Friday, February 26, 2010

Weekly Rant (Sort Of): Speaking in Tongues

The Last Station, based on a semi-fictional novel by Jay Parini, begins with Leo (Lev) Tolstoy in his final months of life. The year is 1910 and Tolstoy is both a famous novelist (War and Peace and Anna Karenina) and a famous spiritual figure, inspiring a religion of sorts that rejects violence, sex, wealth and private property. The film, directed by Michael Hoffman, explores both the man and his movement in a manner that is simultaneously comprehensive and scattered – much like the devotion between the film’s two main characters. Starring a very-bearded Christopher Plummer and a still stunningly beautiful (and sexy) Helen Mirren, The Last Station is at its core an examination of the complex relationship between Leo and Sofya Tolstoy, two people who loved and fought with equal passion. The film’s principal pleasure is Plummer and Mirren’s knack for playing both sides of the relationship convincingly. Screaming at one another in one scene, playfully rolling around in bed in the next, each moment between Leo and Sofya feels true, real, authentic.

What isn’t so authentic, however, is The Last Station’s Russianness. This is a film with characters named Bulgakov, Chertkov and Sergeyenko, and yet the performers speak English with accents that sound like a strange combination of flattened British and whatever accent Paul Giamatti uses in the John Adams miniseries. And that brings us to this week’s rant, which, truth be told, is more of a question (sorry, Kevin J. Olson).

Because in addition to seeing The Last Station, in recent weeks I’ve been preparing for the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon by rewatching such classics as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape (as if I needed an excuse), two films in which Mexican and German characters, respectively, speak exclusively in English, even amongst themselves. This use of accented English in portrayals of non-English-speaking characters used to be the norm, but in recent years, as Hollywood has warmed to the idea that subtitles don’t ensure box office ruin, the trend has shifted ever so slightly so that now even vapid popcorn fare like Avatar dabbles in some non-English dialogue. That said, the foreign-tongued speakers in any American-made film are more often than not the story’s villains, suggesting that filmmakers might be more interested in stoking their target audience’s fears of “the other” than in attainting racial, ethnic and linguistic authenticity. Nevertheless, regardless of the motivation, we have reached the point that when an art-house flick like The Last Station doesn’t go so far as to adopt Russian accents for its Russian characters it seems, well, odd.

Is it possible that Harrison Ford ruined the Russian accent for everyone with his performance in K-19: The Widowmaker? No, that’s not the question at the heart of this post. These are the questions I pose to you: (1) In this day and age is it actually inappropriate for non-English-speaking characters to be performed in English, or is it just distracting, or neither? (2) If a movie about non-English-speaking characters settles for using English, would you prefer to have the actors adopt an accent suggesting the language being spoken (like Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie or Mexican mice in a Speedy Gonzales cartoon), or would you prefer that the actors speak in their own “natural” English accents, whatever that might be? If the latter, (3) what if allowing the actors to speak in their natural voices leads to an American actor (say, Giamatti) and an English actor (say, Mirren) speaking with different accents despite playing people who speak the same language? In general, when it comes to non-English-speaking characters being performed in English, what are your thoughts?

Please, discuss …


Craig said...

Ah, what a fantastic question! And let me offer a lame, hesitant answer: It depends?

I can think of examples to support all sides of the argument. On one hand, I certainly prefer the German-inflected Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies to the British-speaking Nazis of yore. On the other hand, those are almost always supporting characters, window-dressing. Unless you're Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep, movie stars doing foreign accents usually run the risk of distraction. I can see how it seemed odd and quaint for Plummer and Mirren to not speak with Russian accents in The Last Station, yet might it have not seemed odder if they had over a two-hour running time?

Generally, allowing actors to use their natural voices looks ridiculous, but there have been exceptions. Amadeus, for example, features F. Murray Abraham playing the Italian Salieri with an English accent, and Tom Hulce playing the German Mozart with an American accent. Yet it works wonderfully. Similarly, The Last Temptation of Christ took a lot of flak for letting Harvey Keitel play Judas with a New Yawk accent, but I liked how Scorsese transformed Jerusalem into a biblical Brooklyn, a teeming melting pot. (That said, I do admire Mel Gibson for, if nothing else, using languages as a way of transporting us to the worlds of The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto.)

One of the gutsiest performances I've ever seen by an American actor playing a foreign character is Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson, where he plays a Russian and actually speaks Russian (convincingly) for the first half of the movie. Even when he switches to English, after his character defects to America, Williams still layers his speech with a Russian accent. It's a great, fully lived-in performance.

One of the lamest uses of a foreign language was in The Hunt for Red October, where Sean Connery speaks convincing Russian for the first ten minutes until the film suddenly says, "Never mind." The transition is made fairly fluidly, yet the movie loses some conviction as a result.

Steven Santos said...

I personally prefer to have actors speak the actual language the characters speak, but I think that simply isn't realistic. Most actors are not going to learn the language when so many can get away with speaking in English. One of the rare cases was Benicio del Toro, who actually had to learn Spanish for his role in "Traffic". I'm used to actors performing foreign roles in English, so it doesn't bother me that much.

Regarding whether actors should adopt accents even when speaking English, I think it helps sell the setting of the story rather than keeping one's own accent. Sure, I know it's not realistic, but having a guy from Brooklyn talking in his natural accent in early 20th Century Russia makes no sense, unless there is some concept to the accents as Craig mentioned with "The Last Temptation of Christ", where Scorsese wanted to get away from the English accents adopted from biblical epics to make it more relatable.

