In Their Skin (2012)

Dir. Jeremy Power Regimbal, 97 min., Canadian (with some odd pronunciations, eh?), at the Chicago International Film Festival

Nicole and I managed to wedge in one more film from the CIFF, and what a surprise, it was another horror film.

In Their Skin tells the story of the Hughes family, who has just recently lost their young daughter. The father, Mark (Joshua Close) and mother, Mary (Selma Blair) have a marriage that is reduced to shambles, and a trip to their swanky cottage out of season is clearly the last attempt at salvaging their relationship and family (they have a young son).

After arriving, Mark encounters an oddball “family” inexplicably stocking the woodpile outside his back door at the crack of dawn. After a tense encounter, Mark invites them over for dinner along with his brother (apparently trying to interject anything and anyone into the mix to dispel the unbearable tension between himself and Mary). At the dinner, it becomes clear that the neighbors they have invited into their house are not in the same social class by a longshot, as they ask question after uncomfortable question of them, including such class reminders as “How does someone get a house like this?” and “I’ve never had dinner with a lawyer before,” etc. The situation escalates until you have a standard, though slightly amped up version of a home invasion thriller.

In the Q and A following the film, Regimbal made it clear that the class difference was central to the architecture of the plot, yet I found a bit of fault in the standard privileged urbanite=good/victim versus hillbilly=bad dichotomy that this film perpetuates. Coming from a small town, not everyone is a deranged hick waiting to violate and kill your family, I promise. Most horror films tend to desperately cling to this mantra, and this film does little to challenge it; there is a lackluster attempt to prove that rich urbanites are not perfect, but mostly they struggle with “rich person problems” while the crazy hicks act all stupid crazy.

In our post film discussion, Nicole pointed out to me that there was a lot of subtext about identity and how people freely give away information, which in itself is a huge anxiety explored in horror films. I admit I missed that subtext a bit, and that dimension salvages the film for me. The original title of this film was Replica, which makes sense given the later revelations of the antagonists with respect to identity theft. I suppose that a rewatch might reveal that the initial conversations which appeared only as odd might in fact contain a great deal of suspenseful probing as Nicole suggested.

And, as it happens, a rewatch (or first viewing in your case) is not out of the question as the film will open next month in U.S. and Canadian markets. To me, the film was strongly reminiscient of Cape Fear (1991) in many of it’s plot points. Also, Rachel Miner (who plays the crazy lady) appears to have taken lessons from the Juliette Lewis school of acting. I also heard Funny Games (2007) bandied about during Q and A, though I haven’t seen it. If you are into home invasion thrillers, this film is a solid entry with some interesting subtext that offers a slightly new contribution, but ultimately needed a bit more ingenuity to make an original contribution to the genre.


Don’t Click (2012)

Dir. Tae-kyeong Kim, 91 min., Korean with English subtitles, at the Chicago International Film Festival

Nicole and I went to the (most likely) one and only film from the CIFF that we can fit into our schedule this year due to dissertation / conference related activities, and it was pretty decent. If you have the time and a little cash, you can check out the festival all through this week at AMC River East. I recommend advanced ticket purchases if you care a great deal about a film, but you can get box office tickets pretty easily.

The description of this film offers it up as an “updated version of cult Japanese horror film Ringu for the dot-com generation,” and though there are some similarities, it doesn’t resemble much about Ringu from what I can remember of the film. Both involve viewing and distributing a disturbing piece of video linked to a vicious ghost, but Don’t Click offers a much fresher take on the archetypal chain letter anxiety that is at once similar, and also distanced from traditional narratives of this type.

(I should note here that I don’t have character names since the film is not listed on IMDB, so I have to use stock descriptions of the characters in my plot summary not out of disrespect, but necessity since I didn’t take any notes.)

Adding to those typical anxieties is a pervasive sense of surveillance, which I found really interesting having just read a bit about social media surveillance and having attending a conference where privacy was discussed extensively (one of the professors on my dissertation committee who gave a talk at the conference is a privacy expert as well). The landscape in which the characters interact is not only flooded with top down surveillance in the form of store surveillance cameras and CCTV public safety cameras, but it is also dominated by peer surveillance in the form of cell phone cameras. The protagonist of the film, when she notices disturbing behavior from her teenage sister (whom she cares for) installs surveillance cameras in her home, as well as a mobile camera and GPS tracking device in a Trojan teddy bear placed in her room.

It’s no coincidence that the protagonist’s boyfriend works as a consultant to a computer crime division at a law enforcement agency. The boyfriend approaches the little sister to help mend his relationship to big sis, but the little sister demands a banned viral video which approximates the cursed videotape in Ringu or it’s Americanization, The Ring (2002).

