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The Reelist: Coming to America

Immigrant stories are a familiar cinematic trope, but what about the ones that happen behind the screens? In light of Michael Haneke and Wong Kar-wai's stateside debuts, this Reelist looks at other foreign directors' first American films.

Immigrant stories are a familiar cinematic trope, but what about the immigrant stories that take place behind the screens? With Wong Kar-wai poised to make his American debut, My Blueberry Nights, and the appalled critical reaction to Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his own Funny Games just now dying down, it's worth considering the long history of foreign directors coming to America. This is a story that goes back to the silent era, when the likes of Ernest Lubitsch and F.W. Murnau came from Europe to make classics like Ninotchka and Sunrise. More recently, directors have been lured to America by the prospect of a healthy paycheck and a stab at the Hollywood system. Sometimes it works—see Susanne Bier's recent Things We Lost in the Fire—and sometimes it's just weird—see the wave of J-Horror directors, such as Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Ring 2) and Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge—Japanese and American versions), who've been recruited to direct remakes of their originals and American sequels. And sometimes an American sojourn, like Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection, leads the directors back to their native lands, in Jeunet's case producing French classic Amelie. No matter the results of their predecessors, foreign directors are sure to keep coming: In the months ahead, watch out for François Ozon's Angel, starring Romola Garai as a scheming mediocre writer in a period piece, Lukas Moodyson's Mammoth with Michelle Williams, and Yann Samuell, who did the cult French film Love Me If You Dare featuring Marion Cotillard, debuting with the terrible-looking piece of American teen-fluff My Sassy Girl, itself a remake of a Korean film. 

This edition of the Reelist showcases the invisible immigrant stories that take place when iconoclastic directors wrestle with America. Even when the work they produce isn't successful, it still tends to reveal intriguing insights about their themes and preoccupations, not to mention their relationship with the United States.


Sunrise

Sunrise
Dir. F. W. Murnau, 1927
Murnau became internationally known as a silent film director in 1920s Germany, where he pioneered the mise en scene in classics such as Nosferatu and Faust, so it was only natural that Fox Studios would seek to lure him to America. His first Hollywood effort, Sunrise, is regarded as one of the best silent films ever and received the first Oscar for best actress. Why does it hold up? It's a classic story about a married farmer tempted by a strumpet, and Murnau uses expressive camerawork (which won the first Oscar for cinematography) to illustrate the dramatic situation. The film's style influenced numerous other directors, most notably Orson Welles, who appropriated it for Citizen Kane. Meanwhile Murnau continued to work in Hollywood, but struggled with the transition to talkies; later, he made the realist Tabu (1931), but died in an automobile accident just before it premiered.

Fury

Fury
Dir. Fritz Lang, 1936
Austrian-German director Fritz Lang was a visionary, moving seamlessly from the silent era to talkies with his classic films Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) while commenting astutely on ever-relevant topics such as capitalism, modernity, crime, and parental hysteria. When the Nazis rose to power, Lang, a Catholic, left Germany (supposedly spurning an offer from Joseph Goebbels to make Nazi propaganda films), first for Paris and later for the United States. His first American effort, 1936's Fury, starred Spencer Tracy as an innocent man on the run. The tagline read "Two Lovers...Victims of Mob Violence!" and the film was topically relevant for its day with its focus on mob violence and lynchings. Although Fury looks like a sleazy cheapie, Lang was still able to use his significant directorial skills to offer cogent social commentary. He worked within the Hollywood system for many more years, making idiosyncratic noirs and Westerns, until his output slowed down in the 50s.

