Friday, April 7, 2017

Their Local Idioms

While there have been moments in the history of film when the American film industry did not have dominion over worldwide film distribution, since the end of the Second World War, when European film production had to start again from scratch and European film markets were taken over piecemeal by American production companies, Hollywood has been the dream factory for the world.

The monopolization of foreign film markets by Hollywood has advanced apace since then, with American films taking a greater share of the available markets for exhibition all over Europe. The cream of European filmmaking has far outdistanced American film in terms of maturity and aesthetic quality,(1) but American films at their best are designed to attract a larger audience. Consequently, films made in Europe have often had to be protected by government subsidy, since they cannot hope to compete with American films in ticket sales. 

Some people are profoundly disturbed by this trend, while others see it purely in terms of survival of the fittest. If more people, all over the world, want to spend their money to watch an American film rather than a film made in their own country, in their local languages, then foreign films should be allowed to compete - and perish - in an open market free from protectionist controls. Whether or not a nation has the right to preserve its culture at whatever cost doesn't appear to be a matter for consideration.

So why is it, everywhere in the world where English isn't spoken, and where Hollywood stars are as well known as they are in the U.S., that there are enough French people who want to watch French films, Italians who want to watch Italian films, Japanese who want to watch Japanese films, despite the debatable belief that the American films on offer at any given time offer more entertainment potential?  

For more than a century - in fact, ever since its invention - Film has been called a "universal" medium. Primarily employing images to communicate, it ostensibly transcends every spoken language barrier. But this is only superficially correct. There are cultural barriers that transcend even images that are sometimes stubbornly insurmountable.

In my experience of filmgoing I have seen films from virtually everywhere in the world and I have found that there is no language barrier that cannot be overcome. In fact, there is no language barrier. If it takes me a little while longer to adjust to the rhythm of a film - as it took me, for example, to adjust to the measured pace, like that of traditional Indian music, of the films of Satyajit Ray - then so much the better for me. The rewards that the adjustment have brought me over the years far outweighed my initial maladjustment. Or if I have to adjust to a different manner of acting, which is probably closer to a different manner of being, then I have made the adjustment and come out of the encounter with a different culture - to the greatest extent of the difference - victorious.

In an article published on the Film School Rejects website, "Why Can’t We Accept Foreign Films on Their Own Terms? A simple plea for less remakes and more appreciation for global cinema," Jamie Righetti wonders why Hollywood finds it necessary to remake the wonderful 2016 German film Tony Erdmann, even if it brings Jack Nicholson out of retirement to play the lead role.

"The remake, like so many others, begs the question: why can’t we just appreciate the original? ... Cinema is a vital tool in allowing audiences to learn about, empathize with and understand other cultures. Film is in a unique position to allow viewers to traverse thousands of miles, speak a multitude of languages and uncover the universal similarities at the root of humanity, all while sitting in a theater. With American politics all too often being defined by xenophobia and exclusion these days, global cinema is needed more than ever. Rather than well-intentioned remakes, we should be celebrating and promoting cinema from around the world to help us tear down walls and insure that the voices all too often diminished or ignored finally find a larger audience and get to share their story with the world."(1)

By now, Righetti's question sounds more than a little disingenuous. Remakes have been an important part of Hollywood film production since the silent era. There are famous - and just as many infamous - examples of this practice, like remaking Julian Duvivier's PepĂ© le Moko shot by shot and calling it Casbah, or suppressing Thorold Dickinson's excellent suspense film Gaslight and turning it into a vehicle for the young new star, newly stolen from Sweden, Ingrid Bergman. 

Sometimes, a foreign director who has scored a success in his home country will be called upon to direct the American remake of his own film, with almost invariably deplorable results. Dutch director George Sluizer made the superb film whose English title was The Vanishing. For reasons that are still unclear, he accepted the offer to direct the Hollywood remake, replete with American stars like Jeff Bridges. Despite changing the ending to an upbeat one, the Hollywood replica of Sluizer's clever thriller was a complete disaster. 

The Roman playwright Terence wrote that "Nothing human is alien to me." Movie audiences tacitly proclaim, "Nothing alien is human to me" by refusing to accept foreign films on their own terms. The simple fact that the Oscars continue to award foreign films in a separate category demonstrates Hollywood's unwillingness to accept that they are of equal quality and value to American films.

With all of this in mind, let me examine the foreign film industry in the Philippines as an example of how their films have managed to survive for decades, despite the inroads of Hollywood film distribution both within the country and throughout the rest of East Asia. At the very outset I feel obliged to point out that the foreign films that Americans see every year are the exceptional few that are considered good enough for export. The run-of-the-mill films produced in France, Italy, Mexico, etc. are rarely, if ever, seen abroad, which is probably just as well.

The first thing you should know is that the language spoken in Filipino movies - Tagalog - is one that is actually spoken by a small minority of the population. Yet it is the official language of the country. Everyone else speaks some other dialect, like Visayan, Pampangan, Cebuano, etc., or a hybrid argot called "Taglish," in which the speakers shift effortlessly - and inexplicably - between Tagalog and English.

I have long contemplated (or, more accurately, threatened) a personal account of my encounters with the Filipino movie. Every time I got started, I gave up after a few paragraphs. The vast majority of Filipino movies, which are not intended for export except to Filipino communities all over the planet, are probably no more execrable than the majority of movies, intended for export or not, made anywhere else. Yet for reasons hard to explain but simple to show, Filipino movies are beyond my powers of appreciation. I simply cannot like them. Having lived in the Philippines now for almost a decade, I must admit that the run-of-the-mill Filipino movies are perhaps not as bad as I have found them to be. It is just that they definitely seem to be. 

In the 1960s, John Simon expressed his observation that all Japanese films have a beginning, a middle, and five endings. Just when you reach the point where you think the film is going to end, it continues for another reel (or two, or three). I have found this to be just as true of Filipino films, except that I don't think it has anything to do with cultural differences as much as they are the consequence of draconian budget constraints and skimpy technical skill.

But I have noticed how invariably Filipinos, when offered a choice of films to watch between a technically perfect American or Chinese film - even one dubbed in Tagalog (3) - and a Filipino film with its shaky structure and cheesy effects, its mirthless humor and childish sentimentality, they will choose the latter. I am not the ideal ambassador for Hollywood, but when I make suggestions to my Filipino housemates on what movies might provide them with the biggest bang for their buck (the best potential for mindless entertainment), they pay no attention to me. And they are right. Every place in the world off the beaten track, Hollywood takes a back seat to native cinema. And all their efforts to monopolize the market in the boondocks have failed.(4)

(1) I am not one of the proliferating number of critics (who are closer to being fans) who rate solid entertainment like Vertigo and The Searchers as high - or higher - than The Rules of the Game, L'Avventura, and Persona.  
(2) Jamie Righetti, "Why Can't We Accept Foreign Films on Their Own Terms?",, Feb 9, 2017.
(3) The appetite of Filipinos for American films and films made in the rest of Asia is nonetheless considerable, and there is a thriving demand for films dubbed into Tagalog (but, significantly, none that I am aware of for dubbing Filipino films into English, Cantonese, Korean, et al).
(4) Boondock (bundok) is a Filipino word that literally means "mountain," or a distant, unreachable place.

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