SM: The film industry aspirations of the rest of the world, for example Europe, India, and China, are cultures that have long histories and great stories.
RM: So does America. I think you have cultural bias. You think that the cultures of India and China are older than American culture. I don’t agree. American culture is European. Its history and culture run back 2,000 years BC. It’s roots are in the Greek world and it is as old as any other culture.
SM: Even if you group America and Europe, the question still revolves around what stories have been told and what stories have not been told. The stories of America’s contemporary history have been told a lot.
RM: There is no such thing as a story that has not been told. That is not the case.
SM: I think that the Western world has seen very little of the stories of China, Indonesia, and Cambodia.
RM: Let me give you an example of what I mean by that. Years ago as an actor, I did an off-off-Broadway play that was a production of a Chinese play that was 2,500 years old. What was the plot? A man, his wife, and his mistress. That is as old as time. When you say that the stories of India, at their very heart and their essential form, are unique I just don’t think that is true. Their style of presentation is unique. Bollywood produces a thousand musicals a year.
SM: I don’t agree. Yes, Bollywood is completely stylized and I don’t think it is serious filmmaking, although it is highly successful as an industry. I think the texture of a story reflects a culture and cultures are different. Cultures respond to situations differently.
RM: I understand, but I just have to disagree with you because I think that human experience is universal. All human beings, no matter where they are born, are thrown into existence and experience fundamental human problem. Fundamental human experiences such as relationships, conflicts within themselves, between themselves and their physical world and society, are simply universally human.
You mentioned Indonesia. Do you know the storytelling forms of Indonesia?
SM: Somewhat. I have seen the Balinese folk telling works.
RM: I have done research in that area. I have some sense of it. In the old tradition which goes back thousands of years, you have troops of entertainers who travel around Indonesia to this day. They put up a stage and put on stories for a village. Depending on how much money the village has, they are prepared to put on stories for a year. They do it 24 hours a day. You can get up at 3 a.m. and go down to the stage, and there will be a performance with other people having a drink.
Those performances are on three levels. There are the comics who interrupt and comment on the stories and interact with the audience. They make fun of the stories they are watching, and they get their material from the newspaper each day. The second level is stories of heroes and heroines with their servants. They are generally stories of love and adventure. There is a third level which are stories of the gods and the gods intervening, or not intervening, in the lives of humans on the second level.
The three tiers interact to a point, and as I said they go on 24 hours a day. When I first started to research Southeast Asian storytelling I thought, “My god, this is unique! There is nothing like this anywhere in the world!” That was until I talked to a professor who knows Indonesian culture who said “No, that is not unique. That is television.”
What goes on in Indonesian theater goes on in our TV sets 24 hours a day. We have low comics such as Jon Stewart commenting on the lunacies recounted in the newspaper day in and day out. You have stories of people from the middle ground who are struggling with careers, love and, adventure. Then you have stories at the top from politicians from Obama on down who are running the world. The Indonesian storytelling form is what we know as television.
Human beings, no matter the culture, see reality the way they see it on all levels and in all dimensions of life. What they see and experience takes the form of their particular storytelling. The form, the style in which these things are done, differ from culture to culture. The stories, at the heart, are mirrors of universal human experience. This is why Hollywood is seen everywhere in the world.