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Teaching About World Cultures through Global Genres

 

November 18-19, 2011
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan Puerto Rico

William Costanzo, Westchester Community College

McLuhan’s vision of the global village has never been more compelling than it is today. The world in which our students are coming of age—and which they are helping to create—calls for greater international understanding and cooperation. One way to give students greater access to lives and cultures beyond our national borders is through the window of world cinema. Movies have a way of making history, geography, and demographics come alive, transforming statistics and abstractions into compelling human stories. But movies made in different languages in other countries are not always readily accessible. Strange customs, unfamiliar faces, and subtitles can cloud the window. This paper reports on a new approach to teaching about world cultures through film genres. By starting with familiar Hollywood film forms (action, horror, road movies, wedding films) and tracing their origins and influences abroad (horror in Japan and Italy, kung fu in Hong Kong, wuxia pian in mainland China, wedding films in India, road movies in Latin America), students get to widen their experience of other film traditions and the cultures that produce them. By studying the cultural flows and cross-currents shaping our most popular global genres, students form a deeper appreciation not only of the films and their stories, but also of the people, societies, and beliefs behind these films—people, societies, and beliefs they will be encountering in one form or another throughout their lives.

Background: From National to Transnational Cinemas

As the art of cinema advances into its second century, filmmakers have been cutting across national boundaries toward a new internationalism. Fuelled by an increasingly global economy, fostered by changes in world politics, facilitated by modern technologies, and shaped by a heightened cross-cultural awareness, the character of movies has become global as never before.

During the past thirty years, the world map has changed dramatically. With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of central state control, filmmakers throughout the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe have been forging new alliances for funding and distribution. A similar pattern of multi-national partnerships is visible in the new European community, East Asia, and elsewhere. In this new climate, notions of national cinemas are being re-examined and re-evaluated. The reasons for such international collaborations are often economic and political. Filmmakers without borders can avoid local restrictions, draw on a broad range of resources, and reach a wider audience. For directors who cannot depend for financing on government subsidies or on audiences that speak their native tongue, multinational contracts and world-class stars can be crucial factors in getting a film made. Sometimes filmmakers like Iran’s Jafar Panahi or China’s Zhang Yimou can use the prestige of an international festival or the promise of foreign currency as leverage to make movies that would be banned in their own countries. Then there are the growing ranks of moviemakers who choose to live and work beyond their native lands, like Taiwan’s Ang Lee, Iran’s Marjane Satrapi, and Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón.

All this boundary crossing has significant cultural implications. For years, critics have complained that American movies are destroying local cultures abroad. Young Germans, Russians, and Koreans have come to embrace James Bond and Spider Man at the expense of their own traditional forms of storytelling and entertainment. But influence can work both ways. India, for instance, has enjoyed a strong film industry for years. Whereas Hollywood releases about 250 commercial films annually, India turns out more than 800 a year, many of them musical extravaganzas with exuberant dancing and improbably romantic plots. Now “Bollywood,” the movie machine based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), has begun to have an impact on Hollywood. Monsoon Wedding (2002) was directed by Mira Nair, an independent filmmaker born in India and educated at Harvard. Her film about a Punjabi wedding was shot in India with Indian actors. But while it has a recognizable Bollywood style, it treats issues of character and morality with realism more characteristic of Western films. Universal Studios picked up Monsoon Wedding and distributed it with subtitles in Europe and the United States, where it was a box office hit. Nair’s film is a good example of the new alliance of Hollywood muscle, independent talent, and multiculturalism in today’s global economy. It also exemplifies the growing influence of non-Western cultures and cinematic styles on American films.

To understand how culture flows through the medium of film, students need to understand the economic engines that drive motion picture industries and independent artists; the political forces of colonialism, nationhood, and state control; the draw of local, cosmopolitan, and diasporic audiences; the influence of new technologies like digital filmmaking and the internet. They also need to trace the historical paths that led to today’s movies. Towards these ends, we might introduce them to rasa, the ancient Indian system of emotional aesthetics that still reverberates through Bollywood films. We might note the parallel developments of Chinese kung-fu films, Japanese samurai movies, and Hollywood Westerns. We might study the anti-realist movements of Latin American cinemas—magical realism, Tropicalism, the “aesthetics of garbage”—that helped to shape and were in turn informed by European modernism. We might focus their attention on the oral storytelling methods of the African griot, the rigorously purifying principles of Danish Dogme, the cinema verité techniques of the French New Wave, the allegorical methods of Iranian cinema, and Italian neo-realism. All of these pressure points and movements have contributed to the world’s expanding storehouse of stories and storytelling methods. By exploring them beyond the familiar borders of American movie screens, students enlarge their vision of the world and increase their possibilities for engaging with its rich diversity.

