Rushdie's two cents :

Can Hollywood See the Tiger?


"LOS ANGELES -- Without Hollywood, they say, Los Angeles would just be Phoenix with a coastline. This year, as deadlines approach for strikes by actors and writers, L. A. is facing the possibility of becoming, for a time, a characterless, movieless sprawl.

Rumors are flying: The studios actually want the strikes; the actors don't, though their representatives are talking tough. And the writers? Well, they're only writers, after all. Talks keep breaking down an inch away from agreement. Television companies are preparing to flood the schedules with even more reality-TV programming it's cheap! it's popular! it's not unionized! to fill the holes created by The Strike. There's plenty of bad feeling in the air, and a growing sense of inevitability. The shutdown is "going to happen" (which means it either will or won't).

And in the midst of this uncertainty, the movie community awaits its annual festival of big business interests disguised as individual achievements. The lobbying season is over. The city is no longer being bombarded by "for your consideration" videotapes. Rock stars are no longer playing impromptu gigs in old folks' homes in the hope of garnering a few votes for Best Song from elderly members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The votes are in. The Oscars are coming.

The movies are Los Angeles's culture. At the weekend, big audiences go to the new pictures the way the opera-loving Milanese go to an opening at La Scala. I haven't seen such enthusiastically participatory audiences anywhere else outside the Indian subcontinent.

This can get irritating: for example, when a man comments loudly every time Penelope Cruz appears on screen in "All the Pretty Horses" "She's so beautiful! Oh, oh, he's going to fall for her! Uh-oh, here comes trouble!" or when a 5-year-old insistently asks her parents during "Cast Away," "Mommy, when is the volleyball going to talk?"

Angeleno enthusiasm can, however, also be thrilling. In a packed theater on La Brea, the whooping and cheering at an afternoon showing of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was astonishing even by L.A.'s standards. The audience knew it was sharing in the arrival of a great, classic film and was simply transported by the movie's brilliance. Anyone who thinks DVD's will someday replace moviegoing should have been there. Those killjoys who have denigrated "Crouching Tiger" as a piece of latter-day Orientalism, a Western appropriation of Eastern manner and material, would have seen an audience as diverse as America itself Korean-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Hispanic Americans and African-Americans easily outnumbered any WASP-y Orientalists who might have been there enjoying the film for the wrong reasons. It was evident to the audience that Ang Lee's beautiful, intimate epic is a luminous work of art.

In the context of the Academy Awards and the shadow of the strike, the success of "Crouching Tiger" is especially significant. It's being talked about as the breakthrough movie that has taught Americans to accept subtitled foreign films into the giant cineplexes where the big money is made. And this is why the various players and the studios above all may be making a big mistake if they think they can ride out the strike without losing their stranglehold on the market.

In the 1960's and early 1970's, a flood of great non-American filmmakers pried Hollywood's fingers off the cinema's throat for a few years. The result was a golden age, the time of the great films of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray; of the French New Wave; of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Now, once again, world cinema is blossoming in China, in Iran, in Britain. And it may just be that the mass audience is ready, at long last, to enjoy rather more diversity in its cultural diet. After all, there are plenty of dreadful American films we could all cheerfully do without.

The Oscars usually show us how Hollywood sees itself. Ridley Scott's technically brilliant but woodenly scripted "Gladiator" is the big-studio candidate for honors, just as the latest sentimental Miramax confection, "Chocolat," leads the charge of the smaller companies. Comedy comes off badly, as usual the Coen brothers have to be content with screenplay and cinematography nominations for the wonderful "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" There's no nomination for Renee Zellweger's moving, subtle work in the title role of "Nurse Betty." But behind all this familiar maneuvering, the tiger is crouching, the dragon hides.

And if by some chance the one genuinely great movie to have been nominated this year runs away with the big prizes, it may just be the wake-up call that Hollywood needs. When the world's finest filmmakers are coming after your audience, it may not be such a smart idea to shut your industry down.

Salman Rushdie is the author of ``The Satanic Verses'' and ``The Ground Beneath Her Feet.''

- bill 3-09-2001 4:19 pm

The flaw in Rushdie's argument is that Crouching Tiger isn't Hong Kong cinema: it's a very hip Western take on the martial arts film by an American director (born in Taiwan but educated in a US film school). A better example would be Jackie Chan movies like a Return of Drunken Master. Chan is popular because he does certain things (kung fu and death-defying stunts) better than Hollywood. A rise in real foreign films will come because audiences gravitate to something clearly superior to Hollywood's anemic product.
- Tom Moody 3-10-2001 9:24 pm [add a comment]

  • I agree that Jackie Chan's work is a better example. And Crouching Tiger is not Hong Kong cinema, but hardly a different take on the Kung Fu flick. Had Ang Lee's name not been on the credits, the Hong Kong audience, or anyone aquainted with his work, would probably assume that it was a film by Tsui Hark.

    - steve 3-11-2001 4:03 am [add a comment]

    • I don't know Tsui Hark's work well enough to comment, but wouldn't you say Ang Lee added a strong feminist message (and art-house ambiguity) to the standard kung fu scenario? A lot of people I talked to weren't sure why the girl dived off the mountain at the end. With the Hong Kong cinema I've seen (admittedly mostly Chan and John Woo) you don't have an enemy as amorphous as "the way women are treated in a patriarchal society."
      - Tom Moody 3-11-2001 5:11 am [add a comment]

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