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The Great Divide

A letter from a reader in the Pacific Northwest asks wryly: "Do you invent some of the films you write about?" The question prompted a Borgesian temptation to invent, but I was soon calmed down by a sober fact—hardly new, still sobering. The reader's faintly desolate question underscored it. In terms of filmgoing possibilities, this country is schizoid. I, in New York, confront a fairly full range of available films. Only in a few large cities is anything like that range available; and those cities are only a small slice of this country's possible audience. Most people, like that reader, have the chance to see only the major Hollywood products—not even all the American films, let alone foreign ones.

This dismal fact ought not to make us romanticize. If Kiarostami and Tavernier and Zhang Yimou were as widely available as The Lord of the Rings, they would not attract a sliver of the same attendance, which is obviously why they don't have the same distribution. But doesn't that sliver deserve nourishment? The possible nourishment exists. Year after year films are being made for more people than have the chance to see them. And if the whole idea of film-making is as serious as some of us take it to be, this gap between film and viewers is a cultural crime.

Aptly, a recent book by Kenneth Turan, film critic of the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio, is titled Never Coming to a Theater Near You: A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Movie, a collection of his reviews of films that have not been widely shown. He says that in his twelve-year experience

I've noticed an increasing disconnect between the films I recommend person-to-person because they've meant the most to me and the ones most people have managed to see. The pressures to experience the blockbusters of the moment are too great and the time that smaller films remain on screens is so finite (the good really do die young in this business).... In theory, the wide reach of videos and DVDs makes it possible for viewers to catch up on the films they've missed, but in practical terms ... most people blank out on the names of features they've been meaning to see and reach for whatever's handiest.

His book is meant as a reminder list.

Naturally Turan's list is not precisely what mine would be. I would have included Thirteen Conversations About One Thing by Jill Sprecher and The Designated Mourner by David Hare, to name just two overlooked gems. But the disparity between what is available to only a few and what reaches the many is more than a game of matching one critic's favorites against another's. Nor will it suffice to fix the blame on the money concerns of theater owners. Of course those money concerns are stringent. (Orson Welles once said that anyone who talks about films and doesn't mention money is a jackass.) Theater owners are not philanthropists, and their refusal to book most of the films that I'm aching about is perfectly reasonable. The real trouble, the basic problem, is deeper.

Harold Rosenberg, who in his time did a good deal of lecturing around the country, once described the cultural situation in America, apart from the biggest cities, as a wilderness dotted with stockades. Those stockades were mostly the lively colleges and universities. In my own lecturing days, I found Rosenberg's comment a shade too reductive but healthily blunt. Radio and television and paperbound books and, latterly, the Internet were all regarded for a time as chances for cultural spread. Little proof of this is so far forthcoming. The reverse could easily be argued: that these increments have chiefly given more power to those who have no interest in, say, Jill Sprecher.

For me, a chilling sign of the gravity of this cultural situation comes from the recent presidential election. Political experts tell us that Bush got his majority from what is called the heartland, that the two coasts were more favorable to Kerry. As one who still gapes at the re-election on moral values of a man who led us into a war because of mass-destructive weapons that do not exist, I can't help feeling that at the root of the political thud is a blankness that culture could lighten. The factual ignorance—40 percent of the electorate still believe that the weapons are there—would be less likely in a public of greater sophistication. This is hardly to say that Hare and Sprecher and their kin could have got Kerry elected; but it is certainly to say that those films and hundreds more at their level of ambition might have sharpened some people, made them less ready to accept like hungry puppies whatever was fed them. For decades many of us have been hoping that the stockades would have more of a radiating effect on the territory around them. We're still hoping.

Why, then, do critics—at least on some magazines and newspapers—continue to review films that will probably not reach wide audiences? For myself, it is partly because, as a democrat, I believe that the rights of the minority must be respected, including the filmgoing minority. It would be an offense to that minority, whether or not they knew it, to omit reviews, positive or otherwise, of films that are part of contemporary culture and of value to their cultural conspectus. (And we can hope that critics of the Turan bent may stimulate a demand to which theaters can afford to respond.) Equally importantly, it would be an offense to the art of film to ignore those who, often through much travail, keep reaching upward. I don't think that seriously intended films will save this sorry world, but I do think that their absence, even ignorance that they exist, would make it sorrier.

Here is an instance. Lost Embrace will not reach a lot of theaters, but at least the readers of a magazine like this one might want to know that it exists. The director Daniel Burman is a young Argentinean Jew who is much taken with questions of identity and possibility. He treats here some Jews and others who run shops in a Buenos Aires mall, and he centers particularly on the quandaries of Ariel, Jewish, who is in his twenties. His parents were Polish-born. His father went off to Israel to fight in the Yom Kippur War and never returned. Ariel is self-possessed, intelligent, affectionate but solitary, a dissatisfied young man who loves his mother but doesn't want to spend his life clerking in her little lingerie shop. A passion has been growing in him to "return" to Poland (where he has never been). Involvements with others, including women, and the sudden re-appearance of his father complicate his intents.

Burman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Marcelo Birmajer, is deft at character portraits. The assorted members of the shopping-mall community are sketched affectionately, knowingly. The sentimental snares in the story are skirted through Burman's freewheeling style. Much of the camera work is hand- held, much of it is in close-up, much of it is of people in motion, and sometimes Burman uses whip-pans from one face to another instead of editing. The overall effect is of a young director treating some old problems with the cinematic lexicon of his time. So he is able to create warmth without slush.

Widespread viewing of Lost Embrace would not exalt the United States of America. But people attuned to it, and to the hundreds of comparably sophisticated films, might help to raise the national pitch of sensibility.

This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.