level, globalisation appears to be the process whereby all the world's cultures are being drawn together in new creative combinations. Here globalisation links to a postmodern celebration of heterogeneity, with cultural differences jostling in 'tolerant contact with each other'. Linked to this expanded and extended communication network is the emergence 'into the speech of the public sphere' of a whole range of formerly marginalised groups and cultures.

However, the duality of the concept of globalisation means that the term also has a dark side insofar as it is associated with the coercive integration of national economies, markets and cultures into a homogenous, essentially American dominated culture. Here we are reminded that the import and export of culture does not take place on a level playing field. While Hollywood captures at least 70% of the British film market, the British film industry captures only 1% of the American film market.

Jameson suggests that the homogenisation/heterogenisation couplet is applied across the global/national culture couplet depending on where 'a malign and standardizing identity is discerned.' If it is perceived to be the state (or the culture industries) using the nation as its sphere of legitimacy, to be an agent of uniformity in which difference is marginalised or concealed, in which the hierarchies of power which structure the nation are masked, and where the interests of political and economic elites are projected as general interests when in fact they are not, then it is at the level of the nation where a despotic homogenisation may be said to accrue. Here then the market, with its cosmopolitanism and its transnationalism, can be mobilised as a site of resistance and difference to a national culture which is in fact the class, gender and ethnic encoded culture of a national dominant. And this is of course precisely the way in which Hollywood has functioned for the working classes of Britain and Europe, for many decades. However, Jameson suggests that when we move 'to a higher level globally, then everything changes: at this upper range, it is not national state power that is the enemy of difference, but rather the transnational system itself.' Here then, nation-states are called on to protect the difference of national cultures and to affirm their particularity in the face of global homogenisation.

I think this is a very useful way of formulating the problem and plotting the different responses of commentators to the global vs national culture tension. However, we need to explore the implications of the relations between the global and the national in a bit more detail. Jameson's own position within this formulation is problematic because, as his language about moving to 'a higher level' suggests, the main threat to cultural diversity comes, for him, from the corporate interests which dominate the transnational markets. While I would not disagree with this diagnosis, within Jameson's essay, it is a diagnosis premised on a rather uncritical support for the nation-state. It is also premised on some problematic assumptions concerning American cultural domination.

The latter is worth exploring not least because Jameson takes as his example, the case of Hollywood. Jameson falls into the problematic assertion that the consumption of Hollywood films breaks up the 'seamless web of habits and habitual practices' of a national culture. Here, Jameson presents Hollywood film, particularly in the context of the Third World, as 'the apprenticeship to a specific culture', a kind of Trojan horse that lays the ground in converting unique national cultures into an American global cultural hegemony. Here Jameson seems quite unaware of the critiques of this kind of simplistic notion of cultural imperialism.

One scrupulously detailed critique of this argument has been made by John Tomlinson. He notes that discussions of cultural domination often locate the media as central to cultural imperialism. However, we cannot conflate media products with culture per se. The former may enter as 'foreign' bodies into another cultural matrix, but be 'indigenised', which is to say, read not in accordance with the American cultural framework from which they have originated and now exited, but read in relation to the cultural framework they subsequently enter. As Tomlinson notes:

media texts of Western origin are massively present in other cultures. But the key question is, does this presence represent cultural imperialism? Clearly the sheer presence alone does not. A text does not become culturally significant until it is read.

This argument is equally applicable to Hollywood films playing in European cinemas or on European television. This distinction between media products (films, television programmes, books, etc) and culture (which draws on a broader repertoire of meaning making resources and interpretive codes) opens up the space for the audience to become active rather than merely passive consumers of culture. This has been a familiar theme in the populist turn in much contemporary cultural theory.

Yet while this position rightly deals a blow to any simplistic cultural imperialism model, what it often fails to address is whether it would be desirable to have media forms which are rooted in and sensitive to more local, national or regional (in a pan-national sense) realities and cultures. This is not to deny that there may be 'universalist' or at least transnational themes and concerns in global cultural products such as provided by Hollywood, or that Hollywood films may well be inflected differently according to the cultural frameworks into which they enter; yet neither of these possibilities are a substitute for cultural plurality to be rooted in thriving production units outside Hollywood/America. Without access to indigenous production, cultural consumption is always having to work with symbolic material fashioned elsewhere under material and cultural determinants that may be quite different and remote from the place(s) of reception.

As Hollywood's global hegemony expands, the resulting homogenisation of world film culture is complexly coupled with Hollywood's own differentiation as it incorporates stylistic elements and the creative personnel it sucks up from the film cultures it gradually displaces or marginalises. But this internal differentiation is not, I would argue, an adequate compensation for the diminishing scope which other film cultures have to develop in. Even under conditions of economic inequality between film industries (to be explored below) cultural exchange has its benefits, but it is a skewed and one-sided process, with Hollywood conceding rather less culturally, than its competitors, and with losses that are entirely avoidable if we were operating outside the economic metabolism of capital.

There are two arguments running along here which it is worth drawing out more explicitly. In part, my argument is a geo-cultural one, that it is desirable for there to be film production that displays a familiarity with local, national or pan-national realities and cultures. However, 'local' production (at whatever geographical scale) is not necessarily desirable in and of itself. Ideally, local film production should adopt a critical and questioning perspective on the material and cultural realities it is in proximate contact with.

