Foreign Film in America: Decline and Demise

What’s common to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s “Rosetta”, Claire Denis’s “Beau Travail,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “In Praise of Love”, and Laurent Cantet’s “Time Out”

Each movie had played in a major international film festival, such as Cannes or Venice. “Rosetta” won Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or, and “Time Out” the Venice Film Fest.

All four films are innovative works made by extremely talented directors, both new and old;

All four came and went quickly and quietly, failing to leave any significant impact on American audiences.

Over the past decade, a number of critics have declared the demise of a genuine film culture in America. In 1997, Susan Sontag lamented the death of cinephilia and the onset of an ignoble, ireversible decline. She wrote: “Cinema, once heralded as the art of the twentieth century, seemed at the end of the century a decadent and corrupt commercial form of entertainment.”

To be sure, there was always a conflict between cinema as industry and cinema as art, cinema as routine activity and cinema as novel experimentation. Nonetheless, the gap between film as innocuous and mindless fare and film as challenging and provocative art has never been as deep as it is at present in the U.S.

How did it happen

Various forces, historical, demographic, sociological, and artistic, account for the decline of the foreign art film, a phenomenon that’s interrelated with the increasing dominance of mainstream Hollywood cinema domestically and globally.

Rise of American Indies

The emergence of a new cinematic movement is not a coincidence. In America, it’s often Hollywood that sets the contexts in which cycles of innovative films appear. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the studios’ risk-taking bolstered a group of talented directors–Woody Allen, Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Hal Ashby–who revitalized American film by working within the studio system. However, at present, the balance has tipped decisively in favor of cinema as commerce and industry.

The rise of independent films–indies as they’re known in the industry–in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s was a direct result of Hollywood’s abandoning the serious, mature, issue-oriented film. Artistically speaking, the prevalent climate in Hollywood encourages the production of mostly minor and routine films. Committed to the making of “event” movies, the studios left room for “smaller,” personal films, a vacant ground that was grabbed by the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Soderbergh, and Tarantino. While Hollywood focuses its attention and bucks on churning out profitable but forgettable fodder, indies on the fringe are enjoying exhilarating years and receptive audiences.

Hollywood’s bottom-line mentality affects filmmaking in several ways. The bigger the budget, the more a picture must hedge its bets by catering to large audiences, which necessitates compromise, homogeneity, and standardization. Rising production and marketing costs have resulted in the making of products (not films) on a global scale for the appreciation of worldwide viewers. Soaring budgets also mean that to be profitable films must generate huge grosses in the first week of release, a trend favoring blockbusters such as “Star Wars”, “Matrix”, and “Spider-Man”. In short, mainstream cinema has settled for a derivative fare obsessed with reproducing past successes (remakes, sequels, franchises).

Which came first: The shrinking market for foreign films in America, or the decline of national cinemas abroad No matter. Over the past two decades, the indies have taken up the space once occupied by Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini, and Bergman. Indie filmmakers have captured the art-house audiences of the 1960s and 1970s, appealing to those viewers who had embraced Kurosawa, Godard, Truffaut, and Tarkovsky.

Decline of Foreign Art Film

During the European film renaissance, after the Second World War, Americans saw a diversity of foreign films in first-run theaters. Art-houses in big cities and campuses screened a wide range of subtitled films. The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s represented a feverish age of moviegoing with new masterpieces released almost every week. In those three decades, original and passionate films were imported from Japan, France, Italy, Sweden, and Germany (the work of Herzog, Wenders, Fassbinder).

People who complained about Hollywood’s obsessive juvenelia and profit-maximizing machine went to foreign films because they dealt with more mature and serious issues, including sexual politics. In European art films, which were always less standardized and homogenized, the subtexts were just as important and ambiguous as their texts. Audiences were encouraged to make their own interpretations and to engage in a lively debate about films with their favorite critics.

But that renaissance ended in the 1980s, and art houses have become a rarity. In New York alone, Cinema Studio, the Thalia, the Regency, have all closed their doors. Foreign films are increasingly difficult to find in first-run theaters. The only place to see a plethora of art films is in international festivals and few specialized venues, such as New York’s Film Forum or Los Angeles’s Nuart.

For foreign films, whose share amount to one percent of the movie market, the major stumbling block remains language. About 100 foreign films are released every year, yet few gross more than $1 million. When it comes to foreign films, several charges are made against American viewers:

They are reluctant to read subtitles;
They are uncomfortable with the lack of sync in dubbed films;
They are bored by the “slowness” and “plotlessness” of most foreign films;
They dislike the technical quality of those films which falls short of Hollywood’s glossier standards.

Nowadays, for foreign films to “play,” i.e. to find an audience, they need to be framed as “events,” and to be broad in their appeal. Hence, the dominance of romantic comedies, melodramas, and easily digestible sentimental fare. It also helps if they have been nominated for or won Oscar awards. Miramax has done well with the Italian “Life Is Beautiful”, “Il Postino”, and “Mediterraneo”; the Mexican “Like Water for Chocolate”; the French “Amelie” and “Ridicule”; the Czech “Kolya”; the Japanese “Shall We Dance”.

