Today's date:
Spring 2007

Shock and Awe vs. Hearts and Minds at the Movies

Nathan Gardels is editor of NPQ and Global Viewpoint. Mike Medavoy, chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, has been involved in the production of scores of films over the years, from Apocalypse Now to Platoon to, most recently, Miss Potter. The authors are writing a book about the role of Hollywood and pop culture in the rise and fall of America's image in the world.

Los Angeles —The sentimental slap on its own back that awarded best picture at the Oscars this year to a genre film, The Departed, masks a climate shift taking place in Hollywood. Films by foreigners such as Babel, The Queen and Volver that make little at the box office won many of the top awards and nominations while the big Hollywood blockbusters, which make all the money, much of it abroad, were virtually ignored. Even Clint Eastwood's acclaim this time around is due to his portrayal of the Iwo Jima battle from a foreign (Japanese) angle. That's topsy-turvy, like the weather.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel explores how the fates of the far-flung, from Mexico to Morocco to Japan, are linked in unsuspecting ways by the threads of globalization. Using the death of Princess Diana as a foil, Stephen Frears' The Queen examines the uneasy clash between tradition and modernity that pits our most revered symbols against our casual and meritocratic, if celebrity-soaked, way of life. Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, for which Penélope Cruz got an Oscar nomination for best actress, is a convoluted tale of women coping with generations of abuse from husbands and fathers who find within themselves the resources to act and survive on their own.

In all of these films we see the world in transition as we are living it. All have managed to break the cycle of remakes in which Hollywood has been stuck by telling new stories—something American filmmakers, who have prided themselves on their imagination and originality, once excelled at.

Meanwhile, with ever fewer exceptions, American filmmakers too often grind out formulaic, shock-and-awe blockbusters with the inevitable gratuitous violence, sex and special effects that may be winning the battle of Monday-morning grosses, but are losing the war for hearts and minds. For all their brawn, American filmmakers, like the generals in Iraq, are in danger of losing the battle of ideas.

In this sense, Hollywood's Mission: Impossible III has a lot more in common with George Bush's "mission accomplished" than we might have suspected. Despite America's continuing, but diminishing, dominance, its ability to win hearts and minds is draining away. In cinema, as in politics during the information age, it is all about whose story wins.

Just as America's image has fallen in world opinion because of the Iraq war, audience trends for American blockbusters are beginning to show a decline as well, both at home and abroad. For years, the big blockbusters—like Titanic, Jurassic Park, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Independence Day—have grossed more abroad than at home, where infatuation with contrived spectacle has waned. Last year, Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon made 65–70 percent of their revenue abroad.

But something out there is stirring. Even long-time American cultural colonies like Japan and Germany are beginning to turn to the home screen. For the first time in decades, more than half of cinema admissions went to local films in Japan during 2006, while German admissions for domestic films hit a post-war high of nearly 25 percent. This suggests they are headed to where TV viewers have long been. In South Korea, a close United States ally, 92 percent of television is domestically produced. And despite the long reign of The Bold and the Beautiful, Latin American telenovelas now attract larger audiences around the world than US soap operas.

The heat is on in Hollywood due to this change in climate, adding further woe to the digital-distribution-"YouTube" nightmares of the studios. (A Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll found in 2006 that "a large majority" of 12–24-year-olds in the US were bored with their entertainment choices.)

What's happening is that globalization accompanied by technological change is hitting Tinseltown just like every other industry. Just as the post-World War II American order that defeated communism paved the way for new economic and political competitors from Asia to Europe to Brazil, so too American-led post-Cold War globalization—and its backlash—have led to cultural competition. This suggests that we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the century-long honeymoon of Hollywood, at least in its American incarnation, with the world.

Now that globalization has moved us all into the same neighborhood, more and more people out there on the former periphery want to see their own stories on the screen, to see what is in their imagination and culture, at least as much as they might enjoy the latest offerings from Lucasfilm or Pixar. The John Wayne-era assumption that America alone can write the script for the whole world has been forever foiled, both in Washington and Hollywood.

Khan Lee, the director of Zeus Pictures, an indie studio in Taipei, has offered this blunt take on this issue: "Hollywood is a dinosaur that has destroyed and occupied our minds for too long," he says. "The world is full of new stories waiting to be told, and new audiences waiting to hear them, even if we use Hollywood's template to do so." Indeed, his brother, Ang Lee, made one of the first breakthrough films of this kind, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a globally appealing movie that combines Asian sensibility, following traditional myths, with Hollywood production values.

