February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments
Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.
Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.
Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.
After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”
Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.
January 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
Three months after seeing “Pain and Glory,” it remains vivid in my mind, as movies seldom do these days. (Quite a few I’ve forgotten by the time I get home from the theater—which says something about both the quality and the quantity of films I’ve watched over the years.) Not so Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film.
The story of Salvador Mallo, an aging film director grappling with a cascade of physical ailments and the ghosts of his past, “Pain and Glory” is a triumphant summation of Almodóvar’s themes of art, love, childhood, passion, religion and suffering. But it’s also the high point of his work with his greatest male star, Antonio Banderas, who during the past thirty-eight years has been Almodóvar’s alter ego, leading man and muse.
Those who know Banderas only from American films will find him a revelation in the eight films he has made with Almodóvar–particularly if they understand Spanish. For though Banderas is a reliably strong actor in English, he’s always the exotic foreigner. In Spanish, however, he operates at an entirely different level: both funnier and darker, he delivers performances of great variety and complexity. The roles Banderas has played in Amodóvar’s previous films prove his range—and his gameness:
1982 “Labyrinth of Passion”: Sadec, a terrorist
1986 “Matador”: Ángel, student matador, failed rapist and false
confessor to two murders
1987 “Law of Desire”: Antonio, possessive gay lover of a film director
1988 “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”: Carlos, the previously unknown son of Carmen Maura’s character’s ex-lover
1990 “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down”: Ricky, a recently released mental patient who kidnaps a former porn star/B movie actress/recovering heroin addict with whom he had a one-night stand during an escape from the asylum
2011 “The Skin I Live In”: Psychopathic plastic surgeon
2013 “I’m So Excited”: Airport ground technician whose wife, a colleague, is played by Penélope Cruz
As good as Banderas was in these movies, his performance in “Pain and Glory” stands at an entirely different level, suffused with suffering, humor, self-knowledge and acceptance. In a role that could have been an exercise in scenery chewing, he is nuanced and restrained throughout, a feat of immense control.
After being named Best Actor at Cannes and by the New York, LA and National Film Critics societies, this week Antonio Banderas was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. Because of Joaquín Phoenix’s nomination for “Joker,” he is considered a dark horse, and the Academy is notorious for favoring what the late Heath Ledger called “the most acting, not the best acting.” But I hope Banderas will triumph, just as he did two weeks ago when he won the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Actor Award while we were talking at a pre-Golden Globes reception. More on our conversation next time.
January 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
This post contains plot spoilers
Although I didn’t set out to see Céline Scíamma and Greta Gerwig’s new films back-to-back, I did last weekend, and was struck by their similarities. Both films are about women who struggle against the strictures of their times, and both feature women who–despite stiff odds–defy convention to become artists.
What’s surprising is that the two movies are set a century apart and in different cultures: “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” in France in the 1760s and “Little Women” in New England in the 1860s. Though I would have thought a Parisian portrait painter and an aristocratic maiden from 18th-century Brittany would face greater social obstacles than the daughters of a progressive, educated family in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, all the female characters grapple with the same problems: how to decide their own futures, including whether or not to marry, and how to earn a living that would enable their freedom.
Explicit in both stories is the role of art. Only because she is a talented artist (and the daughter of a successful painter whose ateliér and school she inherits) does Marianne (Noémi Merlant) in “Portrait” have a profession. Her income allows her to remain unmarried, and thus independent of domestic obligations. In contrast the noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose engagement portrait Marianne has been hired to paint surreptitiously, has no prospects but marriage: one arranged by her widowed mother, a countess eager to return to her native Milan. The countess, having lost her older daughter to suicide after she refused the same match, is determined to force Héloïse into an aristocratic marriage that will ensure her return to Milan and both their futures. Héloïse, after strong resistance and a brief affair with Marianne, submits to her mother’s wishes.
A century later in New England, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the second daughter of a progressive, educated family, is determined to become a writer. Her work is soon published, but because Father March (a minister, like many intellectuals of his day, though without a church position) is disinclined to hold a job, her earnings must support her family. For all their modern, egalitarian ideas, the Marches aren’t far removed from the countess in “Portrait”: they place their economic hopes on the marriage prospects of their prettiest daughter Amy, an aspiring painter. Amy obliges by accepting the proposal of Laurie, the neighborhood rich boy/dreamboat (Timothée Chalamet) previously rejected by Jo. This romantic coup is not without a price, however, as Amy must give up her artistic ambitions to become a wife and mother. Meanwhile Jo, who understands all too well that marriage would spell the end of her writing career, embarks on her glorious spinsterhood only to end up marry an admiring professor (dumpy and German in the book; smoldering and French in the movie) in the end. As Greta Gerwig makes clear, this plot twist was forced on Louisa May Alcott by her publisher and readers, for whom a happy ending required marriage. But Alcott herself never married, made a good living off her copyrights and, when asked why she remained single, stated “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
Both films share indelible images: longing glances across crowded theaters, musical performances, unrequited love, even skirts accidentally set on fire. But the strongest link between “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Little Women” is thematic: the struggle of young women for autonomy and artistic self-expression in societies that demand their conformity through marriage.
