Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Illegal immigrant movies

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Illegal immigrant movies-attachment0

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…

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

17 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Illegal immigrant movies

  1. Jordan

    For once Hanke is right. I too am very surprised at a town like Asheville and how little exposure foreign films get here sometimes.

    But the stigma against subtitles is not uncommon across American though. It reminds me of people that will only eat the foods of their region or only read romance novels *shivers go down spine*. What glorious and eye opening experiences you miss out on when you limit yourself like that. Think of the best and most moving American film you have ever seen. Now guess what, every country has it’s own inventory of great and moving films and you may never get to see them because you didn’t want to read.

    I personally also love the World Cinema and wonder why more people (especially younger folks) don’t come out to it. It only cost a donation, so the economy can’t be an excuse. So younger

  2. Good article.

    For many younger film fans, the wellspring comes from the “maverick” filmmakers of the late 60s and 70s. Foreign films were hugely influential on this group like Friedkin, Lucas, Coppola, Scorcese, Bogdonavich, etc. In fact, one of most groundbreaking films of that time, BONNIE AND CLYDE, was first offered to Truffaut!

    We carry many many foreign films, and we often get complaints about having to read. Every time someone asks me, “how can you tell if it has subtitles?” I respond, “if the movie looks good it is probably foreign!”

    If you can find out where the complainer of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN lives, we’ll form a goon squad to beat his ass.

  3. Ken Hanke

    For once Hanke is right.

    Somehow that just misses being a general endorsement! (I must have been right at least a couple times before, though, since I’ve had a certain degree of input on World Cinema.)

    But the stigma against subtitles is not uncommon across American

    Oh, most certainly. In fact, I’m pretty certain that the review in question wasn’t local. What is surprising to me is that the prejudice exists to the degree it does in as movie savvy a town as Asheville.

  4. Ken Hanke

    If you can find out where the complainer of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN lives, we’ll form a goon squad to beat his ass.

    I’ll admit it has a certain crude charm.

  5. Lady L

    I don’t mind movies with subtitles at all. What I do mind is when the subtitles are in a color that fades into the background and they become impossible to see (at least on my very ancient T.V). A recent example that comes to mind is the trailer for Persepolis. There were several scenes during the trailer where I found myself with my nose pressed up against the screen trying to make out what was written there. This will in no way affect my desire to see the film, but I fear that it will lead to me popping several Advil before its over with.

  6. Ken Hanke

    What I do mind is when the subtitles are in a color that fades into the background and they become impossible to see (at least on my very ancient T.V).

    While that can be a very real problem, I generally find that subtitles today are much easier to read than they were when I first started watching subtitled movies on TV back in the days of PBS’ Film Odyssey (that might have even still been NET at the time). That was the first place I encountered such movies as Grand Illusion, Rules of the Game, The Blue Angel, M, etc. Those titles were often tough to make out. Of course, I was mostly watching them on a 12 inch black and white TV in my bedroom and that probably had some bearing in the matter.

  7. Dionysis

    Those who don’t like subtitles would be driven to sheer madness if they’d had my recent experience: I ordered a film unavailable in the U.S. from France recently (the last Steve Reeves peplum titled ‘Son of Spartacus’, a/k/a ‘The Slave’), the only place it could be found. It is in widescreen with excellent image quality. However, when I played it, I quickly found out it was in Italian, with French subtitles. I don’t speak Italian and know only a little French. I was able to glean the storyline anyway, but it was a challenge.

  8. Jim Donato

    “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.”

    Mr. Hanke – for shame. If you need to multitask, that’s what music is for. When I sit down in front of the tube for a movie, it gets my undivided attention. I am shocked to hear this from a cinephile. Am I alone in disliking eating dinner or doing anything else while ostensibly watching a film? Am I even further alienated from human society than I had previously known?

  9. Dionysis

    “Am I alone in disliking eating dinner or doing anything else while ostensibly watching a film?”

    It probably depends on various factors. Like you, I normally sit down to watch a movie focusing strickly on the film, and don’t like diversions. However, if it’s a movie I’ve seen before and am re-watching it (especially if it’s an action film or such), I’ll sit down with a TV tray in front of me, or wander around the house until a ‘good’ part comes on. I think a number of folks do that as well.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Mr. Hanke – for shame. If you need to multitask, that’s what music is for. When I sit down in front of the tube for a movie, it gets my undivided attention. I am shocked to hear this from a cinephile.

