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posted: 7/29/2012 5:41 AM

Why aren't American movies set in America anymore?

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  • Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) takes to the streets to protect New Yorkers in "The Amazing Spider-Man" -- at least he remained in America.

    Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) takes to the streets to protect New Yorkers in "The Amazing Spider-Man" -- at least he remained in America.
    File photo

By Tom Shone, Slate

So Spiderman is a Brit and Batman is Welsh. Woody Allen sends postcards home from Paris, Barcelona, London, Rome. After collecting hosannahs on the international festival circuit, Wes Anderson recently made his first film set on American soil in 10 years; next he shoots a movie inspired by his love of Europe. For his latest movie, Martin Scorsese came over all Parisian. James Cameron is looking to shoot Avatars 2 and 3 with Chinese money. Oh, and the French cleaned up at the Oscars last year.

America is having a moment at the movies -- an absent moment, a Scarlet Pimpernel moment, a rain check. It used to be one of the great advantages of being a filmmaker working in North America: North America. As a setting and a subject, a material source and myth bank, America was in a class of her own. John Ford made so many films in Monument Valley -- seven over 25 years -- that the 30,000-acre stretch of the Utah-Arizona border became known as John Ford Country. Hitchcock used to bill studios for his American vacations, so certain was he of turning up new locations. He first thought of dangling a man from Lincoln's nose on vacation in 1951, almost a decade before he finally came up with the plot of North by Northwest.

By that time the Western had picked up a nasty cough, and we had all moved to the suburbs to sink in front of our TV sets. Filmmakers, meanwhile, staked out claims in America's big cities as eagerly as prospectors in the Californian panhandle: Elia Kazan's waterfront, Scorsese's Little Italy, Allen's Manhattan, Spike Lee's Brooklyn, Michael Mann's downtown Los Angeles, mapped out as mythically in "Heat and Collateral" as Ford's wild country. Who can match that level of embeddedness today? Nobody talks of David Fincher's Colorado or Spike Jonze's Maryland. Quentin Tarantino made three movies set in L.A. -- his three best, as it happens: "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" and Jackie Brown -- then jetted off into the movie-verse to make "Kill Bill" and "Inglourious Basterds."

Today's hip, young auteurs are not neighborhood boys. Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman take pot shots at flyover country from the ironist's Mile-High Club. Darren Aronofsky couldn't wait to get out of Brighton Beach after his portrayal of the place as the seventh circle of hell in "Requiem for a Dream." In truth, he and Fincher still feel holed up in their bedrooms, staring into the abyss like Christopher Walken in "Annie Hall": Venture up there alone and there is a high chance they will be there a week from now, a polite smile on your face as they show you their medical dictionary of flesh wounds.

Among their generation, maybe only the Coens are out there taking soil samples, dirtying their mud flaps in Mississippi in the 1930s ("Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"), Arkansas in the 1880s ("True Grit"), L.A. in the 1940s ("Barton Fink"), Minnesota in the 1960s ("A Serious Man"),Texas in the 1980s ("Blood Simple," "No Country for Old Men") and -- in their latest -- the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s ("Inside Llewyn Davis"). It's quite a patchwork quilt they've stitched together, reliant for its charm on the brothers' unique ear for vernacular, their eye for local exotica, and their staunch refusal to feel anywhere at home. They are strangers in a strange land, viewing their homeland through the alienated squint of the outsider -- one reason why their work is such a hit overseas.

But the backyard movie -- the one made in a filmmaker's backyard using every last crumb of personal autobiography, every last neighborhood character and piece of local apocrypha, the film that says, "Here I am, this is where I come from, look" -- is a dying breed. Lena Dunham made "Tiny Furniture" and was immediately snapped up by HBO, which has largely stepped into the breach.

TV is our national chronicler now. Americans used to go to movie theaters to see themselves on-screen -- in national epics like "Once Upon a Time in America," "The Godfather," "Do the Right Thing," even "Forrest Gump," Lord help us -- but these days, anyone hungry for any view of New York that doesn't consist of seeing it smashed to smithereens by superheroes must watch "Mad Men" or "Boardwalk Empire."

Nobody's complaining exactly, but among today's filmmakers, maybe only James Gray has shown any interest in drawing strength from his roots, drawing up loamy goodness from the pebbly subsoil of Brighton Beach in "Little Odessa, Two Lovers," and "We Own the Night." It may also be the reason he is not better known. The Russian immigrant guy? Films with Joaquin Phoenix all the time? Oh, that guy.

Gray is currently at work editing his first period melodrama, set in the vaudeville of 1920s New York and starring Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner and Phoenix. "The disconnectedness that you're talking about, part of it is on purpose because the studios want to appeal to a global audience," he told me when I caught up with him recently. "The foreign box office is more important now. The studios have been purchased by much larger multinationals who demand that a movie makes a billion dollars. When you make a franchise, when you have to make a four-quadrant movie that appeals to everyone, it's very difficult to be specific in terms of your setting. The more generic the better for box office. It cuts to the heart of what ails movies."

We've heard this story before in books like Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls": how the summer blockbuster de-cored the American film industry like an apple, with the executives spitting out auteurs like pips. In Biskind's book, the conflict was intergenerational, a tale of two Americas: straights versus the squares, auteurs versus the suits. But for most of the '80s and '90s, Hollywood still bore a passing resemblance to the industry that had made "Stagecoach," "Casablanca" and "The Godfather": a film industry indigenous to North America, making American films for American audiences.

That all changed with Jurassic Park in 1993, the first year in which Hollywood's foreign earnings outpaced its domestic ones -- a historic tip of the seesaw. Executives' ears pricked up: The new Wild West was overseas. Since then, it's been a story of rapid, exponential growth: Foreign revenues counted for 64 percent of the total in 2009, 66 percent in 2010, 69 percent in 2011 -- pushed up there by Avatar, tellingly a remake of "Dances With Wolves" in space -- and now rests at a staggering 70 percent, an industry-reconfiguring statistic.

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Michael Cieply observed:

Last year Hollywood's top 20 domestic box office performers included just two movies -- "The Help" and "Bridesmaids" -- with realistic stories about American life, contemporary or otherwise, according to The rest took place in a fantasy world, like "Thor," or abroad, like "The Hangover Part II" and "Fast Five." In 1992, by contrast, 15 of the 20 best-selling American films were rooted in realistic, if sometimes twisted, American experiences. Those included "Sister Act," "Lethal Weapon 3," "A League of Their Own," "Unforgiven" and "Boomerang," all of which were released from May to August of that year.

In other words: Forget "Stage Coach." It's when "Sister Act" disappears that we need to be worried.

The ironies here are legion. There were the French in 1993, up in arms about "Jurassic Park," with Gerard Depardieu claiming "the movie industry in the United States is like a war machine," and casting Steven Spielberg's film as a Trojan horse filled with Hollywood infantrymen, all bearing checkbooks and smiles and eager to infiltrate heads of the little lycée children.

Well, it was a Trojan horse, but it was bearing down on Los Angeles, not Paris.

• Tom Shone is film critic of "Intelligent Life" and the author of "Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Summer."

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