In an insular state of mind

Times Staff Writer

Pick up the phone, and the American-sounding operator may be in India or the Philippines. Here in California, 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% 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.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 4, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Group name -- An article in Sunday’s Calendar section on cultural insularity referred to a postponed performance by the Belgian group uBONG. The group is called uBUNG.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 07, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Group name -- An article in last Sunday’s Calendar on cultural insularity noted a postponed performance by the Belgian group uBONG. The group is called uBUNG.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Group name -- An article in the Feb. 29 Calendar section on cultural insularity referred to a postponed performance by a Belgian group, uBONG. The group is called uBUNG.

“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. “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% of the 2002 U.S. box office take at a time when American films were garnering almost 90% of audiences in parts of Europe.

Of the literary books published in the U.S., fewer than 3% 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 Jose Saramago and 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. 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. (A Berlin-based chamber group, the Artemis Quartet, had its U.S. tour canceled because the cellist, who had shoplifted a pair of tweezers 11 years before, had his visa denied, according to the New York Times.)

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 (which can be far away ) to both interview and pick up the visas in person.

In countries such as Iran, Russia or Cuba (which was not able to send any of its 12 nominees to the Latin Grammy Awards last September, and whose 76-year-old guitarist Ibrahim Ferrer was not able to appear at the Grammys this month), 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 last fall postponed an appearance by a group of Belgian schoolchildren called uBONG because of visa difficulties and, in January, Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia. “Under the thinly transparent veil of national security, an awful lot of the ability to work with foreign artists has been closed down.”


The difficulties have spurred the founding of a group, L.A.-based 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 -- especially those in the sciences and urban planning, and including some who have taught here for years -- from working in the U.S.

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.

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 and Jim,” the next Baryshnikov?

But besides all the art we aren’t seeing or hearing, 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 Milan Kundera and Gunther 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.”

Optimistic signs

There is some good news, some of it arriving since 9/11.

More college students are studying foreign languages, including Arabic languages, than previously -- a recent Modern Language Assn. study notes a 17.9% increase between 1998 and 2002.

Despite the difficulty getting visas for performers -- and resulting costs that can be 10 times what they were before 9/11, according to a representative at the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- ambitious performance series such as UCLA Live and Berkeley’s Cal Performances are booking far more international programs than before.

Concern about the looting of the Iraq National Museum has led to several traveling shows of Mesopotamian art and artifacts.

World-music records sell roughly as well as jazz, and sales are modestly rising at a time when most album sales are falling off. International rock and electronica bands -- Sweden’s the Hives, Mexico’s Kinky -- have more visibility. (Though in 2002 the Nation noted, “Approximately 92% of the U.S. music market in the year 2000 consisted of music from domestic acts. That makes America the most insular music market in the world except for Pakistan.”)

Other foreign pop phenomena like Japanese anime stir some young people.

The nation continues to be enriched by large numbers of immigrants -- in 2002, 32.5 million Americans, or 11.5% of the population, were foreign-born. The figure is roughly three times higher in California, with its Spanish-language radio stations and Asian neighborhoods.

The State Department runs programs through its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that lead to more than 30,000 exchanges per year. The Institute of International Education reported that 586,323 international students studied in the U.S. in 2003, more than ever before, though growth tapered off last year because of visa difficulties.

Despite a decline going back at least two decades and continued indifference at the major publishing houses, grass-roots interest in translation has experienced a bounce after the 2001 attacks, with new presses and journals appearing. One website, Words Without Borders, dedicated its inaugural issues to literature of the “axis of evil.”

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 from Spanish. “You’ve got a communist state off the coast of Florida, aiming missiles at us -- nothing like that to awaken people’s interest. And suddenly there’s all this money. 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.’ ”

But when a culture can’t kill us, we’re often more interested in telling its story ourselves.

Viewers curious about Japan can check out three films set in the nation’s past and present. In the first, “The Last Samurai,” Tom Cruise and company recycle cliches about Zen contemplation and swordsmen’s honor.

In the second, “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” Uma Thurman portrays what one Japanese character calls a “silly Caucasian girl” who “likes to play with samurai swords.” In the third, the aptly named “Lost in Translation,” two privileged Americans played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson drift through a luxury hotel and connect over the inscrutability of the Japanese.

But what about movies in which a Japanese filmmaker gives an unmediated look at the culture? While educated Americans knew the work of Kurosawa and perhaps even Mizoguchi and Ozu in the 1950s, only serious cineastes today know the work of Japanese directors such as Takeshi Kitano. Taiwanese directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien -- celebrated as one of the world’s great filmmakers -- have trouble getting into American cinemas at all.

American independent films by Spike Jonze or Kevin Smith, who has bragged about not knowing classic foreign cinema, are taking up the screens that used to show movies from Japan, Italy or Scandinavia.

Foreign cinema fans in Los Angeles are lucky -- besides the retrospectives offered at the American Cinematheque, most foreign films released in the U.S. play at a Landmark or Laemmle theater. But the Belgian movie “Le Fils” (The Son), hailed by some critics as one of 2003’s best, played on a single screen for a week in L.A.

Things are worse outside L.A. and New York. “The college towns have just dried up,” says Warner Independent’s Gill, who laments that great film cultures like Spain and Brazil have trouble reaching our screens. “And that used to be one of the mainstays of the foreign film business.... The college business is a fraction of what it used to be. They’re going to see Quentin Tarantino instead.”

A German film released last week, “Good Bye, Lenin!,” took Europe by storm but is expected to be a tough sell here because it depends upon some knowledge of recent European history.

