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_The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1973_
Today's movie audiences, made up as they are of young people, will not remember the heady days of foreign cinema, when if you wanted to view films that stimulated (and not just intellectually), you went to see the newest import from Italy or France. For me this was the sixties and seventies, but that's just because I was young myself then and knew movies were a form of entertainment and art I was going to be devoted to. My generation was not the first to watch foreign movies, of course, and there had been foreign films coming into the country for the entire twentieth century. There was, however, a boom in such films after World War II and into the seventies, and this is the worthwhile subject of _The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1973_ (The University of Wisconsin Press) by Tino Balio. Balio is a professor emeritus of film, and obviously loves the movies, but he has not set out to write an explanation of why Truffaut or Bergman are important filmmakers. He has instead described how foreign movies became important in the cinematic life of American viewers, and anyone who wants to understand the influences of money, publicity, film criticism, and sexuality of the times will find much of interest, and if you are like me, a good deal of nostalgia, too.
World War Two interrupted the flow of films from Europe, but in 1946 Roberto Rossellini's _Open City_ began its run in New York. It continued at the World Theater there for over a year and a half; one of the great surprises in Balio's book is that the distribution of films was so different then that movies might stay booked in a theater for such a length of time. _Open City_ is the reason Balio's study begins in 1946. Italian neorealism brought in the audiences, but it took some adjustment for distributors to accommodate the movies. One of them quoted here said, "There is no demand for foreign pictures like there is for Hollywood films... Distributors like me must go out and create a market for each picture, and that is a challenge that is both heartbreaking and fascinating." Foreign movies dealt with sex, and Balio's book covers many censorship problems. Ingmar Bergman's films also dealt with sexual issues, and Balio has a whole chapter describing the tactics of how the Bergman oeuvre was moved into theaters. Bergman's films were far from pornographic, but since his films came from Sweden, and Swedish films were synonymous with soft porn, they had an extra reason to be popular. To see the latest film from the prolific director was, starting in 1959, the mark of a thinking moviegoer. Bergman's films were inherently interesting, personal, and well crafted, but they were also well sold. A year after his first movie was shown here, Janus Films got U.S. distribution rights. They made sure not only that each film got proper advance notice, but that Bergman's life, themes, working methods, enthusiasms, position in Swedish cinema, and so on were fit subjects for newspaper and magazine articles. His screenplays were published in book form. "What emerged from all this press," says Balio, "was a composite portrait of Ingmar Bergman, the auteur - or, stated another way, Ingmar Bergman as a brand name." Janus was careful to control the issue and reissue of the director's work, and increased not only his reputation but that of the art film business.
The foreign film renaissance did not last; there is no foreign director today that comes close to having the enthusiasm of film intelligentsia the way Bergman did. Part of the change was that there were "arty" American films, some even made by the studios, like _Five Easy Pieces_ or _The Last Picture Show_. Youth films made independently had an avid following. Critic Andrew Sarris put his finger on another big reason foreign films faded: "No one on either side of the Atlantic - or Pacific - wants to admit it today, but the fashion for foreign films depended a great deal on their frankness about sex." When the American ratings system was jimmied to allow R pictures to show sex, there was one more reason that the art house screens would pick from American offerings. Balio's tracing of the foreign film movement is full of quotations from critics at the time as they tried to make sense (and help audiences make sense) of these films that were so different from the usual fare. We are still getting foreign films, of course, but in nothing like the quantities described here (not to argue about quality). The renaissance is over, though, and I will give a warning. One of the depressing parts of going through this enlightening book is finding films that were popular in their time and certainly would be worth seeing again, only to find that many of them can't be put on your Netflix list because they have never been put on DVD.