Sunday, February 14, 2010

Adding Foreign Cinema to your Film Diet

In the winter of 2006, I remember walking out of a small independent theatre in Dallas called the Angelika after having seen the Spanish film Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo Del Toro. My first thought was that it was by far the best film of the year, despite not being an American film. The entire film was in Spanish, with subtitles and all, and yet it was far more engaging and moving than any other American film I had seen that year.

Interestingly enough, this trend of foreign films being better than American ones was not an isolated incident for 2006. In 2008, the best film of the year was The Dark Knight, but the Italian film Gomorrah and the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In came very close. Earlier in the decade, films like City of God, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were also standouts amongst their American counterparts. But oddly enough, I found very few other people who felt as passionately about foreign films as I did. In fact, very few others outside of the film community had even heard of, much less seen any of the films I told them about.

Foreign cinema, like a lot of foreign entertainment products today, is not very popular in the United States. Whereas Americans buy Japanese and European cars quite often, there is something about foreign entertainment that Americans have an aversion to. The most successful foreign entertainment would be anime’ or Japanamation (short for Japanese animation, a form of animated television and film that has become it’s own sub-genre in recent years), but even those films and TV shows always end up “Americanized” in some way, usually by voice-over “dubbing” or censorship. The films of acclaimed Japanese animated movie director Hayao Miyazaki are not shown in Japanese with English subtitles, but rather always have famous American (or English speaking) actors providing the voice work in English. Japanese animated movies and television are not the only mediums suffering a drop in popularity in the United States.

This shift in popularity is not limited to Japanese entertainment. European countries struggle with getting their films and television programs to gain an American audience. However, in looking at most foreign cinema of the last decade, one can see that most foreign films today are better than their American counterparts. With films like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Lives of Others, A Prophet, Gomorrah, City of God, and others being released this decade, it’s a wonder no one else has caught on to the evident parallels this decade to the 1960s, where the most influential films were foreign ones, with movements like the French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism being extremely prominent, as well as the films of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

What has changed since then? The simple answer is less distribution of foreign films in the US. Theatre companies and US studios don’t have enough confidence in smaller, lesser-known films, especially foreign ones, when they know that films like Transformers are far more bankable. So the obvious solution from my perspective would be to encourage more theatre companies and film studios to expand the distribution and exhibition of foreign films. However, it’s not enough to simply have studios do this, people need to be more willing to see these films, which is exactly what I am trying to encourage you all to do; add more foreign films to your film diet.

I will say that it is of course important to note that like all art, film is subjective and the stance I take on foreign cinema being better than a lot of American films recently is purely a viewpoint based on opinion and some statistics based on research into critical reaction, using websites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes as barometers. It also helps to drive home my comparison of the current decade to the 1960s, and there is even evidence in the 50s of foreign cinema having a large influence, especially in Japanese cinema. For example, during the 50s, two of the most important and influential films of all time were released. Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Both are Japanese films by the legendary Akira Kurosawa. Seven Samurai is interesting because Kurosawa, and many other Japanese directors of the time, have stated that the samurai films of the era were influenced by early American westerns, like the films of John Wayne and John Ford. Interestingly enough, the samurai films that spawned out of the influence of these westerns later inspired and influenced the spaghetti westerns of directors like Sergio Leone. For example, Kurosawa’s two films Yojimbo and Sanjuro inspired Leone’s Dollar Trilogy. Similarly, Seven Samurai was later remade into the western film The Magnificent Seven and also had a clear influence on Pixar’s film A Bug’s Life. A Fistful of Dollars is nearly identical not only in plot and characters, but also in shot for shot camerawork, to Yojimbo. In fact, while involved in a lawsuit between the producers of Yojimbo and those of A Fistful of Dollars, Kurosawa wrote to Leone “It’s a fine film, but it is my film”. (Galbraith, ¶ 11).

This kind of influence that was present in the 60s, and to a lesser degree in the 50s, is very clear when you look at the most famous and revered films of the era. The late 50s and all the 60s bore films such as The 400 Blows, 8 1/2, Le Samourai, The Seventh Seal, Last Year at Marienbad, Breathless, La dolce vita, and many others. It is important to note that it is clear that the three most influential countries in cinema during this boom were Japan, Italy, and France. The era saw such movements as the French New Wave, Italian neo-realism, and Japanese post-war cinema. Part of the boom of foreign cinema during this era was due to several factors. First off, the Cultural Revolution in the US was beginning, as well as the abolition of the Hays code. The Hays Code was abolished in the middle of the 60s, and the growing interest in foreign cinema is largely due to the fact that foreign cinema was not governed by the code. Because people were bored with sterile and censored American films, they sought out foreign films to give them something fresh and new.

