John’s MIFF blog: “je regrette, je ne parle pas Francais”

My intention with this MIFF blog was not to review individual films, but to give you a taste of the festival as a whole – to explore what makes it this festival and not – say – that one. I find, however, that with a week to go I don’t have much more to say. This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival has been just fine, there are popular and unpopular films as you’d expect, and only the occasional drama (off-screen, that is).

On the other hand, there also hasn’t been that excitement you would expect by now, the rush of good (or bad) word-of-mouth that often propels a festival such as this (“You’ve got to see the Etruscan leper musical, it will change your life!” or “Last night I saw Book Of Revelation“). I also don’t have any celebrity stories to pass on – did Morgan Spurlock sacrifice a goat in his hotel room? Did George A Romero set fire to Eureka Tower? No, sadly. Remember when Larry Clark attacked his film’s distributor during the 2002 London Film Festival? Ah, those were the days.

So let’s talk about subtitles.

There was a small glitch on Saturday when the audience for The Story Of Richard O discovered that they couldn’t speak French. The print delivered was without subtitles, a discovery only made after the film was underway. I don’t know much more than that, but it didn’t strike me as being too odd – I’ve worked on many festivals where the same thing has happened.

You have to understand that arranging a film print is a little like getting married on the internet. Sure, they may have told you all about themselves – maybe they’ve sent you pictures and DVDs – perhaps you even met up and had a lovely weekend together in Venice, or Berlin. But you can never be totally sure exactly what will be getting off that plane. Festival films tend to do a circuit, travelling from city to city, and just as travel can change a person, so to a film. Has the print been partying too hard, arriving all haggard and worn-out? Did the film get on the wrong plane and is now arriving in Melbourne, Florida? Is it the wrong format, the wrong version, or – as in this case – without subtitles? So you find it’s not the love of your life stepping onto the concourse at Tullamarine, but a drunken, incoherent Frenchman who’s had one too many stopovers. (Yes, the old, old story). And while festivals make every attempt to run print checks, sometimes the film really does come straight from the airport and onto the screen (I even remember one story of a festival playing the first reel of a film while waiting for the other reels to arrive).

In these glory days of DVD, we forget that in a cinema you can’t switch subtitles on and off. They’re physically part of the film, etched into the print’s silver coating by acid or laser. If the film arrives without subtitles you can’t exactly fix it for the next screening.

Avalon, a Polish/Japanese science fiction film, played at MIFF in 2002 without subtitles. A strongly visual film, many audience members decided to stay, and by all accounts the film went down quite well (a friend of mine watched it again on SBS some years later and was surprised how dull the dialogue was – it could well be the film was enhanced by a lack of understanding). Similarly, I remember unsubtitled screenings of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s anime classic Akira taking place in Perth years before an English language version was available (I first saw Akira on a screen in an indie-nightclub in Prahran, so in my head Akira will always be about Tetsuo trying to save Neo-Tokyo from the evil of Paul Weller, while The Cure sing “Friday, I’m In Love”).

In the early 1990s, Cinema Nova hosted a touring program of Fellini‘s greatest hits. These were beautiful new prints, and they used a new approach to subtitling – rather than covering Fellini‘s vision with rows of type, the films played untitled while an electronic dot matrix sign displayed the translation (you’ll be familiar with the principle if you’ve been to a sur-titled opera, or watched the video clip for “Together In Electric Dreams”). The night that La Dolce Vita played the system worked perfectly. The film was luminous, the computer controlled titles were clear and on time – until the title display went blank. The film continued, but with no English translation, until finally the computer came back to life and restarted the subtitles… from the beginning. So as Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg embrace in the Trevi fountain, he appears to passionately whispering “Look, it’s a statue of Jesus”. And you know what? No-one complained. Not a single person asked for their money back. Either a) Fellini‘s work is so visually compelling it transcends language or b) his films don’t make any sense anyway so to complain about the dialogue would simply be churlish.

There is one other approach to foreign-language film that I’ve only ever seen at the National Film Theatre in London (the NFT had an unfortunate re-brand recently to BFI: Southbank, which I think makes it sound like a chain of hardware stores). If a subtitled film print could not be found – or perhaps the film was obscure and had never been subtitled – they could run a screening with simultaneous translation. The audience would be given headphones, though which the film would be translated live, in the manner of the U.N. A United Nations of Film. I never attended one of these, but I always wondered what it would be like, listening to a single, dispassionate voice talking over the drama on the screen (“my husband will find out”, “no he won’t”, “good lord I’ve been shot”).

As the number of foreign films on release (and the number of screens showing them) dwindles, the importance of film festivals increases. Many festivals were created to allow audiences access to international cinema they couldn’t see anywhere else – the success of the festivals led to arthouse cinemas, and television stations such as SBS. But now the arthouses are closing down (the Lumiere) or playing more mainstream fare (Sex And The City everywhere), so most of us watch foreign features on DVD, if at all.

Which still allows for subtitling hilarity, particularly when watching bootleg DVDs purchased in third world countries. Friends of mine have a copy of the last Harry Potter, presented in the original Mandarin, with subtitles that bear no resemblance to the film, or indeed to any of the novels. It would seem the subtitler was just making it up as he went along, guessing from the action on the screen (“English subtitling? I can do that!”). I had a similar experience when watching that cinematic classic Bridgette Jones: The Edge Of Reason. It was dubbed into French (a disproportionate number of pirate DVDs are dubbed in French – do the French get Hollywood films before the rest of us, or do the bootleggers just think it looks classier?), so I turned on the subtitles.

Somehow the text didn’t seem to match the pictures on screen. Bridgette was getting into some kooky ski-ing hijinks, but apparently she was talking about a long journey and the death of a loved one. As she started down the ski-slope, poles akimbo, she called out “Get those Maoris away from my piano!”.

