There are a bunch of films that I really don’t understand or connect with and I think that occurs because I’m completely ignorant of the socio-political/historical context of the story and characters. Of the films I’m thinking of many seem to be from Eastern Europe. I’m thinking of films like Landscape in the Mist, Ulysses’ Gaze, Ashes and Diamonds, Underground, Cria Cuervos* and many others.
Now I can appreciate some of these films, but even of those, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot. How does one really evaluate a film like this? Unsurprisingly, one may not enjoy a film like this, but can one fairly say the film is not good? Can anyone else relate to this?
I’ve always found that knowing more about a film before you see it can make a big difference. Most importantly as you stated above some movies are simply understood better if you know the history behind them. For example it’s important to note that while anyone can watch a period piece only some that watch it will understand in context. Pan’s Labyrinth for instance would be somewhat difficult to understand if you don’t know anything about Spain under Franco’s rule leading to the possibility that you won’t understand the political aspects of the film. It can be very difficult to watch a foreign film if you are not familiar with their countries events or customs. I find it helps quite a bit to do research before the film which. I find that being more meticulous in the way I view movies the more I will understand the movies context.
the main problem is WHICH historical understand are we talking about…..
i won’t expand more on this yet because i’m feeling this is gonna be a major debate but it’s not a common secret that most movies regarding WWII are either focusing on the Nazi side or several cultural entities like Russians,Jews,French,Northern Americans,Chinese and that occurs in alternate time periods as well,English Reformation,Spanish Civil War as mentioned above,African colonization (from most Western productions though) and plenty of historic facts like Byzantium are left aside in favor of the academic research of “significant events” made significant thanks to their choosy attitude.
it’s not mainly about ignorance of specific historical events,it’s the unfortunate typical popularization of certain historic facts against some lesser known,either because the countries aren’t worth mentioning or they’re not explicitly related to major countries like Italy,U.S.A.,France etc.
IMO it’s much better to have a film that foreign viewers have trouble understanding then using tons of exposition to explain everything like an episode of CSI.
Cria Cuervos – I never got the military implications of this film
A film should not require a previous historical understanding, but should instead provide it. By which I don’t mean background for background sake, but only what is needed to appreciate a film on its own terms. Having recently watched Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, I didn’t feel at a disadvantage not being Japanese. Even if I hadn’t known anything about it before the film made clear how the concept of ritual suicide differ in Japan and the West (and in historic Japan vs. modern Japan.)
Looking at a less specific film like Burn!, you gain an understanding of the effects of imperialism even without a detailed acount of its history and context.
Historical accuracy is not always the point either. If Inglorious Basterds provides a false account of events in WWII, it is still valid on its own terms of wish fullfillment in retrospect.
The historical film should be a starting point, but never the final word as they provide a very specific perspective. The ultimate success would be provide such a fascinating perspective, that it inspires reading about it afterwards.
I think often times, historical understanding isn’t needed (but always helps). Especially today in a global market most films whether marketed solely internationally or not, will take into account foreign audiences to some degree. Thus even films that supposedly tote themselves as somehow historical are usually boiled down to a simple universal narrative.
Id say with older films, this is not the case. Films like City of Sadness & Terrorizer for example are probably lost on those unfamiliar with the history of Taiwan. Not to say they are completely useless, but a basic understanding goes a long way.
IL DIVO. The film was stylish so it kept my attention, but I really would have benefited from knowing about Italian politics and politicians before watching it.
I agree that films should be able to stand on their own without background before you watch them, but having some historical or cultural background can enrich your enjoyment of them and maybe help you understand what you’re seeing.
Consider William Friedkin’s “Cruising” – it documents a very specific place and time in the gay community and leather/sm subculture. I think the movie stands on its own terms, but knowing the context of the time when it was made – the protests by gays and lesbians against the production, the use of actual leather bars and bar patrons in the film – it becomes more than just a simple story about a cop investigating a series of murders.
Seeing “Rules of the Game”, you really have to understand the origin of the print you’re seeing and how it may reflect more about Renior and the restorer’s attitudes in post-War France more than it does Renior’s original intent when the film was shot and premiered in 1939 in a different edit.
I understand and generally sympathize with the sentiment that films stand on their own without requiring the viewer to possess historical knowledge. However, some films seem to comment directly on the history and politics of a specific country, so a viewer that doesn’t know the history and politics of that country would be at an arm’s length from those films. Sure, there would be aspects of the film the viewer could appreciate, but wouldn’t he/she be missing out on a lot?
