Film

CinemaDope: Foreign Affair

Our taste for imports

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Thursday, September 06, 2012
Photo Courtesy of IFC
Ai Wiwei at work

One of the curious things about viewing foreign films in America is that, as an audience, we often aren't sure of how the story was received in its home country. Indeed, there are occasions when—due to some political or religious embargo—a film might not even be screened in its native land before being shuttled across the oceans.

And those that are familiar to audiences abroad can find very different responses on these shores: take, for example, almost any World War II story, and the depth of a crowd's reaction can vary wildly.

Most interesting to me, though, is our innate prejudice about foreign films: for some reason—even when we dismiss them—we think they're better, or more edifying, than our own. Is it the subtitles in non-English films, which so many people seem to associate with a bookish intellectualism? ("I didn't come here to read" was an oft-heard remark during my days as a theater manager.) Is it that foreign movies tend to be more open about adult topics—sex, disease, dying—than many of our own rose-colored tales? Or perhaps we simply think that anything that makes it here must be good; after all, it beat out the rest of the pack, right?

Not always. Every country has its own best-sellers, and they're not always so different from our own. Sometimes they're just old-fashioned, tin-eared stories that get turned into big-budget crowd pleasers, and that's okay.

Doctor Zhivago, playing this Thursday as part of the Classic Series at Hadley's Cinemark theater, is one of those films. Based on the Nobel Prize-winning work of Boris Pasternak, the 1965 film by British director David Lean is an epic tale of romance and tragedy that found much success here—it took home five Oscars and had another five nominations. It was, essentially, the Titanic of its time, with Omar Sharif as its Leo DiCaprio. And yet, another famous Russian of the day took a rather dim view of the whole affair; Lolita novelist Vladimir Nabokov called the story "a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic," filled with "unbelievable girls and romantic robbers."

Who can say which view is right? More importantly, who cares? There has never been a great movie except in the head of the person watching it; whatever we might think about a film—any film, foreign, domestic, or as multinational as Zhivago's production—is pointless in the face of how it makes us feel while watching it. Find what works for you, and embrace it.

*

Also this week: Down the road a piece, Hartford's Real Art Ways theater is screening Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, first-time director Alison Klayman's documentary look at the dazzling life and art of the Chinese artist and dissident. (At press time, it was still screening at Cinemark as well; call the theater for updated showtimes.) A modern artist in the truest sense of the word, Ai uses the Internet and social media to create an art that stretches far beyond the bounds of his studio—which is a necessity, since Chinese authorities bulldozed his newly built workspace. Working within confines few Western artists can fully imagine, Ai continues to produce provocative and compelling work that, without becoming pedantic, pushes for a more open China.

The Producers isn't technically a foreign story, but the Mel Brooks classic, which brings the ridiculous musical number "Springtime For Hitler" to Shelburne Falls on Friday and Saturday nights, takes place in a Broadway world so its own that it may as well be from another planet. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder star as the two desperate producers who plan to come up with a show so bad—it's a love story starring a Hitler with "a song in his heart"—that it will close on opening night, allowing them to pocket their investors' money. Then the worst thing of all happens: it's a hit.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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