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  • Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Films
  • Bart Testa (bio)
Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour, editors. Subtitles: On the Foreignness of FilmsAlphabet City Media Book. MIT Press. 540. US $35.00

Atom Egoyan devised the theme of Alphabet City's eighth issue, Subtitles, the journal's first number devoted to film, while the Toronto film director was preparing a foreign-language version of his Felicia's Journey - in effect subtitling himself. He and coeditor Ian Balfour built the issue from there, from the sense of literal subtitles to the concept of the 'foreignness of films.' In her notorious death notice for cinema, published in the New York Times Magazine in the late 1990s, Susan Sontag associated what she took to be the failing health of 'foreign' filmmaking and its English-language reception with the vitality of cinema altogether. It was a premature elegy for international filmmaking, which always proves labile and persistent however much Hollywood almost smothers it. Nonetheless, in principle, as symptoms [End Page 201] to take seriously, the strengths of foreign auteurs and our English-speaking cinephilia with regard to them provide indicators of cinema ' s cultural condition. The 'foreignness of film' is more relevant, though also more complicated today, perhaps, than it has been for a generation.

Subtitles promise closeness to a film while being literally a barrier to its image. As critic B. Ruby Rich explains in her 'To Read or Not to Read,' subtitles score points of cultural status and provide essential access points to a movie. Even when they bounce, blur, or fade towards illegibility, or are plainly uninformative, the type dance is a complex lure. Subtitles, then, pose difficulties and demand sacrifices. Subtitles are of a piece with art cinema's high-design, high-status cultural astringency. Sometimes foreignness is very familiar to us. At other times, the foreign is very far away indeed. It is no longer a simple matter of films 'domestic or imported.' Although that remains the sense in Hollywood's commercial sphere of influence - as John Mowitt explains here in his historical account of the bizarre comedy that underlies the Academy Awards' foreign film category - there are now more film experiences bypassing that sphere than ever before. To explore this is the purpose of Subtitles.

Although Subtitles tries for a weave of image-essay, artist's statements, interviews, and critical articles, Balfour and Egoyan put film criticism at the book's centre. This is where the 'foreignness of film' breaks free of the subtitles conceit which rules the playful earlier sections. Fredric Jameson ' s 'Thoughts on Balkan Cinema' sets up impassioned political questions and marshals the literary critic's astute perception to propose a strong reading of films that, before this, have drawn wishy-washy or pleading discussions. One of the best psychoanalytic feminist film theorists of the 1980s, Mary Ann Doane, offers a précis of her new book, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, an intervention in film theory after Deleuze's Cinema 1&2. In a rare example of him digging into a film deeply, the Lacanian Slavoj ÒiÓek's 'The Foreign Gaze Which Sees Too Much' excavates a completely surprising, revelatory reading of Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. And in a closely analytical discussion of the films of celebrated Iranian director Kiarostami, Negar Mottohedeh shows that 'foreign' cultural codes extend well beyond language itself. In this case, Iranian government censorship forbids using the common editing procedure to convey dialogue - the shot-reverse shot figure - because it puts the conversing woman in the direct line of sight of a male character for all the world to see.

The artists' articles and spreads vary. Jack Lewis and John Greyson produce a vividly imagined shooting script from polylingual (Dutch and Indigenous) court documents of a 1735 court proceeding in South Africa. French director Claire Denis explains exactly why she thinks too much - not the usual too little - of portions of her visually cagey Friday Night was subtitled, and her reasons prove ready-made for critical application elsewhere. Laurence Rickels catches up with peripatetic filmmaker Ulrike [End Page 202] Ottinger, whose star as a feature director has sunk below the horizon, but whose documentaries stand as her...


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