In praise of movies I don't fully comprehend

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Two years ago the Chicago International Film Festival previewed an unsubtitled print of Na Hong-jins The Yellow Sea to critics.
  • Two years ago the Chicago International Film Festival previewed an unsubtitled print of Na Hong-jin's The Yellow Sea to critics.
As far as I'm concerned, it wasn't a very good weekend for moviegoing, as I was kept in with my first bad cold of the season. I experienced one of those fits of congestion where it feels like your head is underwater for a couple days, making it difficult to focus on a movie even at home. For some, that's a good excuse to put on an old favorite of which they've committed large sections to memory, the familiar sights and sounds providing comfort in a time of displeasure. I don't take satisfaction from this. There are always too many movies I feel the need to see for the first time, and if I'm conscious enough to watch anything, it may as well be one of those.

So, on Friday night I decided to make a dent in the stack of bootleg discs that colleagues have given me—a pile that always manages to grow another few inches whenever I think I'm getting near the bottom. (I fare even worse with the list of books I want to read.) The first thing I watched was an American documentary from the 1980s that had been recorded off French TV. The image quality was so lousy that I could barely make out the subjects' facial features, though I could hear everything just fine. I was content with this—I had an excuse to rest my eyes during parts of the movie and not feel as though I were missing anything.

As it goes, I'm generally OK with watching a movie and not understanding everything. This derives from my romantic attachment to those worn-out videocassettes and film prints of rare titles I watched in college. I had read that the great Henri Langlois often screened unsubtitled prints of foreign films at the Cinematheque Francaise, forcing the heroic French cinephiles of the 40s and 50s to fixate on images when they couldn't understand the dialogue. And so, I took it as a point of pride when I received only partial access to a movie I wanted to see—it meant my imagination had to work overtime to appreciate the film's significance.

In the past several years I've covered the Chicago International Film Festival, there have been occasions when the festival previewed unsubtitled versions of movies by accident. Some of my colleagues expressed disappointment when this happened, but I appreciated the exercise of judging films solely by their visual content. I'm holding out for at least one bum disc among this year's previewable titles—they make my work so much more interesting. I plan to start watching festival movies once this cold of mine passes, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed until then.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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