19 Nov 1993
To the Editor:
“Excuse Me; I Must Have Missed Part of the Movie” (The Week in Review, 7 November) cites Federico Fellini as an example of a filmmaker whose style gets in the way of his storytelling and whose films, as a result, are not easily accessible to audiences. Broadening that argument, it includes other artists: Ingmar Bergman, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Cage, Alain Resnais and Andy Warhol.
It’s not the opinion I find distressing, but the underlying attitude toward artistic expression that is different, difficult or demanding. Was it necessary to publish this article only a few days after Fellini’s death? I feel it’s a dangerous attitude, limiting, intolerant. If this is the attitude toward Fellini, one of the old masters, and the most accessible at that, imagine what chance new foreign films and filmmakers have in this country.
It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: “Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?” The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.
It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories?
The issue here is not “film theory,” but cultural diversity and openness. Diversity guarantees our cultural survival. When the world is fragmenting into groups of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, film is a powerful tool to knowledge and understanding. To our shame, your article was cited at length by the European press.
The attitude that I’ve been describing celebrates ignorance. It also unfortunately confirms the worst fears of European filmmakers.
Is this closed-mindedness something we want to pass along to future generations?
If you accept the answer in the commercial, why not take it to its natural progression:
Why don’t they make movies like ours?
Why don’t they tell stories as we do?
Why don’t they dress as we do?
Why don’t they eat as we do?
Why don’t they talk as we do?
Why don’t they think as we do?
Why don’t they worship as we do?
Why don’t they look like us?
Ultimately, who will decide who “we” are?
I should state that while I really and truly like Martin Scorsese, I do not tend to care for his films. I also don't care for Fellini's pictures. What I do love and respect is the caring and thoughtfulness that these two filmmakers put into their work. There are so many artists in so many mediums that I like and there are just as many that I don't necessarily understand or connect with, yet I can appreciate them all in their individual ways. I absolutely agree that foreign films feel (and frankly, are) rather foreign, but that's what makes them so interesting. They paint a world that is unknown to the viewer and introduces that person to new words, language, images, places, and a culture that is unfamiliar, new, and fresh. Foreign films may be the most important of film genres for this reason alone.
(ps - Letters of Note is wonderful and also available in print form! And my fave foreign film-makers are Pedro Almodóvar, Roberto Rossellini, Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel, Werner Herzog, Lina Wertmüller, Jacques Audiard, and the Dardenne brothers.)