Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Foutre Sous-titres

I don't really 'like' Silent Film. Now, I'm not saying that all Silent Film is bad, there's a lot of history and culture to be taken from the grandaddy of modern cinema; and when I had to watch some old genre films for my Film & TV university class, I absolutely adored the 1928, experimental short film "The Fall of the House of Usher" for how it experiments with written sound, surreal imagery & special effects. I still enjoy it to this day for its ingenuity and I recommend you check it out yourself, since it's only 13 minutes long.
But the thing that I hate about Silent Film is that, since you can't hear what they're saying, the filmmaker had to add in the dialogue with what was called "intertitles", where the spoken words are written on a card that pops up and interrupts the movie. Some filmmakers used intertitles not just for dialogue, but also to explain parts of the story, or comment on the action.
The thing is, I like to read books, and I like to watch movies; but reading a movie is just as stupid as watching a book - it's not what I want from the medium. Which is why I'm thankful that intertitles aren't used anymore. But that hasn't stopped filmmakers from trying to turn movies into scripture.
The Word of the Day is: 'SUBTITLE'

Subtitle /'subtuytl/ n. 1. A secondary, usually explanatory, title of a literary work. 2. Film One of a series of captions shown near the margins of the screen, being a translation or iteration of the on-screen dialogue or action. ♦v.t. 3. To give a subtitle or subtitles to.

Now, I should probably mention foreign films, and get that out of the way first. If a film is from a different country and filmed in its native tongue, then certainly subtitles are a good option. Because there are only two other options, really:
Making the movie twice in two languages or 'dubbing' over the dialogue.
The only film I know of that was made twice for two languages is the original Dracula/Drácula films of 1931, and that just got confusing when every film critic claimed that the Italian film was better, since it was less prudish.
Whereas dubbing comes from the word "doubling" and in practice it requires creating a "double" of an original audio track using voice actors to either translate it, fix it or alter it; then using that track to overlay or replace a native audio track. I always have and always will hate watching dubbed films, because the human eye can detect a visual discrepancy as little as .1 millimetres and as quick as .01 seconds, so watching someone's jaw enunciate their native tongue while pretending that they're speaking the over-dubbed English audio track is just insulting to my visual calibre. Not to mention, it's very distracting. I'm very aware that I'm watching a movie, when they use this kind of cinematic trick.

But as for anime . . . most anime is made using just two frames for dialogue: open mouth and closed mouth. This is a good trick, since a lot of Japanese language & alphabet is based off of consonant-vowel pairs (when Anglicized), so it's a great way to save money; but also it means that you can use whatever audio track you want, and it will sync up just as well as the original Japanese did.
For this reason, I am on the Dub side of the internet "Sub vs. Dub" debate. Any complaints people have with dubbed are to be blamed on bad localization teams or bad translations. Sure, some people think that voice actors can't recreate the emotion, culture or feel of the original version, but as I see it they're called voice actors after all. If you had a good translator/voice actor team, you could make a translated anime just as good, if not better.

But I'm getting side-tracked. See, I'm not here to talk about Sub vs Dub or Foreign Films. I'm here to talk about Films made by English-speaking countries for English-speaking countries, which have subtitles.

When subtitles are used in these films, it's for one reason: to explain what I'm watching. If a Frenchman is talking, we use subtitles to translate his words so that we know what he's talking about. If we suddenly shift scenes from one place to another, or if we're going back and forth in time, we use subtitles to explain where we are or what the date/time is. This seems pretty straightforward, and most people don't have a problem with it. But I do.

The problem that I have with subtitles is simple: It's lazy storytelling.

I decided to write this post a while ago, when I first watched Iron Man 2. I really like that film, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe that it is a part of, but that film best illustrates my issue with Subtitles, so I'll use it to explain.
Let's begin with the first subtitle.

