Adventures, Spanish and the Movies

Total immersion. That's what they call living in the midst of another culture, trying to learn their language and culture through exposure. In premise, it's sort of like drowning in order to grow gills.

However, total immersion in a language works much better (and is much more fun) than it's aquatic counterpart. I know because I spent last term submerged in the city of Barcelona, mastering the Spanish tongue. Why, then, do I draw this metaphor? Because this culture dunking, if you will, on occasion feels a bit like drowning, especially for a kid who has lived in the New Hampshire countryside all of his life (that is, me).

Picture, if you will, a poor New Hampshirian boy, standing on a street from Barcelona. He seems quite calm and relaxed. He gazes at the architecture and his brow wrinkles, as he notices that it is either medieval, Moorish, or modern art. Then, suddenly, his eyes bulge open. He has just noticed the open-air-church/space-station located to his left. He flails around, fervently searching for something that resonates with his memory, to soothe the shock of this giant edifice. On one side, he sees tin-woodsmen/street-performers in desperate need of oil. On another, a woman sauntering past with platform sneakers and skin-tight jeans. On yet another, a young man boxing with a young woman's uvula. His heart starts pounding, his breath hastens, his body goes limp and his arms start to writhe. He needs something to remind him of America, the land of the less sexually free and less stylistically brave... and fast!

La adventura primera: Señor Smith y Señor Jones

Those approximate my thoughts on a hot, sweltering day in the middle of the Spanish autumn. If I had been at home, this would be just the sort of day I'd want to take refuge in a movie theater. I looked out the window of my classroom and wantonly gazed at the cinema across the street, which was playing but one film: Cop Land. True, my friends hadn't given it rave reviews, but I was willing to give it a shot-it had been nearly a month since I had last seen a movie, probably the longest I've been without a celluloid fix in my entire life. After classes I wandered nonchalantly over and asked the ticket-seller the dreaded question: "Es esta película en inglés o doblado en español?"

I had guessed right. It was dubbed. For a moment I had the delusion that I could tolerate this sacrilege, but then I remembered the portion of Silence of the Lambs I had seen on television the night before. When I heard Hannibal Lecter's voice, I commented that it sounded more like a Spanish Sylvester Stallone than the slimy, serpentlike intonations I remembered. After a moment of laughter, they told me the truth: Stallone and Anthony Hopkins are dubbed by the same Spanish actor. It then became clear to me that I wouldn't be going to any dubbed movies in Spain. And as I knew how subtitled films are considered uncommercial, I figured I might as well give up any hope of seeing any movies at all.

But that day I was in luck. You see, one of the guys on our program was living with a Dutch (sort of) art student who knew Barcelona pretty well. He brought us to a little cinema near the beach called the Icaria-Yelmo. Fifteen movie theaters, nearly all filled with new American movies played in the original version with Spanish subtitles. We went en masse to see Men In Black.

While above par for action movies in style, acting and dialogue, Men In Black was by no means an amazing film. What was amazing was that within the walls of that movie theater, I was no longer in Spain, learning to tread in this precarious new culture which I did not fully understand; rather, I was back in a little suburban movie theater, captivated by the newest Hollywood blockbuster. Within the Americana of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones saving the Earth from insect-like aliens that are a cross between expensive computer graphics and expensive make-up effects, I had found my refuge, my oxygen tank, that which would resonate with my roots and again center me in this foreign frontier: the ubiquitous American movie.

El gulfo Atlantico

Even so, seeing movies in Spain was slightly different than seeing them in America. Let's start with one of the basics: the title. A title is an integral part of a film being a vital aspect of getting viewers into the theaters and the only thing that viewers are guaranteed to have heard before the lights go down. Knowing this, I was quite taken aback to find that publicity agents often do not stop at translating a film's title; sometimes they simply alter it. This can drastically effect one's expectations coming into a theater. Heck, it can change whether you come into the theater at all. For instance, I would not have gone to see One Night Stand (which translates to El Pobo) with action-hero Wesley Snipes, drug addict Robert Downey, Jr. and Kyle MacLachlan of Showgirls fame, even if it was directed by Mike Figgis. But Mike Figgis' Despues de una Noche (which translates to After a Night) sounds like a film in the vein of Leaving Las Vegas, and makes me assume that Snipes, Downey and MacLachlan are trying their hands at acting again. This provides a case in point for the eeriest piece of this involved intrigue: the Spanish titles seem to be just plain better than their US counterparts; while the US title is blunt and clunky, the Spanish one is elegant and lucid. Check out these other examples and see if you agree:

