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CONTENTS
Editorial
3–6 Introducing Transnational
Cinemas
DEBORAH SHAW AND
ARMIDA DE LA GARZA
Articles
7–21 Concepts of transnational
cinema: towards a critical
transnationalism in film studies
WILL HIGBEE AND SONG
HWEE LIM
23–36 Transnational utopias: Baz
Luhrmann and Australian
cinema
PAM COOK
37–51 Babel’s network narrative:
packaging a globalized art
cinema
PAUL KERR
53–67 YouTube: transnational fandom
and Mexican divas
NIAMH THORNTON
69–82 Transnational developments in
European cinema in the 1920s
ANDREW HIGSON
83–97 Hollywood’s foreign earnings
during the 1930s
JOHN SEDGWICK AND MIKE
POKORNY
Reviews
99–101 Crime and Fantasy in
Scandinavia: Fiction, Film
and Social Change, Andrew
Nestingen (2008)
101–102 Transnational Financial
Structures in the Cinema of Latin
America: Programa Ibermedia
in Study, Libia Villazana (2009)
103–104 World Cinemas, Transnational
Perspectives, edited by Natasa
Durovicova and Kathleen
Newman (2010)
105–106 Pueblos Unidos: Swine Flu
Ground Zero in Mexico, Felipe
Casanova and Miguel Angel
Daz (2009)
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Transnational Cinemas
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.3/2
TRAC 1 (1) pp. 3–6 Intellect Limited 2010
EDITORIAL
DEBORAH SHAW AND ARMIDA DE LA GARZA
Introducing
Transnational Cinemas
The main reason for the genesis of a new journal is that there is a community
of academics addressing and discussing issues with no natural home for their
work. With the creation of this journal we aim both to provide that home and
become the primary forum for debate for scholars in the developing field of
transnational film studies. Historically, film studies has often been comfort-
able dealing in fairly narrow terms with boundaries determined by concepts of
national cinema – perhaps because a strand within our discipline evolved from
language departments, at least within anglophone education establishments.
This approach has generated and continues to generate much fruitful research
with authors from area studies backgrounds bringing specialized contex-
tual knowledge to the study of cinema; nevertheless, national paradigms are
shifting, and new questions are emerging which still necessitate specialized
knowledge of national contexts, but now require further issues to be taken into
account. Scholars are embracing the challenges of the opening up of borders
within academia and within film-making, and are, at the same time, casting
an historical eye back to the transnational practises that have often character-
ized film-making in both textual and industrial terms. This issue demonstrates
the productive and exciting ways in which key academics in transnational film
studies are formulating new questions and new responses.
We are not going to tackle the thorny issue of definitions here: the ques-
tion ‘What is transnational cinema?’ can only lead us into an essentialist trap,
whereby complexities are flattened in the search for over-simplified answers
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(an approach warned against by Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim in this
issue). While we will leave the in-depth theorizing of the term to our contrib-
utors in this and future issues, we can assert that what is needed is for theo-
rists to tease out separate strands that have been conflated under the umbrella
of transnational cinema in an attempt to distinguish between a number of key
areas. These include industrial practices, working practices, historical factors,
aesthetics, themes and approaches, audience reception, ethical questions,
and critical reception. This is why we have given a great deal of thought to
the possible research topics outlined in our aims and scope, which are worth
reproducing here:
Modes of production, distribution and exhibition •
Co-productions and collaborative networks •
New technologies and changing patterns of consumption •
Transnational film theories •
Migration, journeying and other forms of border-crossing •
Exilic and diasporic film-making •
Film and language •
Questions of authorship and stardom •
Cross-fertilization and cultural exchange •
Indigenous cinema and video and the cinemas of ethnic minorities •
Cultural policy •
The ethics of transnationalism •
Historical transnational practices •
Interrelationships between the local, national and the global •
Transnational and postcolonial politics •
There are inevitably gaps, but from the above it is clear that this field, and thus
the foci of our journal, is extremely broad; nevertheless, we are very aware of
the danger of becoming the Journal for Everything Studies. We have already
had to reject excellent articles that focus on aspects of national cinema or
individual films, but which do not address questions relating to transnational
film cultures. It is not that we seek to downgrade ‘the national’ in debates on
contemporary film. Indeed, we hold with Higbee and Lim’s contention that
‘the national continues to exert the force of its presence even within transna-
tional film-making practices’ (p. 10). What interests us in this journal is the
relationship between the two terms in a range of contexts, and all of the arti-
cles included demonstrate the productive readings which emerge when this
approach is taken.
We are delighted that the first issue of Transnational Cinemas features arti-
cles by some of the most respected scholars working in a number of key areas
of the field, and we anticipate that their contributions will help to map tran-
snational film studies and encourage further debate. The first article, by Will
Higbee and Song Hwee Lim, considers theoretical aspects of the use of the
term transnational in cinema and lays the foundations for the articles that fol-
low. The authors provide a thorough analysis of the different ways in which
the concept of the transnational has been used in film studies, and identify
some of the contradictions and problems, as well as insights, which have
emerged through a critical survey of previous research in the area. They call
for a critical form of transnationalism to ‘help us interpret more productively
the interface between global and local, national and transnational’ (p. 10). The
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Editorial
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article manages to both interrogate and suggest a way forward in conceptual-
izing the transnational in film theory through a focus on diasporic and post-
colonial cinemas and Chinese and East Asian cinemas, the two main areas of
expertise of the authors.
Such an approach demonstrates that should the word ‘transnational’ con-
tinue to be used in the all-encompassing way that the authors critique, or
simply as a synonym for ‘international’, it is bound to become a fad that will
soon have had its day. On the other hand, if attention is paid to the way
that the transnational allows film studies to address the changing relationship
between cinema, states and nations, and explore the reconfiguration of cin-
ematic landscapes through practices of globalization, it will become a promis-
ing area of research.
This is demonstrated in the following three pieces, all of which furnish
ample empirical evidence that a focus on the transnational can be illuminating.
Niamh Thornton’s article ‘YouTube: transnational fandom and Mexican divas’,
explores the ways in which YouTube, as a new cultural form, aids the transna-
tional circulation of star texts. The focus of this piece is on YouTube videos of
María Félix and Dolores del Río and, using interviews with YouTubers, the
author explores the relationship between new technologies and the changing
nature of globalized fan cultures.
The theme of technology and its impact on film production is taken up from
a different perspective in Pam Cook’s contribution. Using original research
carried out in Australia, Cook deals with the vexed issue of the relationship
between the national and the transnational in the film-making of Australian
director Baz Luhrmann. The article includes an analysis of Luhrmann’s career,
his relationship with the Hollywood studios and the way his films are mar-
keted and received. The author concludes that ‘Luhrmann and his team
actively engage with digital technologies and the complexities of global media
production and consumption to give value and visibility to Australia as a local
centre for creative endeavour’ (p. 23).
Taking his cue from Raymond Williams’ assertion that ‘our hardest task,
theoretically, is to find a non-metaphysical and non-subjectivist explana-
tion of emergent cultural practice’ (cited in Kerr, p. 38), Paul Kerr seeks to
account for the rise of the network narrative in contemporary film production:
an approach to film-making that takes on transnational dimensions in Babel,
directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Indeed, Babel is regarded by many
as a quintessential transnational film, not only because of its narrative form
and content, but also on account of its production processes. It intertwines
four narrative strands that are set in three continents and includes a focus on
travel, migration and border-crossing, and examines the theme of intercul-
tural communication in a digitally-divided world. The post-Fordist practices of
flexible accumulation that characterize what we might call ‘the transnational
moment’ are embodied and find expression in Babel. Kerr carefully links the
global production context of the film to its narrative structure and content: an
analysis he presents in contrast with accounts that have focused on the cul-
tural aspects and national contexts of film-making.
The third section of the issue is devoted to historical investigations of
aspects of transnationalism in early cinema. Although many may think of
co-productions as a relatively new phenomenon in Europe, closely linked to
the evolution of the European Union, Andrew Higson’s research presents the
1920s as a time in which a number of European companies established co-
production arrangements – with the aim of competing with Hollywood film
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production and distribution. The study also examines the careers of some key
film-makers who both worked in a range of national industries and explored
transnational relations in their films. It includes a focus on Mihaly Kertesz
who became Michael Curtiz following his move to Hollywood. The article also
reassesses the ‘Britishness’ of a number of films of the period, which, in this
light, come across as transnational productions.
The article by John Sedgwick and Mike Pokorny is an example of the way
in which film history and film economics benefit from both a national and
a transnational focus. The authors examine archival data on Hollywood’s
domestic and foreign earnings during the 1930s and build on, and challenge,
previous research in this area. They argue that foreign markets were as central
to home markets for the film industry in this period, and highlight the tran-
snational commercial nature of early Hollywood, while also demonstrating
the importance of domestic profits.
In sum, we have aimed for both breadth and depth in the coverage of
transnational cinema and we have been fortunate to get a superb range of
contributions that have made it possible to do just that. We hope our readers
will find the material as engaging and inspiring as we have, and we look for-
ward to continuing these exchanges in further issues of the journal.
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TRAC 1 (1) pp. 7–21 Intellect Limited 2010
Transnational Cinemas
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.7/1
KEYWORDS
transnational cinema
critical transnationalism
diasporic cinema
postcolonial
francophone cinema
Chinese cinema
East Asian cinemas
WILL HIGBEE
University of Exeter
SONG HWEE LIM
University of Exeter
Concepts of transnational
cinema: towards a critical
transnationalism in film
studies
ABSTRACT
This article aims to map out the various concepts of transnational cinema that
have appeared over the past ten to fifteen years, and its state of deployment,
related issues and problematics. It argues for a critical form of transnationalism in
film studies that might help us interpret more productively the interface between
global and local, national and transnational. It also aims to move away from a
Eurocentric approach towards the reading of such films. It will illustrate how the
concept of transnational cinema has been at once useful and problematic, liberating
and limiting, by focusing on two case studies – diasporic and postcolonial cinemas
and Chinese and East Asian cinemas – that provide fertile ground for interrogating
the concept of the transnational.
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1. See, for example, the
work of sociologist
Hannerz (1996),
anthropologist Ong
(1999), and Balibar
(2004) on transnational
citizenship; Gilroy
(1993) and Hall (1990)
on diasporic identity
and postcoloniality; and
Appadurai (1990) on
the transnational flows of
people and culture.
INTRODUCTION
Within the discipline of film studies, the concept of transnational cinema is
certainly now an established area of enquiry, at least judging by the launch of
this journal and the increasing number of book titles that now bear its name:
Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader (Ezra and Rowden 2006a); Transnational
Cinema In a Global North: Nordic Cinema in Transition (Nestingen and
Elkington 2005); Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender
(Lu 1997a); World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives (Durovicová and
Newman 2009). Elsewhere, the term transnational makes its appearance in
subtitles of books to indicate cross-border cinematic connections (Chan 2009;
Hunt and Leung 2008a; Kaur and Sinha 2005; Morris, Li and Chan 2005).
While it is clear from film history that transnational flows and connections in
cinema are nothing new, this recent theoretical and paradigmatic shift raises
the questions: why the concept of transnational cinema, and why now?
One immediate response is to view this shift towards the transnational as
encouraged by a wider dissatisfaction expressed by scholars working across
the humanities (in particular sociology, postcolonial theory and cultural studies)
with the paradigm of the national as a means of understanding production,
consumption and representation of cultural identity (both individual and
collective) in an increasingly interconnected, multicultural and polycentric
world.
1
However, there have also been a number of clear attempts to apply a
conceptual framework of ‘the transnational’ to a variety of films, film-makers
and film cultures. As early as 1993, Marsha Kinder commented on the need to
‘read national cinema against the local/global interface’ (Kinder 1993: 7). Four
years later in the edited collection Transnational Chinese Cinemas, Sheldon Lu
identified ‘an era of transnational postmodern cultural production’ (Lu 1997b:
10–11), in which borderlines between nations have been blurred by new tel-
ecommunications technologies as a means of explaining the shifting debates
away from national to transnational cinema. At the same time, Hamid Naficy
was proposing the category of ‘independent transnational cinema’, which
combines concepts of authorship (the interstitial or exilic film-makers from
outside of the West working on the margins of the European and American
film industries) with genre (a specific category of ‘cine-writing’, iconography
and self-narrativization linked through themes of memory, desire, loss, long-
ing and nostalgia) (Naficy 1996: 121). More recently, Andrew Higson (2000),
Tim Bergfelder (2005) and Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (2006b) have
interrogated the limitations of the national in favour of the transnational in
film studies.
This article aims to map out these various concepts of transnational cinema
that have appeared over the past ten to fifteen years, as well as its state of
deployment, related issues and problematics. In deciding a title for this article we
have in mind two seminal pieces on the concept of national cinema by Andrew
Higson (2002) and Stephen Crofts (1998). Higson and Crofts both acknowl-
edge the complex, contradictory and contestable nature of the national cinema
label; they also offer instructive methodological approaches to the question
of the national and, for our purpose here, the transnational. Higson, in par-
ticular, argues that the concept of national cinema is often used ‘prescriptively
rather than descriptively, citing what ought to be the national cinema, rather
than describing the actual cinematic experience of popular audiences’ (Higson
2002: 53; emphasis in original). While both the prescriptive and the descrip-
tive can be discerned in writings on transnational cinema we want to adopt
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Concepts of transnational cinema
9
a discursive approach in this article, since prescription is a form of discourse
whose politics often obscure the history of its object; whereas description is
another form of discourse whose history of its object often masks its politics.
That is to say, whatever the approach, every narrative has a discursive his-
tory and gains currency in specific configurations of power/knowledge and at
particular spatio-temporal junctures. The distinction between the prescriptive
and the descriptive is thus an artificial one, at least from the perspective of the
discursive. Studying a concept (in our case, transnational cinema) demands not
just the tracing of its genealogy in descriptive terms or prescribing the terms
of its usage depending on one’s politics, but also the self-reflexive unveiling of
the concept’s discursive history, development and transformation.
Indeed, as Bergfelder points out, film studies has historically ‘lag[ged]
somewhat behind other academic disciplines’ in accepting the influence of
cultural hybridization and in using concepts such as ‘global Disapora’ and
‘transnationalism’ (Bergfelder 2005: 321), though this has been addressed by
more recent scholarship (not least the inauguration of this journal). Broadly
speaking, three main approaches have been applied in film studies to theoriz-
ing the question of the transnational. The first, exemplified by Higson (2000),
focuses on a national/transnational binary, which sees the national model as
‘limiting’, while the transnational becomes a subtler means of understand-
ing cinema’s relationship to the cultural and economic formations that are
rarely contained within national boundaries. Such an approach tends to focus
on questions of production, distribution and exhibition (i.e., the movement
of films and film-makers across national borders and the reception of films
by local audiences outside of their indigenous sites of production). One of
the drawbacks of this approach is its potential to obscure the question of
imbalances of power (political, economic and ideological) in this transna-
tional exchange, most notably by ignoring the issue of migration and diaspora
and the politics of difference that emerge within such transnational flows.
A second approach privileges an analysis of the transnational as a regional
phenomenon by examining film cultures/national cinemas which invest in
a shared cultural heritage and/or geo-political boundary; for example, Lu’s
work on transnational Chinese cinemas (1997b), Nestingen and Elkington’s
collection on transnational Nordic cinema (2005) and Tim Bergfelder, Sue
Harris and Sarah Street’s study of set design in European cinema of the 1930s
(2007). We might even ask if the term ‘transnational’ is entirely necessary in
the above cases. For example, could we instead speak respectively of a supra-
national Chinese cinema, a regional cinema or a pan-European cinema? This
returns us to the question of what exactly is the critical purchase of the term
‘transnational’.
The final approach to transnational cinema relates to work on diasporic,
exilic and postcolonial cinemas, which aims, through its analysis of the cin-
ematic representation of cultural identity, to challenge the western (neoco-
lonial) construct of nation and national culture and, by extension, national
cinema as stable and Eurocentric in its ideological norms as well as its narra-
tive and aesthetic formations (see, for example Naficy 2001, Marks 2000 and
Enwezor 2007). Such studies are heavily influenced by theoretical paradigms
emerging from cultural studies, postcolonial theory and globalization stud-
ies (e.g., Appadurai 1990 and Gilroy 1993). They focus almost exclusively on
exilic, diasporic or postcolonial film-makers working within the West and are
keenly aware of power relations between centre/margin, insider/outsider,
as well as the continual negotiation between the global and local that often
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2. At the 2009 Screen
Studies Conference in
Glasgow at a panel on
transnational cinema,
a particularly lively
debate took place
between speakers
and the audience over
whether or not the term
‘transnational’ had any
critical purchase in film
theory.
extends beyond the host/home binary in transnational or diasporic cinema.
The films they study are also seen to be characterized by issues of migration,
loss and displacement that lead to identities in flux, which, again, challenge
the stable and fixed (hegemonic) concept of the national. One of the potential
limitations of this third approach, however, is that diasporic or postcolonial
‘transnational’ cinema is consistently located on the margins of dominant film
cultures or the peripheries of industrial practices, making it almost impossible
to evaluate the impact such films might have on mainstream or popular cin-
ema within either a national or transnational context.
In all three of these broad approaches outlined above, while the term ‘tran-
snational cinema’ appears to be used and applied with increasing frequency
as both a descriptive and conceptual marker, it also tends, for the most part,
to be taken as a given – as shorthand for an international or supranational
mode of film production whose impact and reach lies beyond the bounds of
the national. The danger here is that the national simply becomes displaced or
negated in such analysis, as if it ceases to exist, when in fact the national con-
tinues to exert the force of its presence even within transnational film-making
practices. Moreover, the term ‘transnational’ is, on occasion, used simply to
indicate international co-production or collaboration between technical and
artistic personnel from across the world, without any real consideration of
what the aesthetic, political or economic implications of such transnational
collaboration might mean – employing a difference that, we might say, makes
no difference at all. It is precisely this proliferation of the term ‘transnational’
as a potentially empty, floating signifier that has led some scholars to question
whether we can profitably use, or indeed need, the term at all.
2

Our intention with this article, then, is not simply to reject the term ‘tran-
snational’ out of hand, nor to offer yet another conceptual neologism that
might take its place; rather, it is to critically engage with this conceptual term to
better understand how a form of what we will term a ‘critical transnationalism’
might help us interpret more productively the interface between global and
local, national and transnational, as well as moving away from a binary
approach to national/transnational and from a Eurocentric tendency of how
such films might be read. It would, of course, be naïve to assume that the
transnational model does not bring with it boundaries, hegemonies, ideolo-
gies, limitations and marginalizations of its own kind, or replicate those of
the national model. Hence, it is imperative not to theorize transnational cin-
ema only in the conceptual-abstract but also to examine its deployment in the
concrete-specific so that the power dynamic in each case can be fully explored
and exposed.
In what follows, we will illustrate how the concept of transnational cinema
has been at once useful and problematic, liberating and limiting by focusing
on two case studies that provide fertile ground for interrogating the concept
of the transnational. The first case study will explore the place of diasporic
and postcolonial cinemas within the framework of the transnational, with
examples drawn largely from North African émigré and Maghrebi-French
film-makers working in France. It will end by rethinking existing paradigms
by Marks (2000) and Naficy (2001) that locate diasporic/transnational film-
making only in the interstitial and marginal spaces of national cinemas, and
will argue instead that diasporic cinema, while transgressing and transcend-
ing national boundaries, also has the potential of occupying or influencing the
mainstream in national and transnational cinematic spaces. The second case
study delineates the use of the term ‘transnational’ in the study of Chinese
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Concepts of transnational cinema
11
cinemas before moving on to examine its application in the context of tran-
snational East Asian cinemas. It takes the opposite direction from the first
case study by questioning the celebratory tone that greets the mainstreaming
of transnational East Asian cinemas in places such as Hollywood. Instead, it
suggests that more attention should be paid to other modes of transnational
film-making that may escape the popular radar. The conclusion will propose
a critical transnationalism in film studies so that the concept of transnational
cinema will continue to be useful in film studies.
LOCATING DIASPORA AND THE POSTCOLONIAL IN
TRANSNATIONAL CINEMA
While earlier theorizing on the transnational (most notably Higson 2000) has
tended to focus on the movement of films and film-makers in relation to pro-
duction, distribution and exhibition, more recent scholarship has explored the
individual and collective narratives of migration, exile and displacement that
are a central component of transnational cinemas (Ezra and Rowden 2006b,
Higbee 2007). While they may well focus on an individual protagonist, the
consequences of these uprootings and re-groundings are also frequently con-
sidered in the collective context of diaspora. Indeed, many of these transna-
tional productions emerge from within a specifically diasporic configuration
that, implicitly or explicitly, articulates the relationship between the host and
home cultures, and is aware, at same time, of the interconnectedness between
the local and the global within diasporic communities. Such a cinema can be
defined as transnational in the sense that it brings into question how fixed
ideas of a national film culture are constantly being transformed by the pres-
ence of protagonists (and indeed film-makers) who have a presence within
the nation, even if they exist on its margins, but find their origins quite clearly
beyond it. Naficy argues that this transnational exchange has given a voice to
diasporic film-makers in the West while transforming the national by fram-
ing their difference or accent within the discursive of the national cinemas
and traditional genres of their home and adopted lands (Naficy 1996: 120).
Here we might point to the extensive use of popular comedy by Algerian émi-
gré film-makers in France during the 1990s and 2000s to explore questions
of migration, integration and multiculturalism; drawing on the traditions of
satire and placing comedy in a concrete social context commonly found in
Arab cinema, while simultaneously acknowledging comedy as the pre-eminent
popular genre in France par excellence (Higbee 2007: 58). In this respect, tran-
snational cinema has the potential to both reveal the diasporic experience and
challenge the privileged site of the national as the space in which cultural
identity and imagined communities are formed.
A variety of terms (some more politically engaged than others) have
emerged since the 1980s, which attempt to describe the cultural production of
diasporic film-makers, including: accented, postcolonial, interstitial, intercul-
tural and multicultural. All of the above could potentially be subsumed by the
term ‘transnational’, due to their association with modes of film production
that transcend national borders and bring into question the fixity of national
cultural discourses. This very fact points to one of the potential weaknesses of
the conceptual term ‘transnational cinema’, especially when dealing with films
that are intimately concerned with questions of difference and the place of
minority cultures within the nation-state. That is to say, it risks celebrating the
supranational flow or transnational exchange of peoples, images and cultures
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12
at the expense of the specific cultural, historical or ideological context in which
these exchanges take place. What is more, certain aspects of diasporic cin-
ema may, in fact, be more concerned with national rather than transnational
contexts. Though routinely cited as an example of transnational cinema, Beur
cinema of the 1980s (films made by the French descendants of North African
immigrants) was, in fact, far more concerned with articulating the rightful
place of Maghrebi-French youth within the French nation than it was with
exploring the transnational connections or intercultural exchange between
France and the Maghreb produced by the North African diaspora in France.
Indeed, in a film such as Cheb/Cheb (Bouchareb, 1991) the enforced ‘return’
of the Maghrebi-French protagonist to Algeria is presented as a journey of
exile of a westernized youth to an alien country and culture. Interestingly, the
position of Maghrebi-French film-makers on this topic has shifted somewhat
in the 2000s with a burgeoning of return narratives such as Ten’ja/Testament
(Legzouli, 2004), Exils/Exiles (Gatlif, 2004) and Il était une fois dans l’oued/
Once Upon a Time in the Oued (Bensalah, 2005), which offer a greater sense of
intercultural dialogue between France and the Maghreb.
Bergfelder (2005) offers an indirect response to the above critique regard-
ing the critical purchase and careless homogenizing of the transnational.
Drawing heavily on the work of sociologist Ulf Hannerz (1996), Bergfelder
argues that one advantage of the term ‘transnational’ is that it offers an alter-
native to the generalized and imprecise application of the term ‘globalization’.
Whereas globalization is routinely applied to any and every process or rela-
tionship (political, social, cultural or economic) that crosses a national bound-
ary, the transnational (following Hannerz’s definition) is more attuned to
the scale, distribution and diversity of such exchanges and their impact at a
local level as well as an understanding that they may have effects within and
beyond the nation-state. In certain cases, the transnational may even bypass
the mechanisms of the nation-state altogether (Hannerz, cited in Bergfelder
2005: 321). In this context we may think of the way that global cosmopolitan
cities such as London, New York and Paris appear as centres of community
and identification (not to mention important production hubs) for diasporic
film-makers, against which the host/home binary is articulated. Thus, in
films by Algerian émigré directors such as Merzak Allouache (Salut cousin!/
Hey Cousin!, 1997), Mahmoud Zemmouri (100%Arabica/100% Arabic, 1997)
or Abdelkrim Bahloul (Le Thé à la menthe/Mint Tea, 1984) the local spaces
and immigrant neighbourhoods of Paris acquire a greater significance for their
diasporic protagonists than that of the nation-state (France).
Though Bergfelder chooses not to pursue this line of enquiry in his article,
Hannerz’s rationale for a preference for the ‘transnational’ over the ‘global’
or ‘international’ offers an apt description of how diasporic, postcolonial or
intercultural cinema could be more productively analysed under the rubric of
transnational cinema. What is required here is a critical understanding of the
political imbalances as well as the unstable and shifting identifications between
host/home, individual/community, global/local and, indeed, national/transna-
tional, as well as the tensions these generate within diasporic films. The posi-
tions occupied by a Maghrebi-French youth and his aging Moroccan immigrant
father as they journey across Europe from France to Mecca in Le Grand voyage/
Grand Voyage (Ferroukhi, 2004) are, therefore, markedly different, despite their
supposedly shared Maghrebi/Muslim origins. The further they move away from
old Europe, the more uncomfortable the westernized son becomes, while the
father feels on increasingly familiar territory. A critical transnationalism must,
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Concepts of transnational cinema
13
moreover, be attendant to the dynamics of the specific historical, cultural and
ideological contexts involved in the production and reception of each particu-
lar film. This need to clearly articulate the politics of difference present within
transnational cinema is acknowledged by Okwui Enwezor, who introduces
the more qualified term ‘postcolonial transnationalism’ in his analysis of the
UK-based Black Audio Film Collective’s (BAFC) creative output in the 1980s
and 1990s (Enwezor 2007: 117–20). The term thus allows for a description of
the ways in which the BAFC’s work offered a militant critique of the politics of
race and policing of ethnic minorities employed by the Conservative govern-
ment in Britain during the 1980s; simultaneously acknowledging, on the one
hand, a shared legacy of empire amongst colonial migrants (and their postco-
lonial descendants) who arrived in western European cities during the post-
war period and, on the other, entering into an intellectual, political and artistic
dialogue with the wider Black African diaspora.
One further point of contention in the theorizing of the transnational in
diasporic or postcolonial cinemas in the West concerns the relationship of such
films and film-makers to the mainstream cinema of the host nation. Arguably
the two most significant interventions in theorizing diasporic cinema in the
West to date have come from Hamid Naficy (2001) and Laura Marks (2000).
Their work clearly engages with the transnational through questions of bor-
der-crossing, transcultural exchange and the potential of diasporic/postcolo-
nial film-makers working in the West to challenge Eurocentric constructions of
national cultural identity. However, both appear reluctant to employ the term
‘transnational’, preferring to think of these films and film-makers as ‘inter-’
(intercultural or interstitial, respectively) rather than ‘trans’. Similarly, when
searching for a term to describe the shared aesthetics of these diasporic, exilic
and postcolonial films, Naficy settles on ‘accented cinema’, jettisoning his ear-
lier formulation of ‘independent transnational genre’ (Naficy 1996). Finally,
in their respective studies, both Naficy (2001: 10) and Marks (2000: 18) locate
diasporic and postcolonial cinemas firmly on the margins of national/transna-
tional cinema production in both artistic and economic terms. This deliberate
focus on experimental and interstitial film-making by Marks and Naficy, while
reflecting the fact that ethnic minority and diasporic filmmaking continue to
be marginalized within the West, cannot account for the recent mainstreaming
of diasporic or postcolonial film-makers such as Garinder Chadha in Britain or
Merzak Allouache, Rachid Bouchareb and Djamel Bensalah in France.
The example of Bouchareb’s Indigènes/Days of Glory (2006) is particularly
instructive here. The film was a French-Algerian-Moroccan-Belgian co-pro-
duction, directed by a French film-maker of Algerian origin and starring Jamel
Debbouze (a Maghrebi-French actor and currently one of France’s biggest
stars). It attracted over three million spectators in France and gained interna-
tional distribution as well as an Oscar nomination. Indigènes focuses on the
hidden history of North African colonial soldiers’ contribution to the Allied
liberation of Europe from the Nazis in World War II. And yet, while the film is
obviously concerned with revisiting the colonial past to engage with France’s
postcolonial present, the term postcolonial alone cannot adequately reflect
the (trans)national relationship of Bouchareb’s historical epic to mainstream
French national cinema (in the form of the heritage film) nor the film’s trans-
atlantic dialogue with the Hollywood war film. The film also drew attention to
the continued injustices and exclusion suffered by war veterans from former
French colonies and has been seen as instrumental in changing French leg-
islation in this area. Indigènes is thus an example of a strand of transnational
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Will Higbee | Song Hwee Lim
14
diasporic or postcolonial film-making which has a clear impact not only on
mainstream culture in France, but also on broader public opinion and even
governmental policy – and can only be understood by applying a wider inter-
pretation of diasporic, accented or intercultural cinema than the one offered
by either Naficy or Marks. The narrow focus for diasporic film-making in their
model is also of limited use for analysing other transnational film-making
activities which have a broad appeal and firmly occupy the mainstream, such
as in East Asian cinemas, which will be discussed in the next section.
THEORIZING THE TRANSNATIONAL IN CHINESE AND
EAST ASIAN CINEMAS
Given that ‘few places have a more complex relation to the national than the
combination constituted by the People’s Republic [of China, or PRC], Hong
Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora’ (Berry and Farquhar 2006: 14), it is
unsurprising that scholarship on Chinese cinemas has been at the forefront of
the theorizing the transnational: firstly, in recognizing the plurality of the con-
cept of Chinese ‘national’ cinemas by using the plural rather than the singular
form when referring to it (e.g., in Browne 1994: 1) and, secondly, in mobiliz-
ing the concept of the transnational (Lu 1997b) to encompass film-making
activities that are located in several geographical regions and yet somehow
share certain linguistic and cultural traits of ‘Chineseness’. In their introduc-
tion to a recent special issue on transnational cinema in the Journal of Chinese
Cinemas, the guest editors Chris Berry and Laikwan Pang note that, with the
benefit of hindsight, Lu’s 1997 edited volume, Transnational Chinese Cinemas,
was ‘a watershed moment in the study of Chinese cinemas’ as both the terms
‘Chinese cinemas’ (in the plural) and ‘transnational Chinese cinemas’ were
rarely used before Lu’s book but they now ‘name the field that we study and
are used routinely’ (Berry and Pang 2008: 3).
The contention surrounding the definition of the Chinese ‘nation’ and
the meaning of Chineseness determines that the concept of ‘transnational’
Chinese cinemas, while one step removed from the ‘national’, cannot be
used simply as a description, nor will any prescriptive use go unchallenged.
Despite Lu’s intention to decentre the sign of ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’ in rela-
tion to cinema, the subsumption of cinemas of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong
under the umbrella of ‘transnational Chinese cinemas’ does not so much dis-
place the national as reinstate it within a larger, pan-ethnic or supranational
framework (Lim 2006: 5). Noting a similar danger in Lu’s contention that ‘the
territorial nation-state and national cinema as sites of Chineseness are being
eclipsed by a higher level of unity and coherence, namely a Chinese cultural
order that is transnational’, Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar propose an alter-
native in which the transnational is understood ‘not as a higher order, but as
a larger arena connecting difference, so that a variety of regional, national,
and local specificities impact upon each other in various types of relationships
ranging from synergy to contest’ (Berry and Farquhar 2006: 5). It is difficult to
see, however, how Berry and Farquhar’s alternative model might differ from
Lu’s in critical practice, unless the problematization of the relation between
the national/transnational is placed at the heart of all discussions of Chinese
cinemas so that the shift from the national to the transnational, and, indeed,
what it means to be ‘Chinese’, is not elided.