But it is Babel's González Iñárritu who has best captured what's happening. "The world is changing," he says. "The film community is now a global film community. It's not anymore about cultural barriers or language barriers. It's emotion and humanity. We are using the power of cinema to cross borders. We are understanding that now there's a cultural connection that needs to happen."

In our global age, movies must expose "the point of view of others, of those on the other side," he says. And it must be done with dignity, as in "Babel," not portraying Third World faces as mere victims or Japanese as cartoon caricatures.

Of course, there will always be a role for blockbusters just as there will be for aircraft carriers. But in this new global order where America desires the spread of democracy, we're with Iñárritu. Ultimately, it's about hearts and minds, not shock and awe.

From Secret Admirer to Infidel

As an illustration of how the prism of American mass culture refracts differently for different people, we asked four women to discuss its impact on hearts and minds. These women are Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel, a memoir of her defection from Islam; Masoumeh Ebtekar, a one-time student radical who rose to become the highest ranking woman in the Iranian government; Benazir Bhutto, two-time prime minister of Pakistan, and Madeleine Albright, a former United States secretary of state.

If you go to the "house of the devil" you will lose your soul and bring calamity on your life. That is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali's grandmother, an illiterate Somali nomad caring for Ayaan and her sister in Nairobi, warned ominously. One hot and interminably boring day in 1984, however, Ayaan, then 15, and her sister couldn't contain their youthful restlessness and gave in to temptation. Instead of studying the Koran as their grandmother told them to do when she went out for the day, they donned their headscarves and stealthily negotiated Nairobi's back alleys to the movie house.

There, for the first time in their lives, they saw something shocking: a boy and girl kiss in public on the screen as naturally and openly as if they were peeling sweet potatoes preparing dinner at home. The movie they saw, Secret Admirers, was a thoroughly immemorable Hollywood farce for those who saw it in America, but it changed their lives. What was this other planet where people lived this way? The America presented on the screen offered an alternative reality they, out of their own experience, could have never imagined.

As the floodgates came down and televisions spread through Ayaan's neighborhood, more and more kids watched American TV programs, inviting the devil into their own house. Ayaan particularly remembers Different Strokes, the sitcom with Jimmie Walker about a family living in the Chicago projects. To the great chagrin of their schoolteachers trying to train them in proper English, the students felt it far more hip to talk like the ghetto folk from America.

In a way, Ayaan's grandmother was right. Along with other critical experiences—including having her clitoris "cut" at an early age to remove any possibility of pleasure from sex—the path on which this young Somali girl embarked that day through a silly Hollywood film led years later to her avowed atheism and confrontation with traditional Islam and the Muslim shari'a code, which Ayaan today regards as "elevated tribal law."

As she recounts in her memoir, Infidel, calamity indeed came upon her life when, after migration to the Netherlands, she scripted her own film, Submission, about the ill treatment of women in Islamic cultures. The filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, an avant-garde cinemetic provocateur and great-grandnephew of the famous Dutch painter, was murdered for his efforts by a radical Islamist on the streets of Amsterdam. Van Gogh's throat was slit and anchored to his chest with the knife was a note saying Ayaan Hirsi Ali was next.

Ayaan doesn't watch many Hollywood movies and even less TV these days. It is not only that she was so busy until recently as a Dutch legislator and exhausted by always looking over her shoulder, despite her 24-hour security detail. It is because she finds what Hollywood produces these days so clichéd, repetitive and full of special effects that it has little appeal to someone who knows there are so many untold stories that never make it to the screen. In her view, Hollywood has "neglected its responsibility."

[She is especially appalled at the dissembling of her Dutch friends who despise all things American, but, at the same time, as she puts it, "allow their relationships to be defined" by one TV show: Sex and the City. Her girlfriends are forever invoking the fictional Carrie Bradshaw in the way they judge and relate to men in their real lives.]

Now that she has arrived on American shores—she left Holland in 2006 after a politicized controversy over false statements on her immigration application and having grown claustrophobic over the need for constant protection—she is determined to impress upon Hollywood the enormous power it has over the hearts and minds of the world "out there." For Ayaan, Hollywood filmmakers have immensely more capacity to shape the lives of individuals than politicians, yet they mostly seem oblivious and even ignorant of the world beyond their borders.

One promising sign on the horizon is Alejandro González Iñárittu's film, Babel. For Ayaan, the star power of the movie—Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett—was irrelevant. Its power lay in the depiction of the young Moroccan shepherd boys, brothers, who accidentally shot a tourist riding in a bus driving through the desolate countryside with a rifle left as a gift by a Japanese businessman who was on an exotic hunt.

