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Eric Rohmer, 1920-2010
I Have Seen the New Mel Gibson Movie and Am Filled With Righteous Fury That Has Nothing to Do With Mel Gibson

Subtitles and the Subconscious

  • 1/21/10 at 12:38 PM

I wish I were fluent in more languages. Or one, even. Because subtitles really are a drag. Yes, dubbing is a horror, but reading along has its own (albeit less egregious) drawbacks. It’s obvious that when you’re reading, you’re not looking at the actors’ faces or gestures. You do an instinctive cost-benefit analysis: How fast can I take in the subtitles so I don’t miss what’s going on? How fast can I take in what’s going on so I don't miss the subtitles? But it was only when I did know the language, when I watched The Red Riding Hood Trilogy (opening February 5) — three unbelievably grim conspiracy dramas based on three even grimmer novels by David Peace — that another problem slapped me in the face. The films are set in the north of England, in Yorkshire, where the accent is so thick that the distributors have added subtitles. I’ve spent some time there and could make out about three-quarters of the words, but it was easier to read … and here’s the thing. When you see the line before the actor has finished saying it, what comes out of his or her mouth is predetermined. The central illusion — that the actor is the character and the character is in the moment and thinking up the words on the spot — is dashed. And yes, you could take the view that someone came along afterward and listened to the words and transcribed them (which is what happens, after all, in foreign-language documentaries), but still: We're ahead of the characters. Arriving at the end of the line before the person onscreen kills, on some unconscious level, the element of liveness. Watching The Red Riding Hood Trilogy, I tried to shield my eyes from the subtitles with my hand, but once in a while I had to look down fast to catch a word, so I could never relax and surrender to the experience. My advice if you see these movies? Brush up your Yorkshire and don’t watch the bottom of the screen. And even though it’s an un-American sentiment, learn French. Or German. Or Italian. Or Chinese …

Update: Publicists Susan Norget and Charlie Olsky have let me know that The Red Riding Trilogy (note that there is no "Hood," as I mistakenly typed) will be released sans subtitles. It was only the first, 1974, that was deemed semi-incomprehensible, but at screenings many critics complained. I applaud the decision but think it's fair to warn you that you'll probably miss about a third of the words. Just give up on understanding the newspaper editor altogether and you'll feel much less stress.

Update to the Update: To clarify: I'm one of the only critics who actually complained about the subtitles, and only in this space; and IFC's decision not use them preceded my blog entry. It was apparently a close call. According to Susan Norget, the company "finally decided, in balance, that no subtitles--risking that a bit of the dialogue might be harder to decipher--was better overall in terms of the greater appreciation of the film." Sounds right to me. I know, this all seems minor, but when you're sitting there struggling to penetrate that thick Yorkshire accent, it might help to know that IFC weighed their options and experimented with an alternative. It's a far cry from the days when the first Aussie Mad Max was mutilated with dubbed American voices when the U.S. distributor thought Americans wouldn't understand what a bunch of puddle-jumpers were saying. Crikey!