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Getting Into Foreign Cinema

Posted on January 12, 2011 at 6:00 PM


Getting Into Foreign Cinema



 

Why foreign films are great.


I love film. In case you haven't figured that out yet. That's why I made a whole website, really. To just chat and talk and write about movies, directors, actors and so on. But I wanted to make it more than just another blog about movies and do a bunch of reviews, I wanted variety. You know...cover all the bases of the artform. To do this, you have to expand your perspective.


Film is often associated with "Hollywood." That's natural. The history is there. But film is not a Hollywood-exclusive thing. It's a world-wide artform and some of the finest films ever made have been made outside that Hollywood bubble.To understand and, what's more, appreciate film, you can't focus just on one element. That would be like saying you understand and are knowledgeable on writing but have never read anything by Jules Verne.


What's more, though, is if you want an all-around knowledge of movies and maybe have your opinion have that much more validation to where you know what you're talking about, it's a necessity. Any film student in their journey will probably spend as much, if not more, time studying the elements of foreign films than anything from Hollywood. You would learn the movements such as German Expressionism and the French New Wave, and certainly about the great filmmakers that span the glove from Ray to Bergman, Fellini to Kurosawa, Reed to Truffaut.


But what's a good way to get it all going? You love watching movies but don't know where to begin in getting into foreign films. Well, let's address that.



Getting Started

 

Tip One: take a film class.


Ok, let’s talk more about than that. I suppose it’s easy to say “go take a film class” but, really, not everyone has that outlet. Some never took one or maybe went to a college that didn’t provide such a course. Or perhaps didn’t go to college at all or are still too young to be in college in the first place. Point being: foreign films are best seen in college courses. Whether it’s a regular university that has a film department or an all-out film school, it’s the single best path for one interested in cinema to be exposed to the foreign side of things.

 

Why? Because film classes allow for context of seeing the film. You see, foreign films aren’t just movies you sit and watch. If that were the case, a majority of people would be out watching them. If a regular movie watcher is flipping through the channels on their television and comes across a movie in a foreign language, chances are they will flip right though because it’s in a foreign language. It’s a testament to the film knowledge of someone, and especially their appreciation of film as an art, if they stick around and watch. By taking a class or two or dozen, preferably dozen, you learn about the great filmmakers outside your popular “Scorsese” or even “Wells.” It’s not coincidental that the more one appreciates and is educated on film, the more they are apt to watch foreign films to the begin with.


But, like I said, not everyone has that outlet. So where would one begin to watch foreign cinema? The easiest way I’ve found is a two-pronged attack on your educational senses.


One: buy a book on foreign film. Any book will probably do. It doesn’t need to be essays or analysis, just a list of great films. You could probably find such a thing online, I’m sure there are plenty of foreign-film-based websites. Either way, having a reference to films and film makers from France, the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, China and Japan are probably a good place to start. We’ll worry about smaller countries later.

 

From there look at their popular films and filmmakers. I’ve found going through a timeline of cinema is the best route, seeing what each country was doing over certain periods and decades and what the popular “movements” are in film. Basically, you’re going to start out by making lists and a lot of them. Directors. Actors maybe, and decade breakdown of great movies that are acclaimed.



Think "Hollywood" To Start

 

The second attack is a simple one. You see, sometimes, if one is not used to seeing a foreign film, certain films and foreign sensibilities may not appeal to them at all. For example, Jean-Luc Godard can be an acquired taste, or the near-minutia-driven works of Ozu. The easiest way around this is to start thinking “Hollywood.”

 

As people grow up, they become accustomed to certain norms and styles. In the case of movies, the US/Hollywood style is what most are used to. It all has a certain “flow” to it all in how it’s presented and done, how characters act or how it's all just put together. The US is the largest movie-making country in the world (actually, I think Bollywood has surpassed it quantity-wise, though not in world-wide popularity) so really, it’s what everyone is used to.

 

Imagine a college student who’s only watched Michael Bay movies or, at best, something like Scorsese. Now go ask them to watch a Fellini movie from his late period or something from Bergman or Bunuel. Do you think that will hold their interest? Absolutely not.

 

To counter this, the best way for someone so accustomed to one style is to ween everything based on that one style. Look for foreign films that are very “western” or "Hollywood" (as in US/UK) in their styles. Then go from there.

