War of the film worlds

Our cinema culture must be more European if it wants to survive the multi-media explosion, says Ian Christie
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AT THE Berlin Film Festival a week ago, after a late-night screening of a new Russian film at the Academy of Art, I decided to walk back to my hotel. An hour later I realised I must have taken a wrong turning at the Victory Column immortalised in Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire, as I found myself exploring the eerie landscape of ex-East Berlin, now a vast building site.

The symbolism couldn't have been starker. In 1987 Wenders' solicitous angels looked down on a city where East still faced West over a wall. Both parts of the city could already share much the same electronic culture on television and video. But the cinema screens of East Germany were still "protected" from Hollywood's invasion. Now they, like the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, have become a vast new market for the multinationals - and Russian films, like the one I'd just seen, face a struggle to reach even their home screens.

This is the backdrop against which G7 representatives are meeting this weekend in Brussels to discuss regulation - or the lack of it - in the new information era. Some of the cast may be new, but it's a familiar storyline. Enter the good guys, led by the info-superhighwayman-in-chief, Al Gore, urging deregulation and a "free market". The dialogue goes something like: "Hey, what have you Europeans got to worry about? Let us into your markets and we'll let you into ours - and may the best movies win."

Facing Al and his friends is a sneering bunch of Dagos, traditionally led by the French Minister of Culture (no, we don't have one of them in the good ol' US of A). They demand quotas for imported TV programmes and movies; and they want to give subsidies to their own guys. Next thing you know they'll be wanting to subsidise their people to go and watch the damn stuff. No wonder they've never learnt to compete with Hollywood!

Ever since last year's Gatt stand-off, the spectre haunting Europe has been what America likes to call protectionism - and what some Europeans, although perhaps a minority in Britain, prefer to call keeping a stake in our own culture. The issues are already complex, and are fast becoming more so as new technologies such as "video on demand" threaten to overwhelm what order there is in the audiovisual marketplace with a flood of even more pervasive entertainment.

There are no prizes for guessing where most of this will originate. For the strength of the Hollywood "studios" - in truth these are now a cartel of multinational publishers on a global scale - lies as much in their libraries and worldwide delivery systems as in their current performance. But even if the French and the other language communities of Europe feel threatened by Americanisation what have we in Britain to lose? Do we not enjoy privileged access to those very bastions of the new world "infotainment" order? They admire our classy stage actors, giving them awards for playing Victorians, villains and madmen, and in return we stand aloof from the squabbling of lesser breeds without the Anglo-American law.

But who exactly is "we"? Is it the crowds flocking to see Natural Born Killers this weekend after so much media hype? Or is it the fans and aspiring film-makers who have made the writer of that film, Quentin Tarantino, more of a cult hero in Britain than in the US? Or the middle-class parents who have gone from The Secret Garden to Black Beauty and now to Jungle Book, grateful for these tasteful Victorian revivals while wryly noting that they are by courtesy of Hollywood?

Britain's cultural debt to America is curiously unexplored. British critics have often sneered at the Laura Ashley school of film-making typified by James Ivory's E M Forster adaptations. But what would they like instead? More Ken Loach? Few of Loach's films from the last decade have had any significant UK release, or support from critics. It is in France, Italy and Spain that Loach's reputation has blossomed.

If we look further back, it becomes clear that there is a void where Britain's screen image of itself should be. In the 1930s, the Hungarian Alexander Korda perceived this and brilliantly invented an imperialist national cinema with successes like The Private Life of Henry VIII and Lady Hamilton. Meanwhile MGM helped found the modern British heritage industry with hits like The Citadel and Goodbye Mr Chips, which Graham Greene described as having "an assurance, a glow of popularity" which it was "wrong to despise".

Yet despising has long been a national custom. And British film- makers who have tried to engage with the murky, confused attitudes of a nation uncertain of its identity and often at war with itself have frequently paid the price of critical if not commercial disdain.

British cultural uncertainty conspires with British political attitudes to create an unfriendly climate for a native movie industry. The political Catch-22 goes as follows: "If British cinema is going well, it doesn't need support; and if it's not, then it's a dying industry anyway."

Yet even Tory Britain has quietly enjoyed many of the benefits of a pan-European media policy for the last five years. This is thanks to the Media - "measures to encourage the development of the audio-visual industries" - programme. It is not a big Euro-spender; its £170m budget, spread over five years, is less than a fraction of what Europe spends subsidising its tobacco producers. Its 19 schemes support script development, distribution, training and exhibition, as well as niche industries such as animation. But Media ends this year and a drastically revised scheme is likely to replace it.

Andr Malraux, De Gaulle's first minister of culture, insisted that cinema is indissolubly both an art and an industry. America has never doubted that. Since the emergence of its cinema in the 1910s, its politicians, industrialists and film-makers have shared the view that movies help create markets and are ultimately the best international advertisement for America.

Few European film-makers have anything but admiration for American cinema. Wim Wenders is one of a whole European generation who took their cultural bearings from Hollywood - his films are studded with allusions, including Peter Falk playing himself in Wings of Desire. Even so, he observed in an earlier film that "America has colonised our unconscious". More recently, Steve Woolley, producer of The Crying Game (in Europe) and Interview With The Vampire (in the US), has bemoaned a European - and specifically a British - attitude which fails to take movies as seriously as America does. Mainstream English culture has traditionally distrusted both the visual and the popular.

What we have lost are the advantages of continuity and critical mass. There are no British "studios" with the resources of back-catalogues - half of Britain's entire film legacy is now foreign-owned - and dedicated distribution and exhibition networks. There are only the vestiges of a cottage industry, much of which is dependent on the whims of television. This situation, common across Europe, is a disaster for local cinema, since the interests of television are mainly domestic.

For all the talk of multi-media and video on demand, feature films are still the driving force of all audio-visual media, and where they establish their value is in cinema exhibition, however widely they may circulate in other formats. Europe needs to retain its capacity to produce and exhibit its own films if it is to survive as a cultural force in a world where visual literacy is fast outstripping verbal literacy. A continent that has no self-image on its own screens, and none to represent it elsewhere, has become invisible. The same applies to Britain. If we need quotas and subsidies to remain visible in the face of monopoly power - as well as a dose of American-style determination to succeed - then we should be prepared to stand alongside the French and say so.

The writer is associate editor of `Sight and Sound' and visiting lecturer in film at Oxford University.