American name Spanish name Spanish name translated
Chasing Amy Pirsiguiendo a Amy Chasing, uh, Amy
G. I. Jane La teniente O'Neill Lieutenant O'Neill
My Best Friend's Wedding El matrimonio de mi mejor amiga The Matrimony of My Best Girlfriend
The Peacemaker El pacificador The Pacifier (Kids love it!)
Deceiver El impostor The Impostor
A Life Less Ordinary Una historia diferente A Different Story
Everyone Says I Love You Todos dicen I love you Everyone Says Je T'aime
L.A. Confidential Rollo Tomasi y la fleur de lis* Rollo Tomasi and the Fleur de Lis
The Full Monty The full monty (Goodness knows what this means!)
(Not Applicable) Lolita (CENSORED)

Every once and a while, you'd get a movie with wildly inaccurate subtitles as well. I suppose this also happens when translating to English, but it is much more jarring when your native language is the one being contorted. Though I can't recall a lot of illustrations of this, there is one that sticks in my mind: in Chasing Amy, the entire discussion of Chinese finger-cuffs (you know, those cylindrical toys you put your fingers in) was reduced to one of sandwiches in the subtitles, which quite diminishes the local color (if New Jersey has such a thing as local color) and the humor. Let's just put it this way: you can take the bread off the sandwich, but you can't get your fingers out of the finger-cuffs.

Another thing that drastically effected my experience of films was a seeming lack of film criticism. While I am sure that Spanish newspapers and television review movies and that Spanish people read these reviews, I neither saw nor met anyone who had seen said reviews. Not that I took steps to rectify this. Untainted by opinions, reviews, interviews and hype, each movie becomes pristine and a true adventure. You simply watch it unfold, not knowing what will happen next, waiting to see whether it will be entertaining, intelligent, or even profound. And when it is you get a warm, fuzzy feeling, for you discovered this movie in the same way that Columbus discovered the New World-it feels fresh and new not because it is, but because you didn't expect it to be there. I went to see One Night Stand, L.A. Confidential and Chasing Amy without seeing more than the poster, and my virgin exposures together with the fascinating viewing experiences of Spain shall forever shape the way I regard these films.

La adventura segunda: Carne trémula

With all of this talk about English language films, one might wonder whether I actually got out and saw anything that could be considered foreign. I was in Spain after all, the capital of Spanish filmmaking (duh!), replete with about ten high-profile Spanish productions each year. Could a true movie buff reject this opportunity? Could a true cinephile remain so sheltered?

Thankfully I do not have to hide my face at all future Loew's screenings, for I managed to see what has been hailed as the greatest film by the greatest living Spanish director: Pedro Almodóvar's Carne Trémula (which translates to Trembling Flesh, though it was renamed Live Flesh for release in the US). The only advertising I saw for the film was the poster: two pairs of nude, interlocking buttocks, bound together in the shape of a heart. Coupled with the name Almodóvar, famous for such energetically erotic films as Matador, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, this promised to be something hot and steamy.

As for hot, it sure was. We went to see it a two weeks after it came out, and even then the line started forming about forty minutes before the show. Three quarters of an hour later we were in a theater packed with people itching for the movie to begin. And that's about where the steaminess came in; people were breathing so hard that it fogged up my glasses and I didn't see any of the film.

Just kidding. More seriously, while I enjoyed it, I left with the feeling I had missed something. This was probably somewhat due to my understanding of Spanish; though I would follow the dialogue pretty well, occasionally I would miss a line. Unfortunately, those were the lines everyone laughed at. Come to think of it, the audience was pretty rowdy throughout the entire screening; it was something like a Spanish take on Spaulding Auditorium where just about everything displayed on the screen is amusing. This took me aback a bit as having an audience that could be easily distinguished from a morgue was atypical for my experiences movie-watching in Spain. Perhaps it was that we were at such a watershed event in Spanish cinema. Perchance it was the intoxicating effect of Almodóvar in the original without subtitles. Or possibly the audience was so enthralled to actually have the actors lips moving in synch and in their own language that they got carried away. For me, it was all just part of the adventure.

La adventura tercera: El sueño imposible

Eventually, whatever got to Hemingway and Michener finally got to me. Either that or I had read too much of Don Quixote. Whichever it was, it made my blood boil, and I decided to go on a quest. "Too much of any one thing grows thin," I shouted in English to no one in particular, resolving that I would have no more of the vivacious visuals, the sensuous sound, the sense of anonymous community that makes seeing films in theaters such a precious experience. I would go to rent a video!

My one obstacle was the same cruel impediment that had almost prevented me from enjoying cinema in Spain altogether: the dastardly custom of dubbing. Yet I ignored the seeming unjumpability of this hurdle and I embarked upon my jihad: to find rentable English-language videos that had survived customs with the actors' voices intact. I would settle for no less than original version rental tapes! Though this pursuit may seem trivial, I ask you this question (which perplexed me for quite a time): where do you start? Simple: look around. I searched high. I searched low. I looked in nooks. I looked in crannies. I looked in grannies. They looked back. In due course, I found a video store right near the University. But the proprietors did not believe, as I did, in the sacrosanct purity of the celluloid strip and as such only peddled dubbed films. Strike one.

