Friday, May 15, 2015

Speaking of language

I have never posted sponsored content on 4DK and have no plans to do so. Still, inspiration can come from some strange places. For example, the online translation startup whose representative contacted me this week to ask if I would be interested in participating in a blogging project they had cooked up. The object of this project—which I think can fairly be referred to as a “blogathon”--was to have various bloggers examine the part played by language in film, in particular through the discussion of an English language remake of a foreign film that, to each writer’s eyes, had bettered the original. Of course, bloggers being the internet’s tireless providers of free content, there was no money involved (hey, I had to ask.) But, just as I was about to type a polite refusal, it occurred to me that I was the perfect person to address these questions, even if not in the way that these folks intended.

My relationship to language in film is a complicated one. As most longtime readers know, I watch a lot of foreign language films without the benefit of subtitles, in most cases because this is the only form in which I can find them. I have become so used to the practice that I often return to old favorites--Rani aur Jaani, say, or Chor Yuen’s The Black Rose--and am surprised to find them sub-free. These films have no less emotional resonance for me than they would if I knew the specifics of what the characters on screen were yakking away about. The reason for this, I think, is that, while I may not understand the spoken tongue of any given foreign picture, I am conversant in the language of film, and of genre film in particular.

I would even say that watching untranslated movies can have its benefits. For example, understanding the dialog of a film can cause you to get wrapped up in the intricacies of its plot to the detriment of seeing the broader picture that it’s painting. And by this I refer to the tropes, quotations and commonalities that make up the language by which films themselves speak to each other across borders. It is on this level of language where you stumble upon minor epiphanies like the fact that Rififi had just as much of an impact on Egyptian, Indian and Japanese crime films as it did upon Western ones, or that no culture has yet mastered the art of creating a comic relief character who even approaches being tolerable.

When stripped of language, genre films speak through their archetypes. While all film cultures cater to popular tastes with costumed superheroes and dashing secret agents, they also serve up their fair share of wayward teens, femme fatales, and hard luck cases looking for one last payday. It is these familiar figures that provide a welcoming entryway for the outsider into an otherwise foreign cinematic world. Once comfortably inside, he can then step back and look at the context in which these archetypes are presented—rewarded or punished, judged or empathized with, highlighted or sidelined—to get some sense of the culture that is contextualizing them. In this way, I believe, the commonalities of film, its international language, can serve to at once highlight difference while reducing its friction.

By all of this I in no way mean to say that language is unimportant to film, but I nonetheless think that looking at film without it forces a new perspective on the level of its importance—in addition to, I hope, refocusing attention on film’s more elementary pleasures. It is, after all, those films that depend most on dialog that travel farthest from being pure cinema.

Nothing could illustrate this point better than my choice, were I to engage with the project of making one (which I guess I am), of the rare English language remake that is better than its foreign language inspiration. For me that would be Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, which I feel is better than Hideo Nakata’ Ringu, not because it’s in English, but simply because it is the scarier film—one that establishes a dynamic rhythm to its shocks where Nakata’s film flatlines under the weight of its own relentless portentousness. That said, both films feature some inarguably powerful sequences (Sadako crawling out of the TV, that goddamn horse), almost all of which depend very little to not at all on dialog for their impact.

I think it is also salient that both The Ring and Ringu are films about a film--a film which, through its oblique visual symbols, speaks a language of its own, one that both seduces and entraps the viewer via the power of it very impenetrability. If you have seen the film, you might feel my words have not done this aspect of it justice. If you have not, it’s best that you just watch it for yourself. Language, in this instance, fails me in communicating its terrible beauty.

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