A Sorry Hollywood Story
Philip J. Cunningham
The Beijing authorities need to graciously accept the fact that people are going to politicize the Olympics for all kinds of reasons - good, bad, ridiculous and ludicrous. Even with Steven Spielberg no longer willing to serve as artistic adviser, Beijing will do just fine if it scrupulously sticks to its script as a fair-minded, tolerant host, with or without the Hollywood touch. If China can show the world how cosmopolitan it is, echoing many centuries of truly cosmopolitan history, the Olympic spirit will prevail and any political grandstanding will remain on the sidelines where it belongs. Having once worked with Spielberg in China, I find it easy to understand the idealism and enthusiasm that led him to lend his name to the Beijing Games. What I find more difficult to understand is why such a legendary director with almost impeccable humanitarian credentials, would cave in to a contrived power play on the part of a celebrity Darfur activist, Mia Farrow. I worked with "Steven," as he is warmly known to people in the movie business, as production interpreter on "Empire of the Sun" in Shanghai in the early months of 1987.
China at that time lagged far behind the more open, liberal and improving society that it is today. Back in 1987 there was no talk of boycotting China or pulling out of Shanghai even as Shanghai Studio support staff were ordered not to fraternize with the foreign filmmakers and domestic spying was routine. There was no freedom of the press whatsoever, in contrast to the dynamic - though not entirely unfettered - media of China today. Back then, summary executions were routine for crimes that are no longer capital crimes and judicial protections were minimal, compared to the imperfect but greatly improved current standards.
Did Spielberg pack up and leave in symbolic protest? No such thing happened. Deng Xiaoping's government clearly had its troubling side, but there was a sense that life must go on, not to mention a film aching to be made. Just by being there, the legendary director fostered people-to-people contact of the kind that really counts, the job opportunities small kindnesses and exchange of ideas that make a difference in the quality of people's lives.
The power and the persuasiveness of the "Empire of the Sun" owes much to the splendid art deco streets and skyline of 1987 Shanghai, dressed to look like wartime Shanghai under the boot of the Japanese Imperial Army. Closing down busy downtown streets to dress the urban stage with hundreds of extras in period costume and staging war scenes with Hollywood bombs and pyrotechnics involved both cooperation and endless argument with Chinese Communist officials.
One day on the Bund, several thousand Chinese extras went without lunch and us foreigners were blamed, though it later transpired that someone had pocketed the masses' lunch money. As tempers rose, the producers were hit with huge fines for polluting Shanghai's less-than-pristine air by burning tires to create background smoke.
It was not business as usual, but rather the business of expecting the unexpected with humor and a firm hand. There was considerable give and take, and in the end a fine picture was made.
So, what's different this time? Countless books have been written about the Byzantine politics of Hollywood, where spinning the truth is a way of life. Had Farrow not publicly humiliated Spielberg in The Wall Street Journal with the unfair tag of being partner to the "genocide Olympics," he would in all likelihood still be engaged in a constructive dialogue with his Chinese counterparts.
By even a loose application of Farrow's exacting standard, not only should the United States be boycotted for invading Iraq, but every country that trades with the United States should be boycotted as well.
Earth calling Mia, What planet are you on? Not only do the actions of the idealistic American actress have a narcissistic edge inasmuch as her agitation puts her back in the limelight after fading from the screen, but her singling out of China reeks of a sort of subliminal racism not uncommon among well-heeled liberals. In order to establish her position as one of a handful of enlightened whites who really cares about the tragic fate of distant, disenfranchised blacks, Farrow calls for a boycott hurtful to the pride of a billion Chinese. Her narrowly focused idealism is teamed with an overly broad demonization that is accentuated by China's remoteness from her. In her eagerness to promote her cause, she inadvertently bruises the pride of countless Chinese individuals anticipating a rare moment of glory in a long history ravaged by much sorrow.
Philip J. Cunningham, a professor of media studies at Doshisha University in Japan, is currently a visiting fellow at Cornell University.