Monthly Archives: February 2010

European Silent Cinema Trailers

Or more precisely the case of the mute trailer.

The sad fact is that Brits, as a whole, can’t stand listening to foreign tongues. Much can be made of the abysmal standards of modern languages teaching in the British school system. Marry that with the ‘everyone speaks English, why bother’ attitude and you’ve got cause for the unashamed dislike of many things culturally ‘foreign’.

In film circles this manifests itself in the bizarre notion of someone being ‘not too keen on subtitles’. By extension of the same logic you should have audiences biased against films with a lot of red in them, as ‘it’s quite demanding of your attention’ and ‘you can’t really relax when watching a [red] film’. In reverse the liking of predominantly [red] films is seen as a pretentious affectation, and some of those who actively seek out [red] films wear it as some sort of badge of honour. ‘If you didn’t see the original [red] version then you may as not have seen the film. The Hollywood remake is far too bland and unimaginative, and it overlooks a side of the film which is inherently [red] y’know?’

But laboured analogies aside, and Cannes and Oscars gongs aside, Brits can very rarely be sold on foreign language films. [Try convincing a class of undergraduate students that an American film is actually foreign and you open a whole new tin of worms.]

How then do you sell a foreign language feature to this stubborn audience? Quite simple: you make it mute. Which is not to say that you hark back to the good old days of silent cinema, but that you keep all the characters in any trailer from actually saying a word. It’s absurd to think of it, but once you notice it you’ll quickly realise that no one ever says a word in foreign language trailers.

The story which first flagged the idea was when audiences apparently walked out of The Lives of Others precisely because it was full of foreign speak. The trailer had led them to believe that it was in English, and would the box office very kindly refund them as this was obviously cut and dry deception of the highest order. That anyone would assume that a film about the Gestapo could ever be in English makes you wonder how apocryphal the story actually is, but the point remains. The scary fact is that The Lives of Others presents a very clear example of the muting process in action.

US Trailer :

The film’s initial release in the US was two months before it came out in the UK. Looking at the US trailer we can see it is 1min49secs long. Look at the UK trailer and you can note is only 1min27secs long. The only difference is that the UK trailer as had every iota of dialogue snipped out of it.

UK trailer :

Dumbed down trailers are nothing new, but to think that the only way cinema advertisers can engage with British audiences is by actively deceiving them is a return to a very sorry standard. The boom of foreign language films in the UK and US through the fifties and sixties was of course fuelled by the now totemic work of Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and de Sica. The dark underside to this was that these films were often actively marketed as seedy and salacious imported films for ADULTS ONLY. While the sexual/emotional frankness matched with the chance of seeing some boob kept the seedy cinemas of Soho filled with Bergman, one particularly noteworthy advert in the New York Post sold de Sica’s Bicycle Thief as a sexual film of transgressions. Social realism doesn’t sell. Sex does. Go figure.

Arguably the selling of The Lives of Others taps into that as well, with the American DVD cover showing the Gestapo’s auditory voyeur sensationally listening in on the saucy bohemian playwright making passionate love to his creative muse. That’s not really what the film’s about, but it gets the Dirty Mac Brigade in all of us to at least pick up the DVD and have a closer look at it.

The two strategies of obscuring a film’s nationality with overplaying its sexy-sexy foreignness is coming to a nadir with the English language release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish trailer released last year plays up to the film’s strong narrative pull, the slow uncovering of a grander conspiracy through hard-nosed investigation and archive sifting. The two main characters Lisbeth and Mikael get reasonably equal billing, and the trailer culminates in quick cut action. It’s pretty representative of the film as a whole.

Looking at the dubbed German trailer a lot is made of the original novel which was incredibly popular in Germany. Again the detective novel aspects of investigation, archive cracking and the unlocking of secret codes is foregrounded, culminating in some breathless but unexplained action.

Get to the UK trailer and the frying-pan-around-the-head bluntness starts with the bass-y voiceover of reckoning from the spirit of Don LaFontaine. ‘HER JOURNEY HAS BECOME AN INTERNATIONAL SENSATION. HER SECRETS HAVE CAPITAVTED MILLIONS. THIS YEAR…’

The whole film is about Lisbeth and her secret, and lots and LOTS of action. The British distributors have even acquired the domain for the film, just so we all know who the focus of the film is supposed to be. Poor acne scarred Mikael doesn’t get a look in, and heaven forefend if we should catch a glimpse of paper, or perhaps a file of archive materials.

