14 September 2010

Crossing the Language Barrier

Remember that DVD Talk Criterion Collection viewing challenge I'm participating in this month?  Don't act like this is the first you've heard about it; I've seen my stats page!  Anyway, I thought I'd post some mid-month remarks about what I've gotten out of the challenge to date.  (And yes, I'm perfectly aware that the actual middle of the month isn't until tomorrow.)

I went into the challenge only owning two actual releases from the Criterion Collection: The Rock and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  I've availed myself of the titles in Netflix's streaming library, as well as the DVDs on the shelves at my local public library, to expand my viewing options for this challenge.  I've seen few foreign films in my life before this month, but in two weeks I've seen La Grande Illusion (French), Divorzio all'italiana (Italian), M (German) and Sommarnattens leende (Swedish).  I won't go into each film, but I'd like to discuss the topic of watching films with subtitles.

With La Grande Illusion, it took me about 10 minutes or so to wrap my head around the fact that the German characters were speaking in French.  Even more confusing, there are a handful of lines spoken in English, and I'm dashed if I can find a single in-story reason for these instances.  They must be artistic in nature, and I would love to know what the impetus was, since none of the characters in the film are native English speakers.

M was particularly striking; it's a German film made in 1931 about a serial child killer terrorizing a city.  After years of seeing the Germans portrayed as unsympathetic--even when they're not villains, there's a sense that they're not people for whom a non-Germanic audience should wish to identify--it was very odd to find myself actually rooting for the notorious efficiency of the German police to find this guy.  Frustrated with the side effects of the investigation, the mob resolves to conduct its own manhunt for the killer...and as someone who is opposed to the death penalty, I confess I was really hoping the mob would get to him first and exact revenge for his heinous acts.  The final act of the film?  I never saw it coming.  I won't spoil it for you, but it was astounding.

By the time I got to my fourth foreign language film, Sommarnattens leende, I must have completely adapted to the process of "reading a movie."  My Crohn's-infested guts interrupted my viewing of the film for a good 20 minutes at one point, and when I resumed viewing, I forgot to continue reading subtitles!  I'd gotten so into the movie that I was oblivious to the fact I was dependent upon reading the translation text at all.

I'm not saying each of these films is a must-see for anyone, and I understand why it can be tedious for some viewers to watch a movie not in their native tongue.  But it's certainly been an experience that I have appreciated so far, if for no other reason than this: By seeing films from various parts of the world, made in different decades, I've seen some great explorations of universal themes.  We're all human beings, and concepts like love, fear, devotion, jealousy, lust...they do not respect language barriers.  If you find yourself threatened by people speaking in a language you don't understand, I suggest you explore some foreign cinema.

You can order this print by Jaime Hernandez from Criterion.com

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