This is an important issue, a tricky one, and I think, an embarrassing one
for many people. Unless we are amazing polymaths, few of us are
multilingual enough to know the languages of all cultures from which
important films have come. In general film courses, I think most of us
have few qualms about, say, representing Italian Neo-Realism by showing
BICYCLE THIEVES or OPEN CITY, without a knowledge of Italian. Where it
gets dicier is when it comes to entire courses. I myself teach a survey
of French cinema even though my facility with the language is patchy at
best. Even my shaky French, however, often allows me to point out
dialogue that is mistranslated (or not translated at all) in the
subtitles. For example, in Ophuls's LA RONDE, when the emcee in his
opening song sings "Tourne, tourne, mes personnages," and the subtitle
stupidly reads "turn, turn, o my dear friends," I'm able to point out that
he's actually saying "turn, turn, my characters," a crucial difference.
And my knowledge of the language has improved since I've been teaching the
I laughingly explain my persistence in teaching French film, which I love
with a passion, despite a lack of fluency in the language, by saying "If
Francois Truffaut could conduct a book-length interview with Alfred
Hitchcock without knowing English, I can teach films by Truffaut and
others without knowing French." That's glib, but it does get at a key
issue, when one considers not just the influence of American cinema on
many filmmakers who responded to the language of cinema without needing to
know the verbal language, but the fact that film as a discipline and as an
art form was furthered by a recognition on the part of many, the French in
particular, but also Germans, Japanese, Russians, and others, of the power
of the American cinema, again often without a knowledge of our language.
Why should we Americans not reciprocate, especially given the lack of
exposure of many of our students to national cinemas other than our own?
The other issue involves a trade-off. Many of us are at universities
where either we film professors teach films of other cultures or they go
untaught. However, even if we are at institutions where, say, a
course on French film might be taught in a French Department, would those
students be taught film, or an illustration of French history or
literature? If we approach courses on national cinemas with the attitude
that these are FILM courses, albeit seen in the light of national culture,
history, and the other arts and humanities, then the importance of
offering such courses becomes clear.
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.
Dept. of English
Indiana University Indianapolis
For past messages, visit the Screen-L Archives: