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  Written by
  Tom Gunning

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Going Global
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Richard A. Shweder
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A University's Lexicon


The world goes to the movies
>>Film historian Tom Gunning

"Think globally, eat locally."-sign in cafe in Stockholm, Sweden. As a film historian who specializes in films made before the first World War, I tend to think of the issues of modern culture and media in a century-long perspective. As a distinctly modern medium, cinema was global from the start, and the interaction between cinema and both nationalism and internationalism over the 20th century and now in the dawn of the 21st gives us some perspective on the promises-fulfilled and broken-and threats-real and imagined-of globalization.

Cinema was introduced by inventors in several countries before the end of the 19th century. As commercial entertainment in the 1890s, its most popular offerings were foreign views from films shot around the world, especially by the globetrotting cameramen of the Lumiére Company. Since the Lumiére Cinematographe was both a camera and a projector, cameramen were able to both shoot and show films wherever they went. Before 1900 the Pope, the Dowager Empress in China, and delighted children in Cochin China had all seen movies.

When cinema emerged not as a scientific novelty but as new form of storytelling, its international character remained. The first theorists of cinema proclaimed it an international language, understandable by everyone, a universal mode of communication. Pioneer director D. W. Griffith proclaimed cinema the answer to the Tower of Babel, a new mode of global understanding that would end all war. Simultaneous with these proclamations, however, the First World War broke out. After World War I, the United States emerged as the dominant player in international cinema, creating a hegemony that exists to this day, a power based largely on economic clout but to some extent also on authentic popularity. Hollywood played the negative role of swamping international markets, often destroying national production possibilities. Thus the paradox of film globalization: does it mean a hegemony by the most economically powerful players, or the possibility of diversity and international exchange?

Viewed from a contemporary perspective, the dominance of Hollywood continues, but so does the international sharing of cultures through film. If people who go to the movies (not simply in Chicago or Des Moines, but also in Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, and increasingly, Moscow and Beijing) most often see Hollywood blockbusters, nonetheless it is undeniable that, in theaters and video stores in the United States and elsewhere, access to the cultures of even countries like Iran, Cuba, and China comes through movies. And in the last few decades the power of Asian cinema, especially of Chinese cultures (mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), has made a tremendous impression internationally, with the Hong Kong action film pushing internationalism beyond an intellectual elite to inner-city kids who imitate Jackie Chan as easily as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thus film offers an ambiguous image of globalization: the possibility of exchange of images and stories and diverse cultures on one hand, often within the threat of a homogenizing hegemony on the other, whose effect on national cultures can be destructive. But even the universal popularity of Hollywood film can be seen as a means by which the utopian promises and possible dehumanization of modernity have been displayed to populations around the world. Is Hollywood the Roman Empire of the modern world and cinema its modern-day Latin? Is it open to challenges by strong popular cinemas such as Hong Kong or will it simply absorb (and possibly nullify) them? Do films offer the double consciousness we may have to possess to think globally while never losing our sense of local tastes, or the immediacies of a lived life whose uniqueness can be shared but not exchanged for a universal currency? No answers yet, but plenty of questions.

Tom Gunning is professor and acting chair of the Cinema and Media Studies Program. He is author of The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (British Film Institute, 2000).


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