“Every once in a while, people in our business throw up their hands and say it’s an irreversible decline,” says Gary Palmucci, general manager of New York-based distributor Kino International. “For any foreign language film, $1 million is considered the gold standard, a home run.”

In search of inspiration

Americans become interested in other cultures at two specific points, argues Eliot Weinberger, a New York-based translator of Borges and Mexican poet Octavio Paz. “You have periods of translation where the culture has an inferiority complex,” such as the 19th century, when Thoreau and Emerson read works of German romanticism, through the 1920s, when American writers moved to Paris and London to soak up culture.

The other point, he says, comes “when writers and intellectuals have a loathing of their country and want to go abroad to find other voices; they’re sick of hearing themselves.” This occurred in the 1960s, “during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, where people said, ‘Let’s get some other news,’ ” and read Hesse, Rilke and Neruda.

But this outward-looking tendency died with the close of the Vietnam War and was replaced, in a strange way, by multiculturalism, Weinberger says. “The original multicultural critique -- of ‘dead, white, European males’ -- didn’t lead to a new kind of internationalism but to a new kind of nationalism. It becomes Mexican American writers, Chinese American writers.”

All of them working in English, translator Allen says of writers such as Sandra Cisneros and Oscar Hijuelos. “What happens in the ‘80s and ‘90s is that these books take over -- and you stop having to pay attention to Latin America anymore. Can you name a single Latin American writer under 60?”

And the midcentury was rich with cosmopolitan intellectuals “who regarded keeping the United States in touch with the rest of the world as part of their job,” Allen says. “Then you had Philip Roth, who had that series of books from Eastern Europe in the ‘80s” -- called “Writers From the Other Europe” -- “and now you have Susan Sontag. But she’s sort of the one person left at her level of name recognition.”

While Roth brought Kundera and Bruno Schulz to an American readership and Sontag helped the previously unknown German author W.G. Sebald find an audience in the ‘90s, Allen sees a smugness in younger writers. “For the younger generation you have this weird anomie, that the rest of the world doesn’t exist, like in David Foster Wallace’s novels: It’s all just this weird space that isn’t America and that we all feel guilty about.”

Weinberger sees a similar shift among poets. “From 1910 to 1970, almost every American poet translated something. After 1970, it’s very difficult to find poets who translated at all. It just stopped being part of the community service of poets.”

Roots of defiance

Some point to a xenophobia emanating from official Washington since Sept. 11 under George W. Bush, who has shown less curiosity about international culture than such predecessors as Bill Clinton and Teddy Roosevelt. Others blame the media. (Despite the renewed importance of foreign affairs to Americans, newspapers are still shuttering foreign bureaus and television networks have recently closed bureaus in Manila, Moscow and Beijing.)

But most see an American insularity long predating Bush. The nation was founded, after all, in defiance of Europe, says Eric Rauchway, a historian at UC Davis and author of the recent “Murdering McKinley,” who sees a tendency deeply rooted in American history.

“If you go back to the Puritans,” he says, “these are people who think that by their example they will show Europe how to be. And they get deeply disappointed when Europe doesn’t follow their example. So their sense that the United States can get along without the rest of the world goes back to before there was a United States: ‘We have the garden, here in the New World, and we’re just gonna shut the gates.’ But the world keeps coming back, mostly in the forms of wars.”

Even with this strain in the national character, there were high-water marks of cosmopolitanism. “Like around 1910, when people were saying, ‘Golly, the Danish have a wonderful public school system, what are we doing wrong?’ We close ourselves off to a wider array of options than might occur to us if we contemplate only our own experience.”

This contrasts boldly with today’s political landscape, where other countries are more often used as negative examples: Canada’s healthcare system is just the kind of socialist nonsense we don’t want here. Germany is part of decrepit “Old Europe.” The French are anti-Semitic, baguette-eating wimps.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader says the lack of cultural exchange means the rest of the world often feels unreal to Americans, with “every other country as a failed or imperfect version of the United States.”

Some of this smugness comes from America’s victories in World War I and then World War II, and the sensibility was encouraged by U.S. policy, says Rauchway. “It was the period of American Studies departments and pro-America foundations, when the CIA funded the magazine Encounter to spread the word about U.S. artists and writers, who were now famously taking the cultural baton from the Europe that the U.S. had ‘saved.’ ”

And baby boomers -- raised in this prosperous, confident America -- were, as the UC Davis historian puts it, “a generation invited, from its earliest infancy, to regard itself as the center of the world.”

If we’re not exposed to art and literature from other countries, what do we lose?

“Traditionally, any national literature is nourished by translation,” says Weinberger, “and most of the things that have happened in English-language literature are the results of translation, going all the way back to Chaucer,” whose work was influenced by French poetry and Buddhist folk tales. “In the Elizabethan era, the sonnet was Italian. And American poetry in the early 20th century was influenced by Ezra Pound’s translation of Chinese poetry and Provencal literature.”

We also lose a more general understanding. When foreign ideas and performers can’t break in, “the ability to establish a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ gets that much easier,” says UCLA’s Sefton, an Englishman whose Scottish wife was recently handcuffed and deported because of incomplete paperwork. “This period is like a new take on McCarthyism.”

Film critic Rosenbaum, whose book “Movie Wars” laments the obscurity of foreign film, writes that “even bad or mediocre foreign movies have important things to teach us. Consider them cultural CARE packages, precious news bulletins, breaths of air (fresh or stale) from diverse corners of the globe.” They’re also, he writes, “proof positive that Americans aren’t the only human beings and the decisions we make about how to live our lives aren’t the only options available -- at least not yet.”