Accents are a tricky subject because they tend to not satisfy anyone. There have been times when an actor is heralded for having an authentic accent from some, but is derided as completely phony by others. I remember the years when "NYPD Blue" was on the air and everyone praised the authenticity of the show. But since it was primarily filmed in Los Angeles, I always felt the attempts at New York accents by the day players were over the top and laughable at best. But you can watch a guest actor on any of the hundreds of Law & Order shows which shoot in New York and they feature actors who live in the city who know not to play up the New York accents too much.

Hokahey said...

My ideal is subtitles for all foreign languages as in Inglourous Basterds. The Americans speak English - or Italian with a bad accent. The French speak French - or the French farmer speaks English with an accent. The Germans speak German, etc. Subtitles are provided.

As for English and American actors all playing Russians or Germans, for example, I don't like a pronounced Russian or German accent. I think that's ridiculous. The accent is trying to simulate that everyone is speaking a foreign language, but it distorts the reality for me. It sounds like foreigners speaking English with a Russian or German or whatever accent to English speakers, instead of everyone speaking their own language to fellow natives.

As for Giamatti's versus Plummer's accent in The Last Station (I've seen the preview many times), their flattened or alien accents suggest another language - and if there are differences, that's okay because not everyone speaks Russian with the same accent, just like not every American speaks English with the same accent.

I liked how they spoke in The Illusionist. They were supposed to be speaking German, but each performer put on an accent that was "other" without doing a ridiculously exaggerated German accent with every "the" pronounced "ze." Norton put on a slightly British accent. Giamatti put a subtle foreign inflection on his speech as did Sewell. And Biel just tried to sound un-American, for the most part a British accent, but it worked. Anyway, I felt all the voices worked well and suggested "another country."

I thought the accents were well done in Schindler's List as well. Everybody's speaking German - but no matter the nationality of the performer, they spoke English in their normal accent - or slightly altered but not ridiculously so. For example, Fiennes clipped his accent to sound unEnglish. I think one of his first lines is "I"m fucking cold." I'll never forget it. It was perfect. He sounded like a mean little Nazi who was fucking cold, not a British actor.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the thoughts, guys.

I think Craig starts us off perfectly: "It depends." And Steven expands on that with: "Accents are a tricky subject because they tend to not satisfy anyone." And then Hokahey provides examples of how it can please both ways.

Ignoring the unrealistic ideal (the actual language being used and then subtitled in English), I'm torn on what's second best. I recognize that doing some kind of accent is often part of building a character -- not just in terms of where the character is from, but who he/she is. But it is awkward to me when you've got one person using an accent and someone else not even trying.

That said, to rundown some of the examples you guys cited:

* I have no problem whatsoever with the "let's not even try to pretend" approach in The Last Temptation of Christ. And yet ...

* In movies like The Great Escape and Schindler's List, I like my non-English speakers sounding non-English, with some kind of accent to suggest the divide. But then again ...

* Hokahey's example of The Illusionist is an interesting one, because I cataloged that movie in my brain as happening in England. In fact, I might have even cataloged it that way as I was watching it. (It's been a long time; saw it upon its release.) With The Last Station that won't happen because it's about Tolstoy, and you can't possibly forget he's Russian. And yet, a funny thing happened after I posted this "rant." I skimmed through some reviews on Metacritic and found at least three reviews that compare the film to Masterpiece Theatre. Now, you tell me: Does that reference inspire a Russian feeling or a British one? In a way, I think that underlines how British these characters feel, and that's got to be a fault of the film in some way, no?

Sam Juliano said...

I like this film Jason, but I will back off as I have received many death threats for my affection. Ha!

But one thing is certain, even in the face of critical indifference, and that's Sergei Yevtushenko's score, which methinks was one of the year's best.

But all joking aside, you make som eexcellent points. Apart from that devastating finale, the film alternated from tedium and fascination even with Mirren and Plummer doing their thing.

Daniel Getahun said...

Very interesting questions here. I'm on the same page with the IB ideal, but I understand it can't happen.

That said, I have to disagree with Hokahey about The Illusionist, because the accents (particularly Norton's) grated on me the entire time.

Generally speaking I'm OK with actors speaking the non-native languages of their characters (by that I mean English, usually), but only if they can do the accents well. And of course that's never guaranteed.

So I guess it comes back to casting actors who can either speak the language of the characters or inflect the right accent. Maybe QT started a trend with IB...

Tony Dayoub said...

I actually liked the way HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER handled it. Connery is not great with an accent, so he does it best for 10 short minutes and then, fuck it... it's a movie. I'd rather they do that than try to inflict a Kevin Costner with a British accent that comes and goes, as they did in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES. They did the same in STAR TREK VI. Who needs accuracy when you're listening to someone speak in Klingon.

Granted, in TRAFFIC it is necessary because of the illusion they are trying to maintain. Benicio Del Toro didn't have to learn Spanish for the movie. He was born and raised in Puerto Rico and Spanish is his first language.

As it was for Steven Bauer (whose real name is Rocky Echevarria) of SCARFACE. In that movie they split the difference, with Pacino doing his best Cuban accent (it's an admirable effort. I'm Cuban-American so I should know) and Bauer adapting his to fit in with Pacino's.