Digital Polyphony

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A Journey With Foreign Films

Posted on January 27, 2011 at 1:28 AM

A Journey with Foreign Films

In this second part of my discussion on foreign cinema, I’ll take you through my own path of appreciation and give some of my favorite foreign films.


It was about late 2000 or perhaps 2001 when I began to look at college classes far more intensely than just those easily-forgettable “general” courses every new student has to take. I hadn’t entirely decided on a major but needed to find a path or some direction to consider. So I thought “classes about movies...I can dig that.”


The Classes


I was first exposed to foreign films with ease and even basic introductory clases are great ways to do it. Taking college classes naturally gets you learning and understanding film and, eventually, taking on foreign films and filmmakers with such knowledge. The first I recall seeing was Kolya. A very simple and heartwarming film from Czechoslovakia and not to be confused with the Bollywood film Koyla which is utterly awful. From there, we watched Cinema Paradiso.


“Now this I like” I thought. Not to say Kolya wasn’t a great movie, it did with the Oscar in 1997 afterall, but Cinema Paradiso was a whole new level. Follow that up with a little screening of The Bicycle Theif, and I started to slowly emerge from my shell of ignorance and start looking at foreign films slightly differently. I still wasn’t quite there yet, however, despite the fact I found myself surprisngly moved by both pictures.


Then a month or so later, after some Eraserhead, Lawrence of Arabia and Pekenpah movies, we tackled the one that really got me into foreign movies: Seven Samurai.

It was all downhill from there because from that point on, I was obsessed with Akira Kurosawa and my entire life seemed focused on doing nothing but watching his movies. Seven Samurai, along with other samurai classics like Throne of Blood, Ran, Sanjuro and Yojimbo (and to a lesser extent Rashomon, though not a typical Samurai picture), were films I watched regularly. Wouldn’t you know it, though, by next semester I was taking a post-war film class and our professor also just happened to be an Akira Kurosawa fan. In fact, he even wrote a book on him. So now I followed up my love of Seven Samurai with a professor who loved the director and wouldn’t stop talking about him. I’d write down Kurosawa’s movies and soon go out to find them. I would name them all, but really, whats the point? I've seen all of the man's work and loved everything, but I will say that I Live in Fear is pretty underrated, Ikiru heartbreaking and his Samurai films, as great as they are (as said, Seven Samurai is my favorite film), unfairly overshadowing the likes of Red Beard or his noir films like Stray Dog or High and Low. I enjoyed his later works as well, which showed a man accepting his fate right there on film for the most part.

The class wasn’t even a Kursosawa class, it was a film history class as I mentioned. But Kurosawa was sort of this “base example” he would always use and we’d see clips. It wasn’t all Akira all the time, though. The two other filmmakers that really caught my attention early were Federico Fellini and Vitorrio De Sica. I had already mentioned we screened The Bicycle Theif, but De Sica’s Umberto D really hit hard for me as well. It’s just as emotional and moving as The Bicycle Thief. Fellini’s La Strada was the one that really got me as well, especially towards the end where it's hard to not feel a little choked up. Sure, 8 1/2 was his masterwork and all, but I realized I loved his early movies such as Nights of Cabiria, I Vitelloni and The White Sheik – in other words the Italian Neorealist movement was probably my favorite.


Naturally, we learned about the French New Wave as well. The one everyone and their film professor mother probably saw was 400 Blows by Truffaut. I was a little more partial to Shoot the Piano Player, though, which I went to see on my own time and away from the Antoine Daniel films. Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is still one of my favorites, but every hipster cinema fiend will put that one up there, I’m sure. Godard was a bit of a different story. We really didn’t see much of his work and, truthfully, I didn’t get as much into him until much later in life (as in two years ago or so). When it came to the New Wave, that was about it in my classes, but I still went out to find them. A recent film I watched, Le Boucher, stems from me still loving to go back and finding great films and filmmakers – all thanks to simply thinking back to college.


Then along came the rest of Europe. We screened The Seventh Seal. I loved David Lynch so this was right up my alley. Bergman was next on my list of movies to see and Wild Strawberries was one that probably did it the most for me. Turns out Bergman had a hell of a filmography – one of which I’m still going through. Then we have Russia and moves such as The Cranes are Flying, Andrei Rublev, Ballad of a Shoulder and the wonderfully-shot Polish movie I always mistake for a Russian movie, Ashes and Diamonds. Solaris is still one that stays with me, though. A complex and still very difficult to figure out movie. German Expressionism and work of Fritz Lang (M another one of those movies every film class shows) not only got me into that work, but more into film noir on the side. But I’ll save that story for another time as my Film Narrative class spent quite a lot of time on silent and early cinema.

By the way, when I say "foreign" films, I default to saying "non-English speaking" films. I could go on and on about great British movies as well, such as the Life and Death of Col. Blimp, Peeping Tom or the masterpiece, The Third Man. Those are every bit as foreign, certainly, but not really the focus here.




Damn you, Criterion


By my junior year (I still had two to go, so calling it my “junior” year is a bit misleading), I became obsessed with foreign films. Each week I would get in my car and make my way to Borders, the only real store in town that had a DVD selection beyond simple popular cinema. At the end of one aisle they have foreign films set aside. Like my classes, I started with the obvious ones and the movies we discussed, especially Kurosawa, Fellini and De Sica, all of whom I became very attached to if not moved by their films, and started to realize that one company had their name all over these DVDs: the Criterion Collection.

