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A Beginner’s Guide to Classic Cinema Part II: Reading at the Theater

The iconic sceneSo now that you’ve no doubt been inspired to rush out and watch the entirety of AFI’s top 100 list what will you do with yourself? You no doubt have developed an insatiable thirst for increasing quantities of celluloid and you’re looking to branch out again.

Just sit right down here and we’ll have a little chat about films with subtitles. Despite what you may have been led to believe over the years movies are in fact made outside of Hollywood. In fact, one of my all time favorite film series’ is shot in jolly old England. For my English-speaking friends who, like me, have failed to learn any other language foreign films often present a hurdle in the fact they are filmed in said other languages. There are two ways to overcome this. Distributors can hire actors to re-dub the voice soundtrack in the target language, this is most common in Japanese and Chinese films, or the distributor can simply use subtitles, as is common in many European films.

I’ve met many a movie goer who will decry subtitles as distracting and taxing. I have never found this to be the case. A good example is the 2001 BAFTA award winner Amelie. The French film is subtitled for English viewers and the first thing I think of when Amelie is discussed is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s use of  bold colors, not sitting in my friend’s freshman dorm room reading subtitles. The film has incredibly striking visuals and it introduced me to a Paris that wasn’t the dark and dreary filth covered city I had previously imagined. In fact, there are some films that I don’t even recall as having subtitles, such as Roberto Benigni‘s La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful). The hauntingly comic portrayal of a father’s attempt to shield his son’s innocence in the midst of a concentration camp is an incredible film. As I watched the movie I began to notice that my mind was giving Benigni’s voice to the subtitles and it became as though the subtitles were not even present. The mind is an amazing thing. A poorer example is the first time I saw Goldeneye I was in Bolivia and the movie was shown with Spanish subtitles. I had just taken a year of Spanish the year before so I tried to follow along. Now instead of hearing Boris Grishenko’s catchphrase as “I am invincible!” I always remember it as “Soy de invencible!” Despite the fact I never actually heard it pronounced that way.

Ah, you can't even see the subtitles can you? It's just that beautiful.

The fact is subtitles are used in many amazing films, and are even used for effect in movies like Hunt for the Red October and Kill Bill. Dubbing is certainly an option, but often the movie loses something in the switch. As I said before, more often than not an east Asian film will be dubbed rather than subtitled and I often find the obviously American sounding voice distracting. We’re already losing a bit of the dialogue’s finesse in translating it to another language, why damage it further by changing the voice actor? Coming back to Bond films, Sean Connery’s voice was dubbed over for the French release. I mean can you imagine Goldfinger without Connery’s iconic voice? Me neither. This point is made hilariously obvious when you see American films and television dubbed for Mexican release, or in the case of this link, German.

So if we’re willing to accept subtitles what other exciting avenues can we explore? Might I suggest the absence of dialogue? The silent era may conjure images of Charlie Chaplin hopping around with his mustache and cane, but wait. There’s more. Some of the original horror film concepts began in the silent era, and well-known actors set the genre’s tone for years to come. Silent films introduced the world to the moving picture and this powerful new medium was a conduit for propaganda with such films as The Battleship Potemkin, and The Birth of a Nation, but it also produced some amazing feats. The lack of dialogue required actors to emote in obtuse body language that is comical by today’s standards, yet when done correctly it lends a power to scenes that are rarely found in modern cinema. The greatest reason to examine silent films, in my mind, is the work of the German film maker Fritz Lang. Again, we find propaganda issues. His 1931 film “M” was spliced up and used by Hitler to depict the depravity of society. Which is really too bad because “M” is a fascinating film. Lang’s greatest triumph came four years earlier when he released a sprawling epic that I believe to be the greatest science fiction film of all time. I delved into Metropolis at length in our movie review premier here at Faceplant! but allow me to reiterate a few points.

At its release Metropolis was the longest film with the largest budget ever produced and while those features do not in and of themselves pave the path to greatness, they point to the grand scale of the project. The movie not only introduced new and amazing special effects, but its story is as engrossing as any Leonardo DiCaprio film. It captures the breadth of humanity as it stood at the height and depth of a pre-depression economy and instead of pointing to violent revolt against the established systems as did many of Lang’s contemporaries, it appealed to the humanity within us all through mutual understanding. This is accomplished in the backdrop of a fantastic and wonderful science fiction and without real dialogue. Metropolis introduced a humanoid robot so sleek and modern in its design that it would be modeled for years to come and would in fact become the icon for the film itself.

But look at me rambling on again. I do have a couple more points to make in an effort to turn you into an all out film geek, but for now I’ll let you explore the world I hope I have opened for you.


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