    I agree with you in theory, but it’s a fact — and possibly an occupational hazard — that if I didn’t do this, I’d rarely get a chance to revisit a lot of old favorites. Consider this past week — I saw four new movies and had to rewatch three others for short reviews. That’s a considerable chunk of moviewatching time, and I haven’t even factored in writing about six of the seven movies, which is another chunk of time. About the only time I get to watch movies for fun without distraction is if I set aside a block of time (that’s a when possible thing) to show a movie to a friend or colleague.

    It probably helps that I’m of a generation that tended to record the soundtracks of movies off television in those pre-home video days, so from the age of about 12 till the video revolution of 1977-78 (meaning when I was 23 or 24), the idea of only being able to listen to a movie wasn’t in the least strange to me. So this is a lot like that — with the advantage of being able to stop what I’m doing — as I did yesterday with Flying Down to Rio — and watch key scenes. Trust me, when Fred and Ginger dance or when Etta Moten comes out and sings the “Carioca,” I stop whatever I’m doing.

    In my defense, I do not review movies in this manner and am not keen on eating during them.

  11. Tonberry

    In my early teens, it was Anime that taught me the value of subtitles. Not only is the original voice acting more fitted to the material; but you also get the story uncut, while American dubs always censor and dumb down the original content. It’s hard for me to stomach almost all American dub for this reason. If only most of my friends felt the same way; as you mentioned above about the person who commented on “Let the Right One In,” they see subtitles as a chore.

    Yet, speaking of “Let the Right One In,” subtitles don’t always get it right. I happily bought the DVD only to find out that the subtitles actually dumbed down the story; for some odd reason, the first DVD releases didn’t have the subtitles present in the theatrical release. They fixed the problem with a new set of DVDs that include the theatrical subtitles, but you’ll have to buy the movie again! Evil @#%@s.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Yet, speaking of “Let the Right One In,” subtitles don’t always get it right. I happily bought the DVD only to find out that the subtitles actually dumbed down the story; for some odd reason, the first DVD releases didn’t have the subtitles present in the theatrical release. They fixed the problem with a new set of DVDs that include the theatrical subtitles, but you’ll have to buy the movie again! Evil @#%@s.

    Yes. From what I can understand the subtitles on that first DVD (not sure if the new ones are out yet) are a literal reproduction of the dubbed version of the film. Why they did this, I can’t imagine, but it does damage much of the nuance of the original. I hate the idea of buying the movie twice, but I almost certainly will — as soon as I’m sure it’s the theatrical version.

  13. cleov

    Doesn’t like subtitles? Too bad for him/her.

    My mother watches nothing but “subtitled” movies because she is 89 and rather deaf. I send daily (if silent) thanks to the creators of close-captioned TV and movies, because if it wasn’t for the words at the bottom of the screen, her lately found love for movies would be frustrating, painful, and annoying for both of us. For example, I would have had to sit with her during her recent (and first!) viewing of “Citizen Kane”. It would have sounded something like this:

    “What did she say?”

    “SHE SAYS SHE’S HAD HIS TRUNK PACKED FOR A WEEK.”

    “How long?”

    “A WEEK.”

    “Who’s that old man?”

    “HIS FATHER. THE OTHER MAN IS THATCHER.”

    “The prime minister?”

    “NO. THATCHER IS THE BANKER. HE’S GOING TO TAKE THE BOY AWAY FOREVER.”

    “Why?”

    “I’VE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO FIGURE THAT OUT.”

    Etcetera.

    Instead, she watched it on her own time, with captions (or subtitles, if you will) and reported back to me “I watched ‘Citizen Kane’! That was a very good movie!”

    praise indeed… especially when you realize that she still thinks “Pretty Woman” is the pinnacle of film-making.

  14. Dread P. Roberts

    The thing is that a few minutes into any such film, I forget that I’m reading them altogether.

