Amid fear and smugness, it's a small, insular world, after all

America not seeing foreign films, artists

Ideas

March 07, 2004|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Pick up the phone, and the American-sounding operator could be in India or the Philippines. In some states, we buy three times as many foreign cars as domestic ones. The all-American clothing of the Gap, Levi Strauss and Nike is produced mostly in Asia, and about 75 percent of the toys our children play with are made overseas. Americans live, these days, in an era of globalization.

Money and goods, though, flow more rapidly into the United States than ideas and culture. As the country exports both Hollywood movies and occupying armies, it seems to be gradually closing its ears to foreign voices. Foreign films, books, performing artists and academics all, for a variety of reasons, are finding smaller audiences, when they can find audiences at all.

"What it takes out of our culture is understanding and humility and tolerance and perspective on the world," Mark Gill, president of Warner Independent Pictures, of the growing difficulty of selling foreign films in the U.S. market. "What we're missing is not only the full range of emotion but also of storytelling."

Distributors say that foreign-language films have a harder time each year getting space on American screens. A recent study showed that European films produced only 1.6 percent of the 2002 U.S. box office take at a time when American films were garnering almost 90 percent of audiences in parts of Europe.

Of literary books published in the United States, fewer than 3 percent are translations - a proportion no better than in the Arab world. Leading lights, most recently Northwestern University Press, have cut back substantially; even Nobel Prize winners such as Portugal's Jose Saramago and Hungary's Imre Kertesz remain obscure here.

And international performance groups are finding their U.S. appearances blocked by strict immigration and visa restrictions that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; more than 50 tours have been canceled outright.

Stories about postponement of foreign theater, dance and world-music group performances have become as common as laments about the shortage of translators for Middle Eastern intelligence work, and more than 50 tours have been canceled outright.

Foreign artists shut out

New regulations require that a performer petition for entry within six months before a concert, to be followed by lengthy background checks and trips to the U.S. Embassy to both interview and pick up the visas in person. In countries such as Iran, Russia or Cuba, the procedure often takes longer.

"There's no question that the Homeland Security Act has limited, if not killed off, the ability to tour artists from the ever-growing list of restricted countries," says David Sefton, director of the UCLA Live performance series, which has had to postpone appearances by a group of Belgian schoolchildren and Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia.

The difficulties have spurred the founding of a group, the North American World Music Coalition, to make international touring smoother.

Academia has its own problems, as tight visa requirements intended to keep technology out of foreign hands delay or block students and scholars from working in the United States.

Some point to a xenophobia sparked by 9/11, but for the most part these are long-standing trends with various causes - from fears of terrorism to risk-averse corporate consolidation, from shifts in U.S. intellectual culture to what some call a growing public insularity.

Fear and self-loathing

It's impossible to know the movies, books and performances we aren't getting as a result: Are we missing the next One Hundred Years of Solitude or Jules et Jim, the next Baryshnikov? But the most important loss may be in what this lack of foreign culture does to U.S. society as a whole.

"It's a self-satisfaction, the assumption that we don't need them, that they don't have anything to tell us," says Los Angeles-based Michael Henry Heim, who has translated authors Milan Kundera and Gunter Grass. "It's the old 9/11 problem: We don't understand how we're perceived by other people - but that's one of the ways in which we are."

Despite a decline going back at least two decades and continued indifference at the major publishing houses, grassroots interest in translation has experienced a bounce after the 2001 attacks, with new presses and journals appearing.

Typically, Americans turn their attention to foreign culture at a moment of danger. The "Latin boom" that made writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges famous in the 1960s, for instance, was sparked by Castro's Cuban revolution.

"Suddenly there is this external threat to the United States from Latin America," says Esther Allen, a New York-based translator of works in Spanish. "That's when all these Latin-American Studies Centers are established. Everyone says, `It's important to know more about them, because they can kill us.' "

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