First, the film showed the arbitrariness and brutality with which the Moroccan police treated its own citizens. (Such a film could never be made in Africa.) But most of all, it showed a "ground reality" that ought to offer some insight into the radicalism and insurgency America faces around the world today. Despite the brutal interrogations by the authorities, the brothers, wrongly suspected of being some kind of terrorists, would not snitch on each other about who shot at the bus. After all, they were their only reality; they lived with each other day in and day out. The rest of the world was just a faraway abstraction. Loyal to the only reality they knew, their instinct was to flee when the police closed in. When one brother was shot and killed, the other became an eternal enemy of the Moroccan authorities.

For Ayaan, the power of such a film lay not only in its subtle but meticulously honest portrayal of North African reality, but that the most impressive faces on the screen were not the big stars, but the dark visages of the poor and dispossessed of what we used to call "the Third World."

Cinema, she argues, can be a vital tool in changing behavior in the tribal or traditional societies across the Muslim world. The cinematic condemnation, for example, of genital mutilation in Africa or honor killings in Turkey, using actors in whose faces people find a reflection of their own lives, can, more than legislation by weak states, shame these practices out of existence. That kind of shame expressed by one's own kind, not actors from the West, is, for Ayaan, the ultimate weapon in undermining the notion of male "honor" in whose name women are so widely mistreated. This, more than all the troops a long war against radical Islam can muster, would help the West win its battle of ideas.

From the Shah to the Spice Girls

Growing up in the Shah's Iran, Masoumeh Ebtekar was a serious and pious girl, put off by what she saw as the decadence and corruption of the modernizing regime allied with the United States. Rather than being attracted to the West by what she saw at the movies or heard when listening to rock n'roll, she was repelled. As the Shah's repression deepened and Iran became ever more Westernized, she became a dedicated revolutionary. Unlike many other teenage girls, she idolized Ayatollah Khomeini, not Michael Jackson.

When the Shah fled in 1979 and Khomeini returned from exile, she was not only among the students who seized the American embassy and held the diplomats hostage but was their spokesperson. Her agitated daily proclamations from the embassy compound proved the prelude to a purge of all secular and moderate voices from the revolution to make way for an Islamic theocracy ruled by shari'a.

A little more than two decades later, Ebtekar had risen to the post of vice president and environment minister in the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, making her the highest-ranking woman in Iran. It was then that she agreed to talk with us as part of the now abandoned "dialogue of civilizations" initiated by Khatami to define the terms of Iran's future relations with the West.

Draped in a black chadoor from head to toe, she pointedly recoiled at the offer to shake hands with a man when we met.The key question was obvious: A real dialogue between civilizations wouldn't mean sitting down with Samuel Huntington in some academic seminar room. It would mean addressing how the revolution which overthrew the Shah now proposed to deal with MTV and the heavy metal music said to be most popular among teenagers who listen in darkened rooms while the guardians of virtue roam outside. "The doors of the world today are wide open, whether we like it or not. Our youth, like those of other societies, are attracted to the seeming glamour of this entertainment culture," she readily admitted. "Aren't we allowed to have any fun in an Islamic society?'' this proponent of Islamic feminism says she is constantly asked. "Is Islam a religion that prohibits everyone from enjoying life? Undeniably, it is a challenge to the Islamic revolution to find another model of enjoyment and fulfillment than the casual, carefree, sensate lifestyle Hollywood, to use the catch phrase, promotes as universal." In Ebtekar's worldview, it is a matter of cultural diversity. "Must we all conform to Hollywood's view of human nature, which mostly stresses what is base rather than noble in humanity? What about human dignity, particularly the portrayal of women as little more than sex objects? Isn't there something more to existence than consumer status and a few moments of pleasure in a life that is otherwise empty and meaningless? I think the basic legacy of the postmodernist, consumer culture of the West is to enjoy life for the moment at the expense of not thinking about the rest of society or the future of the world, as if somehow it is possible just to take a perpetual vacation from reality. Essentially it is living without responsibility. The greatest tragedy of our time is carried within this Hollywood culture: life deprived of a spiritual dimension." Recalling her militant days holding hostages at the American embassy, for which she doesn't apologize, Ebtekar updated the tasks of the revolution. "My generation faced political and military domination by the West. We had to deal with the Shah. The younger generation must face the Spice Girls. Today, the West doesn't have to deploy its armies and naval fleets, only its satellites and TV broadcasts. That is even a deeper threat to Islam."

By 2005, the reformist government in which Ebtekar so prominently served lost out to even more radical theocrats led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became president. By 2006, Ebtekar and other reformists were back, sweeping the local elections in Tehran and elsewhere in a sign of dissatisfaction over Ahmadinejad's poor performance, squandering his efforts denying the Holocaust instead of creating jobs.

