From 'Titanic' with Buddhist monks to Spielberg in Saudi Arabia

In a canvas tent in the Himalayan foothills, where winter breaths drifted in the twilight, Tibetan monks, their feet dangling from benches, watched a pirated copy of "Titanic." The diminutive men, camped along a rutted road leading to the Dalai Lama's residence in exile near Dharamsala, India, did not understand what Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio were saying. But they knew the sleek black steel and tinkling jewelry were sailing toward doom.

A cold wind shook the tent, but the monks, some fidgeting with prayer beads, others bundling their burgundy robes in coats, were entranced at the grainy spectacle before them. Shopkeepers, laborers and boys sat beside the monks, and their small, mystical world quieted as the ocean liner pitched and descended spear-like into the icy depths.

The holy men hurried out as the credits rolled, dispersing into the night toward huts and monasteries. Once again I was struck, as I had been time and again living abroad as a foreign correspondent, by the power that an American film has on the global imagination. At the same time, I wondered: Hollywood often boasts of penetrating borders, languages and cultures, but does it fully understand or care about the ramifications of that conceit? 

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I watched movies in Rome, Vienna, Belgrade, Warsaw, Berlin and other cities. I sat amid the ruins of Sarajevo as a film (I can't remember the name; the reality around me was too arresting) played on a screen stretched across a bullet-scarred wall. I listened as bemused Bulgarians in Sofia attempted to fathom the bone-cracking hysteria of American football in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday." The movie gave me a pang of nostalgia for my native land, but at least half of the audience walked out. To the Bulgarians and most of the planet, football is "the beautiful game" of swift feet and graceful teamwork, not a brawl by armies outfitted in helmets and shoulder pads.

Perhaps more than U.S. foreign policy, Hollywood crystallizes to the world who we are as a nation, our exuberance, righteousness, desires, anxieties and our predilection, through the prism of action heroes and special effects, for freewheeling individualism and blowing things up.

This was a strong year for intelligent scripts, such as "Nebraska" and "American Hustle." Many of the best films focused on well-drawn characters working out moral ambiguities in these uneasy times. But in much of what saturates foreign markets — or for that matter American cineplexes — nuance and subtlety are outgunned by music-pumped adrenaline, gadgets and violence. Hollywood's foreign box office, which increasingly drives the business, reached $23.9 billion in 2012, or about 69% of all international ticket sales. Among the top-grossing films worldwide in 2013 were "Iron Man 3," "Fast and Furious 6" and "Thor: The Dark World." Simply put, big and loud sells. 

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Conservative Middle East audiences in particular tend to regard Hollywood as a curious mirror of Washington's strategies: the corruption of morals through romantic comedies and the undisguised swagger and bravado in action films. The real-life drones flying over Yemen and Pakistan blur with the spinning titanium, pyrotechnics and omnipresent terrorist in "Iron Man 3." Foreigners often see villains, especially since 9/11, as conjured to stoke American nationalism.

Imagine being an Islamist militant in the mountains of Afghanistan and streaming the miasma of excess, drugs, sex and nudity in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." Times film critic Kenneth Turan recently posted this on Twitter: "Email from a screenwriter friend of mine after seeing 'The Wolf of Wall Street': 'Maybe the Taliban have a point ....' "

Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" broke stereotype in its portrayal of a Somali pirate not as a fanatic but as a fisherman driven by desperation and wedged between Western interests and his own crumbling state. Sitting in a foreign theater can underline such distinctions but can also pose uncomfortable questions. 

In Baghdad in 2008, I watched "Cloverfield" — in which a skyscraper-sized monster crushes Manhattan — with two Iraqi friends. Who did the monster represent to them? Saddam Hussein or the U.S. military, whose invasion and occupation brought suicide bombers, blast walls and countless graves?

The answer was both, said one of them, who over years of bloodshed had perfected his impersonation of President George W. Bush. However, the American monster, he suggested, had wreaked more destruction than the homegrown tyrant. Despots such as Hussein and Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi were much on the minds of filmgoers across the Middle East over the last decade, revealing the contradictions of American foreign policy as it strained to keep pace with the democratic ambitions of young Arabs.

A global cinema

The movie theater in Cairo was crowded in 2010 as "Avatar" sprung to vivid life (James Cameron draws large international audiences). The soulful blue creatures of Pandora known as the Na'vi battled a corporation seeking to mine their resources and destroy their paradise.

I wondered whether the Egyptians identified with the Na'vi. At the time, they were growing restive against the U.S.-backed police state of President Hosni Mubarak. They would overthrow him less than a year later in a revolution that was as cinematic as it was, if only for a moment, liberating.

The Egyptian audience, including women in head scarves, was markedly different from the crowd of European envoys and businessmen who gathered years earlier in a Renaissance-era Italian villa in Rome for a private screening of "Eyes Wide Shut," starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman caught in a Dante-esque, Inferno version of a marriage complete with orgies and intrigue. When the lights went up, one diplomat, a discreet man with gleaming cuff links, proffered: "All those beautiful, naked women and yet no arousal." 

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More perplexed than shocked, the diplomat stepped out for a smoke and a Chianti, walking through a garden lined with statues of unknown centurions.

I once drove through the call to prayer across the desert outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where young, dissident filmmakers fidgeted with cameras and sound equipment in a locked apartment. Fundamentalist clerics say movies are forbidden (haram); they are the devil's tapestry. The men ate pizza, kept their ears peeled for the "virtue police" and debated the merits of Steven Spielberg. Some of them argued that the director was overtly emotional and less intellectual than the French New Wavers and Italian neo-Realists.