It is precisely this critical stance that does not come through strongly enough in Jameson's valorisation of the nation. The nation-state of course has often provided the legal power, the financial resources and the institutional apparatuses to foster and sustain indigenous cultural production. Yet as I have already indicated, Jameson's text acknowledges that the national sphere may well be the site of a 'despotic' domination by elites. Yet this is interestingly displaced in Jameson's essay onto a critique of the pan-national ambitions of the European Community.

I happen to find the effort, stimulated by the EEC, to conjure up a new European cultural synthesis, with Milan Kundera substituting for T. S. Eliot, an [...] ominous [...] pathetic symptom.'

Now one can certainly be critical of the bureaucratic, top-down attempts to create a 'Euro-culture', and many critiques of the new Europe rightly point to its 'democratic deficit', which is to say the lack of popular involvement and legitimacy in the actions and policies of its institutions. Yet this seems to ignore the extent to which the nation-state has accommodated a great variety of political forces and movements, some of which have been progressive and increased popular participation in decision making and cultural life, and some of which have been reactionary, conservative and elitist, closing down popular involvement in political and cultural life. Similarly, in principle, the supranational European polity could be coupled with different political and cultural projects. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu sees a European wide body able to defend the social (and for our purposes, the cultural) dimension once won at the level of individual nation-states, as the logical strategy for the working class, since this is the international level at which the forces they are fighting are operating. But, if it is the case that European institutions cannot be bent in a more democratic direction, then still less can the nation-state, penetrated as they both are by an increasingly rampant capitalism.

We have seen then that any evaluation of globalisation, the nation and a prospective supranational European polity, is very complex. Globalisation is both at once a phenomenon which involves homogenisation and differentiation. It indicates a vast arena of creative cultural exchanges which have often undermined cultural inequalities within nation-states, providing the culturally disenfranchised, resources with which to contest their domination. This is a theme in films such as Young Soul Rebels (Isaac Julien, 1991) and Wild West (David Attwood, 1992), where Black and Asian youths respectively, draw on American music to contest their subordination within a racially structured Britain. But the nation state is also ambiguous, providing the legitimacy and material resources for the indigenous production which is threatened by the globalisation unrolling from Los Angeles. Young Soul Rebels was funded by the British Film Institute and Channel Four invested in Wild West. Both organisations have state sanctioned obligations to address aspects of life within the nation which have not been adequately serviced by the dominant media. Just as the nation-state is an ambiguous entity, a site of struggle, so too is the proto-European polity presently under construction.

I do however have to enter a caveat about the terms which have dominated the discussion thus far. The cultural issue of homogeneity vs heterogeneity appears to be the absolute horizon within which to discuss culture, with the latter category (heterogeneity) being understandably preferred as a promotor of liberalism and pluralism. The problem with this is that the dominance of the question of cultural diversity tends to make awareness of the context in which culture operates, sporadic at best. I do not think that we can understand the politics of European film culture by confining ourselves to a discussion of cultural politics. Culture has to be situated in a broader political and material struggle. It has to be contextualised in the struggle for material resources (of cultural production as much as employment, consumer goods, welfare systems, etc) made scarce by the social relations of capitalism. It is this context, rather than the promotion of difference in and of itself, which provides the material conditions in which a productive engagement with cultural difference will be sustained or harmed. It is indeed extraordinary that a social and economic system which levels civilisation down rather than up, as global capital chases wider profit margins, can still retain, in the ranks of the intelligentsia and the wider population, any credibility. And yet it does. This suggests that we must couple the debate about standardisation vs heterogeneity with a less fashionable but still pertinent cultural question: what contribution does film make to the legitimation or otherwise of this social and economic (dis)order.

Hollywood: the economics of domination

It is important to stress that my analysis of Hollywood's domination is focused on the structural, enduring features of the film industry. The empirical figures, the changing policy initiatives, the up and downs of the industry, the mergers, the new technologies, all testify to a constantly protean environment. I am not concerned to give a detailed chronological survey of that environment. Rather I want to illuminate the persistent, obdurate, structural characteristics of the system. This is important because the economics of domination is political but it is precisely the politics of writing about this domination which has been deeply bourgeois. Angus Finney's investigation of the film industry for example tends to treat companies like bourgeois individuals, as if they were free-standing agents determining their lives in isolation from the social and economic relations around them. Hence this comment:

Traditionally, smaller European companies have not enjoyed a promising track record when trying to run ambitious production, international sales and distribution outfits. In order to understand why the odds are weighed against European film companies enjoying large-scale success, we need to map out the institutional – these are in fact social – and economic relations of European cinema and how it operates within the shadow of Hollywood:

a) Hollywood is a powerfully capitalised industry. The size of the American home market and the fact that it is dominated by a small cartel of large corporations provides the launchpad for global domination with expensive products which can be sold cheaply abroad, undercutting competitors. Thus the US film industry accounts for 74% of worldwide film production investment. The shift of American capital into the culture industries is exemplified in the course charted by Gulf and Western. This conglomerate which had interests in sugar, zinc, fertiliser, real estate, etc, acquired Paramount in 1966. By the 1980s it was shedding its interests in manufacturing, property and agriculture to concentrate on becoming a major player in the culture industries: in effect, Paramount, once just a small corner of a multinational, had absorbed Gulf and Western.


Excerpted from The Politics of Contemporary European Cinema by Mike Wayne. Copyright © 2002 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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