Saturday, 12 November 2011

National, transnational and a-national cinema

Czech New Wave, French New Wave, New Australian Cinema. To use the nation as an organising principle when talking about films and film history is to some extent straightforward and uncomplicated. Writing a book about the film history of Chile is a perfectly legitimate subject. Nations and nationality clearly matters. But how and when is not always clear and it is easy to become lazy.

The nation is an external definition we use when discussing films, it does not come from the films in themselves, such as colour or camera movements. Sometimes we are not even aware of a film's nationality. But we run the risk of being essentialistic, when the nation is deemed to be the cause and effect of the style, theme and character of a given film. Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto1968) is like it is because it is a Czech film. Or Bergman's films are said to be like they are because they are Swedish, or Scandinavian. But could not similar films have been made in any other national context? Does the perceived bleakness and austerity of Bergman's films make them more Swedish than films that are lightweight and colourful? If the answer is yes to the first question and no to the second, than how central is Bergman's alleged Swedishness? To be precise, is there anything other than the political borders that make us talk of national cinemas. Does a nation have a specific soul that comes across in the films made in that nation? It is very common to hear people say "Well, that film doesn't capture the true Sweden (or Scotland, or Senegal, or South Korea and so on)." as if there was such a truth to be captured. I do not believe there is, and even if there was such a truth, who would to decide what it is? A governmental committee? A vote among the readers of a popular tabloid?

An additional question is which nation we are talking about. When (self-defined) Algerians make films in France about Algerians subjects, or Greeks in Australia, should they be discussed as part of French and Australian cinema, or Algerian and Greek, or both, or neither? There are no obvious answers to these questions, but as long as the reason for one view being used over the other is clearly spelt out then that problem can be contained. Also, when a state has several nations within its borders, placing all films made in that state under one nation-heading becomes politically (in-)sensitive. My previous post about Peter Weir mentioned Green Card (1990). It is often called an American film but it is actually a French/Australian co-production, with an Australian crew, set in New York, with a French leading actor and an American leading actress. If discussing it in a national context, which context should we choose? But there is another form of nationalism, the now so popular term transnationalism, which is more suitable when discussing Green Card, especially since the theme of that film concerns migration, immigration and different nationalities.  Even though it has become popular in academic circles to talk about transnational cinema the word in itself does not signify anything important, it is just a tool. Possibly most films are transnational, in that they have cast members from different countries, crew members from different countries, are co-productions, are bilingual, are shot in different countries, and so on. Whether or not the transnational aspect is interesting or relevant depends on the specific case. In the 1940s and 1950s a number of Swedish/Norwegian co-productions were made, shot in two versions, one in Swedish and one in Norwegian. Here it would be interesting to analyse the twin-productions and see to what extent the different versions were tweaked to become more Swedish and Norwegian, or if they were identical besides the language spoken.

Another interesting topic is the transnational-ness of Hollywood blockbusters, and how they, in order to be marketable all over the world, in different ways try to engage with the world outside the US. That could involve shooting on location in China and/or having a multi-ethnic cast and/or downplaying differences between the US and other countries. The examples I gave above, of films by Algerians in France and Greeks in Australia, could be discussed as transnational rather than national. In my thesis on Hasse Ekman I also write about Ernst Lubitsch. Both as an inspiration for Ekman but also as an interesting transnational filmmaker. Lubitsch was born in Germany, this is where he made his first films, and then in the early 1920s he moved to Hollywood. But only in person. Most of his films were still set in Europe, sprinkled across the continent and Britain, and sometimes they take place in some kind of Mitteleuropa fantasy. These films are often based on plays and stories of European origins. To establish whether the themes and messages of these films are American, German, Polish, French, British and/or Hungarian would require some deep studies of nationhood and nationality and would still probably only lead to reductiveness and simplifications without having made us any the wiser. In the end, maybe their nationality is primarily Lubitschland. As Dilys Powell pointed out in the early 1940s, questions of authorship and nationality are intimately linked, but so is authorship and transnationalism. Weir, Phillip Noyce, Ang Lee, Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-Hsien are some current filmmakers where transnationalism becomes a central part of their authorship.  

But transnationalism does not automatically mean that the national aspects disappeas. It is often a case of competing national stories in the films, rather than a genuine blending of them, or disappearance of them. However, when nationality ceases to matter, I would like to use the term a-national cinemaFilms in which the national setting is of no importance, films where the story might have taken place anywhere, or possibly nowhere. Many films might be said to fit this category. The fact that they are made in a particular country is of course unquestionable, but if that country does not matter, neither story-wise nor theme-wise or otherwise, then I would suggest they are a-national. In my thesis I am arguing that many of Hasse Ekman's films can be called a-national. That is also connected with his distinct (positive) urbanity, which makes him somewhat unusual in Swedish cinema. There are no hymns to the Swedish countryside or the Stockholm archipelago, which otherwise tends to be a central feature of a majority of Swedish films, including several of Bergman's films. But that is a discussion for a later post.

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