A a quasi-spoiler (I’m not sure what it would spoil, but it may ruin something for you if you want to watch): it turns out that the ghost can only kill you when you see yourself on camera, be it cell phone, CCTV, or other. The film in general takes great care to make computing, the use of cell phones, and all technology-associated camera work convincing, which is something that American films sorely lack. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been irrationally aggravated at people typing in search engine text boxes that are right-aligned, or using some operating system that is clearly Windows, but disguised for some stupid reason (probably related to copyrights or defamation). I wanted to ask(/compliment) the director about this, but the Q and A was short due to the end time of the screening (12:30am) and the need for questions and answers to be translated.

Some minor aspects of the film failed in the international setting. The subtitles were poorly done (I assume at the last minute) and difficult to read/understand. Also, a lot of the semantic web content had captions that appeared for only a fraction of a second. It is obviously a tough problem to capture content of that nature: popular websites for us have a familiar appearance that we grow accustomed to and need only view for a fraction of a second to glean their meaning. Try looking at some sites from your past on and seeing if you can recognize them then versus now. Unfamiliar layouts, colors, and other branding issues really obscure what we’re supposed to be seeing (in addition to the obvious language barrier). I assume Korean internet users got much more out of those brief screen shots that I did.

Apart from the information gap, there was a huge amount of screaming in the film. At some points, I was reminded of the dinner table scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The volume was poorly adjusted, so it was piercingly loud. If you know me, you know that I am deaf as a post, and it was still painful to experience the shrill screaming for at least 50% of the film’s runtime at the volume in that theater room at AMC River East. In this case, a home viewing might have been preferable as I left the theater with a splitting headache.

You can still get tickets for the showing on Friday, 10/19, though the director will not be present for Q and A.


Remakes: Subtitles and “Americanization”

subtitle example
In a thoughtful piece on sequels, the film industry, and what qualifies as a film, Roger Ebert echoes many critics in calling summer 2011 the “summer of the sequel.” This summer, I plan on writing a few blog entries on different types of sequels and remakes, the so called recycled and repackaged content that major label studios heat up and serve like so much leftover meatloaf. First up, subtitles and “Americanizations.”

The common perception of Americans is that we don’t enjoy watching films with subtitles, but I have a hard time believing that. It certainly isn’t for lack of ability that Americans don’t pay to see subtitled films in theaters: the United States is in a many-way tie for 20th in global literacy rate (99%). It’s not because we don’t like foreign films or actors, especially when it comes to action films (Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, and many others are household names who broke into the American market through subtitled martial arts films). Why do subtitled films get such a bad rap?

Horn and Beale in a 2010 LA Times article argue that distribution systems for good foreign films are not in place in the U.S., and marketing expectations are over inflated (most films won’t get a distribution deal if gross takes are expected to fall short of the $1M mark). It seems like a logical argument, since comparing gross takes from a film that receives limited art-house distribution with, say, Transformers: Dark side of the Moon (or whatever it’s called), tells you nothing about the quality or popularity of those titles. In fact, it seems logical that if Transformers were released in only a few theaters nationwide, and there were no marketing in the form of endless TV, radio, and internet spots, then it would probably fare no better than a foreign language film. (Some Hollywood releases might as well be in a foreign language with no subtitles, as the dialogue is just filler that sets the impossibly small stakes for the amped up action sequences.)

Are we lazy perhaps, unwilling to read in a medium where sound and movement dominate? Maybe the subtitles are too distracting? The answer to both is “no.” Accessibility, viewing environments, and complex visual displays all provide formats whereby commonplace, everyday manifestations of assistive, reiterative, or supplemental text-on-screen scenarios occur. For instance, think about the following scenarios: watching television at a gym or a bar, watching a safety video on an airplane, the news or stock price “ticker” on a cable news channel. These are all situations where text is a welcome (perhaps tolerated) and distraction free substitute for, or addition to visual and aural components. I’m not arguing that subtitles in a motion picture are exactly the same thing as the scenarios I mentioned, but they are not too far off in some cases.

Are we lazy perhaps, unwilling to read in a medium where sound and movement dominate? Maybe the subtitles are too distracting? The answer to both is “no.”

From a communications standpoint, a lot of communication is done with facial expressions, gesticulation, tone of voice, and other elements that are not completely tied to the semantic content of spoken words. In artistic performances, much more communication occurs through camera angles and effects as well as music (sometimes to the point of cliche). If you watch a foreign language film with no subtitles, especially in cultures that are similar to ours, you could probably understand much of what is going on without having a clue what the characters are saying. In fact, you could probably describe the major plot points with a surprising amount of accuracy, adjusting for cultural differences that skew your perception. So what are the subtitles really telling us?

