P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Cinema

Wherever I lay my hat
An interview with Ole Michelsen

Mette Madsen

Ole Michelsen, born in 1940, is Denmark's best know film reviewer. Since 1985, his TV program "Bogart" has played an important role in shaping Danish film culture, and keeping it open to outside influences. He has written two books: Film skal ses i biografen (1997) and Den dansende demon (1999). [RR]

How would you characterize European film production today?

One thing about European film is that itís not as commercialized and developed as a product, as is the case with American film. European film suffers from terrible conditions marketwise. We have very poor opportunities for selling our films compared to the Americans, who can sell all over the world and within their own country. That is what many Europeans have become aware of today. The problem is complicated though, because in one way or another the Europeans would like to do well in marketing and economics... speculation regarding film production. On the other hand, they wonít sell their souls... to put it crudely.

And then again, what is European film anyway? We have to make a distinction. For instance, can we talk about Dogma film as a Danish phenomenon? Are certain kinds of cartoons and certain kinds of cynical art film a French phenomenon? Are certain kinds of social realism a British phenomenon? The answer is not clear-cut.

One thing about European film, though, is the ancient tradition of the old Greek theater... and of the time when the great authors or playwrights of Romanticism were the leading artists. The director is identical with the author, and is the person behind the film production. Americans do not appreciate this. They develop products as they do modern industries, just as itís done in the modern Danish business community. So in that sense you can say that the American film industry is a business community and operates accordingly. It has always built itís industry on the contributions of a number of parties that each play a role, which has resulted in a bigger sale and better economy, but at the same time the product is exactly that: a product. The personal touch is gone. European films on the other hand are far more personal, broadly speaking, because you can feel the touch of the director! But to finish answering your question, what is characteristic about European film is that it is European. It is not American.

Itís more about soul, then?

The point is that we drag around this old European understanding of film as a work of art, while to the Americans it is merely a product for entertainment. They would only use the term art on very special occasions or ceremonies. They are not infected with it as we are. Weíve got the infection and itís both a burden and something very positive because we can still make very personal films in Europe... and we can make very personal films in Denmark. And thank God for that. What we now need to ask ourselves, in the situation we are in today, is how to maintain the European way.

Danish film is enjoying success at the moment. Is it possible to say, for instance, that the French are good at certain things? Is it possible to pin- point given characteristics from each country?

No it is not. That would be a rather difficult subject to get into. I for one am not competent enough to really speak of French film. Possibly somewhere around a hundred to a hundred and fifty French feature films are made every year. If I am lucky I get to see perhaps ten of them. I do not know the first thing about all the others. We have to stop pretending we know the film productions of the various nations. We donít. Itís nonsense.

When I am out giving a talk, I say: "You people sitting down there with all of your prejudices... you try and define French film." Then everybody just sits real quiet because they donít know. They are prejudiced about me only liking French films which is ridiculous. But I think it's an illusion that we can define a nationís characteristics, that a given nation has one particular mode of expression or particular kind of film production or a particular cinematic language. Itís just not true... not today at any rate. For many years now, countries like France, Holland, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany and England have been making co-productions. Latin co-productions are a reality but we never really talk about it. A French film could have Italian investors and actors from different countries. This way the story is not just French and in that sense you can say itís European. Co-production is an old phenomenon.

In Denmark we can define what is happening in Danish film at the moment. But if we move one step further and ask what is happening in Finish film, I donít know. I donít have the time to go back and forth to Finland. I, too, am a commercial slave of the things brought up in Bogart. I see and talk about commercial films that sell in the cinemas. All the rest I donít seeÖ end of story.

Do you regret that? Would you prefer that DR gave a higher priority to the less commercial kinds of productions?

Well no. That would be hopeless. Our position is very clearly defined. We reflect what is shown in the cinemas Ė those films that have a chance to survive financially. If we started to import more films from Iran, such as Black Board or other films of that kind, they would most likely result in a deficit. On the other hand if thatís the kind of policy we want then weíll have to redefine our existing policies on that area. And even though I always say that films should be seen in the cinema, the question is whether it wouldnít be just as good for people to get those films on VHS or DVD. At athe moment, those kinds of films are very expensive when it comes to distribution, and especially when it comes to translations. But all that will most likely change once digitalization becomes a reality everywhere. That way, itíll become easier to get by.