The scene opens with a view of a beautiful, snow-swept city when this subtitle pops up:
Moscow

This may seem like a good thing, because now we know "Oh, this is in Russia" thanks to the subtitle, but this pisses me off. Because after less than 5 seconds and more images of the city, this time up-close shots of trains and people wearing winter-clothes, there's a long scene staring at a store-front with a sign that says: ПРОДУКТЬІ

Now, I know I can't speak for everyone, but I can tell that's a Russian word. I can't read it, but I recognize those as letters from the Russian alphabet.
Next, the scene changes to a close-up of a television. On it, Tony Stark is speaking to the press, and the television screen has a "News Program" template over it, with more Russian words, and on the program, there's a voice-over translating Stark's words into Russian.
Then we see an image of an old man who, calls for his son, speaking Russian.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but even if they had left out the subtitle saying "Moscow", couldn't everyone clearly see that the scene is set in Russia?
If anyone wants to complain that "in Russia" is not the same as "Moscow", then they are wrong and should be punched. The movie has nothing to do with Moscow, it doesn't matter what city it is, because the movie was written by Americans and they wanted the villain to be Russian.

Movies do this all the time, and I don't get it. We're given a picture of the Eiffel Tower with a subtitle saying "France"; we're given a picture of the White House with the subtitle "Washington D.C."; we're given a picture of Big Ben with the subtitle: "England" . . . Thank you, Captain Obvious.
But I'm not complaining that it's obvious, because sometimes it isn't, like the Moscow example, since I don't know of any Moscow landmarks, at least none that I can recognize on sight. But the thing is, countries have their own personality. All you need is five seconds to look at a sign in the native language, have a look at the people in the streets or listen to the language for a second.
I mean, if you want to set your movie in India, and you don't know how to use the cinematic medium to show me that the film is set in India without putting a goddamn subtitle on the screen, then you need to quit your job and start writing fanfiction, because you suck at visual storytelling.
Hell, I've even seen books that open with this "England, 1960" crap, and it's got to stop; Because it breaks the first rule of storytelling: SHOW DON'T TELL

Oh, but I'm not done, because that's not the only kind of subtitles. So often, when someone speaks another language in film, filmmakers use subtitles to translate it. You may think that this is a good idea, and I agree that it's not as abhorrent as the "You Are Here" subtitling practice - but it's still unnecessary, and it's still lazy story telling. Let me explain:

Let's pick up where we left off in Iron Man 2 - an old man is lying in bed, wrapped in blankets watching the news. He sees Tony Stark announce that he's Iron Man, and he starts calling his son's name "Ivan" in a Russian accent, and we get this subtitle:
Ivan . . .
Well, that was unnecessary. Anyway, the camera then tracks down a hallway, and we get our first look at Ivan, with appropriate dramatic flair.
Then Ivan goes to his father, to see what's the matter. According to the subtitles, his father says: That should be you.
I don't think that needs to be in the film. Firstly, because that's kind of the entire point of the villain and why he hates Stark. Have you never heard of dramatic tension before? Secondly, Ivan says as much, in English, when he first meets Stark, so this line is unnecessary.
But then, Ivan responds to his father with: Don't listen to that crap.
Do you know what would be a great way of showing to the audience that Ivan doesn't want his dad to watch the crap on television? How about having him turn off the television. Mickey Rourke is a good actor, you could even get him to do it dismissively to show his disgust for Stark.
Then his father says: All I can give you is my knowledge.
These are his last words, because he then dies.
Then, rather than say "My Dad is dead, and I have nothing" or some other cliched crap they have to subtitle, Ivan elects to get teary-eyed, take a swig of vodka and scream in rage. Wow, it's almost like you can express something without dialogue . . .
This is a great scene (excluding the subtitles), and these are some cool final words, but they don't really tell us much. It may be hinting at the fact that he gives his son ARC Reactor technology. But just like the "should be you" line, this information is covered again in the scene when Vanko talks to Stark. In fact, just a few moments later we see Howard Stark & Anton Vanko's names written together on the reactor blueprints!

