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Elsewhere from an American Perspective: Foreign Places in American Cinema

International Conference, Université d’Artois, Arras, France, May 5-6, 2022
Costanza Salvi

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1Sponsored by the SERCIA (Société d’études et de recherche sur le cinéma anglophone), a society founded in 1993 to gather researchers in the field of English-speaking cinema, and now television, and by the research working group “Textes et cultures,” the international conference “Elsewhere from an American Perspective: Foreign Places in American Cinema” was held on May 5th and 6th, 2022 at the Maison de la recherche on the university campus of Arras. The conference was postponed due to the Covid‑19 pandemic and finally took place on-site save for a Japanese speaker who did her presentation via Zoom. It included six panels and two plenary lectures by Dr. Antoine Gaudin (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3) and Pr. W. Anthony Sheppard (Williams College, Massachusetts). The conference aimed to explore how the American cinema has created the illusion of foreign places, landscapes, and cities. There is a long tradition in the history of Hollywood that demonstrates its interest in using fake movie sets, rear projections, and matte painting that give the impression of visiting a foreign land to a motionless audience. In the postwar period the practice of location shooting increased, therefore corroborating exoticism, voyeuristic impulses, realistic effects, a sense of authenticity, and raising issues related to compositional conventions. If such aspects implied a commitment to faithfulness in the representation of the others, stereotypical and biased portrayals have remained, to a certain extent, intact. With themes such as mobility, exile, wandering, tourism, romance, and personal or professional trips pervading the American screen, new questions have become central at many levels: cultural, political, social, economic, and aesthetic. The conference touched on all of them, dealing with transnational exchanges, co-productions, hybridization, censorship and geopolitical diplomacy, practices of space, music, performance, and global reception.

2On the first day, Dr. Antoine Gaudin (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3) opened the conference with the keynote address “From the Reporter to the Entrepreneur: Evolution of the ‘American hero’ Profile in Countries at War Between 1980 and 2020.” Gaudin applied a cultural approach to space, presenting a change in sensitivity, engagement, and aesthetic appreciation of landscape in films representing conflicts and wars in developing countries. He first analyzed The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir 1982), Under Fire (Roger Spottiswood 1983), The Killing Fields (Roland Joffé 1984), Salvador (Oliver Stone 1986), and War Zone (Nathaniel Gutman 1987), movies that revolve around American journalists covering wars. Gaudin argued that these films are interested in exposing the centrality of the subjective gaze of US journalists on foreign landscapes; gazes that are associated with overhead views of the sordid, chaotic, violent character of wars in these countries. The journalist appears as a figure in between, not fully glorified nor completely vilified, sometimes a detached and opportunistic figure, at other times a nostalgic idealist, often powerless when faced with the catastrophic proportions of inhumane violence. By contrast, films made in the first two decades of the twenty-first century—Lord of War (Andrew Niccol 2005), War Dogs (Todd Phillips 2016), Gold (Stephen Gaghan 2016), American Made (Doug Liman 2017)—are based on much more cynical characters who demonstrate a high degree of criticism against US foreign policies. While the journalist’s gaze is often problematized, the “entrepreneur films” as Gaudin calls them, usually show a lack of sensitivity and compassion in the face of war presented in purely economic terms. This aspect is also highlighted through sounds and musical scores. Gaudin also emphasized that in both cycles, an embedded position of US professionals over the foreign landscape and ambiguous or critical comments over a highly mediated reality are evident.

