Hollywood and France are the feuding hillbilly dynasties of world culture, mired in a conflict so ancient and obscure that few can explain what, exactly, it's about. Yet, it appears impossible for more than a few months to go past without some person - who should know better - declaiming about the God-given right of the people of France to view some forgettable special-effects extravaganza, or of the urgent need to protect the gossamer-fragile civilization of Racine, Flaubert, and Proust from the cultural depredations of Bruce Willis and Leonardo DiCaprio.
If all of this were just background noise, it might not matter. However, the war of words between French and American culture is also a policy issue. The existence of quotas on the importation of American television programs into Europe - an issue of minuscule importance in terms of the global economy - almost wrecked the Uruguay Round GaTT talks in 1993. Within Europe, France is unflagging in the diplomatic efforts that it has maintained for more than a decade to persuade its neighbors of the need to hold the line against the flood of American cultural imports. And, in the United States, the lobbying power of the American cultural industries, notably Hollywood, can still distract administrations, Democratic or Republican, into believing that the policy ramifications of this cultural posturing actually affect vital interests.
Most of us have short memories, so we treat these issues as if they are newly minted. In fact, the cultural animosity between France and America long predates the cinema. And the use of the movies as a battleground for enacting this dispute has lasted almost as long as there has been a motion picture industry. Indeed, since 1908, there has been an explosion of Franco-American cinema animosity roughly every 20 years. (The one exception in this otherwise constant cycle is 1968, a year in which the French were otherwise occupied - although they did find time to indulge in a significant gesture against the international cinema establishment, by occupying and closing down the Cannes film festival.) The historical, cultural and - dare one say it - atavistic underpinnings of these disputes have been insufficiently recognized by French and American policymakers. One consequence of this is that, all too frequently, they have come up with the wrong policies.
Loathing - and Loving - America
It is not difficult to trace French animosity toward America back more than a century and a half. A standard dictionary dates the use of the word "Americanize" in the French language (s'americaniser) to the year 1851. In a tactful note for wary users, it adds the observation, "often pejorative." Barely half a century into its existence, the young American republic was already getting a bad rap in France. The poet Charles Baudelaire declaimed that the "poor man" who became "Americanized" would lose "the idea of the differences which characterize the phenomena of the physical world and of the moral world, of the natural and of the supernatural." Baudelaire was accordingly stuck with the problem of what to do with Americans who palpably were not so lost. His solution: de-Americanize them. Thus, according to Baudelaire, the America of one of his heroes, Edgar Allan Poe, was "a vast cage, a great accounting establishment," in which the great poete maudit "made feeble efforts to escape the influence of this antipathetic atmosphere."
America's problem for the Old World, even in the nineteenth century, was that it was the avatar of modernity. Baudelaire's contemporary, Karl Marx, saw the burgeoning American capitalism of the mid-century as a promising early candidate for the inevitable upheaval of revolution.
The combined energy and rootlessness of American culture seemed for the French, as for many Europeans, to mark a decisive rupture - a threatening one for the partisans of the ancien regime. Of course, this rupture was not really between the physical Old and New Worlds but between the ideological ones, between the forces of those loaded concepts "progress" and "reaction." Thus, American culture had huge appeal to those who embraced Victorian invention and entrepreneurism, who attended trade fairs and exhibitions and marveled at Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West shows, a form of mythopoeia that married the wonders of modernity to the elemental and essential lure of the frontier.
The crowds of nineteenth-century Europeans that flocked to this ineradicably American entertainment were also sampling the commercialization of entertainment and, with it, culture. Show business, wrote P. T. Barnum, was an "art" that was "merchantable." Our world, he claimed, "is a trading world of men, women and children, who cannot live on gravity alone, need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business established by the Author of our nature." Barnum would not be the last show business mogul to claim that the American style of entertainment was the inevitable product of the natural world, although, perhaps, he remains alone in suggesting that it owes its existence to God himself.
Expelling the French
The group of competing inventors striving to solve the technical problems of the moving picture at the end of the nineteenth century were not particularly concerned with the potential of the nascent cinema either for art or for entertainment. In France, the Lumiere brothers, whose public demonstrations of films in 1895 are usually taken as the starting point of the modern cinema, initially shot banal, informational subjects: workers leaving the Lumiere factory, or a train arriving at a railway station in Provence. But these early pioneers quickly grasped the narrative and diversionary qualities of the new medium. In 1898, at the time of the Spanish-American War, the Vitagraph director J. Stuart Blackton filmed Tearing Down...