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 can’t see and all kinds of reasons why you
can’t 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
can’t 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 doesn’t 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.
Dream: Scott Foundas' map to buried cinematic treasure.
Secret Lives of Cheetahs: Carroll Ballard's Duma may go quietly.
Remembrance of Things Passed: What if a movie is easy to see, yet
what we once saw in it is no longer there?
That may not sound like a very high standard, and it isn’t. 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 isn’t 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;
it’s 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 it’s 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 Taiwan’s Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, three by Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai, two each by France’s Olivier Assayas and Chantal Akerman, and two by Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, the world’s 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, shouldn’t 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 Kiarostami’s 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 hadn’t wanted anything to do with Kiarostami’s 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 wouldn’t sell one movie without the other — kind of like when Congress tacks on controversial immigration reforms to a bill that’s supposed to aid tsunami victims — so Miramax bought both and proceeded to lavish all of its attention on the bubbly Muriel’s Wedding, while Through the Olive Trees was released in just a few theaters and, to this day, remains absent from the video shelves.That wasn’t an isolated (or Miramax-specific) incident, but more often than not, meritorious films by world-class auteurs don’t even make it as far as the negotiating table with U.S. distributors. The asking price is simply too high. It’s a vicious circle: While the U.S. may be the world’s 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 can’t understand why that great movie they saw two years ago in Toronto still hasn’t 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 won’t 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?”
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 aren’t coming soon to a theater
or video store near you. In the meantime, it’s important to stress that foreign
films are hardly unique where thorny distribution dilemmas are concerned. As proved
by the recent cases of director Carroll Ballard’s superlative Duma (see
related story) and Paul Schrader’s Dominion, even big-studio productions
can sometimes fall into release limbo. One also doesn’t 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 Clark’s Ken Park,Jem Cohen’s Chain,
Jennifer Todd Reeves’ The Time We Killed,Ara Corbett’s Roof to
Roof, Ryan Eslinger’s Madness and Genius,Ben Coccio’s 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 Boorman’s Leo the Last and the four-hour-long
miniseries version of Robert Altman’s 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 Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) — a movie that might have met with an Ambersons-like fate had LAFCA members not voted it the year’s best picture and, by doing so, helped Gilliam wrest his cut away from Universal’s then-president, Sid Sheinberg.
That was LAFCA’s shining moment, and I won’t 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 can’t even pronounce those titles, but taken together, the films make for an exhilarating and dislocating viewing experience; watching them, you can’t be sure whether you’re behind the scenes or in front of them. Enjoying its belated local premiere, Michael Almereyda’s 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 Pascal’s 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 Murga’s 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 1995’s AFI Fest, Bertrand Tavernier’s 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 d’être 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, women’s 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 — doesn’t just anticipate such reactions, he responds
to them in one of La Commune’s 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 can’t see, and for all those filmmakers who seek to re-train
our bloodshot Hollywood eyes: “I don’t want my house to be surrounded completely
by walls, I don’t 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
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.