21 May 2012

National Cinema in a Transnational Mediascape

One of the fascinations of the Century of Cinema series produced by the British Film Institute is its global ambition to represent the diversity of cinema. As a result it's easy enough to gripe about all of the omissions and exclusions and 'problematic' representations in the series. As series producer Colin McCabe, faced with the massive task he had set for himself, put it: 'The solution came with the decision to abandon the quest for a total history, to opt instead for individual essays... and trust that from an incredible variety of approaches something of the complexity of the century of cinema would emerge.' An interesting wager - but what strikes me about many of the resulting sixteen films of the Century of Cinema series is how often they present simplistic reactions to, rather than complex responses to, globalization. What I think we can see in the Century of Cinema are some clear examples of how economic and political pressures on media production support certain ways of negotiating a marketable identity but compromise critical reflection on the meaning of the nation and the role of media in our lives.

When considering the question of national cinemas today we note the deregulation of national broadcasting, the emergence of the multiplex cinema, the negotiation of the niche in the global market, the spread of satellite transmission and cable networks, the proliferation of digital communication technologies, etc. So why are so many of the Century of Cinema films framed by essentialist discourses about identity, in a period when both producers and consumers have been made aware as never before of the political economy of global media? After all, talk of globalization is hardly limited to academic criticism, and the multinational character of contemporary film is often plain for all to see.

For example, Jean-Luc Godard, in his Twice Fifty Years of French Cinema, poses an astute question about the centenary of cinema: are we celebrating the development of cinema or its commercial exploitation? But while the relations of film and capitalism are thus challenged, the notion of a French cinema is apparently not questioned: France, the birthplace of cinema, remains its homeland. The dark clouds of globalization gather on the horizon of the nation in Godard's film, as in several others. Not surprisingly, the first assumption which many of these films share is that national cinema must be preserved, or perhaps rescued. This assumption is consistent with Colin MacCabe's intentions for the series: 'The national economies of the first part of the century had allowed many peoples to record their visions on celluloid. I was determined that the series would bear witness to this plurality of vision, to insist that the global culture must recognize local variety.' In the face of Rupert Murdoch's globalism, MacCabe turns to the national as a site of difference.

But the Century of Cinema project is also inherently transnational in scope. MacCabe's attempts elsewhere to promote a 'post-national European' cinema may help us to to understand the particular construction of Western European cinemas in the series, especially the films on France and Germany. In this Western European media ecology, national traditions keep alive specific histories while repressing others. In Edgar Reitz's meditations on German cinema there is much said about the legacies of Nazism and the Holocaust, but almost nothing about Hollywood or the post-war presence of America. And Reitz goes much further than Godard in his assumptions about national psyche and even a kitsch 'essential German woman.' Here the drive to preserve and promote European cinema inhibits historical understanding. A regressive assertion of national identity in these films explains why neither the French New Wave or New German Cinema are discussed as complex negotiations of Hollywood as well as of national culture. Both films also ignore the various waves of emigration to Hollywood and the many extraordinary films that were the result - including, of course, film noir.

Godard's position is interesting here, as he takes the apparent 'forgetting' of French cinema by today's audience as an opportunity to summon the ghosts of its great directors for their historic testimony. However, like any work of memory this conjuring of the past obscures other historical relationships: Hollywood always the Evil Empire rather than the space of fantasy and transformation which it promised even Godard at other moments (think of Belmondo facing Bogart's image in the opening shots of Breathless). In the era of Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch there must be no European flirtation with American pulp. Here we see examples of how discourses of cultural imperialism can support a misrepresentation of the past. (On this point one should mention Nagisa Oshima's film about Japanese cinema which, like those on France and Germany, fails to address the history of American presence or the mass appeal of American pop culture.)


National cinemas stake their claims to distinctive identity in the face of the dominant Other of Hollywood. Putting a somewhat different slant on these matters, Ourselves Alone, the film about Irish cinema, gives a very candid account of both the Irish diaspora and the problems of sustaining a national industry in a global economy of image production. Here the Hollywood representation of Ireland is considered along with the national image constructed for export. One might say that this film did what should have been done in the case of Cinema of Unease, the film on New Zealand cinema. For this neo-colonialism of the image long experienced by the Irish is now becoming more familiar there, particularly with high-profile international co-productions like The Piano and Lord of the Rings. And many responses to Cinema of Unease in New Zealand saw Sam Neill's contribution to the series as reinforcing this neo-colonialism.

