Monday, January 31, 2011

Foreign film distribution

This is a sad commentary on the status of foreign films being shown in the United States but it is a cold fact that if you are not a big draw name [like Bergman or Kirasawa] it is a simple matter of economics. It costs big bucks to distribute a foreign film especially if it is marginal in content and director status.

"A Golden Age of Foreign Films, Mostly Unseen"


A. O. Scott

January 26th, 2011

The New York Times

ONE of the few surprises at the Golden Globes two weeks ago — you’ll be forgiven if you’ve already forgotten about that odd little broadcast — was the award given to “Carlos,” the French director Olivier Assayas’s five-hour-plus reconstruction of the life and career of the notorious terrorist of the 1970s and ’80s Carlos the Jackal. The award represented a high point of cosmopolitanism at a predictably parochial event: 11 languages spoken on screen; dozens of locations across Europe and the Middle East; a polyglot cast led by a Venezuelan star, Édgar Ramírez, who has the potential to become an international sex symbol. What more could you want from a foreign film?

Except that “Carlos” was not nominated for the Golden Globe in that category (the winner was “In a Better World,” from Denmark): it was made for, and first shown on, French television, a fact that also rendered it ineligible for consideration — as a foreign-language or any other kind of film — by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which announced its nominees last Tuesday. Mr. Assayas’s dark-horse victory at the Globes was for best miniseries or motion picture made for television. Fair enough, given its origins. Then again, “Carlos” has encountered its American audience in the way more and more foreign films do these days: on a handful of movie screens in big cities, and on cable and video-on-demand. So its exclusion from the Oscars seems somewhat arbitrary.

But so does everything else about the way the Academy deals with movies from the rest of the world. An elaborate and mysterious winnowing process pares down the thousands of potential nominees to five. This year they are “Dogtooth” from Greece, “Incendies” from Canada, “Biutiful” from Mexico, “Outside the Law” from Algeria and “In a Better World,” which might be considered the front-runner if you take the Globes as an omen.

“Dogtooth” came and went on a few American screens last spring, and “Outside the Law” had a brief run in December (and may return shortly); only “Biutiful,” whose globally famous star, Javier Bardem, was nominated for best actor, is likely to be playing now at a theater near you. The others will be released in the late winter or early spring, in the hopes of realizing some kind of box office bounce. The usual pre-nomination handicapping — the canvassing of critical opinion and the weighing of popular sentiment — does not apply to these movies, which might in principle make the choices less compromised, but in practice only serves to make them more confusing.

For example, “Of Gods and Men,” Xavier Beauvois’s moving, humane drama about a group of French monks trying to survive and honor their faith in Algeria during a time of terror and civil war, was also snubbed by the Academy. Of course, worthy films are passed over all the time, but such puzzling and capricious neglect happens so often that it can be taken as a yearly reminder of the American film establishment’s systematic marginalization and misapprehension of much of world cinema.

For some reason, the Academy insists on a one-film-per-country rule, which places a large part of the decision-making process in the hands of film industries at least as corrupt and agenda-driven as our own. Why should “Of Gods and Men” have been France’s only shot? And what determines the nationality of a film in any case? Why is Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law” an Algerian rather than a French film, given that its director is a French citizen and that it was made with mostly French financing and therefore within that country’s extensive legal statutes governing cinematic production? And what makes “Biutiful,” shot in Barcelona with a Spanish cast, a Mexican film?

My point here is not really to pick on the Academy, nor to mystify readers with effusions over movies you may never have heard of and most likely have not had an opportunity to see. My complaint, really, is about the peculiar and growing irrelevance of world cinema in American movie culture, which the Academy Awards help to perpetuate.

There are certainly examples from the last decade of subtitled films, nominated or not, that have achieved some measure of popularity: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”; “Pan’s Labyrinth”; “The Lives of Others”; “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” But these successes seem more and more like outliers. A modest American box office gross of around $1 million is out of the reach of even prizewinners from Cannes and masterworks by internationally acclaimed auteurs, most of whose names remain unknown even to movie buffs. This is less a sea change than the continuation of a 30-year trend. As fashion, gaming, pop music, social media and just about everything else have combined to shrink the world and bridge gaps of culture and taste, American movie audiences seem to cling to a cautious, isolationist approach to entertainment.

And the Oscars reinforce this, frequently ignoring accessible and entertaining movies from other countries and settling on a frequently random-seeming list of finalists. Every year, the world turns its attention to Hollywood, and Hollywood remains, in keeping with long tradition, a notably welcoming place for far-flung talent. There has always been room — work, money and even a measure of glory — for British and Australian actors, intercontinental sex symbols and émigré directors seeking freedom or fortune.

Mr. Bardem, a somewhat surprising nominee for best actor this year, has already won for a supporting role in an English-language film (in 2008, for “No Country for Old Men”), and other non-Anglophone artists are occasionally vouchsafed a moment in the spotlight. Pedro Almodóvar won for best original screenplay in 2003, and Marion Cotillard took best actress honors five years later for her performance as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” She also won the chance to play wide-eyed, exotic, seriously underwritten love interests for Johnny Depp (in “Public Enemies”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (in “Inception”). The scale of Hollywood’s appetite, its unrivaled power to vacuum up ambition and artistry from around the world, is part of its legend and grandeur.

But it also casts a long shadow over the rest of the globe, which struggles for visibility. In the past (notably in France in the 1980s and early ’90s) there were protests against American cultural imperialism, but those seem to have waned lately. Whether this is because our imperial hegemony has overwhelmed the possibility of even rhetorical resistance or because, on the contrary, the empire is not as mighty as it used to be, is a topic for another day. My concern here is more with cultural protectionism — the impulse not to conquer the rest of the world but rather to tune it out.

I do not want to not scold American audiences for failing to buy tickets to subtitled movies. Not today, anyway. Public indifference to (or ignorance of) films from beyond Hollywood or its “indie” provinces is routinely invoked as a reason that such films are not more widely available. And so the movies vanish into a vicious circle in which their marginal status is at once assumed and assured.

But on the outskirts of the commercial mainstream, in redoubtable art houses and on the upper reaches of the cable-TV spectrum, there is perhaps more variety and vitality than ever. Yes, it is fashionable in some circles to lament the old days when foreign directors and stars — mostly European and Japanese — were household names in many of the same households that housed best-selling French, Italian and Asian cookbooks. But in terms of volume and distinction, the last 15 years also qualify as a golden age. What has changed is the sense of cultural cachet and social currency.

This may itself be a product of superabundance. New technologies and traditions proliferate and cross-pollinate so rapidly that even a permanent resident of the international festival circuit would have trouble keeping track of it all. The list of national cinemas to watch seems to grow every year, so that even a superficial sense of the cinematic state of things can seem to require an up-to-the-minute awareness of what is happening South Korea, Serbia, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Thailand and a dozen other places. New waves of creativity are cresting across Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America? Russia is experiencing perhaps the most robust surge in filmmaking since the 1960s. France, Italy and Germany refuse to be ignored.

And then there is Greece. Your hazy recollections of Zorba or Melina Mercouri (if you have them) will not be much help in making sense of Giorgos Lanthimos’s “Dogtooth,” a creepy, funny, elegantly shot allegory of something very weird in human nature. (Language? Power? Sex? Family?) Mr. Lanthimos is part of a generation of Greek filmmakers whose work is iconoclastic, formally daring and sometimes abrasive. These directors, in turn, are part of a loose network that spreads across much of the world, linked by the promise of festival exposure and the challenge of raising money in a worldwide climate of economic constriction.

Their work is almost invisible here, though it commands a fair amount of attention in the flourishing and contentious cinephile wing of the blogosphere. But it is nonetheless available to anyone with the curiosity and patience to navigate the new, fast-evolving cosmos of V.O.D. and streaming Web video. The Academy will sometimes take notice — more often it will not — but a whole world of movies is out there waiting to be discovered.

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