Salon has an article about the success of American television series in France.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact of “Friends” in paving the way for “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother,” not just in terms of structure but international appeal. Throughout the ’90s, the show was so popular with viewers abroad that foreign policy advisers felt it was helping warm foreigners’ views toward Americans, furthering American global influence. Harvard scholar Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1989, arguing that American culture and values “remain attractive,” even when our governments prove internationally unpopular.
“Friends” has been key to the changing marketplace of global television. Research from Kaplan International in 2012 showed that “Friends” was the most popular show in helping foreigners learn English, with 26% of English students saying that watching episodes of the program helped them pick up on American idioms.
The program is so embedded in how foreigners understand English that Kaplan’s Martin Hofschroer claimed he once heard his Arab cab driver use Chandler Bing’s famous catchphrase. While stuck in New York’s infamous auto congestion, his cabbie shouted, “Could there be any more traffic?”
I like to think that the idea of brilliant characters who understand the mysteries of the universe but struggle with relationships has universal appeal. And I like even better the idea that it is what we laugh at that brings us together.
We are very proud to present an exclusive clip from Valerie Donzelli’s “Declaration of War,” the moving true-life tale of two resilient young parents’ (Valerie and her co-writer/star Jeremie Elkaim) struggle with their child’s illness.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim and is playing now at the Sundance Film Festival’s Spotlight program. It will be released in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, January 27.
There is no question that writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant film-maker. But there is some question about whether he has yet made a brilliant film. No one takes a more visceral pleasure in movies than he does but there is always a chilly irony and a look-at-me distance. Movies are more Tarantino’s mirror than his window.
This film takes its title from a little-seen Italian movie made in 1978, but starting with the intentional misspelling, it has little in common with the original except for a WWII setting and a Tarantino’s characteristic pulpish sensibility. It shares even less in common with history. About the only thing it gets accurately is that the Nazis spoke German and the Americans spoke English.
Tarantino calls the movie a revenge fantasy. Brad Pitt plays Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who assembles a squadron of Jewish soldiers with one goal, to kill as many Nazis as possible, in as horrifying a manner as possible. “We will be cruel to the Germans and through our cruelty they will know who we are,” he tells them. One of his men is a former German soldier they rescued from prison after he killed his superior officers. Another is nicknamed “The Jew Bear” (played by horror director Eli Roth), and he kills Nazis with a baseball bat.
Tarantino’s opening scene is brilliantly staged, as a German officer (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz) visits a French dairy farmer in search of Jews who may have escaped his predecessor. Waltz, winner of the Cannes prize for acting, instantly joins Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West as one of the all-time great movie villains with a mesmerizing performance that shows off his fluency in English, German, French, Italian…and evil. Like Lecter, his venom is even more disturbing because of his urbanity and courtliness. Other scenes are also masterfully shot, especially an extended scene in a bar, when a critical meeting of Allied forces working undercover find themselves among a drunken party of German soldiers celebrating a new baby. Others, like the viscious killing of a group of what Raine calls Nah-sies, suffer from Tarantino’s tendency to go for showmanship over substance.
And that is the problem at the core of the film. If the misspelling of the words in the title was a signal of some kind, like the backwards letter intended as a warning and a small sign of protest in the sign over the gate at Auschwitz, then we could look for meaning in the reworking of historical events and the actions taken by real people. But Tarantino does not care about that. He is still about sensation, not sense. He appropriates the signifiers of WWII because they are easy, and because they are both scary and safe. His Nah-sies are like dinosaurs, unquestionably dangerous and unquestionably vanquished. Tarantino is a film savant. He knows and understands and loves the language of film. He just doesn’t have much to say.
The top prize at Cannes this year went to an extraordinary film called “The Class” about a year in the life of a dedicated French high school teacher and his students, many of whom are immigrants. It is now the official French entry for the Oscars and opening in theaters across the US. I spoke to director Laurent Cantet about making the movie, which blurs the line between documentary and feature film.
Did you have a favorite teacher?
I have a few memories of some teachers who made an impression on me. I studied in school about 10 years after May 1968. Professors had also started to question their methods, and I had teachers like Francois who really tried to introduce questions, not just lectures. My parents were professors who encouraged student participation and I spent my childhood listening to people talk about school and pedagogical methods. That made an impression on me. And I have children so I see what school is like now. The French title is “Within the Walls.” I wanted to compare my experience with contemporary reality.
This film is designed to see what happens behind the scenes because school is a very private place. Children want to keep the space as a space that is theirs, their first place of independence. Professors protect themselves behind the walls of the schools.
