Friday, December 16, 2011

Ve Haf Vays of Making You Talk Funny

Folks have talked before about the Hollywood phenomenon of having ancient Romans speak with British accents.  There is a logic to this illogical representation.

Classic American films about ancient Romans often were intended to be "classy" by Hollywood standards, and Americans long associated High Brow theater with British accents, and because of associations with Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar in particular.

"Who shtole ze decalz offen mein Rubik's Cube?"
While watching Captain America: The First Avenger recently, I thought of a related question.  Disregarding the host of things puzzling about that film -- its understanding of physics, human motivations, and narrative logic,  to name a few things -- its use of haphazard German accents made me wonder: Do American characters in foreign productions speak those languages with American accents?

The film is set during World War II, and the Nazi characters speak their lines with German accents.  This is true when they are speaking to the American characters in English and when they are speaking to each other in what we assume would be German. 

I switched the language setting to French and watched some scenes.  I could discern no difference in the accents between the Americans and the Germans in French, although in the English original there is clearly a difference.  Do French-speaking audiences not have trouble believing the German characters are German when they speak with French accents?

But Captain America was produced by Americans with an American audience in mind.  What about a German production?  Do American characters in a German film speak in German with an American accent? 

Spay-kan zee doytch, y'all?

But I am stumped for an answer.  I cannot think of a foreign film with American characters speaking in the audience's language.  If you know of some, please offer some titles in the comments below.

Thinking about these German accents made me think about Realism.  When American writers and editors changed the way they wrote fiction in the mid- to late-1800s, they did so because they wished their literature to be more like real life.  William Dean Howells, one of the grandfathers of American Realism, wrote: “Let not the artist, then, endeavor to add anything to reality, to turn it and twist it, to restrict it."

Some of these writers thought they were writing life without embellishment, without a "turn" and a "twist."  But eventually most came around to understand that Realism was itself an affect, a method not for presenting life as it truly is but for tricking the reader into believing this.  The Realists accused the Sentimentalists and Romanticists of being artificial, too contrived... unrealistic... in their plots and in their narrations.  But Realism was also an artifice, a man-made thing created to fool the senses of the audience for its enjoyment and edification.

Escorting George Lucas's money to the banking planet.
Using German-accented English to represent German speech is somehow more realistic to an American audience than having the characters speak in American English, regardless of how this does not reflect what would actually be happening.

It is like the roar of TIE fighters in the Star Wars movies.  In deep space, there is no sound.  But watching silent spaceship dogfights does not create enough sensation of movement and danger for the audience.  So, to make it seem "more real," the sounds are added. 

The German accents and the sound of spaceships are used not because they are true to reality, but because they are more realistic -- they fool us more pleasingly.

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