And of course no one besides Hollywood -Voice-Over-Man gets a word in edgeways. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for the Hollywood remake that’s already being negotiated. Shame that they can’t highlight the film’s inherent [red]ness, and how like pretty much all modern films from [red]land, that it’s largely about the failing of the [red] social model. After all the original [red] title was Men Who Hate Women, but I guess that wouldn’t trip off Hollywood-Voice-Over-Man’s tongue so well. But what do I know, I’m just half [red] anyways.

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Charting Empire’s 50 Worst Films

Love them or hate them, list making is the back bone of pretty much any entertainment magazine you care to mention, and many a nerdy pub discussion beside. It fills dead space, it kills time, and as the pastime of idle till jockeys has been pretty accurately been lampooned by High Fidelity.

But while geeks can rail each other with the ridiculous subjectivity of their own list of picadillos, the grander readershi- wide polls conducted by publications of size, if not repute, always makes for a worthwhile perusal. Britain’s own colossus of cinema, Empire magazine chose to recently query their readership about what they consider the worst films of all time. While the list doesn’t throw up any shocking revelations (The Room! Battlefield Earth! Batman and Robin!) the fact that a wedge of all the films charted scored three stars out of five, with another slice taking two starts in the very same magazine begs a few questions. The fact that every entry is bookended with a stinker of a quote from other critics as to just how bad the film really is, makes you wonder if Empire has an iota of self awareness about what they’re doing. Maybe a bit of analysis and a pie chart of the worst films’ collected scores could help:

A few of the three star reviews fall in the definite category of stark personal/cult/delusional favourites, with titles such as Howard the Duck, Southland Tales, Dreamcatcher and Heavens Gate making up their number. Widely panned commercial failures, these are films who have their ardent defenders, and Empire has the doggedly all knowing trash expert Kim Newman on staff to tackle the flood of direct-to-video films they get in every month. While Lindsey Lohan’s universally abhorred I Know Who Killed Me failed to get distribution in the UK, Newman was there to argue its corner when it came out on DVD. He’s a unique voice and greatly valued for it.

The other plethora of three stars fall into the dangerous category of the over inflated blockbuster sequel, and number the pitiful Spider-Man 3, Matrix Revolutions, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and the beyond pitiful Speed 2. A cynic might scoff at how easily a magazine got subsumed by hype, if not the questionable trading of favourable scores for big name exclusives. While the practice hasn’t been widely covered in film PR, the dastardly deeds of gaming’s PR folk has been better covered by more vocal critics than me, and it would be naïve to think it doesn’t go on behind the scenes at the big movie magazines/websites/review shows.

But then again doesn’t that just reflect Empire’s remit for espousing the undying fan’s idoltry for all things big brash and Hollywood, where the packaging and the hype are enjoyed just as much as the film itself? As a lad I got absolutely wrapped up in all things Jurassic Park before its release, bought all the special edition magazines I could get hold of and read them to rags. Spoilers be damned, I wanted beyond full disclosure before I went in. During the film I still managed to have the living daylights knocked out of me, but coming out of it I was none the less disappointed that there were no Baryonyx in the film, as that had been on the map in the Official Souvenir Studio-Authorized Magazine that I’d read so closely. Yes, that’s exactly how much of a geek I was.

Thankfully Jurassic Park is, was, always will be a superb film, but when a bit older and wiser I could appreciate the Matrix Revolutions for the absolute travesty it is. It took me the whole of Matrix Reloaded to learn the bitter lesson of hype vs reality to appreciate that. Roll around Spider-Man 3 and I knew better than to go and see it sober. So it goes.

To be generous to the films and the magazine you have to take these films with a degree disbelief suspended, and for a lot of the featured films the experience can be a lot more enjoyable if you just go with the hype. I already take Empire’s scores with a hefty dose of salt, but I guess it’s a small comfort to know that I’m far from the only reader who is able to, if only occasionally, pull back and challenge the hyperbole machine. If only the reviews were a little less by committee and a little more individual then we could just take them and debate them as the subjective reflections they are.

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