That seems to me to be wholly dependent on the genre. Genres such as action films, which enjoy a wide popularity in the U.S. regardless of language, don’t tend to place as much emphasis on dialogue. For instance, you could easily watch Fearless and pick up what’s going on without one lick of dialogue: that particular film relies heavily on hero and redemption archetypes. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might pose more of a problem. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a journalism and political thriller, would be near indecipherable. In general, I would argue that action films and comedies (at least those that rely on physical comedy or visual irony) require less attention to subtitles than dramas, where much the heavy lifting is done by dialogue.

Translating foreign films into an American market used to be a simple process of dubbing in American English dialogue performed by voice actors. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Lee both famously appeared in dubbed films, even though they both spoke passable English. The problem: lose the original sound track and you get a jarring, dissatisfying mix-up of sound and facial movement (along with low grade, sometimes asynchronous, sound effects). Dubbed English is especially aggravating to cinephiles and genre/story fans who wish to experience a film in it’s “original” format (albeit with some assistive measures like subtitles or light glosses).
Let the right one in promotional poster
Hence, it would seem that the best we can do, apart from telepathic translation messages, is to have subtitles. Not so! In the past decade, we have seen numerous remakes of foreign language films, minus the original actors, directors, and in some cases, story line. In their place, American actors, American directors, and Americanized storylines.

Take for instance Låt den rätte komma in (En: Let the Right One In) (2008) and its Americanized counterpart, Let Me In (2010). In terms of actors and directors, an Americanized remake where the characters speak English must, by necessity, have English-speaking actors and directors. Without knowing whether the original cast and crew spoke English, it’s safe to say that many of them probably did not speak at an acceptable proficiency level or without a marked accent that would make their speech patters incongruous with an otherwise American film. Hence, they are all dropped.

Storylines are a different beast entirely. If the true goal of remaking a foreign film were to eliminate subtitles, then the film would be a shot-by-shot remake with English speaking actors: an “Englishization” as it were. That is not the case with this film, or with other comparable horror film remakes for that matter (e.g. The Ring or The Grudge which remake Ringu and Ju-On, respectively). Instead, the stories are rewritten for American settings and around American expectations of story. Controversial or disturbing elements, such as the castration of the “girl” in Let the Right One In, are frequently dropped (to appease the MPAA rating board I assume). Plots are reorganized into a linear trajectory, subplots are dropped, and characters are merged to make composites (as often happens when novels or graphic novels are converted into screenplays). The goal then, when remaking foreign films, is not solely to avoid subtitles, but to make a film that major label studios believe will be more palatable to American audiences.

If the true goal of remaking a foreign film were to eliminate subtitles, then the film would be a shot-by-shot remake with English speaking actors: an “Englishization” as it were.

This results in thematic problems which compromise the vision of the original film. In Let the Right One In, the ambiance of the film is one of isolation from culture and society, such that a boy finds a brutal vampire to be a superior companion to his classmates. The palpable solitude of the scenes and cultural void that the boy lives in is magnified, I believe, by a foreign viewer missing the cultural cues that soften the profound sense of strangeness for a native-language viewer–a case where being a foreign viewer adds to the experience. The tone of Let Me In totally reverses that, with cultural elements such as Mrs. Pacman, Now and Later candy, and “I’m Burning for You” playing on a radio all serving to soften the atmosphere of strangeness for viewers. With the relief of pop culture making the story more relatable for the viewer, a totally different aesthetic exits. Does this mimic the original experience of the native-language viewer when watching the “original” film, or rob the foreign-language viewer of the unique experience of watching a foreign film with foreign cultural elements? Frankly, cultural elements don’t translate on a one-to-one scale, and you can’t remake something exactly as it was. The question then becomes are you remaking something, or just copying it?

I was told (and feel free to blast me if I have this wrong) that Harry Potter novels have British idioms and British English spellings edited into comparable American idioms and American English spellings for versions sold in the U.S. Does this significantly detract from the story? Who’s to say really, since language is such a specific part of culture–you can’t have a perfect translation from one language to another without losing something, tangible or intangible. Can you translate a film from culture to culture the same way you translate a language? More likely, when you Americanize a film you lose something important: the chance to learn and experience, however imperfectly, another culture through arguably the best and most relevant teaching device–aesthetics.

(Subtitle photo by Henrique used under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 license, promotional movie poster from IMDB used under fair-use, illustrative and criticism provision.)

