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.
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”.