Of course it doesn’t hurt to grow up in a European-American family. Where the world that revolves around you speaks another language, has different values, talks about the old country and you begin to look at America as a second home. Watching foreign films for me has always felt as if I were welcomed; as one of theirs who got away. That I was getting a sneak peek into a home that existed but that I had never lived in; yet it felt like it belonged to me. There was a sense of familiarity about it. Déjà vu.
Foreign film observation began at home, not with my family but with Kukla, Fran and Ollie. This was a children’s program that featured the puppets Kukla and Ollie and their friend Fran who would host a film from around the world each week. There is a website to learn more about this but unfortunately very difficult to get the actual films. Hello Netflix?!? This would certainly be a great program for you to buy. Since Kukla, Fran and Ollie was an American program, all the characters were dubbed with British English from what I recall. I didn’t realize it was dubbing as a child, I just though everyone spoke English with a cute accent. There may have been a couple of programs with subtitles but I can’t recall. I do remember circus bears on the loose, a Cinderella story with a bird that would say “Koo-koo-ri-koo, Who is the one for you?” and other wonderful adventures that kids would get themselves into.
As an adult, I had quite forgotten about foreign films for a few years and then, while managing a records and tapes (i.e., VHS and cassettes) store in Los Angeles (this was the onset of Compact Discs too), I suddenly re-acquainted myself with the genre once more. You’ve probably heard this phrase said for other reasons but I will use it here for this “Once you go foreign, you will never turn to American ever again.” Settle down and grab your Cadbury, Lindt or Toblerone (a reason to never eat American chocolate again) and enjoy the show!
1. Subtitles are not that difficult. If you are literate you will get used to it. If you like tennis, you already know how to bob; only now it is vertical instead of horizontal.
2. Foreign films are intellectual and a realistic view of life. It helps to look within as you view the characters that resonate with your own feelings, strengths and weaknesses. If you are pissed off at the character there is something within you that is just like them and this bothers you. If you are so passionate about the lovers that you feel ill inside when they are kept apart, even at the end of the movie, and are depressed for several days after, that’s not entertainment folks, that is the mark of a great film.
3. There are no happy endings because the world is not a happy place. No one lives happily ever after and no one says that tireless bs that you see in cookie cutter films, here in the U.S. Yet at the end of a foreign film, you will be thinking about the ending for days and weeks on end, still wondering “What if?” just like the one film the U.S. got right in “Gone With the Wind.” If a film isn’t bugging you for some time after, it wasn’t worth it.
4. When they are funny, it is sarcastic humor. Life is never funny when you have had your village annihilated by Hitler or your country was taken over by communists or the British or someone who had power during those years in question. So you laugh because you can’t cry anymore or because you know that this is a memory that will be replaced in the future, or you nod your head in some form of cultural agreement.
5. When it is really dark, the writer has pulled out some psychological button that you have thought about but never dared to speak in public. These are the best moments because you almost feel a sense of guilt that someone else was thinking it too. You can almost feel a kinship but it is too perverse to even smile. If someone sees this on your face, they will know your deepest secrets.
6. The French could be called perverse but the Chinese have upped it to a degree you won’t even see in a pornographic film. I’ve had to turn it off because it was hitting the “ick” zone in a way that, well, wasn’t in my bureau for psychological buttons but it could be in yours. The French tried even harder with Nymphomania 2 but since I only read the abstract on Wikipedia and decided Part I was enough for me, I couldn’t be too sure.
7. India has it all, film, musical, romance and absolutely NO SEX. Yet you get so caught up in the story, you actually forget that the lovers never once touched anything except their hands – if that. That is good storytelling. It is quite rich in family values and I think they are a must to watch for all virgins as the female leads are all very good role models. Yes, it is all about weddings but the brides all deserve to wear white, even if that isn’t their custom. They all gain a deep amount of respect which is really the point.
8. Hungary has mostly been poor depressing people up until this past decade. They have begun to bring in some modern storylines, some good, some depressing because you can see how much the country has been ruined by capitalism and the other word one dares not say. The older films however, really teach you a lot about all those years of history, how people survived. So don’t get squeamish when you see a horse being butchered in the street and morsels handed out to kids to take home to their parents (in their bare hands). You really get a sense that this is what it is like to live so desperately in tough times.
