Those were the blue-eyed days when we rode to the seashore on bicycles.                         




William Vincent/Shadows and Lies/The Letter...and distributors.

A few years ago I made a film that was to be called 'In Praise of Shadows', reflecting its debt to Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's essay of the same name.

The film's budget was around $150,000 (not the $10 million claimed on public sites).  It was shot in less than two weeks with a small crew.   

During editing, we changed the name to that of the main character, 'William Vincent', and this is how it premiered at Tribeca and Stockholm.  This is the name for all audiences outside the US.

The US distributor changed the name, for domestic distribution, to 'Shadows and Lies'.   I don't mind saying I strongly dislike this title.  Very strongly.  

When the director has finished their work - through a release print - their authority is, sometimes, then reduced. Any director would be arrogant to not recognize that distributors have their own concerns that might in some ways be separate from those of the filmmaker.  This divergence of concerns can lead to disagreements, which too often are settled in favor of the distributor, as they have taken the lead in this last stage of the process - bringing the film to an audience.   I don't think this favor should extend to renaming a film. 

It was, however, as 'William Vincent' that it was reviewed, with unusual eloquence, in Variety.


Is it possible that this review would have been less appreciative had it been presented at that stage as 'Shadows and Lies'?   Probably not, given the clarity of the review, but I do believe that the reviewer would have entered the film with slightly altered expectations.  One virtue of the title 'William Vincent' is that it is so unassuming and modest, suggesting qualities like small, plain, quiet.  That is probably why the distributor, whose job is to maximize the audience, chose to change it to a title that they deemed less modest, something at once reminiscent of previously successful films and also just dashing enough to suggest a big event of some sort.  There is much at stake in (synthesized drum-roll) Shadows and Lies, and very little at stake in some guy named William Vincent.  

That is the very point of this modest title, to orient the viewer toward whatever quiet qualities the film hopes to offer. While the responsible director assumes a real fiduciary responsibility in exchange for the producers' faith in the project (even if it is a micro-budget film), it is also true that there are films with ambitions other than the purely commercial.   It's hard to describe those other ambitions, but they have something to do with exploring a subject rather than presenting it, trying something rather than executing a fixed idea.

Similarly, my next film, 'The Letter', was another micro-budget project (around $400k).  The film is a fairly lanquid and composed study of a woman's imagination, dark corners and all.  Well, mainly dark corners.  It is, like 'William Vincent', a modest film, shot in less than two weeks, with a gifted cast and crew.   It's less a drama than an essay, or some sort of hybrid essay-in-the-form-of-a-drama.   Modest.

Yet the distributor, inspired, I'm guessing, more by the names in the cast than the film itself, chose to present the film as something entirely unlike what it is or ever would be: something Big.  Their trailer promises a gripping, supernatural, horror-infused thriller.  It attracts an audience that wants to see a supernatural horror film.

Likewise, the plain title ('The Letter') I had chosen to suggest both the simple design of the film as well as the literary impulse that drives the character, was changed by the distributor in England to 'Obsessed', which sounds dangerous and deranged but is, in fact, merely blunt and superficial, qualities I'd like to think are not found in the film.  

I find this kind of tampering shortsighted from a marketing point of view, which is, admittedly, not my forte.  I find it shortsighted for this reason:  the right audience for this film is neglected (and I think we can all agree there are different audiences for different films).  There is but a small audience for the kind of film 'The Letter' actually is, but it's sufficient to justify the investment of a micro-budget, and then some, hopefully.  But distributors understandably aiming for a bigger audience try to attract that larger group of viewers who will be enticed with a menacing and virile trailer.  The problem arises when viewers, attracted by this deceptive light, actually see the film and discover it is not at all as promised.  They are sorely disappointed, and I can understand why - they wanted to see the film the trailer promised.   That film is not 'The Letter'. 

On the other hand, the smaller group of viewers that might appreciate the essay-like sketch will avoid this film entirely if they ever see the trailer.  So, the distributor's attempt to pull in an audience has, instead, assured that those who would like it won't see it, while those who will likely not find much to admire in the film will have come to it with distorted expectations, those promised in the deceptive trailer.  

I am humbled and grateful when investors finance a film of mine, and even moreso when a distributor chooses it from amongst the many other films seeking such endorsement.  However, in an ideal world the filmmaker's commercial aims, in my case always modest, would be reflected in the marketing of the film, the better to actually find the audience for which it was made.   That ideal world is probably not far away, given how inexpensive modest filmmaking can be, and given the possibilities for new modes of distribution.




The meeting is ended.






She lies down on the grass near the bush that hides her from the footpath.  The sun is barely glimpsed through the lower branches.   The air is becoming colder and she opens her blouse to feel fresh dark air on her breasts.  She closes her eyes.

Some time passes on the wet soil and roots by the bush.

A sound of shallow breathing wakes her and she sees an old man standing above her, leaning down.  She smiles at him.

'Are you alright?', he asks as he steps forward a little.

'uh huh.' 

He starts to turn, but she touches his shoe.  'Where are you going?'

'I just wanted to see if you were alright.'

'Are you going home?'


She stands up.  

'I'll come with you.'



In his small apartment, she sits on the sofa, looks for him in the other room, flicks her loosened shoe high into the room.

The heel strikes the light bulb on the ceiling and bits of frosted glass sprinkle down into her hair.

The man comes in with some tea cups rattling on a plastic tray.

He sits next to her.  She doesn't look at the tea.

Her hand his hand his neck his lips her thighs lead him to the bed.

Within a minute he twists his body in spasms, eyes widening.

