My experience of foreign cinema – or the value that it has provided for me personally – is deeply rooted in my national identity and Hollywood’s history of global dominance. Scholar B. Ruby Rich writes in Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, “My guess is that foreign films function as a rebuke for some viewers, offering up evidence that the world is not made in ‘our’ image, and that neither our society nor our language is universal.” While I agree with Rich’s evaluation, I’d like to complicate it just slightly. My argument, instead, is that foreign films function as a rebuke for most American viewers specifically, though not all.
In his chapter titled Hollywood’s International Market, from The American Film Industry (ed. Tino Balio), Thomas H. Guback describes how Hollywood began to permeate the global film market after World War I, acting in a moment when numerous countries were economically devastated by the war and left financially indebted to the U.S. As a result, due to the surmounting strength of the American film market, international film industries faced substantial difficulty in penetrating the U.S. And while numerous countries responded to the influx of Hollywood imports by establishing quotas, America’s domination of the international market had already taken effect. Guback writes:
“…on the cultural side, film was considered a great medium of information and persuasion, which not only selectively presented certain traits and ideals but also glamorized them, even if unintentionally. Hollywood’s output pointed up American stories and myths, American products and values. In 1926 it was already being charged by no less than a former general counsel of the Motion Picture Board of Trade in the United States that ‘American producers are now actively “Americanizing” England, her dominions and colonies, and all of Europe.’”
After WWI and leading into WWII, Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was in full swing. This period is generally characterized by a powerful, star-driven studio system, which remained largely intact for decades, though the industry’s economic structures were complicated by the Paramount Decision in 1948 (outlawing the vertical integration of studios). Beyond the industry’s appreciation of star power, remakes, and stories of heterosexual coupling, many Hollywood films can also be described as particularly a-political, a consideration which is examined in Charles Lindholm and John A. Hall’s chapter Frank Capra Meets John Doe: Anti- politics in American National Identity from Cinema and Nation (ed. Mette Hjort and Scott Mackenzie). The chapter dissects the work of Frank Capra, one of the few Hollywood filmmakers to explore questions of American political identity and citizenship, and notes America’s general lack of political filmmaking – a fact which makes Capra’s work so striking. The authors quote Phillip L. Gianos, writer of Politics and Politicians in American Film (1998) who remarked that, in Hollywood “‘politics is not consequential; politics is not interesting; happiness is purely an individual matter; things will be all right. This is what virtually all American films tell their audiences.’” Lindholm and Hall argue that, for the most part, Hollywood showcases an “anti-political national identity,” a concept that I believe necessarily influences how foreign films are watched by many American viewers. In effect, there exists an audience that’s craving the explicitly political, both within the U.S. national context, and beyond.
Following WWII, despite the global turmoil of the past decade, strong national cinemas began re-developing in war-torn countries such as Italy and Japan. As a result of interest in these popular film movements, the rapid increase of television sets in American homes, the economic effects of the Paramount Decision, and various social transformations, international cinema found its way into the U.S. market. In Vector, Flow, Zone: Towards a History of Cinematic ‘Translatio’ from World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives (ed. Natasa Durovicova and Kathleen Newman) Natasa Durovicova writes:
“Reappearing in the swirl around the Paramount Decrees and carried by the wave of neorealism, film imports had a resurgence in the United States inside a new crop of independent ‘art cinemas,’ but by then their fundamental ghettoization inside the ‘non-entertainment’ quadrant was – and still continues to be – taken as a given. Nonetheless the logic of translation operated within mainstream US cinema for roughly a decade in the 1960s, as the temporary shrinking of the US domestic market reconfigured the boundaries of for-me-ness itself.”
Also significant to the influx of European and Asian cinema in the U.S. was Burstyn v. Wilson, the 1952 Supreme Court case which “declared that motion pictures are ‘a significant medium for the communication of ideas,’ their importance not lessened by the fact that they are designed ‘to entertain as well as inform.’” The case was a result of the fact that the New York State Board of Censors refused to exhibit Roberto Rossellni’s neorealist film, The Miracle (1948), due to its supposed controversial content. After the case was won by Joseph Burstyn, a U.S. distributor who concentrated on international art cinema, the American market then became more welcoming of foreign cinema, which was characteristically open to violence and sex unlike Hollywood productions dictated by the censorship of the Hays Code. Beyond the political and economic conditions that allowed for an increase in foreign films coming into the U.S. market, this trend also revealed that a considerable amount of Americans – many of whom were presumably young artists, activists, and students – were uninterested in the tidy image of the a-political and nationalistic American landscape (an image which many likely did not prescribe to in the post-WWII political environment). It wasn’t until the late 1960s that American films began to blatantly challenge the status quo, as a result of the end of the Hays Code, but also the vast influence of international cinemas including European and Asian post-war film movements. Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 historical epic, Seven Samurai, exemplifies an early international film which infiltrated American theaters and left a lasting mark on cinema in the U.S. and beyond.