Paramount Classics’ co-president David Dinerstein told “Variety”: “Foreign Films are all competing for a very small space. The formula for success in foreign films is to leave the audience with a smile.” Dinerstein cited Mexico’s “Like Water for Chocolate” and Brazil’s “Central Station”, and he might have mentioned his own 2001 release, “Mostly Martha”, a German romantic melodrama that eroticized food and is almost entirely set in the kitchen.

According to Dinerstein, “There is obviously a trend as to what kinds of films win Oscars and do well in the marketplace.” Foreign films about food are doing well (you may recall Denmark’s 1987 Oscar winner, “Babette’s Feas”t, the 1993 Taiwanese nominee, Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman”). However, the 2000 winner from the Netherlands, “Character”, was not a “feel-good” film and Sony Classics collected less than $1 million in receipts. United Artists’ release of the Bosnian entry, “No Man’s Land”, which won the 2001 Golden Globe and Foreign-Language Oscar, also grossed about $1 million.

As mentioned, even the rare film that wins recognition at Cannes, Venice, or Berlin festivals has trouble securing American release, let alone achieve success. Common sense dictates that aficionados of foreign films will turn to their local video stores, but foreign films that fail to get theatrical release are seldom found on video shelves.

Worse yet, many national cinemas are experiencing a creative decline as a result of Hollywood’s globalization. Though a foreign film occasionally breaks through–the Asian Oscar winner, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”–it’s American-style product that travels well across the globe. Hollywood floods other nations’ markets with American narrative models of hyper-industrial films, well-crafted but vacuous actioners and thrillers. The corporate, market-driven thinking that drained the art out of mainstream Hollywood had a similarly dulling effect on several national industries.

For a variety of reasons, European cinema has lost its former authority. Great films continue to be made but there are fewer of them and they don’t stem from the same purist culture. Arguably, the death of the Soviet filmmaker Tarkovsky (in Paris, in 1986) and of the Polish auteur Kieslowski (also in Paris, in 1995) signaled the end of an era: The visionary auteur with an international clout.

There are only half a dozen foreign directors whose films continue to cause an international stir, among them Denmark’s Lars von Trier, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar (whose original screenplay for “Talk to Her” won an Oscar, and to a lesser extent, Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki (“The Man Without a Past”). Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” is the exception to the rule: an art film that found its public and generated debate among critics and viewers. However, Von Trier’s next film, “Dogville”, is far less successful, despite the fact that its star, Nicole Kidman, is the hottest actress in Hollywood.

By all rights, a movie such as Casper Noe’s “scandalous” “Irreversible” (with its nine-minute depiction of rape), should have generated heated discourse and play for several months, if it were released in the 1970s. However, the film was barely seen outside the big cities, and it left no trace as far as debate is concerned, which is one of the ingredients of a vibrant film culture.

Personal Postscript: Art Film–A Global Problem

In 1999, as part of Hitchcock’s centennial celebration, the American Cinematheque asked me to moderate a panel of international directors. After a careful consideration, ten filmmakers were chosen, five vets and five novices. Among the experienced artists were Mexico’s Arturo Ripstein and Britain’s Ken Loach, and the new talent included American indie Eric Mendelson (“Judy Berlin”) and Scotland’s Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher”, “Morvern Callar”). Sadly, it soon became clear that most of these gifted filmmakers enjoy little support in their own countries. Claire Denis (“Nenette et Boni, Beau Travail”, “Wednesday Evening”), who served as a bridge on the panel between the vet and young artists, is one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today, yet her movies attract only a small following in France.

Cut to July 2002 and the Taorminal Film Festival, where I served on a jury presided over by the Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami. In one of our informal meetings, I asked Kiarostami about the status of his work in Iran. The eloquent director spoke about the problem realistically, claiming that his movies (not just the controversial “Taste of Cherry”, which deals with the taboo issue of suicide) play for about two weeks on a few screens. Kiarostami is relevant to this discussion in other ways. It took decades for one of his films, “Through the Olive Trees”, to get theatrical distribution in the U.S., though the movie failed miserably. “Taste of Cherry”, co-winner of Cannes’ Palme d’or, came and went quietly. His latest film, “Ten”, which played in Cannes last year, has yet to secure domestic distribution.

The list of foreign auteurs who make cutting-edge films but remain obscure includes the distinguished Hungarian director, Bela Tarr, who shares the same fate as Kiarostami. The only way to see Tarr’s work is in museums, archives, and film festivals.

Contrary to popular notion, the decline of the art film is not a uniquely American malaise–it is becoming a global reality. Foreign (non-American) audiences favor big, special-effects Hollywood pictures over small, personal works by their own kinds. My point should not be taken as consolation for Americans but as a signal of worldwide alarm.

Film art, as we knew, loved, and experienced it, might be on the verge of extinction.