"You wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Spielberg. Look what he's done," a Spielberg fan shouted, listing the range of the director's films from "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" to "Schindler's List."
In that instant, the world's language was not Arabic, English or French. It was film. The scene revealed how deeply Hollywood has infused its charms into global culture. It is, to many, the world's common denominator, the rubric through which sins are weighed, romance is played and war is waged. No other film industry is so sophisticated, so technologically nimble, so savvy in marketing and deep in pocket.
But these days nearly all corners of the planet are switching on iPhones and posting on YouTube. And, like the Saudi auteurs, young international directors and screenwriters are seeking nuances in their own cultural narratives. After years of war in the Balkans, independent Serbian directors (my Serb translator had honed her expletive-flecked English from "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas") in the early 2000s explored the complicity and the psychological numbness left by ethnic bloodletting. A new breed of German directors is keen to look beyond their nation's past to the more pressing problems of immigration, drugs and the strains of reunification.
"Growing up in school, we talked for three or four years about Hitler and what happened," Till Endemann, a young director, told me years ago at the Berlin Film Festival. "We know the history. This baggage, which we should carry, is getting lighter, though, and I think it is allowing us to tell better stories. We see our country in a different light than the generations before us. We're not nationalists or patriots. But we view Germany today as a country that needs to be filmed."
Hollywood has provided superfluous escape to generations, but some now crave deeper sustenance and a more accurate vision of America's role in the world. "Captain Phillips" and J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost," starring Robert Redford as a lone sailor pitted against the elements, offer their own metaphors on Washington's economic and political interests. The travails encountered by Redford's seaman begin when his sailboat collides in the Indian Ocean with a wayward cargo container carrying sneakers (the suggestion is that they were Chinese-made).
Indeed, China and Hollywood — money and markets are tantalizing conspirators — have a new wrinkle in their sensitive relationship. It wasn't long ago that films, such as "Seven Years in Tibet," pointed to Beijing's human-rights abuses in its treatment of Tibetans. These days Hollywood is criticized for a more ingratiating approach toward China, which is on a massive spree to build theaters. The invaders in "Red Dawn" were changed to North Korean from the originally scripted Chinese, and in the disaster movie "2012" the White House credits the Chinese scientists for saving Western civilization.
But the Chinese film market, which, like all else in the country, is controlled by the Communist Party, was strong against imports in 2013. Chinese films accounted for seven out of the nation's top 10 hits, compared with Hollywood's three. Those statistics and other factors suggest the traditional Hollywood hit may face increasing competition on two fronts: a potentially restrictive Chinese market and, more broadly, from the changing tastes of international audiences.
It makes ones wonder where Hollywood is headed: making more films that recognize the complexity and smallness of today's world or cranking out the tried-and-true, big-bang blockbuster that over time may begin to lose its resonance.
The small tent in the Himalayan foothills that served as a theater for "Titanic" those many years ago went black. The monks vanished into a night filled with stars. I have watched hundreds of movies in different places since but have seldom been more moved by the power of film to bring us, if only for a moment, to a shared place.
Fleishman, a foreign correspondent for 17 years, was based in Rome, Berlin and Cairo. He now covers the arts and entertainment in Los Angeles.