Outside of the geographical boundary that is commonly known as Greater
China (PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong) and ‘cultural China’ (to also include Singapore),
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Concepts of transnational cinema
15
3. To see the speech
in full, go to http://
www.youtube.com/
watch?v=YbbzaS8
rcak (accessed 14
December 2009).
the concept of transnational Chinese cinemas also refers to Chinese-language
films made by diasporic film-makers located (mainly) in the West (for example,
Ang Lee in the United States and Dai Sijie in France) and in countries where
the Chinese population constitutes a substantial minority but is marginalized
politically. In the latter case, transnational imaginary can be deployed as an
alternative so that, say, a Chinese Malaysian film-maker may align his or her
film-making with transnational Chinese cinemas rather than with the national
cinema of Malaysia. This is the case for directors such as Tan Chui Mui and
James Lee, whose Chinese-language films have more in common with those
by Tsai Ming-liang and Wong Kar-wai than they do with Malay-language
cinema (Raju 2008: 71–72). The issue of agency is clearly of importance here
as the transnational can be mobilized to form other kinds of alliances (pan-
ethnic in this instance) that highlight the oppression of a particular aspect
of identity within the national. These kinds of transnational alliances can, of
course, also be configured in relation to identity formations that disregard or
challenge traditional constructs of the national (Lim 2006: 6), such as gender
(women’s and feminist cinema) and sexuality (queer cinema), or cinemas that
bring into question a Eurocentric worldview (Third Cinema).
While scholarship on Chinese cinemas, especially of popular genres, con-
tinues to highlight their transnational connections (Chan 2009; Morris, Li and
Chan 2005; Lo 2005), transnationalism is also fast becoming a default con-
cept when discussing East Asian cinemas (Hunt and Leung 2008a) as more
and more Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong films are turned into high profile
Hollywood remakes. From action thrillers to horror films, East Asian cinemas
have excited critics who marvel at their ability to beat Hollywood ‘at its own
game’ (Cousins 2004: 20). Indeed, Hollywood has not only been remaking
East Asian films (e.g., Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) remade by Gore Verbinski
as The Ring (2002)) but has also increasingly been inviting their directors to
remake these films in and for Hollywood (Nakata directing the Hollywood
remake of his Ringu 2 (1999) as The Ring Two (2005)). Moreover, transnation-
alism has made possible transplantation not just of films but also of directors:
for example John Woo, who, in the tradition of European émigré directors
making similar journeys dating back to the early to mid-twentieth century,
has enjoyed a second career making English-language films in Hollywood.
(Woo’s example is in stark contrast to the interstitial and intercultural film-
makers discussed by Naficy and Marks as he clearly occupies a mainstream
position within a film industry that is not his own – indeed, one that is globally
dominant.) Even an established American auteur such as Martin Scorsese has
much to thank ‘the wonderful Asian cinema’ for, as he did when accepting his
first Oscar for best director in 2007 (referring to Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s
Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002–2003) on which his own award-winning film, The
Departed (2006), is based).
3

In tracing the transnational trajectories of East Asian cinemas there is a
tendency, especially among film critics, to adopt a celebratory tone as if these
cinematic activities represent a counter-attack from the margins to the centre
that benefits East Asian cinemas. Even if we accept the apparent benefits of
this transnational exchange for East Asian cinemas in terms of market share
and wider recognition of its film-makers, the reality of power inequality,
however, demonstrates that the cooptation of East Asian film-making tal-
ents (from cast to crew) by the Hollywood system or Hollywood’s outsourc-
ing of labour-intensive processes (from anime to concept development) to
East Asia benefits, in the main, Hollywood studios and cultural brokers in
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Will Higbee | Song Hwee Lim
16
4. For example, Roy Lee,
a Korean-American
who has been chiefly
responsible for selling
remake rights of East
Asian films to Hollywood
studios (thus dubbed
the ‘king of remakes’),
apparently has no
particular interest in
Asian horror films
beyond the profit margin
(Xu 2008: 192, 195).
5. See Lim (2007) for
a critique of the film
Memoirs of a Geisha.
financial terms.
4
Besides, Hollywood’s transnational imagination of East Asia,
exemplified by films such as Memoirs of a Geisha (Bob Marshall, 2005) and The
Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003), often imposes an unthinking linguistic
hegemony of English to maximize global profits while igniting geopolitical
tensions by ignoring ethnic/racial difference (as in the case of casting Chinese
actresses in the roles of Japanese geishas).
5
In the introduction to their edited book, East Asian Cinemas: Exploring
Transnational Connections on Film, Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-fai note their
special interest in the ‘mutating currencies of transnationality – the remake,
the arthouse film, the cult film/genre/auteur, the blockbuster’ (Hunt and
Wing-fai 2008b: 5; emphasis in original). The remake, the cult film/genre/
auteur and the blockbuster have certainly, given their box-office success and
popularity, gained considerable currency in scholarship on transnational East
Asian cinemas while transnational flows in art house film-making tends to be
neglected. However, it is often away from the popular that difficult questions
about transnationality, such as those pertaining to (post)coloniality, albeit
(or especially) within an East Asian context, have been raised – for example,
in Kôhî Jikô/Café Lumière (2003), a Japanese-language film by the Taiwanese
auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien.
Café Lumière is a transnational project initiated for the centenary of the
Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu in 2003 by Shochiku Studio. Hou’s film not
only echoes Ozu thematically by dealing with inter-generational familial rela-
tions but also weaves the complex (post)colonial relationship between Taiwan
and Japan into its narrative. The latter strand of the film’s narrative is achieved
by designating the protagonist, Yôko (Yo Hitoto), as a writer researching on
the composer Jiang Wenye (Koh Bunya in Japanese). Jiang (1910–1983) was
raised in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation period (1895–1945) and trav-
elled to Japan in the 1920s to study music. He moved again to China where he
taught composition at the Beijing Normal University from 1938 and suffered
during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) owing to his Taiwanese/Japanese
background (Wu 2008: 175, 180n3). Café Lumière demonstrates that the trian-
gulated relations among China, Taiwan and Japan from the last two centuries
until today are as complex as Jiang Wenye’s multiple identities and transna-
tional career.
To update this postcolonial dynamic in the plot, Yôko is impregnated by
her Taiwanese boyfriend and decides to raise her child on her own in Tokyo.
The unborn child is clearly a symbol of reconciliation between Taiwan and
Japan. However, Yôko’s revelation of her pregnancy to her Japanese male
friend, Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), who seems to have a romantic interest
in her is, characteristically of Hou, blocked visually by a pillar when the two
characters cross the street in their search of a café frequented by Jiang in the
colonial days: thus Hajime’s reaction is obscured just as the symbol of recon-
ciliation in Taiwan-Japan relations is revealed. Hou’s earlier films have been
noted for their thematic and aesthetic affinities to Ozu, and the fact that Hou
was commissioned to make a film on Ozu’s centenary is an acknowledgement
of such transnational auteurism on the part of the Japanese studio that used
to produce Ozu’s films. Hou, however, has used this opportunity not only
to pay homage to a Japanese master but also to problematize the historical
relation between Japan and Taiwan, albeit in a manner that resolutely refuses
resolution and closure, privileging ambiguity and obstruction instead. In the
penultimate shot of the film Yôko and Hajime stand on the platform in the
background while a train passes from screen right to left in the foreground,
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Concepts of transnational cinema
17
thus allowing only intermittent glimpses of the two characters through win-
dows and between carriages. This cinema of obstruction stands in contrast to
the celebratory tone and popular nature of most transnational film-making in
and from East Asia, and from the way in which many scholars and critics sim-
ply look to the transnational as a means of tracing atypical collaborations and
production histories of certain films within the discourse of the national. Thus
transnational films such as Café Lumière quietly interrogate the possibilities of
transcending the national in both film-making and everyday life.
TOWARDS A CRITICAL TRANSNATIONALISM
As the two case studies above show, the shift from the national to the tran-
snational within film studies is firmly established and still gaining momentum.
Extending Lu’s proposition that ‘[t]he study of national cinemas must then
transform into transnational film studies’ (Lu 1997b: 25; emphasis in original),
Berry and Farquhar raise the question, ‘What does it mean to think about
“transnational film studies” as an academic field?’ (Berry and Farquhar 2006: 13).
There seems no more appropriate a time to address this question than on the
occasion of the launch of a new academic journal called Transnational Cinemas,
which returns us to our opening questions: why the concept of transnational
cinema, and why now? Does the shift from the national to the transnational
enable us to move away from a binary approach to national/transnational and
from a Eurocentric tendency of how transnational films might be read in aca-
demic discourse?
For Berry and Farquhar, Chinese film studies in English and ‘its frequent
complicity with orientalism’ have been ‘trenchantly criticized’ by scholars such
as Yingjin Zhang and Rey Chow, the latter of whom points to the tendency
of scholars dealing with western cultures to assume an universalism whereas
the work of those dealing with non-western cultures is ‘usually considered
too narrow or specialized to warrant general interest’ (Chow, cited in Berry
and Farquhar 2006: 13–14). While Berry and Farquhar go on to cite the rapid
increase in the ‘international circulation of scholars studying Chinese cinema
in various academic disciplines’ as evidence for the emergence of transna-
tional film studies as a field (Berry and Farquhar 2006: 14–15), this evidence
alone does not fundamentally unsettle the assumption of universalism versus
particularism within the discipline of film studies itself. That is to say, if tran-
snational film studies can indeed be imagined as an academic field, now with
its own dedicated journal to boot, it is, within the reality of institutional and
disciplinary practices, at best a sub-field with an expanding geography and
population, and, at worst, a ghetto whose particular interests would continue
to struggle to be perceived – and accepted – as bearing a more general or
even universal application and relevance (as the experience of many minor-
ity groups whose identities are based on difference in a multicultural society
attests). Put differently, does the focus on a term such as the ‘transnational’
simply risk becoming a replacement for existing terms such as ‘world cinema’
as a means of merely describing non-anglophone films?
In this regard, transnational film studies parallels the trajectories and
power dynamics of transnational cinema: while border-crossing is the raison
d’être of both transnational cinema and its studies, borders continue to be
heavily policed and entry often comes with a price tag which can some-
times be waived if in possession of the right papers. If transnational subjects
can be grouped into ‘those who “circulate capital” and those “whom capital
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Will Higbee | Song Hwee Lim
18
circulates”’ (Zizek, cited in Ezra and Rowden 2006b: 8), transnational cinematic
flow is also, ‘contrary to the metaphor the word invokes’, not ‘a spontaneous
force of nature, but shaped and produced by various social, economic and cul-
tural forces’ (Berry and Pang 2008: 6). Transnational film studies, whether an
academic field or sub-field, does not exist in a vacuum but must contend with
these forces in order to carve out a space for itself. The launch of this journal
is a welcome start, but transnational cinema still has some way to go before
establishing itself more firmly as a critical concept and as an inclusive field of
enquiry within the discipline of film studies.
We therefore argue that transnationalism in films and in the study of cin-
ema cannot be taken as a given or for granted. The concept of ‘transnational
cinema’ cannot be merely descriptive because all border-crossing activities are
necessarily fraught with issues of power; neither can it be purely prescrip-
tive as this often amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking. Rather, we
propose a critical, discursive stance towards the question of the transnational
in film studies so that we are alert to the challenges and potentialities that
greet each transnational trajectory: whether it takes place within a film’s nar-
rative and production process, across film industries, or indeed in academia.
In the study of films, a critical transnationalism does not ghettoize transna-
tional film-making in interstitial and marginal spaces but rather interrogates
how these film-making activities negotiate with the national on all levels –
from cultural policy to financial sources, from the multiculturalism of differ-
ence to how it reconfigures the nation’s image of itself. In examining all forms
of cross-border film-making activities, it is also always attentive to questions
of postcoloniality, politics and power, and how these may, in turn, uncover
new forms of neocolonialist practices in the guise of popular genres or auteur-
ist aesthetics. It scrutinizes the tensions and dialogic relationship between
national and transnational, rather than simply negating one in favour of the
other. Moreover, it refuses to see the flow or exchange within transnational
cinema as taking place uniquely between national cinemas. Instead, it under-
stands the potential for local, regional and diasporic film cultures to affect,
subvert and transform national and transnational cinemas. It may also wish to
pay attention to the largely neglected question of the audience and to exam-
ine the capacity of local, global and diasporic audiences to decode films as
they circulate transnationally (not only in cinema theatres but also on DVD
and online), constructing a variety of meanings ranging from adaptation and
assimilation to more challenging or subversive readings of these transnational
films. Finally, as a conceptual term it also needs to be engaged in a dialogue
with scholarship in other disciplines that also have an investment in the tran-
snational and the postcolonial (such as Gilroy 1993; Ong 1999).
A critical transnationalism should also extend to our own critical practice
as film scholars who enjoy the privilege of being located within an anglo-
phone academia: one that wields its hegemonic language of English while
pronouncing on transnational films that are often polyphonic in their linguistic
use and that contain characters whose plight is precisely a result of the lack
of capital of all forms (economic, cultural, symbolic). Can transnational film
studies be truly transnational if it only speaks in English and engages with
English-language scholarship? What does it take to create ‘an environment
of transnational scholarly exchange and discussion around an analytic project
that we believe could and should be extended to include the cinemas of other
nations, including Western nations’ (Berry and Farquhar 2006: 15)? It is only
through embracing a more critical approach, such as the one outlined in this
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Concepts of transnational cinema
19
article, that transnational film studies can emerge as a vital field for a transna-
tional, trans-lingual dialogue on cinema.
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Xu, Gary G. (2008), ‘Remaking East Asia, Outsourcing Hollywood’, in
Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-fai (eds), East Asian Cinemas: Exploring
Transnational Connections on Film, London and New York: I.B. Tauris,
pp. 191–202.
TRAC 1.1_art_Higbee_007-022.indd 20 1/19/10 8:19:57 AM
Concepts of transnational cinema
21
SUGGESTED CITATION
Higbee, W. and Lim, S. H. (2010), ‘Concepts of transnational cinema: towards
a critical transnationalism in film studies’, Transnational Cinemas 1: 1,
pp. 7–21, doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.7/1
CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
Will Higbee is the author of Mathieu Kassovitz (Manchester University Press,
2007) and assistant editor of the journal Studies in French Cinema. He has
published a number of articles on Maghrebi-French and North African émi-
gré film-making and is currently working on a monograph for Edinburgh
University Press entitled Cinemas of the North African Diaspora in France.
Song Hwee Lim is the author of Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male
Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas (University of Hawaii Press,
2006), co-editor of Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and Politics in Film
(Wallflower Press, 2006), and founding editor of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas.
Contact: School of Arts, Literatures and Languages, University of Exeter,
Queen’s Building, The Queen’s Drive, Exeter, EX4 4QH.
E-mail: w.e.higbee@exeter.ac.uk
E-mail: s.h.lim@exeter.ac.uk
TRAC 1.1_art_Higbee_007-022.indd 21 1/19/10 8:19:57 AM
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23
TRAC 1 (1) pp. 23–36 Intellect Limited 2010
Transnational Cinemas
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.23/1
KEYWORDS
Baz Luhrmann
Australian cinema
transnational utopias
art cinema
new technologies
global and local
production
PAM COOK
University of Southampton
Transnational utopias:
Baz Luhrmann and
Australian cinema
ABSTRACT
Drawing on original research conducted in Australia, I explore the industrial con-
text, collaborative working practices, transnational ethos and aesthetic of Australian
film-maker Baz Luhrmann’s Sydney-based independent production company
Bazmark Inq. I trace the potential and limitations inherent in Bazmark’s relation-
ship with major Hollywood studio Twentieth Century Fox, covering issues of copy-
right, branding and artistic autonomy. I look at the way structural developments,
new technologies and the re-emergence of popular art cinema have allowed directors
such as Luhrmann to cross over into mainstream territory while operating from a
small-scale artisanal base. My argument is that Luhrmann and his team actively
engage with digital technologies and the complexities of global media production and
consumption to give value and visibility to Australia as a local centre for creative
endeavour. This is achieved by projecting utopian visions of their set-up, working
methods and output as arenas of cultural innovation. While these practices may not
cohere into an ideal, they make a significant contribution to debates about national
identity and visibility in contemporary global film culture.
Over the last two decades, if not longer, film scholars and historians have
struggled with the idea of national cinema, its boundaries and definitions, how
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 23 1/19/10 8:34:38 AM
Pam Cook
24
it should be and how it might be. The difficulties of containing an international
enterprise such as cinema (and every local cinema is also international) within
national criteria that are universally or even widely acceptable have preoc-
cupied cultural practitioners at all levels, from government and other funding
agencies to film-makers, critics and academics – and, indeed, those audiences
who recognize distinctions between national cinemas and the cultural and/
or entertainment value attached to them. The terms of debate have typically
circulated around topics such as economic and cultural infrastructures, aes-
thetic and formal strategies, audience address and expectations, relationships
between economically powerful global media industries and medium and
small-sized national cinemas, and, inevitably, the efforts of non-Hollywood
cinemas to compete effectively in domestic and world markets with what is
perceived as Hollywood fare, even when it is financed and distributed by mul-
tinational conglomerates. To those concerned with national cinema as a man-
ifestation of cultural diversity and difference, the debate has sometimes been
tinged with desperation, as the protective strategies designed to nurture and
support the home-grown cinemas are often inconsistent, dependent on the
vagaries of different agencies with shifting priorities and power relationships.
In this familiar scenario, a local national cinema is positioned as gener-
ally weaker – that is, less visible and less viable economically and culturally,
though it may be artistically superior – than the American movies that con-
tinue to dominate the global arena. When a smaller national cinema produces
an international popular hit, challenging the global hegemony of ‘Hollywood’,
it is sometimes greeted with ambivalence; on one hand its box-office success
is desired, on the other, it is attained at the expense of national specificity and
authenticity. Its achievement is perceived as compromised by its willingness to
reach out beyond the niche audiences for national cinemas to mass popularity.
Underlying such mixed feelings is the preconception that smaller national cin-
emas are unequal partners in the process of cultural exchange and circulation
of national images, that they are victims of the all-powerful global Hollywood
machine. While the economic power and global reach of international con-
glomerates are not disputed here, I would claim that this pessimistic percep-
tion of national cinemas is infused with what some have called the ‘romance
of the margins’, in which cultures perceived as minor are forever doomed to
occupy a disenfranchised space (Verhoeven 1999: 6–7). To nuance this concep-
tion, which, as many have noted, tends to reify both centre and margins, I offer
the idea of ‘nostalgia for the periphery’. In the context of transnational flow,
such nostalgia, recognizing the dynamic and fluid relationship between centre
and periphery, yearns for a space of creative possibility outside the mainstream
that will destabilize the field of cultural production and displace the hegemony
of the centre. It is this nostalgia, I shall argue, that motivates the transnational
utopianism at the heart of Baz Luhrmann’s films, which strive to be both local
and global, and to reach popular international audiences.
NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL/TRANSNATIONAL ART
CINEMA
The historical context for debates about national cinema can be traced back
to developments in the late 1940s, when, in the wake of World War II and
in response to internal pressures, the Hollywood studio system was reor-
ganized, and the American industry set its sights on re-establishing control
of its strongest foreign markets, especially those in western Europe, and on
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Transnational utopias: Baz Luhrmann and Australian cinema
25
conquering new territories around the world. This is not the place to go into
those developments, but I want to note briefly that the progress of these
post-war initiatives was not entirely smooth, as America met considerable
resistance to its overseas campaigns from countries who had no intention
of allowing themselves to be the victims of US cultural imperialism (Kuisel
1997). Although this resistance was, in most cases, relatively short-lived, it is
important to recognize that the process of negotiation between Hollywood
and smaller national film industries was characterized by contestation rather
than wholesale exploitation and domination of the latter by the former. As
Hollywood expanded its holdings in the world, it also opened its doors to
other national cinemas, importing foreign films that were marketed to niche
audiences on the burgeoning art-film circuits in America, at the same time as
funding foreign films through international co-production deals and runaway
productions that took advantage of local subsidies and incentives (Guback
1985). As many have recognized, this period saw a renewed expansion of the
art-film market and the establishment of a practice whereby smaller national
cinemas could disseminate their product in the form of modestly budgeted
art films produced by talented auteurs, which would be exhibited at inter-
national festivals and attract the interest of major investors. Such films were
distinguished by their difference in institutional, formal and aesthetic terms
from mainstream Hollywood entertainment: art cinema thus became a brand.
It is here that can be seen the emergence of national film movements as a
form of opposition to and cooperation with the Hollywood industry: an art
cinema distinct from the popular, commercial output of either Hollywood or
the smaller national cinemas, and exhibited via alternative circuits to minority
audiences. This oppositional stance, with its emphasis on artistic innovation,
difference and cultural diversity, continues to inform many critical responses
to films produced by smaller national cinemas.
However, the art-cinema brand has diversified in the meantime. The
smaller-budget art film made for film festival screening remains important
in giving visibility to non-mainstream film-makers, alternative ideologies
and stylistic innovation, and art-cinema circuits continue to provide a forum
for films marketed as foreign and/or different. Indeed, the art film is now in
danger of becoming institutionalized as the ‘festival film’, a phenomenon
that draws on predictable elements in order to guarantee its niche audience.
At the same time, with the growth of multiplex cinemas and the video and
DVD markets, the popular art film has re-emerged. The contemporary popu-
lar art film is characterized by a disregard for traditional boundaries between
art and entertainment; it mixes classical forms with modernist strategies,
and crosses over between popular and niche audiences. While it may have
discernible national characteristics, it is transnational in approach and reali-
zation, and its national/transnational status is often contested via contextual
discourses such as press and other critical reactions. The popular art film
aims to escape the niche ghetto of the traditional art film, though it appears
on the festival circuits and is just as dependent for its success on awards and
word-of-mouth interest. The rise of the popular art film is, in some meas-
ure, due to the emergence of the mini-majors in contemporary Hollywood,
and the expansion of art-film production and distribution by independent
companies operating with and at the borders of the major studios. It has
also been aided by the accessibility of new technologies enabling innovative
visual effects and the ability to achieve high production values in locations
at a distance from the traditional centres of production. The popular art film
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 25 1/19/10 8:34:39 AM
Pam Cook
26
is also an indicator of changing markets: for example, the crossover between
niche art house and popular audiences. It has allowed certain directors asso-
ciated with art cinema, such as Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee,
Jane Campion, Peter Jackson and Baz Luhrmann to move into mainstream
territory (Verhoeven 2002: 162). In the case of Luhrmann, it has provided
the means to realize increasingly ambitious and high-concept projects, cul-
minating in the hugely expensive and much-hyped epic Australia (2008),
which was funded primarily by major studio Twentieth Century Fox and
filmed in Australia.
TRANSNATIONAL UTOPIAS
A significant trait of the popular art film is its hybrid, mobile quality, evi-
dent in a slipperiness of location (aided by digital technology), the presence
of international stars and creative and technical personnel, and the depend-
ence on mixed funding arrangements. As already noted, structural changes in
the contemporary Hollywood industry have played a role in the emergence
of popular art films; this development is partly due to the proliferation of
networks of relationships between independent production companies, the
mini-majors and the media conglomerates. Arguably, these networks have
facilitated the growth of different kinds of independence operating at vary-
ing degrees from the mainstream. Rather than being swallowed up, some
independent production companies have negotiated a position of relative
autonomy in cooperation with global conglomerates, which allows them to
benefit from high quality facilities and sophisticated promotion and distribu-
tion resources. The institutional relationship between Catherine Martin and
Baz Luhrmann’s independent company Bazmark Inq., located in Sydney, and
News Corporation’s Twentieth Century Fox, whose headquarters are in Los
Angeles (although it also has studio facilities in Sydney), can be described
in these terms. It is an international relationship, in the sense that it is a
formal arrangement between organizations with different national bases. The
descriptor ‘international’ implies that the ‘national’ element remains relatively
stable – though it is scarcely unproblematic in light of the mixed identities of
multinational corporations. Bazmark’s ethos, working practices and output, on
the other hand, can be characterized as transnational, epitomizing the more
fluid relationships of creative and other forms of exchange between people
from diverse backgrounds who engage in collaborative cultural activities. In
this case, the national is problematized and displaced in favour of an under-
standing of local cultural production that engages with global institutions and
patterns of production, often empowered by new technologies.
Transnationalism transforms discussion of national cinemas by concep-
tualizing the relationship between global centres of economic power and
smaller, marginal or peripheral cultural operations as one of negotiation and
exchange that is not inevitably or necessarily unequal. The transnational has
given value and visibility to locations traditionally perceived to be peripheral as
hubs of creative activity. Transnationalism’s focus on mobility and flow allows
for a view of cultural and other forms of identity as fluid and in the process
of coming into being. This has often been realized in terms of the dissolu-
tion of spatial and temporal boundaries and the opening up of new, imagi-
nary topographies. Such topographies can be characterized as utopian, in that
they transcend geographic and cultural barriers, projecting floating worlds of
artistic possibilities. They may also be underpinned by conflicting ideologies:
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 26 1/19/10 8:34:39 AM
Transnational utopias: Baz Luhrmann and Australian cinema
27
on one hand, they envisage shared cultural interests across national bounda-
ries; on the other, they depend on a notion of creative élites. One example
of transnational utopianism was the Advance Party initiative, a collaboration
between Danish film-maker Lars von Trier’s Zentropa and the Scottish com-
pany Sigma Films; this involved a pooling of resources and experience in an
attempt to build a creative community and funding infrastructure for Scottish
film production (Glasgow Film Office website 2009). Another is the collabo-
rative working ethos of Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin’s production
set-up at the House of Iona in Sydney.
The link between transnationalism and cosmopolitanism, understood as a
belief in the underlying connections between peoples, or citizens of the world,
informs these utopian visions, which have an ethical dimension in that they
presuppose mutual respect and trust between like-minded people and groups.
The cosmopolitan aspects of the transnational and its impact on local cultures
have been widely debated, with cosmopolitanism often viewed as render-
ing the local and regional invisible (Verhoeven 1999: 7–9). It is clear that the
obliteration of national, local and regional specificity in the global era is an
important issue. However, the debate tends to polarize between the advocates
of cosmopolitan transnationalism and those who condemn its perceived eras-
ure of national difference in the interests of global capitalism. Such discus-
sions would benefit from detailed analysis of historically specific examples of
transnational utopianism and their negotiation of conflicting local and global
demands. The relationship between Luhrmann and Martin’s Bazmark and
Twentieth Century Fox provides an opportunity to explore the situation of a
contemporary group of independent Australian film-makers interacting with
the complexities of a globalized film industry. Bazmark’s relationship with Fox
is unusual, if not unique, in the context of Australian film culture. However,
each set of circumstances is different, and it is only by building a picture of
distinct strategies and practices that the generalizations that afflict discussions
of national cinema are avoided.
BRANDING AUSTRALIAN CINEMA
Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin’s experience can be seen as both typical
and atypical. Their story from their debut Strictly Ballroom (1992), set in subur-
ban Australia, to the relatively expensive extravaganza Moulin Rouge! (2001),
set in fin de siècle Paris but shot entirely on Fox Sydney sound stages, was
familiar: from local to global, national to transnational. The low-budget first
feature was a runaway hit and winner of multiple awards at international film
festivals, gaining the attention of the Hollywood studios. A deal was struck
with News Corporation’s Twentieth Century Fox, owned by Australian expa-
triate Rupert Murdoch, notorious for his conservative ideology and monop-
olistic business practices. At first glance, the arrangement between Fox and
Luhrmann, who characterizes himself as politically left wing, appears improb-
able (Cook 2005). However, the relationship has been crucial to the film-
makers’ development of a distinctive identity that holds their local context
and their transnational aesthetic and working practices in tension. This brand
was constructed through the Red Curtain Trilogy, as the first three films came
to be known, and arguably reached its apotheosis in Moulin Rouge! But it was
with the mega-budget historical epic Australia (2008), touted as a break with
the artificiality of the Red Curtain style and a move towards greater authentic-
ity, that the contradictions between the local and global appeared particularly
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 27 1/19/10 8:34:39 AM
Pam Cook
28
acute, as Luhrmann set out to depict his country’s little-known history on the
world stage. Like all his film productions, Australia was presented as a major
cultural event and was the focus of intense media scrutiny from the early
stages to theatrical release and beyond. It was embroiled in controversy, not
only for its juxtaposition of documented evidence with fiction in its approach
to Australian history, but for the studio’s excessive marketing campaign and
the proliferation of commercial tie-in arrangements. Australia’s contentious
intervention into national politics often appeared incompatible with the aims
of its commercial partnerships, to such an extent that the operational inde-
pendence and creative autonomy of the film-makers seemed to have been
jeopardized (Cook 2010).
One of the areas in which tensions between local and global are evident
in the relationship between Bazmark and Fox is that of intellectual property
rights and the conflicting assignations of provenance to the films. Luhrmann
constantly asserts the Australian context for his work, and its basis in the
exceptional skills of local craftspeople. Nevertheless, Fox owns the copyright
to William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), whose country of origin cur-
rently appears on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) as US, and to Moulin
Rouge! and Australia (the latter shared with Dune Entertainment), both listed
on the IMDb as Australia/US. The Australian Film Institute (AFI) and Screen
Australia (formerly the Australian Film Commission) considered Romeo +
Juliet to be a foreign, non-Australian production, while Strictly Ballroom,
Moulin Rouge! and Australia were deemed to be Australian. The British Film
Institute (BFI) Film and Television database, on the other hand, listed Romeo +
Juliet as US/Canada, and Moulin Rouge! and Australia as US/Australia. The
slipperiness of the films’ official national identity is typical of global produc-
tion patterns and the shifting criteria of different validating organizations, but
it also extends to popular perception. In many countries outside Australia, and
even to some viewers in Australia, while Strictly Ballroom and Australia are
perceived as Australian, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, because of their
international style, are perceived as Hollywood. This would seem to confirm
the view of Australian cinema’s invisibility in global terms, and the unequal
power relations between Australian film-makers and Hollywood identified by
some scholars (Dermody and Jacka 1987: 11; O’Regan 1996: 77, 106). Without
doubt the Australian industry is beset by many of the problems afflicting
smaller national cinemas. Australian cinema is characterized by periods of
revival and decline, with the health of the film industry dependent on the
levels of interest and commitment shown by various governments and state
agencies. Over the years, Australians have put in place a number of strategic
measures at federal and state levels to protect and nurture a home-grown
industry – with varying degrees of success. The Australian Film Commission,
now Screen Australia, established in 1975 during a period of buoyancy, is a
government agency dedicated to supporting the Australian industry, funding
development, small-scale production and, since 2003, preservation through
the National Film and Sound Archive.
Yet if we think about Australian cinema in terms of global status and visibil-
ity, the situation looks different. A list of internationally successful Australian
feature films since the 1970s would include at least 35 well-known and
critically highly rated titles (among them Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir,
1975; Mad Max, George Miller, 1979; The Piano, Jane Campion, 1993; Lantana,
Ray Lawrence, 2001; and Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce, 2002) as well as pop-
ular hits (Crocodile Dundee, Peter Faiman, 1986; Muriel’s Wedding, P. J. Hogan,
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 28 1/19/10 8:34:39 AM
Transnational utopias: Baz Luhrmann and Australian cinema
29
1994; Babe, Chris Noonan,1995; Happy Feet, George Miller, 2006). Similarly,
an inventory of Australian film-makers over the same period would feature
an impressive line-up of auteurs (Phillip Noyce; Peter Weir; Jane Campion;
Gillian Armstrong; Fred Schepisi; Bruce Beresford) some of whom went on
to have successful careers in the US – although they may not be considered
A-list. A roll call of internationally celebrated Australian actors and actresses
would produce an equally distinguished roster. Depending on who is look-
ing and from where, this would seem to signal a viable national industry. To
an outsider such as myself, Australian film culture is highly developed and
sophisticated in terms of audiences, critical reception and academic research.
Australians, however, are acutely aware that the rich history of their national
cinema, which produced one of the world’s earliest feature-length films in
1906 (Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang), remains obscure outside
Australia and New Zealand. In his comprehensive study of Australian cinema,
Tom O’Regan described it as a medium-sized English-language cinema with
‘a minor place in the international trade in national symbolic images’ whose
relationship to global media production is one of unequal cultural exchange
(O’Regan 1996: 77). Such arguments are rooted in postcolonial struggles to
carve out new stories and languages, and to claim a cultural territory that is
internationally recognized. The situation is further complicated by the experi-
ence of those practitioners who occupy positions on the periphery of main-
stream Australian cinema, where they are involved in their own battles for
viability.
