Not Showing at a Theater Near You
The fact is that movies train the eyes of their audiences, and when they have been trained on these types of Hollywood movies, it is very difficult to then convert them to our movies.Abbas Kiarostami There are all kinds of movies you cant see and all kinds of reasons why you cant see them. In a literal sense, thousands of movies made in Hollywood before 1950 no longer exist. Some were destroyed by malice (the directors cuts of Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons), others by negligence (90 percent of all silent films). And of those movies made since 1950, there are no guarantees. But such matters are the domain of film preservationists, and while their work should not be undervalued, just as significant is another species of movies you cant see: movies that do exist, that may even be no more than a few years old, but that remain as elusive as those maligned masterpieces of von Stroheim and Welles. Movies, in other words, without distribution or with distributors who, for one reason or another, refuse to release them. This is a broad and far-reaching discussion, and one likely to interest only those who still believe movies are to be taken seriously. That doesnt mean you have to be a member of that ever-shrinking minority who strive to see films on large screens in the best available theaters and, when home viewing is the only option, black out the windows, turn off the phone and ignore all other distractions (roommates, spouses, children) until the end credits have begun to roll though this, obviously, is the ideal. By serious, I mean only to invoke the filmgoer who suspects that some of the best movies around fail to merit so much as a passing mention on Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight.
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That may not sound like a very high standard, and it isnt. But as one who writes regularly about movies and is thereby regularly subjected to the unguarded feedback of you, dear readers I can assert that there are those among you who read in these pages an enthusiastic endorsement of some new movie from Africa or Turkey, or of an American independent filmmaker whose name isnt Tarantino or Soderbergh, and rather than having your curiosity piqued, you recoil. You nonbelievers tend to regard such enthusiasms as the domain of elitist critics permanently detached from the opinion of the common man. To which I can only say that an excellent book, by the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, has been published on this very subject. It is called Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See , and if the title is a provocation, it also happens to be true. And that is just the beginning of our story. First, though, some numbers. Each year, around 2,000 feature-length films premiere somewhere in the world and are reviewed in the pages of the industry trade publication Variety . Of those, maybe 400 make it to a theater near you, and of them, more than half are produced by the major studios. (If you live outside of a major urban center, the total number of films is considerably less, and the percentage of studio fare much higher.) Nobody is suggesting that all or even most of those 2,000 movies are worth the time they take to sit through; its one of the dirty little secrets of the film-festival circuit that the worst films on display are so festooned with unwieldy pretension they make you pine for a third helping of Deuce Bigalow . But its the great festival movies the ones that give us a sense of discovery, coupled with the knowledge that we may never get to see them again that keep many of us coming back for more. More numbers: In a famous 1997 poll, the editors of Film Comment magazine asked 83 film critics and programmers to vote on the best foreign-language films of the decade that had thus far failed to secure U.S. theatrical distribution. Among the top 50 vote-getters were films by Godard, Fellini and Kurosawa, three (!) each by Taiwans Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, three by Hong Kongs Wong Kar-wai, two each by Frances Olivier Assayas and Chantal Akerman, and two by Portugals Manoel de Oliveira, the worlds oldest working filmmaker. Of those films, only a few ever did make it to U.S. screens, though some have since appeared on video or DVD. The top-ranking films of similar, subsequent polls conducted by the likes of The Village Voice and Indiewire.com have fared little better . Indeed, an undistributed-film derby is that rare competition where the winners may still end up losing. Hollywood and the media, though, shouldnt shoulder all the blame. Sometimes, the very entities that produce, distribute and exhibit specialized films are the most complicit in their suppression. Take, for example, the strange case of Abbas Kiarostamis Through the Olive Trees (1994), the concluding part of his extraordinary trilogy about life (and moviemaking) in a rural Iranian village, before and after a major earthquake. The film was ruled ineligible for the 1997 Film Comment poll because it had been distributed in America, by none other than