Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Aren't Foreign Films More Popular Among American Classic Film Fans?

The Beast from Beauty and the Beast.
The good news is that 2015 saw a renewed interest in classic foreign language films. One of my favorite classic movie bloggers, Richard Finch, created a Foreign Film Classics group on Facebook. It now boasts over 725 active members who enthusiastically share their love for international cinema. Also, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) began to regularly show foreign classics in the wee hours of Monday morning (and occasionally in prime time). TCM's selections have ranged from the widely-known (Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast) to the rarely-shown (Ozu's Good Morning).

Toshiro Mifune in Sanjuro.
The bad news is that the majority of classic movie fans seldom discuss or write about foreign films. This blog is no exception. While we have occasionally written about gems like Rules of the Game and Sanjuro, we have focused far more on English-language movies. That has led to some introspection and inspired this editorial which will attempt to delve into the reasons for ignoring international cinema in the classic film community.

Peter Lorre in M.
I'd watch more foreign films if they were more easily available.  This is a valid excuse to some degree. Except for TCM or perhaps your local PBS station, you're not likely to see a foreign language film on television--especially a classic one made before, say, 1980. However, video companies like Criterion and Janus have thrived by releasing foreign classics on DVD--many of which may be available from your local library. And if that's not the case, then check out YouTube where, if you look hard enough, you can discover subtitled prints of great films like Fritz Lang's M for free.

Subtitles are distracting.  If you're watching an old print with poor quality subtitles, you might have a case. I once struggled through an awful print of Les Diaboliques in which the white subtitles were superimposed over a white table in some scenes. You couldn't read any of the dialogue! However, the quality of subtitles--to include the accuracy of the translated dialogue--has improved over the years. Typically, I am conscious of reading the subtitles for about the first five minutes of a foreign film. Then I forget that I'm reading them and it's almost like the film is in English.

Sophia looking pretty iconic.
There are no foreign film stars to compete with American icons like Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and John Wayne.  Fans of Toshiro Mifune, Jean Gabin, Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, and Yves Montand would vehemently disagree with you. And for the record, many "Hollywood stars" actually began their careers making movies in their native countries. These stars include Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Omar Sharif, and Bela Lugosi.

I'm sorry, but I'm just not into artsy-fartsy foreign fare (e.g., just what does that chess game with Death really mean?).  First, the definition of "artsy-fartsy" is subjective (yes, you can quote me on that!). Second, there are artistic films in all cultures. I know plenty of film fans unable to make it through  John Cassavetes' self-indulgent 1968 classic Faces. Second, plenty of foreign fare has no artistic pretensions, but consists solely of entertaining movies that deserve to be seen. These films span all genres, from horror (Suspiria) to Western (Death Rides a Horse) to action film (Police Story) to comedy (Shaolin Soccer).

I can't identify with the culture and/or historical background.  Well, if you're not interested in learning how the rest of the world lives, then you may have a valid reason for not watching foreign films. Personally, I'm fascinated by films set in places and periods that I know little about and will often end up doing my own research to learn more. I secretly believe that someday I'll be on Jeopardy and there'll be a "Final Jeopardy" answer about the Tokugawa shogunate--and I'll know what it is from watching the Lone Wolf and Cub movies.

If you disagree with any of this editorial, please leave a comment below. Dissenting and reinforcing opinions are always welcomed. And if you haven't watched a foreign-language film in awhile, then check one out today and show a little love for international cinema.


19 comments:

Michael said...

Thank you for bringing up this issue, it's one I've meant to call attention to for some time. It worries me, in fact, that American classic film blogs are so deeply American-centric (and so focused on the time when American films were at their least diverse). CMBA somehow can find two blogs about Hitchcock, one about Chaplin, one about Bing Crosby, and none at all about Akira Kurosawa? There's something amiss here. So many of us seem to be serious about film history, and it doesn't make sense for historians to have a major blind spot about the rest of the world.

R. D. Finch said...

Rick, thank you so much for bringing up this issue and directing readers to the Foreign Film Classics Facebook group. I will be messaging you about the proposal you put to me earlier, which got lost in my vacation plans and some personal issues, including illness. You'll hear from me shortly. I thought you made a very strong case for the appeal of foreign language films to the general movie-lover. If you choose wisely, you can find foreign language films that appeal to your particular tastes. And, as with lots of the best movies, whether in English or another language, many deal with themes of universal appeal and truth that transcend cultural differences.

Rick29 said...