BAZMARK AND TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Many kinds of independent cinema co-exist in Australian film culture, and Baz
Luhrmann is clearly successful, high-profile and privileged in relation to more
marginal independent film-making practices. While some film-makers work-
ing in Australia might envy the series of deals that Bazmark struck with Fox,
others would fight shy of them, preferring to remain outside the mainstream.
For his part, Luhrmann has embraced the risks to creative autonomy entailed
in forming alliances with the centres of economic power. He describes the
arrangements with Fox as hard-fought for, and characterizes the situation as
one in which Fox funds Bazmark’s staff costs and overheads in return for the
right to be the first to accept or decline involvement in any project. This allows
Luhrmann and Martin to work with minimal studio interference and with-
out concerns about funding. While they could have opted for greater financial
rewards, they chose the deal that enabled them to retain their creative auton-
omy (Cook 2005). Luhrmann defines Fox’s role as that of curator, taking care
of practical, fiscal and administrative matters and making sure that the work
is marketed and distributed properly in different media forms and contexts.
He represents Bazmark’s relationship with the studio in the early stages as
one of collaboration: an extension of Bazmark’s working ethos. According to
Luhrmann, he, Martin and their predominantly Australian team consciously
and strategically accumulated what I would call ‘creative capital’, a form of
cultural capital (Bourdieu 1986), which gave them serious bargaining power
with Fox. It was only Fox, among all the Hollywood studios who pursued
Luhrmann following the success of Strictly Ballroom, who were prepared to
give Bazmark the level of creative freedom they demanded.
First-look deals between studios and small independent companies are
not unusual in contemporary Hollywood – see, for example, the agreement
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 29 1/19/10 8:34:39 AM
Pam Cook
30
with Fox held for a time by James Schamus and Ted Hope of the successful
US independent Good Machine (Schamus 1998). However, the subsequent
acquisition of Good Machine by Universal and its transformation into the
subsidiary Focus Features demonstrates a different logic than that operating
in Bazmark’s case. Between the release of Moulin Rouge! in 2001 and the start
of pre-production on Australia in 2005, Luhrmann produced relatively little in
the way of films. One major project, an epic about Alexander the Great, was
abandoned at an advanced stage of development, and he made a three-minute
commercial promoting Chanel No. 5 perfume. The DVD boxed set of the Red
Curtain Trilogy, with extensive supplementary material, was issued in 2002.
Australia had a development period of more than a year and began shooting
in 2007. Its release in 2008 came seven years after the last film Moulin Rouge!
Through all this, Fox remained solidly behind Luhrmann and his team. It is
unusual for a major Hollywood studio to agree to fund a small, non-American
independent company to the extent of paying its overheads through long
periods of low production. Bazmark was set up by Luhrmann with his wife,
and chief collaborator, Catherine Martin in 1997, and consisted of subsidiaries
Bazmark Design, Bazmark Film, Bazmark Live and Bazmark Music. Bazmark’s
set-up can be described as artisanal; it is reminiscent of an artist’s studio, in
which a team of creative personnel and their work is supervised by an art-
ist manager, under the umbrella of a sponsor, or patron. As with any sys-
tem of patronage, there are advantages and disadvantages to this situation.
However, the fact that the relationship between Fox and Bazmark has lasted,
with refinements and renegotiations, since the mid-1990s, suggests that it is
mutually beneficial. Although Luhrmann has had differences with Fox, he
does not perceive the cultural exchange between them as unequal.
This unusual situation has come about as a result of a number of factors,
some of them to do with Luhrmann’s personality and ability to combine an
astute understanding of the way the industry works with energetic entrepre-
neurialism and a facility for self-promotion. He achieved an international rep-
utation as an artistic innovator on the basis of the Red Curtain Trilogy, and the
media and his fans around the world eagerly anticipate every new production
(Baz the Great! website 2009; Australia: A Baz Luhrmann Film website 2009).
In Australia, he is celebrated as a cultural energizer, and his opinion is sought
on issues as diverse as the current state of Australian cinema to Australia’s
future as a republic. His construction, with Catherine Martin and others, of
a distinctive personal style and cultural identity makes him a rare phenome-
non in Australian cinema, but he can be seen as a typically Australian success
story. As a New World country founded on immigration, Australia represents
an imaginary space of possibility for people who journey there in the hope of
achieving levels of material wealth and other forms of success that would be
denied them elsewhere. If there is an Australian equivalent to the American
dream, then Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin can be said to have achieved
it. The convergence of national myth and personal biography is a key factor in
building Luhrmann’s persona, which plays a crucial role in the branding proc-
ess. His story has a fairy tale ring to it: the boy raised on a pig farm in rural
New South Wales goes to the city (Sydney) and makes good, becoming an
international name. One of the more interesting aspects of this achievement
is that is is described by Luhrmann and his associates in terms of partnership
rather than individual success. Luhrmann has always acknowledged the sig-
nificance of collaboration for his work and his working practices, and this is
somehow not in contradiction with his status as director. The model for this
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Transnational utopias: Baz Luhrmann and Australian cinema
31
kind of creative activity comes from his background in theatre: in the 1980s
he was trained at Sydney’s National Institute for Dramatic Art, and he has an
international profile for his work in theatre and opera. Workshops and brain-
storming, in which actors, writers, designers and other members of the team
improvise and exchange ideas, form an integral part of the long development
process for every film (Cook 2005). This ever-evolving process is documented
in a series of leather-bound concept books, works of art in their own right,
which are visual and graphic records of the research, design, storyboarding,
rehearsals and decision-making activities that lie behind each production.
These concept books, which have been used by Luhrmann and Martin since
Romeo + Juliet, are created on site at Bazmark headquarters in Darlinghurst,
Sydney, where they were viewed in June 2005. Unfortunately, they are not
available to the general public.
THE HOUSE OF IONA AS CREATIVE UTOPIA
Bazmark’s production base is in a colonial-style mansion, the House of Iona,
previously owned by the Duke of Westminster, who has extensive property
holdings in Australia and across the globe. The House of Iona has an appro-
priate fairy tale aura, due to the Duke’s habit of importing exotic and eccentric
sculptures and other artefacts, and displaying them in the grounds. Luhrmann
and Martin have added their own touches of memorabilia and exotica to the
interior, which has two wings on the first floor comprising their personal liv-
ing areas. The ground floor houses Bazmark offices, screening and rehearsal
rooms, computer design facilities and Luhrmann’s office. The ambience of this
workplace is distinctly personal, and the House of Iona has been reconstructed
as an arena where life, work and art are inseparable. The colonial building has
been redesigned as a location for postcolonial cultural activity and business,
and as a statement about an unconventional, quasi-bohemian lifestyle (Cook
2005). It also features in the branding process as a magical space of creative
possibility. The Red Curtain Trilogy DVD boxed set includes a collector’s disc
titled ‘Behind the Red Curtain’, which features a tour of the House of Iona
conducted by Luhrmann and illustrating his approach to place as fantasy or
dream (‘House of Iona’ 2002). It also exemplifies the strategy of presenting a
local creative business enterprise as a centre for artistic activity and invention.
The ambience is playful and ironic, offering glimpses of the different areas in
the House of Iona and the people who work there, and the process of splic-
ing together different kinds of footage is clearly in evidence. Rather than act-
ing as a distancing device, this strategy entices us into a fantasy world where
pleasure lies in artistic experiment. It is this aura of reinvention and play that
we are encouraged to identify with as we follow Baz Luhrmann through the
house. The tour is also a game of recognition and memory, as snippets from
the films and other work flash on the screen.
The view of the interior spaces in the House of Iona given by the fea-
turette is deliberately confusing, and collapses boundaries between reality and
imagination. In an interview, Ewan McGregor talks about his surprise that
the music for Moulin Rouge! was rehearsed and recorded in the Luhrmanns’
living room (in fact, the ‘red room’, which is a multi-purpose space that
houses Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin’s memorabilia, including fam-
ily photographs and newspaper clippings as well as trophies such as Oscars
and BAFTAS). McGregor distinguishes the space and the process from a pro-
fessional recording studio, implying a more artisanal working ambience. The
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Pam Cook
32
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TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 32 1/23/10 11:36:50 AM
Transnational utopias: Baz Luhrmann and Australian cinema
33
jerky, handcrafted style of the re-edited documentary footage and the allusions
to early cinema intimate a mode of production geographically and aestheti-
cally at a distance from mainstream studio film-making. These differences in
style and production methods are played up rather than disguised, and project
the house as a place where miracles are made. The real location of the House
of Iona, the actual house and gardens, are transformed into a virtual arena
where viewers can also work and play. This reconstruction of place as imagi-
nary was deployed in the Red Curtain Trilogy, No. 5 The Film and Australia. In
Strictly Ballroom, suburban Australia was pictured through diverse pop culture
references as a theatricalized location where suppressed cultural and ethnic
difference could be released as a rejuvenating force. The utopian resolution, in
which all the characters joined one another in joyous celebration on the dance
floor, has been seen as an argument for multiculturalism (Hoorn 2003). It was
certainly, in common with all Luhrmann’s work, populist and inclusive. In
Romeo + Juliet, Shakespeare’s Verona was re-imagined as Verona Beach, rec-
reated in Mexico, and depicted via a montage of mixed cultural references. The
Paris of Moulin Rouge! was envisaged through an eclectic melange of pictorial
and musical imagery that defied the rules of time and place, while the urban
setting of No. 5 The Film was a pastiche of Paris and New York. In Australia, a
kaleidoscope of national and cross-national allusions projected the country as
an exotic faraway land. Since Romeo + Juliet, CGI and digital effects have been
used in a painterly manner that reveals their role in the process of reconstruc-
tion of place. Although there are stylistic differences between the films, this
hybrid, transnational aesthetic has remained constant.
For Luhrmann, this is part of a project to give the work universal relevance,
and to engage audiences from diverse cultural backgrounds in the activity
of decoding multi-layered cinematic languages. It might appear, then, that
Luhrmann’s aesthetic mirrors the drive to eliminate local cultural specificity
perceived by some as attendant on globalization. However, it can also be seen
as a way of negotiating local and global relationships. On one hand, viewers
recognize the setting as an actual location; on the other, they understand that
location is a pretext for a mythical adventure in a fictionalized place. The signifi-
cance of locale, whether it be the Sydney suburbs, ‘Verona Beach’, fin-de-siècle
Paris or 1930s Australia, is that it is an imaginary evocation shared between a
transnational creative group and a broad international community who either
accepts its terms or does not. Luhrmann describes the interactive relationship
between the films and viewers as a contract, a discourse that resonates with the
cosmopolitan ethos mentioned earlier. The places in his films are both some-
where and elsewhere; they emerge from a creative process and are constantly in
flux, reflecting the dynamics of cultural exchange that characterize Luhrmann’s
modus operandi. But this still leaves the question of national specificity. It is
clearly important to Luhrmann, for many reasons, that he and his team are
recognized as the source of this creative activity, and a great deal of effort has
been put into reinforcing this idea, and into branding the work. DVD versions
play an important role in branding, as demonstrated by the DVD boxed set Baz
Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy, designed by Bazmark, which contains substan-
tial extra material dedicated to locating the trilogy within Luhrmann’s personal
biography and working set-up. The House of Iona featurette participates in this
by associating the films with a utopian space that is both a hybrid fabrication
and rooted in its local setting. Despite the fact that Fox owns the copyright to
the boxed set, the creative voice and signature are clearly identified as belong-
ing to Luhrmann and his collaborators, and the origins of the work, indeed, its
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 33 1/19/10 8:34:41 AM
Pam Cook
34
originality, are seen to derive from its Australian context. Through this branding
process, the local comes to represent ‘added value’ (Verhoeven 2002: 171).
THE RED CURTAIN BRAND
The Red Curtain style, defined as a particular kind of theatricalized cinema set
in heightened created worlds, drawing on primary mythology and demand-
ing audience participation, was developed over several years. The term and
definition were used for the first time as a branding strategy in 2001 when
Moulin Rouge! was released (Partridge 2001; Twentieth Century Fox 2001;
Smith 2001; Fuller 2001; Kennedy 2002). The retrospective creation of the
Red Curtain brand, almost ten years after the release of Strictly Ballroom, was
a canny move. Branding is a vital factor in contemporary film-making; it is
used to associate the product with a director, star or studio, and is important
in marketing and facilitating tie-in arrangements. It can also serve as an indi-
cator of creative ownership by stamping a signature or identity on the work,
enabling film-makers to trade on their success in order to attract funding for
future projects. In Luhrmann’s case, since Moulin Rouge! the signature has
increasingly been one of individual authorship, but it incorporates a collective
identity shared with designer and producer Catherine Martin and a core group
of collaborators. The core team, which is predominantly Australian, interacts
with a wider cohort of creative and technical personnel whose nationalities
vary; the processes of collaboration between group members operates at a local
level, within Australia, and as transnational, cross-cultural exchange outside
Australia. Luhrmann and Martin are the most visible and vocal of this organic
grouping, all of whose participants acknowledge Luhrmann’s leadership.
His role is hands-on and high profile, and in some ways he resembles the
entrepreneur showmen-narrators of early cinema, who relayed the story to the
audience, managing their experience of the sensational new medium. Through
performative activities, such as press and television interviews, celebrity
appearances, Q&A sessions, making-of documentaries, video and DVD extra
features and dedicated websites, Luhrmann contributes to branding as well
as informing and educating viewers about the processes of production. His
performance is vital in establishing and maintaining a coherent body of work
in the minds of viewers, and in encouraging them to understand the films as
the result of a unique personal vision that is executed by a close-knit group
of like-minded individuals. In the case of DVD extras and dedicated websites,
branding enables an entirely different product to be spun-off: one that trans-
forms the initial viewing experience by offering consumers the pleasures of
playful interaction, and the opportunity to engage closely and actively with
the film-makers. In the seven-year gap between the release of Moulin Rouge!
and that of Australia, DVD versions and soundtrack CDs issued at regular
intervals helped to keep public interest alive, as well as providing an opportu-
nity to reinforce the brand.
The strategy of branding the Red Curtain Trilogy, which was carried out
in different media and across many sites of cultural activity, enabled Baz
Luhrmann to consolidate his reputation as an artistic innovator. The DVD
extra materials, and the nostalgic evocation of the House of Iona as a utopian
cultural space, allowed him to position himself at the centre of a nexus of col-
laborative creative enterprise located at a distance from mainstream film pro-
duction. This in turn enabled Australia to be viewed as a location for a vibrant
independent film culture and industry. However, Bazmark’s relationship with
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 34 1/19/10 8:34:41 AM
Transnational utopias: Baz Luhrmann and Australian cinema
35
Fox inevitably raises questions about Luhrmann’s affiliation with Australian
cinema. As already noted, Luhrmann continues to assert his Australian iden-
tity, certainly in the Australian press – where his nationality and that of his
collaborators are widely celebrated. He praises the skills and talent of his
Australian team, and gives them substantial credit for their work on his films.
At the same time, the films (including Strictly Ballroom) are characterized by a
global aesthetic that is culturally hybrid. While cultural hybridity is not incom-
patible with formulations of national identity, Luhrmann’s work is heavily
indebted to American popular culture. He considers the global hegemony of
Hollywood as a factor to be negotiated rather than regretted. This perspective
puts him at odds with many cultural commentators, and his work has been
controversial within Australia and outside it.
With the production of Australia, whose massive budget, saturation mar-
keting campaign and high number of commercial partnerships were perceived
by some as compromising the work, Luhrmann may have come closer to the
mainstream than was comfortable. At the same time, he manages and con-
tains such contradictions by mobilizing discourses of artistic activity as risk-
taking adventure, encapsulated in the motto ‘A life lived in fear is a life half
lived’ on the Bazmark logo, and opposing his auteur status to the demands
of the studio. Australia presented the nation’s history and identity as fluid, in
the process of change and, above all, contested. An analogy could be drawn
with the shifting internal and external borders of Australian national cinema
and the ever-open question of how to characterize it. In an article for the
Australian newspaper The Age, academic Deb Verhoeven argued that the
Australian industry’s main problem was that it lacked a recognizable brand
(Verhoeven 2005). The work, production methods and branding strategies of
Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin contribute to this discussion by offer-
ing an example of Australian independent film-making that actively engages
with and negotiates the instabilities of identity in the fluctuating and amor-
phous context of globalization. While these strategies, working practices and
the films that result may not cohere into an ideal, they represent a significant
intervention in debates about the viability and visibility of Australian cinema
and the ways in which it is perceived at home and abroad.
An earlier version of this article was delivered as a paper at the XIIIth
Biennial Conference of the Film and History Association of Australia and New
Zealand, RMIT University, Melbourne, 16–19 November 2006.
REFERENCES
Australia: A Baz Luhrmann Film website (2009), http://www.australiamovie.
net. Accessed 11 August 2009.
Baz the Great! website (2009), http://www.bazthegreatsite.com. Accessed
11 August 2009.
Bourdieu, P. (1986), ‘The forms of capital’, in J. G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook
of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, New York: Greenwood
Press.
Cook, P. (2005), Interviews with Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin during
visits to the House of Iona, Sydney, 14, 15 and 16 June.
Cook, P. (2010), Baz Luhrmann, London and Basingstoke: BFI/Palgrave
Macmillan.
Dermody, S. and Jacka, E. (eds) (1987), The Screening of Australia, Volume 1:
Anatomy of a Film Industry, Sydney: Currency Press.
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 35 1/19/10 8:34:41 AM
Pam Cook
36
Glasgow Film Office website (2009), Red Road, http://www.glasgowfilm.com/
redroad/advance_party.html. Accessed 7 August 2009.
Guback, T. H. (1985), ‘Hollywood’s international market’, in T. Balio (ed.), The
American Film Industry, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Hoorn, J. (2003), ‘Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob: dissolving the “undi-
gested fragments” in the Australian body politic’, Continuum: Journal of
Media and Cultural Studies, 17:2, pp. 159–76.
‘House of Iona’ (2002), ‘Behind the Red Curtain’ Collector’s Disc, Baz
Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy DVD boxed set, Twentieth Century Fox
Home Entertainment.
Fuller, G. (2001), ‘Strictly red’, Sight and Sound, 11:6, June, pp. 14–16.
Kennedy, C. (2002), ‘Torch song trilogy’, Empire 148, October, p. 73.
Kuisel, R. F. (1997), Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization,
Berkeley: University of California Press.
O’Regan, T. (1996), Australian National Cinema, London and New York:
Routledge.
Partridge, D. (2001), ‘Classic approach to Nicole’s role’, Courier-Mail [Brisbane]
5 May, p. 11.
Schamus, J. (1998), ‘To the rear of the back end: the economics of indepen-
dent cinema’, in S. Neale and M. Smith (eds), Contemporary Hollywood
Cinema, London and New York: Routledge.
Smith, B. (2001), ‘Moulin Rouge’, if MAG 33, May, p. 034.
Twentieth Century Fox (2001), Production notes for Moulin Rouge!, p. 2.
Verhoeven, D. (1999), ‘Introduction: (pre) facing the nation’, in D. Verhoeven
(ed.), Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films, Melbourne:
Damned Publishing (Australian Catalogue Co.).
Verhoeven, D. (2002), ‘Film and video’, in S. Cunningham and G. Turner
(eds), The Media and Communications in Australia, Netley, South Australia:
Allen & Unwin.
Verhoeven, D. (2005), ‘The crisis the Australian film industry refuses to see’,
Age, 7 February, http://www.theage.com.au/news/Opinion/The-crisis-
the-Australian-film-industry-refuses-to-see/2005/02/06/1107625057175.
html. Accessed 12 August 2009.
SUGGESTED CITATION
Cook, P. (2010), ‘Transnational utopias: Baz Luhrmann and Australian
cinema’, Transnational Cinemas 1: 1, pp. 23–36, doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.23/1
CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
Pam Cook is Professor Emerita in Film at Southampton University. She is edi-
tor of The Cinema Book (2007) and author of several publications on British
national cinema. Her most recent book is a monograph about Baz Luhrmann
(BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
Contact: Film, School of Humanities, University of Southampton, Highfield,
Southampton, Hampshire, SO17 1BJ.
TRAC 1.1_art_Cook_023-036.indd 36 1/19/10 8:34:41 AM
37
TRAC 1 (1) pp. 37–51 Intellect Limited 2010
Transnational Cinemas
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.37/1
KEYWORDS
network narrative
superstructure
homology
package-unit
production
art cinema
globalization
PAUL KERR
London Metropolitan University
Babel’s network
narrative: packaging
a globalized art cinema
ABSTRACT
This essay argues that the current prevalence in international art cinema of the
network narrative, exemplified here by Babel (Iñárritu, 2006), can be explained
through analysis of the mode and social relations of production characterizing the
global film and media companies involved in making such films.
The late British cultural theorist Raymond Williams, in a celebrated essay
on ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’, argues that
classic reflection theory is not an adequate explanation of the relations
between a society and the cultural products it creates and consumes. He
suggests that
[…] something more than simple reflection or reproduction – actively
occurs … there is the notion of ‘homologous structures’, where there
may be no direct or easily apparent similarity, and certainly nothing like
reflection or reproduction, between the superstructural process and the
reality of the base, but in which there is an essential homology or cor-
respondence of structures, which can be discovered by analysis.
(Williams 1980: 33)
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Paul Kerr
38
Williams goes on to argue that all three of these terms – base, determination
and superstructure – need to be rethought. He proposes that ‘determination’
should be re-theorized as the setting of limits and the exertion of pressures;
‘superstructure’ reconfigured as a related range of cultural practices; and ‘base’
reconceived as the real relations of people in social and economic relationships
that are always in a state of dynamic process (Williams 1980: 34). Williams
further describes what he calls two types of cultural practice, emergent and
residual, and concludes that ‘Our hardest task, theoretically, is to find a non-
metaphysical and non-subjectivist explanation of emergent cultural practice’
(Williams 1980: 42).
I want to look at a contemporary film form, the network narrative, as a
kind of superstructural process or cultural practice in Williams’ terms, and to
try to unpick the impact on that choice of form of the film’s industrial base.
I have elsewhere attempted to provide material, non-metaphysical and non-
subjectivist explanations for the emergent audio-visual cultural practices
associated with film noir in the 1940s (Kerr 1979–80: 45–65) and American
‘Quality Television’ in the 1970s (Feuer, Kerr and Vahimagi 1984). I want to
try to do the same here for the emergent and residual form of the network
narrative mode – and other textual characteristics – by focusing on an example
of that mode, the film Babel (Iñárritu, 2006). And I want to try to show how
that narrative mode relates, as a kind of ‘structural homology’, to the film’s
mode of production and the social relations of its production.
In a recent essay entitled ‘Mutual Friends and Chronologies of Chance’
David Bordwell has identified what he calls ‘a common norm of storytelling
in contemporary cinema’ (Bordwell 2008a: 191). This storytelling strategy has
been variously described as the n-degrees-of-separation template, ‘thread
structure’ or tales of interlocking lives and converging fates. The film industry
weekly trade paper, Variety, uses the term ‘criss-crossers’; Bordwell himself
prefers the phrase ‘network narratives’.
In order to distinguish between the emergent and residual phases of the
network narrative, it is useful to sketch the cinematic history of the form.
Bordwell’s essay ends with an alphabetical list of films which fit the category,
but for our purposes let us simply look at precedents made and set in America,
Japan, Mexico and North Africa – the four locations of Babel. The early
Japanese film Rojo no Reiken/Souls on the Road (Murata, 1921) intertwined four
stories that only come together at the end. This was the first landmark film
in Japanese cinema history (Cousins 2004: 55). Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950)
was another much later multi-protagonist/perspective Japanese film that had
a huge international impact. Kurosawa revisited the form with Dodesukaden
(Kurosawa, 1970) while his contemporary, Mizoguchi, essayed the network
narrative with Akasen Chitai/Street of Shame (Mizoguchi, 1956). In Egypt Cairo
Station (Chahine, 1958) was an ensemble film, intertwining a mosaic of stories
and characters in a single location. The American precedents for Babel are
far too numerous to mention – see Bordwell’s article for a list of examples
– though Grand Hotel (Goulding, 1932) may have been one of the first. In
Mexico meanwhile, Jorge Fons’ El Callejón de los Milagros/Midaq Alley, made
in 1994, pioneered the form, and Alejandro González Iñárritu tried it again
with Amores Perros/Love’s a Bitch (Iñárritu, 2000). Paul Julian Smith has pro-
vided an exemplary explanation for the latter formal innovation in industrial
terms (Smith 2003: 389–400).
By the 1970s many auteur film-makers had been deploying this narrative
form in their national cinematic arenas, including Madame de … /The Earrings
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Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema
39
of Madame de (Ophuls, 1953), April (Iossellani, 1962) and Pastorale (Iossellani,
1970), Paris Nous Appartient (Rivette, 1960), Amour Fou (Rivette, 1969), and
Out One: Spectre, (Rivette, 1970). There were already several variants on the
form too – from those telling stories associated with circulating objects, such
as Die Abenteuer eines Zehnmarkscheines/Adventures of a 10-Mark Note (Viertel,
1926), Winchester 73 (Mann, 1950), The Yellow Rolls Royce (Asquith, 1964), Au
hasard Balthasar (Bresson, 1966) – to those associated with a range of char-
acters and stories in a single location including Grand Hotel, Club Havana
(Ulmer, 1945), Emergency Hospital (Sholem, 1956), Cairo Station, The V.I.P.s
(Asquith, 1963), Ship of Fools (Kramer, 1965), Nashville (Altman, 1975), Honky
Tonk Freeway (Schlesinger, 1981), and many others.
It is perhaps worth mentioning here that Winchester 73, the James Stewart
western, was structured in an episodic, almost anthology or picaresque man-
ner rather than in a single classical storytelling arc. Winchester 73’s place in
film history, alongside its reputation as a classic western, is its status as the
first major film for which an agent negotiated a percentage deal rather than
a flat fee for its star. It can thus be described as a film package assembled by
an agency as much as produced by a studio. Janet Staiger usefully explains
this distinction in her chapter on package-unit production in The Classical
Hollywood Cinema (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson 1985: 330–337). I have
elsewhere attempted to identify the impact of package-unit independent
production on mainstream Hollywood film narratives, and how they differed
from those of the studios’ producer-units (Kerr 2010, forthcoming). Bordwell
describes network narratives like this as characterized by ‘circulating objects’.
The gun fired in Babel by the Moroccan boy, which accidentally wounds Cate
Blanchett’s American tourist, thus threatening to orphan her children en route
to Mexico, was also a Winchester. This may be no more than a coincidence,
but in a network narrative, where coincidence plays such a large part, it is
tempting to see it as a somewhat self-conscious marker of its authors’ aware-
ness of the history of the form in which they are working. I will return to the
question of how package-unit production specifically relates to the interna-
tional co-production of Babel later in this article. Suffice to say that the talent
‘packaged’ together in films like Babel can themselves be seen as circulating
objects: commodified, casualized labourers or, for those names above the title,
‘brands’. Just as the advent of independently packaged films in the wake of
the 1948 Paramount Decree often led to a wave of ensemble movies which
dramatized the putting together of task-specific teams; so too the films pack-
aged fifty years later by networks of international companies in the era of a
globalized art cinema often dramatize the unseen connections between appar-
ently disparate, dispersed peoples and situations.
Bordwell offers several metaphysical, zeitgeist-based ideas as explanatory
models, including a culture of disconnectedness – or, conversely, increasing
connectedness – the Internet, connectivity, networking, chaos theory and so
on (Bordwell 2008a: 198). Perhaps the most influential proponent of the idea
of the network society is Manuel Castells. Castells has suggested that some
networks, such as that of finance capital, are global in scale. Such networks
can, he argues, exist within and between businesses. In such networks,
resources – including employees and other smaller enterprises – are brought
together to work on particular projects and then dispersed when the project
is completed. Thus casualization is a function of the economic model of the
network society. As Castells puts it, ‘the work process is globally integrated,
but labour tends to be locally fragmented’ (Castells 2000: 18). The film package,
TRAC 1.1_art_Kerr_37-52.indd 39 1/20/10 10:38:45 AM
Paul Kerr
40
Babel, was constructed by globalized, casualized labour, and assembled by
international agencies and companies which circulate capital – in much the
same way as the circulating object, the Winchester, changes hands in the
film.
However, Castells is famous for his technological rather than economic
definition of the network society. Castells defined the network society as one
in which the key social structures are organized around electronic informa-
tion networks. Thus, as he puts it, ‘The internet is the technological basis for
the organizational form of the Information Age: the network’ (Castells 2001:
1–2). But Babel is a curious example of a network narrative in this sense of the
word. For it vividly dramatizes the ‘digital divide’ between those electroni-
cally networked characters in Japan (who seem to have unlimited access to
mobile and camera phones, TVs, iPods and so on) and the characters in the
other two continents, where no one seems to possess a mobile phone but
rely instead on crackly car radios and landlines. It is striking that the section
of Babel most often characterized as detached from the rest of the film – and
thus from the network narrative – the scenes set in Japan, is precisely that
portion of the narrative in which the network society as conceived by Castells
is most in evidence.
While Bordwell mentions the Internet in his characterization of the ‘net-
work society’, which has been cited as explaining the network narrative, he is
more comfortable dealing with the cultural and specifically cinematic precur-
sors of the form. Indeed, after citing a few literary precedents (Grand Hotel
itself was a literary adaptation, and Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel The Bridge
of San Luis Rey was much imitated), he suggests that
[…] the current vogue can be dated to a batch of films from 1993 to
1994. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) presents a cross-section of
Los Angeles society through contingent links (from traffic accidents to
unconnected characters merely striding past one another). The prologue
of Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)
informs us of the catastrophe in advance, so we watch in dread as the
characters’ fates slowly come together. Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994)
relies on exposing secret obsessions shared by its characters, and Wong
Kar-Wai’s Chunking Express (1994) offhandedly splices together two
stories crossing at a couple of moments and teases us into hoping for
more connections. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) offered a
package of devices that later film-makers would retool: repeated scenes,
titles that split the film into chapters, and a covert reordering of time
that makes the audience gasp when they see the stories mesh.
(Bordwell 2008a: 197)
It seems to me that the emergence of the form can thus be dated back to the
1920s and 1930s but that, as Bordwell points out, by the mid-1990s it was
becoming a trope of quite mainstream cinema in both commercial and art
house variants. The virtual epidemic of network narratives during the mid-
1990s meant that by the turn of the new millennium the form was already
over-familiar and could perhaps be legitimately considered residual. The
thrust of my inquiry here is to ask whether the period of mainstream absorp-
tion and appropriation of an innovatory cultural practice can be connected
with its accommodation to, and assimilation by, the form of the film compa-
nies or industries that produced it.
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41
Bordwell attempts to identify what he calls ‘certain preconditions’ within
film culture itself for the recent epidemic of network narrative films. His
explanations include the impact of indie movies like sex, lies and videotape
(Soderbergh, 1989) Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989) and Slacker (Linklater, 1991),
all of which deployed what he describes as a ‘degrees of separation’ format.
[…] Tarantino and other directors realized that major actors could be
recruited to indie projects, and the network idea proved friendly. Big
stars didn’t have to commit many days to an ensemble vehicle, and they
didn’t demand their usual high salaries … In Europe, thanks to Jacques
Rivette, Jacques Tati, Otar Iossellani and Krzystof Kieslowski, the net-
work narrative had been a minor tradition for some time … As EU co-
productions gained larger subsidies and wider distribution, it became
feasible to shoot actors in their native countries speaking the local lan-
guage. This may have encouraged film-makers to create multiple story
lines that cross borders. The new arrangement also had the effect of
making European unity and differences a common theme of the films.
(Bordwell 2008a: 197–198)
Bordwell also offers one other industrial pre-condition or precedent for the
emergent form of the network narrative – a connection with television. Thus
he cites the influence on cinema’s assimilation of network narrative on the
ensemble seriality of TV drama series like Hill Street Blues (1981–1987) and
Kieslowski’s television film series, the Dekalog/Decalogue (Kieslowski, 1989);
similarly, he points to art cinema’s appropriation of some of the same strate-
gies, not least the director’s own Three Colours film trilogy, Blue (Kieslowski,
1993), White (Kieslowski, 1994) and Red (Kieslowski, 1994). Kieslowski him-
self famously refused to resolve the ten stories in a proposed eleventh epi-
sode: meanwhile, the Oscar-winning film, Crash, was initially conceived as a
TV series (Bordwell 2008a: 195). Other critics have pointed to the precedent of
Mexican telenovelas for the melodramatic narrative complexity and ensemble
cast of Amores Perros.
