Unshown Cinema

The Los Angeles Film Festival–officially in its fourth year–is still finding its groove, but it’s improving. A few years ago, Chicago critic Roger Ebert called the Sundance Film Festival the “de facto Los Angeles film festival,” and said that as the world’s film center, Los Angeles needs a festival less than almost any other place in the world: “There’s no need for one in a town where every commercial release plays usually before it plays anywhere else.” Well sure, if all festivals do is premiere industry films; fortunately, festivals are where hundreds of international films that won’t ever play on local screens are also exhibited.

Ebert’s comments were included in an article a few years back that pointed out that of the roughly 1,600 festivals around the world, none of the more than two dozen festivals in the Los Angeles area ranked in the top ten, which include Cannes, Toronto, Venice and Berlin–all noted for their stellar international line-ups. The festival in Palm Springs is the closest thing Angelenos have to a competitive world cinema event, but it’s over 100 miles away in the desert. Yet the illusion persists that Los Angeles is somehow the “movie capital of the world.”

This precise illusion came under fire last night in a lively LAFF panel discussion moderated by critic Robert Koehler entitled “Unshown Cinema: Inside the World of ‘The Films That Got Away’.” That last phrase refers to a sporadic but ongoing series initiated by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association that has recently screened such sensational works as Peter Watkins’ La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000), Celina Murga’s Ana and the Others (2002), Michael Almereyda’s Happy Here and Now (2002), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998). This panel discussion included a handful of distribution reps, a couple critics, and one filmmaker–the inimitable Monte Hellman (whose first film in seven years just screened at Cannes).

Koehler began the discussion by asking the distributors why so many great films he sees at festivals never get theatrical distribution. Paul Federbush of Warner Independent answered by saying he didn’t believe there is a problem with distribution, claiming we live in a golden age with expanding DVD, satellite, and internet options; further, he contended that Americans simply aren’t interested in foreign films. Koehler questioned whether we should blame the audience for this “disinterest” and rattled off at least a dozen filmmakers–including Akerman, Angelopoulos, Hou, Rivette, Resnais, and Sokurov–whose films sometimes play in commercial theaters in New York but are never released in Los Angeles.

“L.A. is a particularly tough market for foreign films,” admitted acquisitions consultant Marie-Therese Guirgis. High advertising costs make it a particularly unappealing market for distributors, and convincing the mainstream press to interview and engage offshore talent is often a major hurdle in an industry town. (She remembered bringing former Chanel spokesmodel and actress Carole Bouquet to the US for three days to promote Cédric Kahn’s Red Lights, and only getting two interviews the entire time.) Publicist Ziggy Kozwloski added, “I do feel like the mainstream press is less supportive than it used to be,” noting how Time regularly consigns its reviews of foreign films to its online edition rather than its print edition. Los Angeles is often cited as the “number two market” in the US, but Guirgis remarked, “as a distributor, I’ve certainly started questioning that.”

Greg Laemmle, the current president of Laemmle Theatres, the family-owned, Los Angeles art house chain formed in 1938, acknowledged that great films with strong reviews often still do not entice audiences even when such films are released in theaters. He cited Duck Season as a film Warner Independent really supported; regardless he claimed “nobody came” to its Laemmle run. “Maybe because of this,” he said, “distributors and producers have become seduced by crossover films. If you can do Sideways, why worry about L’Auberge Espagnole?” Yet given Los Angeles’ renowned transportation problems as a series of villages connected by freeways and sub-par public transit (the Los Angeles Times recently reported that the head of public transportation drives a Hummer), Laemmle’s typical practice of burying films at their Beverly Hills Music Hall or Santa Monica theaters for a week or two at most isn’t exactly market saturation, either. (Both of these theaters are at least two-hour commutes for me in Pasadena.)

“Paris is less xenophobic,” critic Scott Foundas noted, but he highlighted how Parisian cinemas rotate films on a larger time table (say, one title every Tuesday and Thursday), allowing them to screen more films on a weekly basis. He also cited how the LA Weekly‘s three-page coverage of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu didn’t seem to do the film much good given that it only grossed $2,300 in its opening week at the Music Hall. “That is the sort of film,” wryly mused Kozlowski, “where I think, God, this sounds good, but I hope other people go to see it,” referring to its two and-a-half hour running time and its premise of a dying man being wheeled from hospital to hospital in Budapest; as if these elements where intrinsic dramatic anathema. (The film remains my own favorite picture distributed this year.)

But Foundas and Kozlowski’s comments began to touch upon a growing conviction I’ve had that became more pronounced during the discussion (unfortunately, I wasn’t among the few called upon during the brief audience Q&A to test my theory): while I wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion that festivals need to program more venerated international works, critics need to write about them, publicists need to promote them, and distributors and theater owners need to exhibit them, enthusiasm for foreign and indie films is simply not being cultivated on a local cinephilia level. “I go to theaters all the time and all I see is a sea of grey hair,” Kozlowski said. “Where are all the 25-year olds who used to be excited about these films, and not simply the Run Lola Run‘s or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s?”

In my experience, they’re all online, where film culture has increasingly shifted to an internet-based realm of information and reviews, commerce (multi-region DVDs), and exchange of ideas through various transnational blogs and listserves. I’ve spent my early-’30s living in Los Angeles for the past five years, and virtually all of my cinephile friends are online–if I want to discover and research a film, track down a copy on video, and hear other people respond to it, I do it online rather than in person, in theaters or community events, or even at local video stores.

Despite the benefits of an online film culture, I’m not convinced it’s an adequate replacement for local film clubs, discussion groups, and communities. As a cinephile born in the 1970s, I often dream of living in other eras–Paris in the ’50s where activists like AndrÈ Bazin and Henri Langlois established film culture, or America in the ’60s where so many of today’s Baby Boomer critics cut their teeth on 16mm prints and open debates in cafÈs, universities, and now-extinct art house and repertory theaters.

“As much as I personally like foreign films,” Guirgis said, “whenever I go to the theater, I watch mainstream films because that’s what everybody’s talking about.” Of course, she means everybody offline, everybody immersed in social networks that reference films in the context of their everyday lives, not just moments and spaces for online interaction and dialogue. If audiences no longer attend art films, it’s at least partly because cinephilia has become an entirely private affair mediated through the computer in the privacy of our homes.

At the beginning of the panel discussion, Koehler remarked that the “Films That Got Away” series was inspired by a critical desire to “get out from behind our computers and do more than just complain,” and in the past few years, this discussion was one of the few times I myself have ever encountered a vigorous local discussion of this issue–critics, distributors, filmmakers, and audiences together under one roof, all of them claiming to love world cinema but claiming somebody else was preventing it from being embraced. Is a critical mass really that unimaginable? Public forums like ‘Unshown Cinema’ would be a great place to start.

In 1945, Europe has to drag itself out of the rubble of World War II and rebuild its culture; Bazin saw film as part of that renewal. According to his biographer, Dudley Andrew: “Beginning in 1942 in a little classroom with three or four other film buffs, [Bazin] had helped bring about a consciousness of film that could be seen in factories, in literary journals, in cultural centers, and youth organizations throughout Europe. He had also helped to construct film groups of all sorts, from children’s and worker’s clubs to the prestigious Objectif 48.” Likewise, what Los Angeles seems most in need of is not better critics or distributors or audiences, but better disseminators, builders, and organizers of film culture, and more opportunities to channel, share, and debate the enthusiasm felt by many.

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