It was time for a different tactic. A cunning plan that would be sure to end in success. A plot beautiful in its simplicity yet nefarious in its deviousness. I would ask someone. My Spanish mother seemed a good candidate; as a resident, she had a working knowledge of Barcelona and contacts all over the city. If anyone would know, she would. And she did, or so it seemed, for she reported an original version rental shop right up the street, named "Tio Sam's". Funny name, I thought, seeing as tio means uncle. I dashed off to the store she mentioned, only to find film mongers of a similar ilk. Strike two.

What to do now? In the depths of despair from my despicable defeat, I wandered the city, which that day seemed downcast and desolate. Until, that is, I found it. In the shadows of a back alley a little off the way from the University to Plaza Catalunya glowed the purple neon of Video Vegara. Within this glorious establishment, which played MTV from dawn until dusk, was a whole section of American films, each with "V.O." (version original) stamped on them. From Modern Times to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Annie Hall. Even better was the price: 200 pesetas (about a buck thirty) for seven days. I picked out Rocky and JFK on the spot. I proudly plunked my money down on the counter. My quest was complete.

And then the clerk asked me the question that will live in infamy. "Su número?"

Well, I didn't have a membership number, so that's what I told her. She told me that in order to become a member I had to not only disclose where I lived and what I was doing with my life, but also prove these to her satisfaction. I'm used to membership fees, providing credit card numbers, but this was a bit much for me. I mean, proof? So I showed her the few papers I had, told her I was a poor American student who was suffering culture shock and I needed a see the Italian Stallion's victory and witness Jim Garrison's stolid belief in the federal government in order to feel truly American.

After some soul searching (mine, not hers), she began scrawling my name on a membership card. I had emerged this final test triumphant! I went home and watched them immediately, celebrating my ecstasy with some of the finest American movie-making on this side of the Atlantic. Though I would return for The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Fisher King and finally buy Tres mujeres para una caradura (which translates as Three Women for a Scoundrel, though the film is better known as L.A. Story), I knew at that moment my quest was complete.

La aventura final

Even with my video store, though, I wasn't completely satisfied. I kind of wanted to see some old movies on the big screen. Though there were quite a few art-house theaters around, I never bothered to attend them; partially because they were too out of the way, partially because it was too difficult to convince people to come with me. There was also a horror film festival in Sitges, a beach town pretty close to Barcelona. Yet as I'm not really an aficionado of horror films, after a quick glimpse at the brochure I decided there wasn't anything there I wanted to see.

But then it caught my eye. Each year they did a tribute to an accomplished director or actor, and this year it was David Lean. Which of course meant that they were playing all of his movies, and one of the first would be Lawrence of Arabia. The train ticket would cost me three dollars and the movie ticket would be four. Not bad. Then I realized that the showing was at one o'clock... in the morning. That meant I would have to take the last train out and wait for the first train back. Still, I was not dissuaded; what was three hours of waiting to seeing one of the greatest celluloid masterpieces ever created on the big screen?

I spent the whole week talking up Lawrence of Arabia in class and managed to find two cohorts for my journey: Andy Hatcher, fellow movie buff, and Edward Suh, all-around beyond-nice guy. We caught the last train out of Barcelona and made it to the cinema around midnight. We bought our tickets. After waiting, talking, reading and dozing for an hour and a half, we were finally let into the theater. The place was gigantic! It must have been three times the size of Spaulding. And the chairs looked like something out of the Enterprise-sophisticated and snug. We found some seats near the front and settled in. The lights began to dim.

Instead of the curtain opening, a microphone was brought out onto the stage. A well dressed man told us (in Spanish) we were there to see Lawrence of Arabia and that there were a few people to speak before the show. Then a woman stepped up and began to speak in English. She introduced herself as the daughter of David Lean and talked about how her father was a great friend of the Spanish people and how glad she was that we could make it to this screening. She spoke a bit about the making of the film and about her father's career, all of which was dutifully translated into Spanish. Next was "Johnny," who turned out to be Sir John Mills, a distinguished actor from British film who was in quite a few of Lean's works. After that was Lean's biographer. I must admit, this was more than I expected for my four dollar ticket.

Then the biographer uttered these deeply frightening words: "When you leave here at around six in the morning..." Six in the morning? I didn't remember this movie was that long! I read fear and rancor into the heavy-lidded gazes of my comrades. "Oh well-you'll enjoy every minute of it!" I quipped, trying my hardest to be cheerful in the face of this great adversity.

And they did. At least the parts they were awake for.


After a few short months of Spanish classes, American movies and the bright lights of a big city, it was time to go home. But I knew two things as I boarded my plane home: I would be back. And I would again watch American movies.

* Actually, this one was not renamed for Spanish release. I just think this title fits the movie better. If they can do it, why can't I?

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