Someone Complained Foreign Features Were Too Hard to Watch—That's When Scorsese Stepped In

What's the deal with people watching foreign films? 

This past year, we saw a lot of controversy with foreign entertainment. People were wondering how others watched Squid Game on Netflix, while others were pushing people to see Drive My Car in theaters. Last year, when Parasite won Best Picture, director Bong Joon-ho encouraged everyone to stop fearing reading movies as they go along.

Turns out, these were not a sign of the times. American audiences and critics have probably been unfair to international movies for a long time. While researching a completely different article this week, I ran across a letter in which Martin Scorsese calls out the myopic opinion that foreign films are not easily accessible. 

The letter is in response to this New York Times article from 1993. The author, Bruce Weber, asserted that since Federico Fellini had died, we needed to come to terms with the fact that his stories are not "readily absorbable."

Well, that set Scorsese off. I think mostly because this was supposed to be an article about Fellini's death, and it sort of comes across as an anti-intellectual roast of the guy—a guy who helped advance the art of filmmaking in ways that are hard to measure outside of calling them "Felliniesque." Weber asserts that this style got in the way of the man's ability to tell a story. 

You can read Scorsese's letter in full below or at the New York Times

To the Editor:

"Excuse Me; I Must Have Missed Part of the Movie" (The Week in Review, Nov. 7) cites Federico Fellini as an example of a film maker 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 film makers 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 film makers.

Is this closedmindedness 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?

Anyway, Scorsese confronts some comments about Fellini's death. Scorsese lauds the filmmaker and his impact on all storytelling. He also attacks the comments made by Weber, directly confronting his "underlying attitude of artistic expression."

I have to say, I must agree with him. It's wild to see people confront movies, TV shows, and filmmakers from foreign countries with a, "Why can't they do it like we do?" attitude. It not only limits the art we consume but limits the perspectives we're willing to learn from and be inspired by. That's crazy. 

Let me know what you think in the comments.      

