In the new world of fast-moving and globalised culture, Europe is running scared. An entire continent quakes at the prospect of its future irrelevance. This week the board of the European Film Academy pledged its support to the “exception culturelle”, the principle that prevents culture from being discussed in the trade negotiations between the European Union and the US, due to be renewed next month.
“The cultural exception is not negotiable,” thundered the academy’s president Wim Wenders, director of the exquisite Paris, Texas, made in 1984, a time when European directors could travel out west and make uniquely perceptive existential observations about dumb-assed Americans with a clear conscience.
A petition of European film-makers went further still, claiming that “the liberalisation of the audio-visual and film sector [would] lead to the destruction of all of what until now protected, promoted and helped develop European cultures. This policy, together with the granting of excessive fiscal advantages to US digital champions, looks strikingly like a conscious desire to bring European culture to its knees.”
For the record, the EU trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, has given assurances that the cultural exception will be respected in the forthcoming talks. But the petitioners are not taking any chances. I confess to feeling some sympathy with them. The hegemonic potential of Hollywood looks mighty scary when viewed from the tidily scaled heartlands of the old continent.
Who can be bothered to support those intimate chamber dramas that revolve around the nuances of the human condition, when Iron Man 3 jet-packs into view? The marketing power of the US entertainment industry is even more formidable than the miracle-making exploits of its tinpot heroes. Pointless to deny that there is an issue here.
But the argument is flawed in so many other ways. First, I can’t help noting an irony of which the great Eric Rohmer would have been proud. The French New Wave directors, Europe’s outstanding contribution to world cinema, were besotted with American movies. They loved their ambition and energy, were in thrall to their ability to draw boldly and expansively on a wide canvas. French drama, by contrast, was small-minded, moribund.
Here is Rohmer himself, writing in Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s: “The finest American films … have made me fiercely envious and sorry that France should have abandoned the pursuit of a claim to universality that it once… affirmed so strongly.” The “flame of a certain idea of man”, he wrote, had been extinguished in his own country “in order to be relit across the ocean”.
Second, I wonder if there is, still, anything distinctive about European cinema at all. Just as the great European directors absorbed the lessons of Hollywood to reinterpret cinema in a new and radical way – imagine if Jean-Luc Godard had never seen a gangster movie! – the influence travelled in the opposite direction too. From those powerful masterpieces of American cinema in the 1970s, to the thriving independent scene of today, what we like to call the “European sensibility” is ubiquitous. Witness Noah Baumbach’s forthcoming Frances Ha, a smart and charming homage to the early films of François Truffaut – far more “French” than any French movie I have seen in the past couple of years.
The virtues that used to be associated with European cinema have in any case spread around the world, and become entwined with other, vibrant local cultural traditions. This, rather than the global box-office receipts of Iron Man 3, is what is inspiring about the worldwide dissemination of culture today. This is hardly a new phenomenon – the great Indian director, Satyajit Ray, was profoundly influenced by the humanism of France’s Jean Renoir to produce the Apu trilogy, one of the landmarks of world cinema, in the mid-1950s. But it happens more, and faster, now.
In this context, it is absurd to talk of protecting the indigenous culture of Europe. Absurd, and a little hypocritical too, given that Europe has its own history as a hegemon to consider. It reeks of insecurity, nervousness, a refusal to embrace the modern world. And here is the rub. I wonder if this protest is not better aimed at the changing media landscape in general, rather than focus on the symbolic domination of the Hollywood blockbuster.
Of course such a protest would be even more futile. It is the digital revolution that is finally going to abolish cultural frontiers for ever. You can talk all you like about establishing quotas for the amount of locally produced music that has to be played on French radio stations, but who will patrol the laptops, tablets and MP3 players that are the new conduits of cultural consumption? It is a losing battle.
European culture is far from on its knees. It may have become less distinctive, but that is because the free trade of ideas and the flowering of new cultural centres has caused it to adapt to a new, multifarious world. What Europe must guard itself against, more strongly than ever, is nostalgia. No culture ever made itself a better tomorrow by yearning for yesterday.
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