18 juin 2010

American Fatalism (2)

"Tout est au mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles"
Voltaire, Candide, ou l'Optimisme, 1759.

Maybe I'm extremely naive... I thought that only the lowbrow crowd, who doesn't know what "foreign cinema" is, could be against the visibility of non-domestic films, because they are too "different", too "boring" or too "subtitled". I thought that real cinephiles in the USA didn't think like the majority that makes the box office numbers. I thought that art-film critics, film historians, cinephiles magazines would hold dear the values of freedom of expression, cultural diversity, philoxeny (welcoming the other), even if it meant going against the homegrown "studio system". A no-brainer, I assumed.
I mean, you may love Hollywood entertainment, and find European films overrated, but still defend diversity by principles, just for the sake of showing your children what overseas countries create. Cultural exchanges are NECESSARY in principles, even if you don't need the comparison.
Well, that's my belief anyway, you may say I'm a dreamer.

So I won't hide my disappointment when the reputable Kristin Thompson condoned the status quo imposed by the "system" in her recent article : "it takes all kinds" (24 May 2010).
Roger Ebert issued an open-minded proposal to support more of what he called "Real Movies" as an alternative to the formulaic fare available on the American screens :
"We should start a Campaign for Real Movies. These also would not be carbonated by CGI or 3D. They would be carefully created by artists, from original recipes, i.e., screenplays. Each movie would be different. There would be no effort to force them into conformity with commercial formulas. [..] These aren't all masterpieces, although some are, but they're all Real Movies. None follows a familiar story arc. All involve intense involvement with their characters. All do something that is perhaps the most important thing a movie can do: They take us outside our personal box of time and space, and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization." Roger Ebert (19 May 2010)
Who would disagree? Even if Ebert's idea of an empathic movie might not be my idea of greater cinema, I would obviously welcome such initiative meant to loosen up (a little) the monopoly the Hollywood system has and has had on American culture for decades, well let's just say for ever.
Why on Earth would Kristin Thompson, a scholar well versed in world cinema (with a slight preference for Hollywood alright), see the need to shoot down such initiative that could only improve culture as a whole and would not alter in any perceptible way her own consumption of Hollywood offerings?

Why would anyone be against the presence of blue cheese at the supermarket, even if all you eat is apple pie? It does not force you to eat it. And it only broadens the horizon of taste for everyone, if they feel like giving it a try. But it won't alter the "free market", it would not stop the masses from voting with their money (their consumption).
I'm not against dumb crowds choosing willingly to consume crap, if that's what they really want even after knowing what the counterculture is. I'm against a market where such crowd is brainwashed since early childhood not to even desire something different because they haven't been exposed to alternative choices, and has been educated to look down on anything foreign and/or artsy and/or intellectual.

To me this looks like an unjust trade, not to mention the drawback of cultural isolationism (and the pointless protectionism of an already hegemonic culture!).

I begin to understand why this situation hasn't changed... it's because even foreign friendly scholars in America not only approve this status quo, but voice their opposition to any change to break the insularity. There really is a cultural barrier!
I had already noticed a certain conservatism of the copyrights about conservation of film archives... I should have figured out that the divide was a matter of political ideology, and not a matter of cultural protection regardless for national borders and private industrial interests.

In my article (Second Class Film Distribution), I suggested that the alleged "free market" wasn't fair, that the apparent low consumption of foreign films in the USA, wasn't solely due to the strict preference for the Hollywood fare, but was influenced/forged by an intentionally isolationist market (by not distributing foreign films, by limiting their circulation/accessibility to a wide market, by rendering them virtually invisible).
I was talking about the same facts, but drew very different conclusions, less fatalistic, less defeatist indeed.

In her article, Kristin Thompson, not only disagrees, but affirms that the market is BIASED by subsidies, thus favouring artificially foreign films... So basically, she says that the 5 or 8% of foreign films consumed in the USA would go even LOWER if festival and arthouses didn't support them against the popular taste. Well festivals are not part of the commercial distribution market, they are not part of the "free market" featured in the BO and admissions statistics. A festival is a showcase for professional (critics, buyers, producers). If the "civilian audience" can only see foreign films at a pre-distribution event, and a scholar complains that this "subsidies-supported" festival circuit tempers with the "free market"... something is very wrong!