3On the second day, the keynote address “Compelled by the Primitive in Cinematic Dance” was given by Pr. W. Anthony Sheppard (Williams College, Massachusetts), who offered an analysis of the importance of musical connotations to express exotic places and peoples. Sheppard stated that the soundtrack is a pivotal element in signaling the foreignness of cinematic locations since musical cues often come before the images enhancing the realistic effects of the film. The acoustic codes “exoticize” the image allowing the spectator to “buy into” the apparent authenticity of a foreign locale. An essential part of his talk described the concept of the primitive as an impulsive, automatic response to musical rhythm often supplied by drums and percussion instruments that animate inert, motionless bodies through the use of sounds, like in the Mickey Mousing technique. This process was exposed on various occasions of African American dance movements reproduced in the US history of theatrical performance, as in the famous minstrel routine Jump Jim Crow by Thomas D. Rice. Sheppard argued that these performances elicited contrastive reactions in white audiences simultaneously attracted and repelled by the eroticism and violence displayed through extremely dynamic movements. The aesthetic analysis given by Eduard Hanslick (On the Musically Beautiful, 1891) or by André Levinson (André Levinson On Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties, 1924-1930) emphasized, for instance, the lack of technical expertise and the innate character of this kind of dance that appeared as highly ritualized and often mistaken for a sign of pathology. Pr. Sheppard then exposed and commented on a series of cinematic instances of primitivistic dances in which the automatic pattern of dynamism is doubled in the mechanical art of cinema, from “I Wan’na Be Like You,” a song from The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman 1967) to the ritual dance in King Kong (John Guillermin 1976) as well as classical musicals such as Stormy Weather (Andrew L. Stone 1943), Show Boat (George Sidney 1951), and Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1955), or B-movies (Voodoo Tiger by Spencer Bennet, 1952). The process whereby the beating rhythm of percussions leads bodies and souls to a “domestic” concept of a primitivistic elsewhere is shown by numerous routines from these films.

4The first panel of the conference, “Representations of Europe (Part 1),” opened with a paper by Phillip Drummond (NYU in London, England) under the title “Vessels of Identity: Navigating the Waters of Venice in the Hollywood Films.” Drummond explored the presence of Venice in global culture and figurative arts as well as in American imagination, both as a symbol of fragility and as an iconic imaginary that furnishes a point of connection between the East and the West. Presenting different facets of cinematic representations of the identity of Venice (gondolas, hotels, Basilica di S. Marco, Palazzo Ducale), the speaker exposed how this tourist Mecca has become a cipher of otherness and a destination for a romantic quest (in case of male protagonists) and for an identity quest (in case of female protagonists). Barbora Kaplánková (Univerzita Karlova, Czech Republic)’s paper “Entering Fairytale Europe: Fictional European Countries and the American Hero” focused on the representations of imaginary European monarchies in the genre of American romantic comedies. In The Beautician and the Beast (Ken Kwapis 1997) and in following instances such as A Christmas Prince (Alex Zamm 2017) and The Princess Switch (Mike Rohl 2018), Kaplánková identified a series of recurring elements: the magic of a Christmas atmosphere, the invented names, the threatening obscurity of the settings, the description of class customs revealing the key ingredient of culture shock. These films often present North American young women as a transformative force toward democratization; in this way they indirectly comment upon the existence of a cultural conflict that requires the intervention of modernizing processes coming from the US.

5In the second panel, “Representations of Europe (Part 2),” Philip Edward Phillis (University of Glasgow, Scotland) described the impact of Hollywood-induced tourism on Greece in “From Zorba to Netflix: Exploring New Trends in Hollywood’s use of Greek Locations.” Phillis emphasized the centrality of Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis 1964), mainly the famous Sirtaki sequence, in shaping the popular imagination of Greece as a place identified with a Dionysian joy of life. In Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2009), similar extrovert fantasies are offered, thereby delineating the backbone of travel agencies’ marketing strategies, a process encouraged by the Greek Tourist Board. Phillis first questioned the authenticity of consumerist culture in the uneven power dynamic between Hollywood and Greece, arguing that a change emerged with Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013), in which serious arguments such as midlife crisis and cultural turmoil in the Peloponnese region established a new trend confirmed by the Greek Weird Wave and by films such as The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal 2021). Katarina Hloušková’s paper (Palacky University Olomouc, Czech Republic), “Ireland Through American Eyes: Wild Mountain Thyme—Utopian Paradise?” discussed the film Wild Mountain Thyme (John Patrick Shanley 2020) as a failed attempt to reveal the whimsical eccentricity of Ireland and of its isolated people seen from a strongly North American standpoint that limits the potentiality of the initial idea. The project was originally designed to present the in-betweenness of the Irish American director Shanley. Hloušková argued that the hackneyed images of Ireland as an idyllic, timeless rural country appear in arguable contrast with an equally worn-out view of US urban modernity limiting the potential richness and complexity of an in-between condition.