Swamp Water

Swamp Water
Dir. Jean Renoir, 1941
When Germany invaded and occupied France in 1940, French director Jean Renoir, who had already made his classics Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game (a flop in its time), fled to the United States. The legendary producer Darryl Zanuck brought him into the fold at 20th Century Fox—despite his assessment that "Jean's got a lot of talent, but he's not one of us"—where Renoir took an existing script, Swamp Water, about a trapper who goes out looking for his dog and finds an escaped convict instead. Renoir found Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp an ideal place to explore Americana, filling his tale with Southern accents, hoedowns, and regional music. Renoir brought his typically lyrical sensibilities to the Georgia backwoods, using the swampy scenery to produce a powerful, lingering atmosphere. The story would be remade a decade later as Lure of the Wilderness, while Renoir himself would continue to portray the American South in The Southerner (1945).

Rosemary

Rosemary's Baby
Dir. Roman Polanski, 1968
A classic film about the paranoia and horror of becoming pregnant with Satan's spawn, Rosemary's Baby brought the already well-respected Polanski (who'd already made the English-language movies Repulsion and Fearless Vampire Killers) over to America. Super-producer Robert Evans tried to lure the director, a known ski buff, by promising him a script about skiing, but Polanski was more interested in the adaptation of Ira Levin's novel. Polanski had the brilliant idea to placing old-school Hollywood actors Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Gordon in an unexpected context (as the baby-worshiping coven), helping give the film its sense of surreal dread. After the success of Rosemary, Polanski had a personal experience with a distinctly American brand of weirdness and dread when his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family. Soon after, however, he produced one of the truly great movies to take America as its subject, in the classic neo-noir Chinatown (1973).



Zabriskie Point
Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970
The second of three English-language films by Michelangelo Antonioni, Zabriskie Point was the legendary Italian auteur's first and only film set in America. Dismissed by critics and buried by the studio upon its initial release, Point is now an oddly compelling historical curio. Working from a script that featured contributions from budding playwright Sam Shepard, Antonioni cast blank amateur actors to play the every-youth '60s hero and heroine, and used the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd on the soundtrack to comment on and critique American hippie culture, much as he'd done with swinging London in his previous film, Blow-Up. Unlike Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point is not a great film, marked by gorgeous images of the Southwest but a rambling, trite narrative. Except for The Passenger (1975), starring Jack Nicholson as an American journalist in self-exile, Antonioni would work only in Italian for the remainder of his career.

Taking Off

Taking Off
Dir. Miloš Forman, 1971
Want to see the late Vincent Schiavelli school a group of square parents in the fine art of getting high? That scene is typical of Czech director Miloš Forman's first American production, a comedy about a 15-year-old girl who runs away, and the unexpected ways her parents react to her disappearance. Taking Off is both a generation-gap satire and a commentary on late-'60s social mores, and Forman's European eye gives the film a compelling outsider's perspective. Forman's route to America was prompted by the collapse of the Prague Spring, and he'd later become an American citizen and make a number of definitive films set in America about people rebelling against restrictive social structures, including the Oscar-winning film version of Ken Kesey's counterculture classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), an adaptation of the cult '60s rock musical Hair (1979), and the First Amendment-focused biopic The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996).

Paris, Texas

Paris, Texas
Dir. Wim Wenders, 1984
Francis Ford Coppola lured the accomplished German director Wim Wenders to America to make Hammett, a meditative and noir-homage to hard-boiled detective novelist Dashiell Hammett. It was a troubled production, plagued by reshoots, and it's a matter of some dispute whether Wenders or Coppola was the true director, especially since the tone is similar to Coppola's One from the Heart, which came out the same year. It's fair to say that Wenders' true American debut was Paris, Texas, a masterpiece of American existentialism in which a mysterious man named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) attempts to piece his life back together, with a script co-written by Sam Shepard (again!), who'd now become an iconic figure in American theater and film. Wenders' love of the American landscape shines through in every frame, from our introduction to Travis, a man with no name marooned in the desolate wilds of Texas, to the neon lights of rest stops in the vast expanses between California and Texas.

