LOVE IS UNIVERSAL. Right?
We take it as a given, no matter what is happening in the world around us, no matter where we come from or our differences, we all have an understanding of what love is. Love should be something that we can all should be able to interpret immediately without barriers. Or so I thought.
You won’t have seen a superhero movie like this before.
It was the 9th highest-grossing film of 2017 (as of October), earning over $616 million against a $97 million budget. This film is an epic drama, neo-western superhero film. And it certainly is epic, but not for these reasons. It is a superhero movie without the cape, a western without the horse, and a blockbuster without the superficiality.
Even before the film’s release in March, it’s trailer (see above) defined this film as something else. The song playing against it not in the least bit coincidental, and will set the tone for how you watch and respond to this film. Think of the song, called ‘Hurt’, listen to the lyrics, Johnny Cash at the end of his illustrious career.
With ‘Logan’ comes a new iteration of a blockbuster film. With the fluid nature of a blockbuster, their classification is ever changing, yet with similar elements throughout. These films are intended to make an impact on you. They arrive in a fluster of excitement, and too often fade from our interest just as quickly. Built on a spectacle, with no lasting emotional gravity. ‘Logan’ seeks to change that.
While we live in a very cross-cultural world, and our choices for media to consume has increased in variety, we tend to seek out what is familiar, what is similar to us. An Australian, given the (not so)expansive collection of media we are offered, we gravitate to what is closest to our own culture, language, and social values. This is cultural proximity, we seek what we know. We’d prefer to watch The West Wing than Les Revenants.
But every now and then, or more often than you’d think, comes a show, a movie, or even a genre, that somehow breaks past these barriers and the ‘cultural discount’, the value of a program decreasing with the need for subtitles or being too ‘difficult’ to enjoy. But if you ask me, the cultural discount doesn’t exist. You need subtitles to understand what the hell is going on in the West Wing too sometimes. The only thing blocking someone’s ability to enjoy a program is simply patience. You can learn to understand and enjoy something that does not have a great cultural proximity to you. I watched The Killing and a French Mystery show and enjoyed both despite not knowing anything about their respective cultures.
Our aversion to foreign shows and the need to ‘read’ a tv show with the subtitles, is slowly fading, probably in relation to our desire for new and diverse stories. TV channels and streaming services offering alternative content to consume. ‘The Killing’ along with many other Nordic Noir styled shows, found large international audiences captivated by its unique, gritty and haunting style, capturing their ordinary that will be our un-ordinary. The landscape will often be central to the program, adding to the whimsical, mystifying quality that will entrance people in Britain sitting on the sofa watching TV on a Sunday night.
The cultural impact of television format has multiple layers of identity that guide us on how it will impact ourselves. Television still remains the largest format for consumption amongst our world, and often shapes the way we respond and react to the real world, not just the one being shown to us on the flat screen. Viewers will deploy a limited set of repertoires to make sense of a show from a foreign culture, and try and relate it to their own. But not everything will always follow clear connections, an blocks your ability to understand and enjoy it. Allowing yourself to be receptive of a show outside of your purview allows you to build connections and strengthen your emotional understanding.
Whilst not technically a noir, ‘Les Revenants’ similarly caught an international following, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. They were subtitled and packaged to other cultures with little more processing. It’s character-oriented episodes a unique style (similar to The Killing’s alteration to the typical ‘murder of the week’ approach to crime shows). The US eventually remade the French show into A&E’s ‘The Returned’, which generated abysmal ratings and cancelled without a finale. Audiences far greater enjoyed the original French version despite being a foreign show. I watched both the French and American versions, and though the adaptation was rather seamless recreation, it lost a certain….je ne sais quoi.
While a foreign show might be valued less if it is ‘too hard’ for people to understand, and the subtitles inhibit our ability to understand style and culture that may not be received through the subtitles; It may also be this element that is lost in adaptations. One of the greatest appeals of Nordic Noir, and Foreign Mystery/Crime genres, is the sense of unfamiliarity, the unease you are never sure what is going on. It is quite fitting in these genres, matched with the style and aesthetic of shows like The Killing and Les Revenants. The barrier, the subtitles, block you from fully understanding what is happening, but it is not a detriment. You are kept at an arms length from these characters, similarly going into intense depth and detail of the story. Having a slightly removed perspective, might make it difficult to sometimes follow what is happening outside of the subtitles you are reading, the cinematography often lends itself to bridge the divide. Having a foreign show be successful to other cultures isn’t an easy task to partake, but can be done. Vise Versa, you too can enjoy foreign show- don’t worry, the subtitles won’t be too distracting for long. I barely notice them now.
The growing rate of countries creating and producing movies together shows the growing desire for international movies with international concepts. As more and more of our cultural, economic, political and social views interact and overlap, we desire to see a parallel in our movies and television shows.
Australia’s Co-Production Program was created with the objective of fostering projects that would be truly international in their storytelling, their budgets, and audiences that it would appeal to. While Hollywood dominated the international market, Co-Productions offers a competition to stories with global reach. Appealing to two or more global markets, dipping ones hand into box metaphorical honey jars, increases the likelihood a project will be of high calibre, and high interest. By combining international productions, particularly more than one, each individual identity is blended together until some of its national ties are not necessarily visible. ‘The Children of the Silk Road’ (2008) an undeiably Chinese setting and historical tale, that is flourished with the expertise of the German and Australian Industries, and a fairly multi-cultural cast.