Maybe one of the most recent films from Europe to suffer from this lack of historical context would be The Baader Meinhoff Complex. If the viewer is unaware of the social and cultural milieu the gang evolved out of and why they behaved the way they did the movie becomes merely a gangster movie. Which is maybe the reason it was made the way it was. So an uninformed audience, particularly a US audience, would be “entertained” without having to know the root of the “complex”.
I don’t agree that films should stand on their own. I think directors should be craft their plot however the hell they want to in a bit to express ideas, be it through allegory, direct comment or anything. They should make their film for the desired audience and not for the world to understand. If to express a certain idea, they need to reference a historical context their audience is familiar with, they should feel very free to. And if international audiences do not understand, I guess it is just a cultural lost.
One of my favorite movies is Barry Lyndon. I think that particular time period was a much more relaxed society compared to a much busier society that we have today. It seems that they had a lot of free time on their hands, due to servants and slaves, but also that they didn’t live in a nine to five society with deadlines and appointments. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to understand just a little what that society was like so that you can see why a film like that takes it’s time in unfolding it’s story. I do think that if a film is made well enough, you will probably forget about the particular historical period and just enjoy the film like any other film. I guess it wouldn’t hurt at least to have a rough or general understanding of history so if you do not understand the exact circumstances of the characters and the story, you can view it a much larger context.
Let me clarify my meaning by adding Randy’s points too them. I do believe historical context can enrich a film viewing experience, but it should not be a requirement. Going off of a previous example, Rules of the Game is a great film even if you know nothing about the state of the French upper class in between the world wars. It’s great drama taken on its own terms. Context makes it even greater.
I believe the director has a responsibility to engage the audience on some level. Challenging the audience is even better, but if appreciation for a film is completely dependent on a source outside the film itself, it’s the filmmaker who has dropped the ball.
That’s one reason to read/watch the special features.
Honestly, I agree with this and I don’t.
NO film should feel constrained to provide frames-full of exposition in order that an audience can claim the sacred right to come in without ever having read or heard a word about the subject and expect to understand everything. That requirement killed La Reine Margot in America (and it wasn’t even necessary, it’s a Jacobean tragedy, it doesn’t matter who they are, and it was based on Dumas, not history!)
No film-maker should feel constrained not to deal with a subject, or not to make allusions, because it may not be familiar to everybody and they don’t have time to explain things.
In theory, I agree, a film should stand on its own with themes powerful enough to come through even if you don’t know the historical details.
The real problem usually isn’t with historical films which might have provided exposition and didn’t, it’s with films that are so engaged with their time and place that it never occurs to them that they may one day meet an audience with no idea what they’re living through.
Those are usually the films that are most perceptive and challenging about their own time and place…
Is a reaction which is historically ignorant still valid … if it picks up the main themes and says profound things about them, and gets the odd fact wrong?
Is a reaction which is historically ignorant still valid .. if it picks up the main themes and says profound things about them with a fascinating and complex argument based on some allusion that’s completely misunderstood?
Is a film still valid of it leaves the way open for reactions like the above?
I think the key issue is the extent to which the history and politics of the country in question is critical to the film. If it’s an essential part of the film’s meaning, than the validity of the judgments of someone ignorant of that history would be questionable. At least that’s my feeling now.
I want to go back to the initial question I asked about how you deal with films that deal with a country’s history and politics when you’re ignorant of the history and politics. How do you evaluate them—or do you feel like you can evaluate them? If someone asks you what you think about the film, do you say you don’t know?
Well, I personally, casually, as a viewer, would say something like ’I’m not sure I understand the context but this is what an ignorant viewer saw…‘, after all I know how the medium works and I can judge how much I thought I picked up, and I can certainly sometimes tell when something’s significant and I have no idea of what. (The film which always comes to mind when I think about that is Suzuki’s Operetta tanuki goten, which I enjoyed thoroughly but with the strong feeling that I had no idea of the connotations of .. well, practically anything.) If someone knows references, I rely on them to tell me. But I also know that what I do know I tend to take for granted and to be rather shocked when someone comes out with a judgement that ignores it, I doubt that I always know the extent of my ignorance, and I presume I could equally annoy people intensely without having any idea of it. On the other hand there’s a difference between not being informed enough to have an opinion and not accepting an opinion which is based on values you don’t share.. and two people from the same country may tell you totally different things about their cultural references depending on their scale of values. I reserve the right to have a bit of judgement too.