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.