Four Global Genres: Warriors, Weddings, Horrors, and Highways

In my undergraduate course on World Cinema, we explore four genres that have proved popular across the globe. We begin with a unit on “The Warrior Hero,” comparing an American western, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, to the Japanese movie that inspired it, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. We notice differences in weaponry and dress, but also in camerawork and pacing: how the action and crowd scenes are handled cinematically. Beyond these differences, we look for the historical conditions that created the gunslinger and the swordsman, noting how the frontiersman’s code of rugged individualism contrasts with the samurai’s loyalty to a hierarchical community. Then we study the heroes in spaghetti westerns (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), Indian westerns (Sholay), and Korean variations (like The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) to see how a national genre is adapted to the local tastes and expectations of different countries. As we widen the search to include other subgenres (kung fu heroes like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, wuxia heroes like Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Cheung), it soon become apparent that certain basic values and concerns, as well as film techniques, readily cross international borders in both directions. One explanation for this is purely economic: filmmakers who want to reach a wider audience will appeal to common interests. Another reason may be found in Carl Jung’s concept of the archetype and Joseph Campbell’s study of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. What global heroes and their journeys have in common represent fundamental truths deeply rooted in the human psyche. Arguably, the world-wide appeal of certain movie genres lies in the deep structure of their stories, foundation narratives that constitute a universal mythology for our time.

When we look at wedding films, we find similar patterns in character and plot. Usually, the hero of these movies is the bride, although fathers (Father of the Bride) or uninvited guests (Wedding Crashers) may act as focal points. The antagonist may be the family (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), a rival (My Best Friend’s Wedding), another bride (Bride Wars), or the groom’s mother (Monster-in-Law), so that the wedding often seems more like a battle than a celebration. Watching wedding films from foreign countries is a chance to study cultural traditions: Chinese rituals in The Wedding Banquet, for example, or Indian customs in Monsoon Wedding. But it also reveals interesting differences in attitude and tone. Most Hollywood wedding films are romances, comedies, or romantic comedies (The Wedding Planner, Meet the Parents, My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Bollywood weddings, especially in the 1990s (Hum Aapke Hain Koum!), tend to be socially conservative, reconciling one generation’s expectations of arranged marriages with another generation’s search for individual freedom. In Europe, weddings are frequently occasions for dark humor, dysfunctional families standing in for antagonistic local politics (Poland’s Wesele, Germany’s Die Bluthochzeit). In Middle Eastern films, especially those by Palestinian directors, the bride might spend the whole time trying to get through roadblocks to meet the groom, as she does in the Rana’s Wedding and The Syrian Bride. These weddings become vehicles for cultural and political critique.

Each genre is an opportunity for students to delve deeper into a region’s history and culture. “The history of the horror film,” as Paul Wells reminds us, “is essentially a history of anxiety in the twentieth century” (p. 3). By following the evolution of a single monster, like the vampire, we can trace the historical concerns of each successive generation, from Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyre to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Twilight series. Horror films can also tell us what each culture fears most at a given time. Japan’s movie monsters after World War II (Godzilla, Mothra) evoked frightening memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Images of Spain’s 1930s civil war haunted screens for decades in ghost films like The Spirit of the Beehive and The Others. The global history of road movies tells its own national stories about American outlaw rebels (Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde) or European existential ennui (Breathless, Kings of the Road). As the roads crossed, American and European sensibilities merged in films like Paris, Texas and Stranger than Paradise. In addition, road films give us opportunities to visit other countries, exploring terrain and social strata we might never get to visit on our own in Brazil (Central Station), Burkina Faso (Budd Yam), or Bhutan (Travelers and Musicians).

Key Questions

To keep discussions focused, my students and I have learned to ask a number of basic questions about the movies we explore. These help to ensure that we consider issues of culture, identity, genre, industry, and film aesthetics as well as character, plot, setting, and theme.

  • Who are the heroes of these films? What are their stories? How do language and location affect the lives they lead?
  • What are the underlying beliefs? How do these heroes and their stories function to affirm ideological assumptions, to rationalize certain kinds of action? To what degree do these codes and conventions change when they go global?
  • What do movies say about us as individuals, as nations, as members of the groups to which we belong?
  • Why do some movies seem to fall into categories? How can their similarities and differences be explained?
  • What economic motives help to shape these films? What are the cultural consequences of films designed for a local or global market?
  • What are the defining myths of national and individual identity? What other stories and texts do they rely on? What makes a film Chinese, British, or American? Why does this matter?

Conclusions

In the course of a semester, applying such questions pointedly and methodically to a selection of engaging international movies, students get to examine more deeply their assumptions about the world. They test those assumptions through close readings of films from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East as well as from Hollywood and familiar English language films. This helps them cross the barriers of subtitles and strange customs to experience the universal drama in these films while appreciating differences in culture and cinematic style. The key questions guide them through informed explorations of the social, economic, and political contexts of each movie text. Every film becomes an access point, a window, but a two-way window. They get to watch the give and take of transnationalism in action, how individuals and groups influence each other in the vast network of global culture. And if the course has met its goal, each new film they see will be another lesson in their ongoing global education.

Wells, P. (2000) The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch, London: Wallflower Press.

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