Ed Driscoll

30 Kilobits Per Second Over Tokyo

Sometime on Saturday or Sunday, TiVo hoovered up Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo off of Turner Classic Movies, one of several WWII films they’ve been showing over Memorial Day weekend. I watched it last night, fastforwarding through some of the scenes of domestic melodrama between Van Johnson and his onscreen wife to concentrate on the main thrust of the plot: America’s first aerial raid on Japan, just five months after Pearl Harbor, in April of 1942.

The film version was released in 1944, when World War II was very much in full force–and while victory appeared to be in sight in Europe, we had no idea how long it would take. We really had no idea when victory would be obtained in the Pacific–or how many of our soldiers would die there, especially if a full-scale invasion of Japan was required. As I was watching it, and having my usual thought when watching a WWII-era movie–why can’t Hollywood make films like this about the War on Terror–I remembered a phrase that Arthur Chrenkoff used at the start of a recent post:

If the rest of the world are indeed Blue States, then our media and creative elites feel far more at home overseas than they do back in America which is much more split between the Blue and Red States, and where, regardless on specific political affiliations, the majority of people have generally positive feelings about their own country. Not only is it a matter of the staff at “Newsweek” and other major outlets having pretty much the same attitude towards America as do people in Berlin or Bangladesh, but trashing your own country actually serves a useful purpose of ingratiating and legitimizing yourself to your overseas audience – put the American flag in a rubbish bin, sneer at the swaggering Texan cowboy, and bemoan the Iraqi quagmire or the failure to ratify the Kyoto agreement and you can instantly show yourself to be a different, “good” American, more sophisticated and in-tune than the yokels back home. The foreigner are bound to think you’re wonderful and reward you with recognition and applause – what comedian Martin Short once called getting the “French ego juice.”

During the 1930s and ’40s, its golden era, Hollywood produced its pictures almost entirely for the US market. If they played in say, England or another overseas country, it was gravy in terms of royalties–the big bucks were from the chains of movie theaters in the American heartland, largely owned by the studios themselves until a late-’40s anti-trust ruling caused them to be divested.

Today, American studios are international conglomerates, whose owners could just as easily be in Japan (Sony, which owns Columbia) or Australia (Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox) as America.

As Jonathan Last explained in his terrific review of Edward Jay Epstein’s The Big Picture, studios rely on countries outside of America as a sort of backstop. And Hollywood has all sorts of backstops, so that even if a film doesn’t do well in the US, the slack from overseas, plus sales to first the premium movie channels (such as HBO) and then the basic channels (TNT or WTBS), and then the DVD and soundtrack sales can insulate a domestic stinker. As an example, the New York Times noted earlier this month that Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven opened much larger overseas than domestically, where it was considered a bomb:

The historical epic about the Crusades, which stars Orlando Bloom and was directed by Ridley Scott, took in just $20 million at the domestic box office, a puny opening for a film that cost about $130 million to make and was supported by a major marketing push. The film was helped by a stronger performance abroad, where it took in $56 million in 93 territories.

Which, to come back to Chrenkoff’s expression, makes the situation akin to the classic New Yorker cartoon illustrating flyover country (which is what the Red States used to be called before the 2000 election) writ large: instead of a big white space between New York and L.A., Hollywood sees a small red void on an otherwise blue global map.

Or, look at it this way: in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories from 1980, in which the Woodman plays a neurotic film director (big stretch there!), a studio representative views some of the more pretentious dailies Woody’s director character has shot and reminds him to remember Middle America. “They want laughs in Kansas City. They’ve been working in the wheat fields all day!”

These days, studio moguls don’t seem to care much about Kansas City–or flyover country in general.

Incidentally, the dark, angry and allegorical Stardust Memories was Woody’s second attempt to shoot his career in the foot after 1978’s Bergman on lithium melodrama Interiors failed to do the trick and his next film, Manhattan was his biggest box office hit (and deservedly so). His tryst with Soon-Yi Previn would have seemed to have finished the job at least as far as US audiences were concerned–but again, the box office receipts from Europe help keep Allen’s career alive, as Woody told interviewer Stig Bjorkman a decade ago:

Europe has saved my life in the last fifteen years. If it wasn’t for Europe, I’d probably not be making films. Films that were commercially unsuccessful in this country, made their money in Europe, or at least made enough in Europe, so the loss was minimal.

Europe seems to be saving a lot of careers in Hollywood these days. Prior to the release of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, domestic box office receipts in mid-May were down “22 percent from last year” according to CNN.

But why bother producing films that will make money in the Red States and risk offending the same overseas markets that seem to eat up stuff like this?

You get the feeling that part of the anger that Hollywood had over The Passion wasn’t just that Mel had made an overtly and unabashedly religious film, but one that made the bulk of its money precisely from those same NASCAR-loving fans that Hollywood has largely thumbed its upturned collective nose at. Sure, they’ll go see Spider-Man and Star Wars, but so will the rest of the world. So why bother doing anything pro-War on Terror–or heck, about 9/11 or the War on Terror?

James Lileks recently wrote:

This isn’t to suggest that the cineplexes should be stuffed with two-fisted jingoist anti-Muslim hatefests instead of sensitive necessary comedies about slackers who tour the wine country. But this disinclination to face hard facts is mystifying.

Another producer of another upcoming 9/11 drama says they won’t show planes hitting the towers because, “We’re not ready for it yet.” We’re babies. Please take the scary pictures away. Tell me the fairy story about Maboto again, Daddy. [Maboto was the fictional African nation where the terrorists from the pro-UN fable The Interpreter were based.–Ed]

Just what you expect from the Grating Generation, perhaps. It makes you nostalgic for the ’80s, when Michael J. Fox fled in terror from pursuing Libyans in “Back to the Future.” When that movie looks braver than modern post-9/11 drama, you know something’s missing. Guts, for starters.

What–and give up the global box office? What do you think these guys are? Peaceworkers?