I'd like to call your attention to A.O. Scott's excellent Sunday New York Times piece on the waning profile of foreign language films in the U.S. Scott, along with his colleague Manohla Dargis, has over the past few years become essential reading for me, offering consistently witty, intelligent, and often quite brilliant (for example, Dargis' recent piece on Inland Empire) commentary, which is quite a rarity these days in the landscape of mainstream film reviewing.
Scott's piece is a quite sobering and thorough assessment of the low box office returns and increasing marginalization of foreign-language releases. I can certainly relate to the often lonely situation of having seen a great film from Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia, Roumania, Mali, or wherever, and being met with blank stares when I mention them. Or even worse, not even bothering to bring them up because of the impossibility of having any sort of meaningful discussion about them. However, I'm not quite as pessimistic about the situation as Scott is, which perhaps has to do with the fact that I am of a younger generation that wasn't around for the halcyon cinephilic days of the 60's and 70's. The idea of cinema as primarily a theatergoing experience is very quickly disappearing. And while definitely something is being lost, and obviously a beautiful new celluloid print of a great classic work is to your video IPod as Nobu is to McDonald's, there are some definite gains as well. I enjoy the fact that I can enjoy the latest works of say, Johnnie To, Kim Ki-duk, E J-yong, Peter Chan, or classics such as the lovely Naruse box set from Masters of Cinema without being subject to the whims, fashions and financial pressures of distributors.
Film companies are starting to wake up to this changing cinema landscape, as Manohla Dargis reports in her piece in the same issue. Films such as Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times have at least the potential to reach far more people through cable than any small distributor. And perhaps in the end, all of this will come out to a net positive, as audiences become more savvy to the endless variety of world cinema, in all forms, that is available around them, and is as close to them as their laptop, television set, or local film festival. One can only hope.