Ze Problem Vif ze Accent

With a plethora of films about Nazi Germany released in the past few months, a curious problem has once again presented itself. How do you present, to American audiences, the language of the characters in a story that is set in a foreign country? How should the conversation between two Germans or two Frenchman sound?

Historically, there have been three solutions:

  • they speak plain English to each other, as if it were their native tongue.
  • they speak the foreign language and the English translation is offered in subtitles along the bottom of the screen
  • they speak in English but with an accent
  • they speak English but with varying accents, dependent upon their social status or ethnicity within the larger language group.

Here are some salient points:

1. people do not talk with an “accent” when speaking to each other in their native tongue. They don’t sound to each other like immigrants. They don’t sound somewhat comical to each other.

2. …but people do have accents– peculiarities of pronunciation and rhythms native to a particular region– even when speaking their native tongues. So, in one sense, people do talk to each other with accents, but not in a language foreign to their ethnicity

3. in the 1960’s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes”, Schultz and Klink talked to each other with thick, comical German accents– the same way they talked to the English speaking prisoners. The purpose of this was obviously to ridicule the Germans.

4. Many people don’t like subtitles and won’t see a movie that has them.

5. People like me despise “dubbing”– badly matched spoken English recorded over top of the native language spoken by the actors. It looks and sounds ridiculous because, for one thing, it is almost impossible to synchronize perfectly, and, for another, the characteristics of the studio audio are obviously different from the room in which the actors are filmed.

6.  Some films have actually been shot twice: once in French or German or whatever, and once in English.

The best solution by a large margin is  for actors to speak in the native tongue of the characters they are playing with subtitles.  The second best option is to speak plain, fluent English, as in “Downfall”:

How the Problem Has
Been Handled in the Past:

  • Night of the Generals: the characters speak normal, fluent English to each other
  • Night of the Long Knives: Can’t find this one anywhere.
  • Downfall: the characters all speak fluent German — subtitles in English.
  • Last 10 Days of Hitler (Alec Guinness) : Fluent English.
  • The Bunker (Anthony Hopkins): fluent English with a slight guttural edge.
  • Schindler’s List: the characters speak fluent English.
  • The Pianist: the main characters (Polish Jews) all speak fluent English– the Germans speak German (with subtitles). This works very well.
  • Is Paris Burning? I can’t figure it out. Some characters have a thick accent, but others speak fluent English, with a kind of heavy, guttural spin to it. You tell me. Maybe the director left it up to each actor to solve his own accent problem.

Would Somebody Please Shoot Down an F-15

An F-22 Raptor stealth fighter aircraft cost about $135 million each. I truly believe that the defense establishment in the United States is so locked into an all-immersive mythical world of determined, intelligent, resourceful enemies that it cannot even imagine that this plane is a monumental waste of money. But in their dreams, Hitlers are born every moment, waiting to rise up and harness the technological genius of a new generation of Von Brauns and they will, in short order, build a better, faster fighter than ours, than the current F-15 Eagle.

McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle - Wikipedia

Who is the Raptor going to shoot down?

The F-15 has never, ever been shot down in aerial combat. Can you see why we need to spend $65 billion to replace it? Boeing and Lockheed/Martin know why. Because they make fabulous amounts of money by convincing idiots like Donald Rumsveld that some day in the future someone will — out of thin air, apparently– invent a faster, better fighter.

Why can’t Canada wait until someone shoots down, let’s say, one F-15. And then we’ll start thinking about a new fighter.

Military Honor: Forstner’s Second False Step

“On December 2, military practice was held in Saverne. The scene was watched from the street by a journeyman shoemaker, who broke out laughing at the sight of the young, finely dressed Forstner, and some inhabitants that were standing around joined in. As a result, the second lieutenant lost control, struck down the shoemaker with his saber and gave him severe head injuries. That new act of aggression further intensified the affair.

Forstner was sentenced to merely 43 days of arrest by a military court in the first trial, and in the appellate trial, the verdict was reversed completely. Although he had been accompanied by five armed soldiers and the shoemaker was unarmed, as well as paralyzed on one side, the judge interpreted his actions as self defense, since the shoemaker had been guilty of insulting the crown. Within military circles, Forstner received encouragement, since he had defended the honor of the army with his act of violence.”

