Issue #1523 19 October 2011
Culture & Life
Aussie actors in Aussie films
Motion pictures are an art form. Of that there is no doubt (despite the unfortunate efforts of some filmmakers to whom art is a foreign language they never learnt). But the movies are also – by virtue of the sheer number of people and crafts needed to make a movie – an industry.
And, as an industry under capitalism, it is at the beck and call of the people who control the money: the banks and other financiers who put up the funding for each new film.
In the heyday of the Hollywood studios, film making was at least nominally controlled by studio moguls who had started their careers as dry cleaners or penny arcade operators. But they hired people to direct or produce or write their films who did know what they were about – in the process pillaging the film industries of the rest of the world for talented people. Before long Hollywood dominated world film production, pushing many small national film industries to the wall in the ruthless drive for monopoly profits.
As an English-speaking country, Australia was particularly vulnerable to domination by Hollywood. There was no language barrier to give our film industry an edge. Instead, if we were fortunate enough to develop an actor with star appeal, he or she would not only be whisked off to Hollywood with the offer of big money, but would be taught how to speak with an American accent, so no one would know they were from Australia.
For Americans are nothing if not insular. Wherever they go they want to eat American food, watch American TV, listen to American music and hear American voices. And American capitalists – and all the rest of the world’s capitalists who are hoping to get a seat at the Americans’ table – pander to that desire. Multiculturalism is not a priority for the businessmen of the USA.
Not only actors but also the creative people behind the cameras were targets for US acquisition. But that wasn’t all that the American film industry coveted. Hollywood has always pillaged the rest of the world for ideas for films too, happily adapting other countries’ films to American idioms and settings. Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, a piece of quintessential Hollywood hokum starring Marlene Dietrich, was actually a remake (some would say a copy) of the Soviet film Blue Express made a couple of years earlier. Similarly, when renowned Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein went to Hollywood in the 1930s, they asked him to remake his silent classic about the 1905 Revolution, Battleship Potemkin, as a vehicle for Ronald Coleman!
Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express.
I do not have a problem with the film industry of any country making its own version of a film originally made by another country. In the theatre, plays are often adapted and reworked to suit the idioms and tastes of other countries and cultures. Providing the adaptation is not simply an excuse to allow the stealing of another writer’s plot, then adapting a film or play from one country to be presented in another country can be culturally stimulating, a case of cross-fertilisation if you like.
However, capitalism being the system it is, the desire to maximise profits frequently means that the company that makes the remake tries to effectively bury the original. When we were obtaining the prints of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films for a season at the National Film Theatre of Australia, we contacted the production company of one of his films only to be told that they could not give permission because they had sold the “remake rights” years ago to Universal Studios in the US. Universal however had never gone ahead with the remake so maintained that their interest in the film was null and void.
I eventually got permission to use the film in the form of a waiver: each company claimed the other was the legal copyright holder, but since neither of them objected to our screening the film anyway they agreed it was safe to assume we had permission to run it. Phew!
Currently, the Screen Producers Association of Australia is trying to get the rules changed that govern the use of foreign actors in Australian films. According to reports in the Australian media, “producers want more flexibility to recruit foreign talent because financiers are increasingly prone to request that A-list foreign actors are cast before they commit to financing.”
In other words, “if you want our money, you use the actors we want and (presumably) make the kind of films we want”.
This approach did not impress David Tiley, editor of Screen Hub Australia, who commented: “The threat in Australia has always been that our world just becomes a backdrop to mostly American stories. That is a reprehensible way of perpetuating our cultural identity.”
Hear, hear David! Australia may be only a young country, but we have a tradition of developing our own literature, including our own realist literature, our own theatre, our own folk music, our own paintings and our own films. We were pioneers in the film industry, in fact, before Hollywood had even been thought of.
Australian films and television, devised and written by Australians, made and performed by Australians, for Australian audiences are an essential part of developing Australia’s own national culture and also an essential part of fostering the arts in this country, for the people of this country. And that in turn is how the artists of this country (including those working in the art of the film) can interact with and influence the artists of the world.
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