This focus on the specific media industrial rather than national cultural pre-
conditions for emergent cultural practices strikes me as useful; the latter are
critical contextual factors but can conceal the local and global specificities of film
and media business. It is, as I will argue here, the specific global form of many
of the media firms behind Babel, for instance, rather than or as well as their
national context, that determines the film’s form. It seems important to stress
the distinction between the national network narrative and the international
network narrative. Babel is clearly an example of the latter and it may be that
aspect of its form that finds echoes in the locations of its financial backers.
Bordwell has elsewhere outlined what he calls ‘The Art Cinema as a Mode
of Film Practice’ (Bordwell 2008b) in which he identifies three central charac-
teristics of art cinema: realism, authorial expressivity and ambiguity. Firstly,
for Bordwell, art cinema defines itself explicitly against the classical narra-
tive mode and especially against the cause-effect linkage of events (Bordwell
2008b: 152). Network narrative is but the latest narrative mode to accommo-
date this opposition. Secondly, art cinema positions and prioritizes the direc-
tor as a signature or brand; and, as Norman Holland puts it, ‘foregrounds the
narrational act by posing enigmas’, playing with time and space as well as for-
mal stylistic experiment (quoted in Bordwell 2008b: 155). Thirdly, the art cin-
ema deploys ambiguity to resolve the stress between a realistic aesthetic and
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Paul Kerr
42
an expressionistic aesthetic. This ambiguity can be found in network narrative
in the multiple perspectives on the same events provided by the splintered
storytelling, which coheres around a central event or incident, often shown a
number of times from a variety of points of view. The realism of art cinema,
[…] shows us real locations (neorealism, the new wave) and real prob-
lems (contemporary ‘alienation,’ ‘lack of communication’ etc.). Part of
this reality is sexual: the aesthetics and commerce of the art cinema
often depends upon an eroticism that violates the production code.
(Bordwell 2008b: 153)
This could almost be a recipe for the screenplay of Babel as well as for its
high concept pitch and title – from its theme, international locations and often
amateur cast, to the sexuality of the dysfunctional teenager, Chieko, in Tokyo
(a filmic as well as character exhibitionism Babel shares with, for instance, the
character played by Julianne Moore in another network narrative, Short Cuts
(Altman, 1993)). Babel’s intermeshing or interlocking narrative strands are
as follows: a deaf Japanese girl, Chieko, (Rinko Kikuchi) is the daughter of a
businessman who once gave a rifle to his Moroccan hunting guide as a gift;
that man sells it to another man, whose son uses it to accidentally shoot an
American tourist, Susan, (Cate Blanchett) vacationing in Morocco with her
husband, Richard, (Brad Pitt). Back home, Richard and Susan’s two children
cross the border into Mexico while under the supervision of their illegal immi-
grant nanny, Amelia, (Adriana Barraza), whose nephew’s behaviour contrib-
utes to her eventual deportation from the US.
Babel was shot out of sequence, first in Morocco, then Mexico and finally in
Japan. But the completed film also plays with time and space; it was not simply
geographically reordered, the narrative is also temporally rearranged. Thus the
film cuts between Morocco, the US, Morocco, Japan, Morocco, the US/Mexico
border, Morocco, Japan, Morocco, Mexico, Morocco, Japan, Morocco, Mexico,
Morocco, Japan, Morocco, the Mexico/US border, Japan, the US, Morocco and
finally Japan. The film also begins after the shooting of Susan and then cuts
back to Morocco before the shot is fired. This apparently modernist trope actu-
ally functions to conceal the irresponsibility of Amelia in opting to take the two
children in her charge to Mexico for her son’s wedding, despite her awareness
that their mother has been shot in what is then believed to have been a terrorist
attack. Similarly, whilst the multi-character, multilingual structure appears to
present an equitable image of a dislocated world it is only, in fact, the Mexican
and Moroccan characters who are shown to use weapons irresponsibly.
In a recent afterword to his essay on art cinema, Bordwell adds that a
number of fiscal mechanisms have emerged to support this cinema since he
wrote his essay, and he also stresses the importance of the film festival and of
film awards. Admitting his relative ignorance of Latin American cinema when
he wrote the original essay, Bordwell suggests that developing national and
continental cinemas today,
[…] replay at an accelerated pace the trajectory of European art cinema.
An indigenous realist movement, somewhat comparable to Italian neo-
realism, becomes more conscious of the conventions involved in real-
ism, and develops more abstract experiments in form.
(Bordwell 2008b: 161)
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Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema
43
I would like now to test Bordwell’s ‘film industrial preconditions’ for the emer-
gence of the cinematic network narrative, or what Williams described as the
homology between the mode of production and the mode of (film) practice by
looking in detail at the case of Babel: as a co-production, as a film both about
and based on border-crossings, and as a vehicle for both an ensemble cast of
unknowns and three major international stars. Babel was the third collabora-
tion between Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga after Amores Perros
and 21 Grams (2003). Amores Perros had won more than thirty international
awards, including the Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and a BAFTA,
with Iñárritu named best new director at Edinburgh. It was nominated for
both Golden Globes and Academy Awards as best foreign film and was the
most successful film at the Mexican box office of its year and the second most
successful ever. It was sold to territories around the world and played for some
six months in London (Smith 2003: 10). The film was distributed in Mexico by
NuVision (a sister company of producers, Altavista) and international distri-
bution was by Lion’s Gate; in the immediate wake of its success at Cannes it
was swiftly sold to France, Italy, Spain and Israel.
Bordwell has observed that, ‘The most common chance-based conver-
gence, as conventional as a Main Street shootout in a Western, is the traffic
accident’ and indeed the very word ‘accident’ also signifies a chance occur-
rence (Bordwell 2008: 204). Such an accident is the titular subject, for instance,
of Crash (Haggis, 2004) and the starting point for Changing Lanes (Michell,
2002). Similarly a road accident is the inciting event in Kieslowski’s Blue and
Red and plays a central part in Pulp Fiction. It is, of course, also a central event
in Amores Perros, in which it is a car crash that connects the three stories – of
the dogfighters, the model and the tramp – and again in 21 Grams, in which a
woman’s husband and two daughters are killed by a hit and run driver.
Paul Julian Smith’s excellent study of Amores Perros reports that work on
the script began in early 1997. As Smith puts it, ‘Amores Perros combines the
graphic immediacy of Hollywood with the self-conscious artifice of the art
movie’ (Smith 2003: 62). Later in the same book, Smith suggests that ‘Amores
Perros is already a hybrid, combining Hollywood-friendly form with preoc-
cupations typical of mexicanidad, albeit disguised by seductive sound and
vision’ (Smith 2003: 87). But Amores Perros does more than blend the stylistic
traits of these two polar opposites, it actually blends their narrative forms and
iconographic tropes. Smith also mentions the influence of Pulp Fiction. But
Pulp Fiction’s success at Cannes in 1994 coincided with Kieslowski’s Three
Colours: Red and it is possible to see Amores Perros as a more or less uncon-
scious blend of the narrative, stylistic, iconographic and thematic strategies of
the two films. In 21 Grams, Cristina echoes Juliet’s pool scene from Blue. The
key motifs of Red – a fashion model, an injured dog, a car accident, a reclusive
old man, a huge poster of the model outside the window of her apartment –
are all reprised in Amores Perros.
By the time of Iñárritu’s second feature, 21 Grams, he was ready not only
to work in the US but in English. His third film, Babel, has dialogue in five
languages – English, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese and French, as well as some
Berber and Japanese sign language. As Bordwell puts it,
Network narrative is a signature brand for Alejandro González Iñárritu,
so it’s not surprising that he has released Babel (2006), a film of global
convergence. Presenting four story strands in four languages (Arabic,
English, Spanish and Japanese), the action takes place in four countries
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Paul Kerr
44
and on three continents. Once more the story develops the topos of
crossing barriers.
(Bordwell 2008a: 243)
Bordwell has described Babel as illustrating international art cinema’s current
predilection for trilogies: a key strategy for the economies of the art house cin-
ema and festival circuit (Bordwell 2006: blog). Indeed, Bordwell suggests that
the trilogy may be art cinema’s answer to the franchise. Iñárritu himself has
said of Babel, ‘For the third time, this is a story about parents and their chil-
dren’ (Babel production notes 2006). But what of the parentage of Babel itself?
The screenwriter, Arriaga, and director, Iñárritu, later argued over the credit
for Babel and their three-film partnership broke up. But rather than analysing
these creative differences, I want to look at the institutional collaboration that
lay behind this human relationship.
Any feature film is a collaboration of sorts and Babel is a particularly com-
plicated film, comprising over 2,500 distinct camera set-ups and roughly 4,000
edits. It is a complex co-production, so it is worth looking in some detail at
the five corporations involved in the production, bearing in mind Bordwell’s
provisos about the industrial preconditions for – and mode of production of –
the network narrative: specifically, the roles of talent and agencies, co-
productions, festivals and international distributors. The companies behind
the production of Babel were:
The Mexican production company, Zeta Films, founded by Iñárritu himself •
in 1991 in Mexico to produce his own shorts and commercials. It was one
of the firms behind his first and third features, Amores Perros and Babel,
as well as his shorts 11’09’01 (Iñárritu, 2002) and Powder Keg (Iñárritu,
2001). The magazine office scenes in Amores Perros were actually shot in
the real-life offices of Zeta Films. As the director’s own company, Zeta
functions to authenticate and financially anchor the film as Mexican.
The American company Media Rights Capital, partly owned by the tal- •
ent agency Endeavour. In 2001 Endeavour, best known as the company
behind the HBO series Entourage (2004–present), asked themselves why
a star or director should work for low pay on a labour of love only to see a
film studio or foreign sales company strike it rich if the movie prospers in
worldwide theatrical and video markets. In 2003 they created Media Rights
Capital with investment from AT&T and Goldman Sachs, which allowed
them to spend up to $400 million a year on movies, television shows and
broadband Internet episodes; its first films included Babel and Sacha Baron
Cohen’s Bruno (Charles, 2009). The involvement of Media Rights Capital
in Babel reinforces Bordwell’s remark that network narratives allowed
major actors to be recruited to indie/art house ensemble projects, with-
out having to commit much time, and without their usual high salaries.
According to producer Jon Kilik, ‘the film cost about $30 million [sic] to
make and Paramount Vantage paid less than the production cost for its
rights’ (Cieply 2007: 4). Kilik notes that Media Rights Capital provided
bridge financing, which held the project together for several months while
talent deals and more conventional funding was found. In 2005 Iñárritu’s
agent at Endeavour, John Lesher, left the agency to run the Specialty
Films division at Paramount. Iñárritu himself left Endeavour soon after
the film’s completion, and joined the Creative Artists Agency (CAA),
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Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema
45
which already represented Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. In retrospect
Babel looks like a CAA package orchestrated by John Lesher to bridge his
own career move from a small operator, Media Rights Capital, to a much
larger one, Paramount. In 2007, the year Babel won its only Oscar for its
score, The Departed (2006) won the awards for both Adapted Screenplay
and Director. The Departed was packaged by Endeavour for four of its
clients – screenwriter William Monahan, director Martin Scorsese and
actors Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg. In 2009 Endeavour merged with
the William Morris Agency to create WME.
Georgia Kacandes, executive vice president for physical and post- •
production, the American distribution company Paramount Vantage,
describes it as the ‘low-budget, high-quality’ division of Paramount
Pictures (Kaufman 2007). All its releases are also low-emission, ‘carbon
neutral’ films according to Ms Kacandes. Babel was Paramount Vantage’s
first film as a production company rather than a simple distributor, and it
followed up with No Country for Old Men (Coen & Coen, 2007), There Will
Be Blood (Anderson, 2007), A Mighty Heart (Winterbottom, 2007) and Into
the Wild (Penn, 2007). Paramount Vantage also released An Inconvenient
Truth (Guggenheim, 2006), Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Demme, 2006) and
Ask the Dust, based on the John Fante novel (Towne, 2006). Babel was dis-
tributed by Gaga Communications in Japan and by UIP in Latin America.
Festival screenings and awards ceremonies were very much Paramount
Vantage’s habitat. John Lesher, president of Paramount Vantage when it
released Babel in the US, bought the film rights for all English and Spanish-
speaking territories, having made the deal while he was still the direc-
tor’s agent at Endeavour, before joining Paramount. The film cost some
$25 million and made $135 million at the box office, only about a quar-
ter of which was earned in the US (Boxofficemojo). Paramount expected
strong sales from the DVD because of its Oscar nomination but, because
of Hollywood’s high marketing and distribution costs, still lost money on
the film (Thompson 2007).
The American company • Anonymous Content was founded in 1999 and
is responsible for ‘commercial independent’ movies like Babel, Rendition
(Hood, 2007), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004), Being
John Malkovitch (Jonze, 1999), Nurse Betty (LaBute, 2000), Portrait of A
Lady (Campion, 1996) and Wild at Heart (Lynch, 1990) among others, as
well as for music videos and commercials. According to its corporate web-
site, Anonymous Content prizes its ‘branded content’ and its ‘capacity to
package talent’. Iñárritu also directed music videos and commercials for
the company. ‘Its commercial arm has been part of many of the industry’s
most successful campaigns, as well as being at the forefront of the evo-
lution of brand integration campaigns such as BMW Films’ (Anonymous
Content website, 2007). The fit between advertising, auteur film-makers
and ‘brand integration’ would require another article.
The French film company, Central Films, was also responsible for • Mary
(Ferrara, 2005), I Come With the Rain (Anh Hung, 2007), and the docu-
mentary paean to auteurs, There is No Direction (Bertrand, 2005). France,
of course, had been one of the first countries to acquire Amores Perros
after its huge success in Cannes.
The exact amounts invested in Babel by these five companies have not been
made public, but it is likely that the bulk of the budget came from the three
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Paul Kerr
46
American companies, making it, in financial terms at least, a predominantly
American film. Nevertheless, the international economics of cinema and the
decreasing proportion of film revenues earned in the US domestic market sug-
gest one explanation for the film’s global network narrative, settings and char-
acters. Since the Japanese box office earns the most dollars in Asia, casting
two Japanese actors, one of whom (Kôji Yakusho) has been a star for almost
thirty years, functions as an entree to an increasingly important revenue stream
for international art cinema and the commercial independent sector. A similar
case can be made about the casting and crewing of each of the three major
national locations, from on-screen talent to behind-the-camera technicians.
Of course there have been international co-productions – and indeed
national co-productions – for many years in world cinema. My argument here
is that it was, among other things, the globalizing of national art cinemas –
through festivals, co-productions, international distribution networks and the
accelerating movement of diasporic talent – which contributed to the main-
streaming of network narratives in the 1990s. This movement of talent was
not just of those from developing nations to Hollywood but also of Eastern
European – for instance Kieslowski’s Three Colours – and African film-makers
to France, including Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche’s Couscous (2007), and
of Middle Eastern émigrés to Germany – for instance Turkish-German film-
maker Fatih Akin’s Auf der anderen seite/The Edge of Heaven (2007).
In a recent essay on globalizing national cinema about the production of
Wo hu cang long/Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee, 2000) – which was,
ironically, Amores Perros’ main international art house competitor at Cannes
that year – Huaiting Wu and Joseph Man Chan suggest that ‘The major agent
of transculturation is the media organization, the character of which has
immense influence on both the production process and consumption’ (Wu and
Chan 2007: 198). Wu and Chan argue that there is a dialectic between par-
ticularization and universalization which finds its form in hybridization and
what they call transculturation. According to Wu and Chan, for world cinema
to cross national borders and overcome the international audience’s socializa-
tion by Hollywood films, national cinemas need to enable western audiences
to cross what they call the ‘cultural psychic distance’ (Wu and Chan 2007: 198).
This can be achieved through the choice of themes, performers, storylines and
styles with which western viewers are already familiar. ‘The incorporation of
globalized norms and concepts in the production of local cultural products will
thus enhance their acceptability around the world’ (Wu and Chan 2007: 198).
In Babel this so-called transculturation is visible in the American cultural
pursuits of the Japanese teenagers, the western tourists in Morocco and the
Mexican workers in America, but the extent to which these migrants appear
virtually untouched by their host communities is perhaps a symptom of the
splintered narrative which can only afford limited screen time to each of the
four storylines (and multiple protagonists).
A clue as to how the network narrative developed as a preferred tool for
local production is found in Wu and Chan’s description of national/indige-
nous cinematic resistance to Hollywood.
Faced with the threat of marginalization in the market and the lack of
investment, local firms can be empowered by forming alliances with
firms elsewhere – including TNCs (transnational corporations) – in
the form of joint ventures. Such linkages can sometimes create globe-
spanning networks [sic] that are able to mobilize resources and pursue
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Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema
47
opportunities more effectively than even giant firms unaffiliated with
such networks [sic]. The global alliance of organizations is thus structur-
ally an intrinsic part of globalization.
(Wu and Chan 2007: 199–200)
This networking is not simply institutional, it is also individual and, I suggest,
it is more than a linguistic coincidence that the film industrial base and super-
structural form of such films share this concept. The authors suggest that the
globalization of cinematic talent and tropes is a precondition for the globaliza-
tion of local cultural products and practices (Wu and Chan 2007: 200).
Thus, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gathered together top Chinese talent,
as well as the country’s distinctive landscapes and cultural traditions – the martial
arts wuxia culture. In the same way, Babel deployed talent from Morocco, Japan,
Mexico and the US – and elsewhere – and filmed in distinctive locations from
all these countries. It also recycled some of these countries most familiar cine-
matic tropes - the Mexico/America border, American art house marital anomie,
urban Japanese teenage angst, Moroccan desert poverty - and types - bereaved
western tourists, played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, looking to salvage their
marriage in orientalist climes, not unlike The Sheltering Sky (Bertolucci, 1990));
the hopeless, hapless Mexican, played by Gael García Bernal; and the sexually
fetishized Japanese schoolgirl, played by Rinko Kikuchi.
Another recent essay on Crouching Tiger offers an alternative way of
understanding the impact of globalization on national and indeed interna-
tional cinema. According to Wang and Yeh, since the 1990s there has been a
huge demand for ‘the localization of global products and the globalization of
local products’ (Wang and Yeh 2005: 177). Wang and Yeh deploy Lee’s term
‘delocalization’ to describe the ways in which cultural products are deraci-
nated or made more accessible/less objectionable for foreign audiences.
Through a process of deculturization, all of the elements that are culture
specific, including those that are ethnic, historical or religious, that create
barriers to intercultural reception or are deemed unfit for a new pres-
entation style, may be contained in a familiar narrative pattern that not
only plays down cultural differences, but also guarantees comprehension
across viewer groups. The result is the emergence of a new breed of films
and television programme – the ‘acculturalized’ cultural product.
(Wang and Yeh 2005: 178)
For Wang and Yeh, Crouching Tiger ‘employs a “glocal” strategy of incorpo-
rating transnational financing models and the aesthetics of art house cinema
into the making of a seemingly local story’ (Wang and Yeh 2005: 181). For
Babel, this formula would need to be rewritten to accommodate four seemingly
local stories. Of course the ‘deculturization’ in Babel is particularly apt since its
explicit ‘theme’ is the problem of communication – with its multinational set-
tings and characters (and production teams), with mutual incomprehension a
continuing part of the plot mechanics – even finding form in the behaviour of
the deaf and dumb Japanese teenager. The implicit danger of such a subject
is the ease with which it can collapse into the kind of formulation used on
the DVD cover: ‘Pain is universal – but so is hope.’ That is the language not
of historically and geographically specific situations and characters but of an
apolitical human condition (Shaw 2011: forthcoming).
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Paul Kerr
48
In order to go beyond ‘human nature’ as an explanatory category, and
other equally metaphysical, ahistorical concepts, it is useful, finally, to return
to Raymond Williams. Williams suggested that, in attempting to explain
emergent cultural forms, we can identify ‘one central source of new practice,
in the emergence of a new class’ (Williams 1980: 42) and he stressed the need
to acknowledge ‘the real social conditions of production’ (Williams 1980: 46)
in theorizing any such new practice.
When we find ourselves looking at a particular work, or group of works,
often realizing, as we do, their essential community as well as their irre-
ducible individuality, we should find ourselves attending first to the reality
of their practice and the conditions of the practice as it was then executed.
(Williams 1980: 48)
So, finally, what kind of social conditions of production can we discern behind
the making of Babel? Can we identify anything resembling a ‘new class’ as a
source of this emergent mode of film practice? Iñárritu has described himself
as ‘a director in exile’ (Hagerman 2006: 18). Might the diasporic cinematic
and other artistic talent of the globalized cultural industries of the twenty-
first century constitute such a class fraction? Can migrating talent or mobi-
lized skilled labour be legitimately described as ‘deculturized’ or deracinated?
Perhaps Babel’s familiar and accessible ‘acculturalized’ content – despite its
depiction of alienated, atomized ‘strangers in strange lands’– could be said to
compensate for its residually innovative network narrative form.
Amores Perros won Iñárritu the Best Director Award at the 2000 Tokyo
International Film Festival and he has reflected at some length on the experi-
ence of travelling the world attending film festivals to promote the film.
After finishing Amores Perros I travelled a great deal all over the world,
including Japan, and went to live in Los Angeles to begin a new project.
My family and I came to the United States four days before September
11, and the world was upturned around us. The experience of living
in a country under a regime paranoid with aggravated nationalism was
not an easy matter [...] The idea of Babel came to me when I was on the
point of starting to shoot 21 Grams in the city of Memphis. It was the
first time I would be directing a film outside my country and in a lan-
guage other than my own.
(Hagerman 2006: 256)
To an extent, the narrative form and multiple cultural/linguistic perspectives of
Babel thus derive from the deracinated film-makers’ experience – in the era of
globalization. But this is not merely a case of fictionalized autobiography, or
inspiration from experience, it is also another ‘structural homology’ with the
specific experience of itinerant international film-makers and of the realities of
globalized international art house film-making in the early twenty-first century:
‘The idea of making Babel came to me out of a certain need that can stem only
from exile and the awareness of being an immigrant’ (Hagerman 2006: 18).
The residual network narrative form of Babel is thus, among other things,
a structural homology: both of its mode of production and of the social rela-
tions of that production. Babel is an internationally packaged art film, produced
by a global network of companies, staffed on short, casualized contracts by a
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Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema
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team of workers many of whom are as deracinated as Iñárritu himself, and the
resulting film exhibits precisely the acculturalized content and international
form accommodated by such a mode and such relations of production. The
global industry’s circulating subjects, auteurs like Iñárritu and stars like Brad
Pitt, are also among its circulating objects.
REFERENCES
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Altman, R. (1975), Nashville, Paramount Pictures.
Altman, R. (1993), Short Cuts, Avenue Pictures, Fine Line Features & Spelling
Entertainment.
Anderson, P. (2007), There Will Be Blood, Ghoulardi Film Company.
Anh Hung, T. (2007), I Come With the Rain, Central Films.
Anonymous Content website (2007), http://www.anonymouscontent.com/.
Accessed 12 March 2008.
Asquith, A. (1963), The V.I.P.s , De Grunwald Productions.
Asquith, A. (1964), The Yellow Rolls Royce, De Grunwald Productions.
Babel Production Notes (2006), http://moviegrande.com/babel/production/
chapter2.htm. Accessed 12 March 2008.
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Paul Kerr
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August 2009.
SUGGESTED CITATION
Kerr, P. (2010), ‘Babel’s network narrative: packaging a globalized art cinema’,
Transnational Cinemas 1: 1, pp. 37–51, doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.37/1
CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
Since summer 2007 Paul Kerr has been Senior Lecturer in Broadcast Media at
London Metropolitan University. For the previous twenty years he was a televi-
sion producer, making dozens of programmes for the BBC and Channel Four as
well as a number of international co-productions. He is the author and editor
of a number of books and articles on television and film. His research interests
include documentary, drama documentary, ‘quality’ television, arts programming,
the independent production sector in film and television, Hollywood, and inter-
national art cinema. He is a former member of the Screen editorial board and
was a producer-director at October Films in London from 1999 to 2007.
TRAC 1.1_art_Kerr_37-52.indd 51 1/20/10 10:38:45 AM
Crossings: Journal of
Migration and Culture
ISSN: 2040-4344 (1 issue | Volume 1, 2010)
Aims and Scope
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53
TRAC 1 (1) pp. 53–67 Intellect Limited 2010
Transnational Cinemas
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.53/1
KEYWORDS
María Félix
Dolores del Río
stars
YouTube
music
fan culture
NIAMH THORNTON
University of Ulster
YouTube: transnational
fandom and Mexican
divas
ABSTRACT
YouTube is a rich source of fan material representing transnational film stars. The
videos created by fans have multiple functions, including a celebration of their idols,
an engagement with a transnational audience, and a space in which they can create
and project a packaged self. The results are the development of a form that draws on
the techniques and images of classical film, mixed with the duration and aesthetics
of the modern music video. Using interviews with YouTubers, this article analyses
the YouTube videos of María Félix and Dolores del Río as transnational star texts.
María Félix and Dolores del Río’s presence on YouTube is significant, not
just because they are stars whose careers reached their peak in the golden
age of Mexican and Hollywood cinema – a distant past for most of the crea-
tors of content (YouTubers) – but also because of what can be learnt about
the construction of these stars’ personas from the videos that are uploaded.
1

YouTube’s strengths and limitations lie in such details as the capacity of the
technology to connect individuals across geographic boundaries, users’ abili-
ties and imagination, access to original source material, and those restrictions
imposed by the site itself on memory space (which has meant that the vid-
eos are developing their own stylistic markers). These features make YouTube
1. I will not be engaging
in the growing literature
surrounding star studies
due to lack of space.
Good starting points are
Butler (1991) and Dyer
(2004).
TRAC 1.1_art_Thornton_053-068.indd 53 1/19/10 11:37:09 AM
Niamh Thornton
54
2. Since the Google
takeover, copyright
restrictions have been
tightening, but they are
still subject to some
debate and clarification.
There is leniency from
some copyright holders,
who, for example, treat
the site as a space
for promotion of their
material and therefore
free publicity.
worthy of study as a new cultural phenomenon with widespread transnational
appeal. In particular, here, I shall examine why YouTube is a useful tool for
the consideration of the star text with specific reference to Félix and del Río’s
online presence and their fans engagement with them.
YOUTUBE: SEARCHING THROUGH THE CRAP FOR
THE GEMS
Chad Hurley, Jarved Karim and Steve Chen founded YouTube, in May 2005,
as an online space for video sharing. Although ostensibly a US-identified
company, from its founding in California with its current headquarters located
there, it has become a space for video-sharing accessed by more than 90
million people around the world. YouTube’s slogan ‘Broadcast Yourself’ is
built on the idea, according to Hurley, that ‘everyone in the back of his [sic]
mind, wants to be a star’ (Garfield 2006); this new, self-made YouTube star
is not presented as a glamorous individual by Wired magazine’s Bob Garfield.
He offers a far from flattering portrait of the stereotypical YouTube user in his
explanation for its success,
that guesswork [as to why YouTube is successful] begins in a very spe-
cial, very poignant, and potentially lucrative place: the hitherto futile
aspirations of the everyman to break out of his [sic] lonely anonymous
life of quiet desperation, to step in front of the whole world and be
somebody, dude.
(Garfield 2006, original emphasis)
Garfield emphasizes the importance YouTube has in the projection of a self.
Although there are many videos on YouTube of ordinary individuals capturing
themselves or others on their camera/phone/computer, there are also many
more videos of others, in particular, famous others. YouTube is a space in
which you can build a profile through your alter ego. You can have your own
fan base and be a star in your own sitting room. For Richard Grusin, YouTube
has the facility to provide a form of virtual sensory tourism, ‘which allows us
to extend our senses beyond the range of our body’s geographic environment,
introducing us to people and places, sights and sounds that we would not
otherwise have the opportunity to perceive’ (Grusin 2009: 61). The self that is
broadcast is not always the embodied self, it is often a projection of an indi-
vidual’s likes, desires and ability to manipulate and sample (or use completely
with limited copyright restriction) imagery, music and/or sound.
2
Garfield prosaically places the attraction and success of YouTube away
from the self that is being broadcast and onto the audience. For him, it is
an ‘overgrown fan site’ in which ‘[t]hird millennium humanity has demon-
strated an interest in sifting through millions of pieces of crap produced by
total strangers to discover a few gems’ (Garfield 2006). That is what I intend
to do in this article in order to explore the interstices of selves, national and
transnational, that are projected onto YouTube.
Garfield uses the term ‘fan’ in the loosest sense to refer to individuals who
have an interest in a famous person. ‘Fan’ can be a useful term to refer to those
who have a specialist interest in certain individuals. But the personal profiles
of YouTubers reveal that the content on their pages does not demonstrate a
single-minded approach. Some are interested in both male and female film
stars, performers and soap opera stars, others are interested in transnational
TRAC 1.1_art_Thornton_053-068.indd 54 1/20/10 10:44:24 AM
YouTube: transnational fandom and Mexican divas
55
stars, and others have a variety of videos with an emphasis on putting images
to music rather than just privileging the image. Therefore, since the term ‘fan’
is non-specific and problematic, I shall use it with caution to refer to the crea-
tors of star content.
Henry Jenkins describes fans as ‘textual poachers’ who ‘get to keep what
they take and use their plundered goods as the foundations for the construc-
tion of an alternative community’ (Jenkins 1992: 223). Therefore, although the
individual is important in fan theory, so too is the sense of belonging to a
group. YouTube, with its emphasis on community, is an important forum for
connecting with others, building a transnational audience and getting feedback
on the videos produced, which often borrow seamlessly from other cultures. It
is possible to look at the origin of the viewers who comment on YouTube vid-
eos: they too come from a wide range of locations and age groups. YouTube
has become a forum where transnational fans can consume as well as create.
Jenkins emphasizes the creativity evident in what fans generate, but also
stresses that fans are operating within a closed system ‘which draw[s] on the
artistic traditions of the fan community’ (Jenkins 1992: 233). For Jenkins, ‘fan
aesthetic centers on the selection, inflection, juxtaposition, and recirculation
of ready-made images and discourses’ (Jenkins 1992: 223–4). Here Jenkins
is analysing ‘vidding’, the practice of making fan texts using VHS tapes, and
although he is writing before the advent of YouTube, what he has to say has
relevance in this discussion. The fans making videos for YouTube are operat-
ing within a similar aesthetic loop to those Jenkins considers, but with a wider
platform than the earlier ‘vidders’. They have the opportunity to broadcast
their videos to a transnational audience using sources, cultural referents and
musical choices that go beyond what was done in earlier fora, which used
analogue technology (such as VCRs) and had to appeal to a local fan base only
accessible through word of mouth or community gatherings. YouTube can
be an opportunity to re-circulate star images to a new audience, positioning
them within familiar aesthetic parameters, or to resituate them by integrating
them into a new intercultural flow. Star images can be local or transnational,
and simultaneously express the personal and the public experience of the star
performances, but they are still playing within an existing discursive practice.
Time limitation is one of the issues that affects how star texts are created
on YouTube. Videos can never be greater than 1GB in size and no longer than
ten minutes. This has created a generic commonality between many of the
videos. A star’s entire life and/or career, with the multiple images that this
entails (both from film and extra-filmic sources (TV, photography, portraiture
etc.)), must be reduced to a maximum of ten minutes and therefore requires
visual shorthand. The danger with this short time period is that a star’s most
representative roles and stock characters are employed. Thereby, there is a
possibility that the images deployed create a specific set of imagery that could
fossilize the star text. The star could be reduced to a limited compendium of
visual clichés set to music. However, while that is a distinct possibility, what
appears to happen in the often-geeky world of YouTube fan videos is a quest
for originality. There may be some repetition of imagery, but the videos are
edited in a different way each time, using a montage of distinct photograph,
videos and publicity shots. In addition, while the music and/or sound deployed
may have similarities, the juxtaposition of sound and images is never identical,
as I shall consider later in this article.
