Thursday, May 21, 2009

London and Belfast

Sadly, I’m now back in St. Louis after my family trip over to London and Belfast. The two cities were quite different, but both are well worthwhile. In keeping with Film Walrus policy, I’ll contrive to tie my summary of the vacation into something film-related. If you don’t care to hear me gloat about how much fun I had in Europe, just skip ahead to the next post.

In the three days I spent in London, I managed to experience quite a lot: The Museum of National History, Prince Albert Hall, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, The London Eye, a Salvador Dali exhibit, the Sherlock Holmes pub, Trafalgar Square, London’s Chinatown, the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the Tate Modern Gallery, Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the British Museum. I got to see such wonders as the British crown jewels, the Rosetta Stone and a public transportation system that actually works.

One thing that probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but did, was the unseemly number advertisements, especially for Hollywood films, that plastered every surface. It kind of made me feel guilty, like visiting a third-world country and finding out that America is dumping nuclear waste there. Only this was London and a different variety of trash. Presumably many Brits enjoy American blockbusters (though probably not the ads), but I can’t help thinking British culture is better off without “Night at the Museum 2” and “Angels & Demons.” I’m uncomfortable with this level of cultural imperialism even as it gets a warm welcome. Anyway…

Belfast may be a city famous for its miserable weather, internal strife and its construction of the largest ship to sink on its maiden voyage (locals defend the Titanic by noting that “It was fine when it left here”), but it has its perks as well, including beautiful countryside and botanical gardens. I got to meet dozens of relatives I didn’t even know I had. Meeting us at the airport, they pointed to Katie, the only one not related, and said “Now there I see the family resemblance.” My family eagerly discussed everything our tour books advised against, like religion, politics and whether there’s a difference between British and Irish cuisine (the Irish relatives argued that theirs involved more potatoes and was indefinably better).

Speaking of food, I surveyed a variety of local dishes like Beef and Guinness Pie, Ulster Fry, Bangers and Mash, Chicken Tikka Masala, Banoffee and Irish Stew. The food was great absolutely everywhere, but especially memorable was my last night, dining in Belfast’s oldest pub, the Crown Liquor Saloon. The ridiculously opulent establishment features stained glass, ornate wood-carvings and lavish detailing by Italian craftsmen brought to Ireland to build cathedrals. The booth we ate in at the Crown was just a few feet away from the one James Mason ducks into while bleeding to death in the classic Belfast noir, “Odd Man Out” (1947).

Ah… and now we get around to film. But I’m not going to go into “Odd Man Out” right now, though it’s a must-see often neglected in the states by comparison to Carol Reed’s better-distributed “The Third Man.” Instead, I’m going to talk about “Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance” (1993). I’ll explain how it tied into my vacation and do a review within a couple of days.

4 comments:

Bubuina said...

I read your post this morning and while I took a long walk in central Paris and saw the posters for "La Nuit au musée 2" and "Démons et Anges", I started to think about what you wrote concerning the American imperialism you encountered in London. I thought that you might appreciate a European point of view. I've grown up in Finland, but I've lived in France (in Lille and in Paris) for more than four years now, and I've spent vast amounts of time in Sweden, because of my boyfriend. So I can testity that Amercian culture has infiltrated every corner of the European continent, that's sure - but I don't think it's a sinister thing. I grew up with American movies, and in Finland they weren't ever dubbed. These movies of my childhood (Star Wars, Back to the Future, Three Men and a Little Lady, etc. etc. etc.) never were American for me, they were just simply mine. And they did not hinder me from loving European movies or beautiful Russian animations at the same time! I think, that this kind of cultural mix that I grew up in just made me a more interesting person. So in my opinion, the presence of American movies creates a great diversity in Europe, and many things that are originally American have become so integrated in our culture that they're not even American anymore, they've gotten they're own European interpretation and flavour. And when there is a situation of rivarly, the American "imperialism" leads to intelligent laws like the one in France which garantees that a large percent of all movies shown in a theater have to be French. The presence of American culture thereby reminds Europeans of the value of our own culture, and I think our love and respect for our culture has even increased when faced with so much American produce.
So I just wanted to tell you that you are collectively pardoned for this cultural imperialism and that you shouldn't feel bad or ashamed or guilty about it! For us, American films depict a mythical country far away, a place most of the time unknown for us and that makes us dream - but we also know the cruel realities of American politics, and I think that keeps us very attached to our own European home. But American films provide the best escapism there is and I think we're all collectively thankful for that! :)
I'm sorry for the length of this comment, thank you for your blog, I really enjoy reading it!

Walrus said...

Bubuina,

First off, great comment! The length is quite welcome. I definitely appreciate your personal experience (from the very POV that I was pondering while writing) and I think you make a good point about European cultures/citizens being able to enjoy American films and still hold on to their own cinema traditions.

I guess what bothers me most is just the excessive power of the advertisement industry that stretches out of Hollywood and the gap between what gets advertised and what is actually worth seeing. When I see a bad American movie here in America, it is a bit disheartening, but to know that the same bad American movie is being shamelessly promoted around the globe is almost scary. Especially since the flow is so lopsided: movies from abroad, good or bad, rarely get the same advertisement push here and often don't even get shown. Viewers don't always get a chance to decide for themselves.

In my ideal international cinema system, movies are made all around the world with the unique perspectives and inflections that each country, culture and filmmaker possesses and the best are shared by everyone interested. I think our current advertisement industry sort of works against that though, since they have a huge financial stake in making sure as many people as possible see the films that they've already invested in producing, regardless of quality. It makes for a lot of movies designed purely to sell well and they crowd out movies that have something more interesting or important to say or show. One repercussion, of which there are many, is that Hollywood comedies now intentionally emphasize physical humor over wordplay, so that the humor won't suffer in translation. That type of conscious change only limits cinema and seems like a dangerous direction to head down.

Like France, many countries have quota systems that help preserve a certain level of cultural independence. Another common European decision is to provide government funding for filmmaking which wouldn't be as financially lucrative as American-style escapism. I'm a fan of both these systems even though some accuse them of being elitist.

I can't help thinking another useful law might place limits on movie advertisements. After all, most people can decide for themselves what to see. If they want advice, independent critics, bloggers and general word-of-mouth is a better gauge of what is worth watching than self-interest motivated ads. Besides, it'd be nice to get rid of all the tacky posters, banners and commercials and enjoy our cities' architecture and skylines!

Walrus said...

But I'm glad to hear that there is less resentment about American cultural imperialism than I might have suspected. I think our generation (and judging from the movies you mention as part of your childhood, we can't be far off in age) is more eclectic and cosmopolitan about incorporating different influences, cultures and experiences than in the past. And people who are highly self-aware about the movies they watch are also must certainly be more discerning to keep up with the increased availability of films on DVD and in diverse theaters. But I worry about the average person (who sees less than 3 films in theaters a year). Inundated with ads, will they even bother to research what films will truly appeal to them beyond just escapism?

Mad Dog said...

If you can trust what most people have to say on the subject, they say escapism IS the only reason they watch movies. :S