Friday, September 12, 2014

Cinematic Appropriation and Cultural Durability

Stewart Dompe on the use of tropes in society. The readers' digest version: geopolitics is hard, so to make it easier to understand, applying stylized version of stories we already know makes economic sense. Note that this is consistent with public choice theories of voter information: there is little incentive for constituents to be well-informed about foreign policy (since no single voter has any practical influence over the conduct of the home country's political affairs abroad), and the lack of direct accountability means that voters are at liberty to believe anything that is pleasurable or that conforms to comfortable preconceptions.

Movies, literature, music, pop journalism—there's plenty out there to feed popular prejudices. An abundance of rhetoric, if you will. Some of it even comes from overseas. Though the great era of foreign remakes seems to have waned in this Age of Bay, some of the important film classics of the 20th century are English-language versions of Kurosawa flicks. And if you'll forgive the conceit, they're insufferable bastardizations of the originals. Beloved gunslinger westerns like The Magnificent Seven, a plains-country interpretation of what was Kurosawa trying to come to grips with his postwar experiences took a complicated tale of honor, duty, desperation, pity, vice, and virtue and dutifully sanitized it, presenting instead a swashbuckling gunslinger story with pretty clearly defined good guys and bad guys. I challenge you to identify a paragon of virtue in Seven Samurai apart from perhaps Shimura's character. Even the Italian interpretations of Yojimbo and Sanjuro watered down the originals. Sergio Leone took Mifune's Man Without A Name and made him an off-the-shelf badass in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns is just Dirty Harry in cowboy boots and a poncho. It's worth noting that two of Kurosawa's finest films, Ikiru and Red Beard lack even a basic protagonist-antagonist narrative structure (same goes for the relatively obscure but quite excellent Dersu Uzala) to convert into a 3-act popcorn flick that Western audiences would enjoy. Hence, no director has ever (to the best of my knowledge) seriously considered turning these masterpieces into Hollywood releases.

The film purist in me rails against the dessication of quality cinema. But the social scientist in me finds something refreshing. Kurosawa's (beautiful and true) aesthetic is too alien to English-speaking audiences to stick. Even other imports (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Let the Right One In, Old Boy, various Asian horror films) use the tropes and devices of American storytelling much more than those from the source cultures. Even good-faith attempts at importing the finest the rest of the world has to offer shows that the dangers of cultural pollution are probably not all that severe. Even movies get assimilated when they immigrate.

We like our tropes. We like them enough to bend the finest cinema ever put to celluloid to fit them. The downside is an unsophisticated public attitude toward foreign policy, but the upside is that immigration can probably safely be liberalized, and this includes people at risk from violence abroad. The meta-story about good and evil is a refreshing one. See? Culture can be euvoluntary after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?