In his autobiography, Akira Kurosawa himself reflected upon how Rashomon won both the Grand Prix at Venice Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, noting that “Japanese critics insisted these two prizes were simply reflections of Westerners’ curiosity and taste for Oriental exoticism, which struck me then, and now, as terrible. Why is it that Japanese people have no confidence in the worth of Japan? … I can only despair at the character of my own people.” (Kurosawa, ¶ 36)

Now, in the 2000s, there is an increasingly apparent parallel between then and now. Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, City of God, Pan's Labyrinth, Gomorrah, 4 months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Let the Right One In, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and others, are all very critically acclaimed films. For example, on, many of the aforementioned films hold approval ratings in the 90s. One thing to note is that the parallel between the late 60s and now is that the reason that these films are faring better critically than American films is because of circumstances and a general feeling that American cinema is becoming stale, sterile, and monotonous. Like the way the Hays Code controlled and censored content in films, studio politics and box office demands are dictating the content of many American films. With the consequences of the 2007 Writers Strike still affecting the industry, many studios cut out their independent branch, and became much less interested in taking risks with the films they were willing to produce. Between the Writers Strike and the current economic climate and recession, many studios are not willing to produce smaller films with lower box office potential, instead opting to fall back on more sure-fire blockbuster movies like Transformers, G.I. Joe, Wolverine, etc. The studios are more confident that escapism will always sell, rather than riskier, smarter films. For example, Paul Greengrass' Iraq War thriller The Green Zone was initially set for a release in the fall of 2009, but got pushed back to the spring of 2010.

This is evidence of studios lacking confidence in films that are more challenging to the viewer. They feel that general audiences won't want to see a complex thriller about corruption in an unpopular and controversial war. They are more confident that audiences will be interested in seeing films that are pure escapism, such as Transformers. While their concerns and doubts certainly have validity (as is evidenced by the box office total of Transformers 2, which was something around $700+ million worldwide), they also show a lack of confidence in the audiences themselves. But this is not just the studios fault, as long as audiences go to see terrible films week after week, the studios will always feel more comfortable producing those kinds of movies. American audiences today seem to not want to be challenged, intellectually or emotionally when they see a movie these days. They would rather have escapism, because after all, movies are there to entertain us, not make us think, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Film, like all art, is about observation. Where would we be as a society if films never once challenged us to rethink how we perceive the world around us? We definitely would not have come very far, that much is certain. And more often than not, foreign films have a much greater sense of global social consciousness. Foreign audiences and filmmakers alike are much more interested in using film as a way to observe and analyze the world around them than American ones. This, in a way, is somewhat indicative of American society as a whole, which would rather not see how bad things are in the rest of the world. This trend is a paradox in itself, given how from a political standpoint, America has seemed to declare itself the self-appointed sheriffs of the world. If we really did feel a duty to fix all the rest of the world’s problems, why then are we so content to live in blissful ignorance most of the time? Do we only intervene when we have a personal stake in the matter, or when it is of the most profit to us?

Socio-political analyses aside, these kinds of questions are what fuel the debate over why American audiences show a lack of interest in foreign cinema today. Is it the subject matter? Is it the filmmaking style? Or could it be something as simple as people being too lazy to watch a film where they might have to read subtitles? Believe it or not, the latter is more often than not the kind of response I get amongst my fellow college students. But if it all really boils down to simply being too lazy to read subtitles, what does that say about American audiences?

From a more cinematic standpoint, there are in fact a few key differences between American film and most foreign film, such as different acting styles, structure, subject matter, etc. Even if American audiences aren’t avoiding foreign films because of their aversion to subtitles, I can see how these artistic differences may be off putting.

