Films & Feni: But where are the Subtitles?

Posted on November 30, 2008


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DEC 1, 2008 – HAD I BEEN ASKED WHICH DOUGLAS SIRK FILM I’D LIKE to have unspool on the big screen, I’d have picked Written on the Wind, or as a distant second, All That Heaven Allows. But then, no one asked me, and I was perfectly happy to settle for Imitation of Life, which played as part of the “Women” programme of IFFI’s Film Heritage Section. This isn’t to say that this tearjerker is entirely without merits, just that these merits, after almost fifty years, come wrapped in a glossy package that cannot quite keep you from giggling. I’ve always cracked up at the portion where the Sarah Jane character, who’s black but whose skin colour allows her to pass for white, gets roughed up by the boyfriend who’s on to her dark secret. The scene, by itself, is quite horrifying, but what gets me is that the moment he asks, “Is your mother a nigger?” bongos begin to rattle on the soundtrack, which soon erupts into full-blown jazz, as if only this black music could appropriately underscore the predicaments of black people.

Another scene that’s always good for laughs is the one where Lana Turner, a struggling theatre actress, flubs her audition, and then insists to the playwright that the scene is unplayable. After this indictment, he nods sagely and agrees to have the offending scene axed. You have to believe in this sort of earnestness – that a Broadway writer, or any writer, for that matter, wouldn’t chop his arm off rather than agree, instantly, to the hastily blurted suggestions of a nervous newcomer – if the film has any chance of working. And soon enough, the melodramatic power of the story sweeps over and flattens you into submission. Sirk’s compositions – all glittering surfaces of jewels and mirrors – look positively decadent on the big screen, and more worthwhile is the manner in which Turner’s story slowly recedes into the background as Sarah Jane’s mother’s comes to the fore. It all culminates with a grand funeral that would seem ridiculously excessive, except that, by this time, the film’s excesses have long ceased to be ridiculous.

I EXPERIENCED A STRANGE SENSE OF DISCOMFORT during the screening of François Ozon’s Angel, and a little after the film got going, I understood why. There were no subtitles, and I had to rely on the dialogue to understand what was going on. It would appear that this constitutes an entirely justifiable predicament – except that the film is in English. After so many features in so many foreign languages, with the eyes darting up and down the screen – now to catch the expressions on the actors, now to read the corresponding text – I’d conditioned myself to this inevitability to such an extent, I was at a loss for a few minutes when a film played out in a language I completely understood. (It didn’t help that Chaurasta, again predominantly in English, played with subtitles as well.) I’d have laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of my plight, but I didn’t want to risk being the victim of a few dozen angry hisses.

YINAN DIAO’S NIGHT TRAIN HAS ITS HEART in the right place, wrapped tightly around the wintry love life of an executioner in a remote Chinese province, who falls for the widower of the woman whose execution she supervised. But oh, the pace. Logic dictates that such a story, the gentle thawing of a soul that’s been frozen for far too long, would proceed this glacially. But even when the lifting of a kitchen implement plays out over (what appears to be) two-odd minutes, festival audiences, already sleep-deprived and brain-fogged, began to understandably tune out, and not even the brief flashes of nudity could compensate. Festival screenings usually conclude with a round of applause, indicating appreciation, but this time, I agreed with the wag who commented that the clapping was more likely in order to wake up the person in the next seat, slumped over in stupor.

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