Is it even possible in a major Western industrial nation (world leader at that) for its population to score a disinterest for foreign film culture as low as Iran or India? And the dominant position, the higher quality of its domestic cinema (Hollywood) does not justify alone to turn a blind eye on what other countries do, like such a repressive regime as Iran could impose by force, censorship and fear. Even India which has more than twice as many domestic films to sell (thus would have more economical incentive to ban foreign competition) leaves a bigger share of their market to non-Indian films!!! There is no pride for Iran or India to be culturally isolationist, but I think that there is even less excuses for a cosmopolitan melting-pot like the USA, founded on multiculturalism, freedom of expression and foreign heritages.

I'm sorry I don't see anything natural in this "free market". I refuse to believe that this is the free choice of movie goers who would only judge films on their entertainment quality. Hollywood might be the leading choice for entertainment, and maybe over 50% of the times (like it is in Europe or other foreign markets), but not as far as 90 or 95% of the time. The fact is that American audience prefers to watch in mass crap Hollywood flicks, rather than a better commercial film made by foreigners (based on equivalent content and entertainment value). Anybody who has watched quality entertainment made outside of Hollywood would agree that foreign countries are capable to produce films that could easily compete on equal footing with the average Hollywood flick (if not the best Hollywood blockbusters which are in a different league altogether, out of reach because of an unmatchable budget!).

If the "free market rules", we need to rule it out for the sake of world culture.

Can we trust the "free market" to protect and teach culture? Not the patriot, nationalistic culture against the aliens, where every country fend for their own selfish interests. I mean global culture, the culture of the world we live in, the civilization of mankind, the general history of worldwide cinema. Did you see what conservatism and free market did to the Stock Market, to universal healthcare, to the Press? Art Culture (not popular culture consumerism) has nothing to do with the market, there is no reason to believe commerce has any incentive to regulate itself without the assistance of cultural policies.

Then Kristin Thompson goes on to explain that if you're an American and want to see foreign films, you must take days off and fly to Vancouver, like she does. Because, "If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain". In this case, it seems more appropriate to force everyone who needs to watch a foreign film to add the price of a flight abroad to the admission price, rather than try to change the distribution system to allow such films on a screen near you. Why make things simple for everyone when you can make them complicated for a few? In short, she condones the idea that "art films" should only be accessible in America to consumers who can afford plane tickets, and the rest can forget about it.

After blaming subsidized festivals for having a free ride for too long, she compares art cinema to painting exhibition and opera, to explain that Hollywood is a consumer good accessible for EVERYONE, but art cinema is such an elitist and obscure art form that no larger demographic would possibly be interested in it than the visitors of plastic and lyrical art.
In other circumstances, I would happily compare Cinema to other well established arts like Painting and Opera, because Cinema didn't just win yet its place in the coveted pantheon of recognized arts. But here, measuring up the potential audience that art cinema could draw (and not all of it is inaccessible and intellectual, there are many films with a wide entertainment appeal among foreign films!) to the exclusive crowd of museum goers is simply ludicrous. The narrative plot of foreign films rarely attain the alienation of an Opera livret.
Comparing these art forms reveals her true opinion of "art cinema", and where she ranks it in comparison to the market-approved "commercial cinema".

The sad part : I'm pretty sure the best foreign films don't get nearly as much exposure/accessibility/exhibition time in America as the star painting exhibitions get on a nationwide promotional tour... Heck, an exhibition would accommodate more audience in one opening day, and an opera in one show than a single screening of Sokurov's The Sun! 300, 500 people able to see this film in America (outside of the festival circuit)? I don't think the low tier art exhibitions and the Opera "flops" do that bad...

