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on audiovisual and literary translation, subtitling, and the French & American film industries

Merit and the Oscars: an oxymoron?

Barbra Streisand from "Yentl"

Oy vey!  Pardon my un-French and not really English response to this idea, which was sparked this morning by the Times‘ Manohla Dargis, whose article on Kathryn Bigelow, and The Hurt Locker‘s decisive win Sunday night gloats over the director’s (just) annihilation of Oscar‘s glass ceiling, once and for all.

As a gay man, my instant response is: of course she did it, in what ostensibly is a “man’s” territory–war movie.  Had Nancy Meyers been nominated this year for it’s complicated, or my cousin Nicole Holofcener in past years–in both cases for what is arguably perceived as “girly” work and genres–that would have been different.  It was no great irony that the grandmère of “woman directors” Barbra Streisand presented the award, herself having not been nominated for her first effort, Yentl, a film in which she portrayed a woman masquerading as a man!   My head is spinning . . .

My appreciation of the film and Bigelow’s work had nothing to do with her gender, but the way it puts soldiers squarely on the same footing and territory as everyone else, and neither pathologizes their desire to fight, nor aggrandizes their humanity or social stature.  And not by making them more or less likable because their job is to fight and kill adversaries.  It is simply their job, which in one case, is a true calling for them.

The Oscars now are clearly so much less about merit–Sandra Bullock over Meryl Streep?!–than an annual cultural validation ritual.  If it were less remarkable when individuals from under-represented and -recognized groups won, e.g., in the so-called American real world where equality and fairness vacillate like the global warming “debate” and the weather, then the Oscars might really be about excellence in film, and not fake politics.

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The Year of the Avatar: translation and American film, 2009

This past year, American film discovered the world.  After Slumdog which was utterly bilingual and foreign, but made with USA/UK financing, American filmgoers were swept away by Taken, which seemed utterly American in its take-no-prisoners brevity, yet was 100% French from start to finish (see my interview with Unifrance’s John Kochman earlier this year), and managed to make it into the top 20 box office films of 2009.  (Something that Slumdog, even after umpteen Oscars and a delayed wide release last year, could not do.)

International film production, as not just a soup with different ingredients, but a real mix that can serve varying continental palates, finally, in the US anyway, seems not only viable but necessary and a reality.  By year’s end, Avatar was feeding positive messages to eight-year old boys about the difference between chosen and necessary warfare (via subtitles no less!), and It’s Complicated was subtly reinventing the American romantic comedy in a highly nuanced way, reminiscent and evocative of the other American south (as in “of France”).  And Nine, a remarkable translation of film to Broadway musical to Hollywood musical, announced itself as a flashy triumph of multi-ilingualism, with a literal and figurative tug of war for Daniel Day-Lewis’ heart and soul between the wonderful Marion Cotillard and the amazing Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench mixing things up with her show stealing “Folies Bergères” number in French.

Having been smitten with both Italian film and Italy in my youth, I could understand why critics might fault the film for its stingy imagination cinematographically, confining the characters’ ruminations to a soundstage.  But certainly Cinecittà was a destination for Fellini and his contemporaries, professionally, and the tribute is fitting I think.

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