You asked whether I regret that Bogart isnít less commercialized. Again our position is well defined. As someone interested in film, as a person involved with culture, as a mediator, I regret that I donít get to immerse myself in the strange, unique films that are produced, often in an incredibly high quality. We are united in ignorance when it comes to those films. There may be four or five originals in this country travelling around to all kinds of obscure film festivals... and sometimes at the night film festival, those unique films sporadically turn up. Unfortunately Danish TV shows no knowledge of or interest in this kind of film.

The popular is dominant?

Itís mainstream to the extreme. Itís just too much. Everything is so simplified, so banal. Itís a very predictable experience to watch feature films whether in the cinema or on TV... itís practically the same everywhere. Now this of course is a general rule. Obviously there are exceptions.

But we do have DR2?

Yes well... maybe they show films that tend to be a little better than on the other channels. But for instance they never decide to broadcast letís say three weeks of only Hungarian films. Hungary's film history is magnificent. Or they could show films from the Soviet Union from before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain. No one would even consider that. It has to do with the fact that this country practically hasnít any film culture at all. Unfortunately [Ö] I have this package of several TV channels, but there is not one really exciting channel among them. They show mainstream as well as old Danish films and old American films, and thatís just fine with me. But there is not one channel specialized in European film culture or Indian or Asian film culture. Maybe in time and with digitalization, itíll become reality one day. And then again is it conceivable to watch Japanese or Chinese films with English subtitles? I think there would be only a very small percentage of the Danes would be in the audience. But it would be really nice to have access to such films.

Yes, well, there isnít really any access today.

No. Where do you go if you want to see an Asian film? Generally, for someone with my taste, the opportunities are far too limited. There are simply not enough exciting films. But my argument very quickly falls flat, because I donít call the video rental stores and ask the owners to import this or that experimental French film, or some Spanish or Hungarian film about World War II, if I know in advance the owner will loose money on the deal. I donít have the arguments because I know itís an incredibly expensive medium. I quietly accept the way things are. Money talks and I stay quiet.

You have given examples of some of the strengths in European film production. Aside from the issue of distribution and marketing, what do you see as the weaknesses of European film productions?

But thatís exactly the weakness as I see it. The Americans spend billions of dollars promoting new films. They sometimes spend as much money on the marketing as the production cost of the film itself. I have a good example. Film critics and film journalists are part of a prostitution industry that the Americans invite all of us to participate in. I donít want to be a part of it. I have been for many years but Iím not up to it anymore. Young journalists find it to be one of the most thrilling things in the world. To come to a big film rendezvous for launching a new film in Paris or in London. They invite all these people to come and pretty much everything is free. No expenses unless if you have to get a cab from the airport. This kind of prostitution is exclusively for the promotion of American films. And the Americans know exactly what they get in return. Theyíll get a bunch of enthusiastic journalists from Madrid or Copenhagen or any other place... from all over, praising a new Julia Roberts film. In Bogart we try to be critical but with only about only ten minutes available, thereís a limit to how deep we can go. But still we are also part of all that. The Americans are good at this. Europeans simply donít do this. Not because we donít want to. Itís a matter of money. If we invested and did the same thing maybe we could turn the situation around by inviting all American film journalists to Europe and showing them, say, the last four or five Dogma films. We could give them a long spring weekend in Copenhagen, taking them to Tivoli and really giving them a treat and at the same time showing them our films. But then the newspapers would complain about spending the tax-payersí money. But this issue is one of the major differences between American and European film. Then of course, a decisive factor is the matter of language. There are many European films that I find fascinating. I like them amongst other things because of their special glow, which partially comes from the spoken language. I love listening to Hungarian and Russian and all the other beautiful languages on film. But theyíre just not popular on the world film market. The official language is English. If you want your films to go further than your own little society, or further than maybe a kind neighboring country which only buys your film because of financial support, you have to make your film in English. Just take a look at all the Danish directors. All the great ones now produce in English. To turn that around, more money needs to be invested. Not just in Denmark but in all of Europe.

Some countries have tried to make big film productions but have failed. What goes wrong?

