The Dumbing Down of International Films (So You Don't Have to Think)

by Bill Gibron

29 August 2013

Like a nosy parent who swears only they know what's best for you, Harvey Weinstein is once again telling established, award winning filmmakers what HE believes an American audience will tolerate.

The makers of movies in other parts of the world have a bigger problem than Harvey Weinstein. Their work, often far superior and riskier than what Hollywood hopes will connect with the great unwashed, barely gets a release beyond their borders, the allure of exciting subject matter and approaches trumped by a general dislike of subtitles and a feeling that foreign films are nothing more than the same old tired Tinseltown takes with a decidedly different vocabulary. Still, Weinstein is also a thorn in said cinema’s side. He is a ruthless businessman and a protracted fan of such arthouse fare, or so he would have you believe. Yet, recently, a notorious nickname associated with the former Miramax chief has come back to haunt him—“Harvey Scissorhands”—and it’s a reminder that, aside from differing dialogue, international efforts have a bigger barrier to aesthetic acceptance.
You see, Weinstein believes that modern movie viewers are dumb. He thinks they can’t process simple plot mechanics, especially when having to do so with some nonsensical gobbledygook passing for language going on in the background. In his mind, it’s bad enough you have to read everything that’s happening between the characters, why do you have to think about what they are doing as well? To this extent, he has developed a notorious reputation as a distributor. While acknowledged as one of the leading champions of obscure cinema worldwide, he’s also earned a rep for fiddling with movies before he releases them. There are dozens of past examples, but in the last few months, at least two have had foreign film aficionados up in arms.

Just this past weekend, his company released The Grandmaster by famed auteur Wong Kar-wai in a truncated version demanded by Big Harv himself. Similarly, the latest from Bong Joon-ho, a sci-fi effort entitled Snowpiercer, is poised to have 20 minutes of narrative removed so, as Weinstein puts it, people in Oklahoma and Iowa “get” it. In the case of Wong’s martial arts epic, a look at Ip Man and his kung fu mythos, such changes have been part of an ongoing process that the director actually embraced (for the most part). When it premiered in China, the film clocked in at nearly 130 minutes, a reduction from its initial four hour run. For the Berlin Film Festival, Wong got the time down to 122. Weinstein, on the other hand, challenged the filmmaker to make the movie more “US friendly,” and via the addition of certain scenes, the dropping of a subplot, and a final running time of 108, the mogul got what he wanted.

The situation with Bong and Snowpiercer is a bit different. According to those who’ve seen it, the story isn’t that complicated (a group of dystopian dissidents riding in the back of the train decide to revolt and head, car by car, toward the front) and light on complicated future shock-isms. Bong has stated that Weinstein doesn’t want to mess with the plot so much as remove characters beats and backstory, turning the multi-dimensional thriller into something akin to The Raid: Redemption on a locomotive. Those in the know suggest that Weinstein is convinced the only way this movie will play in Peoria is by turning it into a straight ahead action movie instead of letting Bong expand on his speculative universe. Others have also pointed out that the movie is relatively dark, and that perhaps Weinstein is hoping to “lighten it up” by trimming it down.

Again, this is nothing new. While at Miramax, Weinstein worked his weird sort of contempt of such noted titles as Princess Mononoke, Shaolin Soccer, and Cinema Paradiso. Behind the scenes, those in the business commend his desire to see a film be successful, and to do anything required to have it connect to an audience. Considering the cost of securing these rights, it makes smart business sense…and there’s always DVD and Blu-ray for the eventual release of the filmmaker’s original vision. Weinstein wants these movies to play, but the question becomes, at what cost? Many still smart from the inclusion of horrific English soundtracks, badly dubbed voices working their minimal magic on the original actor’s sentiments. But there is something a tad more sinister here, a desire on the part of one man to dictate what the Western portion of the film fanbase get to see.

Imagine, if you will, a man, sitting in an office, somewhere in New York, who goes out looking for your next Summer movie tentpole. And for the moment, say that man has access to all the possible popcorn hits out there. He picks through them, sizes up the one’s he believe will make the big bucks, and then buys up the ability to distribute them. So far, so normal. Now, let’s add in that this man believes he knows best for the audience. He knows better than you do. He doesn’t care what you prefer or what you want (or even what might breach your already assumed staunch frame of reference). Instead, he goes to the makers and says, “Add more giant robots! Take out the love story. Emphasize the fart jokes!” Since there is no other avenue for the film’s release, he holds all the cards. He also controls the content in a way few in today’s Hollywood would even tolerate.

It’s the same old argument everyone has with George Lucas and his original Star Wars films. Once he was done fiddling with them, he made it very clear that Episodes IV, V, and VI would never be seen in their previous incarnation ever again. Devotees got all lathered up when they learned that they could never experience the adventures of Luke, Leah, and Han the way audiences first saw them decades before. It was the same debate we had in the ‘80s when colorization threatened old classics while upstart companies promised parents a home theater experience sans sex, violence, and curse words. Terms like “artistic integrity” and “original vision of the filmmaker” were bandied about, but in the end, it was commerce that turned the tide. Viewers mostly rejected these novelties, turning back to the intended incarnation and making such a preference known.

Weinstein doesn’t have to worry about such blow back—at least, not now. Those who he is insulting are in the minority, since many he is catering to with his editorial expertise have no clue who Wong Kar-wai, Bong Joon-ho, or Stephen Chow are and could care less if their see their films intact. Instead, we find ourselves with another confirmed case of Idiocracy-ism. Mike Judge’s movie about the gradual dumbing down of our society and culture has become more and more prescient as the years have gone by—and the film is only seven years old. It’s not just a question of challenging your own personal aesthetic. Like a nosy parent who swears only they know what’s best for you, Harvey Weinstein is once again telling established, award winning filmmakers what HE believes an American audience will tolerate. If it was about artistic intent, it might be acceptable. Since it’s about the artifice of making a buck, it’s belittling…to everyone involved.

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