In Jack Gold’s The Naked Civil Servant (1975) someone suggests that Quentin Crisp (John Hurt) should consider moving abroad where his homosexuality won’t be such an issue. To this suggestion, Crisp announces, “I don’t believe in abroad. I think foreigners all speak English when our backs are turned.” I think I encountered Mr. Crisp’s spiritual brother this week when a friend of mine sent me a user review from Amazon, wherein the reviewer complained about having to read subtitles to watch Let the Right One In. Not content with that, he went on to strongly suggest that such movies are the cinematic equivalent of illegal immigrants, saying that until such time as these films learn to speak English, they ought not be allowed into this country. (No word on the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, though.)
He then “apologized” in case his remarks were “offensive.” His explanation for this was that he has to read at work and doesn’t appreciate being expected to do so in the privacy of his own home. (I was reminded at this point of someone excusing chatspeak, illiteracy and peculiar notions on the meanings of words on the internet, based on that probability that people—specifically those in school—have to pay attention to such matters in the realm of academia and don’t want to in the “real” world.) You may have noticed that he thinks nothing of adding to the excessive reading load by posting his review.
Yes, all this is very silly indeed. God forbid, he ever encounters a silent movie (“Bring that back when it learns how to talk!”). And yet, for all its silliness, it does raise the basic question of just why people are so resistant to subtitled movies. I can’t imagine a world of movies that begins and ends only with English-language films. To take that attitude, you’ve just shut yourself out from the works of Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Cocteau, Pedro Almodovar—not to mention the bulk of Jean Renoir and Rene Clair (they did make a few films in English).
That’s just the tip of the filmic iceberg. Consider such modern filmmakers as Guillermo del Toro. Now imagine a view of his works that only encompasses his English-language pictures—Mimic (1997), Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Not only would such an approach give you a very skewed view of his work and overlook his very best movies, it would rob a film like Hellboy II of its place in his filmography. It’s a losing proposition any way you look at it—or at the very least, a very limiting one.
The fact remains, however, that by and large even a pretty movie savvy town like Asheville simply isn’t that keen on subtitled films. There have been exceptions, yes, but for every truly popular foreign language movie—Amelie (2001), for example—there are at least ten films that do middling business or simply pass unnoticed. This is even true in many respects with high-profile filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar. His films find an audience, but it’s a very select one that isn’t able to support his films for more than a couple weeks at best.
Fairly early in my reviewing for the Xpress, a film was opening called Nine Queens (2002). It was a very well-regarded comedy thriller from Argentina. I only learned of its opening on the Monday of the week it was to open, but I had a screener, so I asked for extra time to watch the film and get a review in so the film could benefit from the exposure. I watched the movie and knocked out a review in something like 20 minutes. It may not have been the best thing I ever wrote, but it was certainly enthusiastic—“As clever as a firkin full of simians and as stylish as they come, writer-director Fabian Bielensky (a former assistant director with one previous screenplay, La Sonambula, to his credit) has fashioned what may just be at the top of the list of con movies. It’s certainly the perfect summer entertainment—a refreshing antidote to the deluge of blockbuster titles that evidence more cash outlay than actual brains.” Did it help find an audience for the movie? Not particularly.
I have no exaggerated notion of my influence or the influence of any review, come to that. Even if the review is glowing and holds some sway, it can only do so much—word of mouth is necessary to carry the rest. I’m also fully aware that there are certain types of movies that I can’t impact one way or the other, but Nine Queens isn’t one of them. Or it shouldn’t have been, but no amount of praise really helped the film. Why? I can only guess that it had to do with the fact that it was made by an unknown director, starred no one with any box office clout and, most of all, wasn’t in English.
The question arises is it really that hard to read subtitles? Personally, I don’t think so. My foreign language skills extend to no more than a smattering of Spanish and a kind of plume de ma tante level of French, so it’s not like I’m not reading those subtitles. The thing is that a few minutes into any such film, I forget that I’m reading them altogether. The same holds true for most people I’ve asked about this. It simply doesn’t take that long to get into the flow of the process and be caught up in the movie.
All this to one side, I’ll freely admit that I don’t watch subtitled—or silent—films as often as I do English-language films. By that I mean that I don’t watch the same movies repeatedly. But let’s define “watch” in this instance. Like many people—perhaps most people—I have a tendency to put a movie into the DVD player while I’m doing something else, so that I’m more or less “watching” the film off to the side. That’s not really watching—except in bits and pieces—and films not in English don’t work so well for this purpose. But when it comes to sitting down and truly watching a film, I don’t think I’ve ever made a decision based on what language it’s in—now whether it’s black and white or color, but that’s a whole separate issue about viewing prejudices.
Going back to the Amazon poster’s original complaint, it’s sometimes hard not to detect a whiff of xenophobia about the whole “English only” notion. That’s particularly intriguing when you look at the history of movies, because the movies have always been an international art form. Much of the language of cinema came from abroad and was assimilated into American film. Look at almost any Hollywood silent film before the impact of German cinema and you’ll see a world of difference. Take an individual case like American filmmaker Frank Borzage and check out his films before he met up with German filmmaker F.W. Murnau when William Fox brought the latter to Hollywood. The influence on his subsequent work is unmistakable—and the thematic influence Borzage had on Murnau is equally evident.
How many of our Hollywood classics are made by immigrant filmmakers? Consider such giants of American cinema as Erich von Stroheim (Austria), Ernst Lubitsch (Germany), Josef von Sternberg (Austria), Rouben Mamoulian (Russia), Michael Curtiz (Hungary), James Whale (England) and on and on. On the other hand, the fellow who pretty much defined the world’s idea of “swinging London” in the 1960s, Richard Lester, was from Philadelphia. Art—even movies—really knows no frontier. Neither should our appreciation of it—even if you have to read. Now, about that prejudice against black and white movies…