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August 2000, Week 2


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
mike chopra-gant <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 9 Aug 2000 10:30:15 +0100
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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On 8 August Dennis Bingham wrote:

> Besides, I am not sure that language issues are foremost on the minds of
> film studies scholars who teach films made in their own languages; Mike
> Leigh's TOPSY TURVY, with its attempt to represent English as it would
> have been spoken in a community of artists in late-Victorian England,
> reminds me of how often native speakers take no notice of the historical
> evolution of their own languages.  Most films set in historical periods
> are spoken in the standard language usage of the time the film is made.
> When a film comes out that breaks that pattern, we realize how often
> historical and cultural differences in our own languages fall, as it
> were, upon deaf ears.  However, a French film made in the same spirit,
> obviously would be lost on me and anyone else not attuned to the language.
> So the conclusion is that in a perfect world all film courses would be
> taught by people with a thorough sensitivity to film and to the languages
> in which the films are made.  But film itself is a world "language" in an
> imperfect world.  And there you have it.

I am joining this discussion late and I have somehow deleted all the earlier
messages so apologies if someone has already picked up this point, but I
think Dennis is right to suggest that questions about national languages may
be over-emphasised here.   If language was the only barrier to either
enjoyment of, or scholarship concerning films then there ought to be little
problem in British audiences understanding every nuance of U.S. films and
television, but these are frequently littered with cultural references
(often as jokes) which are utterly lost on British viewers despite the
shared language.  I'm sure there are lots of examples but I can only think
of a few (non-canonical) ones at the moment.  One of my earliest experiences
of being aware of this was in *The Man With Two Brains* where the
anti-freeze killer's identity is revealed as being Merv Griffin (I think,
but apologies if I have the identity wrong), who I now understand to be a
famous sports commentator.  But the joke was completely lost on me at the
time and I expect that most American viewers of a film which featured Dickie
Davies or Des Lynam in a similar capacity would be similiarly baffled.  More
recently, references to Kathie Lee Gifford in an episode of *South Park* had
a similar effect.  I was lucky to be living in L.A. when I first saw *Twin
Peaks* or the exquisite joke of naming the Horne Brothers, Ben and Jerry,
would also have been lost on me as the showing of the series on British
television slightly preceded the arrival of the hippie ice-cream on these
shores (or at least widespread awareness of the brand over here).

Certainly I am not arguing that examples like these represent a gap in
understanding which even begins to approach the potential which arises when
a film is also in a different language.  My point is that the language
difference is merely the most obvious manifestation of a range of cultural
differences which might be reflected in films and other cultural forms.  If
this was to represent an impediment to scholarship from outside the culture
then the consequence would be that vast areas of culture would be out of
bounds for those coming from outside a restricted geographical and
historical range.  If this was correct then no-one who was not an ancient
Greek could engage in scholarly discussion about Homer.  Taking this to its
logical conclusion would effectively kill off historical work on culture
which sought to look back further than one lifetime.  So I don't see a
problem with teaching film from other cultures provided we are aware of the
limitations in our understanding of these films and the cultures.
Anthropologists and historians have surely been doing this sort of thing for

Mike Chopra-Gant
Goldsmiths College
University of London

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