Takin’ you to school! La journée de la jupe (en: Skirt Day) (2008) and Waiting for Superman (2010)

So I have been way too busy these past couple of weeks to write any entries, but I am back on it since it is spring break and I suppose I can spare (waste) an hour or so to write about some films I’ve seen.

La journée de la jupe (en: Skirt Day) (2008)

Dir. Jean-Paul Lilienfield, 87 min., at a free screening, French with English subtitles

Just as a lead in, I was talking tonight about two different types of education films that are common in our society. In category the first, films where a white teacher starts a job at an “inner city” school (with all of the negative connotations that our society associates with that pejorative term) and the white teacher eventually teaches black and Latino troublemakers that life is oh so much sweeter when you embrace white, middle-class value systems–examples: Freedom Writers (2007), Dangerous Minds (1995). In category the second, films where a beleaguered high school teacher takes brutal revenge on the nogoodnik students by transgressing the boundaries of a professional educator, mainly in the form of hitting, intimidating, and even killing the students–examples: One Eight Seven (1997), The Substitute (1996).

Skirt Day is a little from category one and a little from category two, minus the stupidness. In fact, the only comparison between the former films and the later is that Skirt Day highlights how smart films can be that cover the tightly intertwined factors of societal and classroom tensions. Skirt Day, as one of my friends at the screening said, could take place in any country because of the universal nature of the problems that students, teachers, and administrators face: problems of racial tensions, misogyny, classroom and street gang violence, gun control, teacher burnout, administrative unresponsiveness, etc. etc.

Sonia (Isabelle Adjani), an overworked and unappreciated teacher, receives no respect from the foul-mouthed students in her drama class. While students are harassing the poor volunteers who actually try to participate, Sonia notices two students acting suspiciously in the back of the classroom. She approaches them and confiscates Mouss’ (Yann Ebonge) backpack, and in the struggle a handgun falls to the floor, which Sonia picks up. Mouss tries to wrest the gun away, a shot goes off, and Sonia ends up as a hostage taker, simultaneously teaching a class on Molière at gunpoint while negotiating to voice her grievances with the teaching system and the rampant misogyny and violence afforded female teachers and students in her school.

Our guest speaker, a student from France who prepared an excellent discussion session, talked about some of the cultural values and ideas that this film seeks to comment on, including the sensitive nature of immigration, the concentration of poverty in Parisian suburbs, and also some positives about the French education system as well (including their strict adherence to the separation of church and state).

For anyone who is an educator or has volunteered in schools (especially in Chicago), you might be very familiar with some of the challenges and frustrations the anti-hero Sonia faces in this film. There was some commentary on whether the situations portrayed in the film (e.g. vulgar language, classroom violence, screaming arguments between teacher and student) are commonplace or artistic license, amplified to drive home a point. For anyone who has been in CPS and seen not just the triumphs, but also the grinding reality of the daily force-of-will showdowns between students, teachers, and administrators, this film is an education in how public schooling truly is a difficult and consuming endeavor, and how a school environment free of such distractions and dangers is a blessing to those fortunate to experience it, not, as our society sometimes likes to believe, a public guarantee for all. 

Waiting for Superman (2010)

Dir. Davis Guggenheim, 111 min.

In yet another in a string of slick documentaries targeted for moviegoers who feel just enough compulsion to try to learn something, but lacking the fortitude to sit through a documentary film that doesn’t have lots of animation segues, Waiting for Superman will tell you about the problems in our education system.

I’m not going to once again open up the “what makes a documentary film work” can of worms, but this film doesn’t have it. That’s not to say that there is not a lot of great stuff buried in this film.

Here’s what works: interviews with innovative educators who are trying new things like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. Narratives of students and parents struggling to obtain a good education, in their own words.

Here’s what doesn’t: bossy voiceovers accompanied by what amounts to cutesy educational cartoons, cramming meaningless statistics and visualizations down our throat. Here’s a stat: 60 percent of the time, 100 percent of your audience either isn’t paying attention or knows enough about rudimentary descriptive statistics to know that your stats are garbage filler designed to fog up the mind of the viewer. Just leave the infographics at home please.

Still, the interesting discussion about educational reform, societal factors that impact childhood education (which is everything), and a different take on teachers unions (which is no doubt very unpopular right now) make this film worth seeing. I won’t get into my union opinions, but there are negative sides that deserve exploration, and this film gives a somewhat unbiased platform for those issues.

I meant to write about this film a couple of weeks ago when I saw it, but totally forgot. However, I remember enjoying it quite a bit and thinking that it was worth the spot in my Netflix cue.

That’s all for this week friends.  I will hopefully be writing at least two or three more times this semester, but who can say…