6The final panel of the first day focused on “Eastern Europe.” Emmanuel Plasseraud (Université Bordeaux-Montaigne, France) presented a paper entitled “The Action Takes Place in Poland, That Is to Say Nowhere… Dream-like Poland in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006)” in which he exposed the figurative contrast the film outlines between the consumerist, garishly colored California and the blurred images used for the Polish sequences. After explaining Lynch’s highly personal project as a co-production with Poland partially shot in Lódz, Plasseraud proposed a reading of the film in which, through Nikki’s (Laura Dern) disturbed subconscious, Poland emerges as the real place contrasting with a fully imagined California. The United States is seen as a dream space, a fantastic representation of the traumatized psyche of a Polish girl in distress. The last paper of the day was Milan Hain’s (Palacky University, Olomouc, Czech Republic) “When Hollywood Cared: The Representation of Czechoslovakia in Hollywood Cinema of World War II,” which demonstrated how Hollywood films portrayed resistant Czechs against Hitler following the Munich Agreement (1938). Hain pointed out that there was an increase in the production of these films after 1938: six were released in 1940, eight in 1942, and eighteen in 1943. In these films, the most famous of which is Casablanca (Michael Curtiz 1942), Czechs appear as refugees operating outside their homeland to defend a cause that is simultaneously patriotic and international. Hein emphasized that in noirish films such as Hangmen Also Die! (Fritz Lang 1943), Hostages (Frank Tuttle 1943), Hitler’s Madman (Douglas Sirk 1943), and Voice in the Wind (Arthur Ripley 1944), Czechoslovakia also appears through the filter of pastoral images of a bucolic and innocent country invaded by a foreign, evil force which served the US antifascist cause.

7On the second day of the conference, the fourth panel was dedicated to “Post War and the Cold War.” The first paper was given by Nominerdene Enkhbayar (University of Tsukuba, Japan), who focused on Sayonara (Joshua Logan 1957). In her paper, entitled “Postwar Butterfly: Reading Sayonara in the Context of Occupied Japan,” she analyzed the symbolic use of a picturesque image of Japan as a way to demonstrate an allegedly new US attitude toward the country. Enkhbayar nonetheless questioned the progressive message of the film, emphasizing the persistence of issues of race, gender, and class in post-war Japan, aspects tackled in the complex subplots where stories of the occupied and stories of the occupiers are constantly renegotiated. Then, Manon Küffer’s (Université de Lorraine, France) paper, “The Psychogeographical Dimension of Berlin in Hollywood Cold War Films,” explored a series of Hollywood productions set in Berlin in the light of Guy Debord’s concept of psychogeography. Films such as A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder 1948), The Big Lift (George Seaton 1950), and One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder 1960) show the limits of location shooting, encouraging a debate on the supposed authenticity in representing the capital city of Germany. Küffer further problematized their tendency to resolve political contrasts in terms of romance thus exposing their use of images of ruins and rubble as a trope of transatlantic relations and as a reflection of characters’ emotions. The final paper of this panel focused on the latest James Bond movie, No Time to Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga 2021). In “No Time to Die’s Island Lair: Hybridity and Geographic Representation of a New Cold War,” Maureen Fielding (Penn State Brandywine, USA) analyzed the cosmopolitan character of the film, shot with an international cast and produced and released through international companies. Fielding described the peculiar situation of the four southernmost Kuril Islands and the dispute between Japan and the Russian Federation over their ownership. Even if Safin (Rami Malek)’s “Poison Island” was filmed in the Faroe Islands, costumes and architecture are ethnically connoted and symbolically used in the film to imply a New Cold War, clearly pointing to the Russian totalitarian expansionist plan on the Japanese islands.

8In the fifth panel, “America’s Neighbors,” two talks were dedicated to South America. In the first, “John Ford’s Mexico (The Fugitive 1947),” Costanza Salvi (Universidad de Zaragoza, Spain) analyzed the runaway productions through the specific case study of a co-production between the Mexican film industry and Hollywood within the political context of the Cold War. Salvi situated the film as an instance of cross-cultural mutual exchanges, in terms of creativity and industrial mediations, involving John Ford and Emilio Fernandez as well as US and Mexican actors. The paper proposed a comparison with Enamorada (Emilio Fernandez 1946) so as to expose not just a view of Mexico from an external, overhead projection, but to demonstrate the other country’s involvement in a one-to-one dynamic that eventually influenced both sides. In “Cipher, Servants, Temptresses, Mystics, and Renegades in Tropical Paradise/Inferno: The Representation of Jamaica and Jamaicans in Hollywood Cinema,” Emiel Martens (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands) explored instances of runaway productions in Jamaica, discussing the tropicalization of these locales as a version of Edward Said’s notion of hegemonic discourses of Orientalism: the Tropical Islands appear as paradisiacal, redemptive, but also primitive and debilitating in four cinematic genres usually connected to Jamaica: pirate movies, horror, spy movies, and holiday movies. Drawing on Donald Bogle’s seminal essay, Tom, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films (1973) and Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Villifies a People (2001), Martens argued that Jamaicans are often presented in subordinate roles, either submissive or rebellious, but always exotic.

