Un-American Activities

John Ford’s Westerns, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Woody Allen’s Upper East Side: American movies used to be set in America. Not anymore.

How the West Was Won.

How the West Was Won

Photo courtesy IMDb/Warner Bros.

So Spiderman is a Brit and Batman is Welsh. Woody Allen sends postcards home from Paris, Barcelona, London, Rome. After collecting hosannahs on the international festival circuit, Wes Anderson recently made his first film set on American soil in 10 years; next he shoots a movie inspired by his love of Europe. For his latest movie, Martin Scorsese came over all Parisian. James Cameron is looking to shoot Avatars 2 and 3 with Chinese money. Oh, and the French cleaned up at the Oscars last year.

America is having a moment at the movies—an absent moment, a Scarlet Pimpernel moment, a rain check. It used to be one of the great advantages of being a filmmaker working in North America: North America. As a setting and a subject, a material source and myth bank, America was in a class of her own. John Ford made so many films in Monument Valley—seven over 25 years—that the 30,000-acre stretch of the Utah-Arizona border became known as John Ford Country. Hitchcock used to bill studios for his American vacations, so certain was he of turning up new locations. He first thought of dangling a man from Lincoln’s nose on vacation in 1951, almost a decade before he finally came up with the plot of North by Northwest

By that time the Western had picked up a nasty cough, and we had all moved to the suburbs to sink in front of our TV sets. Filmmakers, meanwhile, staked out claims in America’s big cities as eagerly as prospectors in the Californian panhandle: Elia Kazan’s waterfront, Scorsese’s Little Italy, Allen’s Manhattan, Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, Michael Mann’s downtown Los Angeles, mapped out as mythically in Heat and Collateral as Ford’s wild country. Who can match that level of embeddedness today? Nobody talks of David Fincher’s Colorado or Spike Jonze’s Maryland. Quentin Tarantino made three movies set in LA—his three best, as it happens: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown—then jetted off into the movie-verse to make Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds.

Today’s hip, young auteurs are not neighborhood boys. Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman take pot shots at flyover country from the ironist’s Mile-High Club. Darren Aronofsky couldn’t wait to get out of Brighton Beach after his portrayal of the place as the seventh circle of hell in Requiem for a Dream. In truth, he and Fincher still feel holed up in their bedrooms, staring into the abyss like Christopher Walken in Annie Hall: Venture up there alone and there is a high chance they will be there a week from now, a polite smile on your face as they show you their medical dictionary of flesh wounds.

Among their generation, maybe only the Coens are out there taking soil samples, dirtying their mud flaps in Mississippi in the 1930s (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?), Arkansas in the 1880s (True Grit), LA in the 1940s (Barton Fink), Minnesota in the 1960s (A Serious Man),Texas in the 1980s (Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men), and—in their latest—the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s (Inside Llewyn Davis). It’s quite a patchwork quilt they’ve stitched together, reliant for its charm on the brothers’ unique ear for vernacular, their eye for local exotica, and their staunch refusal to feel anywhere at home. They are strangers in a strange land, viewing their homeland through the alienated squint of the outsider—one reason why their work is such a hit overseas.

But the backyard movie—the one made in a filmmaker’s backyard using every last crumb of personal autobiography, every last neighborhood character and piece of local apocrypha, the film that says, “Here I am, this is where I come from, look”—is a dying breed. Lena Dunham made Tiny Furniture and was immediately snapped up by HBO, which has largely stepped into the breach. TV is our national chronicler now. Americans used to go to movie theaters to see themselves on-screen—in national epics like Once Upon a Time in America, The Godfather, Do the Right Thing, even Forrest Gump, Lord help us—but these days, anyone hungry for any view of New York that doesn’t consist of seeing it smashed to smithereens by superheroes must watch Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire. Nobody’s complaining exactly, but among today’s filmmakers, maybe only James Gray has shown any interest in drawing strength from his roots, drawing up loamy goodness from the pebbly subsoil of Brighton Beach in Little Odessa, Two Lovers, and We Own the Night. It may also be the reason he is not better known. The Russian immigrant guy? Films with Joaquin Phoenix all the time? Oh, that guy.