One aspect of the school that will strike many Americans as unusual is that there are student representatives attending the faculty meetings. And indeed, the teacher in the movie finds that it creates some problems for him.
That is a requirement. It seems natural to French people to have students there, a question of honesty. There are two class representatives in staff meetings, entrusted with explaining the students point of view to professors and reporting to each student what is said about him.
What makes a great teacher?
If I knew I might be a teacher! It is indispensable that they take into account everything that the students live outside of the classroom. So the school can never seem like a sacred separate space. The world is more complex, I think, the personal stories of each of the students are more difficult, each with a very different trajectory, more than when I was in school.
The movie has elements of both documentary and fiction. It features non-professional performers and it feels very improvised, but in fact it was scripted, right?
In every movie there’s this question of reality and fiction. I like to give news, stories from the world, but I never want to do it as a thesis. I want to evaluate reality through the paths of different characters. I worked with non-professional actors who bring a way of being in front of the camera, notably they bring the experience of their own life. My job is like an orchestra leader, bringing out snippets of what they do and bringing it all together, which does not prevent me from writing a script.
What I had written was the story of Souleymane (the uncooperative boy who gets into trouble, played by Franck Keita). I met FranÃ§ois Begaudeau (who plays Francis, the teacher), a professor for 10 years in this kind of school, who had written about little moments of classes that he had himself. It was very easy for me to offer the role to him.
We had acting workshops every Wednesday for a year, improvised with the students and he proved to me that he was terrific. We opened the workshop up to all of the students and those who stayed with it got to be in the movie.
The actress who played Souleymane’s mother was the only one who was not the real-life parent. His real mother was not in France. But as in the film does not speak French, and she did children who lived through similar situations. She created the character based upon her experiences and a way of being.
When I met her she said, “When I go to a disciplinary hearing I am going to dress myself in the most dignified way possible, like a queen.”
The boy who played Souleymane, though, in real life is the complete opposite, very nice, very laid back, almost shy. But I felt very quickly that he liked acting. I had a hard time getting him to be tough enough until we were trying on costumes. When he was dressed very differently from how he dressed in real life, he felt the character. And the goth boy is not a goth in real life either. He felt like trying out something he would not dare to do in real life, and the costume did that immediately.
There have been a lot of very high-profile movies about teachers with difficult students. What makes this one different?
Those movies were my opposite example, exactly what I wanted to avoid, to be everything except Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society.” I wanted the professor to have his weakness, not to have a magic wand to solve everything. Through most of the movie we see the school can be a safe place but also a place of excluding people, like Souleymane who can’t find a place in the system but also people like Henrietta who lose interest and don’t understand what they are doing there. There is a roller coaster feeling, with great moments, great depression as much for the students as the teachers. What I want to do is describe the world in all of its complexity and contradictions.
Many thanks to translator Paul Young of Georgetown University for his assistance with this interview.
“Beacause it’s there.”
George Mallory’s reason for conquering Everest applies to feats of exploration and adventure that include traveling to the moon. This documentary shows us that it also explains how a French teenager leafing through a magazine at his doctor’s office could see a picture of the plans for building the two World Trade Center towers and instantly decide that when they were built, he would string a wire between them and walk across it.
In order to make it happen, tightrope walker Philippe Petit trained and planned for years, and this film shows us the combination of meticulous preparation, whimsical optimism, a lot of hubris, and some well-timed luck combined to make it happen on August 7, 1974, 34 years ago today. The article-less title of the film comes from the designation on Petit’s arrest form. A combination of current interviews with the participants, archival footage, and some mostly understated re-enactments makes this as mesmerizing as the most intricate heist film, and we find ourselves rooting for the young man who wanted to dance in the air and never tried to explain why to himself or anyone else — or profit from his stunt. The result is an exhilarating film about a pure gesture of art, courage, and folly that seems enchantingly gentle. It is also wrenchingly poignant. Every shot of the two towers reminds us of the aspirations of those who built them and the immeasurable loss of 9/11. Every element of the plan to circumvent security reminds us of those who attacked the towers out of hatred rather than joy. All the more important to see this reminder of a moment when a man danced in the air for the pure pleasure of giving himself and the people who watched him a reason to smile. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.
Parents should know that this film has some drug use and brief nudity with a post-wire-walking celebratory groupie.
Families who see this movie should talk about how people discover their dreams and what they should be willing to do to make them happen. How do the participants differ in their feelings about what happened?
If you like this, try: “Rififfi”