By 1954 Akira Kurosawa had already debuted Rashomon (1950) in the U.S., a film which received considerable acclaim, winning an Academy Honorary Award at the 1952 Oscars. As a result, Kurosawa had previously made a name for himself in the U.S. before releasing Seven Samurai. Taking place in Japan in 1586, the film features a group of farmers who, having their village sacked by bandits periodically and to the point of starvation, hire seven samurai to train them with weapons and fight off the soon-returning outlaws. A clear theme of Seven Samurai is that of honor and how the calculated and morally just way of the samurai (known as Bushido) prevails, despite the significant loss of life endured in the village.
The time that the film’s story takes place, as well as the time of release, are both historically relevant. Seven Samurai premiered nearly a decade after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 & 9, 1945) at a time when Japan was still rebuilding and finding its footing within the global economy and political community. The fact that the film details the heroic qualities of the samurai – in addition to clear class divisions and questions of intrapersonal relationships – in some way or another comments on Japan’s complicated cultural and economic realities after the war. And it could be argued that the film’s story of invasion from an outside force could also, hypothetically, reflect a national fear of subjugation. In addition to the reflexivity of the film’s historical significance (in both fictional and real worlds), it also seems that Seven Samurai’s popularity in the U.S., considering the historical relationship between the two countries at the time, comments on the artistic, cultural, and historical desires of some American audiences in the 1950s, which were unfulfilled by Hollywood-style storytelling.
Beyond Seven Samurai’s nationally-specific story of honor and the Bushido tradition, Kurosawa’s work also provided U.S. audiences with a new and unique cinematic style. Kurosawa’s films, and in particular Seven Samurai, are characterized by a number of distinct formal choices. Geometric staging is a hallmark of Kurosawa’s work, with each frame branded by his highly specific and deliberate composition. Movement also plays an essential role in the visual narrative of Kurosawa’s films; audiences are treated to dynamic movement within the frame, as well as camera movement which tracks action, often building upon the epic nature of the samurai battle. His expert assemblage of precise formal choices and narrative impact makes Seven Samurai a cinematic classic that was even respected by Hollywood – resulting in the Western-remake The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) and the subsequent reboot in 2016 (dir. Antoine Fuqua).
My own experience watching Seven Samurai – a film which I appreciate for its pace, exploration of character, and formal qualities – is complicated by a number of circumstances. Beyond the complexities of difference in language and culture lies national and historical distance. Not only do I have no point of reference for Japanese Bushido tradition in the 1500s, my existence and experience is entirely distant from 1954 as well. As a result, the historical context of the film’s release is in no way reflected in how I perceive the film as a contemporary viewer. Though the specific historical moment is not something I can remotely relate to (both when the film takes place and when it was released) the themes of Seven Samurai, which comment on honor, class, and tradition, are what I would characterize as “universal concepts” and can be understood and appreciated by most viewers.
What further complicated my initial viewing experience, as an American audience member with no immediate connection to another country or region, was the way in which Hollywood and U.S. nationalism once clouded my perception of cinema and the world. Before having access to foreign and arthouse cinema (as someone who grew up in a non-cinephilic household in a city with one arthouse theater), my experience of movies and movie-going in adolescence was explicitly Hollywood-centric. In college, foreign films did provide me with “evidence that the world is not made in (my) image, and that neither (my) society nor (my) language is universal.” As evidenced by Hollywood’s economic domination of the international market, escaping the a-political, American-centric gaze is difficult, especially from within the country itself. While Hollywood attempts to “Americanize” the rest of the world, those outside America (and those within the U.S. who are in some way connected to outside countries and regions), can resist the dominant ideologies of Hollywood to a degree because they are beyond its nationalistic grips. But, as someone who was raised without immediate access to outside countries (literally and figuratively) I believe foreign films provided me with the ability to escape Hollywood’s self-centered, American-centric world view. My current view is that (especially because I’ve seen more of the world both in person and on film) my enjoyment of foreign cinema relates to the ability to escape the style and themes which impede the Hollywood film, not simply to rejoice in hearing a language or seeing an expression of nationalism beyond my own experience.
One such film which I believe presents a style and subject far beyond the potentials of Hollywood is Federico Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 (1963). While Fellini originated from the Italian neorealist tradition, with 8 1⁄2 he turned clearly to a surrealist mode. Traces of the surreal are evident in La Dolce Vita (1960), and even the ending of Nights of Cabiria (1957) when Giulietta Masina’s character Cabiria turns directly to the camera with tears in her eyes and smiles, breaking the fourth wall. My enjoyment of 8 1⁄2 (or rather, love of) is indebted to the freedom of experimentation that’s possible outside of Hollywood’s grasp.
