If it's Monday, this must be Ask The A.V. Club, the column where we try to answer the pop-culture questions baffling you:
Lost In Translation
Every time I watch what I believe to be a well-acted performance in translation in a movie or television show with subtitles (like the Koreans on Lost, or basically in a good foreign movie), I can't help wondering whether people that are fluent in the respective language of the performance would agree. I mean I know there are visual clues to the actor's ability, but some languages, especially eastern languages, have such alien intonation and cadence, isn't it possible that the actors sound like porn stars (during the dialogue moments) to people that know better? How do you guys, as critics, decide whether a performance in foreign language is any good?
Film guru Scott Tobias:
That's a good question. First off, it should be said that the language gap isn't the only dilemma facing critics who review films from countries other than their own; there are also gaps in cultural tradition, historical context, and cinematic language. Foreign films are genuinely foreign, some more than others: Those weaned on Western conventions of performance and staging might be thrown off by, say, a Yasujiro Ozu drama, in which the camera remains fixed and at the height of a person kneeling on a tatami mat, and the 180-degree rule (which requires actors to appear in a consistent left-right orientation) is flagrantly broken. Sometimes these adjustments are relatively easy to make: There are obvious commonalities among peoples of the world—our basic needs, our sense of family, our labors, our conscience—that can give movies universal resonance, but there are other times when you really have to work hard to bridge the gap. For example, I'm a big fan of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Syndromes And A Century), but I can't pretend to grasp all the meaning and symbolism in his work, because certain recurring concepts (like reincarnation, for one) are totally foreign to my experience.
All that said, you can bridge some of those gaps by educating yourself about different cultures and specific projects, and you can become accustomed to cinematic language by watching a lot of movies. But to answer your question, I think that critiquing performances in a foreign-language film can be a tricky matter. I'll be honest: When James Gandolfini tries to do a New Orleans accent in All The King's Men, I understand exactly what he's going for, and I ain't buying it. But if an actor from Tokyo were attempting to play a character from Osaka, I wouldn't know enough about the regional accents to determine whether that actor pulled it off. Fortunately for critics, actors express themselves in so many other ways (vocal inflections, facial expressions, body language) that judging their performance is still possible, so long as you keep all those other cultural considerations in mind. Granted, I can't remember the last time I opined that a foreign-language film was damaged by a poor performance, but there are plenty of performers out there worth singling out, and the language gap doesn't make me more tentative in doing so.
Is the Nielsen system still used to determine how many people watch any given show? Every day, the IMDb will post the ratings from the previous night, and it will say, for example, "12 million people watched Lost." Does that mean that 12 million people with Nielsen boxes watched Lost? And do they factor in downloads from apple.com or abc.com in these numbers?
TV cognoscente Noel Murray:
Like most national surveys, Nielsen relies on statistical samples, which means that if, say, 18 percent of the people with Nielsen boxes watch Lost, the Nielsen people can reasonably assert that 18 percent of the people with televisions watched Lost. Apply that percentage to the current data on how many people have televisions, and bingo, "12 million people watched Lost."
Of course, there are all kinds of vagaries there, including the fact that a show can be the "most watched" but not the "highest rated," because Nielsen provides numbers both for number of people watching and the percentage of people watching. A show with 12 million viewers might seem inferior to a show with 20 million viewers, but if that 12 million is out of a total of 15 million people watching television at that time, the number is actually astoundingly high (and may indicate that the show in question needs to be moved to a better timeslot).
As for online viewers, no, Nielsen doesn't record them. But the networks do, and it gives them valuable information about which shows might have staying power for future syndication and DVD deals. And Nielsen has finally started taking TiVo into account, though only for Nielsen families, not for everybody. But then, in theory, Nielsen families are everybody.
There's more that could be said here, about the different kinds of Nielsen families, and Nielsen diaries versus Nielsen boxes, and how the Nielsen system underrates shows that people watch in groups, but let's table that for another time, if someone wants to ask a follow-up question.
We Knew Burt Reynolds Was An Alien
I remember watching a show where a girl—her name was Evie—could freeze time by pressing her index fingers together. Her father was an alien that lived in a crystal-pyramid "jewelry box" on her nightstand. What was this show called, and does anyone remember if her father ever actually appeared, or on what note the series ended? I loved that show, because I always wanted that superpower over anything else. Thanks,
According to Kyle Ryan:
The show you're referring to is Out Of This World, which ran from 1987 until 1991 in syndication. It revolved around teenager Evie Garland, a half-human, half-alien who lived with her mother, Donna, on earth. Her father, Troy (voiced by Burt Reynolds), lived in outer space. Evie and Troy communicated via a crystal cube.
