Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Higher Hustle

Berlin: What does Jack Valenti do to calm the press at the Monaco TV festival? He quotes Talleyrand on the tendency of Bourbon kings to have their eyes in the back of their heads. (He urges the media troops to be forward looking.) And in Berlin, at the 44th International Film Festival? He quotes Goethe—to the effect that the truth has to be constantly proclaimed because falsehood is always being repeated. Meaning? The Motion Pictures Association of America has no problems with national film industry quotas. Whatever makes a film industry thrive, Hollywood is in favor of—because it can expect to get a fair share of that growth. It does wish that with the proliferation of video channels in Europe some of them will be open, or quota free, just to encourage diversity.
The half-hour press conference ended with his blue skying about the future of satellite saturated, digitally compressed, optically fibred media utopias of choice. When an American reporter alleged that his hyperbolic fantasy reminded him of Thoreau’s response to similar trade piffle about the opening of the Transatlantic cable in 1851 (“And what will be the first thing to come into the broad flapping American ear, that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough?”) Valenti stuttered and stumbled in response that people unwilling to face the media future bravely were condemned, as Thoreau said, to lead lives of “quiet desperation”, thus quietly and desperately turning poor old Henry David’s most famous quote on its head. Valenti, it seems, has good researchers digging for those learned quotes to wow the foreign press. He don’t do too good with American literature on his feet.
But Valenti is more than a glib fixer: He knows the film business inside and out, and in very good at tutoring the foreign media about those minute particulars. When chided for his bellicose remarks after GATF exempted Audiovisual industries in December 1993, Valenti conceded that his extreme statements were what Americans called “campaign talk” aimed to Congressmen at home, not at European filmmakers at all. “Retribution,” he now assured the European media assembled to grill him in Berlin, “is a word deleted from my lexicon.” (Not a minute too soon!) 

He went onto explain, like a teacher dealing with a class of slow learners, that the “American film industry” was in actuality 24,000 screens 92% owned by individual businessmen whose daily task it was to find product that would pay their bills. Why, a German reporter asked, does only 1% of American screen time feature European movies? Because most Americans have trouble with foreign languages. Valenti riposted that his daughter (who was fluent in Spanish and French) considered dubbing an esthetic monstrosity, and to him, dubbing an American voice over Gerard Depardieu, would in his opinion be nothing short of “blasphemy”.
His solution: let Europeans buy five or six or seven hundred screens and experiment with them. In university towns like Boston or Austin, subtitle. In the esthetic stix, to parody that old Variety tag, give the hix dubbed pix. Valenti would go one step further: if you really want to penetrate the American market, invest in it. He knew ten majors right now who were looking for investors. And study how the American majors research their foreign markets. They spend millions trying, say, to find out what appeals to movie audiences in Malaysia or Brazil. Don’t whine about the fact that only 416 non-English language films have made it to American screens in the past five years. Of the 161 American films made by the majors last year (out of a total of 550), only 28 were successful or moderately successful.
American film producers don’t waste time whining, they study the market and try again. And he reminded the European press that every hour of every day the American majors were competing against each other “like scorpion in a bottle”. If they think a European film will make money for them, they’ll go for it. Furthermore, unlike some European markets, there are absolutely no barriers to access into the United States. In the tones of a revivalist preacher, and with an astonishingly ecclesiastical rhetoric, Valenti called for a global film community where only talent mattered. “Politicians don’t make films, parliaments don’t, only talented people do. Let them be free everywhere,” he perorated from his bully pulpit. And I do mean bull.
He had the Euromedia on his side most completely when talking about the $5.2 billion annual loss from piracy worldwide. He asserted that the American industry invested $35 million last year fighting this stealing of creative work. 41 countries are now involved in this struggle which Valenti considers his greatest single achievement as industry policymaker.
 The conference ended on a sour note with a French reporter claiming that poorly educated Americans were much less curious about Europe than vice versa. Valenti conceded sadly that this was true and did a Back to Basics number that you find hard to give credence too, facing a screenful of the more fatuous American mind numb movies. Then Valenti went into his Adam Smith is King number, saying he didn’t want any government official telling him how to raise his family. He gave complete freedom to others as long as they were ready to reciprocate. In short, Valenti is happily schizzy—unassailable when laying out the economic parameters of his business, a travesty when trying to think about the meanings of all these particulars. Very American, that is. A pragmatist incapable of sustained thought in a complex subject. A bromide dispenser.
So, for all his speechwriting research into Talleyrand and Goethe, he simply doesn’t understand that, for example, the French are so serious about protecting their language and culture that they have devised a little rolling Cannes festival for the working class suburbs of Paris in which new features are followed by lively and literate discussions with the films’ directors. I engaged in two of these palavers—in Ivry-sur-Seine where I live and, I was so impressed by the unpretentious seriousness of the first night of the rolling film festival, that I went to the next stop at Fontenay-sous-bois where I was treated to a marvelous Georgian feature on the period in the 1920s before the Bolsheviks took over Tblisi. 

The 44-year-old former actress director taught me more about the complexities of her land and heritage in a fifteen minute interview that I had been able to amass in twenty years of Opedifying reading. Valenti loves to invoke his residency at LBJ’s White House, and this press convergence also had such sentimental moments: How could he be opposed to European subsidies, he wheedled, when he had helped put the National Endowment for the Arts together. Ah, Jack, we never really knew you.

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