 

The easiest to name right off the bat and most-obviously is Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa based much of his style on John Ford, who is as big a Hollywood craftsman as you could ask for. From his settings and style to editing techniques, Kurosawa based a lot on movies on Hollywood style to tell his stories (which is why a lot of his stories were then re-made into Hollywood movies, not coincidentally westerns for the most part). Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish-language films are universally acclaimed, as is most of Jean-Pierre Jenuet’s respective French films. Henri-Gorge Clouzot, Takeshi Kitano, Park Chan Wook, early Roman Polanski and Luc Besson, Sergio Leone, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and I’ll throw Jean Renior in there as well.


It's a gradual process, and it's also not the only approach to take.

 

 

Staying Contemporary


I wouldn’t suggest to anyone trying to get into film to just bombard themselves with everything at once. For example, someone getting into film will usually start with older movies. From there, they would move on to foreign. But I wouldn’t suggest jumping in with both foreign AND have them be older foreign films at that. Sometimes you need to get around the curve of the language and subtitles. Starting with more recent films, using more contemporary techniques as previously mentioned, is a good first step.

 

Required? No. The first foreign film I saw was The Bicycle Thief, and I'll address that in part two. But, and this just circles right back, that’s because I was being taught film at the same time. It goes hand in hand through that method.Start recent and work your way back. Best place? Looking up on the internet and seeing what's won and has been nominated for awards the past decade or so.


 

Favorite Genres


One could also focuses specifically on genres as a great way to introduce themselves to foreign movies. A horror movie fan could find much outside the realm of the US or UK with some damn good movies coming from France and Japan the past ten years alone. Let the Right One in is one of the most acclaimed horror movies I recent memory and it’s a nice little Swedish movie. A murder/mystery fan would certainly enjoy something like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or, if they’re inclined, a giallo movie from the likes of Dario Argento.


Genres rarely change their purpose, only their execution from country to country just based on what’s popular. But fans of certain genres are looking to get one thing and that’s the “feel” of the genre, which never changes. A film noir from the US (The Maltese Falcon) is the same as it is in the UK (The Third Man) which is the same as it is in France (Le Circle Rouge). A fan of such genre will find themselves far more engrossed than someone who isn’t because they are already fans, the only difference is some stylistic changes and the languages. A great way to get into foreign movies by focusing on what someone already likes.


One genre in particular, though, is pretty universal and a great one to use: comedy. I’ve said for over a year now through various reviews and blogs on this site that comedy is, mostly, timeless and universal. A joke about drunks in the 1930s is still funny today, and a fart joke is equally as funny in the US as it is in Italy (and just as low-brow). Just search around for great foreign comedies, from Tampopo to Mon Oncle (or anything by Tati), Amelie to Life is Beautiful (I’d even throw Cinema Paradiso and My Life as a Dog up there as coming-of-age comedies). Action movies are i the same vein for the most part, one look at a Besson or Kitano movie and you'll get the point.


 

It’s all Just About Effort

 

In the end though, if you want to get into film and foreign cinema, it’s just taking the steps to do so. This isn’t 1991 where finding foreign movies on home video is nearly impossible. Now with the likes of Criterion and the internet streaming world, there’s pretty much no reason to not see them if you want to broaden your horizons into getting into the foreign markets.


A person who puts forth the effort, just as someone going out of their way to take film classes, are already apt to enjoy them more and appreciate them better. It's a mindset because, often, foreign films have a little more to say and do than your typical movie from Hollywood. They are both entertaining and educational; insight into a culture or technique outside your norm which in itself is entertaining and enjoyable. Most of the time, the reason why someone doesn't want to see foreign films, other than ignorance being bliss, is they don't want to make the effort to read while watching a movie.


That's as bad as someone not wanting to see a film because it's in black and white - and I've heard both excuses equally over the years. If you are truly interested in the world of cinema, and maybe want to be taken seriously as someone looking to discuss it, you need the experience and knowledge to do so. It will take time. I know I certainly haven't seen everything or know everything.


Film is something where you're always learning new things. In Part Two, which should be up in a few days, I'll discuss my own path in coming to love and appreciate foreign films and give you some of my favorite ones in the process.


 


My Favorite Foreign Films (coming next time)...


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