Monday, May 25, 2009

Conventions we've come to accept

Whatever you think about Mel Gibson, if you've seen Apocalypto, you have to admit that it raised the bar for authenticity of spoken dialogue. Gibson made an extremely bold decision that paid off -- he had his Mayan characters speaking in the Mayan language. And since all the film's characters are Mayan, the whole film is in that language.

It's difficult to know if the movie would have been more popular if a) it were in English, or b) Gibson had not just gone on a drunken anti-semitic rant, but $50 million seems a pretty decent haul in the U.S., considering those factors. And the movie itself? A damn thrilling action movie. Gibson did the same thing in The Passion of the Christ with a much larger box office take, but (in my opinion) a far more masochistic and unworthy effort.

For me at least, Apocalypto (and to a lesser extent Passion, which I simply tried not to think about afterward) made me reevaluate the other movies I've seen where everyone speaks in English regardless of where in the world the action is set. And watching Bryan Singer's Valkyrie last night brought those issues up again.

We've come to accept that if American filmmakers in Hollywood want to make a movie about foreign subject matter, to be consumed first and foremost by American audiences, they have to film in English, practically speaking. The most practical issue has to do with the language the director speaks. If you don't understand the language the actors are speaking, how can you even be sure they're saying the lines with the right inflection? I guess we should ask Clint Eastwood, who made the excellent decision to shoot Letters from Iwo Jima in Japanese, but relied on Japanese advisors to make sure everything was copacetic.

But Hollywood has traditionally tried to meet realism halfway, with the characters either speaking English in the appropriate regional accent, or in a generic British-influenced Euro accent that's a catch-all stand-in for "foreignness." Valkyrie deviates from that in one extremely noticeable way: Tom Cruise, the lead, uses his regular speaking voice, the one he cultivated while growing up in such diverse locations as New York, Illinois, Kentucky, Ontario and New Jersey. He doesn't try to sound either German or British. He just tries to sound like Tom Cruise.

For Valkyrie's detractors -- which were not nearly as many as we all originally thought -- this was a distraction. For me, though, it just seemed honest. Singer allowed all his actors to speak in their native voices -- it just so happens that Cruise was the only one who grew up in the U.S. Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Tom Wilkinson ... all Brits. So their British speaking voices were not fabricated in accordance with the time-honored Hollywood tradition; that's just how they talk. It might be worth arguing that native Brits are more convincing than Americans in movies like this anyway, which is why there are no Americans other than Cruise. But hey, Bill Nighy can't carry a movie.

As I said, I liked Singer's decision. If you know you're not going to be able to make a movie about Nazi Germany in German, why manipulate us in the form of English with German (or British) accents? Just because that familiar convention makes us feel comfortable? Not only might Cruise not be able to do this effectively, but if he tried, it might detract from his performance. Instead, he can just concentrate on acting. And act he does. In fact, Cruise haters won't find a single thing about this performance to pick on. To quote my colleague who wrote the Valkyrie review: "For all the character's noble, self-sacrificing heroism, Cruise never gets hammy or indulgent; there are no ridiculously badass one-liners (those in the original trailer were cut), no Oscar-bait hysterics or vain looking-into-the-distance-with-a-single-tear-in-his-eye. You don't even get that vague, distracting sense of megalomania emanating from his usually self-satisfied grin." (I love this writer.)

But it's not as though Singer is indifferent to the fact that there's some amount of artifice involved in filming in English. And he takes care of this quite effectively. The movie opens with Cruise narrating the words he's writing in a letter, in a tent in Tunisia, where his officer has been sent as a means of hiding him away where his anti-war views can't harm anyone. Here Cruise speaks in German -- and quite well, to the untrained ear. After about a minute of Cruise's German-speak, Singer transitions the dialogue to English, first overlayed over the German, then on its own for the rest of the movie. Message: "You know they're speaking German. But because I am an English speaker and so are you, we are agreeing to do this thing in English."

Singer may have been taking his lead from the legally disgraced John McTiernan. I can think of two other good examples of this same approach in McTiernan films. Though I don't have a lot enduring memories of The Hunt for Red October, I do remember how the characters on the Russian sub start out speaking Russian, and then there's a transition to English after about the same amount of time as in Valkyrie. The example I like better is from the underrated and underseen The 13th Warrior, in which Antonio Banderas plays an Arab courtier who joins the 10th century Vikings in fighting an army of cannibalistic mist creatures. As the viewers' surrogate, Banderas' character speaks in English, a stand-in for Arabic. The Vikings speak in their own language -- they are the film's "other." The film gets everyone speaking the same language in a captivating montage in which English words steadily blend with Norse, as Banderas absorbs their fireside bragging over weeks of travel.

As in any film, ultimately, it's the filmmaking and storytelling that trumps all these language concerns. And it's probably true that if you've got a good story executed well, it doesn't matter to what extent a director honors the conventions or adjusts them to his own agenda.

I do have one complaint about Valkyrie, and oddly, it's related to the semantics of meaning. It has to do with the tagline on the poster, which was one of the reasons (along with the presence of Cruise) that I never wanted to see the movie -- until I heard it was pretty good, that is. Here's the tagline:

Many saw evil.
They dared to stop it.

Of course, what this poster means is "Many saw evil. They dared to stop it." In other words, "they" -- the characters in the movie -- should be differentiated from the "many" who saw evil. However, without the italics -- which you would never put on a poster anyway -- it sounds like "they" is modifying "many," as in "Many saw evil, and they dared to stop it," or "Many saw evil and dared to stop it."

But I'll forgive the humorous semantic ambiguity. Valkyrie is an unqualified success, and whatever errors the marketing department made don't influence that.

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