October 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
Not wanting to fight the crowds, I skipped the opening weekend of “Joker” in favor of one of last night’s shows at ArcLight Hollywood. While not sold out, the theater was unusually full for a Monday. Despite media and government (!) warnings of danger, my audience was well-behaved throughout, watching attentively and applauding respectfully at the end. If my experience sounds anti-climactic, it’s because it was.
I like dark films, and “Joker” is unrelenting in that regard. Gotham is bleak and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) leads a bleak life in its bleakest parts, spending his days as a clown-for-hire and his nights as his barmy mother’s caretaker. Friendless, poor, mentally unsound and marginalized, Arthur is a punching bag for everyone, from street kids to drunken office bros on the subway. It’s only a matter of time before this sad clown snaps, and when he does he starts killing with gusto.
At that point “Joker” makes perfect sense: as a revenge movie enacted by a bottled-up loner, and the latest installment in a grand cinematic tradition. Better still, it satisfyingly conjures up the glorious films that influenced the director, Todd Phillips, (who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver): “Taxi Driver”, “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club”, among others. Unfortunately, logic grinds to a halt when Phillips tries to equate Arthur Fleck’s myriad troubles to those of society at large, and his lonely search for a scapegoat to class struggle.
As soon as Arthur discovers revenge, he unleashes a movement of violent, clown-mask wearing malcontents who wreak havoc on Gotham and its elites. What’s missing from this uprising is a goal apart from mayhem. Lacking both leadership and a set of demands, the clown mob is purely nihilistic. And, like Arthur Fleck, its members embrace violence not as a means but an end.
I found a lot to like about “Joker”: Joaquin Phoenix’s electrifying and kinetic performance; the saturated colors of his clothes and the interiors; the dank Bronx locations that simutaneously evoke the past and future of urban life. Todd Phillips, previously best known for his “Hangover” series, never wavers from this gloomy esthetic, and as a result “Joker” seems like a much better film than it is. But the over-the-top violence makes it a snuff film at times, and Arthur’s killing spree makes sympathy impossible. When I left the theater (along with an audience that seemed even politer than before), I knew that one viewing would last me a lifetime. What I did want to watch again were the films “Joker” pays homage too, though I’ve seen them all multiple times. “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club” all have a coherence that “Joker” aims for and misses. But for a comic book origin movie, it’s first-rate.
August 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
For someone with zero background in physics, I’ve developed quite an interest in quantum mechanics via the Many-Worlds Theory. Given its frequent appearance in literature and film, how could I not?
The Many-Worlds Theory was invented by the Princeton physicist Hugh Everett III, who published his dissertation in 1957. Like the Bohr model and Schrödinger Equation that preceded it, MWT explains the wave-like properties of protons and electrons, but it diverges in important ways: where Bohr and Schrödinger envisioned duality, Everett saw an infinite branching of outcomes. In Everett’s view, each event creates a split, and therefore a parallel universe, each with its own reality. His hypothesis is supported by physics: just as atoms can be in two places at once, so could everything made up of atoms, including us.
Though Everett’s theory was met with derision by Bohr and others for most of his lifetime (he died in 1982, at 51, having left academia to work in the defense and financial industries), it has gradually gained acceptance among theoretical physicists. Today the Many-Worlds Theory is taught and written about in universities, but its greater significance might be in popular culture. Decades after its controversial beginnings, Everett’s work has become a major theme of novels and films.
I first saw it illustrated in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film, “The Double Life of Veronique.” Two identical women, one French and one Polish, both musicians, sense each other’s existence throughout their lives. Though their paths almost cross in Krakow on a single occasion, when Veronique inadvertently captures Veronika in a photo, they never meet. Nonetheless, as Veronique says, “All my life I’ve felt like I was here and somewhere else at the same time.”
Anyone who has wondered how life might have turned out on the road not taken has felt the possibily of parallel worlds. In Bruce Wagner’s 1996 novel, I’m Losing You, the agent Donny Ribkin runs into his ex-girlfriend and experiences a Many-Worlds reverie:
It was two years since the breakup, but their life together–for him–continued on a parallel, spectral track. He watched….as shadow-Donny and shadow-Katherine went about their daily couple-life: saw them vacation and marry, go to movies, buy a house….Their love continued to grow the way nails were said to grow on a corpse.
In the 1998 film, “Sliding Doors,” the world is split by the closing of a train door in the London Underground. When Gwyneth Paltrow’s character misses the train home, her life hurtles away from the one she would have lived if she had caught the train. Though two stories proceed with some similarities, they never converge.
Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which I’ve so far seen three times. Its daring counterfactual ending is so fitting and just that it renders the real events of August 8-9, 1969 fantastical, an unreal nightmare. Whether or not he intended to illustrate Everettian physics, Tarantino has perfectly explained the Many-Worlds Theory: a single event sets into motion a series of others, moving reality onto a different track.
It was in the early 2000’s, considerably after I’d seen its depiction in art, that I learned of the existence of the Many-Worlds Theory. My gateway into quantum mechanics wasn’t film but music: specifically, that of the band Eels, whose frontman (and only full-time member) is Mark Oliver Everett, Hugh Everett’s son. The 2007 documentary “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” follows Mark as he talks about his father’s life and work with physicists, both his father’s former colleagues and current faculty members at Princeton, one of whom is visibly moved to meet his mentor’s son.
The Many-Worlds Theory asserts that time is not an arrow but a fork, branching endlessly. . Because of art, it now enjoys widespread acceptance even among people like me, for whom math and physics were baffling, off-putting subjects. I hope that in some parallel universe, Hugh Everett is pleased.
June 30, 2019 § Leave a comment
Long before “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” there was “The Doors.” Twenty-eight years have passed since Oliver Stone’s ambitious biopic was released in theaters, a span of time that caught me by surprise. Because I’ve seen it several times since on DVD, and because Jim Morrison remains a pop culture legend (more on that in a future post), it’s hard for me to think of “The Doors” as an old movie, but apparently it is.
Fortunately, last Thursday’s screening of “The Doors: The Final Cut,” at the Aero gave me the chance to see it again on a big screen in a re-edited and remastered edition. While the structure is essentially the same–Stone eliminated one superflous scene toward the end–higher picture and sound quality have transformed the film.
When I first saw “The Doors,” I found it uneven and at times chaotic; for years, what I remembered most were the beautifully shot, trippy scenes in the Mojave Desert. This time, the film seemed far more cohesive. Particularly effective is the development of “Light My Fire”, which we follow from Robby Krieger’s initial verse to early renditions to the recording session, followed by ever-bigger live performances. I was impressed by the concert scenes, which quickly progress from electrifying club dates to electrifying stadium shows. From Val Kilmer’s searing portrayal of Jim Morrison to the fully-immersed extras in the audience, the concerts are uncontrived and exciting to watch. Part of this has to do with the improved sound and 4K resolution: technology has caught up with, and enhanced, Stone’s grand vision.
In the Q & A after the screening, Stone mentioned that the naked dancers in the concerts took off their clothes on their own accord. “We didn’t tell them to,” he said, adding that the extras also brought their own performance-enhancing drugs. He pointed out that Val Kilmer, whose voice sounds uncannily like Morrison’s, did about 80% of the singing, an amazing feat.
I was hoping to hear Kilmer’s take on his bravura performance, but as he wasn’t feeling well that night it was left to Stone to praise him. I came away from “The Doors: The Final Cut” with greater admiration for Kilmer’s acting and Stone’s direction, as well as a new appreciation for the film. I’m sure that audiences–including those that never saw the original cut–will love it too.
January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign will remember my articles on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films and the linguistic and cultural confusion they engendered. Some of the problems stemmed from a lack of understanding of Japanese culture by American critics, while others were caused by Kore-eda’s English subtitles.
An example of the latter occurs in “Nobody Knows,” where the criminally neglectful mother refers to herself in English subtitles as “Mother.” Although in Japan it’s standard to refer to oneself by familial title–mother, father, brother, sister–it isn’t in western languages. This led to one American critic using “chillingly” in describing the mother’s perfectly normal Japanese. Clearly, “Mother” should have been translated as “I.”
In light of this, I was relieved that “Shoplifters” has much better subtitles–at least until a key scene near the end. In it, Osamu Shibata, the head of a fictive family of societal throwaways says–according to the English subtitles–to Shota, the boy he has lovingly fathered, “From now on, I’m not your dad.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what he says in Japanese. As spoken by the actor Lily Franky, that pivotal line is: “So, I’ll go back to being your uncle.”
What difference does it make? For starters, what seems to be Shibata’s rejection of the boy he bestowed with his own first name (both Osama and Shibata being pseudonyms) is anything but. He desperately wants to remain a part of Shota’s life, as Kore-eda makes clear when Shibata subsequently runs after the bus Shota is riding. In fact, it is Shota who rejects Shibata by not looking back, though when he is out of sight the boy whispers, “Dad.”
At a reception before the recent Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, I broached the translation with a member of Kore-eda’s production team. She told me that they had discussed the line but decided not to translate it literally because they assumed the word uncle would confuse non-Japanese viewers. “He’s not really his uncle,” she said, and was surprised when I told her that avuncular relationships among people unrelated by blood are common in America and Europe, too.
“Shoplifters” is a masterpiece, and highly deserving of the Palme d’Or it won last year at Cannes. But Kore-eda, who speaks no English, needs a subtitler who understands cultural nuance as well as Japanese and English. There’s so much more to languages than words.