It simply isnít good enough to make one European super production a year. You have to keep in mind that in one year, the Americans make about twenty or thirty super productions. They have directors like Kubrick and Spielberg. They have Bond and Star Wars and so on. At least four or five of those will succeed. The one super production the French have made just isnít good enough to hit the world market. And again itís a matter of where the money is. Itís not in Hungary or Iran. The film market is American, and itís pretty much impossible for Europeans to become a part of it. We are only in there a little bit because weíre tolerated. Then we receive an Oscar every now and then. And Iíve noticed that even when European films won awards, they werenít seen in the States. The Americans simply wonít go to see the kind of films we make. Of course thereís an intellectual elite in America that appreciates our films but it doesnít make all that much difference. Not in terms of economics. The explanation is partly that Americans do not like to see new faces. They want to see their own stars. They want to hear their own language. With this in mind I think we have to drop the illusion of entering the American market. Weíll never get in there. Now we hear that Italian for Beginners is to be reproduced in America [laughter]. It will most likely be The Night Watch all over. And what will come from it? Nothing but our own national chauvinistic bragging. But when it comes to the financial issue we hardly get anything. European films will not enter the American market. Period. Forget it. But develop the European film market and consider a kind of modesty to go with that. Anyway, who says the only criterion for success is how much they sell? We have become infected with a commercialized way of thinking. Everybody seems to agree that if a movie doesnít make any money then itís probably just not a very good film. Thatís really nonsense. It doesnít have to be bad just because only fifty or a hundred thousand people see the film. Lots of film festivals have a small intelligent audience and whatís wrong with that? But it seems that the only thing film journalists are interested in these days are the numbers. They are totally obsessed with them. Even very professional people who should know better than that. Itís really sad.

Now youíve talked a lot about how the Americans are good with money. Couldnít part of their success be about the American way of telling a story?

Yes. No doubt. The Americans are excellent film-makers. And they really know how to tell a story. Their mainstream films always have this great white hero. They fulfill a human need. But there are other needs as well. And I think the Dogma phenomenon has proved that we too can tell a story. In that sense, Dogma has become the antithesis of all those technically difficult films like the American science fiction film.

So you feel that Dogma has put the essentials back on the agenda?

Yes. Everything unnecessary has been cut out, unfortunately including the music, which I appreciate a lot. But in that way the story stands out. Itís a terribly revealing style, and fortunately they have been talented enough to pull it of. Otherwise the Dogma phenomenon would have been forgotten by now. Dogma as a product is terribly ugly, discount, unaesthetic, confusing, where even beautiful people become ugly. And at some point weíll get tired of it. But itís a brilliant way of telling a story all unpackaged... with no makeup to cover things up. Hopefully weíll grow from there. With Dogma, the Danes have focused on the marginalized extremes. One way to portray people in a modern society. But Dogma is just a very small part of the picture. We have directors like Bille August and Gabriel Axel and Ole Bornedal who have been a great inspiration for many of the new directors. And the strength, in Danish films specifically, is their breadth. To me itís a great pleasure that a woman makes Italian for beginners and adds soft values to the idea of Dogma. Then we have a man like Per Fly who has made a fantastic film about an alcoholic... the film The Bench. Thatís part of what Iíve been longing for. Where has the Danish reality been? Ole Christian Madsen tried a little in Pizza King. And it makes me ask where are all the second-generation immigrants and all the burning problems of this society? Where are they in all the films that are being made?

Do you think thereís a fear of social realism?

Generally speaking there is a tendency to fear Ė or at least a kind of reluctance with regard to Ė those kinds of film. As if thereís some politically or socially negative side to it. But if there really is a problem one could and should bring it up. Obviously not as propaganda, but instead of always making farcical, unrealistic films like Flickering Lights, which is funny, charming and completely irrational but has nothing to do with Danish society. The Bench on the other hand is really... wow! Here you can talk about what is actually happening. This is a film about human relations, about people you meet every day! Another excellent film is A Place Near By or The Magnetist's Fifth Winter. Theyíre all examples of the breadth that Danish film has to survive on. The explanation is partially to be found in our national film school and at the same time thereís no doubt that the success we have at the moment has some sort of self-reinforcing effect. Success breeds success. The Golden Palm Awards or the Oscars which have been given to Danish films can and should be used both politically, financially and esthetically. So far so good. At some point we will have a down-hill period. That always happens. Maybe the Swedes will be the next to have success. It changes all the time.

For a long time Danish film was pretty much non-existent. Speaking of having a down-hill period!

Yes, as an old film editor I remember long depressing periods in Danish film history. That makes it all the more wonderful to note this golden age. But at the same time, sadly enough, it also involves a loss. We hardly ever speak of the films our neighbors make. We donít really know what they are making in Sweden these days or in Norway or Finland for that matter. And we don't know East European films at all anymore. Thereís so much we miss out on, and in many ways weíve become poor. Then again should we even care? What we donít know we donít miss. No... it really is one of the unfortunate aspects of the present development.