In the show's final episode, Evie turned 18, and yes, her dad did appear—kind of. According to an episode summary on TV.com, viewers didn't actually see Troy, just a silhouette. The show ended with Donna getting transported to space and Troy being stuck on earth. Despite this opportunity to give Out Of This World a whole new life, the series ended on May 25, 1991. It's currently unavailable on DVD.
Three Short Takes
I seem to remember a show, must've been the early to mid-'80s because I was pretty young. I THINK it was called Mr. Sunshine and the main character was blind. I think he might've been a school teacher, and it wasn't on for very long. I can't remember who was in it, or even if I just dreamed the whole thing. I recall watching it with my brother, but he has no recollection.
Can anybody shed a little light?
Yup, that'd be Mr. Sunshine all right. Don't get us wrong, we love the easy ones, but if you already know the title of the show you're looking for, or the name of the star, you're often just one IMDB search away from an answer.
I seem to recall seeing Jack Black on the show Picket Fences years before he broke out. There was an episode where Officer Max (Lauren Holly) gets into trouble for shooting a guy dressed as a hot dog. I was a big fan of the show, so when I saw Tenacious D years later, I was shocked to find out that the actor was also a comedian. It was a fairly dramatic episode. So was it really Jack Black, or is my memory playing tricks on me?
Yup, it was really Jack Black, as as the show's credits prove. If you know the name of the show and the actor involved, you're even more likely to find your answers on the IMDB.
I could probably be completely mixed up, but a year or two ago, I remember seeing part of a movie on TV where David Bowie and a bunch of other British and Australians were in a Japanese POW camp during WWII (or it could have been a Korean POW camp during the Korean War). The catch is that although David Bowie is executed, he doesn't die, and there's this big to-do about it, because, well, generally when you are executed, you die. His British friends didn't seem too shocked about it, and there may have been talk of him being an alien. The film quality made me think it was shot in the '70s or early '80s.
For some reason, I didn't get a chance to find out what the movie was or what happened afterward, but it seemed like a good movie. I can't find it on IMDB, so I'm guessing it's possible that it wasn't Bowie, but whoever it was sure looked and sounded like him. I kind of want to find out what happened and what the invincible guy's deal was, and whether I'm accurate in my ability to spot Bowie. Thanks,
Of course, the IMDB doesn't always help unless you know exactly what you're looking for—it can be kind of like trying to look a word up in the dictionary when you don't know how to spell it. Fortunately for you, half our staff jumped forward to volunteer this one: It's the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
Stumped No More!
Two weeks ago, we asked for our readers' help with some Ask The A.V. Club questions that we couldn't resolve. Turns out our readers are almost as helpful as they are curious:
Cethan Leahy asked about a TV episode in which an executive is tied to a treadmill and interrogated by some thugs:
The treadmill thing is from an episode of Family Matters called "Boom." Carl works out on a treadmill, only to realize that it's been booby-trapped for his boss, Lieutenant Lieu Murtaugh (actually spelled Lieu, not Lou). It's kind of like Speed; if he steps off the treadmill, the bomb goes off. The guy who booby-trapped it was some crook who Lieu had put away. He left a voice recording of himself taunting Lieu and letting him know what was going to happen. Lieu was about to quit or something when this thing comes up, and he has to find courage in himself to cut the right wires.
Granted, this is a possibly common theme, so maybe there's a movie or other show out there that deals with the same treadmill-as-death-machine trope. Speaking of things that sitcoms use a lot, remember when it was a really common thing for sitcoms to have someone drive a car into the house? I know it happened on Full House, I'm pretty sure it happened on Family Matters, and I'm assuming it happened on Home Improvement. Weird, huh?
Keep up the good work!
And many, many people wrote in to answer Rob Burgess' question about a TV pilot depicting a household of black orphans, one of whom masquerades as his own grandmother to keep the family together. Consensus identifies the show as On Our Own, from the 1994-'95 TV season. As several people pointed out, the show featured many members of the Smollett family, all of whom seem to have first names beginning with "J." (Jurnee, Jojo, Jazz, Jake, Jussie…)
That should do it for this week. Next week: more answers, more questions, and some thoughts on ABBA vs. Bjorn Again. Send your questions to email@example.com.