The offender was Cong. Howard Berman, a liberal Democrat who represents the San Fernando area of Los Angeles. Berman’s liberalism doesn’t go so far as to prevent him from avidly supporting the war in Iraq or from being an equally fervent booster of "free trade," including its various manifestations in covenants such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. He’s also a chief legislative supporter of "intellectual property," which has many guises, but which for a Los Angeles congressman mainly entails the copyright protections of films and their ancillary income streams. So we see that Cong. Berman is comfortable with both the projection of American might and the legislative intervention in trade.
April 18 was the opening night of the Exhibition, featuring a premiere of Andrei Konchalovskys House of Fools. All premieres start late, but this one seemed more delayed than usual. Additionally, when it finally came Cong. Bermans time to talk, he was introduced as Sen. Bernstein, a mistake he appeared to take in good spirits. But, perhaps, underneath, he was irritated by the wait and the insult to his dignity. Who knows?
When Cong. Berman took control of the microphone, he said how pleased he was by the festival, because it would introduce 1Americans? to Russian films. Americans, he went on, didn’t really know much about Russian films. The congressman used himself as an example, recalling his days at UCLA ?forty years ago? when he recalled The Cranes Are Flying (1957) playing ?at some art house.? But he could not remember any Russian movies since, the implication being that the rest of America was enveloped in the same endless night of cinematic ignorance as he.
This was at once a jaw-dropping testament to the parochialism of American politics and a tribute to the politeness of the Russians, Russian-Americans, and embarrassed Americans in the audience.
Americans unaware of Russian films? For 40 years? Alexander Sokurovs Russian Ark had only weeks before completed an enormously successful run in local theaters, following highly favorable reviews in all the local papers (shall I confess one was by me in the LA Weekly? But then, there were far more influential ones, such as Kenneth Turans in the Los Angeles Times). Perhaps we can forgive Cong. Berman for overlooking this, as he was busy rounding up wavering Democrats to support the war in Iraq at the time.
But Sergei Bodrovs Prisoner of the Mountains was a substantial art house presence in 1998. Nikita Mikhalkovs Burnt By the Sun played lengthy engagements in 1995 and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Andrei Tarkovsky has a cult following among those who desire mysticism mixed in their movies. And these are just the easy picks.
Perhaps Americans are deemed unaware of these films because they dont draw audiences in the numbers that, say, Jerry Bruckheimers do. But Russian films, along with other foreign films, often do as well as American independent films do, once they manage to get by the economic impediments that somehow bloom spontaneously on the rocky expanse of boulders and chasms that Jack Valenti calls the even playing field of international cinema.
Yet, the worst was yet to come. Having displayed his ignorance of four decades worth of Russian cinema, Cong. Berman then lectured the assembled audience again, of Russian, Russian-American, and American film lovers that Russians must begin cracking down on film piracy! This, according to the congressman, was one of the great obstacles to the growth of a native Russian film industry. Russians must stop making illegal dupes of American films, he warned, and cheating poor Hollywood out of its rightful millions. Only then will Russian movies flourish like wheat on the steppes.
Excuse us while we rouse the poor dozing argument against free trade, now curled up in the corner trying to get some sleep. Heres where Russian cinema is now: No money to make films because, A) the klepto-rich are taking their cash out the country, B) all the worlds credit is being sucked into the West to finance deficits and, C) capital controls have been slapped on Russia by various international organizations.
If Russia kow-tows to those international organizations in C, then A and B will stay in place, but international capital will flow into the country to take over theaters, exploit markets, make watered-down co-productions, and spell Hollywood in Cyrillic script.
Whatever side of the free trade, copyright protection side of the argument members of the audience came down on, they showed an extraordinary amount of patience and politeness in listening to Cong. Berman makes his utterly inappropriate, rude remarks.
In high school, one reads Sinclair Lewiss Babbitt and thinks, well, the author is exaggerating for affect. Not really, it turns out.