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4 Comments

I think the general aversion to or hesitation to view foreign films is not simply or only a matter of people saying, "Why can't they do it like we do it?" or being hostile or fill-in-the-blank-negative-or-prejudiced-attitude toward "the "other". I think many people are open and appreciative of other cultures, not afraid or suspicious toward them. But an aversion to watching foreign films can often be influenced by other more mundane aspects--namely, an aversion to reading, and/or an aversion to having to simultaneously read while also trying to enjoy a visual medium. By saying that, I don't mean to communicate the idea that "Lazy, dumb kids these days just don't like to read like us old timers." It's not a generational thing. It's not even necessarily about ones love of reading. I love to read; I love to read widely--fiction and non-fiction, philosophical and theological, old and new, foreign and domestic. However, when it comes to making the choice of watching a movie I know that I will have to put in two types of effort while watching a foreign film: reading the words, and "reading" the movie. It is multitasking, and it is a bit more taxing on the brain, takes more effort, than watching a movie in a language in which one is fluent. I have a wife and five kids, and at the end of the day, I simply don't have the energy or brain space to watch an Igmar Bergman film, as much as I enjoy him. Choosing to watch a foreign film is choosing to have your brain taxed just a little bit more than usual. Another element to this, is that it becomes difficult to fully appreciate the film as a *visual story*-- where I discover nuance and subtext etc. through all kinds of visual cues and clues--when my eyes have to constantly dart between the words and the image. While some of my favorite films are foreign (at least one of them Fellini), I enjoy this experience less than if I can take in the film itself, rather than the mediating words at the bottom of the screen. (I would much rather be able to watch and understand all the dialogue of a Fellini film without subtitles. "Well, why not watch the dubbed version?" C'mon, would you prefer a dubbed Dinero, Day-Lewis, Dench, Streep, or Pacino?) When I watch a film where I must also divert my eyes from the film itself to words, I am not engaged in the same way as I am a film in my native tongue, I am not engaging with the film in its "purity". Again, this doesn't come out of fear or aversion or suspicion of other cultures, but of the process itself of watching and decoding the film. It is easy to assume people are being prejudiced and closed-minded; this is certainly a more interesting theory as it touches the darker parts of our hearts and minds and our culture, and it makes us feel better about ourselves--"They're crazy for not wanting to be as open to and inspired by other cultures like I am"; but I don't think it reflects the whole story.
What Scorsese is addressing in this article is an attitude he saw in a critic that seemed to be promoting an attitude of intolerance toward the "other" or championing a lazy attitude toward things that take effort: a foreign film exploring the nuances of human nature, vs an American action film. One takes quite a bit of effort to enjoy for all that it is mean to to be, while the other takes almost no effort to understand and enjoy for all that it is. I think Scorcese's point, generally, is that it is bad for us as a culture to promote a lazy and suspicious attitude toward whatever taxes our brains more than the minimum. He finds it dangerous coming from a critic, who appears to be validating the choice of the two guys in the beer commercial and criticizing artists who make challenging art.
While I generally agree with Scorcese's letter to the editor, I've not read the article with which Scorsese takes issue, so I don't know how valid his rebuttal is to the article itself. Storytellers' style getting in the way of their storytelling is a real thing. Said in this way, the art critic that Scorsese takes issue with implies that the reward is not worth the effort. That may be the case, or maybe he just doesn't get it. There are some authors, filmmakers, storytellers, artists, who are worth the effort; others are not. We can all recall student films that were challenging (maybe even aped the styles of artists who are genuinely challenging, and genuinely good) and were not worth the effort--because the artist really had nothing worth showing or telling. If I gave you two boxes, both wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper, and you knew that one had 25 layers of wrapping paper to get through to access the prize inside, and the other had one or maybe two layers to unwrap--you might want to know what is inside the box to determine if it is worth the effort. If I didn't tell you what was inside, and all you found inside the box with 25 layers was a trinket that offered only more mystery and had no apparent use or beauty, or if you found in it a dog turd, you might be less inclined to go through the effort of unwrapping future boxes. One might unwrap Pynchon, Warhol, Cage, or Bergman, and say, "That's it? All I got is this ____?" While others might greatly prize what they've unwrapped. Some books, movies, art, are wrapped the same as those with a great prize inside, but the reward is very meager or even insulting to the senses: All style that obscures and challenges, with little or no substance/reward.
Another element to this is in the fact that many people just don't know how to decode film as a language, and therefore they miss many hidden gems, or pass up treasure because they simply can't see it for what it is. But this isn't a result of valuing ignorance or hating the "other"; rather, it is simply ignorance of the language. Or perhaps another analogy is in the color spectrum: there are certain kinds of light that we cannot see with our eyes, but it is there. If you could project a film in ultraviolet light, with sound outside the range the human ear can hear--I would not have the eyes or ears to appreciate what you were exposing me to. People need to be given the eyes and ears to see and hear what films are trying to do. This comes with repeated exposure and education, as well as a corresponding desire to develop the senses to enable one to perceive. Predicating all this is whether or not an individual views film as an art form worth investing in; some people just don't find it an enjoyable form of art; they find enjoyment in other types of art or expression. This may not have to do with cultural prejudice or intolerance.
Kids often have an aversion to vegetables when they're exposed to stereotypes (even promoted unwittingly by their parents) that tell them that veggies are gross and it's okay for kids not to like them. This is a shame, because they're choosing to refuse some great flavors, great meals, and great nutrition. In the same way, it is a shame when people have an aversion to foreign or challenging films simply because of stereotypes like what is promoted in the commercial Scorsese cites; they miss out on some great "meals".
With that said, there are some works of storytelling that are challenging and offer little in the way of meaning or reward at the end, or "inside the box" to keep the analogy going; however, the journey, and the challenge of unwrapping the gift--that is where the delight, reward, and satisfaction comes. In these cases, the artist is making all the challenging layers of wrapping paper and tape, etc. the reward, rather than what one finds inside the box. Stories like this surprise and enchant us, they make us wonder, or provoke strong feelings; and at the end we might say, "I don't know what that meant or what the point of it all was--but I enjoyed the journey!" Whatever the case, if an artist is going to be challenging, he/she ought to be sure that what he/she is offering to others--whether its the wrapping paper, or what's inside the box, or both--could be considered worth the effort.

April 5, 2022 at 10:32AM, Edited April 5, 10:49AM

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Adam Hildebrand
President/Owner Faithful Bull Productions, Inc.
205

like Italian i'm used to foreign movies, be cause we are invaded from foreign movies, also we are ones of first author's movie producers in the world, but the audience want action, want easy movies, and author's movies are boring (general thinking), be italian's classic movies or foreign here is not a problem, here you can see most of mainstream movies at theather or in streaming, to find classics or foreign author's movie you should search dvd / bluray, if you are lucky english subs, or you should search in illegal streaming be cause some movies are never distributed in italy after VHS era.
thanks to Amazon i had bought tons of dvd of ediction never seen in italy of classic, like freaks, but also more recent oriental movies.
fear the foreign is a mental status, but is not only an American fear, everywhere... unfortunately.

April 7, 2022 at 12:54AM

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Carlo Macchiavello
Director (with strong tech knowledge)
881

I come from a small country, so we have never developed a culture of dubbing movies (except kids movies); so subtitles are definitely part of culture here.

April 7, 2022 at 3:41PM

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What's unwatchable is the home-made stuff; foreign filmmakers run circles around the new stuff from crudwood.

April 7, 2022 at 5:30PM

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You voted '-1'.
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