The global attention captured by Parasite, the film that won the Academy Award for best picture and three other Oscars, is the most blatant and recent sign of the great changes that the cultural industry is going through. Asia’s economic and technological rise as well as new ways of distributing cultural products are powerful factors that conspire to bring about a more global culture, or at least bring the West closer to the East.
In his speech at the Golden Globes, Parasite’s director Bong Joon Ho, with the help of a translator, said in his native Korean: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. He was cheered by an audience of American cultural industry stakeholders.
The film that many describe as “a love letter to cinema” is, in fact, a photograph of a world in transition, with increasing inequality and conflicting social class interactions. However, it also reflects how human epics are more and more relatable, and that a film shot on the other side of the world can be received with empathy by a hemisphere that looked at the other one as an unknown being. We are in the era of bringing different cultures together and the cultural industry must reflect this: we are different and equal in our condition as a human species.
The new pop that comes from the East
The Korean pop group BTS performed for the first time at the Grammys this year. It was also the first Asian group to break the barrier of 5 billion streams on Spotify. While China and America are engaged in the bitterest trade war of recent times, with the coronavirus added in the mix, the geopolitical poles of the world are changing, and that includes culture.
We are used to looking to the East as if it were another world. This is somewhat recent because, in the history of civilization, China has dominated the world for almost 5,000 years. When Genghis Khan decided to expand his empire he gave the lapse that allowed the development of the West. Centuries later, which in terms of history is the blink of an eye, this “strange” world arrives at our doors via AliExpress. If no man was an island, no island today is an island, being surrounded by trade with other countries on all sides. This, invariably, will have cultural reflexes. Even though much of that interaction comes via e-commerce.
At the epicenter of it all is China, whose economic figures will be revised, obviously, after the coronavirus epidemic. Anyway, unless we are witnessing the biggest and quickest change of axes in world history, the country will remain a powerhouse. China is the second largest economy in the world and, according to internationalists, accounted for 35% of global growth in the last 10 years. And that’s not all. Also according to current research, Chinese Big Data grows 30% per year. If not curbed by the coronavirus, China will continue its upward trend and is increasingly oriented towards “cultural” goods (education, travel, sophisticated services). There is an “agenda” and it comes with cultural integration as well.
A centuries-old mix
Anyone who thinks that the cultural industry was born with the massification brought about by the Industrial Revolution, or with inventions that created mass media, should look deeper into history. From Romans to Greeks, Ottomans, Mongols and so many other empires that expanded and brought with them, through their victories in distant lands, their art, culture, entertainment and customs. There was no achievement without cultural hybridism. It was a form of long-term survival.
We can debate endlessly what came first, the chicken or the egg, commercial or cultural integration. There are such great geopolitical changes, albeit less forged in war (as during the expansion of empires), that culture has no other option but to reflect this civilizing tectonic movement.
Great changes did come with technological adventures, hegemony of economic systems, commercial interaction and changes in society, from the Gutenberg press, to the Lumiére brothers, with the massification of a series of industries, including culture.
When there was nothing, neither the pen nor the paper, the oral tradition of narrative transmission preserved strikingly complex and extensive odysseys, as well as many reports, for example, the epic Gilgamesh, with more than 300 poems inscribed per clay tablet, today 126 pages, that arrived from Mesopotamia circa 2,100 b.C. This is the power of a story. Many Westerners know Ulysses’ Odyssey, but have never heard of the Gilgamesh, the mythological text of a civilization of yore.
Now, I wonder, what stories of distant lands, with commercial and technological integration, will we have the power to ignore? How to be apart from the cultures with which we will interact?
During an informal conversation, the directors and the producers (aka Michelle and Barack Obama) of the Oscar winning documentary American Factory, the former American president says, at a given moment, that the workers’ history is “sacred”. I am sure he was referring to the importance of giving voice to the thousands of anonymous laborers who carry out their duties every day. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Gilgamesh, as we are seeing one of the biggest changes in the job market since the Industrial Revolution. This history will someday be “sacred”.
The arrival of a Chinese mega factory of automotive glass to a small town in Ohio is the theme of American Factory. The interaction between Chinese and Americans is the “epic story” told in the documentary. The filmmakers have managed, through the cultural industry, to tell what the next human odyssey will look like. The directors were also incredibly generous in trying not to fall into clichés. As they say, no one is a villain or a good guy. It is obvious that the documentary raises concerns that are dormant. Where will this huge workforce that does not adapt to the new scheme go? What will West-East interaction be like when these lines become blurred? Communism and capitalism are taken to the extreme, as in mirrors opposing each other, with their merits, demerits and human beings squeezed into such different models. They have to look at each other and that gaze is still myopic. Therefore, we have to use the cultural industry to understand the incredible and complex mental structure of civilizations separated by thousands of miles away.
The great merit of American Factory, besides introducing this questioning into cultural production, is the proximity of something that we can no longer escape: we will have to understand the minds of civilizations that think differently and adapt the gears to one where migrations to virtual systems and commercial approachment will invariably lead to interaction.
The super ball
It is not just China and its giant market that are changing the cultural industry. The Super Bowl in the United States has an estimated audience of more than 115 million people. A 30-second spot on American TV during its break is no less than $ 5.6 million. To get an idea of the importance of pop culture in the U.S., two candidates, Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg, paid $ 11 million (each) to appear in the game’s commercials. And although the primaries start now, the elections will only happen in November…
At the center of this American football party there is always the concert that, historically, was performed by American or British pop icons. For this year, despite Trump’s war on immigration, minorities (who are no longer minorities in many countries) have gained the main stage. Colombian Shakira and her flaming hips, with belly dance moves that were born in the Middle East, and New Yorker of Puerto Rican origin Jennifer Lopez made the “Latin Fiesta”, with the Puerto Rico flag and everything. It was Hispanic America at the center of one of the most anticipated shows of the year, at the heart of one of the most watched events in the world and challenging the concept of “Americana”. The cultural industry not only does not recognize a wall, but is part of the commercial revolution that the world is experiencing.
Today more than half of the world’s population is an internet user (80% of them with smartphones), a network revolution that will spill over at various levels of our civilization. We will have a global culture or, at least, a cultural revolution that will bring us closer to the East. Empires may not be falling, but new empires are coming.
And it may be that Latinos will no longer play the role of drug traffickers in Hollywood as often as they do today. We will be less Carmen Miranda, Zé Carioca, Pablo Escobar, somber chicanos, to be what we really are: diverse. With platforms like Netflix and Amazon, among others, bringing more and more Latin series, and with a Brazilian documentary nominated for an Oscar, it will be increasingly difficult to justify an those industry archetypes. We will be a human epic.
Translated by Joao Paulo Pimentel