Friday, 1 March 2013

To compare and contrast - the fallacy of using Hollywood as benchmark

In Robert Moss's The Films of Carol Reed the following sentences can be found:

"There are other fine touches in Pitt. Less intricately developed but equally memorable is the housekeeper's intrusion into one of Pitt's late-nights labours over the affairs of state with a veal pie that she insists he eat. In an American film of this era, the food would be nondescript."

Pitt is short for Reed's great film The Young Mr Pitt (1942), and the moral of Moss's argument is, I suppose, that the brilliance of this scene is emphasised by comparing it to American cinema at the time. Let us for a moment disregard the implausible implication that in no American film of the 1940s is it specified what kind of food is eaten, while ponder if Moss has actually watched all American films to clarify the state of the food in them, and then instead ask ourselves "Why is this relevant?"

The Young Mr Pitt is a British film and would more appropriately be compared to British cinema in order to extract any particular unique features it might have. Are food specified in other British films of that era? If they are it could rather be seen as a British filmmaking convention. Whether or not it says anything about Reed will not depend on it being different from Hollywood but rather on it being different from British cinema. Maybe the audience at the time was thinking "Why do all British films always have to describe what kind of food is eaten? Enough with the food already!" Reed would then perhaps have been a more interesting and imaginative director by leaving it a mystery what food was eaten.

The point I want to make is not (only) to ridicule Moss's middling book, but use this as an excellent example of the maddening habit of comparing everything to Hollywood films, usually in order to underline the alleged superiority of other national cinemas or filmmakers working outside of Hollywood. Some more examples:

In the recent edited collection A Companion to Michael Haneke many contributors talk at length about how Haneke is different from Hollywood, which for some seems to be his defining feature.

The other day I received a call for papers for an edited collection about "slow cinema", something that allegedly has emerged over the last decade as a new form of filmmaking. Example of this was films by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Pedro Costa and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and then, of course, it was suggested that this new form was a reaction against recent Hollywood cinema.

In Michelangelo Antonioni - the Complete Works there are plenty of comments about postwar European cinema being complex and nuanced, unlike Hollywood cinema which was apparently all simplistic fables, and more specifically about Antonioni that he was "abandoning the rules", for example that his films had longer and fewer shots than "the average Hollywood film of the time", and that his uses of colour are different from the "pleasantly reassuring saturated Technicolor of The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Sound of Music (1965)".

In a lecture in Stockholm about Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) the lecturer said about a particular camera movement that it broke the rules of "classical" filmmaking conventions and would never have been made in a Hollywood film. But of course it has, and before Antonioni made his film (almost the exact same shot as the "unique" one in The Passenger is to be found in Anthony Mann's The Man from Laramie (1955)). But, again, this is not important or relevant. In European cinema of the 1970s The Passenger is not particularly adventurous or special. It is a great film, but the quality and importance of it is not related to how much it may or may not differ from some kind of generic Hollywood film. I would also suggest that Antonioni is part of this "slow cinema" tradition, which of course is not new in any way but just a tradition among many others of making films, and not necessarily a reaction against anything either. Antonioni's films have longer and fewer shots than the average Hollywood film, but so do many Hollywood films. Would it also not be more interesting to compare the length and frequency of Antonioni's shots to those of his Italian and European peers? Incidentally, why is the length of a shot in itself made out to be important from some kind of moral or artistic standpoint? The relevance of the length of a shot is always in relation to what is happening in the shot and what comes before and after it. And finally, is not Michael Haneke firmly rooted in a particular strand of European filmmaking, rather than a radical rule-breaker? (Is he not actually a rather conservative filmmaker?)

Another filmmaker who is routinely compared to Hollywood is Yasujiro Ozu, but he would not be a lesser director if he did not break the 180-degree rule (which is frequently broken in Hollywood as well, when it is convenient to do so) and whether he is stylistically radical or not should be measured against other Japanese films of his time, not against Hollywood. And let's not forget the similarities between McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and Tokyo Story (1953)...

Besides it being of questionable historic value to compare everything to Hollywood films I think it is to belittle non-American filmmakers when the very fact that they are not American filmmakers is used as an argument as to be why they are good and important. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is about as good as any filmmaker working today, but not because he is part of some "slow cinema" movement which may or may not be a reaction against Hollywood. There are plenty of talentless hacks from Sweden, France, South Korea, or any other country, that make films that are different from Hollywood but they are still talentless hacks without originality or cinematic intelligence. Any potential difference between them and Michael Bay is irrelevant.

So, in short, using Hollywood as a norm and all else as deviations from this norm, is very unsatisfactory. Not least because it is unhistorical, both of Hollywood (which is very far from the monolith these comparisons suggests) and of other filmmaking traditions. It does not enhance understanding, it is often self-congratulatory and should preferably be avoided. Not least because films made out of Hollywood deserve better than to be regarded as exceptions to a made-up norm.

In fairness to the editors who sent out the CFP about "slow cinema" I should say that they wanted to look beyond the idea that it was just a reaction against Hollywood.

2013-03-03. I was unsatisfied with the original post so I edited it today.


  1. That's a nice observation to put your finger on. For what it's worth, there is a loosely comparable subject in scholarship on the avant-garde. The more conservative attitude is that the avant-garde is 'reactive' to commercial (Hollywood?) cinema. Others suggest (appealingly, I think) that it runs 'concurrent' to commercial cinema, rather than as a reaction against it. As if narrative, commercial, Hollywood cinema is the ground zero touchstone, and everything else can be compared against it.

  2. Yes indeed. To view Hollywood as the norm and everything else as deviating from that norm does a disservice to all filmmaking traditions, regardless of it's done to praise or criticise one or the other. It's a lose-lose situation.