What part do you play in all this?

I speak for what I stand for. I am a mediator of cinema films in Denmark. My job is to speak to people in Hjørring as well as to people in Aarhus and so forth. I have to have this kind of attitude or I wouldnít survive in the kind of program I do. I would have been fired many years ago. If the ordinary entertainment film didnít interest me at all, which it does, I would only have a small, exclusive audience. I am aware of the "dumbing" effect, but I also enjoy a film like The Mexican with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts and other films of that type. Theyíre fine. The American films get most hats, but theyíll never receive three hats. The product itself is well done and works, so forget all élitist opinions for a while. If I only showed what Iíd prefer, all the cinemas in the country would have to close. Only art houses like Cinemateket and Øst for Paradis would survive and only because of subsidies. We show what people want to see. I don't know whether it makes people happier.

To me Bogart is a guide I rely on. If you praise a film Iím not afraid to risk wasting time or money on it.

If youíve seen enough of our programs, youíll know when a film would please you or not, because you are familiar with our way of evaluating films. This also applies if you like a film that we donít. We show pretty long clips which give you a fairly good impression of the film. Youíll know exactly what youíre about to see and thatís whatís important to us. That seems to work.

Jeremy Irons uses a metaphor comparing American film to a glamorous prostitute and European film to a woman with a mind of her own. Do you find that comparison to be applicable, for example to Wings of Desire and City of Angels?

I donít really know. Those two films in particular are kind of difficult for me to compare that way. Actually I find Wim Wenders a bit boring so in this case I would almost become Americanized. This is more a typical example of how connected European and American films are to each other. Without doubt Wim Wenders is a great film-maker, a good thinker also in a filmic kind of way. But he is very clearly tied to the American film. Truffaut or Renoir or Ken Loach and people like them have a clearly European approach to their films. At the same time they have great love for the American film. You have to remember that these men became directors thanks to their film culture. Not because of how society works or which government is in power. They became directors because of their love for film. And you cannot love film and not love American film.

But still you speak of differences between American and European film?

Well thereís a tendency to speak of a higher intellectual level in certain European films. The films of Buñuel, for one, demand concentration of the audience. But then again you can certainly find American films on a high intellectual level. And also you have to be aware of the comparison you make. It would be unfair to compare an experimenting Spaniard influenced by surrealism to Martin Scorsese or another of the new American directors. But there probably is a tendency in European film to claim the attention of the audience in a different way than is the case in American film. They tend to leave more unsaid. Anyway itís typical for some French directors and maybe for Wim Wenders to do just that. I liked The American Friend. It was a good film but if I saw it today Iíd probably fall asleep three times before the end. I think that one could say Wim Wenders is a typical example of a German director who has tried very hard to be accepted in the American film world whereas a man like Claude Chabrol or Gabriel Axel or many other good directors say: "Free me from American films. Weíd prefer to make them here in England or Germany any day." Theyíre simply not fascinated by the same things.

While seeing Wings of Desire, it occurred to me that Wim Wenders may have deliberately put in elements the viewer would be unable to understand. Maybe in an attempt to remind the viewer that not everything makes sense!

Well the viewer is not supposed to get meaning out of everything. Speaking of specific films, this could be an interesting observation. But you canít say that itís European. If you say Wenders, I reply David Lynchís Lost Highway. What is going on in that film? Letís try to interpret that film! Again we have to free ourselves from these geographical and national concepts. We should get back to discussing film as a piece of work related to other films. Woody Allen for example cannot be understood only from the fact that he is from New York or is Jewish. It doesnít make any sense to try and understand him without mentioning his sources of inspiration, like Bergman. Here is a Swedish man inspiring a great American humorist. And really his background isnít the interesting part. His films are. We have to look at the work itself. There is of course such a thing as mainstream. But then we have Americans such as David Lynch who isnít mainstream... and Kubrick isnít either. In any attempt to analyze which nation makes what kind of film, thereís a risk of putting limits on ourselves. Five years ago, if you had asked anyone with the slightest knowledge of film whether they could imagine a Danish film being made as a musical, taking place in America and recorded on location in Sweden, they would have considered it insane. None-the-less, Lars von Trier has done it. So we donít know... do we? And films should be unpredictable. Theyíre supposed to surprise you... no obvious solutions. In other words the Europeans probably should still stay away from Star War films. But at the same time not limit ourselves. Never speak of what we cannot do but keep our minds open. In principle we can make whatever we wantÖ

April 25, 2001

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