    The same holds true for me. When I’m watching an engaging movie in subtitles I can’t recall it ever taking me more than 5-10 minutes to almost completely stop noticing the subtitles. I honestly feel bad for anyone who can’t reach this mindset while watching a subtitled movie. To me, in a sense, it’s almost like reading a good book without being able to allow your imagination to wander into the world of the book, and paint of visual picture in your head of the events and places being portrayed. If I couldn’t accomplish these sorts of things, then I suppose I too would be disinclined to want to watch foreign films – or read a fictional book, for that matter.

    There have been a few rare instances in the past where I have struggled with a subtitled movie for one of two reasons (that I can think of). First of all, there is the aforementioned issue of subtitles fading into the background and becoming difficult to see. But another issue to keep in mind is that in some foreign languages the dialect is much faster than English. So sometimes it can be hard to keep up with what they are saying. However…there have been instances of this happening, and I still managed to become engaged in the proceedings of the film, and forget about this occasional issue.

    If you can find out where the complainer of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN lives, we’ll form a goon squad to beat his ass.

    You can sign me up! A movie critic goon squad just sounds like good, quality fun – regardless of the reasoning behind such a thing.

    Me and my wife recently decided to rent both “Let the Right One In” and “Twilight” at the same time – and watch them back to back. Now don’t get me wrong, I love being American, but this little experiment really depressed me about the not only the extreme difference in the level of quality, but also about the fact that people actually got worked up over crap like “Twilight”, and ignored a work of art like “Let the Right One In”. It honestly makes me a bit ashamed about the dumbing down of our culture. I don’t fully understand. The same thing more or less happened with “Pans Labyrinth” as well as “The Host”. All were/are superior films for their respective genres!

  15. Ken Hanke

    The same holds true for me. When I’m watching an engaging movie in subtitles I can’t recall it ever taking me more than 5-10 minutes to almost completely stop noticing the subtitles.

    I noticed this early on when I first saw Grand Illusion in high school. There’s a scene fairly late in the film that’s in English. The exchange was nearly over when I realized I wasn’t reading subtitles.

    Me and my wife recently decided to rent both “Let the Right One In” and “Twilight” at the same time – and watch them back to back. Now don’t get me wrong, I love being American, but this little experiment really depressed me about the not only the extreme difference in the level of quality, but also about the fact that people actually got worked up over crap like “Twilight”, and ignored a work of art like “Let the Right One In”.

    I had already had this experience when the films were both playing here and could have told you this would be depressing. Hell, just watching Twilight is depressing without the comparison.

    It’s interesting to consider the question of “dumbing down,” though, because acceptance of foreign language films is almost certainly higher now than it was from the dawn of sound through the 1950s. (Actually, during that time almost anything not made in Hollywood was rarely seen in the U.S. even if it was in English.) However, acceptance is almost certainly less now than it was during the 1960s and 1970s, but that was an era when the line between mainstream and “art” movie was so blurred as to become virtually non-existent.

  16. Mark Bloom

    Ken, you have an influence over what *I* see at the movies. My attitude is that anything that’s showing at the Fine Arts is worth seeing (even if not great), but I’ve found your sensibilities often match mine.

    I’ve enjoyed many subtitled films. Even when I get a DVD with dubbed version (as is often the case for Japanese animated movies), I prefer the original voices and subtitles.

    Foreign films definitely have a different aesthetic than Hollywood films, and aren’t movies essentially about sharing a worldview while telling a story? If we’re confined to our own English-speaking stories, how much we’ve ignored!

    My one complaint about subtitled films–good ones, anyway–is that while I’m distracted with the dialog, I’m missing some of the cinematic beauty of the film itself. Luckily, this is often solved by multiple viewings.

    Keep up the good work, and EVERYONE GO SEE MORE MOVIES AT THE FINE ARTS! (I receive no compensation for this plug. I’m just selfish about having great indie and foreign films in town.)

  17. Ken Hanke

    My one complaint about subtitled films–good ones, anyway–is that while I’m distracted with the dialog, I’m missing some of the cinematic beauty of the film itself. Luckily, this is often solved by multiple viewings.

    There you are! The good ones deserve multiple viewings anyway.

    Keep up the good work

    I’ll try at least.

    and EVERYONE GO SEE MORE MOVIES AT THE FINE ARTS! (I receive no compensation for this plug. I’m just selfish about having great indie and foreign films in town.)

    Having the Fine Arts is compensation in itself.

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