Interestingly, with a few exceptions where more than one song is used or
an original track is created, the majority of videos last around three minutes,
TRAC 1.1_art_Thornton_053-068.indd 55 1/19/10 11:37:09 AM
Niamh Thornton
56
which is the duration of the average pop song. This length of time conforms
to that of an MTV music video, which was, in turn, originally determined by
technology.
3
While it would be easy to conclude, then, that MTV is the primary
influence on the style of video created, this would not complete the picture.
For the majority of YouTubers, they are a post (post)-MTV generation, for
whom the music video is part of a multimedia landscape identifiable as part
of a transnational youth culture but also adapted to local particularities. Not
only has the English language version of MTV proved popular throughout the
world, through versions in other languages such as MTV Latinoaméricana,
it deliberately spreads its reach outwards and is obviously influential in the
videos created by these fans; theirs is a multi-platform generation, accessing
communities, entertainment and information via the web, phones, TV, MP3
players, game consoles and so on. An individual can have a specialist interest
and a high profile within one space and be a mere lurker in another. Within
the purview of the privileged, media-savvy, transnational YouTuber is a variety
of new technologies and multiple terms of reference. This is demonstrated in
the sophistication and broad terms of reference employed by the YouTubers.
Many of the videos online are edited clips, sometimes with dialogue and a
backing track; others are slideshows, also with music. Music is common to
all of the videos under consideration in this article: therefore, I shall also be
considering its significance.
I have chosen a representative sampling of videos featuring the film stars
María Félix and Dolores del Río, two of the best-known Mexican film actresses
of the twentieth century. For the purposes of this article I am interested in user-
generated creative content rather than the many videos that are segments of
interviews, films or television programmes. After surveying the videos I con-
tacted several of their creators, many of whom were delighted to respond,
eager to speak about their methods and motivations. Many of these creators
put up multiple videos, which resulted in a relatively small sampling. This is in
line with the ‘90:9:1 rule’, where ‘90 percent of online audiences never interact,
nine percent interact only occasionally, and one percent do most interacting’
(Snickars and Vanderau 2009: 12). Adopting my own moniker, but explaining
my purpose, through YouTube, I emailed the YouTubers. Five responded.
Of these, one was a Spaniard, one Russian and the rest were Mexican. The
broad sweep of commentaries they receive on their work from viewers around
the world demonstrates how YouTube has enabled a transnational fan base to
broadcast itself and reach out across borders to other fans. I asked six simple
questions in English or Spanish, as appropriate:
1. Why did you pick these images?
2. What attracts you to [star name]?
3. Why did you choose the songs and who are they by?
4. What is interesting about the other stars you pick?
5. What technology did you use to make the videos?
6. Is [star name] popular in [country]?
Some of the questions were designed to elicit and verify specific informa-
tion (songs, technology), while others were subjective and were intended to
discover why certain choices were made and how the fans perceive the star
in their local context. Most of these creators provide the country of origin and
further demographic details, such as age, on their profile page. The responses
3. While synonymous
with the music video
in popular parlance,
in recent years MTV
has moved towards the
creation of reality TV
programs such as The
Osbournes and My
Super Sweet Sixteen,
broadcasting fewer
videos than previously.
There are multiple other
video channels that have
taken over MTV’s role as
video broadcaster.
TRAC 1.1_art_Thornton_053-068.indd 56 1/19/10 11:37:09 AM
YouTube: transnational fandom and Mexican divas
57
were helpful in understanding the decisions that were made in the creation
and editing of the pieces, and in their understanding of how their work fit into
a national context. From the aesthetic choices made I shall consider how these
videos can be considered transnational. I shall first give a brief introduction to
the stars and then consider their representation on YouTube.
MEXICAN DIVAS: MARÍA FÉLIX AND DOLORES DEL RÍO
María Félix’s presence on screen was but a small part of her public image. She
maintained a consistent presence in the national imaginary, not simply for the
films she acted in, but also for the other public personas she performed. She lived
her life constantly in the limelight, subject to the (complicit) gaze of the paparazzi
and gossip sheets – particularly in Argentina, France and Mexico. Her private life
was the subject of much interest and was complicated and varied.
Born in 1914, Félix’s film career spanned from 1942 with El peñon de las animas/
The Rock of Souls (Miguel Zacarías) and ended with La Generala/The General
(Juan Ibáñez) in 1966. Her breakthrough film was her third, an adaptation of
Romulo Gallegos’s novel Doña Bárbara (Fernando de Fuentes and Miguel M.
Delgado) in 1943. As a result, she was nicknamed ‘la Doña’ throughout the rest
of her career. Her transnational fan base was developed through the popularity
and distribution of her Mexican films abroad, and also through those which
were shot in France, Spain, Argentina and Italy between 1948 and 1959.
According to Paco Ignacio Taibo I, her arrival on screen was well timed:
Mexican cinema was in need of a strong woman who could challenge tradi-
tional values and preconceptions. In contrast, he describes Dolores del Río as
‘la mexicana que había aceptado, por patriotismo, abandonar Hollywood’ (‘the
Mexican who had accepted, out of patriotism, to leave Hollywood’) (Taibo I
2004: 16).
4
Del Río was born in 1904, moving to Hollywood in 1925. Her first
starring role was in Pals First (Edwin Carewe, 1926), a film that has since been
lost. According to Joanne Hershfield, over the course of her Hollywood career
del Río embodied an exotic other, playing roles that demanded a ‘cross-dress-
ing masquerade’ (Hershfield 2000: 46). In other words, they required her to act
in roles outside of her own actual national identity. These ranged from Spanish
gypsy, Polynesian islander, and Native American, to name but a few of her
Hollywood roles. While she could embody these racial others on film, ‘her light
skin, European features, upper-class role, and star text that recognized her as
beautiful by US standards appeased the American public’ (Hershfield 2000: 34).
Thereby, her star status was maintained as the acceptable face of Latin America.
Del Río’s transnational stardom, as it is reflected through the YouTube videos,
is based on early Hollywood films which emphasize her glamour.
Del Río left Hollywood in 1942, and returned to Mexico where she acted in
Flor Silvestre/Wild Flower (Emilio Fernández, 1943). Her role in this film would
typify her image in Mexico. In this and many other films she would act as an
indigenous woman or peasant, continuing to appeal as an exotic other, this
time an internal one, against her public persona as a modern, ‘fashionable’,
‘cosmopolitan’ woman who moved in elevated and artistic circles (Hershfield
2000: 58). These films have not had the same appeal for YouTubers, and there
are few clips or images taken from her Mexican films.
Del Río and Félix only worked together once in La Cucuracha/The Soldiers
of Pancho Villa (Ismael Rodríguez, 1958), which was a box office failure. It was
the most expensive film made at the time, largely as a result of the cost of
the stars, and was aimed at capitalizing on the supposed rivalry that existed
4. Translations are author’s
own.
TRAC 1.1_art_Thornton_053-068.indd 57 1/20/10 10:45:56 AM
Niamh Thornton
58
between the two women that had been ‘institutionalised by the Mexican pub-
lic in the press’ (Hershfield 2000: 68). Irrespective of whether this tension was
real or invented, the star personae of the two women differed. While ‘Félix’s
star text was defined by the beautiful but evil and aggressive female charac-
ters she played’, in contrast, del Río ‘was always the malleable, eternally suf-
fering woman’ (Hershfield 2000: 69). Félix had more control over her star text
which ‘was initially formed within economics and aesthetics of the Mexican
film industry’ (Hershfield 2000: 53) and augmented by her performances in
international films, whereas ‘del Río had to be remanufactured’ on her return
from Hollywood (Hershfield 2000: 54). Also, del Río was a Hollywood star
whose star text was modern and glamorous, yet her roles were racist and
puerile and later, in Mexico, passive and traditional. In contrast, Félix was
equally modern in public, with her lavish, controversial lifestyle, and on film
she performed in many roles in which she was an assertive, domineering and
dangerous woman: an image with which she has become synonymous in
Mexican cinema of this era (see, for example, Tierney 2007).
Del Río died in 1983, and Félix in 2002. Félix made her last film in 1971,
and del Río’s last screen appearance was The Children of Sanchez (Hal Bartlett)
in 1978, having made 63 films in total, against Félix’s 47. However, although
del Río was an ‘institution’ in Monsiváis’ words, she has been given signifi-
cantly less attention online (Monsiváis 2004: 42). As of 2 September 2009,
there are 503 videos on YouTube of del Río or with her name in the title,
while there are 2,340 with Félix in the title. It appears that the reasons for this
lie in their respective sex appeal: Félix cultivated a public persona as a desir-
able sexual woman and many of her film roles emphasize this, whereas, after
her return to Mexico, del Río became synonymous with acquiescent, self-
sacrificing female roles and a clean-cut public image. Of the 38 videos under
their combined names, some are trailers or videos related to La Cucuracha
and others are slide shows with music. It is important to note that while
many videos with their names attached have content related to the stars,
there are others of drag queens performing as the stars posted by Mexican
and US users, as well as videos with more tenuous links (see, for example,
adiosbrave2007 and manram79).
5
CONTENT: MUSIC, VIDEO, POWERPOINT
Some of the content, particularly under Félix’s name, are short edited pieces
taken from local and international television broadcasts posted by and for a
transnational fan base. While these videos provide invaluable content and
useful archival research, I shall not be considering them here. What I shall
examine are edited videos created by YouTubers, due to their originality and
because they are made specifically by fans as a way of communicating with
others around the globe.
There are different stylistic commonalities in the videos. One frequent
type of video is a slide show of still images, some are screenshots, but they are
mostly taken from publicity material, press clippings, book covers, or portraits
accompanied by music. In many respects the videos resemble PowerPoint
presentations; indeed many of the creators describe them as such. The level
of sophistication of these videos depends on several factors including: the
timing and style of transitions, the ability to sync the image with the rhythms
and beat of the music, the blend of still and moving images, the originality
and variety of these, and the resolution of the images.
5. There isn’t space
here to explore Félix’s
queer following; these
comprise mainly of drag
acts. Lacking the same
camp public persona
as Félix, del Rio has not
attracted such tribute
acts.
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YouTube: transnational fandom and Mexican divas
59
An example of one of these slide shows is entitled ‘Dolores del Río’ by
a young Russian woman, gatabella.
6
This video is made up of a rich vari-
ety of images from del Río’s Hollywood days set against two rock tracks.
Using Windows Movie Maker and OneTrueMedia, she utilizes different
wipes and fades, thus varying the transitions. However, while her con-
tent is original and of high quality, her editing is rudimentary. The tracks
are both in 4/4 beat and she maintains the visual cut to the beat: in the
edit the slavish following of an identical beat takes care and attention, but
results in a repetitive style which becomes monotonous viewing. However,
her use of music is interesting in that she uses European rock tracks mak-
ing a link between del Río, the silent screen actor, and the contemporary
young self that gatabella is broadcasting.
Although not necessarily intended as music videos, the music does
determine the pace and style of the editing. Music acts to frame the video
and often is a decider of the duration. There are exceptions to this where
a second piece of music is used (for example by gatabella), or where the
music is remixed specifically for the images. This slide show approach is
not limited to Mexican film stars – a quick look at YouTube shows that
Hollywood film stars from the golden age also get a similar treatment.
7
Underneath all videos YouTube invites viewers to both rate the video and
‘post a text comment’, which many users do. These comments are a crucial
element in the reception and dissemination of the videos, and are an oppor-
tunity for the user to form part of a transnational community dialogue by
reading or posting their responses. The viewers’ comments here draw favour-
able comparisons with some of the other videos that use pop or rock music.
The choice of music is an interesting feature of these slide shows. The music
varies from the more obvious to the curious. The song ‘María Bonita’ (Beautiful
Maria) often accompanies Félix videos. It is a song written for Félix by Agustín
Lara, which was a major hit throughout Latin America on its release. There are
different versions of the song accompanying videos on YouTube: performances
by Mariachi bands, Placido Domingo and Pedro Vargas, amongst others. The
merits of these are avidly discussed in the discussion threads after the videos.
Music is a useful tool to create national or transnational connections
for viewers and creators. The choices of the different versions of ‘María
Bonita’ are all by Mexicans, where the connection between Félix and the
song is potent and culturally grounded. Interestingly, Mexican YouTubers
may vary between using this song to using others; however, of the hun-
dreds of videos created, no non-Mexican has used ‘María Bonita’. In con-
trast, the song ‘Ramona’, from the eponymous 1928 film sung by del Río,
is from a Hollywood film and therefore part of transnational culture, and
is used by both Mexicans and non-Mexicans. Other choices of tracks that
accompany videos of both del Río and Félix are a heavy rock mix by a
Mexican, a track by the Colombian Latino star Juanes, ‘La única’ (‘The
Only One’); ‘Flamenco’ by the Russian group ‘Bi-2’; and two rock songs by
an Ukrainian group Okean Elzy. The use of these tracks suggests a degree
of assimilation by the creators of the videos’ star text into their own cul-
tural referents and time; this personal connection with the choice of music
is made explicit in a response by the Spanish YouTuber, alquezar63, in his
video, ‘George Harrison: Dark Sweet Lady (A Tribute to María Félix)’:
La canción de George Harrison [‘Dark Sweet Lady’] me gusta mucho
desde que se publicó, en 1978…George es uno de mis músicos predilectos.
6. I maintain the
typography of the
YouTubers’ names and
the titles given for the
videos as they appear
on YouTube.
7. A good example of how
music and images can
be given equal billing is
a video entitled ‘I’m thru
with love – Diana Krall
and Hollywood Divas’.
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Niamh Thornton
60
Cuando me aficioné a María Félix recientemente, asocié su imagen con la
canción de Harrison supongo que porque Olivia Arias es mexicana, como
la Doña y porque la belleza de la música le iba bien a la belleza del rostro
de la actriz. [I have liked George Harrison’s song since it was released in
1978…George is one of my favourite musicians. When I recently became
interested in María Félix I associated her image with Harrison’s song, I
suppose because Olivia Arias is Mexican like the Doña, and because the
beauty of the music suits the beauty of the actress’ face.].
8
(alquezar63, 28 July 2008)
Through the use of Harrison’s song, alquezar63 can make links between Félix
and the music based on his own preferences. For him, her star text is not cultur-
ally determined, as it is for many of the Mexican YouTubers. Interestingly, he
knows Félix primarily from her Spanish films, whereas the Mexican YouTuber,
eliudhernandez notes the difficulty in accessing her European films. Therefore,
despite the transnational nature of YouTube, the performances of the screen
stars that YouTubers know and can access can vary according to location.
The decision to use ‘María Bonita’, just as with the use of original
recordings of ‘Ramona’, evokes a nostalgic past.
9
A useful comparison can
be made with the orchestral arrangement of ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’, a
song most associated with Doris Day (a hit in 1964), by a UK YouTuber in
his celebration of the golden age of Hollywood, ‘Movie Legends – Dolores
del Rio’.
10
This track situates the images not just within a nostalgic distant
time, but also firmly in a particular place (the US).
‘María Bonita’, written by Lara on honeymoon with Félix, recalls the
autobiographical detail of their tempestuous and high profile relationship,
which is associated with much gossip and anecdotes repeated in comments
by users on YouTube. Also, the lyrics, with their reference to Mexican loca-
tions, link Félix with Mexico, most specifically Acapulco: whereas ‘Ramona’,
with its scratchy sound, does not specifically recall del Río’s life story but
rather early US sound films. ‘Ramona’ is most often used in association with
images taken directly from the film or still images from del Río’s early films.
An example of this is ‘Dolores del Río “Ramona” Vals’ by retroarcaicorex.
His is a slide show of still images, screen shots and publicity material with
the accompanying ‘Ramona’ track sung by del Río taken from an original
recording. This Mexican student has also compiled several clips from black
and white and colour films starring both del Río and Félix for other videos.
He has explained his musical choices: ‘Yo utilizo la música que escojo, para
mis videos, por la época antigua. Me gusta la música de los años 20s a los
60s, es realmente muy hermosa’ (‘I chose the music that I do for my videos
because of the olden times [they evoke]. I like the music from the 20s to the
60s, it’s really very beautiful’) (retroarcaicorex, 30 July 2008). The range of
time periods alluded to in his response (1920s–1960s) suggests a very broad
and generalized past where YouTubers often utilize music anachronistically
to evoke a somewhat distant past era rather than an accurate historical time.
In the videos with contemporary music that I have mentioned earlier,
the music is rarely commented upon. However, the versions of ‘María
Bonita’ are subject to much debate. For example, in a video entitled ‘María
Félix – María Bonita –Pedro Vargas – México – Jorge Negrete’, by a 27 year
old Mexican who identifies herself as pueblapuebla, there is a long discus-
sion thread (132 posts as of 10 September 2009) from places as diverse
as Spain, the US, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, the Turks and Caicos Islands
8. Arias was Harrison’s
wife.
9. See Dancyger (2007:
398) on the connection
between musical choices
and the evocation of a
specific era.
10. This song was originally
published as ‘Quizás,
quizás, quizás’ by
the Cuban songwriter
Osvaldo Farrés in 1947.

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YouTube: transnational fandom and Mexican divas
61
and Brazil. This discussion centres on Félix’s star credentials, who is sing-
ing on the video (Pedro Vargas throughout), and why Jorge Negrete is
mentioned since he does not sing. It then shifts into a specialist discussion
about whether Negrete ever did record and release the song (he did not),
and whether he did sing it on film. Evidently, the viewers’ knowledge is no
substitute for archival research; however, they do have interesting insights
and are a source of curious popular gossip about the stars. These discus-
sions reflect the value placed on this song and its easy fit with the view-
ers’ knowledge of music of this era. Fan knowledge and identification with
a star can be linked to national identity, with some claiming ownership
over a star. But, YouTube acts as an excellent forum for others to challenge
ownership and reclaim the star for a transnational public.
This relationship between viewers’ reactions and the style of music
used is important to consider in the light of an insightful discussion by
Debra A. Castillo on short films made for the Internet. For her, films taken
out of their traditional viewing context of cinema and television, available
to access to a specialized and highly fragmented viewership, and easily
switched off, mean that the most experimental films are challenging for
the spectators, which means that they are more likely to switch off (Castillo
2007: 35). It may well be that online video is pushing out the boundaries
in ways that I will consider later, but the more commonplace examples
reinforce, and even mythicize ideas of classic cinema. Films and stars are
codified and rarefied in specific modes, which, in turn, develop their own
form of mythology and deification.
A YouTuber may take a familiar scene, but it will be taken out of its origi-
nal context and set alongside other new images, moving or still. Jeseden, a 20
year old law student from Mexico explained his reasons for creating his video
of Félix, ‘algunos incluyen solamente fotografías, y otros videos, respecto a
las fotografías, por que sale espléndida y capturando diferentes facetas de
ella; respecto a los clips, por que capturan momentos fuertes, representativos
de las películas o de su persona’ (‘some include only photographs, and oth-
ers videos. I use the photographs because she is splendid in them and they
capture different facets of her; as for the clips, they capture strong moments
which represent the films or her personality’) (jeseden, 28 July 2008). This
YouTuber, who chose to accompany one of his videos with heavy rock, has
created a personal re-visioning of Félix through a unique montage of music
and images. Explaining his choice of music, Jeseden states, ‘son diferentes
estilos segun el concepto del video, canciones mexicanas, por ser mexicana,
de estilo gótico o épico por tener un aire mistico y por su estampa imponente,
boleros, diferentes canciones le acomodan’ (‘they are different styles depend-
ing on the concept of the video: Mexican songs, as she is Mexican, gothic or
epic tracks, as they have a mystical air and leave an impressive mark, boleros,
different songs suit’) (jeseden, 28 July 2008). Although he attests to being an
amateur, like most YouTubers, there is a sophisticated sense of creating a dis-
tinct mood in his videos. In ‘Maria Felix [sic] Diva de Divas’ his mix of clips
from films combined with heavy rock creates an ‘epic’ mood, which contrasts
with his own playful, light-hearted montage ‘Maria Felix [sic] Sexy’ with the
retro pop track by Christina Aguilera.
11
This last track, as evidenced in the
accompanying video available on YouTube, takes the tune of The Andrews
Sisters ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, a 1940s wartime hit, and re-writes the
lyrics. This choice of music evokes the past and gives it a modern twist with
contemporary risqué lyrics, and is an interesting parallel with what is done
11. The song ‘Candy Man’
is from her 2007 Back
to Basics album.
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Niamh Thornton
62
by the YouTubers on the videos considered here. The creators of the videos
borrow from the past for the content yet create something new through this
cross-generational transnational bricolage of musical and visual choices.
Another reason for the constant freshness of the star text is the heter-
ogeneity and quite random nature of YouTube. This means that the user’s
favourite video may change, as may the other related videos that appear on
the page. Watch your favourite video again and you will get new recommen-
dations. Type in ‘María Félix’ or ‘Dolores del Río’ and a new set of films, or
older ones in a new order, will appear. It is a dynamic space. Since videos are
not ordered in a generic way, any videos that include either star’s name in the
title can appear; for example, this means that under Dolores del Río, along-
side political campaign videos for María Dolores del Río municipal president
of Hermosillo, Sonora, there are also videos about del Río the film star; clips
from her films and trailers; short videos of the streets named after her; a video
of someone claiming to be her son captured walking around Rodeo Drive in
Los Angeles, and so forth. It is this heterogeneity that gives an expansive and
ever-expanding biography of the stars. The videos are a source of seemingly
inexhaustible detail about the actors, in direct interplay with a lively interna-
tional community of viewers, some fans, others just casually interested, and
others still who have just come upon the videos in the complex interplay of
connections that can lead from one video to another. Therefore, while some
videos give a conservative and delimited construction of the fan image, the
relationship between this video and the multiple other texts on YouTube pro-
vide a more complicated transnational life narrative.
As evidenced from the discussion threads, audience is an integral element
on YouTube. Castillo discusses spectatorship in online video content as being
particular to this medium. She emphasizes the solitary individual enterprise
involved in the reception of online videos (Castillo 2007: 42). On YouTube,
popular videos are highlighted; you can see a selection of videos that are being
viewed by users alongside others that are promoted, and YouTube’s interface
enables its users to share what they have put up or have recently viewed. In
addition, your channel page, irrespective of whether you are a creator or con-
sumer of content, lets you put up favourites and build a profile as a viewer.
Unlike the isolated viewer that Castillo imagines other short film-makers, on
other fora, conceive of when they are creating, YouTube builds on an idea
of community and sharing. The implicit suggestion is that you are not alone
watching this film; there are others who have shared it and with whom you
can discuss the video and related issues. YouTube is about you: broadcast-
ing yourself, getting online and engaging with all these other selves. That the
content may be of very good quality is secondary to this engagement with
your own and others’ star images. The YouTuber thus can become a star, with
his/her own audience through the online persona that is created on YouTube.
In addition, if you have a favourite star and feel that your geographic location
sets you apart from other fans, you can create a transnational community of
viewers with whom you communicate online.
An outstanding example of the creative potential of video uploaded
onto YouTube is entitled ‘Une Very Stylish Fille’. It opens with an extract
taken from a television interview with Félix, in which she states in her
unique style,
El momento ha llegado, será fugaz, pero tendrá, según espero, además
de alegría un toque de eternidad, de esa misteriosa eternidad que
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YouTube: transnational fandom and Mexican divas
63
parecen tener aquellas películas en las que ustedes como sus padres y
abuelos todavía ven y en las que yo, siendo la que soy, la que fui, y la
que seré todavía actuo. [The moment has arrived, it will be fleeting, but
will, I hope, as well as happiness have a touch of eternity, that mysteri-
ous eternity that those films seem to have. Those films which you, like
your parents and grandparents, still watch, and in which I, being who I
am, and who I was, and I who I will be still act in.]
(eliudhernandez, 30 August 2006)
This quotation emphasizes time in an interesting way. The transitory ‘momento’
(moment) and ‘fugaz’ (fleeting) are followed closely by ‘eternidad’ (eternity).
This is a recognition of the transience of the moving image and of star fame, yet
a grandiose positioning of herself within a historical continuum. She is address-
ing a young viewer, who will not have known her when the films were initially
released, but draws attention to the fact that their parents and grandparents did,
and these films, which are often considered to be cultural ephemera, are granted
a classical status and significance. After her introductory speech, the music fades
in and there are a series of edited clips from films and still images, manipulated
and with special effects, in time to the beat. According to the YouTuber who
created it, eliudhernandez, ‘[e]legí estas imagenes por que según Yo [sic] repre-
senta mucho de lo que es la Doña además me hubiera gustado poner más imá-
genes pero no tenía las películas especialmente las que hizo en Europa’ (‘I chose
those images because in My [sic] opinion they represent who the Doña is, also
I would have liked to put in more images but I didn’t have the films, espe-
cially those she made in Europe’) (eliudhernandez, 28 July 2008). In film criti-
cism Félix is synonymous with films of the Revolution in which she has played
cross-dressing roles as a combatant of different ranks.
12
As epic love stories set
against a dramatic nationalist historical moment, her gender-blending perform-
ances have inspired harsh criticism (see, for example, Ayala Blanco 1974: 84–5).
However, eliudhernandez has used a wider range of images from Doña Bárbara,
from which she earned the title ‘la Doña’, to the aforementioned films of the
Revolution and more urban dramas such as Reportaje (Emilio Fernández, 1953).
Curiously, this edited video provides a more balanced overview of Félix’s career
than most film criticism.
Edited using Final Cut Pro, eliudhernandez is a video editor using his pro-
fessional skills to create a polished summary of Félix’s screen appearances on
Mexican film. He explains his motivation for making videos of Félix and of other
stars: ‘las otras estrellas de mis videos se me hacen interesantes por que apor-
taron mucho al cine mexicano, me parece que transmiten mucho sentimiento
en sus actuaciones y le hice video para que las nuevas generaciones las valoren’
(‘the other stars in my videos are interesting to me because of their contri-
bution to Mexican cinema. I think that they transmit a lot of feeling in their
performances and I made videos [of their performances] so that future genera-
tions will value them’) (eliudhernandez, 28 July 2008). Like other YouTubers he
is using new technology to draw attention to stars of old films and television
series, with the aim of bringing them to a new generation. Therefore, in line
with Castillo, there is a strong awareness of a viewership and a responsibility
towards the stars he is representing. The videos he has created are also inten-
tionally intertextual, not stand-alone art pieces: the expressed aim is to draw
the viewer’s attention elsewhere to the stars’ films elsewhere.
As I have already mentioned, music has a complex and shifting role
in the videos subject to the choices made and the relationship it has to the
12. See, for example, La
Cucuracha (Ismael
Rodríguez, 1959)
and La Generala (Juan
Ibáñez, 1971).
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Niamh Thornton
64
images. Eliudhernandez explains his choice of music, ‘María Félix una vez dijo
que ella tenía un estilo que gustaba...y la musica [sic] tiene la palabra “styl-
ish” además de que es una musica [sic] muy bonita y atemporal como lo es
Ella’ [sic] (‘María Félix once said that she had a style that appealed … and
the music has the word “stylish” in it as well as being a beautiful and time-
less piece, like She is [sic]’) (eliudhernandez, 28 July 2008). He is drawing on
a rich range of transnational cultural referents. The track is ‘Une Very Stylish
Fille’ by French house DJ and producer Dimitri from Paris.
13
It uses a sample
of dialogue between Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard from Breakfast at
Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) against a bossa nova beat. ‘Dimitri from Paris’
has been a creator of mixes for a variety of catwalk performances for Paris fash-
ion houses and the mix is not only upbeat, but is a witty commentary on the
male gaze. In the sample used for the track, Hepburn asks, ‘How do I look?’, to
which Peppard replies, ‘Very good’. The original video for the song, also avail-
able on YouTube, has a nostalgic 1950s’ feel, and features a model posing for
a photographer. Her jerky movements, return of the gaze and the kitschy feel
of the video challenge the conventional male gaze. This is also the strength of
the edited clips in eliudhernandez’s video. It is my contention that it is Félix’s
challenging return of the gaze that makes her characters strong and this is how
she has built her star text as a powerful woman. As frequently the films she has
acted in are conventional melodramas, what differs is her performance of the
gaze. This, as well as the self-consciously ironic track used for this video, which
samples the ‘How do I look?’ thereby draws attention to the act of looking that
breaks down the voyeurism of the gaze. This is an example of how, as Castillo
has written, the new online spaces and use of video self-consciously reference
other older media and their techniques. Thereby, while some YouTubers may
reinforce conventional forms of representation, others challenge the classical
codes of cinema.
CONCLUSION
In the YouTube videos the star text functions as a ‘loose shaping device’: a
key characteristic of the MTV style where ‘the narrative is seen as a series
of set pieces that each embody a dramatic arc of their own’ (Dancyger 2007:
196). This is most vividly evocative in the videos edited from film and TV
clips. MTV is readily accessible and reflects the dominance of US aesthet-
ics on popular culture. Joost Broeren sees YouTube videos as having a ‘mode
of attractional display’ that draws from ‘the tradition of the music video, the
movie trailer, the television advertisement’ (Broeren 2009: 159). For Broeren,
their length and how they are edited to music is influenced by this tradition.
However, where the fan is from may determine the choice of song, but skill,
not nationality, appears to influence aesthetics.
In the videos, YouTubers are giving a brief synopsis of what the star means
for them, thereby making the text both biographical and autobiographical.
In a statement that celebrates both stars and their significance for Mexico,
RetroArcaicoRex states that ‘Dolores del Río es considerada como una de las
actrices más importantes en México, junto con María Félix. Ellas dos, son con-
sideradas divas del cine mexicano y ninguna otra actriz podrá reemplazarlas.
Las extrañamos mucho’ (‘Dolores del Río, alongside María Félix, is considered
to be one of the most important actresses in Mexico. They are considered to
be divas of Mexican cinema and no other actresses can replace them. We miss
them a lot’) (retroarcaicorex, 30 July 2008). In common with reasons given by
13. This track can be found
on his Sacrebleu (1996)
album.
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YouTube: transnational fandom and Mexican divas
65
other YouTubers for creating the videos, this is an expression of loss: nostalgia
for an idealized past time and a desire to recreate the stars for a present day
audience. The videos are also constructed using local and international refer-
ents; they make musical choices that sometimes evoke specific past times and
spaces or at others are transnational cultural products with a contemporary feel.
YouTube has opened up a new forum available for the uploading of manipu-
lated and edited images; this allows the creators and audience to share their
personal perspective of a star image in a community-based platform, thereby
allowing for a new cross-cultural dialogue and the (re)creation of multiple inno-
vative star texts.
YouTube acts as a new and dynamic source (and resource) for the con-
structed star image: it is a space which lays claim to the creation of stars, through
the performances and self-promotional possibilities it enables. As well as the
production of stars, there is also potential for the creation of new star texts.
On YouTube, stars from the golden age of Hollywood and Mexican cinema are
reinvented for the twenty-first century. Fans can represent their versions of stars
from a bygone era, and through the discourse of the star text represent a self
that is tied into this star image. The YouTubers take control of an aspect of the
star image and reconstruct it according, not just to the availability of images, but
also their own desires, gaze and perceived audience reception.
In the studio era from which both María Félix and Dolores del Río emerged,
the stars themselves, and their management, controlled their own star texts.
This control has now shifted to individuals all over the world who want to rec-
reate and reproduce these star texts by uploading videos with diverse content:
although the number of individual images are multiple, they are limited, as both
stars are dead and no new ones can be produced. However, how these images
are edited and reproduced using distinct soundtracks means that endless pos-
sible new versions of the star text can be created. YouTube is a considerable
source of information on stars and their fans, as well as a compelling site to
examine the interplay between the stars’ images and their reincarnations on
YouTube as deployed in a transnational space.
REFERENCES
adiosbrave2007 (10 December 2007), ‘Maria Felix La Dona’, http://ie.youtube.
com/watch?v=gh92cgOnmTo. Accessed 7 August 2008.
alquezar63 (26 January 2008), ‘George Harrison: Dark Sweet Lady (A Tribute
to María Félix)’, http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=NcIqTDvQjfs. Accessed 4
August 2008.
Augus2010 (30 October 2007) ‘Dimitri from Paris – Une Very Stylish Fille’, http://
www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWdr-ohVmOc. Accessed 4 August 2008.
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INTERVIEWS
alquezar63 (2008), ‘e-mail interview with author’, 28 July.
eliudhernandez (2008), ‘e-mail interview with author’, 28 July.
gatabella (2008), ‘e-mail interview with author’, 28 July.
jeseden (2008), ‘e-mail interview with author’, 28 July.
retroarcaicorex (2008), ‘e-mail interview with author’, 30 July.
SUGGESTED CITATION
Thornton, N. (2010), ‘YouTube: transnational fandom and Mexican divas’,
Transnational Cinemas 1: 1, pp. 53–67, doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.53/1
CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
Dr Niamh Thornton is a Lecturer in Spanish and Film studies at the University
of Ulster, Coleraine. A specialist in Latin America with a particular focus on
Mexico, her research interests include literature, film and cyber-culture. She
examines war and conflict as moments of tension in which national and some-
times transnational interests interpose with the local and personal. In par-
ticular, she has considered textual and visual representations of canonical and
non-canonical voices, drawing parallels with international trends and critical
frameworks. In her research she has also considered how gender influences
the representation of conflict, which considers both the teller (film-maker,
author, narrator) and the subject of the narration. She is currently completing
a monograph on conflict in Mexican film.
Contact: School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, University of Ulster,
Cromore Road, Coleraine, Northern Ireland, BT52 ISA.
E-mail: n.thornton@ulster.ac.uk
TRAC 1.1_art_Thornton_053-068.indd 67 1/19/10 11:37:10 AM
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69
TRAC 1 (1) pp. 69–82 Intellect Limited 2010
Transnational Cinemas
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.69/1
KEYWORDS
transnational cinema
European cinema
Film Europe
British cinema
1920s
Michael Kertész/Curtiz
Sascha
ANDREW HIGSON
University of York
Transnational
developments in
European cinema
in the 1920s
ABSTRACT
Transnational cinema is not a new phenomenon, as this discussion of European col-
laboration in the 1920s demonstrates. In an attempt to match the scale of Hollywood
film-making and compete with American film distributors, some European compa-
nies established co-production arrangements with each other, while leading actors,
directors and other key creative personnel worked in a variety of countries, pro-
ducing films that often explored intercultural relationships and/or transnational
journeying. One of the key examples explored here is the work of Mihály Kertész
for the Austrian company Sascha in the mid-1920s, before he moved in 1926 to
Hollywood, where he became Michael Curtiz. The films he made in this period
include Moon of Israel, a Monumentalfilm co-produced with the British company
Stoll, and with a range of European collaborators both behind and in front of the
camera; three later films, The Red Heels, Road to Happiness and The Golden
Butterfly, were made on a smaller scale, but still exhibit the same transnational
arrangements. Also mentioned are various ‘British’ films of the period that embody
aspects of transnationalism.
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Higson_069-082.indd 69 1/19/10 10:11:32 AM
Andrew Higson
70
Transnational cinema is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, film-making and film
exhibition have been transnational since the first public film shows in the 1890s.
Or rather, developments were on the one hand decidedly local – as in the case
of the film-makers and showmen working in Brighton and Hove on the south
coast of England in the early years; but on the other hand, they rapidly crossed
national borders, as film entrepreneurs like the Lumières shot films around
the world and arranged for them to be shown equally widely. Two decades
later, in the 1920s, circumstances ensured that a new form of transnational
cinema emerged in Europe, one in which funding and production arrange-
ments, distribution and exhibition, and the movement of key creative workers
between film-making centres in different countries, look remarkably similar
to more recent developments that have been discussed under the banner of
transnational cinema. It is this context – European cinema in the 1920s – that
I explore here. As such, I build on some of the work presented in the book
Richard Maltby and I edited in 1999, ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film America’: Cinema,
Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1939 (Higson and Maltby 1999).
In the decade and a half between the end of the First World War and the
establishment of talking films as the standard in European picture houses,
those involved in the film business and film culture in Europe were forced
to acknowledge the economic strength, audience appeal and increasing mar-
ket domination of American films. But many also sought to reciprocate that
strength and appeal through the creation of a vibrant and dynamic European
cinema, a transnational cinema of collaboration and allegiance.
At the heart of this economy was a profound and pervasive passion for cin-
ema. Films were watched regularly by audiences in their millions. Those audi-
ences adored their film stars, a love affair that was fuelled by the films themselves,
with their narratives so often organised around the formation of the heterosexual
couple, their images littered with glamorous close-ups of the narrative protago-
nists, and the system of looks in the films encouraging both a desiring gaze at
and an identification with those protagonists; that love affair between audiences
and their film stars was also encouraged by the fan magazines of the period, their
pictures, interviews and gossip columns further enhancing the desirability of the
stars. Another breed of magazine encouraged an emerging intellectual cinephilia.
Transnationalism reigned supreme here too, through publications such as Close
Up (1927–1933), published in Switzerland, printed in English, and celebrating first
German expressionism and then Soviet montage cinema. Popular film culture
was equally transnational, given the adoration across Europe of Hollywood films
and films stars – many of whom were of course themselves of European origin.
For European producers, the goal was to produce films that might har-
ness this passion for cinema, to produce popular European films, to gener-
ate European stars. In order to achieve that goal, it was necessary to draw
on the resources of a well-funded business infrastructure. That infrastructure
might be American; occasionally it would be rooted in one of the European
national economies – Germany’s UFA, for instance; but increasingly through
the 1920s, there were efforts to create a transnational European infrastructure.
In the mid- and late 1920s, only a few years after the end of the First World
War, there was much talk of a ‘film League of Nations’ promoting a genu-
inely internationalist spirit (Higson and Maltby 1999a: 120 and passim). Thus a
British trade paper suggested in 1923
that the photoplay, speaking in an universal language, is capable of
being made the ambassador of nations, [for] the advancement of trade,
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Higson_069-082.indd 70 1/19/10 10:11:33 AM
Transnational developments in European cinema in the 1920s
71
commerce and general security, and the welding into one common
brotherhood […] the peoples of the whole universe.
(Anon. 1923: 42)
In this same period, the mid- and late 1920s, film-makers and film actors
frequently moved from one country to another to make their films. In the
late 1920s, for instance, there were numerous non-British Europeans work-
ing at Elstree, the studios of the leading British company, British International
Pictures, prompting a German trade journalist to observe that:
At Elstree, all the Englishmen speak broken German and all the
Germans speak broken English. An international hodge-podge lan-
guage is emerging; one feels momentarily that a mutual understanding
between peoples is possible through film. (Did we ever actually shoot at
each other, you Elstree boys?)
(Ritter 1930)
1

A ‘universal language’, an ‘international language’, a ‘common brother-
hood of the peoples of the whole universe’: this is heady stuff, but was it
ever anything more than an ambitious ideal? After all, the peoples of Europe
still spoke in many different languages – and even the film language of silent
cinema was never a universal language. In a very broad sense, in terms of
how film stories were visually narrated, American film language, with its often
fast editing, shallow depth of field and frequent close-ups, was different to
European film language, with its often longer takes, richer and deeper mise-
en-scène and more frequent use of long shots. Even within Europe, there were
marked differences between, say, British films and German films, in terms of
both subject matter and style – even if some British film-makers were eventu-
ally influenced by aspects of what is now called German expressionism. And
when films moved between different language markets, so the language of
the intertitles had to be changed.
Despite the obvious difficulties and differences, concerted efforts were
made to establish an economically viable transnational European film trade
in the 1920s. Thus various co-production or co-funding arrangements were
established on an ad hoc basis between companies in different nation-states.
The most ambitious producers sought to make films which it was hoped would
appeal to a range of European audiences – and ideally American audiences too.
In order to facilitate such arrangements and ambitions, key creative person-
nel – film-makers and actors – frequently moved across national borders, and
between companies in different countries. The production of films in itself was
not enough, however; it was also necessary to create a market for ‘European’
films. To this end, various companies also negotiated distribution deals with
their counterparts in other countries, with the aim of distributing films in a
wider range of national and linguistic markets. There were even attempts to
create a Europe-wide exhibition circuit, one that might overcome the difficul-
ties producers faced in covering their costs in domestic markets that were tiny
by comparison with Hollywood’s domestic market. There was also a series of
European film trade congresses, through which such initiatives might be coor-
dinated, and the wider principles of cooperation debated (Higson 1999a).
It was these sorts of initiatives and aspirations that some commentators at
the time referred to as Film Europe. The argument was that, through such col-
laborations, the strongest and most ambitious European film companies might
1. ‘In Elstree sprechen
alle Engländer
gebrochen deutsch
und alle Deutschen
gebrochen englisch.
Ein internationaler
Verständigungss
prachenbrei ist im
Entstehen. Man spürt
dort für Augenblicke
die Möglichkeit einer
Völkerverständigung
durch den Film. (Haben
wir tatsächlich mal
aufeinander losgeballert,
Ihr Elstreeboys?) ...
Nicht nur die Filme, die
man dort dreht, sind in
alle Welt gekommen.
Alle Welt scheint nun
auch nach Elstree zu
kommen’ (translation by
Peter Kramer and Nick
Riddle).
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Higson_069-082.indd 71 1/19/10 10:11:33 AM
Andrew Higson
72
be able to establish the sort of critical mass, industrial integration and market-
size that the Hollywood studios enjoyed. The hope was that this would ena-
ble European companies to compete on more equal terms with Hollywood,
and especially to regain a greater share of the various European markets.
Ironically, during this same period, the governments of various European
countries set up trade barriers – quotas, tariffs and the like – designed to pro-
tect the national production business, motivated in part by straightforwardly
economic concerns but also often in part by concerns about the erosion of
what were perceived as specifically national cultures.
There was much debate at the time about such developments, and the
situation to which they responded. On the one hand, some were concerned
about the extent to which the output of American companies dominated the
idea and experience of film as popular culture. On the other hand, there was
just as much concern about the sorts of films that were produced in Europe
as a result of the transnational movement of capital and personnel. On one
side, there were those calling for the development and protection of a genu-
inely national cinema within each nation-state; on the other hand, the most
ambitious film producers were trying to create ‘international’ films that could
work in a variety of markets. By way of example, if we take the British case, it
was not unusual to find critics wondering whether British cinema was British
enough. Film journalist Lionel Collier, for instance, writing in a fan magazine,
commented in 1928 that:
One of the most extraordinary things about British pictures is that, as
a whole, they have never developed what one may call for want of a
better word, a British spirit. In recent years it is possible to count on the
fingers the pictures that one can really feel are British and not just weak
imitations of what the Americans have seen fit to give us, or else weak
imitations of the German psychological and technical influence. […]
There is a tendency in this country to Continentalise or Americanise
our productions instead of working out our own salvation in our own
distinctive way, expressing our own peculiar qualities, home and gen-
eral life.
(Collier 1928: 22–23)
Equally problematic for this writer was ‘the tendency […] to bring over well-
known foreign directors, stars and cameramen’, for fear that they too will
‘“Continentalise” or “Americanise” our productions’ (1928: 23). One of the
villains in this respect was the German director E. A. Dupont, who worked in
Britain from 1927 to 1930: ‘One can hardly expect [this] clever German direc-
tor […] to realize the full British spirit in films, even if he tried to’ (1928: 22).
No surprise, then, that Moulin Rouge, Dupont’s first British film, made in 1928,
was, for Collier, ‘just about as un-English as a film could be’ (1928: 23).
Internationally-minded producers and film executives argued a somewhat
different case: if films were to succeed in world markets, as UFA’s German
producer Erich Pommer (1928: 41) put it, they should be ‘national in setting
etc, but international in spirit’ (see also Maxwell 1928). In Britain, that interna-
tionalism was secured in part precisely through importing foreign talent, and it
was certainly the case that a great many continental European directors, cam-
eramen, art directors and actors worked in Britain on nominally British films
in the late 1920s. The key company in this respect was British International
Pictures, the very name signifying the tension between the national and the
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Higson_069-082.indd 72 1/19/10 10:11:33 AM
Transnational developments in European cinema in the 1920s
73
international. Given this tension, does it make sense to speak of a ‘European’
cinema in the 1920s? Did the loosely coordinated series of industrial collabo-
rations that some commentators referred to as Film Europe actually produce a
uniquely and distinctively European cinema? What sorts of images, narratives
and cultural identities did they encourage? Did they produce a body of films
that might articulate a sense of European identity, a sense of belonging to
Europe, or of feeling European?
To put it another way, did the Film Europe initiatives create a genuinely
transnational cinema, one that might project a cosmopolitan identity and
British publicity material for The Road to Happiness (source: British Film Institute
Special Collection).
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Higson_069-082.indd 73 1/22/10 9:35:05 AM
Andrew Higson
74
sense of belonging? And if so, was this transnational identity of greater cul-
tural value than the national identities it seemed to displace? Or was it in fact
less a transnational than an international project, one that tended to rein-
force rather than dissolve national boundaries and national identities? Could
Pommer’s films that were ‘national in setting’ really be ‘international in spirit’,
in the sense of creating something that transcended national boundaries, in
a period when markets were strongly regulated by national governments and
culture was rigorously policed by nationalist commentators?
These are not easy questions to answer, but I want to begin to do so by
looking at a group of four films released between 1924 and 1927 that embody
some of the key features of the transnational or European films of the period:
Die Sklavenkönigin/Moon of Israel (1924), Das Spielzeug von Paris/Red Heels (1926),
Einspanner Nr. 13/Fiaker Nr. 13/The Road to Happiness (1926), and Der Goldene
Schmetterling/The Golden Butterfly (1926). The director of all four films was the
Hungarian, Mihály Kertész, who moved to Hollywood in 1926, where he became
Michael Curtiz, prolific director of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca
(1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), and White Christmas (1954), among many others.
The production of the four 1920s films was coordinated by Sascha, the
leading Austrian company of the period. The first was a co-production
between Sascha and Stoll, the leading British company of the period; indeed,
Stoll claimed in publicity that all four films were Stoll-Sascha co-productions,
although they probably had no real involvement in the latter three films beyond
owning the UK distribution rights. The evidence of the German and Austrian
trade press is that the final two films were in fact co-productions between
The cover of the British Press Book for Red Heels (source: British Film Institute Special Collection).
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Higson_069-082.indd 74 1/22/10 9:35:06 AM
Transnational developments in European cinema in the 1920s
75
Sascha and a German company, Phoebus, a part of the UFA combine. Sascha
had had close links with the German film business for some years, with UFA
having a significant financial interest in the company since 1918. By the early
1920s, Sascha had studios in Vienna, several production branches throughout
the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the largest Austrian distribution
concerns (including the rights to distribute Paramount films in Austria), and its
own American distribution company, the Herz Film Corporation. Sascha was,
then, an ambitious company with transnational interests and international
aspirations (Büttner and Dewald 1999; Loacker and Steiner 2002; Fidalgo 2009;
Higson unpublished; Anon. 1924b; Anon. 1926a; Anon. 1926c).
The first of the four films, Moon of Israel, is a costume drama on an epic
scale, about the persecution of the Jews under the Pharaohs. The other three
films are all love triangle stories with contemporary settings, with the story of
The Golden Butterfly taking place mainly in London, and the other two in Paris,
and all of them making the most of the opportunities provided by lavish and
exotic scenes in theatres, cabarets, balls and the like. The source material and
production teams for all four films were decidedly cosmopolitan/European.
Three of the films were versions of British stories: Moon of Israel was an adap-
tation of an H. Rider Haggard adventure novel; Red Heels was an adaptation
of a Margery Lawrence story; and The Golden Butterfly was re-worked from a
tale by P.G. Wodehouse. The fourth film, The Road to Happiness, was adapted
from a novel by the French writer, Xavier de Montepin. The producer and
the cameraman for all four films were Austrians; the director, of course, was
Hungarian; the scriptwriters were all central Europeans; and the art director on
British publicity material for Red Heels (source: Kinematograph Weekly, Jan 1926).
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Higson_069-082.indd 75 1/22/10 12:24:21 PM
Andrew Higson
76
the last two was German. These were, then, ‘international’ films produced for
the export market – in the sense that there was little self-consciously Austrian
about them, and in their use of multi-national casts and crews, their Egyptian,
French and English settings and their English and French source material.
Moon of Israel was a product of Sascha’s strategy in the early 1920s of pro-
ducing hugely expensive and spectacular films – Monumentalfilme – designed
to secure distribution in markets across Europe and the USA, following
in the footsteps of earlier Italian, German and American epics. Sascha’s
Monumentalfilme were made on an extravagant scale, with magnificent and
elaborate sets, exotic costumes, and huge crowd scenes – made possible in part
by the prevailing conditions of rampant inflation and severe unemployment,
ensuring a ready workforce and low wages. The Monumentalfilme included
adaptations of novels by Mark Twain, Rider Haggard and Gustav Flaubert –
respectively, American, British and French – as well as three stories with bibli-
cal sources (Loacker and Steiner 2002; von Dassanowsky 2005: 25–37).
Moon of Israel itself involved location shooting in Luxor – and a scene of
Moses parting the Red Sea, with special effects that many compared favour-
ably to the same scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood film of 1922, The Ten
Commandments (Anon. 1924a; Anon. 1924c: 5). The cast was chosen for its
international appeal, with the Hungarian Maria Corda, by now a big star in
central Europe, the British actor Adelqui Millar, the French actress Arlette
Marchal, and two Austro-Hungarians, Ferdinand Otto and Oszkar Beregi.
Moon of Israel was then part of a very bold production schedule on Sascha’s
part, with its internationalism writ large – but it proved unsustainable since
they could not secure sufficient distribution in the vital American market, and
the European market alone was unable to support such grandiose budgets.
The final three Sascha-Kertész films thus had to be produced on a much more
modest scale, but still retained international pretensions.
Red Heels was shot partly at Sascha’s studios in Vienna, and partly in Paris.
Again, the cast was multi-national, with the French actress Lili Damita in the
lead role, supported by the Swedish actor Eric Barclay, the French actor Georges
Tréville, the Italian actress Maria Asti, and the German Theo Shall. The Road to
Happiness involved location work in Paris and studio work in Berlin, with impres-
sive sets designed by Paul Leni. Lili Damita again starred, while alongside her were
three German actors, Paul Biensfeld, Karl Ebert and Walter Rilla, and a German-
born and latterly Germany-based Briton, Jack Trevor. The Golden Butterfly, the
last of the films Kertész made before going to Hollywood, was shot on location
in London and Cambridge, and in Berlin studios arranged by Phoebus. Again
the production neatly embodies the transnationalism of the Film Europe years,
with its Hungarian director, German art director and Austrian cameraman work-
ing in a German studio for an Austrian company on an English story, with the
French star, Lili Damita, appearing alongside a Danish-Swedish leading man,
Nils Asther, the Anglo-German Jack Trevor and the German Curt Bois.
But if all of these films were in some way what Erich Pommer would have
called an ‘international film’, each was also carefully tailored to specific mar-
kets. The range of stars in each production enabled the films to appeal to a
range of national audiences. Stoll, the British collaborator, was also at pains to
explain that they had carefully re-edited Moon of Israel for British distribu-
tion, and had engaged the author of the source novel, Rider Haggard, to write
the intertitles. Considerable efforts were made to ensure authentic Parisian
street scenes for The Road to Happiness, from a French novel, and to secure
Cambridge, Henley and central London locations for The Golden Butterfly,
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Transnational developments in European cinema in the 1920s
77
adapted from English source material. And for Red Heels, Kertész actually
shot two different endings, for markets with different moral sensibilities. In
the more moralistic version, Lili Damita’s character is effectively punished
for her sins and the film ends in tragedy. This was the version released in
Austria, Germany and Britain. For the French and Spanish markets, however,
Damita’s character is allowed to live and to enjoy her promiscuous lifestyle
(Anon. 1924b; Anon. 1926b; Anon. 1926c: 32; Fidalgo 2009).
Even if we see these four productions as examples of Pommer’s ‘interna-
tional film’, it is difficult, despite the cosmopolitan make-up of the creative
team, to see these films as articulating a European imagination, enabling audi-
ences to imagine themselves as European, or even as belonging to Europe.
The goal was not to produce ‘European’ films that stood above national inter-
ests. On the contrary, the goal was to produce films that were carefully tai-
lored to the perceived interests of audiences in different national or language
markets: films that might appear to those audiences as national films, thereby
effectively undermining any pretensions towards internationalism. Films could
be further ‘localised’ or ‘nationalised’ at the point of distribution, through re-
titling the film, through producing a new set of intertitles, or through promot-
ing one particular, familiar star rather than another. Translation in its broadest
sense was thus vital. What this underlines is the importance of addressing not
simply questions of production and textuality, but also questions of distribu-
tion, promotion and reception: how films are sold in different markets, and
how different audiences respond to those films. Such films may look excitingly
transnational at the point of production and distribution, but they are often
designed so that they appear comfortingly local at the point of reception.
In fact, it is more complex than this, with efforts to establish a national set-
ting in international films coming across to some audiences as inauthentic – so
that, say, Germanic representations of Englishness would appear simply as un-
English, as was claimed of another of the German Dupont’s nominally British
films, Piccadilly (1929). Of course what is one audience’s ‘national setting’ is
for another audience an exotic foreign location – as in the Parisian setting of
Dupont’s earlier film Moulin Rouge, or two of the Kertész films, Red Heels and The
Road to Happiness. For French audiences, these films may have appeared inau-
thentic. To British or central European audiences it may have reinforced reduc-
tive expectations of this exotic foreign place. This suggests less an international
spirit or a European sensibility, and more a fascination with cultural difference,
a voyeuristic fascination with an exotic other. Moon of Israel also confronts the
problem of how to present cultural difference, and again figures it precisely as
exotic spectacle. This was in fact a very familiar feature of the European films of
the period. On the one hand, efforts would be made to ‘localise’ a film, whether
at the point of production or at the point of distribution and marketing. On the
other hand, the non-local, the non-national, that which could not be translated,
would appear precisely as foreign or exotic – and would very often play on well-
established and inevitably reductive stereotypes.
In this same period, film-makers did endeavour to develop various models
for projecting a sense of multi-culturalism, multi-nationalism or transnation-
ality within a film – but they still tended to be limited in scope and often
fell short of imagining a pan-European identity. Moon of Israel perhaps goes
some way towards articulating a common European heritage through the Old
Testament aspects of its story – although ironically in order to present a nar-
rative that might speak to a wide range of European audiences, they have to
situate it outside Europe itself.
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Andrew Higson
78
Among other models for films that had some connection with the British
film industry, there is the one provided by films like Piccadilly or Alley Cat, both
1929 releases made in Britain by German directors (Dupont and Hans Steinhoff
respectively), and set in a London of cultural contrasts, pitting an upper-class
West End world of luxury against a working class East End world of low life
and the cultural strangeness of the ethnic Chinese community. Then there
were films like The Call of the Blood (Louis Mercanton, 1920/1927), The Bond
Man (Herbert Wilcox, 1929) and The Woman He Scorned (Paul Czinner, 1929),
nominally British films made variously by a Frenchman, an Englishman and a
Hungarian, with their narratives moving between two or more European coun-
tries and featuring characters of different nationalities. In such films, romance
is often both a means of bringing together people of different ethnic groups,
and the cause of the narrative trouble that ensues. In The Call of the Blood, for
instance, Ivor Novello plays a Briton with a Sicilian grandparent who becomes
involved in an adulterous affair while travelling in Italy. Such films articulate a
sense of transnationality: their narratives explore cultural difference – but often
in a negative sense, as tight-knit local communities struggle and often fail to
embrace strangers. Nor is there any evidence that the film-makers were setting
out to critique this intolerance of strangers; on the contrary, the films take this
cultural intolerance for granted as an aspect of local community cohesion.
A more open-minded, cosmopolitan sensibility tends to be the pre-
serve of the upper classes or Bohemians, as in The Constant Nymph (Adrian
Brunel, 1928), where a European pastoral idyll in the Austrian Tirol is home
to a more artistic sensibility, with folk culture and a child-like unruliness
standing in sharp contrast to the middle-class English decorum of what
an intertitle presents as ‘tasteful Chiswick’. As in so many such films,
continental European-ness licenses a type of romantic liaison that is far
more difficult to play out within the rigid social confines of England and
Englishness. Within the context of British (for which read English) cinema,
a move to continental Europe often signals a more sophisticated and adult
approach to romance, as in Harry Lachman’s witty sex comedy Weekend
Wives (1928), set in Paris and Deauville, or the beautifully shot transna-
tional romance of The Call of the Blood. For the more anxious, conservative
British commentators of the period, this licensing of socially transgressive
love and sexual promiscuity inevitably constituted a problem: this was one
aspect of the ‘Continentalising’ effect on British films that could be as wor-
rying as ‘Americanisation’.
It was certainly the case that in numerous British films of the 1920s that
had some sort of continental European link – whether at the level of produc-
tion or of setting – efforts were made to project on the one hand a glamorous
exoticism, a fetishisation of the female body, and on the other hand an intensi-
fication of desire. Film-makers seemed far more willing to fetishise the bodies
of European female stars than of their British counterparts, as can readily be
seen in films such as The Golden Butterfly (starring Lili Damita), Moulin Rouge
(Olga Tschechowa), Tesha (Maria Corda; directed by Victor Saville, 1928), The
Informer (Lya de Putti; directed by Arthur Robison, 1929) and The Woman He
Scorned (Pola Negri) – although both Corda and Negri came to Britain via
Hollywood, while the Chinese-American Anna May Wong performs the same
exotic, sexualised function in Piccadilly.
A key means of producing a dramatically heightened romance or desire
in such films was through the plot device of the love triangle. In Moulin
Rouge, for instance, the Russian actress Olga Tschechowa plays a beautiful
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Transnational developments in European cinema in the 1920s
79
French cabaret star who is reunited with her daughter (played by an Australian
actress). Meanwhile, the daughter’s fiancé, played by the Frenchman Jean
Bradin, falls in love with the mother – with disastrous results. The love triangle
also featured in three of Kertész’s Sascha films, Red Heels, The Road to Happiness
and The Golden Butterfly, and in The Call of the Blood, The Rat (Graham Cutts,
1925), Tesha, The Bondman, and The Woman He Scorned. Occasionally, as in Call
of the Blood and The Bondman, the love triangle mixes people of different ethnic
or national identities, but in others, such as Moulin Rouge, the transnational
interplay is confined to the production process, rather than the narrative itself:
thus all the characters in Moulin Rouge are ostensibly French and all the action
takes place in France.
Whether the transnational interplay is a production event or a narra-
tive event, such films are often marked by their creative geography. Thus
sequences shot in Berlin and Venice are cut together in The Man Without
Desire (Adrian Brunel, 1923), and Cambridge and London locations are inter-
cut with German studio scenes in The Golden Butterfly. Elsewhere, real and
virtual scenes of London, Paris, Rome, Sicily and North Africa are seamlessly
edited together in The Call of the Blood, while Cornwall can stand in for the
Channel Islands and Marseille for a northern French port in The Woman He
Scorned. With actors often also playing characters of a different nationality to
their own, identity becomes a fluid and unstable category, in which percep-
tion and (mis)recognition play a vital role.
In many ways, the narrative strategies adopted in these films calls into
question the possibility of speaking of a collective European identity – as
opposed to local or regional identities, or national identities. The Bondman,
for instance, moves between the Isle of Man and Sicily, but both locales
remain decidedly local: thus community and identity on the Isle of Man
are established in terms of rural village life and ancient historical tradi-
tion, which is marked simply as other, as different from Sicilian life. The
emphasis not simply on the local but on the marginal, on love on the edge
of society, is often a feature of these films. In both The Woman He Scorned
and Cape Forlorn (Dupont, 1931), the female protagonist is caught up with
a lighthouse keeper, for instance. Even when the films seem to shift to a
more central position within high society, as in The Rat or Piccadilly, it is the
romantic liaisons with low life characters well outside this society that create
the drama in the films. These are not exactly ideal models for articulating a
sense of European community or a positively valued transnational or tran-
scultural identity.
One might argue that a common European identity emerges as a form of
resistance to Americanisation. But there are two problems with this argument.
First, we might note how much of European popular culture already embraced
America in the 1920s – American films and American stars were enormously
popular across Europe, even if local films also attracted sizeable audiences.
Secondly, if the transnational aspirations of Film Europe were in part about
building an industry that could compete with Hollywood on an equal footing,
the other main form of resistance to American domination of European mar-
kets was the erection of trade barriers by national governments across Europe,
to restrict the distribution of foreign (primarily American) films within their
borders. There was little inter-governmental cooperation in developing these
barriers, tariffs and quota systems: on the contrary, as I have already suggested,
this was the reassertion of nationalist policy in an increasingly globalised film
economy. On the one hand, then, creative workers, modes of representation,
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Higson_069-082.indd 79 1/19/10 10:11:40 AM
Andrew Higson
80
cultural goods and the means of production move across national borders
and between nation-states. On the other hand, that movement is deliberately
restricted, and its products are denigrated and challenged.
What we can see in these debates and developments in and around
European cinema in the 1920s is a series of tensions: between the local and
the cosmopolitan, between nationalism and cultural imperialism, between
cultural imperialism and internationalism, and between internationalism
and transnationalism. From a nationalist point of view, the aggressive dis-
tribution of American films in European markets was a symptom of cultural
imperialism. The erection of national trade barriers was both an assertion
of national sovereignty and a failure to recognise the international dimen-
sions of the problem. At the level of representation, the local was often more
prominent than the national, and only rarely are communities represented as
cosmopolitan. The League of Nations vision of a universal film language in
effect sought to erase difference in its idealistic assertion of internationalism.
The various European Film Congresses of the 1920s were also international-
ist in design, with the nation-state central to their make-up, since they were
founded upon the principle of bringing together trade associations and trade
representatives from different countries precisely as national representatives.
Meanwhile, the collaborations between the strongest or most ambitious film
companies across Europe, and the flow of capital, cultural goods and person-
nel across national boundaries, represent a form of transnationalism, with
few of the initiatives dependent on the actions of the governments of par-
ticular nation-states.
The introduction of talkies in Europe in 1929 temporarily threatened
the international film business. Hollywood was worried that it would lose its
European markets. But the idea of a pan-European cinema and of film as the
new international language was also very much thrown into question. Films
were now even more language-specific than they were in the silent period, while
Europe was made up of a series of often very small, linguistically delineated
markets. In the long run, of course, dubbing and sub-titling became the norms,
but for a short period at the turn of the decade the language problem was solved
by the multi-lingual film. In the early sound years, British International Pictures
was probably the European company most involved in the production of multi-
lingual versions of their films. Dupont again led the way, with his films Atlantic
(1929), Two Worlds (1930) and Cape Forlorn each being made in three different
language versions (English, German and French), with different casts for each
version, but the same storyline and sets. These multi-lingual versions, with
their multi-national casts and crew, and their co-production and distribution
arrangements, can in many ways be seen as emblematic of the Film Europe
developments: in particular the way in which the international film would be
tailored – in this case, literally translated – for specific national or linguistic
markets (Higson 1999b; Vincendeau 1999).
The transnational migration of creative workers in the European film
industry of the 1920s undoubtedly produced a cosmopolitan production force
but in some ways the demands of the different national and linguistic markets
that made up the European market undermined the production of a cinema
that might transcend national borders and sensibilities. On the one hand, the
films produced might unsettle traditional national identities – with English
reserve displaced by a ‘continental’ approach to romance, desire and the rep-
resentation of the body, for instance. On the other hand, the ‘international’
film often reasserted stereotypical national identities, since these were the
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Transnational developments in European cinema in the 1920s
81
ones that had most purchase in international markets and could be consumed
by the diverse audiences of different nation-states most easily. Or, to put it
another way, if films asserted a sense of cultural difference, the culturally dif-
ferent often figured as the object of a voyeuristic gaze; at the same time, the
need to reach particular markets meant stressing the familiar, finding ways of
nationalising the international co-production.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I would like to thank Miguel Fidalgo for making extracts of the manuscript of
Michael Curtiz: Bajo la sombra de Casablanca available to me prior to publication;
and Ivan Mace-Tessler for translating material from German for me.
REFERENCES
Anon. (1923), ‘Internationalising the film’, The Bioscope, 25 October, p. 42.
Anon. (1924a), ‘Die Sklavenkönigin’, Lichtbild-Bühne, 25 October, page num-
ber unknown, www.filmportal.de. Accessed 9 February 2006.
Anon. (1924b), ‘Stoll enterprise’, Kinematograph Weekly, 30 October, p. 81.
