Monday, July 25, 2005

Seduction By Subtitle


I've always believed, dreamily perhaps, that audiences for art are made, not born. When I'm asked by a curious neophyte to recommend, for example, a handful of albums of jazz singing, I might offer: John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman, Frank Sinatra's Songs For Swinging Lovers, Peggy Lee's Beauty And The Beat, June Christy's Something Cool. Not only are these among the greatest jazz vocal records ever made, more important, they are seductive, emotionally involving, utterly charismatic music. If none of these records work for you, frankly, I'm not sure any other jazz vocal music will. Put the genre aside for a year or two and return to it, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

So it is with foreign films. Most of my friends are not cinephiles like me but they are smart, curious, often aesthetically open people. I frequently get asked to recommend "good foreign movies". Rather than recommending all-time super faves, I try to choose, to start with, a few films on DVD that are (1) indisputably great, (2) accessible, (3) riveting, narratively or visually, and (4) emotionally compelling. In other words, films that will "hook" the uninitiated and begin the process of converting them to foreign film watchers. It's one way to slowly start building an audience for foreign movies, one friend or acquaintance at a time.

Here are some films on my list:
  • Truffaut's The 400 Blows
  • Chabrol's La Femme Infidele
  • The Triplets of Belleville
  • Bergman's Smiles Of A Summer Night
  • Wong's In The Mood For Love
Any other good candidates?


Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Clouzot: Diabolique and Wages of Fear
Zhang: Hero
Besson: La Femme Nikita
Monicelli: Big Deal on Madonna Street
Kurosawa: Yojimbo
Twyker: Run, Lola, Run

I have personal experience introducing a friend to foreign language films with the Clouzots. Shortly after that we also saw the Friedkin remake. Much later, a friend watched Run, Lola, Run with her high school aged son.

July 25, 2005 3:28 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

While still a novice, I could recommend ‘Wings of Desire’ because of its ability to carry the film with what is more of a collage of images and poetics as opposed to a straight forward plot line, which is probably the most important part of appreciating film as an ‘art’ as opposed to entertainment. Admittedly some might find it slow, but it teaches the viewer to enjoy the manner and way in which the film is presented, besides, if someone’s mind wanders for a minute or two, they don’t have to worry about being lost for the rest of the movie. Its also easy to recognize the artistic elements due to their stemming from more classical and traditional art forms, these then in contrast to the effects of World War II. And, they get the opportunity to compare it to a Hollywood remake, City of Angels.

July 25, 2005 4:12 PM  
Anonymous sacha said...

Not adding anything, but agreeing that the Johnny Hartman/Coltrane album is incredible and one of my all time faves. Sublime.

July 25, 2005 9:07 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Kurosawa -- Seven Samurai
Lund and Meirelles -- City of God
Bergman -- Fanny and Alexander
Almodóvar -- All About My Mother
Claude Berri -- Jean de Florette & Manon of the Spring
Jan Kádár -- The Shop on Main Street
Louis Malle -- Au Revoir Les Enfants
Hiroshi Teshigahara -- The Woman in the Dunes
Lasse Hallström -- My Life As a Dog

Zhang's work as a whole is rock-solid; I haven't seen a bad film by him yet. To Live is particularly great.

About In the Mood for Love--that waltz that plays throughout is just lovely work. Unfortunately the last time I checked the soundtrack was a pricey import.

July 25, 2005 11:03 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

And, you know, most of these I've listed are in the realist tradition. Hm. Well, Man with the Movie Camera, then, for something more conspicuously arty. ^_^ Brilliant work, stands up well even 70+ years after.

July 25, 2005 11:05 PM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

"Run Lola Run" is a great suggestion. I'd also suggest Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy. And watching Wong Kar Wei's "Chungking Express" is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I'd say it's a nice intro, too.

Godard's "Breathless," if you watch the new DVD with clearer subtitles tends to work pretty well in my film classes, even for students who haven't seen a lot of foreign film.

July 25, 2005 11:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Slagor said...

I was really really into Almodovar's Talk to Her when it first came out...and I still try to recommend it to so many people my age who ask me about foreign movies. The only problem is that most of my generation are renters from Blockbuster or Hollywood Video - and I've never seen Talk to Her in a mainstream store like those.

So I guess the problem with my request is its accessibility. Even though it was played across the U.S., and was critically acclaimed, and it's even modern - doesn't always work in terms of ease of availability.

So a foreign film that will hook someone and be accessible? Well, I have a request that I'm very confident in. But it's not foreign I suppose - Hell, it's even in English. But it certainly helps to watch it with subtitles to catch the cool, subtle British slang. And this film, my friends, is the series The Office, from BBC Two.

Rent it. Purchase it. Watch the entire series three times in two months like I have. And you'll find yourself wanting to throw in some cockney english into daily conversation.

July 26, 2005 1:59 AM  
Blogger Ed Garrity said...

I'm going to give the 400 Blows another try. I now have a cool list of titles to look for at Blockbuster. Thanks.