An incident in German-occupied Alscase-Lorraine, 1913, From Wikipedia, 2008-12-27.

Nothing singularly remarkable about the incident. It interested me because of the necessarily subjective nature of “self-defense” and “insulting the crown” and “honor”. It is dishonorable to laugh at a soldier, but not, apparently, to murder, a helpless paralytic.

From Wikipedia,

Those Whacky Lovable Lawyers!

“Lawyers are often asked to offer their views on complicated questions with significant real-world consequences, and the idea that offering the wrong answer could implicate an attorney in criminal wrongdoing is a frightening prospect to many in the profession. It is not surprising, therefore, that lawyers are reluctant to condemn fellow lawyers on the basis of the advice that they give.” Washington Post, December 17, 2008

Wow. Those lawyers! And I’m sure I’ll hear some more complaining about how lawyers are unfairly targeted for vilification and abuse…. but maybe the lawyers should get together and disbar Mr. Woo, a Bush Administration flunky, and Jack Goldsmith, a law professor (!) responsible for the muck- worthy insidiousness above.

Mr. Goldsmith asserts here that lawyers that advise government officials to do something illegal shouldn’t be held accountable because otherwise, in the future, they will hesitate to offer good advice to the government, like, “hey, why don’t you torture them”, or “arrest and detain them without evidence or due process”.

The discussion relates to the question of whether Bush Administration lawyers and other officials should ever be investigated for authorizing acts of torture. Hell, no, says Mr. Goldsmith. It will have a chilling effect on the ability of lawyers to encourage breaking the law in the future.

Normally at this point I would think of some kind of analogy to try to make clear how wrong I think it is to torture people. But that would be an insult to the idea that torture itself is about as evil an act as one can imagine. And the fact that you start thinking, “does someone need to explain to the Bush administration why torture is wrong…. do they not understand what torture is? Do they not care that, in the future, they won’t be able to complain about American soldiers being tortured because our enemies will be more than happy to adopt our rationale?

We know what will happen: the torturers will be forgiven because they only obeyed orders. The authorizers will be forgiven because they didn’t actually carry out the torture. Everyone else will be pardoned by Bush.

Will Bush pardon them all? It almost makes we weep to anticipate that Bush will probably pardon them without admitting that any of them did anything wrong. Even a child knows that you can’t be forgiven for something you won’t admit you did. It would not be enough to merely force them to acknowledge committing crimes before they are pardoned for them, but it would be infinitely better than what will happen.

Ford pardoned Nixon in a similar fashion. Nixon, if he had something like integrity, should have refused the pardon. He should have said, “but I didn’t commit any crimes.”

What if Obama chooses, for political reasons, not to prosecute the Bush torturers. But what if Obama changes government policy. If he says we will not torture any more because torture is wrong. Torture is illegal. It is immoral. It is deeply offensive to human dignity and constitutional democracy. Then how can he not allow the Justice Department to investigate allegations that government officials broke the law? That would also be repugnant.

Stay tuned…


$250 a Seat: Neil Young at the Air Canada Centre, December 2008

What’s with Neil Young charging $250 for the best seats at his concert at the ACC in December? And for this, you get to see his wife sing back-up.

Now it is quite possible that his wife, Pegi, can actually sing. It is also quite possible that she has no particularly remarkable skill in this area, but she is married to the boss. It is possible that it doesn’t really matter to anyone except me.

I recall watching the Neil Young video “Heart of Gold”, shot by Jonathan Demme in 2006. Young had his wife Pegi singing backup alongside Emmy Lou Harris, one of the finest backup singers ever, and a terrific solo artist. Was it just me, or did Emmy Lou seem a bit put out? I think that if I had been Emmy Lou Harris, I would have politely reminded Neil that I had paid more than a few dues in my career and, oh, is that my phone? Oh darn, I guess I can’t make the tour after all.