9The conference’s last panel tackled Hollywood’s depiction of the “Middle East.” The first paper was Olivia Flint’s (University of Southampton, England) “Afghanistan and Iraq: Hollywood’s External Frontier,” which focused on two films dealing with the Afghanistan War, Lone Survivor (Peter Berg 2013) and Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow 2012), and on three movies set during the Iraq War: American Sniper (Clint Eastwood 2014), The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow 2008), and Green Zone (Paul Greengrass 2010). Flint extended the idea of the Frontier myth in Hollywood cinema as an evolution from the cinematic Western to the war films drawing on Gregg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (2019). She called into question the idealistic project of extending the sphere of democracy, which glossed over deep-seated violence, alienation, and economic inequality. Then, in “Anti-Orientalism in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005),” Abderrahmene Bourenane (Université du Maine, France) expanded on Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism and offered a more nuanced vision of the binary opposition between the Orient and the Occident. Bourenane pointed out how the film criticizes the extremist use of any religion as a means to make political decisions, attempting to overcome usual stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, and showing a willingness to plead for universal tolerance and mutual understanding. The final talk of the last day, “A Terrorist Nation: Gaddafi’s Libya on American Screens” was given by Sara El Majhad (Aix Marseille Université, France). The speaker identified three moments in an overview of the wars with Libya, The Tripolitan War (1801-1805), The North-African campaign (1940-1943), and the first US War on Terror (1976-2006), in which Libya increasingly appeared as the leading state sponsoring terrorism. El Majhad outlined a modification in the series of battles from a European-centered to a US-centered conflict and exposed the centrality of Sahara (Zoltán Korda 1943) and Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray 1957). She pinpointed several films that, starting from the 1940s, presented Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia as countries consistently associated with terrorism. Lion of the Desert (Moustapha Akkad 1981) is one of the first in which a positive image of the resistance against a colonial power appears in a clear-cut vision. However, other 1980s films remained elusive, rarely tackling the main interest that draws other countries to Libya, which is the control of oil reserves.

10With its fourteen talks and two keynotes, the conference showed a wide range of areas, methods, and approaches. The analyses spanned various decades in the history of cinema, with three talks focused explicitly on World War II (Milan Hain) and postwar era (Manon Küffer; Nominerdene Enkhbayar) and one on an exhaustive overview of cinematic Venice from the silent era onward (Phillip Drummond). Some papers focused on contemporary cinema (Barbora Kaplánkova, Philip Edward Phillis, Sara El Majhad), others highlighted specific filmmakers such as David Lynch (Emmanuel Plasseraud), John Patrick Shanley (Katerina Hloušková), John Ford (Costanza Salvi), Clint Eastwood and Kathryn Bigelow (Olivia Flint), Ridley Scott (Abderrahmene Bourenane). While someone offered a comprehensive analysis of a crowd-pleasing and highly popular film such as No Time to Die (Maureen Fielding), others focused on B-movie productions (Emiel Martens). Furthermore, the conference allowed the audience to tour around the world, covering many different stopping places, from Venice to Afghanistan, from Mexico to Czechoslovakia, and from Jamaica to Japan. It offered a better understanding of the complex dynamics of seeing an elsewhere from the American perspective; a process deemed partial, incomplete, fragmentary, often biased, almost always selective, yet capable of putting forward a wake-up call for mutual understanding.

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Costanza Salvi, « Elsewhere from an American Perspective: Foreign Places in American Cinema »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 05 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/19773 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.19773

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Costanza Salvi

Universidad de Zaragoza, Spain

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