PRINT March 1991


the New Prometheans

AT A PRESS CONFERENCE following the $6.1 billion sale of MCA, whose subsidiaries include Universal Studios and the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, to Matsushita Electric Industrial, Matsushita president Akio Tanii was asked by an American reporter what Tanii would do if Universal wanted to make a Japan-bashing film. Tanii, perhaps taken aback, responded, “Something like that shouldn’t emerge. Filmmakers must create films that are inspirational. . . . ”

This set off alarm bells in Hollywood. Censorship! Positive-think! (All things the studios would never deem to practice on themselves.) The president of the western division of the Writers Guild of America, George Kirgo, said, “What does that mean, ‘inspirational’? To be told that there are going to be restrictions for writers is appalling.” The reporter’s question could of course have been put differently: What if Universal wants to make a racist film? What if Universal wants to make a film that portrays the Japanese as small-minded, money-hungry, land-grabbing little chimps? Then what? Such a rephrasing would at least have had the benefit of putting “restrictions for writers” in a different perspective.

The sale to Matsushita at the end of 1990 made Universal the fourth of the seven major Hollywood studios to come under the control of foreign companies in recent years. Many Americans found this upsetting. Foreign ownership of the Hollywood dream machine—what will this do to our national sleep? Rupert Murdoch’s Australian News Corporation bought 20th Century Fox in 1985, Sony purchased Columbia in 1989, and in 1990 Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti’s company Pathé bought MGM/UA. There is no record that anyone asked Murdoch what if 20th Century Fox wanted to make an anti-Australian film, or that anyone asked Parretti what if MGM/UA wanted to make an anti-European film. And within hours of the announced sale to Matsushita the jokes were already circulating: Universal’s first film under Japanese ownership would be Godzilla versus Mothra in Yosemite Valley. It seemed to have been forgotten that under American ownership, in the 1970s, Universal had already shot a TV show called Sierra in Yosemite Valley, repainting cliffs so their colors would register better on TV. (The colors were water-soluble, but news of the event outraged environmentalist groups and an entire park plan was scrapped because it catered to MCA.)

Of course Matsushita, which produces Panasonic, Quasar, and Technics video and audio components, wants to ensure a continuing supply of so-called software—movies, CDs, videotapes, and laser discs—to be played on the company’s hardware. And of course what attracts these foreign investors to Hollywood studios is the same thing that attracts foreign moviegoers to Hollywood films: Americans know how to make movies like no one else in the world. Our movies express our “vitality,” our “eternal optimism,” our “spirit of independence,” our “pioneer sense of unlimited horizons” (blah blah blah). We command center stage. And yes, even today our movies continue to be the most popular and profitable films in foreign countries. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was the top-grossing film in Japan in 1989, earning double that of the most popular Japanese film. Can Americans imagine the reverse? And in Europe, American films still commandeer half the box office.

Yet the sale had—has—for Matsushita a built-in, self-defeating premise. By dominating the worldwide entertainment industry, American movies perpetuate America’s cultural ideology. We have in recent years heard more than we want to know about “product placement” in movies (Black & Decker actually sued the makers of Die Hard 2 for dropping a scene featuring a Black & Decker drill when the company had paid for its inclusion), but then American movies themselves are the true avatars of product placement: the product is America, and our movies place it around the globe. American movies are America’s ongoing advertisement for itself. Cultural hegemony, though, has its roots in economic hegemony; and economic logic says that if foreigners now control most of the major studios, then American economic hegemony is in serious disrepair, and that this truth will, at some point along the line, wind up being reflected in the movies the studios make—in a loss of vitality, of that breezy self-confidence, that spirit of independence.

This enfeeblement is already being played out on the national stage of iconography. Hence the Fuji blimp that replaces the Goodyear blimp over American football stadiums—product placement in the sky—becomes for some a symbol of a kind of economic Pearl Harbor. Hence the sale of Rockefeller Center to a Japanese company becomes a symbol for the decline of America’s tycoon class (“they may be robber barons but they’re our robber barons”). This last sale signifies in all sorts of ways: along with the buildings and the ice-skating rink, the new owners inherit Paul Manship’s gilt statue of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and Lee Lawrie’s stylized sculpture of Atlas hefting the globe, symbols of American business’ Promethean daring and strength. So now that’s a Japanese fellow who has the gall to steal fire from the gods—the Americans—and to heft the globe on his shoulders.

Still, in the age of the transnational corporation, this is only business. It was the potential transfer to the Japanese of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company that got Americans really riled up. Our natural resources! Our national heritage! George Berklacy, chief spokesman for the National Park Service, complained of “the symbolism” of Japan controlling the concessionaire for the crown jewel of the park system. “A Japanese company now owns exclusive rights to do business in Yosemite,” Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan said. “Everywhere I go, people are not happy with foreign ownership of these resources.” All of which led to Lujan winning a pledge from MCA that the Curry Company would be put in escrow and sold to an American company within a year. The concessionaire, the largest in the park system, is a highly profitable monopoly that operates the bars, lodges, stables, restaurants, gas stations, ski resorts, laundromats, grocery stores, etc., in the park, and MCA’s expansionist plans for it have been fought by environmentalist groups for years.

Seen from on high, Yosemite Valley remains one of the most beautiful sights on earth. It is only when one descends to the valley floor that one realizes it has been turned into a little high-density slum in the woods, a kind of environmental kitsch, as difficult to see as the Mona Lisa. It almost seems proper that a movie company should be running it. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, 1989, a sweeping shot of Yosemite Valley at dusk in the 23rd century is so dreamily spectacular, with its glowing granite mountains, its dark velvety pine forests, its magnificent waterfalls thundering out of the clouds, that one would think it was a mat shot. But then Yosemite Valley always had something of that; it already looked slightly, dreamily unreal to early frontier painters like Albert Bierstadt, who saw it in the 1860s.

Yet before the “threat” of the Japanese, before MCA, Yosemite had the original David and Jenny Curry, two Indiana hustlers who in 1899 began pitching tents on the valley floor and renting them to fin de siècle tourists seeking frontier kicks. Such were the humble beginnings of the Curry Company. And those who complain that one can even rent Die Hard at a Yosemite video store might find some relief—black-comic relief—in the knowledge that as early as 1915 the indomitable Mr. Curry fought for and won permission to operate a motion-picture projector in the valley. (What did he show? The Great Train Robbery? Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires?) Yes, even in 1915, amidst the still relatively unspoiled splendor, the spooky primordial grandeur, of Yosemite Valley, people seemed to find that time hung heavily on their hands in the evenings.

Still, Curry staked out the valley in 1899. We need to go back half a century farther, to 1851, to put the real shock of “foreign ownership” of Yosemite into a proper perspective. That was the year white men of European heritage first entered the valley. Lafayette Bunnell, a doctor for a company of soldiers known as the Mariposa Battalion, was on hand to record in his journal first impressions of the incredible beauty of the place—“An exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears of emotion”—even while the soldiers he accompanied pursued Paiute Indians into the valley, and destroyed their camp and food supplies. The thoughts of the Indians are not recorded anywhere, but it is not too presumptuous to guess that they looked upon the white peril with far more dread than do Americans upon the Japanese. After all, scarier monsters than Mothra and Godzilla have cast their long shadows across Yosemite.

Michael Covino is a writer who lives in Berkeley. He is the author of the short-story collection The Off-Season.