By that same token, we live in a culture that worships celebrity status. Many people will go and see a film simply because their favorite actor or actress is in it, even if the film itself is bad. Oddly enough, this star system was prominent in the Hollywood Golden Age, where a film was marketed as a star vehicle, and people would go to a movie because people like Cary Grant, Kathryn Hepburn, James Stewart, Clark Gable, and others were starring in them. However, none of our favorite celebrities like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrel, etc. are in them. People feel more comfortable watching movies with actors they are familiar with, especially attractive ones. However, in films like Gomorrah or Pan’s Labyrinth, there aren’t any familiar celebrities to immediately identify and feel comfortable with. Humans are creatures of habit, and as such are more comfortable with something familiar, rather than the unknown.

If you need any further proof of why foreign films deserve your attention, time, and hard earned cash, look no further than the genre film. How many times have you been sitting in a theatre, watching an action, romance, horror, gangster, or sci-fi film and felt like you could predict the plot or had seen the same kind of movie before? You would not be wrong, as many genre films in America all follow similar formulas, and thus, come off as being more of the same. By contrast, though similar trends are present in the films of other countries, many foreign genre films actually go against cliché formula and offer something fresh and new to the genre.

For example, in his critical essay on Gomorrah, Chuck Stephens compared the Italian crime film to famous American ones like The Godfather and Scarface, and explained that Gomorrah has largely been called “a cinematically deglamorized anti-Godfather” (Stephens ¶ 4), and that it achieves this status by embracing a gritty and brutal level of realism, rather than romanticizing organized crime. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth is just as genre bending in the way that it would appear at first to be a fantasy film, but is more rooted in horror and drama than anything else, and a story that inhabits the real world of fascist Spain in 1944. In his article about the film, Mark Kermode wrote, “Pan's Labyrinth is a dark fairy tale that distils his distinctive mix of fact and fantasy, poetry and politics, pain and pleasure. It's an epic, poetic vision in which the grim realities of war are matched and mirrored by a descent into an underworld populated by fearsomely beautiful monsters - a transformative, life-affirming nightmare which is, for my money, the very best film of the year”. (Kermode ¶ 2)

Films like Let the Right One In also buck the trends of their respective genre, challenging the established formulas of the vampire film, a sub-genre of horror that has emerged in recent years, as it’s own genre, in which the two main characters are not only very young adolescent children, but also involves a story where the main vampire is not the dominant partner in the relationship, but also is not a brooding anti-hero of sorts. Characterization differences aside, the film’s critical success was largely due to an intelligent and original script that did not give in to genre conventions, and as Roger Ebert put it in his 3 and half star review (based on a 4 star scale) “Remove the vampire elements, and this is the story of two lonely and desperate kids capable of performing dark deeds without apparent emotion. Kids washed up on the shores of despair” (Ebert ¶ 7). By contrast, the film adaptations of the Twilight book series have been largely critically panned, with the first film holding a 49% approval rating, and the second film even worse off at only 28%. Yet the second film made roughly $140.7 million on it’s opening weekend. Let the Right One In holds a staggering 98% approval rating, but only grossed a mere $1.88 million.

I hope that I have not lost some of you, and hope that you will not be offended by my assertions of the superior quality if foreign cinema. The fact remains that most people look at movies like they look at roller coasters. They just want to have fun. When I hear someone tell me that they list films like The Dark Knight, Transformers, and Twilight as some of their favorite films, only one of those stands out as being both critically acclaimed and financially successful, The Dark Knight. But when I hear people say things like this, I also realize that not everyone views films the ways we film buffs do. Like I said before, most people are just looking for something fun to do on a Friday night, they don’t look for or think about artistic merits, they just want escapism.

However, consider this the next time you see a movie in a theatre or rent one from Netflix or Blockbuster. Instead of watching Twilight for the third time, check out Let the Right One In. Instead of going to see Saw VI, watch Pan’s Labyrinth instead. And once you see some current foreign films, go back and watch some older ones, you may be surprised at what you discover. One of your favorite movies may have been inspired by an older title from another country. We all need variety in our routines and diets, so why not try something different when you want to watch a movie?


Sales on Film said...

I would challenge your point about American audiences not wanting to read subtitles with the success of Inglourious Basterds. I think the lack of foreign cinema's prevalence in American theaters simply boils down to distribution. In addition, many of the 50s-60s art cinema you talked about were international co-productions, which have decreased with the rise of conglomerate studios. International box office is so important to studios now, they are looking for products to export (e.g. broad, effects-based films like Transformers) rather than products to import for the U.S. marketplace (eg, Godard filling a niche in the '60s). You talk about a trade deficit in economics but there's one in film, as well.

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