Anon. (1924c), Advertisement for Moon of Israel, Kinematograph Weekly,
13 November, p. 5.
Anon. (1926a), ‘Next week’s trade shows’, Kinematograph Weekly, 7 January,
p. 71.
Anon. (1926b), ‘Next week’s trade shows’, Kinematograph Weekly, 15 July,
p. 36.
Anon. (1926c), ‘Reviews of The Golden Butterfly’, Kinematograph Weekly, 22 July,
pp. 32–34.
Büttner, Elisabeth and Dewald, Christian (1999), ‘Michael Kertész. Filmarbeit
in Österreich bzw. bei der Sascha-Filmindustrie A.-G., Wien, 1919–1926’,
in Francesco Bono, Paolo Caneppele and Günter Krenn (eds), Elektrische
Schatten: Beiträge zur Österreichischen Stummfilmgeschichte, Wien: Filmarchiv
Austria, pp. 101–138.
Collier, Lionel (1928), ‘Wanted! – A British Spirit’, The Picturegoer, September,
pp. 22–23.
Fidalgo, Miguel A. (2009), Michael Curtiz: Bajo la sombra de Casablanca, Madrid:
T&B Editores.
Higson, Andrew (1999a), ‘Cultural policy and industrial practice: Film Europe
and the international film congresses of the 1920s’, in Andrew Higson and
Richard Maltby (eds), ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film America’: Cinema, Commerce
and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1939, Exeter: University of Exeter Press,
pp. 117–131.
Higson, Andrew (1999b), ‘Polyglot films for an international market: E.A.
Dupont, the British film industry, and the idea of a European cinema’, in
Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby (eds), ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film America’:
Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1939, Exeter: University of
Exeter Press, pp. 274–301.
Higson, Andrew (unpublished), ‘Film Europe under the microscope: the
Anglo-Austrian Stoll-Sascha collaboration, 1924–26’, unpublished paper.
Higson, Andrew and Maltby, Richard (eds) (1999), ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film
America’: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1939, Exeter:
University of Exeter Press.
Loacker, Armin and Steiner, Ines (eds), (2002), Imaginierte Antike:
Osterreischische Monumental-Stummfilme, Wien: Filmarchiv Austria.
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Andrew Higson
82
Maxwell, John (1928), ‘The International Film’, The Bioscope [British Film spe-
cial issue], December, p. 56.
Pommer, Erich (1928), ‘The International Film’, Kine Weekly, 8 November,
p. 41.
Ritter, Karl (1930), ‘Die deutschen Filme in Elstree’, Film Kurier, 7 June, page
number missing [reproduced in Cinegraph/Metropolis, ‘Film-Europa 1930’,
programme brochure, n.d.].
Vincendeau, Ginette (1999), ‘Hollywood Babel: the multiple language version’,
in Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby (eds), ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film America’:
Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1939, Exeter: University of
Exeter Press, pp. 207–224.
von Dassanowsky, Robert (2005), Austrian Cinema, A History, Jefferson:
McFarland.
SUGGESTED CITATION
Higson, A. (2010), ‘Transnational developments in European cinema in the
1920s’, Transnational Cinemas 1: 1, pp. 69–82, doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.69/1
CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
Andrew Higson is the Greg Dyke Professor of Film and Television in the
recently established Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the
University of York, UK. He previously taught for 22 years at the University of
East Anglia. He has published widely on the history of British cinema, from
the silent period to the present, and on the concepts of national and transna-
tional cinema.
Contact: Department of Theatre, Film and Television, University of York,
Heslington, York, YO10 5DD.
E-mail: ah607@york.ac.uk
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Higson_069-082.indd 82 1/19/10 10:11:40 AM
83
TRAC 1 (1) pp. 83–97 Intellect Limited 2010
Transnational Cinemas
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.83/1
KEYWORDS
Hollywood
1930s
foreign revenues
film budgets
profits
strategy
JOHN SEDGWICK
London Metropolitan University
MIKE POKORNY
University of Westminster
Hollywood’s foreign
earnings during the
1930s
ABSTRACT
This work examines the importance of foreign markets to Hollywood during the 1930s.
The work is empirical in nature and draws upon a financial data set (including foreign
revenue streams) of all feature films released by the MGM, RKO and Warner Bros.
studios during the decade. The work concludes that the idea that Hollywood garnered
its profits from overseas, while meeting production costs at home, is too simplistic. An
investigation of the 1790 film budgets found in the data set indicates that the most
successful films overseas were big budget films that needed to be highly popular with
domestic audiences if they were to be profitable. In developing this analysis, the idea
of Hollywood producing films designed specifically for overseas markets is rejected.
It is widely understood that foreign earnings were important to Hollywood
from the interwar period onwards. Robert Sklar made the standard argument
when he wrote:
In practice, during the interwar years, American pictures as a whole did
no better than break even at the domestic box office. But with production
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Sedgwick_083-098.indd 83 1/19/10 10:46:21 AM
John Sedgwick | Mike Pokorny
84
1. See Bakker (2008:
320) for a more recent
statement to the same
effect.
2. The present authors have
previously demonstrated
that as a general
rule big budget films
throughout the 1930s
failed to cover their costs
in the domestic market
(Sedgwick and Pokorny
2005).
costs already covered, every ticket sold outside the United States, less
overseas distribution costs, produced profit.
(Sklar 1975: 216)
1

The focus of this statement is on the domestic market, with foreign earnings
cast as a necessary extra. However, such a perspective is limited because it
fails to highlight the importance of the dynamic nature of the competitive
advantage given to Hollywood by the enhanced revenue flows derived from
overseas markets. As Gerben Bakker has so convincingly demonstrated, the
ability of Hollywood to escalate its budgets during the 1910s allowed it to
win what he terms the ‘quality race’ against European producers (Bakker
2008: chapter 6). And by the late 1910s, the worldwide reach of Hollywood’s
operations (Thompson 1985: 69) produced additional revenue flows that gave
its studios further scope to increase budgets, the strategic impetus for which
came primarily from competition between them.
This article uses micro-data to investigate Hollywood’s foreign earnings, revis-
iting the studio ledgers uncovered by Mark Glancy (the Eddie Mannix ledger, for
MGM releases, and the William Schaefer ledger, for Warner Bros. releases) and
Richard Jewell (the C.J. Trevlin ledger, for RKO releases). In these ledgers the
domestic and foreign earnings of all three studios’ releases over the 1929–1930 to
1941–1942 seasons are listed (Glancy 1992, 1995; Jewell 1994). Its methods are
thus both empirical and quantitative, and treat a movie’s economic performance
as the unit of analysis in both the domestic and the foreign markets. Evidence is
presented to show that Hollywood treated foreign markets not separately from,
but as extensions to, the home market, with big budget films needing to do well
in both to make profits.
2
This is a significantly different conclusion from that sug-
gested by the rule of thumb metric suggested by Sklar, which perceives foreign
markets as the source of profits. Hence, Glancy’s observation:
Beginning in the 1930s, the studios had realised that ‘British’ films could
bring extraordinary British earnings, while of course true, is not the
whole story – the point being that such films also generated extraordi-
narily high home market earnings, without which, of course, they would
not have been made.
(Glancy 1999: 26)
As alluded to above, the institutional means by which Hollywood made
its films available to the world during the late 1910s and 1920s were first
researched in depth by Kristin Thompson. Clearly, a growing export market
for Hollywood required a ‘foreign policy’ that protected, and furthered, its
interests. Drawing upon State Department, MPPDA and other trade archives,
and trade journals, Ian Jarvie and Ruth Vasey separately have given scholars
a firm basis for understanding the operation of Hollywood’s relations with
the State Department, foreign governments, and foreign industry bodies dur-
ing the studio period (Jarvie 1992; Vasey 1997). The contribution made here
is much more modest, but nevertheless important: namely, Hollywood may
have many aspects to it, but one of those aspects is that the films it produced
and distributed were commodities – they were put onto the market by capital-
ist businesses in the pursuit of profits as part of a general system of produc-
tion and exchange. In investigating the performance of films as commodities
in various micro-contexts at particular junctures in time, it is possible to come
to a more informed understanding of the macro-contexts which for instance
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Hollywood’s foreign earnings during the 1930s
85
required a ‘foreign policy’. The data set at our disposal only differentiates
between North American (i.e., USA and Canada) and foreign markets, which
is a weakness, although contemporary evidence is presented of the relative
size of the latter. Nevertheless, this brief article represents a start in the proc-
ess of measuring the impact of Hollywood as a transnational force.
The article is structured as follows: the first section describes the data set
and outlines broad time-series trends, while the second examines the relative
earnings of particular films in domestic and international markets. The rela-
tionship between budget size and domestic and foreign earnings is the subject
of the third section, followed by a conclusion.
THE DATA
The three studio ledgers list the rental incomes (revenues net of the exhibitor’s
take) of films released by them, by annual release ‘season’, which is defined
(by the studios) as the twelve-month period between 1 September and 31
August. Because RKO first started trading in the 1929 season, the 1930s has
been conceived of as a long decade spanning the 1929–30 and 1941–42 sea-
sons. The MGM and RKO ledgers contain film reports listing costs of produc-
tion, domestic earnings, foreign earnings and profits. Distribution costs can be
deduced by subtracting production costs plus profits from total revenues. The
position with Warner Bros. is more difficult because profits were not listed in
the ledger. To estimate profits we first estimated distribution costs, which we
did by using the relationship between profits, costs and rentals for the films
found in the MGM and RKO ledgers.
3
The significance of Glancy and Jewell’s respective publications is that, prior
to the discovery of the studio ledgers, knowledge of the performance of par-
ticular films in the market place during the 1930s could be gauged only by the
weekly returns of first-run cinemas in cities across the United States, reported
in the trade magazines Motion Picture Herald and Variety. In accounting for
net foreign earnings, the ledgers are uniquely valuable. Partial corroboration
of the magnitudes found in the MGM, RKO and Warner Bros. ledgers is given
by Mae Huettig in her authoritative, and frequently referenced, contemporary
account of film industry structure during the 1930s (Table 1 and Table 2 in
Huettig 1944: 296). This indicates that in all three cases rental incomes in 1939
were within 5 per cent of the aggregate revenues reported in the ledgers for
that year.
4
One of the consequences of the catastrophic downturn in economic activ-
ity between 1929 and 1933 in the United States – commonly known the Great
Depression - was that the general level of prices fell.
5
The effect of deflation is to
increase what can be bought with a unit of currency. During the years 1929 to
1933 prices fell by over a quarter, which means that in 1933 a dollar purchased
approximately 25 per cent more goods than it did in 1929. Historians need to be
careful when analysing variables expressed in monetary terms during periods
when prices change rapidly, since the measure of value itself is changing rapidly.
The normal procedure for rectifying this problem is to adopt a single year as a
standard (constant-price, or reference-value year) and express all (current year)
monetary values for all years in the time series as if they had been generated
in that standard year. Hence, if we know that prices in 1933 were only 75 per
cent of what they had been in 1929, then to express 1933 values in 1929 prices
requires that 1933 values be reflated by 100/75 (1.33), which means that the
revenues or costs of a film released in 1933 should be multiplied by 1.33 in order
3. The procedure for doing
this can be found in the
Appendix of Pokorny
and Sedgwick (2010).
4. Unfortunately, these
tables are not sourced,
although they are likely
to have been derived
from the Census of
Production conducted
by the Department Of
Commerce. As well
as the ‘major’ five and
‘minor’ three studios,
Huettig also lists data
for the Republic and
Monogram studios.
5. See Balio (1993:
ch.2) for an account
of Hollywood during
the Great Depression;
Kennedy (1999) for
a political and social
history of the Great
Depression; and Temin
(2000) for an economic
historian’s account of the
Great Depression.
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John Sedgwick | Mike Pokorny
86
6. Because the financial
year traverses two film-
season years unequally,
the year in which two
thirds of the months fall
has been used for price
index purposes. Hence
the year 1929–30 has
been indexed as if all
films were released in
1930.
7. Lary May has long
argued that attendance
rose during the 1930s,
albeit from a much
lower level than that
reported officially. See
May (2000), Figure 2,
p. 290. The authors
are grateful to Professor
May for his helpful
correspondence on this
subject.
to reflect purchasing power equivalence with films released in 1929. Because
the data used in this paper take the form of a time series across 13 annual sea-
sons, all values have been adjusted to 1929 Consumer Price Index (CPI) values.
Taking 1929 as 100, CPI values for the period are 97.5 for 1930; 88.9 for 1931;
79.7 for 1932; 75.6 for 1933; 78.2 for 1934; 80.1 for 1935; 80.9 for 1936; 83.8 for
1937; 82.3 for 1938; 81.1 for 1939; 81.9 for 1940; and 86.0 for 1941.
6
Table 1 shows that when prices are expressed in constant 1929 US dollars, the
three studios in combination experienced growing revenues during the 13-year
period, with domestic rentals and foreign rentals rising by 30 per cent and 83 per
cent respectively – barely falling at all, even at the nadir of the Depression. The
growth of domestic rental income shown here is in keeping with the decennial
Bureau of Census data which when converted to 1929 US dollars, show that total
domestic rental income rose by 31 per cent during the decade 1929 to 1939, with
the combined MGM-RKO-Warner Bros. share rising from 33 to 35 per cent.
7
The most startling aspect of Table 1 is the growth of foreign rental earn-
ings over the period. They increased significantly as a proportion of total
rental income, in a step process that saw the ratio rise by just over 32 per
cent between 1931 and 1932, from over $27 million to over $41million, ris-
ing thereafter, so that foreign rental earnings in 1941 were nearly twice what
Season
(1)
Films
(2)
Domestic
rentals
(3)
Foreign
rentals
(4)
Total
rentals
(5)
Total
production
costs
(6)
Total
profits
(7)
Domestic
rentals as
a propor-
tion of total
rentals
(8)
Foreign
rentals as a
proportion
of total
rentals
(9)
1929–30 156 74,823 30,009 104,832 47,873 16,138 0.71 0.29
1930–31 139 69,895 27,684 97,579 56,416 1,777 0.72 0.28
1931–32 145 69,400 27,660 97,060 56,685 3,873 0.72 0.28
1932–33 141 70,022 41,664 111,687 52,052 19,165 0.63 0.37
1933–34 132 68,900 40,861 109,761 53,366 15,520 0.63 0.37
1934–35 135 77,652 47,566 125,217 57,424 20,559 0.62 0.38
1935–36 146 88,538 53,685 142,222 62,927 27,428 0.62 0.38
1936–37 132 81,123 43,027 124,150 68,218 10,992 0.65 0.35
1937–38 139 91,461 49,736 141,197 80,863 5,454 0.65 0.35
1938–39 141 98,088 48,248 146,336 78,090 15,454 0.67 0.33
1939–40 138 103,868 53,503 157,371 91,753 8,751 0.66 0.34
1940–41 128 94,358 49,452 143,810 67,413 24,795 0.66 0.34
1941–42 118 97,665 52,143 149,808 68,514 29,071 0.65 0.35
Total 1,790 1,085,792 565,239 1,651,031 841,594 198,976
Sources: Eddie Mannix, William Schaefer and C.J. Trevlin ledgers; Department of Commerce.
Note: Profits are derived by subtracting production and distribution costs from the domestic and foreign rentals
earned by the studios for each of the films that they released.
Table 1: Rental Earnings, Costs of production and Profits of MGM, RKO and Warner Bros. Studios, 1929–41
(in 1929 $000s).
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Hollywood’s foreign earnings during the 1930s
87
8. See the excellent
discussion in the literature
on this subject in Vasey
(1997: 231-2, note 7).
9. £1= $4.86 in 1929,
$4.86 in 1930, $4.54
in 1931; $3.51 in
1932; $4.24 in 1933;
$5.04 in 1934; $4.90
in 1935; $4.97 in
1936; $4.94 in 1937;
$4.89 in 1938; $4.43
in 1939; $3.83 in
1940; and $4.03 in
1941. Source: Officer
and Williamson (2008).
10. Hence a film earning
$1 million in the home
market and $1 million
in the overseas markets
would attribute 0.5 of
the distribution costs
to the home market
and 0.5 to the foreign
market.
11. Variety, 6 November
1934. In the article,
the number of cinemas
is given as 38,936,
but our re-calculation of
these figures shows that
the total is as given in
the text.
they had been in 1931. This leap in foreign earnings was probably triggered
by the United Kingdom (along with Australia and New Zealand), leaving the
Gold Standard at that time, causing the British Pound to devalue by over 20
per cent against the US Dollar between 1931 and 1932, which in turn led to
exhibitors in these territories paying Hollywood distributors significantly more
dollars than they had expended previously to rent their movies. The effect of
the step increase was that in that one year, the contribution of foreign to total
incomes rose from 28 per cent to 37 per cent.
8
Thereafter the proportion fell
back a few percentage points, as domestic earnings picked up and the British
Pound returned to earlier levels against the dollar.
9
In Table 1 profits have been calculated by deducting the sum of produc-
tion and distribution costs (not listed) from the sum of domestic and foreign
rental income. It is apparent that in each of the thirteen years in the time-series
foreign revenues exceed profits, suggesting that in the absence of foreign mar-
kets production budgets would have had to be lower. By disaggregating the
data to individual film titles, and attributing distribution costs on the basis of
the ratio of domestic to foreign rental earnings,
10
the calculation can be made
that of the 1,790 films in the data set, 587 (32.8 per cent) would have been
profitable had they been distributed in the home market only, with one film
breaking even, and the remaining 1202 (67.2 per cent) dependent on foreign
earnings for their profitability. Of these, 600 (49.9 per cent, or 33.5 per cent of
the data set total) films failed to break even. Hence, once the analysis is con-
ducted at a disaggregated level, it is clear that the importance of foreign earnings
to Hollywood profitability is more complex than has been supposed hitherto.
FOREIGN MARKET POSSIBILITIES
Department of Commerce data reported in the trade journal Variety in 1934
provide a strong indication of the geographical pattern of these foreign earn-
ings, reporting the ‘film rental potential on an outstanding picture’ in 52
countries outside the United States – ‘an outstanding picture’ being defined
as a film earning over $2 million abroad with only half that sum generated in
the US. Drawing information from 36,936 separate foreign cinema accounts,
the article reports that the rental earning potential for such a film in foreign
markets was nearly twice that of the domestic market, reported by Variety as
$1,350,000.
11
Table 2 lists the 52 territories ranked by their potential rental
income attributed to each, which taken together sum to $2,242,875.
Although Hollywood’s reach was global, it is clear that overseas demand
was concentrated in a small number of territories. Outside of tiny Bermuda,
the United Kingdom and Australasia (Australia and New Zealand) manifest
the highest level of consumption per capita of the ‘outstanding’ Hollywood
product (column 7), together constituting 34 per cent of the total market.
Between them, the ten largest territories comprise 86 per cent of the mar-
ket. The Western European countries in this list are to the fore, with France,
Germany, and Italy important markets for the Hollywood distributors.
It is interesting to note that while the article in Variety claims that ‘out-
standing productions’ generate foreign earnings that are twice those of US
domestic revenues, Table 1 shows that, on average, Hollywood releases gen-
erated twice as much income from the home market. The implication here is
that although Hollywood distributors were a powerful commercial and politi-
cal presence in foreign markets, films that conformed to Variety’s criterion of
‘outstanding’ were indeed a rare phenomenon.
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John Sedgwick | Mike Pokorny
88
Country
Population
(1)
No. of
Theaters
(3)
Gross
Revenue
Possibilities
($US)
(4)
Proportion
of Total
gross
Revenue
Possibilities
(5)
No of
theaters
per 1,000
inhabitants
(6)
Gross
Revenue
Possibilities
per million
inhabitants
($US)
(7)
Gross
Revenue
Possibilities
per theater
($US)
(8)
United Kingdom
France
Germany
Italy
Czecho-Slovakia
Spain-Portugal
Australasia
Argentine
Japan
China
Brazil
Belgium
Hungary
India
Sweden
Austria
Poland
South Africa
Switzerland
Philippines
Roumania
Holland
Panama/Jamaica/
Central America
Dutch East Indiesa
a
Eygpt
Straights Settlement
Cuba
Siam
Mexico
Norway
Porto Rico
Denmark
Greece
Jugo-Slavia
Baltic States
Finland
Bulgaria
Peru
Turkey
46,159,445
41,834,923
64,600,000
41,145,041
14,726,158
29,421,706
7,960,886
18,835,727
91,793,681
462,387,000
40,272,650
8,129,405
8,683,740
351,500,000
6,141,571
6,726,113
31,927,773
8,250,000
4,082,511
12,082,366
18,176,757
7,832,175
6,379,478
60,731,025
14,493,000
1,112,850
3,717,767
11,940,000
16,527,766
2,809,564
2,668,335
2,550,656
6,315,000
13,930,918
5,410,033
3,634,040
5,944,000
6,237,000
13,660,275
4,950
3,900
4,000
2,500
2,024
2,850
1,385
1,985
1,669
250
1,125
650
633
675
1,100
850
752
360
310
300
350
255
164
108
89
45
400
19
701
220
121
300
100
338
275
200
109
100
80
675,000
350,000
300,000
225,000
90,000
85,000
80,000
45,000
40,000
37,000
30,000
25,000
20,000
17,000
15,000
15,000
15,000
15,000
15,000
12,500
10,000
10,000
10,000
8,000
8,000
8,000
7,800
7,500
7,000
6,500
6,500
5,000
5,000
4,000
4,000
4,000
4,000
4,000
3,000
0.30
0.16
0.13
0.10
0.04
0.04
0.04
0.02
0.02
0.02
0.01
0.01
0.01
0.01
0.01
0.01
0.01
0.01
0.01
0.01
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
107
93
62
61
137
97
174
105
18
1
28
80
73
2
179
126
24
44
76
25
19
33
26
2
6
40
108
2
42
78
45
118
16
24
51
55
18
16
6
14.62
8.37
4.64
5.47
6.11
2.89
10.05
2.39
0.44
0.08
0.74
3.08
2.30
0.05
2.44
2.23
0.47
1.82
3.67
1.03
0.55
1.28
1.57
0.13
0.55
7.19
2.10
0.63
0.42
2.31
2.44
1.96
0.79
0.29
0.74
1.10
0.67
0.64
0.22
136
90
75
90
44
30
58
23
24
148
27
38
32
25
14
18
20
42
48
42
29
39
61
74
90
178
20
395
10
30
54
17
50
12
15
20
37
40
38
Continued
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Sedgwick_083-098.indd 88 1/19/10 10:46:21 AM
Hollywood’s foreign earnings during the 1930s
89
To investigate this claim further, Figure 1 represents a scatter of the domes-
tic and foreign earnings of MGM, RKO and Warner Bros. films released in
the 1933–1934 season – the source year of the data presented in Table 2.
The upward sloping thin line through the origin is a line of equality between
domestic and foreign revenue. As is apparent, the bulk of the observations
show domestic earnings to be greater than foreign earnings. Indeed, of the 135
films released by the three studios in the 1933–1934 season, only seven gener-
ate foreign earnings that are higher than domestic: all of which were produced
by MGM, and two of which – Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933); The
Painted Veil (Richard Boleslawski, 1934) star Greta Garbo. At the other end
of the scale, ten films, most of which were produced by RKO, had ratios of
Columbia
Venezuela
Indo-China
Trinidad
Bermuda
Bolivia
Ecuador
Persia
Iraq
Haiti
7,851,000
3,250,000
20,351,000
905,468
27,789
3,014,069
2,500,000
10,000,000
3,300,000
2,550,699
385
134
50
22
9
25
22
30
9
8
2,500
2,250
2,250
2,000
1,500
1,000
1,000
800
600
175
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
0.00
49
41
2
24
324
8
9
3
3
3
0.32
0.69
0.11
2.21
53.98
0.33
0.40
0.08
0.18
0.07
6
17
45
91
167
40
45
27
67
22
Source: Variety, 6 November 1934.
Table 2: Hollywood Foreign Market Possibilities.
Figure 1: Scatter of domestic and foreign rental income of the 135 films released in the North American market
by MGM, RKO and Warner Bros. in the 1933–1934 season.
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Sedgwick_083-098.indd 89 1/22/10 12:16:53 PM
John Sedgwick | Mike Pokorny
90
12. RKO was declared
bankrupt in 1933,
and before then had
been producing films
with declining average
production costs. See
Gomery (2005) and
Jewell (1994).
domestic to foreign rentals greater than four-to-one.
12
These films are pre-
sented in Table 3.
The thicker upward sloping line in Figure 1 represents the trend line and
indicates that higher foreign earnings are correlated strongly with higher
domestic earnings: in general, films that were more popular with US audi-
ences tended also to be popular in foreign markets.
It is also noticeable in Table 3 that those films that generated higher rev-
enues in foreign markets than in the US market had, on average, higher pro-
duction budgets than the films that generated relatively low foreign earnings.
Indeed, a model in which the foreign earnings of all the films in the 1933–1934
data set are specified as dependent on domestic earnings and production costs
is highly significant statistically, generating a coefficient of determination R
2
of
0.76. This suggests that on average high budget movies were not only likely
to have had a stronger attraction for foreign audiences than more cheaply
made films, but were also generally popular with domestic audiences, who
were also attracted to high production values. Clearly, as investment vehi-
cles, it was important for big budget films to perform well in foreign markets.
Interestingly, the films found below the trend line (and named in Figure 1) all
Table 3: MGM, RKO and Warner Bros. films with extreme values of ratios of domestic to foreign revenues,
released during the 1933–1934 season.
Film Studio
Production
cost (in 1929
$000’s)
Domestic
rentals (in
1929 $000’s)
Foreign
rentals (in
1929 $000’s)
Ratio of
domestic
to foreign
rentals
Films with very low domestic to foreign rental earnings
Queen Christina MGM 1,463 981 2,357 0.42
Painted Veil MGM 1,211 688 1,432 0.48
Tarzan And His Mate MGM 1,645 1,037 1,826 0.57
Hollywood Party MGM 1,192 422 536 0.79
Prizefighter And The Lady MGM 872 552 641 0.86
Mystery Of Mr X MGM 359 531 598 0.89
Eskimo MGM 1,196 813 864 0.94
Films with very high domestic to foreign rental earnings
Their Big Moment RKO 225 229 55 4.16
Spitfire RKO 285 629 143 4.39
Down To Their Last Yacht RKO 426 254 55 4.63
Strictly Dynamite RKO 318 283 60 4.70
Ann Vickers RKO 387 559 115 4.86
We’re Rich Again RKO 198 253 49 5.21
The Chief MGM 642 266 49 5.47
Meanest Gal In Town RKO 229 262 47 5.54
College Coach WB 285 350 63 5.59
Bachelor Bait RKO 153 215 35 6.22
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Hollywood’s foreign earnings during the 1930s
91
have idiosyncratic American settings, which domestic audiences presumably
found appealing, but did not resonate as strongly with foreign audiences.
Of the films released during the 1933–1934 season, only Queen Christina
approximates Variety’s 2:1 ratio criterion of an ‘outstanding picture’ defined
above. Extending this analysis to the 1929–1941 data set, only 80 (4.5 per cent)
of the 1790 films generated higher earnings in foreign markets – these were
films that did not break-even in the domestic market, and which were thus
dependent on the foreign market for profits. However, being a top foreign
earnings film did not necessarily imply that foreign exceeded domestic rentals.
Table 4 lists the thirty highest foreign earning films over the long decade.
13
It
is noticeable that the pattern observed in Figure 1 repeats itself in that these
films were more costly – only three of the thirty films cost less than 1 million
dollars to make, with a mean production cost of $1,859,000, compared to the
population mean of $471,000. Yet, these films were also very popular with
domestic audiences, with Queen Christina the only film in the list to attract a
rental income of less than $1 million, especially noteworthy when compared
to the population mean of $597,000.
Over the thirteen-year period only four films approximated the Variety cri-
terion of ‘outstanding film’ – Queen Christina (1934),The Merry Widow (Ernst
Lubitsch, 1934), The Painted Veil (1934) and Conquest (Clarence Brown, 1937).
14

Camille (George Cukor, 1936), The Charge of the Light Brigade (Michael Curtiz,
1936), The Great Waltz (Julien Duvivier, 1938), Tarzan And His Mate (Cedric
Gibbons, 1934), Tarzan The Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1932), Anna Karenina
(Clarence Brown, 1935), and Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, 1935) all earned
significantly more in foreign markets than in the domestic market. This list of
eleven films is notable for including five films starring Greta Garbo, all set in
an earlier European context (a sixth, ‘modern dress’ episodic film, Grand Hotel
(Edmund Goulding, 1932), in which Garbo was the top-billed member of an
‘all star’ cast, is found in the top thirty listing in Table 4); two costume films
starring Errol Flynn (a third film, The Adventures of Robin Hood [Michael Curtiz,
William Keighley, 1938], is found in the top thirty listing); and two Tarzan films
(which elevated the Olympic five-gold-medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller
to stardom) set in mythical British colonial Africa, starring Maureen O’Sullivan
as Tarzan’s partner in the jungle. Operettas also feature prominently in the top
thirty listing, with Jeanette MacDonald starring in The Merry Widow (1934),
Maytime (Robert Z. Leonard, 1937), Rose Marie (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936), and
The Firefly (Robert Z. Leonard, 1937). MacDonald also starred in San Francisco
(W.S. Van Dyke,1936), alongside Clark Gable.
Richard Maltby has depicted film audiences as bundles of differentiated
tastes – what he terms ‘taste publics’ – implying that, in understanding this,
Hollywood was in a position to design particular products for particular audi-
ences. He writes:
Rather than Hollywood maintaining a view of the audience as an undif-
ferentiated mass, the industry sought to provide a range of products
that would appeal to different fractions of the audience, and to include a
set of ingredients that, between them, would appeal to the entire range
of different audience fractions.
(Maltby 1999: 25)
15

The information presented in Figure 1 and Tables 3 and 4 suggests just such
an observation – that market demand for films was highly differentiated, even
13. Five of the films listed
in the RKO ledger
were made in Britain:
three Herbert Wilcox
Productions – The Rat
(1937), Victoria The
Great (1937), and Sixty
Glorious Years (1938);
a British RKO film
Dangerous Moonlight
(1941); and Escape
(1930) produced by
Associated Talking
Pictures. A sixth film,
Di Que Me Quieres
(1939), was a Spanish
language musical, set
mainly in New York
nightclubs, produced
in 1938 at the Eastern
Service Studios, Inc.,
Astoria, NY, by William
Rowland Productions.
[Di Que Me Quieres
information from AFI
Catalog online.]
14. Although it had a ratio
of domestic to foreign
earnings of 0.48, The
Painted Veil earned
somewhat less in both
markets than the other
films listed in the Top
30, and hence does not
appear in Table 4.
15. For further discussion of
audience preferences in
the US home market see
Glancy and Sedgwick
(2007); and Sedgwick
and Pokorny (2010 –
forthcoming)
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John Sedgwick | Mike Pokorny
92
Table 4: The top 30 MGM, RKO and Warner Bros. films, ranked by foreign rental earnings (in 1929 $000s),
released during the 1929–1941 seasons.
