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Home / Media  /
European Films' Sickening Weight Gain
European film

Most European films are as flabby as the European welfare state


Last week, I was walking past one of Bangkok's major department stores, and a large sign on the skywalk grabbed me.   Bangkok was hosting a European Union Film Festival for eleven days at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, and all screenings were free.  Twenty-two different films from 16 different European Union countries, shown in their original languages, with subtitles in English.   What a breath of fresh air, I thought at the time. 

The common perception is that European films are deep and insightful.  Think of Ingmar Bergmann (Sweden),  Frederico Fellini (Italy), and Francois Truffaut (France).  Meanwhile, American films are derided as cliched pop culture drivel.   The intelligent movie-goer, the thinking goes, appreciates European cinema.

Bangkok has plenty of cinemas.   Every major shopping mall has one, and shopping malls are as popular as 7-11 outlets these days.  The city has 3D cinemas and an Imax screen.    But all these cinemas all show the same range of films all the time, which consist of the latest American Twilight or Transformers franchise mixed in with some mainstream Thai releases.   

Upon further investigation, I realized that this wasn't a film festival at all in any typical usage of the term.  There were no films in the festival made this year and just a few from last year.  The majority of the films were at least two years old; one was nine years old.  All the films were actually DVD's played off a projection system.  With the film festival being in Thailand, probably pirated DVD's at that.   The organizer was probably just someone from the cultural center who assembled a collection of European Union movie DVD's.   The filmmakers wouldn't be present, and there would no questions & answers. 

As far as I know, there's nothing illegal about screening aging European Union movies for free off pirated (or legitimate) DVD's.  Even if it were illegal in the European Union to do so, I don't see that stopping anyone in Thailand.  In this country out in the open, one can buy a pirated DVD at a department store for $3 while the cinema is showing the identical film one floor above. 

Warner Brothers wouldn't appreciate screenings of any Harry Potter film for free at the cultural center and with good reason.   Free viewings would eclipse paid ones for a film that stands to make tremendous profits from later DVD sales and rentals. 

These European Union films are another animal.  Few are known outside their homelands.  Any viewer strolling in to see one of these films is someone who'd probably never have seen the film otherwise. 

All film festivals nowadays may actually be just DVD festivals.   With digital technology, it doesn't make sense anymore for cash-strapped filmmakers to pay for multiple prints of their films to display at festivals when it's a lot easier and cheaper to pre-screen and display films from DVD or Blu-ray.   The difference between, say, Sundance and the Bangkok European Union Film Festival is that at Sundance, the films are all new to the viewing public.  Sundance's rule for consideration is that the film cannot premiere anywhere else.  Even at lesser known film festivals, most of the films haven't gotten distribution deals yet.   That's one of the reasons they've been entered in the festival, to gain acclaim that will lead to wider distribution.  The films at the Bangkok European Union Film Festival may not have made some serious coin, but they had all gotten some prior distribution, enough so that the organizer of the event had heard of the film in the first place. 

With that in mind, I realized I didn't need to spend 30 minutes each way traveling to and from the cultural center.  I could instead just download a number of these films based on their synopses on IMDB and watch them in the pleasure of my own pad and at my own pace.  At home, if a film were bad twenty minutes in, I could stop watching it and play the next one, something I could not pull off at the cultural center.

I chose which films to watch based on a few factors:

The plot.  If it wasn't something of interest, I didn't go any further.

The country where it was made.  I had lived in Sweden and spent considerable time in Finland, so when I saw films made and set in those countries, I downloaded them.  I had never been to Romania but was interested in what was going on there in the 20+ years since they'd rejected Communism.

  The relevancy of the subject matter to the country of origin. I was more apt to see a movie if it covered some issue particular to the country in which it was made.

   And the last, the most mundane, was simply if it was readily available for download. More than a couple films were watched because they were quickly downloadable. The first film I saw was about two Finnish Lutheran Laestadian 18-year olds.  They go to the big city of Helsinki to experience real life outside the confines of their strict Christian upbringing which rejects rhythmic music, alcohol, make-up, television, birth control, pre-marital pickups.   The topic is definitely a Finnish one, where 100,000+ Laestadians reside in the northwest. 

What I saw were two girls running through a checklist of forbidden activities, followed by weak scenes of the girls recoiling in guilt.  I didn't find it realistic or poignant.   The film would have struck a more authentic note if a real Laestadian wrote the screenplay about a real journey getting past fundamentalist Christian conditioning.  This movie was phony. 

Another loser was a Swedish film.  The protagonist, whom we'll call Jackass, lives at home with his mom and dad in western Sweden, working at a factory that soon shuts down.   Jackass' mom, his dad, his brother-in-law, and now himself are unemployed.   He dreams of becoming a wedding photographer.

A former TV actor now well past his prime, if he ever had any real talent, is in town for an unsuccessful play.  Jackass and his friends hire the actor for $1,500 to deliver a few jokes for his sister's wedding.  The comedian's performance is abysmal, and Jackass doesn't want to pay.

The TV actor tells Jackass that audience reaction doesn't determine the payment.  Jackass can work off the debt by coming down to Stockholm and taking some wedding photographs at a friend's wedding for no pay. 

Within a day, the layabout Jackass we saw sponging off his parents has ingratiated himself with the wealthy family whose daughter Jackass took the complimentary wedding photographs for.  Although Jackass isn't particularly likeable, everyone on screen magically takes to him.   Another daughter in the wealthy family, also an aspiring photographer, is inexplicably smitten with him.   The father embraces him, buys him a luxury car, sets him up with a studio, invests in his business.

Jackass returns home briefly with his new girlfriend, lording it over his hick family that he's "made it."  Remember, he just left for Stockholm a week ago.  Even if had the talent of Michael Jackson during his Thriller days, how realistic is it that he could ascend the ranks of fame and fortune that quickly?

As all this is going on, the TV actor, who introduced Jackass to the wealthy family, grows jealous with Jackass for his quickly rising fortunes.  The actor boasts of his newest starring role at the City Theater.  The actor delivers a pathetic performance by any standard, and behind his back his rich friends and now Jackass make fun of him.   The actor can't take it anymore and commits suicide.  At the eulogy hardly attended by any, we're supposed to believe that Jackass truly cared about the now dead actor and finally understands that friendship is more important than sucking up to the rich.   

The film is an inconsistent mess.   Why should anyone care about the drunken, minimally talented actor?  When Jackass first comes to Stockholm, the actor rents him a tiny room in the back of his apartment for $460 and demands three month's deposit up front.  Jackass has to sell his dad's car to come up with the rental deposit.  Later, we find out that the rich family owns the actor's apartment and are letting him stay there rent free.   The actor doesn't do Jackass any favors.   The actor only 'hires' Jackass to do the Stockholm wedding shoot so that he can gift his rich friends some wedding photographs at no cost to himself.   And why should anyone care about Jackass?   He uses everyone he can and shows loyalty to no one.   Yet, at the end, when he "learns" his lesson and hooks up with the rich daughter, we're supposed to leave feeling swell that epiphanies have been made. 

The worst of the lot was a Belgian film.  A Flemish girl returns to her hometown after living some time in New York City.  She hooks up again with old friends.  We watch them drink and play Frisbee.  One of the old friends is a former lover, call him Jackass #2, who unknowingly impregnated her just before she left for New York.  Jackass #2 is now married with a kid.  Overshadowing the entire plot is some "mysterious" suicide of one of their old crew.  The suicide victim only appears briefly in a few scenes about three-quarters of the way in, and we see him jump off a building.  We never learn why, much less care.  Jackass #2 mentally loses it and skips off to France after shooting his dog.  His friends drive to France to fetch him, skinny dip in a lake, realize life is worth living, and return to Belgium.  We're the ones ready for suicide at this point. 

I've seen plenty of American films this terrible.   Dinner With Schmucks was incredibly awful, a horrible waste of talent.   Dinner With Schmucks, however, wasn't entered into any film festival.  It was a slick Hollywood production, and everyone knew it.  This lower budget slop gets festival street cred because it's European.  The movies only got as far as they did because they were produced in smaller European countries hungry for homegrown product.  Natives are willing to cut the movies a lot more slack just to see a movie produced at home, using local actors and situations, however shoddy the scripts; and international viewers are more willing to concede the movies are deep tales documenting the human condition when they have to read subtitles to know what the actors are saying.   'Shit' sounds deep when you pronounce it 'merde.'  

See, if I produced a film about an unemployed Oklahoma factory worker who moves to Los Angeles to become a wedding photographer or two Amish girls who decide to experience life in New York City, in the American English-language marketplace, I'd be facing stiff competition.  The fight for viewers' eyeballs is intense, not just at the cinema, but in the festival circuit before a film ever has the hope of making it into a cinema.  What does make it tends to be of a higher standard (plot, production values, acting, or special effects).  And even if it's bad, it's higher budget trash starring big name actors.   

The best European cinema can be deep and insightful, but so can the best American cinema.   Day-to-day, we don't usually run into the best.  We encounter the average, and run-of-the-mill American films are, by far, superior to their European counterparts because we're not under any illusion that they're anything better than that.    American garbage is more honest.  On the ingredient label, it reads "glossed up trash."  On the European label, we see a list of fancy sounding ingredients that are really all preservatives, and in large font underneath "MADE IN EUROPE," as if that makes it good.   Sorry, folks.  Competition is what usually breeds diversity and quality, and welfare state Europe doesn't have much of it.  Just like the European welfare state, most European films have too much unattractive fat on them. 

An American Film Festival in Bangkok would have been superior in quality.   If the organizer could select from well known American films made over the last 9 years, just as was done with the European Union Film Festival, s/he would have had no trouble picking out 22 winners.

And if we were to impose a condition that the twenty-two films couldn't be well known ones, s/he'd still be able to find 22 high quality films that garnered attention at various film festivals but, for one reason or another, didn't get a wide or any distribution deal.    

I still have four downloaded films left to watch, one German, Danish, British, and Romanian.  I'll be smart before I put the next one on and insure I'm as drunk as the average European is before viewing. 

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