To read most director-centric film criticism, of course, one wouldn't suspect anything of the kind. With the exceptions of Pauline Kael (Raising Kane) and Richard Corliss (Talking Pictures), most American critics have bought into auteurist orthodoxy without thinking twice. For decades the tacit transatlantic understanding about film has gone roughly like this: America sends France movies, and France sends America theory. French movies, brilliant though they can be, tend not to make much impact at American theaters, but French theory —like a proliferating non-native plant—has driven out any domestic attempt at a poetics of American film.
This one-sidedness all but ignores the possibility that auteurism has historically worked much better as a way of discussing French movies than American ones. Without getting all bollixed up in Platonist categories, it's not too farfetched to suggest that what used to make American films recognizably American was not how they looked but how their screenwriters made them sound. Through the work of journalists like Herman Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht and playwrights like Robert Sherwood, the American talkie came to value word over image, persiflage over mise-en-scène, verbal swagger over visual sweep. Nor is this priority merely a relic of the 1930s and 1940s. One has only to cock an ear at the magnificent byplay in Peter Stone's script for Charade, or the tongue-and-groove carpentry of Paddy Chayefsky's The Americanization of Emily (that rare movie whose hero ultimately makes a choice with which the audience is invited to disagree), to hear the voice of Hollywood film at its most thrillingly American.
Most of the breast-beating about American film overseas usually accompanies more or less the same song: poor Gilles, he'd like to take Odile to a new French filme, but those Yanqui cowboys are tying up all the theaters. Well, what about Phil, who just wants to see a good Hollywood picture like the ones he used to know, only it so happens the kitchen ran out of that dish around 1975?
Before anybody makes free with charges of cultural imperialism, we ought to spell out just who that imperialism's victims are. Foreign film and television industries, up to a point. Foreign audiences, to be sure. But the biggest loser when the American entertainment industry anoints itself culture-maker to the world is, inescapably, the American audience. Good foreign films just aren't getting American distribution the way they used to, and that's deplorable. But even worse, from our perspective, is that nobody's making movies just for us anymore.
Unlike the French film industry, Hollywood posts a trade deficit but once a year. That's at the Oscars, where British, Australian, and foreign-language films increasingly dominate in key categories. Consider this year's nominees for best original screenplay: The Barbarian Invasions, by Denys Arcand; Dirty Pretty Things, by Steven Knight; Finding Nemo, by Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds, from a story by Stanton; In America, by Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, and Kirsten Sheridan; and Lost in Translation, by Sofia Coppola, which won.