Rant: Critics in Blue Helmets

The U.N. blocks the only invasion where they really do welcome us with flowers.

Revealed preference, like love, dare not speak its name. In October the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization voted 148 to 2 to pass a Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, giving participant countries unspecified authority to "take all appropriate measures to protect and preserve cultural expressions"--widely interpreted to mean protection from U.S. movies and television.

Israel and the United States alone voted against, four countries abstained, and the minister of culture from France (which, with Canada, co-sponsored the initiative) bragged that "we are no longer the black sheep" in the fight against "cultural invasion." The United Kingdom's delegate called the vote against American culture "a great day for UNESCO," saying the two countries had "agreed to disagree."

But we must use the word countries advisedly. At the same moment France's culture apparatchik voted to keep Hollywood out, his countrymen were voting very differently with their euros: They made Dreamworks' Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit the top French film two weeks running. Among France's other hits of 2005: Bewitched, Fantastic Four, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Star Wars: Episode III. (French audiences still have a nose for neglected American gems: Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, a relative nonperformer stateside, spent two weeks atop the French box office.)

And France's partner in cultural protection? Canadians this year doffed their toques to American fare such as Doom, Flightplan, Four Brothers, and Wedding Crashers. U.K. audiences liked all the above plus The Longest Yard, The Dukes of Hazard, and The Ring Two.

This is not to engage in national chest-thumping--irrelevant given that every major Hollywood release is to some extent an international co-production. Nick Park's British-to-the-bone Wallace and Gromit is a Hollywood film only in its studio. The Ring franchise remade an inventive series of Japanese originals. The biggest losers of a downturn in Hollywood production--beyond Los Angeles itself--would be the film boards of Toronto and Vancouver, Hollywood's favorite locations. (The UNESCO plan has more sinister implications as well: The U.S. argues that dictators could use the Convention to keep subversive content away from their populations.)

More important, Hollywood increasingly gears its products toward an international market, presenting all-frills, drastically simplified, dialogue-light visions of American culture. The French and British do something similar. The U.K.'s top celluloid exports--such as the Nick Park films and the yuppie treacle genre typified by Notting Hill and Love Actually--are "Little England" fantasies that would make Dickens cough up a roasted chestnut. France has scored abroad with pictures like Amelie, heavy on cafés and quirky characters unrecognizable to actual French people. Thanks to digital video, online distribution, and cheap DVDs, more films are getting made for domestic audiences in all these countries.

Canadians, harder pressed for a simple national identity, haven't sold a distinctive cultural product abroad since Bob and Doug McKenzie, the beer-and-bacon-loving yahoos on SCTV. Tellingly, the McKenzie brothers were designed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas to spoof broadcasting regulations requiring quotas of identifiably Canadian content. (After decades of such rules, U.S.-made shows this season occupy all of the top-10 spots in the Canuck ratings.) The McKenzies became multimedia hits on both sides of the 49th parallel; inspired Wayne and Garth, Bill and Ted, and countless avatars of two-doofus comedy; and show up in guest spots nearly three decades after they were created. Thus, the only time content regulation, from the U.N. or any other source, produced a positive result was when somebody made fun of it.

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