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Changes in Society: Cultural Imperialism

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When I was a teenager I only bought records by Americans. British music seemed to be just a pale imitation of what was going on in America. I liked the way the Americans were really rethinking their past. True, most of this only really involved developing and adapting previous music styles, however, it came over to me as being fresh and exciting.

My distain for British music was only ended with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Initially, they started off like all UK artists by copying American music. My favourite tracks on the first Beatles LP were covers of tracks previous recorded by people like Arthur Alexander and Barrett Strong. However, in time, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones began producing music that managed to do something completely new. One felt by the late 1960s that the UK had developed its own culture and was not a victim of cultural imperialism.

I also enjoyed going to see American movies. However, by the early 1960s there was also a revival in British cinema. Directors such as Karl Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), John Schlesinger (A Kind of Loving, Billy xxxx), Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life, If) and Ken Loach (Kes) began making films that owed little to Hollywood. All of them were about life in Britain during this period. They were also based on British novels, another area experiencing a cultural revival.

Reisz, Schlesinger and Anderson were soon off to Hollywood to make their fortunes. Loach remained behind in an attempt to build a school of filmmaking that was willing to tackle important social and political issues. This was a failure and Loach was unable to hold onto the audience that had been created by films like Kes. He of course retained a loyal following (especially in Europe) but he ceased to have an impact on mainstream culture.

By the 1970s the film industry ceased to exist in Britain, except for Carry On and James Bond films, that is. At the time this did not seem to matter too much. The Hollywood system still allowed people like Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Alan Pakula and Bob Rafelson to make films. However, over the years, except for Altman, they made enough compromises with the system, to make their work indistinguishable from the rest of the films being churned out of Hollywood.

In recent years the UK government has put money into the British film industry in an attempt to breathe new life into it. However, this attempt has largely failed. In the UK today people are fed a continuous stream of Hollywood pap. As a result of the control American corporations have over the distribution network, it is extremely difficult for most people, to see films that are not backed by the Hollywood machine. Even if good British films were made, they never receive the publicity budgets enjoyed by Hollywood productions. When good UK films are made they are usually lost to the world until they turn-up late at night on BBC 4 or C4.

Does it matter that most people mainly see movies made in America? Yes, it does, because the American system overwhelmingly produces a certain type of film. It is a cinema aimed at American young men (research suggests it is mainly young men, and not young women, that decide on what films they see). It would seem these young men are not too interested in dialogue. Scripts are usually written by the director (gone are the days when Hollywood employed America’s best writers). The director’s main concern is to make film scenes that will generate the “wow factor”. That of course includes plenty of violence and car chases that end up in a screen full of fire.

The viewers are not encouraged to think about the story. I heard a director being interviewed on the radio recently. The interviewer pointed out to the director that the storyline of his latest film did not make too much sense. That the story was not a reflection of true life. The director was shocked by this response. He knew his story was illogical but to him filmmaking was not about logic. It was about fantasy and spectacle.

Although Hollywood rarely makes films that cover social and political issues, they do have an impact on the viewer’s political consciousness. Most films are about “good and bad guys”. The “good guys” are invariably reactionary. The “bad guys” usually have foreign accents (that includes English accents). All the characters in the film, are angry, aggressive and violent. This is true of both the good and bad guys. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the morality of the two sets of characters. All we know is the good guys are going to win and the bad guys are going to end up dead (even prison is not good enough for these people).

Anger is a prominent feature of Hollywood movies made for young men. At the beginning, the anger of the lead character is usually hostile to all those around him. This includes the woman who he will end up sleeping with. The logic of this seems to be that if they like each other from the start, they will go to bed soon after they meet. This cannot do, because it might create an ant-climax too early in the movie, therefore the audience have to wait until this big scene takes place . When it happens the scene is just a collection of clichés (mainly because this clichés prevent it being “adult-rated” that apparently makes it impossible to sell in the US through mainstream cinema).

This anger is always explained in terms of psychology (usually a bad relationship with parents, partners, etc.). The film rarely explores the possible political or social reasons for this anger.

Last week I saw the Swedish film, Show Me Love. Lukas Moodysson’s film deals with an issue that has been covered in numerous Hollywod movies. A school girl’s first love affair. It was not a great film but was miles away from how the subject would have been treated by Hollywood. Scenes lasted for more than ten seconds. The camera kept still when the characters were talking. There was no violence (except a half-hearted attempt at suicide). The whole thing was totally believable. I recognised those characters as being just like the students I taught. This is never the case with Hollywood films aimed at the teenage market.

Sweden appears to have retained their film industry. I also like the films I see from France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. I am aware that if they arrive in the UK they are probably the best that have been produced. However, they are a great deal better than the films being made in the UK (in fact serious filmmakers tend to concentrate on making films for television). When I see their films, I believe I am watching real people. They produce dialogue that is meant to be listened to and deal with problems that face all of us. In fact, they are just like the films that we used to make in the UK in the 1960s.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Make no mistake, the fear and despair evoked across the globe by the US election result are shared by many millions of US citizens. Indeed, their grief, their frustration, has a peculiar intensity - because there's no loathing like the loathing within families. The 55 million Kerry voters who went to the polls primarily motivated by a burning desire to dump Bush are no more reconciled to his rule this morning than they were a few days ago.

Bush will claim a mandate, but there's no reason we should accept the claim. The result confirms that this is a wartime leader who does not speak for, or enjoy, the confidence of half the population.

There will be those in Europe who will seize on this result to urge us to reconcile ourselves to the superpower and its peculiar ways. And it will be claimed that a refusal to do so is tantamount to "anti-Americanism". This charge has been fouling the atmosphere since 9/11. It is alleged that the left or Europe is blindly hostile to America and Americans. As a US passport-holder long resident in London, I know that this charge is baloney.

Anti-Americanism has become a catch-all charge levied against anyone who engages in a radical critique of America's global power, its sway over the lives of billions who had no vote in Tuesday's election. People rebel against US hegemony for the same reasons they rebelled against the dominance of earlier imperial powers, not out of a distaste for the culture of the rulers but out of an objection to undemocratic, unaccountable, self-serving rule by remote elites of whatever culture.

A disbelief in the prerogatives or the beneficence of the American empire is not anti-American. Nor is it anti-American to be alarmed by features of US political culture, an alarm shared by many millions of Americans.

Bush supporters should be wary of crowing too soon. This election result will do nothing to placate those Americans who cry out for health care, a living wage, and decent public services. It will not reverse the leftwing tide in Latin America. And it will do nothing to curb resistance in Iraq. As casualties mount, there is bound to be increasingly militant opposition to White House war policies among a widening spectrum of US citizens, including serving GIs.


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