Monday, January 22, 2007

An Art World Divided

A.O. Scott’s article in the New York Times is titled “The World Is Watching. Not Americans.” and it is inspired by the National Society of Film Critics’ selection for best films of 2006. The three winners are all films done in another language than English. Critical successes yes, but unlikely to be showing up at the multiplex near you. America is isolating itself from the world, not only in international politics, but in arts as well. We are blissfully unaware of what interests the remaining 5.7 billion earthlings. Just as we promote the American variety of freedom and democracy, with force if necessary, we seem to have decided that the taste of most of the 0.3 billion living here should be the only one that matters.

In the last month I went to great lengths of trouble to be able to view two Icelandic films, absolute masterpieces by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (Friðrik Þór Friðriksson). Neither was available as a region 1 DVD. One, “Cold Fever”, I obtained from a source in Florida, as a version aimed at the European market, and the other, “Children of Nature” came from a store in Japan, with only Japanese subtitles. Having a background in Scandinavian languages I was able to follow the plot in Icelandic, which has changed very little from the Old Norse of a millennium ago. The latter film had been a candidate for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1991, and yet it had never been issued as a DVD here. Someone was trying to sell it online as a used VHS cassette for $100 which is ridiculous, of course.

Sometimes a foreign film becomes an unexpected success here, usually through word-of-mouth advertising, as was the case with “The Gods Must Be Crazy” which ended up running in theaters for an amazingly long time. But most often the very films that the Europeans or Asians flock to see remain totally unknown here. In a lucky break, a foreign producer or distributor may be successful in selling the product to Netflix, or IFC on cable may pick it up. The rest of us have to import our discs from abroad and purchase a region-free DVD player, or as I first did, a software conversion program. I found an excellent one, DVD X Player, which will play just about anything recorded on a disc. I got the Professional version, but the regular one works as well for most needs.

Critical success the U.S. does not translate to commercial success. There are wonderful writers trying to get their manuscripts published. If they are eventually successful the books end up having only a few thousand copies printed. The battle for shelf space at Barnes & Noble is just as fierce as for products at the supermarket. Only books that have been heavily promoted on television shows make it, most of them talking about a scandalous subject or being autobiographies written mainly by ghost writers. Yes, there is Oprah whose stamp of approval usually guarantees success, even when she promotes old classics or something written on a topic close to her. But a good book should be able to make it on its own, even if it’s not called Harry Potter.

A music critic may praise a recording of William Schuman’s symphonies, but there is no rush to buy these compact discs (where do you find them anyway these days?), and if such a work is scheduled in a symphony orchestra’s program after the intermission, a large part of an audience will head for home at the break. Perhaps in Europe a contemporary musical work will create excitement, such as a composition by Kaija Saariaho, or there is a market for new works in certain Asian countries, such as Japan and Taiwan. With the new restrictions for travel we don’t even get to hear star instrumentalists from the rest of the world, not to mention the new repertoire they might bring with them. If an orchestra manages to come to New York from across the ocean, they often have the same soloist, or even guest conductor, that the New Yorkers are all too familiar with already, playing the same war horse compositions that are performed in the city, time after time during any given season. Likewise, Europeans know very little of American composers and our superstars don’t necessarily get that kind of reception over there. Instead of the world becoming smaller, we have managed to make it a place with barbed wired fences, a globe deeply divided.

Perhaps we can reach an agreement with the Iraqi government that all the denizens of Baghdad are obligated to come and hear American music, performed by either the mighty Iraqi National Symphony or an American free-lance orchestra (Halliburton Freedom Players?). I have made up a list of suitable works and guest artists already, just in case my opinion would be required. Many of our composers of today use percussion instruments rather heavy-handedly, so they might be able to drown out the usual background noise or perhaps even incorporate it into their works. A brand new “2007 Overture”, anyone?