Some things are better left untouched—especially art. How many of us can recall a film we’ve seen over the last two decades that was intended as a reboot of a classic with high aspirations, only to watch it belly flop hard into the pool of missed good intentions?
In a world where people have grown comfortable with what’s in their own backyard, art is meant to stimulate our minds and to imagine what lies beyond. Yet the Americanization of film, both foreign and domestic, has arguably led many in America to become infatuated with the all-too-familiar. As a result, rather than venturing out onto the high seas to explore new artistic themes and ideas, we’ve demanded the unknown adapt to our sensibilities. Can anyone imagine Hollywood remaking John Cleese’s renowned 70s comedy “Fawlty Towers” into an American rendition? Or Will Smith marching across the dining room doing the Nazi salute in front of German patrons? Hardly.
How did we reach this point? The answer: cultural isolation.
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, we’ve propagated a film culture that has shielded itself from too much foreign influence, and it starts with the American audience’s attachment to American film. This attachment goes hand-in-hand with Hollywood’s decades-old expansionism. As the film industry picked up steam and conquered the hearts and minds of the American public, the next natural step was outward into the international market. Just as the American military and political arm stretched out post-WWII, so did Hollywood.
Hollywood’s reach abroad provided financial benefits to big film studios and fan loyalties across the globe. Meanwhile, on the home front, it created a sort of barrier that filtered out many foreign films, and instead offered Hollywood an opportunity to absorb and regurgitate them as American flicks.
Many of these rehashings were not necessarily improvements over their foreign counterparts. Some well known examples of remade films, both for the better and for the worse, include “Dinner for Schmucks,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Woman in Red,” “Rec,” “The Ring,” “Black Mirror,” “Wicker Man,” “Downhill,” “Vanilla Sky,” “The Italian Job,” and “The Departed.” The list goes on.
Despite the successful expansionism, market dominance did not equate to quality. As we’ve seen time and time again, throwing lots of money at films, as Hollywood has a knack for, doesn’t necessarily result in masterpieces—or a semblance of one, for that matter. But the public, nonetheless, seems to have taken to Hollywood’s dominance as a sign of superiority. This sense of dominance equating to superiority is rooted in American culture and its self-perception of cultural superiority as a world superpower with global influence. Ultimately, it has led to indulgence in all things USA, culminating in a large portion of its Americans regarding foreign films as feeling light years away rather than on the same planet. And any existing taste in foreign films has been steadily declining.
According to Indie Wire, foreign-language-film box office revenues dropped 61 percent between 2007 and 2014. Is it fan distaste for subtitles, or the foreign film flare? Or is Hollywood depriving moviegoers of film diversity, with the underlying assumption that American audiences are unprepared for subtitled foreign films? It’s likely a mixture of all three. Americans don’t demand it, because Hollywood doesn’t feed it to them. Adam Epstein astutely writes in Quartz:
Historically, Americans don’t pay to see international films in theaters, and it’s only partly their fault. That’s because many of these films have trouble getting into theaters at all. For example: The new Sonic the Hedgehog movie opened in 4,167 American theaters. Parasite opened in three theaters (that’s not a typo) before slowly expanding over the course of several months into just over 2,000, as of the weekend.
In some instances, hoping to cash in on foreign films, Hollywood remakes some of them, reimagined with American flavor and actors. But this merely reinforces the walls of Americanization. Instead of allowing Americans to experience the stories in their native tone and narrative, Americans are coerced, once again, into merely dipping into the same pool in which they’ve been swimming for decades.
But not all hope is lost. As with the example of “Parasite” and its box office success, a paradigm shift could very well be on the horizon.
Americans are becoming and will become open to new storylines with subtitles, as globalization accelerates and art circulates the globe. At the end of the day, whether hailing from rural Nebraska or downtown Portland, a consumer from either can share the same interest in film. Moviegoers want a story that captivates them, no matter what genre or language. They want to connect to characters, be pulled into the narrative, and feel emotionally provoked when the credits start rolling.
It’s an old cliche, but film isn’t only about money. It’s an art, and as such it commands that producers respect it. Of course, films will never only serve the purpose of fulfilling artistic integrity, but the artistic element can never be supplanted entirely by financial aspirations and lose its place in filmmaking. In other words, evaluating foreign films more for their artistic merit rather than for how much they can line the pockets of Hollywood executives should be the imperative. Leaving films in their native state will expose Americans to new cinematic experiences and cultural stimulation.
We’re already witnessing streaming giants like Netflix set the stage for foreign films and TV shows, opening the door for a once-neglected genre to enter the American consciousness, without needing Americanization or Hollywood-ification of them.
While there is hope that foreign-language films will slowly creep onto the American silver screen, America’s film industry and American filmgoers alike must take themselves to task on changing the paradigm. Rather than turning French fine dining into McDonald’s, let’s serve the escargot as is.