Robocop

Robocop
Dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1987
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's English-language debut was Flesh and Blood (1985), a small period piece set in Northern Italy, but with his follow-up, the massive hit Robocop, Verhoeven defined his trademark brand of campy, over-the-top satire. Set in a dystopian Detroit of the future, this classic uses a giant, indestructible crime-fighter to offer a critique of '80s American consumerism, under the guise of a big dumb action movie. Many have dismissed the director's subsequent American work, from Total Recall (1990) to Basic Instinct (1992) to Showgirls (1995) to Starship Troopers (1997), as expensive B-movie schlock thanks to its fondness for big boobs, big guns, and big explosions, but some academics see Verhoeven's work as powerful cultural criticism, and classes are devoted to his oeuvre in some university film programs. After spending two decades directing splashy, commercial movies in America, Verhoeven returned to the Netherlands in 2006 to make the Academy Award-nominated World War II drama Black Book.

Mississippi Masala

Mississippi Masala
Dir. Mira Nair, 1991
Like her peer Ang Lee, Mira Nair has been able to keep one foot in her native country and the other in the United States throughout her filmmaking career. Born in India and educated at the University of New Delhi and Harvard, Nair returned to homeland for her first effort, Salaam Bombay!, a documentary-style look at Bombay street kids, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. Her American debut, Mississippi Masala, a sexy dramedy co-starring Denzel Washington as a young carpet cleaner who gets involved with the lovely daughter of Indian immigrants, offers a definitive look at cross-cultural encounters in contemporary America. Nair has a flair for the erotic and the feminine, qualities which are legion in Masala, as well as subsequent films that depict both Indian and American culture such as the controversial Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), Monsoon Wedding (2001), and The Namesake (2006).

Pushing Hands

Pushing Hands
Dir. Ang Lee, 1992
Chinese director Ang Lee has also ably straddled both East and West in his work and life. Born in Taiwan and educated in the United States, he brings a unique cultural perspective to his movies, whether they're about alienated American families (The Ice Storm), gay American cowboys or gay Chinese urbanites (Brokeback Mountain, The Wedding Banquet), or alienated Chinese warriors (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Lee exhibits a nuanced sensitivity towards his characters which has allowed him to coax iconic performances out of his actors, like Heath Ledger as Brokeback's Ennis Del Mar. After studying film production at NYU (where he worked on Spike Lee's student film), the director struggled for years to get his first feature made, before finally completing Pushing Hands, the story of an elderly Chinese grandfather moving into his American son's home in New York City, which he wrote with longtime collaborator James Schamus. Despite the eclecticism of his Lee's film career, his themes have been remarkably consistent, and his career-long fascination with outsiders and culture clashes is very present in this debut.

21 Grams

21 Grams
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003
Once 2001's Oscar-nominated Amores Perros introduced the world to Gael García Bernal and established Iñárritu as a director to watch, he was quickly lured to America, where he already had a support group of other Mexican directors—Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón—who have also demonstrated an ability to hop between their homelands and America. Utilizing a similar nonlinear edit to Perros, 21 Grams explores the relationships between three very different people following a tragic accident; its original approach and emotional rawness earned it a strong critical reception and multiple Oscar nominations. The subject of faith, which makes Grams such a moving meditation on the nature of life and death, is becoming a familiar theme for Iñárritu, resurfacing in the Oscar-nominated Babel (2006).

Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness
Dir. Gabriele Muccino, 2006
Italian director Gabriele Muccino earned an international reputation after making The Last Kiss, which dealt with the ever-fresh subject of men who won't grow up and the high school ladies that they like to bang. The film impressed Will Smith, who invited Muccino to direct him in an adaptation of Quincey Troupe and Chris Gardner's best-selling memoir about fatherhood and ambition; according to the Happyness DVD, Muccino got the job by saying that the protagonist's story is about the American dream, a concept that foreigners can understand better. The resulting film is a workaday adaptation that stands out for its earnest depiction of a pretty incredible real-life story, and Muccino gets sobs and strong performances out of Smith and his real-life son Jaden. Muccino's next project will be another Smith vehicle.

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