My Dinner With Failure, Or, The Importance of Context in Foreign Films

Play a game of charades with some friends and see how far you get if you have to act out anything more complicated than simple nouns or verbs. Chicken? Easy. Chicken Little? Somewhat harder, but there will still be copious pantomiming to get the point across. Even if you know the person very well, you’ll still occasionally have to guess what they’re trying to depict.

Recently I wrote about my cinematic fail in watching Force Majeure. Basically I failed to understand the newest Netflix interface and didn’t push that most important of buttons when it comes to foreign film-viewing: SUBTITLES Now, you can totally fumble your way through a foreign film without subtitles given the right conditions. Such conditions include:

  • A passing familiarity with the language (I know enough French to follow some movies without reading the titles, but if anything gets more complicated than the present tense or basic concepts, I’m sunk)
  • A passing familiarity with the culture (You don’t have to master the pluperfect verb tense to know when people are yelling at each other)
  • A passing familiarity with the story (You might recognize themes or situations from famous plays, books, mythology, or graphic novels)
  • A story simple enough to surpass language (Dead Snow comes to mind; do we really need to know why the zombies of reanimated Nazis are harassing these attractive skiers and ruining their holiday? Do we?)

But!  As I learned, context is key, and for context you must have translation, some kind of intermediary to help guide you to the salient points.

Picture this: two well-dressed people are meeting in a Parisian cafe. The director has done his job, and despite the beautiful, laid-back surroundings, the score is tense, as are the faces of our characters. You know it’s a crime film, you know someone young was murdered and dumped in a ditch and had some kind of relation to these two. Now: what more do you want to know? Who started it? Was it justified? How long’s it been going on?

I don’t need translation to watch Godzilla to know that giant monsters destroying buildings is a bad thing, but what about trying to guess what was happening in the Avengers (assuming you were unfamiliar with the characters)?

“There’s a big blue ball, and it’s just absorbed this little gold ball, and now it’s… there are a lot of windows, and now there are robots everywhere but there’s also one robot who … is standing there talking about something, and now there’s a bigger one and a man in a suit with lasers and now there’s a farm where the people are and again we’re back to the city and robots lots of robots and OMG FLYING TOWN and another flying man with lasers coming out of his head and now everything is okay but might not be. Whatever, it was worth the 10 bucks.”

Context is everything, especially in an age when so little culture is shared on an intimate level. With no subtitles or dubbing, I might recognize a Thai person by their mode of dress or the sound of their language or the shape of the letters on signs in the background or the presence of tuktuks, because those are the big contextual markers. I won’t recognize the little nuanced ones, like the nature of their relationships with other people. I might miss little gestures accompanying the person’s movements that indicate their relationship, like a deferment to an older relative or a rolled eye to indicate a tiresome friend. Even something that should define a relationship, like a sex scene, doesn’t help because you don’t know if these people are together, cheating, or engaging in a forbidden affair.

Play a game of charades with some friends and see how far you get if you have to act out anything more complicated than simple nouns or verbs. Chicken? Easy. Chicken Little? Somewhat harder, but there will still be copious pantomiming to get the point across. Even if you know the person very well, you’ll still occasionally have to guess what they’re trying to depict.

A movie without context is a series of Rorshach images that the viewer can pull all kinds of things from, depending on their perspective.

Flavoring your Brainmeats: The ‘Mr. Condom’ TED Talks

I’ve seen some amazing suggestions over the years; one idea was teaching crows to pick up trash and paying them with food, through the use of these crow-targeted ‘vending machines.’ The crow puts in a bit of trash, metal, or paper, and the machine spits out a peanut. HOW AMAZING IS THAT IDEA? People used to use animals for heavy lifting, hauling and protection; what if we used technology to put them to work cleaning up garbage or picking walnuts or something?

Man cannot live on bread alone; we need wine, cheese, tacos, pesto, ketchup, Chinese food, or sometimes just a can of Pringles.

Your brainmeats are the most important organ you have–feeding it the same old boring crap over and over leads to blandness and eventually, decreased brain function. You have to give your brains a little flavor once in a while to liven things up and get them energized. Your brain grows the same way muscles grow and get stronger–with exercise.

And one great way to flavor your delicious brainmeats is with something like the TED talks, such as this  totally amazing TED  video about one man’s crusade to make condoms available throughout Thailand.

How amazing was that? 13 and a half minutes of awesome. And family growth down from 7 children per household to 1.3 in twenty years! A 90% DROP in NEW HIV/AIDS CASES!

90%!!!

If you aren’t familiar with the TED talks, they are always worth checking out. They’re basically these global conferences where people go to showcase some mindblowingingly interesting idea that they need funding for. And of course, you don’t just show up with some bullshit scribbled on the back of a napkin and then pass around a bucket for pocket change. TED stands for Technology Entertainment and Design, and the people who showcase their ideas are usually people whose ideas have already borne fruit, like Mr. Viravaidya.

I’ve seen some amazing suggestions over the years; one idea was teaching crows to pick up trash and paying them with food, through the use of these crow-targeted ‘vending machines.’ The crow puts in a bit of trash, metal, or paper, and the machine spits out a peanut. HOW AMAZING IS THAT IDEA? People domesticated animals for heavy lifting, hauling and protection; what if we used technology to put them to work cleaning up garbage or picking walnuts or something? And their involvment is voluntary, and they teach their offspring and other individuals within the species the behavior; it becomes sharing culture instead of domestication.

Anyhow, the TED talks are a great way to renew your faith in humanity and give your brainmeats a little flavoring.

Mr. Viravaidya is a goddamn genius on many, many levels. Only one of them is the condom thing–

–he mentioned something about ‘labor as collateral’ for people who have bad or no credit history. This BLEW MY MIND.

Think of all the homes sitting around right now that have been foreclosed on, which are now owned by banks. Many of them are falling into disrepair, making them LESS likely to sell to a buyer who ins’t already interested in either a fixer-upper or bulldozing the whole thing in order to build a McMansion. Maybe that’s why the bank isn’t interested anyway–they’d rather get someone in who’ll bulldoze a 250k house so they can build a 4 million dollar shitbox.

But think of how many people are out of work right now, in debt to those same institutions or others. The banks could easily swap labor as collateral for loans!

You apply for a loan, you voluntarily perform some task in order to qualify for it–be it manual labor or some kind of service, and you get your money and the bank receives your services in exchange. Sure it wouldn’t be a perfect option–not everyone has services or training to swap or is able to perform physical labor, and the opportunity for exploitation is huge–but it’s at least SOME kind of option for people with no or poor credit history, so long as you’re serious. Public Works projects, like fixing up crappy schools, parks, roads, or government buildings could be an option.

Anyhoodle, I saw that video and wanted to share.

If Mr. Condom bringing birth control to Thailand isn’t your cup of tea, then just go to the TED talks search function and type in something mildly interesting to you. There’s probably a great video on it right now.