MARCH/APRIL 2009
STEVEN G. KELLMAN

CURSE OF THE SPURNED HIPPIE

INCUBUS, AMERICA’S ONLY FILM SHOT ENTIRELY IN ESPERANTO, BATTLED MORE THAN JUST A LANGUAGE BARRIER TO FIND ITS CULT FOLLOWING.

DISCUSSED: Mel Brooks, Yiddish Movies from the ’30s, Lakota Sioux, Mein Kampf, Polish Oculists, ’60s Sci-Fi Television Series, Mandatory Language Camps, Dated Melodrama, Captain Kirk, Angry Hippies, The Super Bowl, Dark Cassocks, Dummy Scripts, Defamiliarizing Demonic Possession Clichés

IN THE INTERESTS OF
SANITY AND CLARITY

American monolingualism is nowhere more insistent than at the movies. In Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Tony Curtis, playing Roman slave Antoninus, delivers his lines in Bronx-inflected English. Catherine the Great grew up speaking German, but, despite all her accomplishments, the Russian monarch, who wrote her memoirs in French, never spoke English, as Marlene Dietrich does portraying her in Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934). Hollywood westerns regularly compel Native American characters to stammer their thoughts in pidgin English, even when conversing among themselves.

On occasion, filmmakers acknowledge the linguistic suspension of disbelief required of movie audiences. In Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow (1950), the narrator, Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), announces at the outset: “I was involved in the story and what I have to tell happened exactly as you’ll see it—the only change will be that when the Apaches speak, they will speak in our language.” The 1983 remake of To Be or Not to Be, the dark comedy of a Polish theater troupe trapped in wartime Warsaw, adopts a more mocking stance. The movie begins with actors Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft exchanging angry words in Polish. Several minutes into the proceedings, a disembodied voice announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, in the interests of sanity and clarity, the rest of this movie will not be in Polish.” Brooks and Bancroft immediately resume their squabble, in English.

Obviously, the enormous costs of creating and marketing commercial feature films discourage linguistic variety. It is a safer investment to produce a script in English than in Czech, Nahuatl, or Zulu, in fact, than in any alternative to the world’s most popular second language. Cinematic imports in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish are generally consigned to art-house ghettos, and even the most successful almost always fare better at the domestic box office when remade in English. (Coline Serreau’s 3 hommes et un couffin qualified as a foreign hit in the American market when it grossed $2,052,466 in 1985. However, Leonard Nimoy’s 1987 remake, 3 Men and a Baby, took in $167,780,960 domestically.)

Nevertheless, a small body of American feature films in languages other than English does exist. During the 1930s, the first decade of talking movies, more than sixty features were produced in the United States in Yiddish. Spanish-language productions of the era included El presidio (1930), El tenorio del harem (1931), ¿Cuándo te suicidas? (1932), Contra la corriente (1936), Alas sobre El Chaco (1935), El Día que me quieras (1935), and La Vida bohemia (1937). A smaller group, including La Donna bianca (1930), La Vacanza del diavolo (1931), and Amore e morte (1932), was made in Italian.

More recently, Wayne Wang made Chan Is Missing (1982) in Cantonese and English, Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989) in Mandarin and English, and The Joy Luck Club (1993) in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Kevin Costner’s Sioux Indians, in Dances with Wolves (1990), spoke their native Lakota. Ham Tran filmed The Anniversary (2003) entirely in Vietnamese. El Súper (1979), El Norte (1983), La Ciudad (1998), and Maria Full of Grace (2004) were each made mostly in Spanish, as was John Sayles’s Hombres armados/Men with Guns (1998). The Godfather: Part II (1974) makes use of English subtitles during the extended flashback to Vito Corleone’s childhood in Sicily, when he, quite naturally, speaks Italian. And not the least unusual feature of The Passion of the Christ is the fact that, in order to underscore the biblical story’s authenticity, director Mel Gibson had his characters speak Latin and Aramaic throughout (though most would have been speaking Greek).

Frequently omitted from the lists of films countering American cinema’s penchant for monolingualism is the only feature-length film wherein the characters speak nothing but an artificial language invented in 1887 by a Polish oculist named Ludwig L. Zamenhof.

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Steven G. Kellman’s books include Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, The Translingual Imagination, and The Self-Begetting Novel. A recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, he teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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