It pretty much came down to this: if Criterion released it, I bought it or, at the very least, looked to rent it if I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it or not. I looked at their catalog of directors, their most popular movies and the write-ups on their website and basically blew all my money of their (overpriced) DVDs. Combine that with the film classes, and I soon was flourishing with Bergmans (Persona probably my favorite), Renoirs (Grand Illusion another personal favorite), Melvilles (of which I’ve said I’m a huge fan of numerous times), Lang, Ozus, Resnais, Bressons, Truffauts, Tatis, Rays, Fellinis and Tarkovskiys who’s name I had to just look up because I spell it wrong every time.


It became a simple process: see who the great filmmakers were and go nuts.

But not everything was done by renowned filmmakers that you learn entirely about. Rene Clement, for example, isn’t one that took leaps and bounds to progress cinema, but he was a damn good director. That’s one of the things about film classes. They’re great to expose you, but they really only expose you to the directors and films that are “important” or were “trendsetting” and “influential.” Clement was none of those, really...but he was just a damn good director and Forbidden Games is one of my favorite films. Same goes for the likes of Luchino Visonti or Jiri Menzel or Seijun Suzuki and his strange but completely awesome yakuza flicks. I could go on and on, but it’s an obvious path that I think most film fans go down: You start broad, then narrow, then narrow, then narrow. For the five years I was in college, I did this. For the five years after college, I still do this.


But wait!...

Criterion, especially in the 2000s, primarily focused on older cinema. What’s one to do to get into contemporary foreign films? To the internet! I said. And I did say that...oultoud...I do those types of things just to see what others might do. I think the first “contemporary” foreign films I saw were Tampopo, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, After Life and The Eel, all Asian films and primarily due to my already acceptance of Asian cinema and learning of Akira Kurosawa, and, of course, City of God, one of the best damn movies you’ll ever see. Amelie (a lot of Jenuet and Del Toro films now that I think about it), Children of Heaven, Amos Perros, Life is Beautiful, The Three Colors Trilogy and The Dreamlife of Angels were up there as well and the next thing you know, I no longer started to just categorize movies like I once did. On a side note, Asia has consistently given us some remarkable films, most recently two masters from South Korea and France is another that has always been consistent, especially lately with horror and thriller genre pictures.

It used to be this: “sure, I’ll watch that foreign film, but I really need to get in the mood for it.”


By that I meant that, and this is probably why foreign films aren’t overly-popular nationally, I viewed watching one as a bit of a chore. It was active viewing rather than passive, passive and active audiences something that also crossed over into my journalism courses (particularly advertising and the passive brainwashing technique). Now, though, I’m active all the time. I always look here and look there, take mental notes, think about themes or why a director might have chosen a certain angle or  what a character is saying without saying anything or why one scene will have music and another dead silence. That’s just how film fans watch movies, it turns out.




Seeing foreign cinema is an endless work. You have accept it’s not something you can do overnight. Hell, I have movies I own that I still haven’t seen. It’s a process over the course of a film fan’s life. You can’t read the cliffs notes nor can you simply have someone tell you “yeah, that’s good go see it.” You have to spend the hours watching them...and you’ll always find new ones every week to hunt down or add to a Netflix waiting list. Even here I only grazed the surface of a few of my memorable foreign film moments and just a handful of films. Perfect example: I have never seen a Troell film outside of Everlasting Moments released a year or so ago. Sure, I know who he is, but he’s been sitting on my “to do” pile for years as his body of work is pretty damn daunting to tackle. That’s another thing I try and do: see EVERYTHING a great director has done.

If you recall, I used to do review specials on the weekends that would cover the filmography of a particular director. I did this early for the site because a) I needed content and b) I wanted to hone reviewing movies a little more. It was easy because in most of those cases, I had seen most if not of their films. Kubrick, for example, is a director whose films I own. I didn’t need to rewatch them because I knew them all well. Same for Spielberg and Scorsese. Directors like the Coens were easy because they don’t have as much, but I already saw them beforehand. In the case of Wells, I had only never seen The Trial and Mr. Arkadin, or for Hitchcock I only lack his very very early work and about three of his later movies (originally about five but doing the retrospective allowed me to see even more including the criminally underrated Frenzy).

Point being: you aren’t going to see everything right away, but if you pace yourself over time you can at least see a damn good amount. Starting with filmmakers is a great way to do it especially with foreign films. It helps categorize it, as does going by film movements such as New Wave or German Expressionism.

Anyways, that’s my path of foreign movie watching and eventually loving. I hope you can carve one for yourself as well if you haven’t already.

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Reply Shai
2:46 PM on January 29, 2011 
Great Article! I've actually been watching quite a few foreign films lately (from school or just by myself), although here in Israel there's less of a stigma to it, considering all movies are translated here (even the ones in Hebrew, for some reason) unless they're for little kids.
Speaking of which...
Have you seen any Israeli films, and if so, what did you think of them?
Reply J. Conrady
2:52 PM on January 31, 2011 
Other than the Band's Visit, (which I liked a lot actually) I don't think I have, but I might have saw some and simply forgot their names. I would love some recommendations!

Oh, actually Waltz with Bashir is one I have a screener of and still haven't watched yet.
Reply Shai
3:35 PM on January 31, 2011 
Yep, you should defiantly give waltz with Bashir a watch.
A few films i could recommend are Ajami (last year's oscar nominee, about arabs in Jaffa), Jellyfish (written by Etgar Keret - one of his novellas was adapted in Hollywood a few years ago as "Wristcutters: A Love Story"), and any of Ephrayim Kishon's films, particularity "The Policemen" from 1972 (considered the best Israeli film of all time, and a personal favorite of mine).
I hope you enjoy them!
Reply J. Conrady
2:09 PM on February 2, 2011 
Some good looking movies there, I put The Policeman at the top of my Netflix Q and will be watching it next week. ^_^
Reply Shai
4:30 PM on February 11, 2011 
Great, let me know what you thought!