Co-productions have come with many benefits, particularly financial, but also creating a massive pool of creative and talented individuals able to work together in a global context. The most talented cinematographer can team up with the world’s leading director and shoot their combined vision in some of the world’s greatest locations.
However, while these films may be seen to greatly benefit each country that contributed to it claims it as their own, how can it be claimed under two distinct identities? Is either identity diminished by the other, compromises or alterations made in order for it to fit into both. ‘The Space Between’ (2016) is a completed Australian-Italian project that showcases the benefit of co-production and inter-cultural ties, but felt more European than Australian. Our mindsets lean more toward the obvious, what is presented to us at face value. If I hadn’t discovered the movie solely for a Co-Production outlook, I would have categorised it as an Italian film from the onset. It is set in Udine, North of Italy, they speak Italian with English subtitles superimposed, and what I gathered from the trailer, is mostly about the male, Italian protagonist and his culture. While Australia greatly funded the project following Italy’s financial crises, features a female Australian lead, the scale tips in favour of Italy. The movie deals with universal concepts of loss and hope, dreams and reality, and so it maintains its international identity sticker.
If a co-production film can be claimed by both parties, or conversely seemingly favour one nationality over the over…could it also have a third, hybrid identity? Removed, but linked back to, from the co-productions origins? There is a sweet spot, where these co-productions exist in, like Schrodinger’s Cat, that is belonging to both identities, whilst belonging to none. All countries involved can claim it, but if it has achieved the purpose of a co-production film, the film shall be bringing their individual stories together, having that cultural exchange and creative collaboration to create a co-identity. This may not be about achieving a balance between two cultures creating one project, but identifying commonalities and similar beliefs, practices and methods of storytelling. Having a movie with an Italian and an Australian battling their separate cultures, but uniting through love (well, it is a universal value no matter how cheesy it sounds), is a narrative that will appeal to a global audience.
The Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Superhero genres are applicable to most cultures, countries or languages. They are fantastical stories, grounded in reality, but no singular culture, a vampire theoretically can be from any nationality or race, or a superhero can rescue any city in any language. They don’t even have to be from the same planet as us. It’s common concepts and framework of defeating evil against adversity and escapism make its genre appealing and visceral to all. That being said, why is it The Avengers and The Green Arrow and alike seemingly focus on saving North America and the UK? And largely White European for that matter.
There is growing fragmentation of superheroes, and desire for a wider range than what Marvel has been offering. There is a demand and interest for POC (People of Colour) wacking on the spandex, and for local superheros to pick up their capes. When has there been an Australian superhero rescuing us from our Australian troubles? And no, Chris Hemsworth doesn’t count.
The Superhero has finally come to our shores. It is not an adaptation of a current show from another culture, but the core elements have been brought over, and translated to a new story relevant to us. ‘Cleverman’ (2017) cleverly incorporates the rich history of the indigenous people into a dystopic future, interweaving the superhero element with The Dreamtime stories. It merges the sci-fri tropes, and bursts through the genre with added diversity. It retains the common element of a hero battling inner and outer demons, whilst exploring universal ideas of refugees, discrimination and overcoming adversity.
‘Cleverman’ is rich in detail and story, and arguably, a concept ripe for the taking to be adapted to another culture. In the over saturated TV market of superhero and sci-fi, ‘Cleverman’ offers a refreshing new perspective and captivating story that has reached many corners of the world. It has offered a new way to engage with our culture, and translated a specific culture (The Indigenous people and the Dreamtime stories). Intertwining a rich and complex history into a hypothetical future seems applicable to almost any culture, and could explore each culture’s own specific stories and issues, not only universal values.
But can ‘Cleverman’ be translated to another culture? When so much of its story is tied to a very specific culture, could it be as successful or compelling if it were about Native Americans? Even the name of the show would have to be changed, as Cleverman is a high powerful role and sensitive topic for Indigenous Australians. Unpacking and re-assembling ‘Cleverman’ would involve an incredible amount of cultural translation, so much that it would become an entirely different show. It even lends to the argument, should it be translated? Something so unique and inseparable from our culture warrants a pause, that should an international market come knocking wanting to adapt the show, that these stories should stay where they are from.
There is an incredible amount of praise and commendation for ‘Cleverman’ from national and international audiences without a need to translate, and shows a desire for our stories to be heard in a wider audience. Distribution rights for the show have been signed and passed along, and two seasons completed. At a time in television, when we are craving more and more new stories to be told, its no wonder ‘Cleverman’ satiates our appetite. It has 60,000 years of stories knitted into its core.
“They were diverse. Some were tall, some were angry, but each place I went, I would hear about them. So we took something that was within 60,000 years of storytelling and made it universal,” Cleverman producer Ryan Griffen (Screen Australia)
References & Further Reading
Moran, A., 2009. TV formats worldwide: localizing global programs
‘NO SPANDEX REQUIRED: Cleverman, Indigenous Stories and the New Superhero’ Gallagher, C 2016 Metro, 190, p. 34