There seems to be a perception that foreign films are heavy, artistic affairs. I've often wondered whether the Foreign Film Oscar nominees have contributed to that myth. (Not to go off on a tangent, but there's also something wrong with a process in which a single film is submitted to represent a country for the Oscar.) But, as you said, there are foreign films for all tastes. I find it especially interesting to see how Hollywood films have been influenced by foreign cinema and vice versa. Plus, lest we forget, many of the classics from "Hollywood's Golden Era" were made from filmmakers who immigrated from Europe: Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Jules Dassin, Fred Zinnemann, etc.

emeraldcity said...

I love Indian Movies , I became enamoured of them when I lived in London during the 80's and 90's, the BBC showed one every Saturday afternoon and they were magical.

The classics like Mother India and Pakeezah to The Bandit Queen and newer ones such as Devdas, they manage to cram something for everyone into every movie, drama, tears, laughter, grand romance, great production numbers for the fans of musicals, strong story lines , sympathetic characters, fabulous costumes and sets, great historical sagas and complete cultural immersion for 2 to 3hrs (the average length of an Indian movie), you certainly get your money's worth.

John/24Frames said...

Excellent point Rick. I think too many people have a fear of foreign films, cultures and anything that is different.

Rick29 said...

That's a great story, emeraldcity, and proves that there are thousands of fascinating foreign films out there that most of us don't even know that--but, if given the chance, would love them. I haven't seen many Indian films, and know it's a recent one, but I really enjoyed BRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

antoniod said...

I read that Foreign film had it's highest visibility in the US in the 50s, which surprised me since one doesn't think of the 50s as a particularly cosmopolitan time. But there's the 50s we've been told about, and the 50s that people actually lived in!

Rick29 said...

There may be some truth in that. The 1950s were when Fellini, Bergman, and Kurosawa burst on the scene. Heck, Sophia Loren won a Best Actress Oscar for a foreign-language in the early '60s.

Michael said...

Good post. I just wanted to point out that TCM has shown foreign-language films in a late-night weekend slot for many, many years, at least since 2000.

Bill O said...

Can remember the '50's Sid Caesar doing Kurosawa parodies. Just watched a '52 Jerry Lewis telethon, and he made a Bicycle Thief reference.

Silver Screenings said...

I'm glad you brought this up. I claim to love foreign films, and I see a number of modern foreign films, but I review very few foreign classics. This I must change.

Unknown said...

I think anyone who enjoys classic noir and crime movies would appreciate the work of Jean Pierre Melville and Jules Dassin.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

In our family we have a simpler excuse for not watching foreign films : most of them are too darn depressing. We're old-fashioned and like our entertainment to entertain. Nevertheless, I love Japanese dramas of the 1980s, French comedies ( praise to Jacques Tati ) and ALL British films ( but those don't count as foreign, of course ).

Rick29 said...

I agree. Plus, several of Dassin's films are easily available.

Rick29 said...

I think you're just watching the wrong foreign films! Check out foreign films like Le Million, My Father's Glory, and Day For Night.

toto2 said...

Shortly after the dinosaurs ruled the earth and I was an undergrad, I loved taking film classes and seeing 16 mm films shown at some other venues. This was how I came to appreciate several foreign films. I don't know if these opportunities still exist on college campuses or if everyone simply watches DVDs.

Lesley said...

Great post and excellent point, thank you so much for bringing it up. I came of age as a moviegoer when cities and university campuses showed all kinds of movies, from Hollywood classics to foreign films. If you were interested in movies you saw all kinds of films, and it was exciting to be exposed to different cultures and artistic movements. That environment, where art houses could make a living and when a foreign film like The Red Shoes might run at one theater for a couple of years, is gone forever. I totally agree that we should include more international films in our championing of classic movies, and at the same time (don't hate me) I worry that I won't even get the traffic I do if I write about movies most people don't know and aren't interested in learning about. In a better world I would be thrilled to lead people toward great foreign classic films, but in this one I feel like protecting and extending the reach of classic Hollywood movies may be all I can actually handle.

Rick29 said...

Lesley, regardless of what we may say, I think all of us movie bloggers want to write posts that people read. And I think that does contribute to why lesser-known films, to include foreign-language ones, are covered less often. As I said, I am guilty, too, and hope to do better!

Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't get much into foreign films for two reasons.
1) I find reading subtitles distracting.
2) It's very difficult to get good ratings on foreign films somewhere like IMDB (there is a bias for Betty Davis, for most foreign films, and against comedies)