There was a time when, if you wanted entertainment that differed from the Anglo-American mainstream, you had to take the following steps:
- Enter the video store – Blockbuster Video, or somewhere similar.
- Fight your way past the popcorn and chocolate and sweets they’d amass at the door.
- Search for ‘World Cinema’ or similarly titled shelf, usually at the back, in a darkened corner where only the customers wearing anoraks dwelt.
- Approach said shelf gingerly.
- Put up with glances from fellow customers and staff that implied a) “you’re a pretentious sod” or b) “Why’s he looking at subtitled movies? Weirdo.” or c) “What a sex case. He must be looking for pornography amongst the French flicks.”
Happily, such scenarios no longer occur. I am no longer in danger of being labelled ‘The Blockbuster Prowler’. The video store is no more.
To be clear, I don’t always make a bee-line for the foreign films. Don’t get me wrong now, I enjoy a good ol’ shoot-em-up as much as the next man. But there’s only so much Hollywood you can take. I’ve been researching the author Liam O’Flaherty recently, a reasonably famous yet under-appreciated Irish writer. Back in 1935 he wrote a book entitled Hollywood Cemetery based on his experience as a screenwriter there. As the title suggests, it explores the vacuity and money-driven emptiness that is Hollywood. I’m sure the same goes for the American movie industry today but, by all accounts, it’s 100 times worse. Sometimes it works, Hollywood, and more often it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, it’s time to turn to the subtitled stuff.
Now I’ve a decent command of Spanish and German, but I still struggle with fast-paced dialogue on screen if it’s not in English. So I am a fan of subtitles. And I’m not alone in this, apparently, judging by the cult success of Nordic Noir in the last few years.
Now there’s a great, free-to-view repository of foreign TV series to turn to on the long dark rainy January nights.
It’s called ‘Walter Presents’ and it’s accessible via Channel 4’s ‘All 4’ platform. who is Walter? Well, as you can find out right here – http://www.channel4.com/programmes/walter-presents/videos/all/meet-walter – he is a film boffin (pictured below) appointed by Channel 4 to source the best foreign language drama series for British audiences. I don’t know if he’s real, but he looks ginky enough to be, so we’ll assume he is.
So, the story goes that Walter trawls the televisual world looking for great stuff that’s not in English. You then access them (thanks Walter) via ‘All 4’.
So far, then, Walter’s provided for my viewing pleasure an Argentinian cop drama, Pure Evil; a French cop/football drama, Match Day, French political thriller Spin, and German historical drama Deutschland 83. There’s plenty more series up there on the website, but there are only so many hours in the day, you know.
I struggled with Pure Evil (Malicia in Spanish) because it appeared like a Latin American telenovella at times, it was that bad. The plot was totally one-dimensional and dreadfully implausible. Then I realised it’s meant to be a black comedy (or at least I hope it is). When you settle in to this realisation, it’s OK because then it’s clear why the lead character – a grumpy bald man-baby (below) – couldn’t solve a murder case if he had the combined assistance of Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple, Poirot and her off Murder She Wrote. He spends most of his time yelling in grief, anger and frustration, does the protagonist which, when you realise that Malicia is played for laughs, is quite funny, because he consequently resembles more and more an actual baby. He also seems to live in a book shop and sometimes a swimming pool. It’s an odd one, then, but oddly watchable.
Deutschland 83 has received a lot of media coverage and is the pick of the bunch, although its self-conscious efforts to incorporate every pop tune from the year 1983, every scrap of TV footage of political leaders, makes it a bit too obviously nostalgic.
The French efforts I’ve mentioned above, on the other hand, are poor.
Match Day again features a bunch of police who seem to inhabit a swimming pool-type building near the unceasingly grey and miserable northern French coast. They are investigating a stabbing at a football match. It’s pretty bleak and, when it comes down to it, pretty weak. Although, as I write this, I think I may be hatching my very own idea for a drama featuring police and swimming pools – some sort of underwater version of The Bill perhaps.
Don’t even get me started on Spin (below). I’ve only watched one episode so it’s unfair to judge, but the programme is already trying to convince me that spin doctors have a shred of integrity, loyalty, and even, unbelievably, nobility! Sorry, I just don’t think I can continue to watch stuff that is that wildly implausible even if it is full of Gallic kissing and shrugging.
All in all, though, this ‘Walter Presents’ is a good service. So much so that I’m sure they’ll start charging for you to view it soon, so you better watch ’em while you can.
My biggest problem is this, though: if you watch too many of these TV dramas your mind starts playing tricks on you.
I’m watching the French presidential candidate in Spin (above) and wondering how she went from being a humble East German housewife to a world political bruiser. Idiot! I’m mixing her up with the mum in Deutschland 83.
Then I’m watching Argentina’s most inept detective in Pure Evil and I’m wondering why he doesn’t just turn for assistance to his clever young female side-kick, the one who busted the paedophiles in the last episode. Trouble is, he can’t, because she is from a completely different series: Match Day.
It’s genuinely confusing if you over-watch these programmes, I’m warning you.
All of this got me thinking about the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (I can hear the cries of “pretentious” again). One of Vargas Llosa’s most famous reflections on his work is this: “the writer of fiction wishes to replace the world as it is with another one entirely.”
On that note, there’s a debate about whether some of Vargas Llosa’s (above) works modern at all; are they, instead, postmodern? And so is my confused reaction to these overlapping series a postmodern one?
To explain, the example of Vargas Llosa’s masterpiece Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977):
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter has been described as a postmodern book. Why? Because its light tone is deceptive and, crucially, it features an unreliable narrator.
The scriptwriter of the title is a virtuoso Bolivian writer of several different soap operas who creates so many rich characters and plots that, in the end, characters start appearing all over the place. As this genius gradually loses his marbles due to overwork, he starts mistakenly writing in characters from one soap opera into another.
Like a dead character from Eastenders suddenly turning up, alive and well, on Hollyoaks and next week appearing in Coronation Street.
This goes on until, eventually, they all have to be killed off in catastrophic and unbelievable mass killings. The only way the scriptwriter can resolve his mess is by making them all the victims of a devastating volcanic eruption, or such like, because only then can he start again with a clean slate.
I suppose this is a bit like when British pastoral favourite Emmerdale had that episode with a plane crash which enabled the writers to kill off about a dozen characters.
So, if you indulge in ‘Walter Presents’ and find yourself getting confused, don’t worry. Embrace it. For perhaps that is what Walter wants. Perhaps he wants us all to be good little postmodernists. In fact, is he even real, this ‘Walter’? Either way, he’s got me thinking of Aunt Julia.