And I thought – how true.

How true.

The Melbourne International Film Festival continues until Sunday, August 10th.

Here’s the Trevi Fountain scene from La Dolce Vita:

the trailer for Avalon:

and the video for “Together In Electric Dreams”.


10 Responses to John’s MIFF blog: “je regrette, je ne parle pas Francais”

  1. Dave AA says:

    I saw Avalon without subtitles at MIFF – there’s so little dialogue in the first half-hour that no one was really sure for a quite a while whether the subtitles were actually missing or not. And it really did work much better without the subtitles (or maybe just doesn’t stand up to a second viewing.)

    And Akira: I saw it sans subtitles at a sci-fi convention (in my misspent youth.) It wasn’t an accident though – there was no translated version available. It’s funny to think there was a time when there was almost no interest in the West in Japanese anime. Now Keanu Reeves is starring in the New Cowboy Beebop film. How times have changed.

    Is it my imagination or has MIFF moved away from Japanese and Korean films in the last few years? I remember a couple of years when you could hardly move for big-budget action spectaculars from Korea.

  2. Janet says:

    Having watched Hong Kong films for years I’ve always thought the bizarre Chinglish subtitles were such an intrinsic part of the film that it was the only way to watch them. I used to borrow videos from a Asian shop (still there and now hiring out dvds instead) at the back of the Midcity Arcade and it became a battle of wits between myself and the subtitler. I didn’t always win, I might add. I did learn not to then watch these movies on SBS as it was often heart breaking to find out you’d got it wrong. And we won’t even talk about the dubbed ones . . .

    On the other hand, during one of the years I lived in Greece a tv station showed a subtitled version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. God knows what the Greeks made of that. As the Greeks say it was probably Chinese to them.

  3. Narrelle says:

    BFI: Southbank sounds to me like a new forensic tv show spinoff. Murders committed under the flickering light of foreign films and some former cop show star making an inexplicable comeback in the 37th spinoff of a once-innovative tv concept.

    When living in Egypt, we sometimes watched Australian tv shows that had been subtitled in Arabic, and we did wonder how they translated some of that dialogue. “Jeez, bewdy, brekkie” struck us as offering certain challenges to any jobbing subtitler who knew English but not *Australian* English.

  4. Dave AA says:

    I remember hearing one filmmaker (can’t remember who, sorry) talk about how their film was shown at an obscure Film Fest in Italy. They used the live-voiceover method of translation, except the translators were working from a script which they simply read from start to finish without any attempt to keep the same pace as the film. The result was they finished the script in half an hour and just left the rest of the film to run. Apparently they found out later that the whole festival was actually a Mafia money-laundering scheme.

    I saw a bootlegged copy of Troy once – it had a (way out of sync) English soundtrack, but we put the English subtitles on anyway for a laugh. Not only were they a seemingly random collection of words (the occasional noun matched what was happening on screen) but the were absolutely filthy! Really quite rude indeed…

  5. outlandinstitute says:

    I once programmed a season of films for (sadly now gone) Cafe Bohemio on Smith Street. The prints all came from the State Film Centre (now the ACMI “access collection”, or some other euphemism for library) and their 16mm print of Fritz Lang’s M did have subtitles – but not too many. Oddly, there was only one subtitle every few minutes, and often not for the important dialogue. What happened? Had the titles fallen off? Were the titlers being paid by the word?

    Janet: While researching this article (I know! research!) I read an article from the New York Times which mentioned this piece of subtitling from a 1990 Hong Kong movie called “Curry And Pepper”:

    POLICEMAN: I must chase you, as you run away.
    CRIMINAL: I must run away from you, as you are after me.

    That’s just brilliant.

    Narrelle: “BFI: Southbank”. I would so watch that show. (“We all assumed he died during the Douglas Sirk retrospective. But what if he was murdered during Bergman’s second documentary about Faro Island and the body was hidden until “More Than Heaven Allows” had begun?” Close-up on intense looking female actor. Close-up intense male actor. Extreme close-up female. Ad break.)

    (That New York Times article is here:

  6. Sam says:

    How odd, I remember going to that session – and being quite chuffed as I’d been in German translation class and could work out some of the dialogue between the sporadic subtitles… buggered if I could now though… and the lovely State Film Centre library in that subterranian building near the Treasury building… Wo sind die ganzen Kinos gegangen? The Cafe Bohemio, the Panorama, the Lumier… the “German death film” on Monday night was rather good, though nothing particularly new… its subtitles were partially cut off screen… looking forward to Derek

  7. Janet says:

    I should test that as I have a copy of ‘Curry and Pepper’. It has Jacky Cheung and Stephen Chow as Curry and Pepper – daft film though.

    Eric Bana was talking tonight about how the guy who dubs his films into German really sounds like him. He said it sounded as if someone had just morphed his voice into German. Bana does appear to speak German fairly well as he quoted a bit of ‘Mad Max 2’ in German after a question from a German woman.

    Sam: ‘Derek’ had me in tears. I think I’d forgotten just how wonderful Jarman was. Warts and all.

  8. Anne-Marie says:

    I’m just happy to watch Together in Electric Dreams (it’s more engaging that Fata Morgana that I just sat through ). I had the extended mix single – you know one of those singles that was the size of an album- and I though Phil Oakley was a total spunk. How did they know that one day we would be taking our computers to the beach with us.

  9. Sam says:

    Janet: yes it was a moving documentary – when will we get his retrospective? As a friend said after the screening, it seems this documentary was suprisingly long in coming.

  10. Janet says:

    Sam: I thoroughly agree. Maybe we should lobby MIFF for next year. What do you reckon?

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