FEAR AND LOATHING OF FOREIGN FILMS
Ventura is an arts and culture writer living in Washington,
D.C. His work has appeared in The New Republic and
Reverse Shot. This essay is published with the kind permission
New Republic .
January 8, the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) gave
its best director award to Zhang Yimou for his critically acclaimed
double bill, Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
Never mind that the prize went to a director whose best work
was a decade behind him. More noteworthy was the fact that Zhang
was the first Asian filmmaker to win the award in the group's
history. Just as surprising, it also marked the first time in
20 years the group had given the prize to a director of a foreign-language
film. Traditionally the boldest and most provocative of the
major critics' groups, the NSFC in recent years has strayed
from its legacy as an exuberant champion of world cinema. But
far from an isolated failing, the group's apparent xenophobia
is emblematic of a prevailing mindset among critics that has,
gradually and painfully, diminished the visibility of foreign
films in American cultural life.
was not always thus. The NSFC formed in the mid-1960s as a reaction
to the middlebrow sensibilities of the New York Film Critics
Circle, then the most influential of the critics' groups. Headed
by provocative critics like Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and
The New Republic's own Stanley Kauffmann, the group
espoused film criticism that stood at the forefront of culture,
rather than the smug, complacent center. In 1966, the NSFC gave
its inaugural prize to Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up
--- and the group only got more daring from there. The
organization's year-end roster of winners from its first decade
reads like an all-star team of the art house: Antonioni, Bergman,
Truffaut, Bertolucci, Buñuel.
the first ten years of the NSFC, seven of the group's year-end
best-picture winners were movies in a foreign language. Compare
that with the record of the last ten years, during which only
one foreign film has won its top honor: Edward Yang's remarkable
Yi Yi, which took the prize in 2000. The group's awards
are interesting less for the actual choices than for what they
suggest about criticism at large. Although there has been no
shortage of support for idiosyncratic American filmmakers --
David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Spike Jonze's Being
John Malkovich were recent winners--the group has been
thuddingly silent about the existence of great artists and movies
in other cultures. The neglect of Asian film has been particularly
glaring, as the national cinemas of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong,
Japan, and Iran have emerged as vanguards of film art in the
last decade or so. Somewhere along the way, American critics
simply stopped caring about international cinema.
1996, Susan Sontag wrote an essay titled "The Decay of
Cinema," a eulogy not so much for cinema as for cinephilia.
She conjures that heroic period in the '60s and '70s when movies
and movie love seemed essential to the culture. What happened,
according to Sontag, was "cinema as an industry" overwhelmed
"cinema as an art." There is truth in that oft-repeated
diagnosis, but it's incomplete. What she didn't mention explicitly
was that something else had gone missing, a spirit of adventure
and curiosity that had animated the culture and given life to
an expansive cinephilia. Great film artists around the world
have continued to make movies in the years since, but American
audiences and critics have been increasingly disinterested.
Sontag's declining influence as a cineast was emblematic of
the change: What had been a fashionable passion for challenging
cinema in the '60s and '70s had become a recipe for marginalization
by the '90s. In the past decade, Sontag championed favorites
like Hungary's Bela Tarr, Russia's Alexander Sokurov, and Taiwan's
Hou Hsiao-hsien, but such names barely surfaced in larger discussions
about art and culture. The great artists of world cinema had
become the pet causes of cultists.
nostalgia can burnish the past, it can also dim the present.
Perhaps memories of the art-house heroes of their youth have
blinded critics to contemporary artists every bit the equal
of those canonical titans. In turn, their ignorance and apathy
get passed down to audiences. Critics defend themselves by saying
that there are no more Bergmans and Fellinis and Godards to
champion, that cinema really is dying. In a 2000 symposium for
Cineaste, a film journal, The New Yorker's
David Denby made precisely that point and derided the few critics
who persisted in pursuing a "film-festival and cultural
institute regimen," calling it "an arrogant form of
denial." Nothing if not self-serving, Denby's anti-intellectual
stance would be merely annoying if it didn't come from the critic
of The New Yorker. It's the haughty dismissiveness--that
sneer with which he invokes film festivals--that gets to you.
When influential critics wave off movies that do not have the
good fortune to be playing in a multiplex, they contribute to
the very decline that they lament.
a mindset that has contributed to the disappearance of foreign
films from the cultural radar. One of the critic's most crucial
functions is to tell us what we don't know. In cinema, what
we don't know frequently comes in the form of a subtitled movie,
with no studio backing, a microscopic ad budget, limited distribution,
and no recognizable stars. In the heroic age of cinephilia,
critics told viewers about these films with eagerness and excitement.
These days, mainstream critics would just as soon waste column
space on Oscar-pandering movies with millions of dollars in
promotion and advertising behind them--movies that need no further
publicity. What they dismiss as irrelevant esoterica remains
so with their complicity.
is not to say that there are no good critics today--far from
it. Vibrant film criticism thrives, even though such voices
speak, unfortunately and unjustly, to specialized audiences.
In the alternative weeklies, film journals, and the blogosphere,
passionate critics who take seriously movies and the various
pleasures they give us serve as the standard-bearers of an adventurous
film culture. Critics like the Village Voice's J. Hoberman,
the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Film
Comment's Kent Jones pose a challenge to the reigning,
circumscribed notion of film art in this country. They cling
to an unfashionable ideal: the critic as explorer, mapping out
an art for a culture saturated by commerce.
if such critics give cause for hope, their marginal role in
the mainstream drives one to despair. When the self-appointed
crème-de-la-crème, like the National Society of
Film Critics, ignores the movies that need the most help, what
chance do such movies have? The occasional foreign film will
pierce through our veil of ignorance --- every once in a while
comes along a Life is Beautiful or Amelie or
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon --- but those
are the exceptions that prove the rule. That names like Hou,
Tarr, Sokurov, as well as Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zhang-ke, Takeshi
Kitano, Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, Jean-Pierre
and Luc Dardenne, Michael Haneke, Jafar Panahi, among others,
do not register with young, educated cosmopolitans--the ardent
cinephiles of a generation ago--speaks to a failure in the culture.
As the would-be guardians of a vital intellectual and artistic
sphere, today's critics bear the brunt of that failure.