Kristin Thompson : "To break through decades of viewing habits, such people would need to learn new ones, which takes time and effort. People’s tastes can be educated, but the odds are usually against it actually happening."
This is one thing I wasn't prepared to hear from an academic! Even the elite of the American Education system thinks that there is no hope in teaching some taste for art in the mainstream population... Who else could do it if not the teachers? Even if it was a Sisyphean task, an educator would have the responsibility to die trying, not to publicly discourage others from trying!

Americans watch more movies overall per year than the more populous 27 member-states EU, and still watch less non-Hollywood films in straight numbers as well as in percentage! When I see the low score of foreign films on the American market, I think :
  • let's break the hegemony, the cultural brainwashing
  • let's find a legit counterpoint to the "free market"
  • let's open up the commercial screens to more diversity
  • let's preserve a minimal room for "commercially-challenged" films that should stay up a little longer even though they can't compete with blockbusters
  • let's educate the mainstream taste, at school, at university, in the press, on TV
  • let's force distributors to show all kinds of films if their agenda doesn't see fit...

You see, the French "exception culturelle" wasn't God-given, and it's not because the population of France is genetically distinct. We fought for it, it took "time and effort", but we made it happen, against all odds, because it was worth it. In fact, if there is any artistic appreciation for Classic Hollywood at the universities, and in the specialized film press, it is probably because French educators fought for it!

Langlois stole prints from the Nazis during the war, and showed American silent masterpieces when they were long forgotten in the USA. He saved prints when the Studio system discarded them (destroyed them) right after their theatrical run!
Bazin built a network of cine-clubs to nurse art film appreciation throughout France after WW2.
The students defended Langlois in 1968 when the government stole his Cinémathèque from him.
Malraux made film culture a priority, installed safety nets for the domestic production.
Cinema was admitted at the university thanks to the youngsters Langlois educated screenings after screenings.
L'avance sur recette, the subsidies, the quotas were legislated by the government to save and protect art cinema and foreign cinema against the natural bend of the free market.

It didn't happen overnight...

But now France is in a position, not only to defend its own domestic production against the hegemonic invasion of Hollywood blockbusters (one of the last place in Europe and in the world, not to succumb to the "market rule"), but to help foreign film distribution here (even if there isn't much more audience for it) and even the production of foreign films in their own country.

And the American academe says it is not gonna happen in the USA? What is the incompatibility? What is the unsurmountable obstacle preventing it? Why is the American society so different that they couldn't evolve towards a more welcoming market? towards a broader taste? Why are American intellectuals powerless and unimaginative?
It's not the lack of brain power, or the absence of a cinephile community, or the irrevocable disinterest of the youth... all you have to do is to REGULATE an economic monopoly. And if the audience doesn't support such restraints, a long term education will undoubtedly vanquish any major resistance after progressive exposure to non-standardised culture.
That is if you manage to put an end to the jingoist brainwashing of Hollywood pervading all media which makes sure American audiences keep on buying American products. Then maybe we could talk about a natural supply-demand self-regulation of consumers.

Because of its leading position on the world market of cinema, because of the aura of its culture, and because it is the industry that benefits the most at the global box office, the USA has the responsibility to be the leader in protecting world culture (like Martin Scorsese does with his World Film Fondation), to re-invest a (slim) portion of its huge revenues (mainly earned from the consumption of foreign movie goers!) in non-profit programs that sustains cultural diversity.

The history of cinema was built upon the cross-cultural influences cinema had on filmmakers from every countries, on the appreciation of film critics for underexposed gems in the margin of the commercial circuit. It wasn't the free market who made cinema the art it is today. And it won't stay up there if you let the profit driven studios, focus groups and textbook formulae decide what the audience should or shouldn't see, and ostracize the cinephile minority pushing foreign film lovers towards the ghetto of film festivals and home-video viewing.

If the American cinephiles, scholars, journalists and educators had any cultural ambition, they could dream up a better system and would fight for it, with "time and effort", "against all odds".

YES WE CAN. Change we can believe in. Hope.
Certain people thought it was possible.

5 commentaires:

Bob Westal a dit…

Harry, I think you misunderstand what Ms. Thompson wrote. She is not in favor of what she describes any more than she is in favor of the inevitability of death, and I didn't catch any strong disagreement with what Ebert wrote. Actually, you're title is a bit more apt descriptor. You could call what she wrote fatalistic but, trust me, she comes by her fatalism honestly.