8 1⁄2 follows the story of Guido, a director who’s experiencing writer’s block and struggling with the pressure to deliver a film worthy of acclaim. While he unsuccessfully searches for the ability to produce something, anything, Guido revisits his past and those he’s loved through dream-like episodes of spontaneity and passion. Thematically, the film explores the demands of the creative process, questions of identity and relationships, the effects of modernization, and the difficulties of creating something meaningful when you’re scrutinized by the public and your peers. Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 is explicitly self-reflexive; not only is it about a director’s struggle to make a film, but the title references the number of films Fellini had made at that point. And 8 1⁄2 seems influenced, to a degree, by Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, valuing the dream world nearly as much as the “real.”
At the time of its release, 8 1⁄2 ostensibly provided American audiences with the ability to escape the formal and narrative confines of traditional Hollywood cinema (which was and still is pigeonholed by goal-oriented characters, unambiguousness, and clear resolutions). My assumption is that America’s fascination with Italian cinema, which began with the import of neorealist films, was partly because these films provided U.S. audiences with a realness rooted in stories of post-war disillusionment, showcasing dilapidated city streets and the disenchanted expressions of non-actors. Then, as Italian cinema transitioned to post-neorealism, the U.S. was seeing a cultural shift as well, characterized by the civil rights movement, sexual liberation, hippie culture, and the general dissatisfaction of American youth. The post-neorealist movement thus satisfied arthouse audiences with films that examined sexuality, repression, identity, and individualism – subjects almost entirely ignored by American film until the manifestation of the “New Hollywood.”
Beyond 8 1⁄2’s modernist subject matter, Fellini’s film is distinguished by dynamic formal choices. In terms of aesthetics, there’s a sort of freeness to the staging and camera movement, due, in part, to the experimentation that comes with exhibiting playful, surrealist dream sequences. The framing of shots consistently bounces between wide-shots and close-ups, visually reflecting the film’s play with subjectivity and interpersonal relationships (both the distance and closeness we feel with others). 8 1⁄2 showcases the life of the artist – maybe an artist who has no more to give? – which is a relatable subject for many. Though the film is explicitly Italian, it seems clearly focused on the individual, rather than national or historical context. This is not only reflected in the film’s storyline, but also in the locations, which rarely shift into the public world beyond the hotel (except through Guido’s dreams and memory). It seems, instead, that the entire film could be a fantasy, based on its removal from the urban landscape. This interplay of the particular within the universal makes 8 1⁄2 clearly representative of the style of modernist film that was so popular with American arthouse crowds in the 1960s.
Revisiting Natasa Durovicova’s essay Vector, Flow, Zone: Towards a History of Cinematic ‘Translatio’ from World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, she writes:
“In the vast cinematic middle field, for most film audiences of the world, watching movies does not entail either being seamlessly ‘homed,’ immersed in a familiar acoustic and cultural ‘scape of one’s own (national) cinema or signing up for the estrangement experience of the manifestly foreign, as in the narrative space of a polyglot plot. With the general exception of (North) America and Japanese audiences, plus certain regional audiences in India, a majority of the world’s audiences has for sustained periods taken in its movies encrusted with a thin but distinct coating of difference, that is, supplemented by an additional layer of graphic or acoustic matter comprising the inevitable residue of the two standard methods of translation, dubbing, and subtitling.”
By and large, it seems that Durovicova’s statement aligns with my argument that foreign films function as proof that more exists beyond the self, language, and nation of specifically American audience members unconnected to outside countries or regions. As a result of Hollywood’s global attempt at Americanization, most American audience members themselves see foreign cinema coded explicitly “Other” – an “otherness” which may provide individuals with the opportunity to see beyond their own nationalism. For this reason, I am grateful for the opportunity foreign films once provided me with; the ability to see beyond myself.
 Ruby B. Rich, Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, (MIT Press, 2004), 116
 Thomas H. Guback, “Hollywood’s International Market,” The American Film Industry, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 392
 Charles Lindholm and John A. Hall, “Frank Capra Meets John Doe: Anti-politics in American National Identity,” Cinema & Nation, (New York: Routledge, 200), 32
 Natasa Durovicova, “Vector, Flow, Zone: Towards a History of Cinematic Translatio,” World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, (New York: Routledge, 2009), 106
 Richard S. Randall, “Censorship: From the Miracle of Deep Throat,” The American Film Industry, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 432
 Rich, On the Foreignness of Film, 116
 Durovicova, “Towards a History of Cinematic Translatio,” 101