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American Provincialism and the Disappearance of Foreign Language Cinema

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by Anthony Kaufman
May 7, 2014 10:18 AM
2 Comments
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The unsaid subtext in my recent Indiewire article "The Lonely Subtitle: Here's Why U.S. Audiences Are Abandoning Foreign-Language Films" has more to do with the American viewing audience than the industry shifts outlined in the story. Because I was writing a reported piece for a news outlet, I focused on the quantifiable: box office drops; the disappearance of foreign films on Netflix; the lack of other significant ancillary platforms. But what's also deeply worrisome, as Adam Tawfik noted in the comments section of the piece,  is that "this sadly correlates to a larger sense of isolationism. America (and probably the rest of the world) is stuck in this mentality that their culture is the only worthwhile culture."

Foreign TV shows like "Borgen" may be Americans' only glimpse of foreign cultures.

Even industry sources suggested to me that one of the big problems they face releasing foreign cinema is that American audiences, by and large, are provincial and insular, and don't seek out content beyond their already familiar points of reference. While I don't have any statistics that suggest the more Americans see foreign films, the more they are open to foreign cultures, it seems to me that successful foreign films like "Paradise Now" and "A Separation" (a rare recent breakout) helped open the eyes of U.S. viewers to previously stereotyped and demonized peoples--or at least got people talking (which is arguably the first step towards awareness and acceptance).

If fewer people--and fewer younger people, in particular--are watching movies made by and about peoples from other cultures and countries, what does that say about the future of Americans and American foreign policy? Hollywood and the U.S. State Department appears to do a pretty admirable job exporting portraits of Americans overseas, but when the rest of the world's cinemas can't penetrate the U.S.'s media, the country is fated to further isolationism and ignorance. 

The dire situation puts a lot of responsibility on "The Raid" franchise--one of only a handful of recent theatrical successes--and TV shows like "The Returned" and "Borgen" to bring the ways of foreign lives into Americans' living rooms. Without them, we don't have much else.

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2 Comments

  • Brian Newman | May 8, 2014 1:50 PMReply

    Nearly half of American adults are functionally illiterate. When public health people make messages for subway ads, they make them readable to a sixth grader, because so many adults can't read better than that. The reason we don't have subtitled films on TV is because too many Americans can't read them. Cultural illiteracy too, of course.

  • Golden_Age | May 7, 2014 3:40 PMReply

    And when, exactly, were American mass audiences venturesome and intellectually curious? During the Middle Ages, when Bergman and Bunuel films played in mid-town Manhattan cinemas, there weren't 12 other non-Hollywood films opening that same Friday. Followed by 12 more, the next Friday. And of course there was no streaming or home video, and the only real competition these films had was from the repertory houses not yet driven into extinction by commercial rents.

    Abundance and accessibility is what's killing this medium. And, of course, the ease with which films -- despite their costs, and barriers to the thoughtful -- get made today.

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