But then again, Young– who I think is an absolutely terrific song-writer, by the way– has been known to tour and record (in his barn!) with probably the worst back-up band of any front-line rock star of the era: Crazy Horse. I’m sorry– they were just awful.  They really were.  Listen to their recordings: they sound like a below-average bar band.

Sometimes I listen to Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” and wonder what Neil Young would have sounded like with crack accompaniment. Well, all right– we have “Deja Vu” and “Harvest” and “Comes a Time”. There you go: fabulous.

“Smothered” on PBS

PBS recently showed a documentary (“Smothered”) on the struggle between Tommy Smothers and CBS brass over content of the “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” shown on CBS from  1967 to 1969.

You might have expected a fairly ideological blast at the network heavies for crassly suppressing the free-spirited higher consciousness of the rebellious 60’s but the film is actually fairly nuanced and even-handed. For example, it shows us that CBS actually permitted Pete Seeger– who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era– to appear on the show. And then it excised “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” for it’s allusion to Johnson in Viet Nam: “and the old fool said ‘to push on'”. And then, after the Smothers Brothers protested to the print media, allowed them to show it after all. Clearly, CBS brass was concerned about getting flack from someone– the White House, most likely– about a song that slyly and cleverly attacked the Viet Nam War and Lyndon Johnson himself. Yet, in the end, they let it go on.

The contract Tommy Smothers signed with CBS gave him “creative control” over the show, so CBS was clearly not within the spirit of the agreement to continue, through the life of the show, demanding cuts and excisions based on it’s own programming and practices code. On balance, however, the documentary is not shy about pointing out Tommy Smothers’ own ornery contrariness over the issue. Certainly, he wanted cutting edge writers and comedians, and he wanted the show to be daring and relevant. But he also seemed to actively court controversy and at times he was clearly arrogant about his own perceived power– “The Smothers Brothers” shockingly ousted long-time champion “Bonanza” from the No.1 spot in the television ratings.

You come away with the impression that CBS wasn’t all that bad. They allowed Joan Baez to appear, but cut out her comments about her draft-dodger husband. They nitpicked a lot. Maybe they expected Smothers to eventually just give in and self-censor: “oh, they’ll never let us do that anyway, so let’s take it out”, which is what most television people did. Tommy Smothers astutely observed at one point that America liked to have some dissidents on TV to show that they were a broad-minded, tolerant country… but not in prime-time.

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” never used canned laughter or applause, and treated their guests with respect. Tommy Smothers recruited some the best young comedic talent in the business, including Rob Reiner, Mason Williams, and Steve Martin, and clearly influenced the development of Saturday Night Live a few years later.

And it was one of those young talents– David Steinberg– that finally drove CBS over the edge, with a “sermon” on Jonah and the Whale. Knowing that CBS would never allow the sketch (after a torrent of angry letters about an earlier, similar sketch about Moses), Tommy Smothers refused to turn in the tape of the show early enough to allow CBS censors and the affiliates to preview it. CBS used the technicality to cancel the show. The Smothers Brothers sued CBS for breach of contract and eventually won.

By the way, the documentary left out the funniest line of the Moses sketch. Moses stands before the burning bush and God asks him to remove his sandals. But the ground was hot and burned Moses’ feet. And for the first time in the Bible the words “Jesus Christ” were uttered.

How about that– more than 30 years later, I still remember that line.

Don’t forget– Bill Maher’s show “Politically Incorrect” was cancelled when he said something that really was politically incorrect (that the hi-jackers of the planes on 9/11 were, whatever else you say about them, courageous). And in spite of the fact that conservatives would love you to believe that it is the liberals, the feminists, and so on, who promote political correctness, it is almost always, in fact, the conservatives who ban and censor and harass those who disagree with them. (After all, one of the liberal values that conservatives dislike is the attitude of tolerance of diversity.)

Do you think James Dobson would ever have Naomi Klein on his show? Would Liberty University ever invite Hillary Clinton to speak?  Would John Hagee offer a spokesman for the Palestinians to discuss his views on Israel?

Anne Coulter might like you to believe that the liberals in control at some universities won’t invite her to speak because she is so, so… controversial. No, it’s because you’re a feather.