Film Studio
Production
cost (in
1929 $000’s)
Domestic
rentals (in
1929 $000’s)
Foreign
rentals (in
1929 $000’s)
Ratio of
domestic to
foreign rentals
Snow White
Mrs Miniver
San Francisco
Mutiny On The Bounty
Adventures Of Robin Hood
Queen Christina
Rose Marie
Trader Horn
Merry Widow
May time
Camille
Citadel
Hunchback Of Notre Dame
Charge Of The Light Brigade
Pinocchio
Goodbye Mr Chips
The Great Ziegfeld
The Good Earth
Great Waltz
Tarzan And His Mate
Grand Hotel
Tarzan The Ape Man
Test Pilot
Anna Karenina
Yank At Oxford
Top Hat
Firefly
Captain Blood
Captain Courageous
Conquest
RKO
MGM
MGM
MGM
WB
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
RKO
WB
RKO
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
MGM
RKO
MGM
WB
MGM
MGM
1808
1413
1607
2378
2470
1463
1082
1487
2004
2537
1837
1248
2230
1330
3175
1296
2605
3360
2787
1645
926
828
2067
1424
1670
753
1817
1242
1963
3320
4855
5634
3545
2809
2343
981
2095
1847
1075
2605
1426
1217
1868
1454
2031
2117
3686
2389
1132
1037
1634
1395
2954
1069
1569
2203
1512
1357
2014
887
4678
3701
2973
2759
2495
2357
2250
2197
2181
2175
2087
1986
1984
1928
1923
1893
1890
1856
1855
1826
1798
1792
1789
1779
1756
1755
1738
1733
1724
1714
1.04
1.52
1.19
1.02
0.94
0.42
0.93
0.84
0.49
1.20
0.68
0.61
0.94
0.75
1.06
1.12
1.95
1.29
0.61
0.57
0.91
0.78
1.65
0.60
0.89
1.25
0.87
0.78
1.17
0.52
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Hollywood’s foreign earnings during the 1930s
93
16. See Pokorny and
Sedgwick (2005) for
a previous use of these
budgetary categories.
for expensive films from the same genre, produced by the same studio. For
instance, the MGM musicals The Merry Widow and The Great Ziegfeld (Robert
Z. Leonard,1936) both of which cost over 2 million dollars (in 1929 prices) to
make, appealed more strongly to different audience segments – The Merry
Widow to foreign audiences, The Great Ziegfeld to American audiences. Yet, both
contributed to the stream of revenues from which film budgets in the following
season were at least partly derived. Furthermore, a comparison of The Merry
Widow and Maytime shows that films from the same sub-genre, produced by
the same studio, and featuring the same star can produce startlingly different
results – in this case in the home market, in which Maytime generated two and
half times more rental income. In this there may be an element of surprise – that
is, that Maytime performed surprisingly well in the home market. This means
that we need to be careful when typecasting films as ‘foreign-appeal’ and con-
ceiving of taste publics as possessing distinct, unchanging boundaries, which
audiences were committed to. Audiences in their irreducible quest for novelty
were prepared to take risks and the prospect of disconfirmation of expecta-
tions was an ever present element in their choices. This sense of adventure and
gain led them to transcend genre and star boundaries. Accordingly, it might be
more accurate to argue that taste publics built up around particular films and
that second-guessing what audiences might like was an essential feature of the
risk environment in which the producers operated.
FOREIGN EARNINGS ACROSS BUDGET CATEGORIES
An interesting observation that emerges from this research is the extent to
which the films belonging to different budget categories contribute to: (1)
total foreign earnings, and (2) the total earnings (domestic plus foreign rent-
als) of films in each of those categories. Tables 3 and 4, in combination with
the associated R
2
statistic presented in the discussion, indicate a strong posi-
tive link between production budgets and foreign earnings. To investigate
this matter further, three production budget classes have been created – high
budget films whose production costs are equal to or greater than 150 per cent
of the annual population mean-budget; low budget films whose production
costs are less than 75 per cent of the annual population mean; and medium
budget films whose production costs fall in-between.
16
While Table 5 lists the numbers of films that fall into each category, as well
as the annual production mean-budget of the films released, Figure 2 depicts the
contribution to foreign earnings made by films from each class. This shows that
big budget films become increasingly important as a source of foreign income
during the course of the decade, rising from 36 per cent to 56 per cent (albeit as
the proportion of high budget films to all films also increases). Yet interestingly,
when expressed as a proportion of the total rental earnings generated by high
budget films, foreign revenues actually decline from a peak of 46 per cent in the
1933–1934 season to 37 per cent by the end of the period. The reason for this
apparent disparity can be found in the final column of Table 4 of the top thirty
foreign earning films, in which the ratio of domestic to foreign revenue varies
widely: among big budget films, there are some high-earning foreign films that
earn much higher domestic revenues. From this we can infer that during the
course of the 1930s, while becoming the most important source of foreign earn-
ings, big budget films also became increasingly attractive to domestic audiences.
Table 5 shows a marked decline in the number of medium budget films
released over the period, matched by a fall in their contribution to foreign
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Sedgwick_083-098.indd 93 1/19/10 10:46:23 AM
John Sedgwick | Mike Pokorny
94
Figure 2: Foreign revenue proportions by budget category of the films released by MGM, RKO and Warner
Bros., 1929–1930 to 1941–1942.
Season
Mean
production
budget
Low
budget
films
Medium
budget
films
High
budget
films Total
1929–30 307 73 55 28 156
1930–31 406 53 68 18 139
1931–32 391 50 76 19 145
1932–33 369 62 55 24 141
1933–34 404 63 50 19 132
1934–35 425 70 38 27 135
1935–36 431 83 35 28 146
1936–37 517 77 31 24 132
1937–38 582 77 32 30 139
1938–39 554 77 36 28 141
1939–40 665 73 35 30 138
1940–41 527 65 31 32 128
1941–42 581 58 32 28 118
Total 881 574 335 1790
Table 5: Mean production budget (in 1929 $000s) and numbers of films in each
budgetary class produced by MGM, RKO and Warner Bros., 1929–1930 to
1941–1942.
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Hollywood’s foreign earnings during the 1930s
95
earnings. This is apparent in Figure 2 from the 1931–1932 season onwards,
while the contribution made to foreign earnings by low budget films remained
largely unchanged during the 1930s, lying just above or just below the 20 per
cent mark.
CONCLUSION
It is widely believed that during the studio period some film genres (cos-
tume dramas) and film stars (Greta Garbo) performed better in foreign mar-
kets than in the North American market. However, rather than confirming
such stars and genres as a distinctive facet of Hollywood’s overseas produc-
tion strategy, as might be suggested by Maltby’s ‘concept of taste publics’,
the evidence presented in this article indicates that big budget production per
se (i.e., regardless of particular genres or ‘exotic’ stars) was predicated upon
high levels of foreign market demand. Figure 2 shows that big budget films
accounted for an increasing proportion of foreign earnings, climbing to well
over 50 per cent by the end of the decade. And even in the face of political-
protectionist trade restrictions in the European market, the proportion of rev-
enues generated overseas stabilized at over a third by the end of the decade
(Table 1). These films offered audiences everywhere state of the art produc-
tion values allied with continuous innovation in form and content as new lin-
eages of films emerge and older ones recede (Sedgwick 2000: 155–79). Driven
by a competitive process that hinged upon consumer preference, production
budgets, as is shown in Table 5, rose during the 1930s as the strategic focus
of the major Hollywood studios moved irrevocably towards the production
of ‘hits’. Indeed, this should be seen as part of the escalation of production
costs that Bakker refers to in the 1910s: an escalation which in truth continued
unabated through the interwar period, the post war period, and beyond to the
present day.
As the authors have sought to demonstrate in a number of referenced
publications, in the 1930s this strategy was highly risky, with the big budget
films, although highly popular, regularly losing money – a strategy that was
made possible only by the solid box-office performance of middle budget films
in both home and overseas markets. Clearly, foreign revenues were a critically
important element, without which production budgets would have necessarily
been lower. But so too was success in the domestic market.
Sklar’s observation that the Hollywood studios earned their profits from
overseas markets overestimates the contribution made by foreign earnings
and by implication, underestimates that made by the domestic market in
generating profit. It also fails to recognize that the contribution of the home
market to profits increased substantially with the cost of production. The real
points here are that there was really no such thing as ‘foreign market films’
and that the concept of an ‘outstanding production with international appeal’
criterion proposed in Variety was a misnomer. As stated earlier, of the 1790
films in the sample data set only 80 films earned more in foreign markets than
at home.
Economics was never far from the thoughts of the studio heads. Hence,
the transnational nature of Hollywood’s operations, conceived of in terms of
the distribution networks it established and the foreign policy it developed
to protect these, should be seen as the strategic response to the search for
additional income streams that could justify increasing production budgets,
and thereby further entrench Hollywood’s international market dominance.
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John Sedgwick | Mike Pokorny
96
With this, foreign markets added new levels of complexity and differentia-
tion to the audience mix that Hollywood had to cater for. The fact that some
films did relatively better in foreign markets than at home is an indication of
differences in tastes for those particular films and of the ability of distribution
systems to adjust flexibly to them. But the fact that the vast majority (95.5 per
cent) of films released over this period generated higher incomes in the home
market, coupled to the fact that big budget films needed to be successful both
at home and overseas, is the empirical context in which Hollywood studios
worked during this era.
REFERENCES
Balio, T. (1993), Grand design: Hollywood as a modern business enterprise,
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bakker, G. (2008), Entertainment Industrialised: the Emergence of the International
Film Industry, 1890–1940, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Glancy, H. M. (1992), ‘MGM film grosses, 1924–1948: the Eddie Mannix led-
ger’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 12, pp.127–144.
Glancy, H. M. (1995), ‘Warner Bros. film grosses, 1921-1951: the William
Schaefer ledger’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 15,
pp. 55–74.
Glancy, H. M. (1999), When Hollywood Loved Britain, Manchester: Manchester
University Press.
Glancy, H. M. and Sedgwick, J. (2007), ‘Cinema Going in the United States in
the mid-1930s: A Study Based on the Variety Dataset’, in Maltby, R., Stokes,
M., and Allen, R. (eds.), Going to the Movies: Hollywood and the Social
Experience of Cinema’, Exeter: Exeter University Press.
Gomery, D. (2005), The Hollywood Studio System, London: BFI.
Huettig, M. (1985), ‘Economic control of the motion picture industry’,
abridged from a publication of the same title published by University of
Pennsylvania Press and found in T. Balio (ed.), The American film industry,
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press , pp.285–310.
Jarvie, I. (1992), Hollywood’s overseas campaign: the North Atlantic movie trade,
1920–1950, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jewell, R. (1994), ‘RKO film grosses, 1929–1951: the C.J. Trevlin ledger’,
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 14, pp. 37–51.
Kennedy, D. (1999), Freedom from fear: the American people in depression and
war, 1929–1945, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
May, L. (2000), The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American
Way, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Officer, L., Williamson, S. (2008), ‘Computing ‘Real Value’ Over Time With
a Conversion Between U.K. Pounds and U.S. Dollars, 1830 – 2007’,
MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.com/exchange/. Accessed
20 April 2009.
Pokorny, M. and Sedgwick, J. (2010), ‘Profitability trends in Hollywood: 1929
to 1999’ Economic History Review, 63, pp. 56–84.
Sedgwick, J. (2000), Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain: a Choice of Pleasures,
Exeter: Exeter University Press.
Sedgwick, J. and Pokorny, M. (2005), ‘The film business in the U.S. and Britain
during the 1930s’, Economic History Review, 58, pp. 79–112.
Sedgwick, J. and Pokorny, M. (2010 – forthcoming), ‘Consumers as risk takers:
evidence from the film industry during the 1930s’, Business History.
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Sedgwick_083-098.indd 96 1/19/10 10:46:23 AM
Hollywood’s foreign earnings during the 1930s
97
Sklar, R. (1975), Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies,
New York: Random House.
Temin, P. (2000), ‘The Great Depression’ in Engerman, S. and Gallman,
R. (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume III:
the Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, K. (1985), Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film
Market 1907 – 1934, London: BFI.
US Department of Commerce (1975), Historical Statistics of the US: Colonial
Times to 1970, Washington DC, Bureau of the Census. Variety, 6 November
1934, p. 13.
Vasey, R. (1997), The World according to Hollywood, 1918–1939, Exeter: Exeter
University Press.
SUGGESTED CITATION
Sedgwick, J. and Pokorny, M. ‘Hollywood’s foreign earnings during the 1930s’,
Transnational Cinemas 1: 1, pp. 83–97, doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.83/1
CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
John Sedgwick is Professor of Film Economics, as well as Director of the
Centre for International Business and Sustainability, at London Metropolitan
University, and Michael Pokorny is a Principal Lecturer in Quantitative
Business Methods at the Business School of the University of Westminster.
They research into the economic history of film and have published articles
in Business History, Economic History Review, Journal of Economic History,
Explorations in Economic History, and Journal of Cultural Economics. They
have also jointly edited a book The Economic History of Film (Routledge 2005)
and produced numerous book chapters. Sedgwick has also produced a mon-
ograph Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain (University of Exeter Press, 2000)
They are currently working on the Australian and Dutch markets for mov-
ies in the 1930s; the daily box-office ledgers of 122 cinemas in Philadelphia
in the mid-1930s held in the Warner Bros. Archive, University of Southern
California; and film consumers as risk takers.
Contact: Centre for International Business and Sustainability, LMBS, London
Metropolitan University, Holloway Road, London, N7 8DB.
E-mail: j.sedgwick@londonmet.ac.uk
TRAC 1.1_5_art_Sedgwick_083-098.indd 97 1/19/10 10:46:23 AM
Studies in Eastern
European Cinema
ISSN 2040-350X (2 issues | Volume 1, 2010)
Aims and Scope
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99
TRAC 1 (1) pp. 99–106 Intellect Limited 2010
Transnational Cinemas
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Reviews. English language. doi: 10.1386/trac.1.1.99/4
REVIEWS
CRIME AND FANTASY IN SCANDINAVIA: FICTION, FILM
AND SOCIAL CHANGE, ANDREW NESTINGEN (2008)
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 336 pp.,
ISBN 8763507935, Paperback, £28.50
Reviewed by Pietari Kääpä, University of Nottingham
Andrew Nestingen’s Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia is a timely contribu-
tion to Nordic cinema and literature studies. Many influential works have
tackled the topic, providing comprehensive overviews of this multifaceted
field (Tytti Soila et al. Nordic National Cinemas, London: Routledge, 1998), or
taken a more case-specific approach to charting the complexities of Nordic
culture (Andrew Nestingen and Trevor Elkington, eds, Transnational Cinema
In a Global North, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005). Nestingen’s
new intervention has something more precise in mind – namely, the trans-
formation of the Nordic welfare state structure and the role of popular culture
in debating and contesting these substantial changes. The book’s argument,
constructed through a number of illuminating case studies, suggests that
popular culture functions as a forum for emergent cultural-political debates.
Nestingen, following Cornelius Castoriadis, understands hegemonic norms
of national society as ‘instituted’ forms of collective social production. In con-
trast, popular culture comes to form ‘spaces of display’, that is, spaces where
alternative, contesting forms of opinion can be expressed. As these discus-
sions take place in the public sphere, new critical forms of civil society (or
social collectivity) may form around popular culture to debate, for example,
the effects of the synergism of the welfare state and neo-liberalist ideologies.
One of the primary strengths of the book lies in its excellent categoriza-
tions of a set of Nordic films as the ‘middle-concept’ (a hybridization of art
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Reviews
100
and genre film production) and ‘the melodrama of demand’ (films which call
for public response to social inequality). While one could certainly object to
any attempt to respond to the complexity of Nordic cinema with over-
arching categorizations, Nestingen’s work makes sense due to the inclusive
and open nature of his conceptual framework. A particularly refreshing qual-
ity to Nestingen’s work is its refusal to equate all questions of social identity
to the nation, instead seeking to explore the implications of a ‘global age’ for
Nordic societies – an age that is defined by multi-leveled transnationalism
and neo-liberalist reformations of the state. Furthermore, the transnational,
without overt theorizing or endless explanation, is fluidly understood as a key
part of any national form of cultural production. While the book returns to
national traditions in the chapter on Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s novels,
the discussion does not imply a return to the homogeneous nation. Rather,
it centres on the formation of a heterogeneous public sphere where national
traditions are reconstructed, revealing the contingency and endless fluidity of
national culture. Here, old identities (or even national identity itself – a prob-
lematic and hegemonically constructed notion in its own right) are replaced
by plural identities, which seek to form new forms of communitarianism.
Similarly, chapters on Leena Lehtolainen and Henning Mankell’s detec-
tive novels raise pertinent questions about the distinctions between private and
public spheres in Nordic societies. Nestingen’s suggestive use of transna-
tionalism alludes to the relationship between the Norden and its ‘Others’ –
immigrants, people who do not belong to hegemonic or heteronormative
social categories, the relationship between the affluent West and developing
countries, or even the contradictory protagonists who inhabit these texts and
who are inherently complicit in the social problems they bemoan. The focus
on heterogeneity and the formation of egalitarian alternative civil societies
contributes to the book’s project of accounting for the role of popular culture
in debating the constitution of the Nordic information societies of the twenty-
first century. Such a wide-ranging focus inscribes ambiguity and complexity to
any reading of these seemingly ‘populist’, yet distinctly politicized texts.
If there are any problems in Nestingen’s work, it is his focus on well known,
and much discussed, cultural producers and texts. Of course, the book is pri-
marily concerned with popular forms of culture, and especially those forms of
culture that the author perceives to be critical of neo-liberalist and/or hegem-
onic tendencies in these states. And certainly, Scandinavian cinemas are often
associated with auteur-centric, art house films – especially in the academic
and domestic/international critical circles. Yet, including films such as Johanna
Vuoksenmaa’s Upswing (Nousukausi, 2003) or Robert Douglas’ Eleven Men
Out (Strakarnir Okkar, 2005) may have provided some alternative critical per-
spectives to the work and extended its scope. Furthermore, while Nestingen
does admit that his expertise in the field of Finnish culture affects the scope
of the work, certain omissions seem puzzling. Icelandic culture receives very
little coverage, though the discussion of Danish and Swedish culture provides
sufficient analytical and sociopolitical material to negate any accusations of
thematic favouritism. Perhaps these omissions serve to highlight the problems
associated with any attempt to define ‘Nordic’ or ‘Scandinavian’ culture in
any overarching terms. Instead, they draw our attention to the heterogeneity
and plurality of such taken-for-granted concepts as ‘Scandinavia’ or ‘Norden’,
which, appropriately, is one of the key points of the work.
Yet, these are minor complaints in relation to the important and excit-
ing methodological, sociological, historical and theoretical interventions the
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101
study proposes. By fluently navigating the complexities of the transform-
ing Nordic welfare state in an era of increasing globalization, Nestingen’s
refreshing perspective allows us to build a suitably wide analytical picture of
the challenges and opportunities facing Nordic popular culture in the ‘infor-
mation age’. Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia is ultimately an important
contribution to the burgeoning study of Nordic popular culture: one which
proposes many incisive and suggestive implications for scholars working in
Nordic cultural studies, and in the wider field of transnational cinema and
literature studies.
TRANSNATIONAL FINANCIAL STRUCTURES IN THE
CINEMA OF LATIN AMERICA: PROGRAMA IBERMEDIA
IN STUDY, LIBIA VILLAZANA (2009)
Saarbrücken: Verlag Dr. Müller, 169 pp.,
ISBN 978-3-639-16186-1, Paperback, £52.70
Reviewed by Sarah Barrow, Anglia Ruskin University
Transnational Financial Structures in the Cinema of Latin America, Libia Villazana’s
excellent and insightful first monograph, focuses on the complex machina-
tions, debates and ideological impact of international co-productions in cin-
ema. The author tells the fascinating story of her own adventures into the
world of transnational film-making in a country such as Peru where creating
cinema is almost impossible without the involvement – or interference – of
external forces and funds. She thus concocts a tale of intrigue that demon-
strates how difficult it is to understand the reasons why and how films get
made unless one is involved, as she was, as an ‘Observer as Participant’ (p. 6)
during the making of Francisco Lombardi’s Mariposa Negra/Black Butterfly
(2006), and as maker herself of a documentary on co-productions.
Villazana’s explicit quest here is to explore the extent to which two large
private organisations, namely the multinational film network Ibermedia
(based in Spain but with Hispanic reach) and Spanish telecommunication
company Telefónica, might be regarded as part of the ‘apparatus of the
political and cultural hegemony of the ruling classes’ (Gramsci 1975: 258).
She concludes that whatever the reservations and complications, given the
limited resources from public or private organisations in the region, Latin
American nations and their film-makers - the ‘subaltern subject’ (p. 12) -
have little option but to accept the funding and support offered through
these organisations and thus sign up to a set of creative and ideological
compromises that threaten to undermine the distinctive nature and iden-
tities of so-called national cinemas. Her argument is compelling, and the
method she deploys to pursue it is not only thoughtfully justified through-
out, but it also leads to a unique analysis of the interface between politics
and film-making, and offers a critical view of the neo-colonial discourses in
Latin America, and of the uneasy alliances set up through most co-production
schemes, in particular Ibermedia.
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102
Villazana joined the production team of Mariposa Negra in 2005 after
a series of misunderstandings with its director that led to an even greater
involvement in the project than she had envisaged. Her privileged perspec-
tive as observer of but also participant in the creative process allowed her to
appreciate at first hand all the delays, frustrations and complexities of a co-
production. For example, she reveals her surprise that the initial postpone-
ment of the shoot by one month was due to a lack of resources on the part
of one of the Spanish companies, which had a serious impact on all the work
that the Peruvian team had carried out in order to prepare for production:
50% of that work had to be redone and sections of the carefully planned
budget were wiped out. As the author confirms at the end of her second
chapter ‘even the richest country involved in such a production, in this case
Spain, could easily be responsible for the failure of the production’ (p. 29).
Alongside rigorous theoretical debate and comprehensive creative
exposé, this book provides its reader – and film studies researchers gener-
ally - with a fantastic method for studying cinema production. Villazana
is quick to point out that there are pitfalls – the one-person video-filming
approach to interviews and data gathering suffers from technological disap-
pointments – but the ethnographic, sociological enquiry approach that she
adopts is clearly sufficiently flexible to the needs of research that must by
its very nature involve human experience. She discusses the fluidity of her
role and the need to slide from concealed to revealed observer from time to
time in order to gather data informally (through on-set conversations) and
formally (through interviews, with questions that were often redefined after
reflection on the informal data). She talks - with examples galore - about the
need to be constantly critical and reflective of her own position, emphasising
the importance of taking notes every day (regardless of fatigue after a long
day on set) in order to ensure that no element of the experience was lost or
distorted by memory. The main danger for any ethnologist, she points out,
is one of ‘going native’ and the film ethnologist is no different. She reveals
how hard it was to remain emotionally detached despite witnessing at close
quarters the deep frustrations experienced by those determined to create a
film with such limited resources.
Finally, Villazana offers this illuminating text as a celebration of the
Peruvian intellectuals – Emilio Moscoso and Javier Protzel in particular - who
intervened in film policy in their country in order to provide some local support
for film-makers that might begin to enable ‘the subalterns to attain hegem-
ony’ (p. 154). She ends with the news that a new cinema fund, PROCINE,
was finally set up (with money from tax charged to the cable TV companies
based in Peru) and that the cinema legislation that had been introduced in
2003 was finally approved by Congress in March 2009. As the author con-
firms, such achievements in the uneven world of transnational film-making
should never be underestimated.
REFERENCES
Gramsci, Antonio (1975), Prison Notebooks, 4 vols, Valentino Gerratana (ed.)
Turin: Einaudi.
Lombardi, Francisco (2006), Mariposa Negra/Black Butterfly, Spain: Fausto
Producciones Cinematográficas, Peru: Inca Films S.A.
Contact: sarah.barrow@anglia.ac.uk
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103
WORLD CINEMAS, TRANSNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES,
EDITED BY NATASA DUROVICOVA AND KATHLEEN
NEWMAN (2010)
New York and London: Routledge, 368 pp.,
ISBN 9780415976541, Paperback, £21.99
Reviewed by Germán Gil Curiel, University of Nottingham Ningbo, China
This book is a timely and important contribution toward updating film stud-
ies in accordance with the changed context in which the discipline now finds
itself. Indeed, some of the best chapters included here point toward what
ought to become promising new research agendas. I will discuss some of
these pieces here.
Paul Willemen’s chapter is reminiscent of Braudel’s ideas of the longue
durée, applied to film. His point of departure is that ‘a film relates closely to
the economic, social, political and cultural circumstances that presided over its
making’ (Willemen 2010: 247). The same is assumed for the reading-viewing
process. He then asks ‘what if aspects of a film did not relate to a contempo-
rary configuration but to determining dynamics that operate on a much longer
time scale?’ (Willemen 2010: 248) and teases out this proposition. The result
is a fascinating exploration of the ways the male body has been inscribed in
Hollywood films during three – somewhat overlapping – stages, and at the
same time how variations of the capitalist mode of production prevailing at
those times have themselves been inscribed into those body representations.
Particular attention is given to the present transnational stage. Rigorously
researched, thought provoking and clearly written, this is among the best
chapters in the collection.
For his part, Fredric Jameson’s single provocative proposition is this:
whereas hybridizing processes were, in the past, the result of ‘natural’ – although
not necessarily coeval – contact and exchange, today they are the result of
manufactured action. ‘In the new postmodern process what happens is evi-
dently that a single characteristic fragment is selected from one gene and
inserted into another one – more or less the way a virus is implanted in a cell’
(Jameson 2010). It is this sort of implanting that he finds is a defining fea-
ture of the hybridism of what is now commonly labelled transnational cinema.
Transnational films are, in his view, hybrid in a postmodern way.
With a rather different view of the transnational in cinema, one focused
on the forging of a pan-national Hispanic community, Marvin d’Lugo exam-
ines the process whereby Argentine tangos, Cuban sones and Mexican bole-
ros made their way into a cinema that reached Hispanic audiences – first
in their countries of origin and then also when they migrated, both within
Latin America and into the United States. He traces this process up to the
present, arguing an imagined community of sorts resulted from it. The
chapter ends with an examination of the contemporary use of music in tran-
snational cinema of Hispanic origin, as in Solanas’s Tangos or Almodóvar’s
recent films – where music ‘becomes part of the postmodernist aesthetic
made all the more politically pressing in the face of encroaching globalisa-
tion’ (D’Lugo 2010: 179).
In addition to these excellent pieces, the anthology features twelve other
contributions that deal with a wide variety of topics, all extremely relevant to
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104
the transnational in cinema. These include the proposal, by Mette Hjort, for
a typology of the many fashions in which transnational film-making takes
shape in practice; an investigation, by Bhaskar Sarkar, that seeks to address
the shortcomings of multiculturalism, with a rather interesting case study
focusing on the Chinese reception of Indian cinema; and two chapters on the
geopolitical aspects of transnational films. The first, by Dudley Andrew, in
which he provides a model for the trajectory of film that starts at a cosmopoli-
tan phase with silent cinema and ends with the global cinema phase, from a
western perspective; and one by Natasa Durovicova, on the topic of transla-
tion. And finally, a fascinating exploration by Toby Miller of the life cycle of
a film as it goes from theatres into television, video or DVD, games and into
recycling: an approach that goes usefully beyond textual analysis or research
on spectatorship as is often the case. Other chapters discuss the relevance of
a transnational focus for Brazilian, Chinese, Japanese and African cinemas,
commenting on either single films or more general case studies.
All in all, the anthology succeeds in putting matters of scale at the
forefront – as in Kathleen Newman’s article – as well as in broadening the
scope of traditional film studies, which sometimes run the risk of seeming a
rather parochial – and even solipsistic – endeavour. Trans-disciplinarian per-
spectives of this sort will add focus to the task of transforming the discipline
in new, exciting ways.
REFERENCES
D’Lugo, Marvin (2010), ‘Aural Identity and Hispanic Transnationality’, in
World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, Natasa Durovicova and Kathleen
Newman (eds), London: Routledge, pp. 160–185.
Jameson, Fredric (2010), ‘Globalisation and Hybridisation’, in World Cinemas,
Transnational Perspectives, Natasa Durovicova and Kathleen Newman
(eds), London: Routledge, pp. 315–319.
Willemen, Paul (2010), ‘Fantasy in Action’, in World Cinemas, Transnational
Perspectives, Natasa Durovicova and Kathleen Newman (eds), London:
Rouledge, pp. 247–286.
CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
Germán Gil Curiel is a Lecturer in International Communication at the
University of Nottingham in its Ningbo campus, where he teaches modules
entitled ‘Film Narratives and Cultures’ and ‘Cinema and National Identity in
Latin America’. His research interests include film music and the supernatural
in film and literature.
Contact:
E-mail: german.gil@nottingham.edu.cn
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105
PUEBLOS UNIDOS: SWINE FLU GROUND ZERO IN
MEXICO, FELIPE CASANOVA AND MIGUEL ANGEL
DAZ (2009)
Mexico: Sotavento Creación Interdisciplinaria, AC, Agraviados Films/
Chiapas Media Project/Promedios
Reviewed by Leah R. Shafer, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
The Chiapas Media Project/Promedios is a bi-national partnership that pro-
vides worldwide promotion and distribution for the films of indigenous and
under-represented film-makers. The distribution strategy modelled by the
Chiapas Media Project/Promedios maps a new cultural sphere in which
indigenous issues are situated in relation to transnational rather than local or
national audiences. Though the Chiapas Media Project/Promedios has his-
torically focused on providing training, equipment, and distribution to the
Zapatistas of Chiapas, they have recently begun distributing works from other
regions in an effort to diversify their holdings and expand the global reach of
their distribution network. Among their new acquisitions is Pueblos Unidos:
Swine Flu Ground Zero in Mexico, a documentary by Felipe Casanova and
Miguel Angel Daz that recently screened at the 7th Festival Internacional de
Cine de Morelia. Pueblos Unidos raises urgent questions about the profoundly
transnational effects of local political struggles.
The beautiful Perote valley of Veracruz, Mexico is home to several endor-
heic lagoons: water sources particularly susceptible to pollution due to their
lack of access to drainage. It is also home to an industrial pig farm that is
a joint venture of the multinational company Agroindustrias de Mexico and
US-based Smithfield Farms, the world’s largest pork producer. Close to a mil-
lion hogs a year are raised and slaughtered in this remote farming region,
which lies in the shadow of the Cofre de Perote mountain. In 2009, reports
began to circulate of a strange flu-like illness infecting close to 60 per cent of
the inhabitants of the town of La Gloria in the Perote valley. Though public
health officials deny any connection between water contamination caused by
industrial farms and the respiratory illnesses that plague the local population,
5 year old Édgar Hernández, a La Gloria resident, was identified as patient
zero for the recent global H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic.
Pueblos Unidos: Swine Flu Ground Zero in Mexico documents the relation-
ship between the evaporating lagoons, the industrial farms, and the outraged
and sickened farmers of the La Gloria community. The documentary argues
that the Mexican government’s rush to quell the organization of grassroots
labour contributed to the conditions that bred the global pandemic. From the
opening scenes of a family travelling over a rutted farm road in a burro cart
to the scenes of local organizers blocking a highway in an effort to rouse the
local authorities, who have failed to regulate the farm’s squalid waste removal
practices, the film emphasizes transportation and distribution networks both
figuratively and literally.
The farmers of the Perote valley were told that the arrival of the pig farms
would invigorate their local economy and bring new jobs to the region. Their
hopes were quickly dashed as they found the small number of jobs created
paled in comparison to the effects of contamination bred by industrial pig
farming. As we see in several surreptitiously filmed sequences, large stagnant
TRAC 1.1_art_Reviws_099-106.indd 105 1/20/10 2:54:13 PM
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106
pools of pig waste, ringed with maggots, began to spring up within a few
metres of the farmers’ irrigation and drinking water wells. Piles of dead pigs
were left in the open air, and houses were invaded by an infestation of black
flies. In scene after scene, farmers with their hands to their faces describe the
unbearable stench.
Frustrated by the company’s lack of transparency and clear violations of
environmental standards, the farmers organize: the film charts their lack of
progress with footage of protests, meetings, interviews, and acts of civil diso-
bedience. In one of the film’s evocative sequences, local politicians and farm
representatives, who have gathered to speak with the community, refuse to
continue speaking when they are confronted with trays of pig waste. When
they propose a removal of the trays, a member of the crowd says: ‘What we
want is that you smell for one or two hours the environment in which we live
24 hours a day.’
The film moves forward dialectically, with frequent cuts between images
of farmers living in desperate poverty and stunning, verdant views of the
Perote valley. Hand-held shots documenting dusty, crowded demonstrations
are intercut with sequences of labour organizers commenting on the events
while watching the sequences on laptops in farm kitchens. Emotional inter-
views with the distraught parents of children who have died of the flu-like ill-
ness are followed by the bemused commentary of a German reporter, in town
to cover the pandemic, who is frustrated by the townspeople’s reluctance to
speak with him about the flu. In this way, the film can be read as an inheritor
of the political aesthetics of the ‘third cinema’. Felipe Casanova and Miguel
Angel Daz’s work, however, represents an important step forward in the
evolution of those political aesthetics. The film’s thematic focus on the viral
distribution of cultural hybridity and The Chiapas Media Project/Promedios’
transnational distribution network reflect emerging trends in transnational
film distribution and the new cinematic cultural sphere.
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NOTES FOR CONTRIBUTORS 2010
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