I could write a novel length response to what you wrote, but the simple fact is that mainstream audiences in the U.S. -- whatever that may mean -- are almost more opposed to films made in black and white or before 1965 than with subtitles. And the fact of the matter is that foreign films often do reasonably well here if they have the right marketing hook.

However, it's also true that even our biggest foreign arthouse hits inevitably get remade for benefit of the really wide audience that won't even see the original versions of "Let the Right One In" or "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

However, we've got much bigger problems than the simple decline in the popularity of foreign films. Indeed, ironically, American audiences are more used to subtitles now than at any point in my lifetime. The idea that a largely subtitled film like "Inglourious Basterds" or, a few years back, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" could be a mainstream hit here would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years back.

One reason for the relatively high popularity of foreign films in the U.S. during the fifties through the seventies was that the only truly independent North American filmmakers were people like Roger Corman, who were working the "lowbrow" end of the spectrum. With a very few exceptions, foreign films had the "highbrow" market all to themselves. People who wanted a truly intellectual or artistic experience at the movies had nowhere else to turn. The American independent movement stole some of the foreign film thunders.

Now, sadly, simply having characters and a strong plot is enough to get your film labeled arthouse fair out here. Moreover, the political hurdles to the kind of thing you describe in which we somehow overcome the tyranny of the market, as someone who tends to be a relative optimist among American progressives, is, I think utterly impossible at this time.

In a country where being for even the most modest public healthcare can literally get you labeled a president labelled communist or a terrorist...well, let's just say we progressives out here have a few million other priorities when it comes to freeing certain areas of our economy from the tyranny of the market. When Americans are literally dying from lack of decent healthcare, getting the government to somehow force more cultural diversity on our nation's movie theaters seems like something well beyond a pipedream. The very idea of an American middle class is currently in some danger. Without a bourgeois, all the arts are in serious trouble.

In any case, most Americans won't even watch classic American films. I'd be happy if I could just get every American to watch one John Ford movie, let along Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Truffuat, Godard, etc. If you really think there's something that can practically done to free up more screens for foreign films, I'm entirely open minded, but it's one tough job and have no clue how that would be done. I will say that involving the government in it right now is an utter non-starter.

HarryTuttle a dit…

How much does it cost you to just WRITE "watch more foreign films" instead of "forget about foreign films, it's only for the jet set"?
If the conjuncture is unsurmountable, it's not your fault. But in this context, if you encourage fatalism and self-indulgence, you ARE guilty of worsening the problems (or at least making sure it won't improve anytime soon)!

HarryTuttle a dit…

You're not suggesting that after WW2, Europe had only culture to deal with in the 50ies, are you? That it was easier than today's USA? And it's not about post-market-crash recession America of today... this hegemonic market didn't open up even during the prosperous times of the previous decades!

Fatalism is a good excuse for the general population... but scholars, critics, educators cannot hide behind such a weak mentality. If readers don't care, it should not prevent you from shouting over and over until changes come. Because this is the ONLY role of the cultural intelligentsia : to protect culture! (not to reinforce bad habits)

HarryTuttle a dit…

OMG 11 words in a sentence to address this issue in the American film press! The awakening is faster than I imagined...

Paul Brunick (Film Comment; Aug 2010) : "When Hollywood treats formal ambition and dramatic complexity as specialty-division afterthoughts, when foreign releases are ghettoized in a handful of big cities, when readers are defined by their lowest-common-denominator indifference"

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Life is too short to deal very much or very long with crap, and is much better spent considering the good work, and why it is good. Most American criticism is not founded on this principle; rather, it tends to be dominated by a consumerist mentality that says that all films which can be seen commercially should be written about, and those that can’t should be ignored. [..]
Much American criticism does little more than watch the rubble move. [..]
The “big” movies [..] deserve the big treatment, the “small” films less, and the “unknown” films none at all."

Robert Koehler, What matters at the Los Angeles Film Festival (Film journey; 21 June 2011)