Sunday, May 31, 2009

FotM: Vive le cinéma!

Assuming that the only movies worth watching are those made in America is like thinking that grass is only green in Yosemite, the sky is only blue in Manhattan, and the sun only shines on Death Valley. Unfortunately, a lot of Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews seem to think that that’s how things are. Take it from me. They’re not just wrong. They’re living in a dream world.

Every year, thousands of films are made all over the globe, and, while not all of these films are worth watching, (trust me, as a former screener for a major film festival, I know) far too few of them make it into American movie theaters. Most of those that do were made either on American soil or were funded by American money. Often, even the relatively few foreign films that do make it in stateside theaters don’t receive a lot of press. Sure, a lot of critics might laud a film, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into box office receipts.

I still remember the first time I went to the theater to see a foreign film. It was early 2001 and a film funded by companies from China, Hong Kong, the U.S., and Taiwan had landed in American movie theaters with a bang. At that point, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was one of the first wuxia films to be advertised heavily here in the U.S. and it became quite a sensation. While it’s commonplace nowadays for action scenes to feature complex fight choreography at lightspeed, back then, films like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were introducing a whole new world to 16 year old kids just like me. As for my first time watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I distinctly remember not wanting to walk after leaving the theater. I wanted to fly!

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has since become one of my favorite films, and for a lot more than just the terrific action sequences. The story’s complex, the acting first-rate, the music beautiful, the photography beautiful, the direction wonderfully assured, and the emotional impact unforgettable.

I refuse to watch the film in any language but Mandarin, although the film’s case assures me that I can also watch it in English and French. Why would I want to experience a film in any other language than the one the actors spoke on set? I can’t think of a good reason. Sadly, a lot of people refuse to watch foreign films because they don’t like subtitles. Is this because of they can’t keep up or because they think that it’s too much work? If it’s the first reason, I’d actually argue that watching a subtitled film could help increase a person’s ability to read at a quicker pace. If it’s the second reason, I’d have to disagree. Watching a subtitled film may be different, to be sure, but once you get used to it, it’s a lot like watching any regular old Hollywood flick.

That’s another big reason to watch foreign films. They’re so different from films made under the Hollywood system, and believe me, there is one. I find it refreshing to watch a movie that I just can’t predict. For example, in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, which I hope to write about in a future entry, I was struck as I was watching White that I had no idea what might happen in the next scene. That’s huge. Far too often with mainstream American films, it becomes a matter of time before an observant audience member can narrow down the outcome to one of a handful of scenarios, which is why watching Kieslowski’s films was so refreshing. Because I didn’t understand everything right away, I was able to actively participate in the experience. I had to actually think about what I was watching and, after it was done, what it meant.

Lately, I’ve been watching more and more foreign films, and I have to say that I wish more American filmmakers would take the kind of risks that international filmmakers seem to take with relative ease. For starters, how great would it be if they stopped trying to hold the audience’s hand all the time by showing us everything and telling us exactly what to think about what we’re seeing? I think that’d be pretty swell. My “research” (and, man, has it been great) has led to films from all over the geographic and stylistic map. Films like the Three Colors trilogy, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, A Very Long Engagement, The Lives of Others, L’Enfant, La Vie En Rose, Volver, 2046, Good Bye Lenin!, Pan’s Labyrinth, I’ve Loved You So Long, and Happy-Go-Lucky have made for almost always interesting, sometimes perplexing, and even thrilling cinema.

But how does someone keep track of what films are worth watching? I’d start with taking keeping tabs on the films that are selected as part of the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival, particularly those that win the Palme d’Or. Once you find a film you like, watch more films in that director’s catalog. Also, if there’s a particular genre of film you like, don’t forget that genre films are made all over the world. Personally, there’s this little mobster movie from Italy called Gomorrah that I have my eye on . . .

In the end, what cinephile wouldn't want to see great films no matter where they come from? As you know by now, the movies are a huge part of my life, and I'm thrilled to see great films regardless of where they're made and what language they're in. They remind me that the grass is green, the sky is blue, and, no matter what, the sun still shines. . . and not just in America.


Anonymous said...

I think the international community is slowly but surely having an effect on the narrative of Hollywood films.

It really does seem like there are more and more mainstream films coming out nowadays that are open-ended and a lot more protagonists who are unlikable and irradeemable are being made. Which is something that rarely happened in ages past.

Adam said...

Man, I hope you're right. Hollywood films could really take a hint from some of these guys. There's a maturity there in the filmmaking that's often lacking here with American cinema.

Can you give me an example of some mainstream American movies that you think have been influenced by the international community? I'm curious as to what you think is an example of this trend.

Interestingly, I had this idea today. Do you think that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a film in this vein? Think about it. Benjamin's a very passive character. Everything happens to him and around him without him actually doing much to cause or influence it. In addition, there's at least one sequence that would be quite at home in a European film, particularly one by Jeunet.

Anonymous said...

I do too, I guess we'll find out in the years to come.

Sure thing, although I'm mainly referring to the style of narrative and not the aesthetic since CTHD is pretty unique unto itself regarding that.

Argh! Still need to see Button, I'll get back to you on this when I see it.

Anyway in regards to the examples you asked for:

Memento and The Fountain both had very outside the box story lines in regards to storytelling or at least compared to some of the recent Best Picture winners. In both films, I had trouble figuring out exactly when things happened since they didn't follow a linear time path.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure your familiar with both of those by now but Memento really jolted around in the search for the protagonists missing wife even though you can watch it in linear order on the DVD.

As for The Fountain, its essentially about a man trying to find the secret to everlasting life in three different time periods/locations- Conquistador era Florida, The present day, and the far flung future in space. No explanation is given as to how these three stories connect nor give hint as to which one is the true story of the film.