Sunday, March 14, 2010

400 Screens, 400 Blows - Distribution Blues

You go to the multiplex and scan through all of the titles and decide that there's "nothing good." And sometimes it's true. If only there was a multiplex that let you decide from among all the movies in the world. If viewers knew the number of titles that never make it to the United States, their heads would spin. And you might assume that we get the "best" of all the films, but that's not necessarily true. Some of the greatest cinema masters in the world have trouble finding distribution here. Their films are not easily marketed, and probably not worth the financial risk, even if the rewards would be far greater than financial.

Right now we have one to celebrate: Alexander Sokurov's The Sun (3 screens) very recently snagged U.S. distribution, even though it was made all the way back in 2005. (I reviewed it for Cinematical back in 2006.) Sokurov earned some distinction and a minor arthouse hit with his Russian Ark (2002), which was filmed in a single shot. But aside from that feat, Sokurov is a wonderful filmmaker with a very vivid, painterly style, whose first major films were made in the early 1990s. Ironically, The Sun is the third part of a trilogy about world dictators, the first two parts of which did not get distribution (though the second film, Moloch, is on DVD).

In the 1990s, the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien was roundly declared the greatest filmmaker in the world. He had been working since the early 1980s, and critics discovered him in the mid-1980s. He kept getting better and better, culminating with masterworks like The Puppetmaster (1993) and Flowers of Shanghai (1998). Yet to date only three of his 18 films have received theatrical distribution in the United States. The first two made it because they starred Shu Qi -- otherwise known as that hot chick from The Transporter (2002) -- and Flight of the Red Balloon, which contained Juliette Binoche's finest performance to date.

Unfortunately not even a star is a guarantee of distribution. The latest film from great Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, the wonderful The Man from London, has still not seen U.S. theaters, despite the presence of Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton. And even a recent film from the old-time French New Wave director Jacques Rivette, The Story of Marie and Julien, went straight to DVD even though it starred the exquisitely gorgeous Emmanuelle Beart.

Two of the top rated filmmakers of the 2000s, Pedro Costa from Portugal and Hong Sang-soo from Korea, did not have a single film distributed, even though they earned some of the most enthusiastic acclaim of any filmmakers during the past ten years. Some of Hong's movies made it to DVD in the past couple of years, but trying to find anything by Costa, even if you had an all-region DVD player, was frustratingly futile. Happily, the Criterion Collection will distribute a trio of Costa films on DVD in just a few weeks. (Colossal Youth is picture above.)

Many American journalists have traveled abroad or attended film festivals, have seen movies by these filmmakers, and have managed to draw some attention to them, but even that is just a drop in the ocean. It's mind-bending to think of the brand-new masterworks out there that we will never see. - Jeffrey Anderson

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