The future of American foreign-film distribution?
I found myself facing an hour-long subway ride without reading material over the weekend, and so decided to do something that I hadn’t done in some time–pick up a Film Comment.
Now, I should explain that this is meant in no way as a slight to the good people at Lincoln Center; I’m just not a big magazine reader in general. As for FC, it’s a publication whose importance to my own life I can in no way over-state. When I was a teenager in the culturally-starved Middle West, prior to the advent of DVD/ Netflix coup, FC (alongside the occasional East Coast sojourn) was my link to any kind of larger “film culture.” Often without hope of seeing the movies that they covered actually being projected, I luxuriated in the magazine’s stills, and let my imagination fill in the rest of the film they belonged to (one of those cruel ironies–the movie of my dreams almost always outshone the actual products, when I finally saw them).
A spoiled rotten New Yorker now, I tend to watch more movies than read about them. But FC is always there, first and foremost as an institution–which isn’t to say that it cannot be exceptional, as in the case of Donald Wilson’s wonderfully perceptive inquiry into the future of foreign-language film distribution, “Circling the Wagons,” an article that I can honestly say everyone interested in artsy-fartsy movies should read.
The launchpad for Wilson’s piece is the still-recent last gasp of Wellspring’s theatrical division, but the implications of this event are approached with a level of composure that none of Black February’s “Woe is me” eulogies approached. As per Wilson’s observations on the distribution end of things, I will leave it to wiser friends, experienced in that end of the business, to judge–what struck me here, however, was the author’s confrontation of the most glaringly obvious problem of contemporary arthouse culture:
“The coninuing inability of most distributors of foreign-language films to appeal to educated, literate twentysomethings remains staggering… Instead, foreign-language film marketing continues to skew towards an audience that’s literally dying…If effort isn’t expended on building new audiences, we’re facing a future of more of the same: continuous struggle, a good year here and there where a few flashpoint films hit, and more editiorializing about what’s gone wrong since the good old days when lines ran around the block for Rohmer and Bertolucci”
That last bit struck a particular chord–one of the formative experiences of my moviegoing life remains having attended a packed screening of Rohmer’s The Aviator’s Wife in Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery, and then finding myself one of maybe three people in the theater who were under forty years old; one of three people who were, for that matter, anywhere near the age of the characters on-screen. The question, which lingered with me from that night, was: What the fuck happened?
Another piece of Wilson’s argument that particularly resonated was one of those “What one has thought so often, but never said so well” things, as he weighs the success of the “thriving independant music scene in which online criticism is pushing folks to dabble into noise, doom, and other non-mainstream idioms” (an over-simplification of the relationship between press and consumer habits, but nevertheless useful) against web-based film criticism, which, in large part, seems content to act as more yipping front-runners announcing that, yes, in fact, Superman Forever is “Awesome!” and deserves “Three-and-a-half Popcorn Kernals” (Wilson’s tossing an elbow at long-cherished Reverse Shot punchline filmcritic.com earns extra kudos).
A truly fine piece of writing which, in effect, accusingly dumps the festering corpse of Wellspring onto the front yard of every film critic (and yes, of Wellsping themselves). The questions it leaves hanging are myriad: How can online film criticism mimic the youth-oriented success of web-based music writing without reproducing its failures (shat-out review-barn writing; reductive point-based ratings; encouraging people to listen to awful Canadian bands)? When does the compromise between catering-to and dumbing-down cease to make the effort worthwhile (Wilson’s example of “a good year” for imports is 2001, the year of Crouching Tiger and Amelie, both a far cry in content from Rohmer and Bertolucci)? Don’t I actually want to keep Claire Denis to myself, anyway?
Oh, and the most important question of all, for Dakota Fanning: