Shortly after we moved to Mondoville, I stopped by the local video store and picked up a copy of The Seventh Seal — fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, medievalists gotta watch that movie, right? When I got to the counter, the clerk said, “You know this is subtitled, right?” I said that was a good thing, as I don’t speak Swedish. He said, “I know, but we’ve had people complain, so now we just tell everybody.” I thanked him, and added that I’d stop watching when I got tired of moving my lips. We laughed, and I went on my way.
I was reminded of this by a short post at Now, one of Toronto’s alternaweeklies. The occasion for the post is the fact that Steven Spielberg has bought the rights to the movie Starbuck, a Canadian film about a Quebecois sperm donor who learns that he is the father of some 500 kids. However, Spielberg hasn’t bought the film with an eye toward distributing it here — instead, he’s going to remake it. This is somewhat understandable — the subtitle thing, the Godzilla-esque pitfalls of dubbing, and so forth — but it causes Now‘s Susan G. Cole to wonder about the “Americanization” of foreign films. Why, for example, was it necessary to transplant La Cage aux Folles to Miami?
Cole chalks it up to some sort of American xenophobia — which strikes me as rather chauvinistic in itself — but I think the question is legit.
[American filmmakers a]re always turning to books for cinematic inspiration, but I can’t blame them for that. Adaptation is an art. Remakes are not. Three Men And A Baby (1987), based on a 1985 French film and one of the first American remakes, like Tattoo added very little to the original concept.
I think it’s all about the subtitles. Some of us assume that a film with subtitles will be artful and high-quality, given how few foreign films get distribution deals in the first place. Others run the other way.
And then I guess that there are those of us who are in between, like your genial host. Some of my favorite movies have subtitles; my least favorite movie ever was in English. And I’ve seen thoroughly indifferent Americanized versions of foreign films. Meanwhile, quite a few of the kids here at Mondoville adore anime with subtitles.
So what’s the deal? Why did we have to move Martin Guerre to the American South? Why do we have to move Starbuck to the U.S. ? I’m not interested in answers along the lines of “Cuz Murricans is stoopid” or “Cuz furrin movies are all about gay cowboys eating pudding.” But I do wonder why our filmmakers seem determined to make foreign movies that are lost in translation.