The fact that Masoumeh Ebtekar is a top reformer in the Iranian context only underscores the cultural distance between Islamic believers and the West.

The Taliban and Desperate Housewives

Since 9/11, the nominal bridge between the West and Islam was supposed to be Pakistan. But the chasm there has grow even greater. Another woman, the most throughly Westernized of any leader of a Muslim country, offers some insights about why this is the case.

Benazir Bhutto tried holding the line against reactionary Islamists during her two terms as prime minister of Pakistan—including against her own intelligence services scheming successfully to install the Taliban in power in neighboring Afghanistan. Currently in exile, she discussed the impact of American mass culture on her own people—now aligned, if through a dictatorship, with the US in the war on terror—during a visit to her cousin's house in the smoggy hills above Pomona, California.

"Within the Muslim world, the word sex is not used. Sex is not discussed. There is a reaction, therefore, against the sexual overtones that come across in American mass culture from music to films and TV programs. Look at Desperate Housewives, just to take one example. In societies which are not literate and largely tribal, America is viewed through this prism as an immoral society.

"The clash in the Muslim world today," she continued, adjusting her headscarf, "is between those who want material success and those who pursue spiritual success. Those who want material success want to join the global march. The militants say ‘No, you shouldn't want to make money and live the good life. You should want the simple life as lived in the early days of Islam.'"

The militants, says Bhutto, exploit this tension to make people feel they are selling out Islam if they are sympathetic to the West. "They make use of the overly sexual, some say decadent, society projected by the Western media and say that to join globalization is to become corrupted spiritually. This is despite the fact that, Hollywood images aside, most Americans are very religious."

Offended in Kansas as well as Karachi

Perhaps because she was not only the first woman, but also the first mother, to become US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright looks at the world much differently than her predecessors. For Albright international affairs is not just about official treaties or the size of armed forces, but about culture, lifestyle and religious commitments. She spoke with us about Hollywood, the 60s, parents and Islam.

"I don't think we in America have yet fully understood the impact of the 1960s on how we view ourselves or how we are viewed by others," Albright told NPQ, "specifically in the Islamic world or by the late Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict, frankly. This pope has made it very clear that he wants to fight against the ‘value relativism' which came out of the ‘60s that said there was no such thing as real right or wrong. Of course, absolutism, the opposite extreme, is not a good thing either.

"Certainly, the whole ‘60s ethos has had a big impact on how the conservative, traditional Islamic world looks at America. There is no question. The face we show is one of great permissiveness. Women go around with their midriffs exposed, or worse. I have to tell you, I'm horrified whenever I watch some American television shows when they appear on the screen in Istanbul or Cairo. What must these people think about America? That really has undermined our ability to present ourselves as a role model.

"The problem is that modernization, like globalization, is not something you can stop. You have to figure out how to mitigate the worst parts of it. We are having a very hard time doing that at the moment because we are not in a position to promote what's good because so much of the negative is out there.

"I can totally understand that people in Karachi can be offended by the excesses of American mass culture, because they are in Kansas, too. There is a reaction to the over-permissiveness we see in our culture. I feel like an old fuddy-duddy saying this, but I understand this perfectly. I raised a family and can't tell you how many times I had to turn the TV off or change the channel when my girls were growing up.

"Part of what has happened is that certain aspects of America that people saw when they used to watch shows like Dallas or Dynasty became part of the global revolution of rising expectations. The prosperity portrayed in these TV dramas created both a desire to be like that, but also envy at not being like that. It made clear the divide between the rich and the poor world.

"Now, we have something different—the violence, the sex and vulgarity. That is something that offends people; they don't want to be that way. This is the kind of society they don't want."

What can we do about it, we asked the former secretary of state. "On the other hand, we can't be in favor of censorship," she acknowledged. "What we're left with is a plea to the creators of entertainment to develop a sense of propriety. They must have a sense of civic responsibility—only with a global scope because that is the world we live in today.

"The Danish cartoon episode was an example of this. No one in the West could say flat-out that those depictions of the prophet should not have been published. But what one has to do is realize there needs to be propriety and responsibility if you are going to live in a society where your freedom of expression is protected.

"What we need to understand, above all, is that we now live in an age of information technology by which anything can be spread. Religion can be spread that way, too. In fact, we see it with the televangelists. Some help spread a message of hope, love, unity, tolerance and responsibility. Others spread a message of hate and division, us versus them. This is part of the prism today in which politics and international relations have to be seen. You can't ignore it because the media ties us all together."

—Nathan Gardels