Sunday, 31 March 2019

The Hollywood Meme

Meme Me Up, Scotty

The Hollywood Meme -
Transnational Adaptations 

In World Cinema
by Iain Robert Smith
Edinburgh University Press ISBN: 9781474441339

This is, once again, another book that caught my eye drifting past in my Twitter timeline and I was lucky enough to be given a copy for my birthday earlier in the year. Now, it would be true to say I had a few problems with The Hollywood Meme - Transnational Adaptations In World Cinema, the first being when I finally cracked it open to read in the Jury Lounge while on Jury Service and finding that, although the cover was correct, an entirely different book had been printed and bound inside - namely Creative Involution  - Bergson, Beckett, Deleuze by S. E. Gontarski. Luckily, Amazon were more than happy to change it for me which they did, fairly promptly. So well done to their customer service team for that one.

Now the book focuses on the phenomenon of the meme as a snippet of an idea bringing together a common visual image, for example, which is then spread around such cavernous places as the internet and changed in ways which take the core meaning or notion but re-contextualises it to fit something else... if my understanding of that creative process is correct. So what Smith does here is use the notion of meme as a metaphor for the specific elements of Hollywood product and how different cultures utilise certain things from these to fit in with a specific market place and to bring more recognition and box office gain to the equation. And he does this using a few of the usual suspects by focusing on three large chapters, one each, about the Turkish, Philippines and Indian cinema at specific periods in their respective history (again, different periods) which best demonstrate what he refers to as The Hollywood Meme in evidence at the times selected to best highlight these points.

And he starts off by making a very good point about American product cannibalistically turning in on itself to reconstitute its own successful ideas and therefore reap greater profits from it. In this case, in his introduction, he starts off talking about the universal reaction that Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens was a rip off of the original, first Star Wars movie. Of course, this didn’t stop the film’s key target audience (myself included) from going to back to it for multiple repeat viewings and it’s certainly true, of course, that the very first Star Wars film itself was a potpourri of famous creative influences which owed a debt to various forms of cinema (not to mention Joseph Campbell’s writings) which A New Hope (as it was later retitled) was less than subtle with when it presented various texts combined and regurgitated back in 1977.

He is also keen to point out that the street goes two ways, as it were, in the way that various countries and cultures borrow and exchange ideas, allowing us to distill down from bits of each other’s successes within the context of our own cultural backdrop, so to speak. He makes the point that Hollywood comprises only 6% of global film production so, perhaps its reach and dominance of so much of international culture is a bit of a puzzle. Actually, in the early pages of the book I was just waiting for him to get around to pointing out Wim Wenders famous quote from his 1976 film Kings Of The Road and, sure enough, within a couple more pages he’d gotten around to that  “The Yanks have colonised our subconscious” dialogue so, yeah, it’s still a useful quotation to use as a metaphor, I guess.

He also goes onto talk about The Berne Convention For The Protection Of Literary And Artistic Works set up in France in 1886, at the behest of writers such as Victor Hugo and how this was pretty much ignored by the various people making movies at these key times of Turkish, Philippine and India.

Here’s my big problem with the book though... it’s way too academic. And when I say that I mean that the levels and denseness of the academic speak and technique in which the book is written is far more alienating and able to render vasts swards of text almost incomprehensible in the worst way. To myself, at least. I still can’t for instance, work out just what the objective of Mr. Smith’s new model for the study of transnational cinema is... even when he tries to sum everything up in the end. As I’ve said elsewhere (in a review of a book which I’ve so far been too cowardly to publish here for fear of hurting an author’s feelings), I really hate the academic approach of ‘method, text, conclusion’ as I find it a complete waste of everybody’s time but this is exactly the mode of discourse that the writer has chosen to utilise his ideas with here. The first two great chunks of text discuss exactly what he is trying to write about and prove and then, before we get to a similarly redundant conclusion chapter, the book is split up into three main chapters which actually are very interesting when you can cut to the chase, namely Popular Turkish Cinema from 1970 to 1982, Popular Philippines Cinema from 1979 to 1994 and Popular Indian Cinema from 1998 to 2010 (specifically their Bollywood strand of national cinema).

Then, at the start of each chapter he does exactly the same thing... starting off each section with a lengthy summary of what he is going to write about and then following up, at the end of each chapter, with another summary of what he’s just written about. And I suspect, with the overwhelming academic speak that some parts of this text uses, I didn’t always understand all of the points he was trying to make. Especially when the specific samples he picks... of which he chooses three to four films for each chapter to briefly write about... are all examples which are somewhat different in intent to each other and which all use slightly different modus operandi in their respective approaches to the ‘Hollywood Meme’ part of their make-up.