Gray is currently at work editing his first period melodrama, set in the vaudeville of 1920s New York and starring Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner, and Phoenix. “The disconnectedness that you’re talking about, part of it is on purpose because the studios want to appeal to a global audience,” he told me when I caught up with him recently. “The foreign box office is more important now. The studios have been purchased by much larger multinationals who demand a movie makes a billion dollars. When you make a franchise, when you have to make a four-quadrant movie that appeals to everyone, it’s very difficult to be specific in terms of your setting. The more generic the better for box office. It cuts to the heart of what ails movies.” 

We’ve heard this story before in books like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: how the summer blockbuster de-cored the American film industry like an apple, with the executives spitting out auteurs like pips. In Biskind’s book, the conflict was intergenerational, a tale of two Americas: straights versus the squares, auteurs versus the suits. But for most of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hollywood still bore a passing resemblance to the industry that had made Stagecoach, Casablanca, and The Godfather: a film industry indigenous to North America, making American films for American audiences. That all changed with Jurassic Park in 1993, the first year in which Hollywood’s foreign earnings outpaced its domestic ones—a historic tip of the seesaw. Executives’ ears pricked up: The new Wild West was overseas.  Since then, it’s been a story of rapid, exponential growth: Foreign revenues counted for 64 percent of the total in 2009, 66 percent in 2010, 69 percent in 2011—pushed up there by Avatar, tellingly a remake of Dances With Wolves in space—and now rests at a staggering 70 percent, an industry-reconfiguring statistic. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Michael Cieply observed:

Last year Hollywood’s top 20 domestic box office performers included just two movies—“The Help” and “Bridesmaids”—with realistic stories about American life, contemporary or otherwise, according to The rest took place in a fantasy world, like “Thor,” or abroad, like “The Hangover Part II” and “Fast Five.” In 1992, by contrast, 15 of the 20 best-selling American films were rooted in realistic, if sometimes twisted, American experiences. Those included “Sister Act,” “Lethal Weapon 3,” “A League of Their Own,” “Unforgiven” and “Boomerang,” all of which were released from May to August of that year.

In other words: Forget Stage Coach. It’s when Sister Act disappears that we need to be worried.

The ironies here are legion. There were the French in 1993, up in arms about Jurassic Park, with Gerard Depardieu claiming “the movie industry in the United States is like a war machine,” and casting Steven Spielberg’s film as a Trojan horse filled with Hollywood infantrymen, all bearing checkbooks and smiles and eager to infiltrate heads of the little lycée children. Well, it was a Trojan horse, but it was bearing down on Los Angeles, not Paris. The film industry under threat was not France’s but America’s. Instead of the French waving baguettes at Jurassic Park, Americans should this year be protesting foreign audiences for turning Battleship into a hit. The film was a bomb at the North American box office when it was released earlier this year—a “two-hour infomercial that should do wonders for naval recruiting if not civilian entertainment,” said Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. But overseas it wasn’t and raked in $236 million, which meant Hasbro got stung but not nearly as much as it needed to get stung in order to stop more Battleships from being commissioned. The only ones interested in seeing Americans play the role of jingoistic, militaristic roid-heads, it seems, are non-Americans.

No longer the indigenous film industry of North America, Hollywood is now the world’s jukebox, pumping out what Michael Eisner once called “planetized entertainment.” It’s one reason the Oscars have turned into such a mad scramble of late, even fishing overseas for quality crowd-pleasers—The Artist, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire—while reserving a spot on the nominations list for something flinty and home-spun from the indie world. Two years ago it was Winter’s Bone, which plunged audiences into the meth labs of the Ozarks. This year it is most likely to be Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which takes us deep into the swamplands of Louisiana. Together they almost amount to a new genre: the American Exotic, mixing myth and magic realism to trawl the furthermost reaches of the American disaster zone for wide-eyed urban audiences, the same way they used to trawl the Third World.

Even the genre is telling: Magic realism used to be the genre of South America, not North, the way storytellers make sense of the everyday absurdities and violent disparities of the developing world. That the genre has found any purchase on the northern American continent is a subtle but damning indictment, both of how broken down America has gotten around its edges, but also of just how foreign the country now seems, even to Americans. It’s a whole other world out there. Somebody really ought to make a movie about it.