Miramax. Originally, Miramax hadnt wanted anything to do with Kiarostamis film, but it was enormously keen on an Australian film represented by the same now-defunct, then-elephantine French financing and sales conglomerate, Ciby 2000. Ciby wouldnt sell one movie without the other kind of like when Congress tacks on controversial immigration reforms to a bill thats supposed to aid tsunami victims so Miramax bought both and proceeded to lavish all of its attention on the bubbly Muriels Wedding , while Through the Olive Trees was released in just a few theaters and, to this day, remains absent from the video shelves.That wasnt an isolated (or Miramax-specific) incident, but more often than not, meritorious films by world-class auteurs dont even make it as far as the negotiating table with U.S. distributors. The asking price is simply too high. Its a vicious circle: While the U.S. may be the worlds largest movie market, foreign product has never accounted for more than about 7 percent of annual domestic box office and that was during the 1960s, the proverbial heyday of international cinephilia. Since then, with the exception of a handful of imports offering some combination of Roberto Benigni, Audrey Tautou and high-wire martial-arts action, grosses have been in steady decline, and it is now common for foreign titles to earn well below $250,000 during their entire U.S. theatrical runs.Not that this common knowledge eases tensions between buyers and sellers, or placates consternated critics who cant understand why that great movie they saw two years ago in Toronto still hasnt been picked up. So, it was no real surprise when ThinkFilm distribution chief Mark Urman, interviewed for a June 29 Indiewire article called The Downfall: Foreign Language Hits Are Few and Far Between in 2005, lashed out. Why has the new Hou Hsiao-hsien [film] not sold? he asked rhetorically. There are several distributors who want it, but they want it at a price that wont kill them. The distributors know what it costs; the sellers have no idea; and the critics live in such a vacuum: You just want to say fuck you plenty to journalists who complain about the sorry state of art-house distribution. How dare they? Ana and the Others There will be more written here in the coming weeks about the complex dilemmas facing foreign-language distribution in America. Indeed, this report is intended as but the first in a recurring series that will allow our critics to weigh in on movies that merit your attention, even if you may have no immediate way of seeing them movies, to put it glibly, that arent coming soon to a theater or video store near you. In the meantime, its important to stress that foreign films are hardly unique where thorny distribution dilemmas are concerned. As proved by the recent cases of director Carroll Ballards superlative Duma (see related story) and Paul Schraders Dominion , even big-studio productions can sometimes fall into release limbo. One also doesnt have to think too long or hard to come up with a list of exemplary American independent films from the past several years that never surfaced in local theaters (and are, in most cases, also unreleased on video): Larry Clarks Ken Park , Jem Cohens Chain , Jennifer Todd Reeves The Time We Killed , Ara Corbetts Roof to Roof , Ryan Eslingers Madness and Genius , Ben Coccios Zero Day and Derek Simonds Seven and a Match . And there are those countless films, from all eras and all corners of the globe, that were distributed once, but have since fallen out of circulation. So what hope is there? There is the occasional, innovative upstart, like the short-lived Shooting Gallery Film Series (and the even shorter-lived Sundance Channel Film Series), that seeks to reinvent the distribution wheel and usually fails, but for a while gives a new lease on life to many worthy pictures. More recently, there has been the growing availability of import or (a.k.a. foreign-region) DVDs and the machines on which to play them (see sidebar) giving audiences access to thousands of otherwise unavailable titles. (To wit, in the midst of writing this very article, I took time out to order, from Spain, copies of John Boormans Leo the Last and the four-hour-long miniseries version of Robert Altmans Vincent & Theo .) Last but certainly not least, there is an extraordinary film series, beginning tonight and running through this weekend, that goes a long way toward righting some long-standing wrongs and movie gods willing will become an annual event. Co-presented by the American Cinematheque and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, The Films That Got Away was born from a simple idea to showcase deserving films that had not yet received a proper Los Angeles booking. As it stands, that mandate has been elasticized slightly, to accommodate a screening of Terry Gilliams Brazil (1985) a movie that might have met with an Ambersons -like fate had LAFCA members not voted it the years best picture and, by doing so, helped Gilliam wrest his cut away from Universals then-president, Sid Sheinberg. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One That was LAFCAs shining moment, and I wont say anything against it. (I should note, however, that I am myself a card-carrying LAFCA member and, while not directly involved in planning this series, did suggest some titles.) Besides, Brazil notwithstanding, the essential tenor of The Films That Got Away remains unchanged, and the lineup is remarkable. Opening the series is a double-bill of William Greaves Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2 (2005). In the first, Greaves directed different pairs of actors playing a single scene about the disintegration of a marriage all the while goading, psychoanalyzing and otherwise pushing his performers toward their emotional breaking points. In Take 2 1/2 , he reunites two of Take One s stars (Audrey Henningham and Shannon Baker), creates a new scenario built upon the events of the past and sets about another aggressive peeling away of moviemaking (and acting) artifice. It sounds awfully theoretical and, hell, you cant even pronounce those titles, but taken together, the films make for an exhilarating and dislocating viewing experience; watching them, you cant be sure whether youre behind the scenes or in front of them. Enjoying its belated local premiere, Michael Almereydas Happy Here and Now (2002) is as impossible to describe as it is singularly beautiful to behold a palimpsest of science fiction, film noir, Blaise Pascals Pensées and the music of the late, great blues singer Ernie K. Doe; a detective story of sorts; and a cyberspace romance. Few films have seemed more acutely jacked-in to our technology-saturated times, or saddened by the ease with which our very personalities might become salable commodities. Celina Murgas Ana and the Others (2002) ranks among the most impressive work from the new wave of young Argentine filmmakers, with its deceptively simple story of a big-city girl returning to her small-town roots and its luminous central performance by Camila Toker. And showing locally for the first time since 1995s AFI Fest, Bertrand Taverniers Fresh Bait turns the real-life robbery and murder spree of three Paris adolescents into a jackknife, morbidly funny thriller about the pull of the American dream. Surely, that would be enough to justify any film series existence, and yet I am only just now getting to the raison dêtre of The Films That Got Away. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000) is, as its title suggests, a record of those two months during the spring of 1871 when a socialist rebellion momentarily seized control of Paris, before being laid to waste by the French national army. It is also, like most of the films made by its director, Peter Watkins ( Edvard Munch , The War Game ), an enormous work of the socially conscious imagination a century-old story presented as though it were a live television broadcast. Our guides are two reporters from Commune TV (there is also a rival, nationalist news service called Versailles TV) who ultimately become accomplices to the events they are covering, and practitioners of the art of disinformation. And then Watkins steps back further. He begins to draw parallels between the issues confronted by the members of the Commune xenophobia, womens rights and capitalist oppression and those faced by contemporary French (and global) society, and to question if, perhaps, things are really so very different now. Like Greaves, he destroys the cinematic fourth wall, at points interviewing cast members in costume but out of character about the process of making the film and about how they might react given a similar rebellion today. And before long, he asks the same of us. This is not just a movie about a revolution, but a massive, heroic achievement that hopes such things as revolutions remain possible. La Commune may be the ultimate test case for a series like The Films That Got Away, because it is a film that is not easily programmed in conventional cinemas. It is six hours long, it is in black-and-white, in French with English subtitles, and the action is frequently interrupted by long passages of on-screen text. Such qualities can engender a great deal of hostility against a film even before it is shown. But Watkins who is at once among the most important and most marginal figures in contemporary cinema doesnt just anticipate such reactions, he responds to them in one of La Communes most quietly astonishing moments. Following a brief summary of the dominant position held by the American entertainment industry in the global market, he cedes the stage or at least the on-screen epigrams to Mahatma Gandhi, who, for a moment, seems to speak not just for Watkins, but for all those movies you cant see, and for all those filmmakers who seek to re-train our bloodshot Hollywood eyes: I dont want my house to be surrounded completely by walls, I dont want my windows to be sealed. I want the cultures of every country to enter my home as freely as possible. But I refuse to be crushed by any one of them. The Films That Got Away runs August 25-28 at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd. (323) 466-FILM or www.americancinematheque.com .
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