But, like I said, there is some ‘gold in them thar hills’ if you can penetrate the slightly alienating writing style found in many passages and he helpfully includes, near the start of each chapter, a kind of precis of each of these national industries at the period he is writing about and how they came to be at that place within a historical context. He also talks about the lack of enthusiasm or recognition of copyright laws in each respective country as an indication of the relative ease in which films like the famous yesilcam 3 Dev Adam aka Santo And Captain America VS Spider-Man are made.

So, in addition to introducing me to the background behind the ‘yesilcam’ film and the term ‘Turkification’, he explains why Turkish cinema was more Westernised and populist in its execution as opposed to the often more artistically different film produce of other countries. He also demonstrates how many of the films from Turkey and the Philippines are actually not utilising the specific characters from the source material... Batman, Robin, Superman, Captain America, Spider-man etc... but merely using the visual iconography of those famous characters to get people into the cinemas. So the only traits that the villanous Spider-man of 3 Dev Adam shares with his comic book counterpart is, for example, just the costume and the name. And often the text of the movie will point out that the characters are only borrowing these trappings due to a plot point, rather than actually being the same characters (which is kinda interesting, actually). Again, he points out that in Turkish Star Wars, while footage and music from various Hollywood products are spliced in (visually, from Star Wars) the plot and characters are different to the original Lucasfilm classic.

He goes on to look at Turkish Star Trek (this is one of the many films highlighted in this book where I’ve had a ‘DVD’ waiting in the piles to watch for years without getting around to looking at the thing) and how it’s a continuation (indeed conclusion) of a long series of films about a Turkish comedy character and how he is injected into a feature length remake of the early Star Trek episode The Man Trap (the salt vampire one... I believe it was actually the first in the series to air when the show was first transmitted, with the second pilot film following a week later) plus famous scenes from other Star Trek episodes and how this character is used to highlight, metaphorically on screen, the exchange between Turkish and US culture.

He points out, in another film I’ve still yet to get around to watching, Seytan, which is a Turkish remake of The Exorcist, how the Catholic tropes which make the film quite terrifying for audiences of a certain religious persuasion, have been replaced by Islamic ones. So, for example, the infamous, forced crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist is replaced with a Jinn-headed knife masturbation scene in Seytan.

His chapter on Philippines is more of the same but he points out that their cinema is a more postmodern one in terms of its borrowings from American culture, with several sources and genres spliced in so the movies can appeal to a wide range of countries in export. So, for example, Dynamite Johnson is a sequel to both The Bionic Boy and Cleopatra Wong (the Philippines answer to Cleopatra Jones). He also looks at the way their own popular characters such as the comic strip heroine Darna, who is already a little like Wonder Woman, is further enhanced to resemble the US heroine in the long series of films about her, even down to giving Darna a similar costume, tiara and bracelets that ward off the bullets of her enemies.

In the Bollywood chapter, however, Smith is quick to point out that the visual iconography of Hollywood so prevalent in the popular cinema of the Turkish and Philippine cinema of these respective time periods, is absent completely in the popular cinema of India. Instead, it is the characters and plots, scenes and shots which are transplanted wholesale... after being ‘Indianised’ with national traits like the addition of musical sequences... and this gives various Hollywood ‘classics’ the chance to flourish in a national market where penetration of Hollywood product is very low, especially in comparison with most other countries. So a Bollywood remake of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, for example, has the narrative unfolding in the correct order but also has a parallel flashback story added and it’s in that romantic back story that the traditional Bollywood musical sequences are inserted.

In his concluding chapter, where the author also tells us what it is he’s just written about, he says some interesting things about the memes taken by these countries being 'memed' themselves and altered to produce a new phoenix form the ashes of what’s gone before... especially in regards to the web. So, for example, a serialised version of 3 Dev Adam has been re-subtitled with a totally different story and dialogue, with much the same attitude that Woody Allen ended up pulling together What’s Up Tiger Lily? from the ashes of the Japanese film Key Of Keys and turning it into something funny with the addition of new dubbing.

It was in this final chapter that the writer did really go down in my estimation, it has to be said, by using the phrase ‘an history’ instead of the totally correct ‘a history’... it’s a hard ‘H’ people! Other than that though... and the somewhat tiring use of academic syntax to render what should be easily understood ideas into fairly less penetrable ones... I’d have to say that The Hollywood Meme - Transnational Adaptations In World Cinema is actually a kind of interesting book and if you’re one of those few people in this ‘bootleg DVD, internet ironic’ world who has somehow not heard about a lot of these manifestations of national cinema, then you might want to give this book a try. If nothing else, it will open your eyes to what’s around for the more jaded of cineastes to whet their appetites on. This probably won’t end up being my favourite book on the subject but, until something better comes along, it’s definitely worth a look.

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