Ty Burr argues that this once influential film fest should matter to moviegoers across the country

By Ty Burr
Updated September 22, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The New York Film Festival gets underway this week

The New York Film Festival starts on Friday. Right, you don’t live in New York, so you don’t care. Or you don’t live in New York AND you don’t care. Fine: Go check out Jim Mullen’s Pie Chart instead. In fact, anyone who has an aversion to movies that aren’t made in Hollywood, that may not end happily, or that you have to read, leave right now.

That leaves, what, three of you? Good, I’ll take it from the top: The New York Film Festival starts on Friday. As usual for this rigorously highbrow event, the lineup consists primarily of work from other countries. Sure, there are a few glitzy alterna-Hollywood entries — this year festival goers will be among the first to see Spike Jonze’s wacky ”Being John Malkovich” (starring John Cusack as an office drone who discovers a mystical passageway into the title actor’s brain) and Kevin Smith’s ”Dogma” (featuring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as fallen angels and Alanis Morrisette as God). For the most part, though, this is a chance to see what the rest of the planet is putting onto celluloid. There are movies from Iran and Japan, from Finland and Austria. There are films set in Djibouti and Zaire. There’s a documentary about Russians returning to live in Chernobyl.

Some of these movies may actually be good. (Me, I’m jonesing to get a look at Hiyao Miyazaki’s bizarro animated fantasy ”Princess Mononoke.”) But it’s extremely doubtful you’ll hear about any of them out where you live. And the chances that you’ll get to see them, in a theater or even on video, are virtually nil.

It didn’t used to be that way. In fact, from the 1960s through the late 1970s, the NYFF was instrumental in creating a proportionately small but deeply influential audience for foreign films and American indies. This is where U.S. audiences got their first looks at movies by Truffaut and Godard, Bergman and Kurosawa, Fassbinder and Herzog and Wenders. The impact made by those films rippled out from newspaper coverage to revival theaters and college film societies; there was a sense that there was a larger scene happening outside of Hollywood, that it mattered, and that it was pointing toward the future. And, oh yeah, that it was romantic as hell.

These days, the NYFF feels like a senses-stimulating side dish: a hit of wasabi to go along with your Big Mac. And why is that? Why, that is, besides the fact that the average American moviegoer (of course I’m not talking about you) would rather go see ”American Pie” for the third time than any movie from France?

There are almost too many reasons to tick off, but most come down to the fact that these movies have no place to GO after they play the festival circuit. The Hollywood studios have so ramped up their production schedules in the past decade that there are far too many (mostly bad) American films flooding the multiplexes. Home video (which some thought would offer viewers greater variety and convenience) ended up killing off the urban art-house theaters and crippling the college film societies. The American indie scene has been slowly corrupted by glitz, deals, Sundance, and creeping Tarantinitus (say what you will about ”Blair Witch,” but at least it did a nifty end run around prevailing industry arrogance).

And?perhaps most damaging to the cause — there are few real movements among foreign filmmakers right now. The ’50s had the rebirth of Japanese film, the ’60s had the French New Wave, the ’70s had the New German Cinema. Whadda we got in the 1990s? The Danish film collective Dogma 95 and a wave of great and near-great filmmaking from Iran — neither of which have enough pop-culture oomph to make more than the tiniest of pebble splashes beyond the major cities.

Ahhh, why should you care? None of these movies star anyone you’ve ever heard of. You’ll never go to Denmark or Iran, so what does it matter what their movies are like? So what if eating nothing but Big Macs (with the occasional burger from an American independant diner) eventually makes your taste buds wither and die?