9. The Spanish have Pedro Almodóvar who has directed some hilariously dark comedies or as the French say Film Noir. Penelope Cruz appears to be his muse and while she could be said to be the most beautiful woman in the world, (now topped by Fahriye Evcen from Turkey or shall I say Feride in Lovebird), I’ve seen Ms. Cruz get really really ugly and that is acting! I am not talking about looking dirty but having bleached teeth when she smiles either. I am talking unrecognizable as in “Don’t Move.” If you watch the extras in a take home film, they have her act out different moods while sitting on a stool and it is here that you are able to see how a real actress performs, without costume and script. “Don’t Move,” is probably the most beautiful I have ever seen Ms. Cruz in a movie, even though she is portrayed as a really ugly woman. The character’s personality, especially at the end, it is quite moving.
10. The Turks really love to mess with your mind by making you feel such love for the couple that you feel they have stabbed your own heart at the end because they never end up together. I think it must be a sin to show true love on film and they have to get around it this way. I’ve recently found myself turned on to their films since Netflix is my new foreign film delivery service. At first I thought everyone in the family had the last name of Bey. It took me awhile to realize the women weren’t called this and then to see that the neighbors who were called this were not their brothers. I assume it means Mr. as in Monsieur or Herr or Señor. This is the great thing about foreign films; you learn a new language – at least a few words that would give you some understanding when you travel abroad.
11. The Italians have Sophia and Gina and well, now they have Luca Zingaretti, for the ladies. As a young girl I looked up to these beautiful women, now I am the older woman and I am more focused on the handsome older men. Inspector Montalbano is like Bruno Cremer in Maigret (with a better body, though Bruno was sexy) or John Thaw in Inspector Morse (still anal but not a heavy drinker). These are the kind of men who you hope inhabit your local police force but are pretty sure they don’t. The Italians remind you that the mafia is still alive and Italian-Americans aren’t faking Italian (except that ridiculous reality show). They probably talk more with their hands in NYC then Rome and more on the streets than in the professional world.
12. The Brits are hands down the easiest to understand because we speak their language – or do we? Nope, you have to learn the slang and the accent. “If truth be told,” a fag is a cigarette, getting pissed means you are drunk, serviettes are napkins, napkins are diapers, a boot is the trunk of your car, and so on. Try the British “Mars” bars too, much more richer and delightful. Stay away from the “All Sorts” though if you can’t stand licorice like me. By far they have the best TV shows that capture forensic episodes with real people not cute models. You have to add any film with Bill Nighy to your list; sexy and hilarious for a too skinny guy. There are lots of other old blokes over there that play character actors better than our big stars here. When you see them appear on a film (and once you get to know them you can get excited with only the opening credits), you know you are in for a treat. Great actors like this know how to carry a film and how to pick one too.
13. The women in foreign films are real people. I mean you feel like they are your neighbors and this is what gives you the sense that you are welcomed into the story. You know these women and men, it seems you have met them before. Sure there are the outstanding looking beauties but generally they aren’t playing the outstanding looking beauty in the film. Often, they will take a less gorgeous lady and dress her up and suddenly she is the most beautiful woman in the world. It is the character that makes her or him very lovely, not the costume though. When I think of Bruno Cremer in Maigret, we are looking at a slightly obese man with a huge mole on his face, yet the character he is playing respects women, dresses sharp, smokes a pipe – which is quite debonair, is loyal to his wife and the most intelligent man on the show (that is the funny part which you have to see it to get it). We are so stuck on size 3 waists here and no one really has this except models and actresses, people you will never meet. The majority of the women in foreign films are an average sized woman of a size 8-12.
14. If you find that the movie is going along very slowly and seems almost boring, just trust the director. This is building a scene for a particular purpose or a character or a culture. If you are patient, it will all make sense and by the end of the film you are going to really appreciate those opening scenes because it will all begin to come together. Sometimes the beginning can be really weird too with a lot of confusing scenes, trying to introduce so much in a short space. Again, stay still, trust the director, it is going somewhere good. I often find this is a clue that something better will come.
15. You will be so moved by foreign films that your tears will fall for the first time for a reason that you know will change your life forever.