In order to move toward a more useful understanding of these issues we need to move away from the frame of national cinema. To begin with a more simple-minded question, then: why do people go to the movies anyway? Sometimes to see their own place, but more often to travel to some elsewhere. To paraphrase John Berger, the Century of Cinema is a century of departures and disappearances.

In his often-cited essay 'Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,' Arjun Appadurai offers a definition of mediascapes. The first part of his definition relates to the political economy of media: ownership, control, distribution, modes of production and representation. The second part emphasizes questions of identity. Appadurai further elaborates this dimension of the mediascape in the following passage:
'Mediascapes... tend to be image-centered, narrative based accounts of strips of reality, and what they offer to those who experience and transform them is a series of elements... out of which scripts can be formed of imagined lives, their own as well as those of others living in other places.'
For Appadurai the imagination is a 'social process' of increasing importance for cultural identity in the contemporary world; indeed he calls it 'the key component of the new global order.'

Mediascapes position human subjects in imaginary spaces which may support a shared sense of national identity or address what Appadurai calls 'the need of the deterritorialized population for contact with its homeland.' But where is this 'homeland'? The 'homeland' provided by the cinema may also be a virtual space of adventure and fantasy. In the West it is Hollywood that has most often provide this desired mix of the familiar and exotic. So there are aspects of the 'imagined community' of the cinema which may be profoundly at odds with any national imaginary.

Today national cultures are under increasing pressure to rearticulate their identities in the language of global popular culture. Here the needs of groups with strong links to their immediate localities (most drastically, indigenous peoples) and those of groups who look at a home located elsewhere, collide and converge. There is a sense in which technological media must always displace. If so, then it is different forms of exile and migrancy that define the politics of the mediascape.

On this note David Morley and Kevin Robins write Spaces of Identity that there is 'still an obsessive and regressive "desire to... fudge and forge a false unity based on faded images of the nation".' It is this disjuncture, as Appadurai would put it, between transformations of the mediascape at the level of political economy and the formation of imaginary landscapes - offering both mobility and locatedness - that is at the heart of the question of the mediascape. Recent cinema, of course, abounds in such disjunctures: for example, in the image of 'Englishness' produced in the films of Merchant-Ivory, and American and an Indian; or the English Queen Elizabeth played by an Australian (Cate Blanchett) and directed by an Indian (Shekhar Kapur).

There is a moment in Stephen Frears's episode Typically British (co-written by Charles Barr) when Frears, Michael Apted and Alan Parker, over afternoon tea in California, concur that Ken Loach is the finest director in postwar British cinema. Loach's critical realism seems exemplary in its commitment to the local, the regional and the socially disadvantaged. What they don't mention is that Loach's films are more often seen and acclaimed in Western Europe than in Britain. Today the mode of representation constitutes only one dimension of our understanding of the mediascape.


Even Martin Scorcese's 'personal journey' through American cinema pays tribute to the many emigre directors who are associated with the 'dark side' of American films. The very notion of film noir has long designated a transitive space, a trans-Atlantic genre through which Europe flirts with American populism and America feigns European artiness. But the notion of emigre directors dissecting the alienation underlying American society is also a powerful myth. In a chapter on 'Ethnicity, Authenticy and Exile' in Home, Exile and Homeland (edited by Hamid Naficy) Thomas Elsaesser has argued that the experience of exile and immigration in Hollywood supported not only the supposed social criticism of film noir but lies at the very foundations of Hollywood as 'a country of the mind': a virtual world of fantasy, melodrama and adventure. This notion of cinema as an 'elsewhere' is most interesting explored in the episode from the Century of Cinema series on Polish cinema. Through interviews with the viewers, rather than the makers, of films we learn something of how the cinema becomes so deeply embedded in pleasure, memory, trauma, and desire: not just in terms of Hollywood global escape route, but of cinema as a profound dimension of modern experience.


Cultural studies has drawn our attention to the way in which subnational formations of class, gender and ethnicity have invented hybrid cultures through an imaginary relationship with American popular culture. According to neo-Gramscian applications of the notion of hegemony, this relationship has been often understood as a struggle over cultural meanings with America as a dominant influence rather than a totalizing force. National cinema, then, has never been one thing in terms of its mode of representation nor meant one thing to its different audiences. In Modernity at Large, Appadurai describes a global cultural economy in which 'the United States is... only one node of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes.' Whether one is speaking of the cultural institutions of the nation state, the global corporate interests of commercial media, or subcultural and minority identity formations, for Appadurai the imagination has become, in a new and urgent sense, a means by which social agency is negotiated. National cinemas address different audiences: both the citizens if the nation state and various international markets of cinema-goers and video-watchers. This latter group, of course, also includes all of those migrants who have left their original national territories but who continue to maintain communication links and cultural identifications with their home country.