She goes back to the sofa, and closes her eyes.



The woman wakes up from her rest on the sofa, and looks over at the man twisted between the bed and the wall.  He looks uncomfortable, one leg still wedged under the cover, his left arm pointing straight up, stuck in that position by the weight of his body pressing against the wall.  He seems to stare unblinking at the broken light bulb in the center of the ceiling.

His color has changed, she notices.   

She straightens her blouse and gets some water from the tap, sipping it as she walks over to the side of the bed.

She lays down, her head near his, not noticing that she spills the water onto the pillow.

She lifts her body to pull down his raised arm.  She leans into him and reads his watch. She notices that he is precisely as cold as the air in the room.

He must be at least eighty, she assures herself, and might have had a full life, given what little she had learned of him in the hour between meeting him and seeing him die. 

She lets his arm fall, which it barely does, then sh rolls onto her back, and stares at the broken bulb in the center of the ceiling. 

After a few minutes, she gets up and leaves, but just as the door is closing behind her, she comes back into the room, finds her underwear and skirt and shoes, puts them on, walks back towards the door, remembers her purse, gets it and leaves without glancing back at the old man.



She is mostly hidden in a bend in the wall. The last worker disappears into an alley at the far end of the square.

The town is silent.  There is no wind, but she feels the air on her hand, and on her lips, and under her hair.
















The myth of the subtitle


(It's understandable why people watch subitled rather than dubbed films - the sound of the language and the original performances.  As the current craft of dubbing is so poor, I will not watch a dubbed film.  So, I make the following argument not to convince viewers to change their habits, but simply to point out that subtitles complicate visual experiences in ways that the filmmaker did not intend.  The argument is meant to honor a particular shape of film-watching experience, one in which plot is conveyed less by script points than by visual texture, sense, and rhythm.)


While the subtitled foreign language film is almost universally considered the purest, most true presentation of the original, an argument can be made that, in fact, an artfully dubbed version (which does not yet exist) would be preferred if one believes that film is primarily visual, as opposed to theatrical or literary.   

Say we have a close-up of a woman, stoically listening to her husband speaking off-screen.  The husband is confessing his infidelity.   Her pride, and the complexities of their relationship (complexities revealed, as a matter of fact, by our direct experience of this stoicism - we stare, unwavering, at the granite facade of her expression), will not allow her to acknowledge the pain caused by his confession.  Attempting to break her, the cruel husband decides to lie about the woman with whom he was unfaithful.  When he says, "It was your mother", a tiny shock of pain passes through her eyes, which then quickly regain the cold indifference that she has maintained up to that moment.   That almost imperceptible twinge is the dramatic heart of the scene.  We are profoundly moved by her strength, now that we understand how secretly vulnerable she is to her husband's cruelty.   A great scene. 

But we missed it.  We didn't see the scene.  Her unflinching stare was not experienced by our nervous attention darting between text and image, reading and seeing.  And at the critical moment, when she flinched, we were looking at the lower third of the screen, reading the white letters:  'It was your mother.'

The subtitles are the script of the film.  They take us away from the film itself.

Of course, dubbing the film would take fromus the sounds and rhythms of the original language, but this  pleasure, however exotic and delightful, may have little to do with the director's intentions.  To the director, the language is not exotic. It is, usually, their native tongue.  As filmmakers they do not traffic in the strangeness of their own language, but, hopefully, in images and their relations to the sense of the words, with felt textures provided by the actual sounds, as in poetry, or refined prose.  

The director uses sound, and image, and the physicality and sense of each, to convey something he or she considers worthy.   That something is likely not entirely centered on the quality of strangeness in their own language, but it probably does consider the textural and rhythmic experience of their native.  

So, losing this texture and rhythm is unfortunate, but would we rather miss this than the actual, visual experience of the film?

This is putting entirely aside the fact that the subtitles are not even a full, or even accurate version of the script.  The husband's line, literally translated from the original: "I never even thought of you when I was with her.  Why would I, I was with her, not you?", would, at best, be translated as, "I never thought of you when I was with her".   Time needed to read prohibits a full translation.  The critical, and especially cruel, "..why would I, I was with her", is omitted, and we are bereft of the special sadism of the husband.

Granted, dubbing techniques are famously slipshod.   But this need not be the case.  In a perfect world, the art of dubbing would be refined and practiced with the most rigorous craft. 

In this ideal industry, the art of dubbing would begin with carefully chosen translators, whose task would be to capture the full and nuanced texture of the original.  They would deliver the colloquial flavors, the fragmentary utterances, the passing asides, and the particular rhythms of the original speech.  The translation should share ambitions with translations of serious literature.

As much as possible, the translations would even sound like the original, to the extent that the two languages allow such approximations.  


Catullus:  Assiduo valentem excercete iuvientam.


Louis Zukofsky's translation: Ah see those valentines exercised in the young time.


Such similarities in sound also make it easier to do convincing lip-synch.


Further, the dubbing actors would be very carefully chosen for the quality, body, color, timbre of their voices, the better to match the visual presence of the original actor, the better to mimic the experience of the film as it was for the native speaker of the original.  They would be capable of their own language's accents that bear specific socio-economic/cultural similarity to any accents present in the original.  These dubbing actors would work with the film's director, with the translator, and even with the original actors, to fully recreate, as closely as possible, the original performance.

I would like to experience, without glancing away and reading, the wife's unblinking expression and the tiny, ephemeral fissure in her mask, and the particular way in which the husband's voice and words provoke this.  I don't want to read about it.