July 26, 2005 8:29 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Speaking of that wonderful waltz from In the Mood for Love, how fucking depressing is it that it's been co-opted for use in some toilet cleaning commercial. Sickens me.

As for recommendations for foreign films, I usually point people towards something like Betty Blue for I grew tired of hearing how "boring" Kurosawa, Godard, Truffaut etc. are.

July 26, 2005 12:55 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

As it was indisputably the best action movie of 1998 (and, in my opinion, the entire decade, far surpassing anything from Jerry Bruckheimer), I had high hopes of introducing "Run, Lola, Run" (and subtitled cinema) to friends and relatives. But none were impressed, and several, as I found out later, watched the DVD in its dubbed version.

Subtitles -- like so-called "art films" -- require a degree of concentration, the kind that comercial ready-made narratives constantly challenge and that American television strives to erase from public consciousness.

My sister-in-law, always on the lookout for a good weepie, asked for a recommendation, but when I told her that "Umberto D." was in Italian with subtitles, she opted for something in English, something easier.

(One of these days I'm going to tie her up and put viddy-lids on her eyes and force her through four hours of "Celine & Julie Go Boating".)

The films listed in the comments above are all good and worth seeing -- but I seriously doubt that anyone "untrained" in subtitles would really have the desire to see any one of them, with the possible exclusion of "La Femme Nikita", more action fodder.

July 26, 2005 1:37 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Flickhead: Maybe you could introduce your sister-in-law gently to De Sica with Terminal Station. While I usually watch foreign language films with subtitles, I watch some Italian films in English. Many were shot silently and dubbed later anyways.

Girish: I saw Tarnished Angels. Glad to see it in scope finally. I wondered if Dorothy on the wing was a reply of sorts to Marilyn in Seven Year Itch.

July 26, 2005 2:06 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all, for the plentiful ideas. When friends ask me for recommendations, I can just e-mail them the link to this post!

Peter, I taped but haven't watched the Sirk yet. I saw it pan-scan a few years ago. I took a peek at the scope version today and it looks gorgeous.

July 27, 2005 7:27 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

My first foreign-language film was Seven Samurai but I'm not sure that's the first one I'd reccommend to someone else to start with. How about the anime Metropolis which is a double intro - anime and foreign? I might go to Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, but only so I could watch it again. ;)

If Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique were out on DVD... but White would be a good intro.

Russian Ark? Maybe???

July 28, 2005 11:17 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

i never had a problem reading the dialogue of foreign films onscreen, and i never understood what the fuss was about. i secretly laugh when people complain about it -- how digested do you need a movie to be for you, you infidel?

anyways, i'm a huge fan of City of Lost Children, which i think really palatable and easy to follow for non-french speakers, as well as stunning to look at...................

and every time i recommend it to someone and they watch it they freak out and totally hate the movie...something about it being weird and apocalyptic and nightmarish and unsettling.

and i want to reply: "feck off, you idiot!" but these people are usually my friends, and i don't talk to my friends that way. most of the time anyway.

but how does someone who loves the vision of a director like Tim Burton end up hating a movie like City of Lost Children? its pure fairytale......ah well.

July 28, 2005 3:31 PM  
Blogger MEM said...

Ciao Professore (Wertmüller), Italy
Last Life in the Universe (Ratanaruang), Thailand
Nine Queens (Bielinsky), Argentina
Read my Lips (Audiard), France

Less Light
City of God (Lund/Meirelles), Brazil
Festen (Winterbottom), Norway
Amores Perros (Iñárritu), Mexico
Fallen Angel (Wong Kar-Wai), Japan
Dekalog (Kieslowski) Poland
Hana-Bi (Kitano), Japan

Stalker (Tarkovsky), Russia
Irreversible (Noe), France
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto), Japan

And, if asked, I'd add the Armstrong/Fitzgerald disc "Ella and Louis" to your vocal jazz CD list....

July 30, 2005 8:39 AM  
Blogger MEM said...

Oops, the director of Festen was most certainly not Michael Winterbottom, it was Thomas Vinterberg.

July 30, 2005 11:56 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I'd rather eat glass than see "Terminal Station" again.

When De Sica's good, he's extraordinary.

When he's bad...eegah!

July 30, 2005 11:57 AM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

"Les Enfants du Paradis." Beautiful, accessible, and if the person doesn't like it, we probably aren't destined to be close pals in any case.

July 31, 2005 1:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Campaspe, Great pick.
Actually, I'm a huge fellow fan. One for the ages, the desert island, wherever.

July 31, 2005 1:29 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Great article! Someone could easily write a novel based on that movie's backstory. I think Smiles of a Summer Night is a great gateway drug too. I try to stay away from dark-and-brooding when introducing pals to foreign movies, since that is the image most people have of world cinema. E.g., "I won't understand it, and even if I do it will depress the hell out of me." So to me, it's a good idea to startle 'em with something like "Seduced and Abandoned" and save "Contempt" for later.

July 31, 2005 3:34 PM  

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