An American In Paris (Film)

Since it was founded in 1936, the Cinematheque Francaise has become one of the film world's most revered institutions. French film masters like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut found adoring audiences there, as well as a place where their films would be assured of safekeeping. The sprawling archives at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris house some 40,000 restored films from around the world. Despite frequent cooperation between the center and American studios, many Frenchmen have long felt their film industry is threatened by the Hollywood machine. In January, Peter Scarlet, the former director of the San Francisco film festival, was named director. Scarlet, a 57-year-old New York native, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Scott Johnson. Excerpts:

SCARLET: After college I took a trip around Europe. I was hitchhiking from Munich to Paris and I got picked up by someone who started talking about the Cinematheque. So I went. The programming was completely surreal. You could have a Japanese monster movie followed by an MGM musical or a silent Russian film. I started coming day after day. It was hypnotic... You can place that in the context of what the French had done decades before with jazz. Americans were saying forget it, and [the French] gave it value and protected it and saved it.

I'm probably the least American American they could find. There have been a number of problems here. I also know a lot of people in the French film world. I care about French cinema, and I have some knowledge of it.

I think that with things like Universal Vivendi, the French industry feels like it needs to do more English-language production, which is pretty controversial. It's a tough struggle, but this is one of the only countries in the world that's protecting its films. If you go to damn near any other country you can think of, with the single exception I know of being Iran, American films are about all you can see. Here, French films still have 30 to 35 percent of the market. That's far from what it was a few years ago, but it's better than zero or two.

I'm tired of always having to explain that movies matter. Now, it's all about what was No. 1 at the box office last week. The amount of space that's given to anything but English-language films is nonexistent.

The success of McDonald's is that it's cheap and always the same; you always know what you're going to get. The success of Hollywood is much the same. The difficulty with cinema is if there are McDonald's all around the world, is it still possible for the mom-and-pop bistro to exist around the corner? The economics of the film business are such that it's just not possible anymore. We're at a moment where we're risking losing the richness and diversity of world culture to homogenization.

Movies are the top U.S. export. They're slickly crafted, very well-made products. But they always tend to have a formulaic aspect to them. Hollywood films are, with a few exceptions, quite a bit less interesting than they were 20 years ago. I think there's a connection between the fact that you can find McDonald's along with theaters run by American companies all around the world. People go to American movies with expectations that are not dissimilar to those they have when they eat at McDonald's. They know it's not very interesting, not even very good for them, but it's safe. [Audiences] know there will be an attempt to get their heart beating within the first five minutes, a laugh about halfway through, and they know a tear will come to their eye at some point.

For one, their movies are in French, and the fact is that English is a major language and French is not anymore. Attempts to dub their movies haven't worked very well. And I think that French movies just aren't vulgar enough, French culture isn't vulgar enough. Culture isn't a dirty word in France the way it is in America.But there's an element of sophistication or irony to them which is lacking in America. Sophistication and irony, according to Hollywood prescriptions, died at the box office yesterday.