Hollywood a Translator of American, Foreign Life Hollywood is perhaps the most prolific institution for shaping perceptions of American culture abroad. But the film industry also translates foreign cultures for American viewers. Movie critic Shawn Edwards talks listeners through the interpretation of cultures on the big screen.
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Hollywood a Translator of American, Foreign Life

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Hollywood a Translator of American, Foreign Life

Hollywood a Translator of American, Foreign Life

Warning: Content May Be Offensive to Some

Hollywood a Translator of American, Foreign Life

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Hollywood is perhaps the most prolific institution for shaping perceptions of American culture abroad. But the film industry also translates foreign cultures for American viewers. Movie critic Shawn Edwards talks listeners through the interpretation of cultures on the big screen.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The nation's looking forward to the July Fourth holiday, and you might be looking forward to spending some of it in your local movie theater. And while nobody should go to the movies for an accurate view of American life, our film contributor says the entertainment industry does a particularly terrible job depicting other countries and cultures. Shawn Edwards is a movie critic for Fox Television in Kansas City and he's our frequent guest to talk about the movies. Shawn, welcome back.

Mr. SHAWN EDWARDS (Movie Critic, Fox Television, Kansas City): Hey, thanks a lot. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now, you have obviously been thinking about this for a while. How do you think American films misrepresent other cultures, and do you really think it's that - just really different from the way they, you know, misrepresent or fantasize about the things in American life?

Mr. EDWARDS: You know, I think so, and even from the American perspective, a lot of historical inaccuracies in the movies are sort of skewed to one particular perspective.

MARTIN: Well, give us some examples where you think movies in the U.S. get it wrong, particularly about foreign cultures.

Mr. EDWARDS: I guess the biggest example I could use would be the latest Indiana Jones movie, "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull," because a lot of that movie takes place in South America. And one of the things that the movies always seem to do is they make outside cultures seem so foreign and seem so unbelievable. As if the people who are part of that culture couldn't have possibly created great works of art or mastered engineering or developed, you know, architecture. There's always some outside force that had to help them do it.

MARTIN: Oh, I see what you're saying, so you're saying it has always got to be some extra-terrestrial, you know, beyond earth force at work here. Rather than saying that, you know, we didn't have - extra-terrestrials didn't write the American Constitution, so why is it so unlikely?

Mr. EDWARDS: That's exactly what I'm saying. Like the Mayans and the Aztecs weren't smart enough to build the pyramids. Aliens had to land on earth, and the movies do this a lot.

MARTIN: I want to play a short clip from a film that's gotten some criticism, that's just recently released this summer, that some people have pointed out as being an example of how Hollywood just takes it just too far when it comes to foreign cultures. This is from "The Love Guru" starring Mike Myers. Here it is.

(Soundbite of "The Love Guru")

Mr. MIKE MYERS: (as Guru Pitka) Guru Hathasmalvina(ph) was a very chaste man. In order to set himself free of worldly distraction, he had taken an oath of celibacy. Not too long ago, the Guru Hathasmalvina died of a disease that strangely had all the hallmarks of syphilis.

MARTIN: Now that's Mike Myers in "The Love Guru." As I said, he's starring as kind of a second-rate faith leader patterned, apparently, on Indian spiritual leaders. Now some people have said that they just think this is particularly offensive to the culture of India and to Hindus, in particular. But other people say, look, it's a stupid comedy. Why should we take it seriously when it doesn't take itself that seriously?

Mr. EDWARDS: I think the people who say, why are you taking this so seriously have been brainwashed to the point where they don't see why this is wrong, and this has been done so much that people just sort of overlook it. It's OK to make fun, but until you see the balance where you see movies that respect this culture, you know, you can't just keep poking fun at other cultures and just totally dismissinf it as a one liner or off-putting joke.

MARTIN: Now there's another movie that is also controversial for that reason, it was "Borat," which offended people from Kazakhstan. And so let me just play a short clip of it. This is Sasha Cohen. He's starring as Borat, and this clip he's meeting up with some African-Americans during a tour of the U.S., and I do feel that I need to warn you that some of this language is offensive.

(Soundbite of "Borat")

Mr. SACHA COHEN: (as Borat Sagdiyev) Can you teach me speaka like you?

Unidentified Man: (as African-American): What are you trying to say?

Mr. COHEN: How you say, how do you do?

Unidentified Man: What's up with you?

Mr. COHEN: What's up with you?

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

(Soundbite of music from "Borat")

Mr. COHEN: What's up with it, vanilla face? Me and my homey, Azamat, just parked that slab outside. We're looking for somewhere to post up our black asses for the night, so bang, bang, skit, skit, (bleep). We just a couple of pimps, no hoes.

MARTIN: So there you have it. Again, something to offend just about everybody. Shawn?

Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah, you know what? This seems to be the trend now in movies where, you know, you take a culture, and everybody says, we're too PC. So they try to go to the opposite direction by showing that hey, you know, if we make more fun, then we're actually being more PC. But I don't think this type of humor works because you don't have the balanced perspective.

MARTIN: Given that Americans come from all over the world, why do you think this persists?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, because although you do have Americans who come from all over the world, you don't have Americans from all over the world in the film industry. You know, until you have Americans from all over the world who are screenwriters and directors and producers and working in studios, you won't see that balance on film.

MARTIN: What about the whole question of films that seem to sort of present an alternate reality? Films that have predominantly black casts, and there are also some films increasingly that come out that have predominantly Latino casts. And I'm sure in the future there will be films that will have predominantly, sort of, Asian, South-Asian casts because they will be produced - they'll be independently produced. Do you think that those help the situation or do they just sort of present, you know, their own sort of false realities?

Mr. EDWARDS: No, I only think they help if they are done in the right way. Like I said, it's all about - you know, the key word in this situation is balance. For every film that is loaded with buffoonery, you want to see a film that's loaded with positive images. So there is nothing wrong with an all Latino cast in a Latino movie. There's nothing wrong an all African-American cast in an African-American movie, but it's about how the images are presented because the images are very powerful.

You know, if you get the positive from one hand, you can tolerate the negative a little bit better. But because you rarely see the positive when it comes to other cultures, it's just the other is just so unbearable because there isn't that balance that exist.

MARTIN: Tell me again, though, why you think this matters? Obviously, film matters deeply to you, this is your life, but for people who say, look, I just, you know, I just go to the movies every couple of weeks to take my mind off my troubles and you know, my mortgage.

Mr. EDWARDS: Right, exactly.

MARTIN: You know, what do you say to people who say, oh, you know Shawn, lighten up?

Mr. EDWARDS: No, I'm a very lighthearted guy, but I do understand that images are very powerful, especially when these films are shown abroad, overseas in foreign countries. Because to a lot of people, their only knowledge and their only interaction with certain cultures are through the movies. You know, they only think that certain cultures act a certain way because they see movies, which is why for a long time why African-Americans were always thought of as only like prostitutes and criminals because that's all you would see.

MARTIN: So let's not just be haters. Are there any films particularly out now or easily acquired that you think show respect of other cultures, a realistic picture of other cultures that you recommend?

Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah, actually, there is one movie in particular that is outstanding, that does a great job of doing that, and it's a small movie that stars Richard Jenkins called "The Visitor." It's just an excellent movie. It's one of the movies that sort of presents the counter-point to all the dumb jokes and the bashing of cultures that you see on the big screen.

MARTIN: And Shawn, just give me, you know, the ten-second version of the plot of "The Visitor."

Mr. EDWARS: Yeah, "The Visitor" deals with a guy who has a chance encounter with an immigrant couple who happens to change his perspective and views on their culture. And if we had more movies like "The Visitor," then movies like "The Love Guru," and "Ten Thousand B.C.," and "Don't Mess with the Zohan" will be a little more tolerable.

MARTIN: Shawn Edwards is a critic for Fox in Kansas City, Missouri. He joined us from NPR West. Thanks again Shawn.

Mr. EDWARDS: Hey thank you very much.

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