"A Beginner's Guide to National Cinema Theory," Written by Alumna Alexandra James '18, Named Film Inquiry's Best Article of the Year
January 26, 2021
“A Beginner’s Guide to National Cinema Theory,” written by Film alumna Alexandra James ’18, was named Film Inquiry’s Best Article of the Year.
James’ essay opens with the suggestion that national cinema theory is “embedded in our subconscious.” That is to say, it’s easy to describe a film as being from its director’s country of origin. But national cinema theory’s history and practice is complex; while it may make sense to contextualize certain films in national terms, such rigid categorizations also have their disadvantages.
James cites Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) as an example of how national cinema theory can hinder discourse more than it helps. The film drops an Italian opera onto a jukebox musical set in France; the Australian actress Nicole Kidman and English actor Ewan McGregor are among its largely Australian and American cast.
James writes, “Moulin Rouge! is an example of what scholar Andrew Higson would describe as ‘transnational.’ He argues that national cinema is too focused on rigid examples of nations that exist in a closed space, untouched by influences of the outside world. To promote national cinema is akin to promoting the idea that globalization does not exist.”
But there are times when directors might consciously draw attention to their country’s culture in their films. James points to Parasite (2019), the Oscar-winning film from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, as an example of this. The film highlights late-stage capitalism in South Korea. “The inequality in South Korea is so stark that there is a term for it: ‘Hell Joseon,’” James writes. There are other markers that entrench the film in South Korean culture as well: the language, naturally, but also the mentions of ram-don and an obsession with Taiwanese bakeries.
“At the end of the day, scholars will continue to debate this issue and never truly come to a conclusion,” James writes. “But that’s ok. National cultures and therefore national cinemas are constantly in flux. The crux of national cinema theory today is balancing the national and the transnational. Is a film truly ever one or the other? Who decides what is and is not a national cinema? Can places like Hong Kong which aren’t technically nations still have a national cinema?”
James graduated from Amherst College with a BA in Film and Media Studies before receiving her MA in Film and Media Studies from the School of the Arts. She is currently a PhD candidate at UCLA; her focus is Latin American cinema.