With very little tweaking, this entire scene, hell this entire movie, could be done without any subtitles, and it would better bring us into the world that it's trying to create. Now, for a lot of this, people might think "But I want to know exactly what he was saying", and since those last lines were his father's dying words, it would be interesting to know what they were. But I think it's better without subtitles for two reasons.
Firstly, it's Showing and not Telling. Secondly, I am a big fan of what TV Tropes calls the "Bilingual Bonus", wherein foreign words are spoken on screen and they aren't necessary for the story, but if you speak that language, you'll find a little joke or Easter Egg. This isn't a joke, but I think it counts either way.
In fact, Iron Man 2 does this later in the movie, when Ivan Vanko is talking to Justin Hammer and says something in Russian, but there's no subtitles. Apparently it's something along the lines of "I'm only working with a jerk like you because I have to," which is interesting, but it's not important. Without subtitles, we can still see that it's just a brief joke at Hammer's expense. So even the movie agrees with me that you don't need subtitles to tell a story.

This is just one example, but there are heaps. One that comes to mind is John Carter. There's an early scene when Carter first meets the alien Tars Tarkis, but they don't understand one another because they're from different worlds. For a joke, John Carter says:
"What the . . ." and we jumpcut to a scene of Tars speaking, with the subtitle: . . . hell?
This is a simple joke, but I think we would have got the joke without the subtitle, in fact it would have been funnier, since some people might have thought he said " . . . fuck?", and swearing is funny, ask a comedian.
Then a moment later they're trying to communicate, but John Carter doesn't understand, so Tars uses hand gestures, but they use subtitles to let us know what he's saying anyway!
He's explaining what he's saying, SO WHY DO WE NEED SUBTITLES?!!
Then Carter is forced to drink magic alien juice so he can speak their language anyway, and I let out a sigh of relief that we were done with the reading.

For moments like these, we are supposed to identify with the main character, so I don't understand the logic here. If the main character doesn't know what the other guy is saying, why should we? It brings us deeper into the world of the story, and we can understand better what they main character is going through if we go through it too. We don't need to know what they are saying.

Now, if you're writing a scene where someone's speaking a foreign language, but you want us to know what they're saying - do yourself a favour and watch some Silent Films, or films inspired by them and see how other, better filmmakers can tell a story without falling back on dialogue to explain everything.
WALL-E managed to evoke romance in robots with a vocabulary of less than a dozen words. William Hurt is the dramatic centre of The Skeleton Key, despite playing a paralysis victim with only one or two lines of dialogue. Robot Carnival is an early Japanese anime anthology film released in 1987 where almost all of the dialogue in each short piece is babbled gibberish (and the spoken dialogue is, apparently, inconsequential).
If those don't help, check out any of the existing films by Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin; famous silent film actors that could portray more with a facial gesture than these lazy script-writers could with half an hour of dialogue.

My point is, there are hundreds of ways to display an idea and to tell a story, you don't always have to communicate with dialogue, and telling a story with little to no dialogue is a great excuse for actors to show their mettle. Sure, it's a little more difficult to write, but that's no excuse for bad storytelling!
And to be clear, it is bad storytelling and bad filmmaking, because whenever you shoot a scene, and decide to use subtitles to show me what they're saying, you're wasting your money. You might as well go back to using Silent Film intertitles, because while there's a subtitle on the screen, I'm going to be reading them and ignoring the other 4/5ths of the screen which doesn't have writing on it - so, why bother filming that scene at all?
Hell, why even make the damn movie, if I have to read everything? Just turn it into a book and leave the filmmaking to the professionals.

Until next time, I'm the Absurd Word Nerd and I'm going to go see how hard it is to watch a book.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe that's one reason why the first Iron Man is such a good movie; in the beginning the terrorists seem to be demanding ransom for Tony, and there are no subtitles. As that TvTropes page notes, knowing Urdu spoils the movie and misdirects the audience into making that assumption about ransom.

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