On a more pessimistic note, Frederic Jameson has emphasized how the GATT talks were used by American lobbyists as an opportunity to dismantle national subsidies in the name of free trade - an intervention that, as he suggests in The Cultures of Globalization, 'spells the death knell of national cinemas elsewhere, perhaps of all other national cinemas as distinct species.' Is Jameson's pronouncement here too absolute? And even if he is correct, what would it mean for national cinemas to disappear?

While the cultural imperialism thesis may be correct insofar as America clearly pursues economic and political power by means of distributing its mass culture, this argument must be counterpointed by the various ways that various cultural identities can actively negotiate an imaginary relationship with Hollywood as well as with different national cinemas. On the other hand, this negotiation can in turn be impacted by the role that the nation state plays in regulating and protecting their media markets and distinct economies of local and global resources. Cultural identities define themselves through mediascapes, but the elements of which these imagined communities are formed are shaped by larger economic and political forces. If there is no diversity of nations or national institutions then there will surely be diminished opportunities to negotiate new identities or to formulate alternative positions or develop oppositional practices.

The particular institutional formations that support national cinemas have often been defined by their response to the multinational corporate power and cultural hegemony that Hollywood has come to embody (all of which is not to deny that the nation state remains itself also a hegemonic formation). The problem located by Jameson is whether the very possibility of national cinemas including alternative modes of production to the Hollywood dominant is disappearing.

Why do the films in the Century of Cinema series so often reproduce myths of identity which are blatantly contradicted by technologies and political economy of the media in which they are represented? We can see in these films different negotiations of economic and political change. On one hand they abound with expressions of what Freud called 'ideologies of the superego': attachments and identfications which have outlived the social structures which formed them.  This would account for the rather mournful atmosphere of many of the films for the series. Something has been lost. On the other hand these films clearly seek to symbolise these losses, to mourn cinematic identifications, while looking for new, and possibly progressive, narratives of identity.

In this matter I think MacCabe's premise for the BFI series was obstructive. By assuming the category of the national as the basis of difference in the global media economy, the series inhibits a working-over of the different identifcations - local, national and transnational, traditional and modern - which shape the production and reception of cinema today. Ultimately I think we need a cinema, supported by nation states, which present us with imaginary landscapes in which we are able to recognise and reflect on these different identifications. In the age of transnational mediascapes, this might even be seen as a significant measure by which to evaluate any so-called national cinema.

It is in response to these shifting contexts of identity that Jameson has commented on the new relation of (what classical Marxism called) base and superstructure in the current stage of globalisation. Jameson notes that while in the cultural sphere one might welcome the apparent emergence of new hybrid identities and forms of cultural difference, in the economic sphere of globalization tends to subsume difference into ever enlarging and penetrating modes of homogenising power and control. The shift in media studies away from Marxist categories like ideology and cultural imperialism toward debates about postmodernity and globalization needs itself to be understood with reference to economic restructuring over the past twenty years. For Jameson postmodern culture has become fully instrumental in the circulation of capital through the codes and economies of electronic information. But while the cultural studies sought to formulate a politics of consumption and identity and sometimes lost sight of political economic realities at a global level (John Fiske's work has become emblematic of this slippage), influential Marxist positions on cultural imperialism (see Herbert Schiller) - which Jameson tends to uncritically repeat in his recent essay on globalization - often provide no theorization of cultural transformation in any positive sense.

Because the issue of migrancy and transnationalism, as I have tried to demonstrate, clearly circulates between both economic and cultural registers it also offers a significant opportunity to ask how we can begin to sketch a 'cognitive map' that can describe these shifting registers. What makes the debates I have briefly outlined above so important is that they prompt us to formulate an understanding of culture and identity that is supported by a more adequate account of economic and political forces. As migrancy becomes a more prominent metaphor of contemporary identity it is quickly subsumed into the logic of image markets and the mobility of capital. While human displacement has increasing urgency in defining social and political experience, it has also become part of the lingua franca of postmodern culture in contemporary capitalism. In these films commissioned by the BFI to 'celebrate diversity' in a century of cinema, national identity is articulated through the image of the migrant and by way of the migrant image.

[This essay is extracted from 'A Century of Exiles: National Cinemas and Transnational Mediascapes' by Alan Meek, which was published in Moving Pictures, Migrating Identities edited by Eva Rueschmann (The University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 3-17). The extracts are from pages 4-11 and 16-17.]

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