Some time two years ago, in what I thought was the beginning of my end, I noticed it was difficult for me to hear dialogues on television. No matter which show or movie I watched, the actors seemed to always be mumbling their monologues or else just straight up whispering. So I cranked my volume up to 100%, which worked alright until some uncaring cad on screen shot a gun or detonated a mini-ridge so loudly that mere moments later I’d be crouched on the floor, ears ringing, searching for the bits of my soul that shot out my backside out of shock.
The solution was, obviously, subtitles. I found that once I got over my own ageism, not only did subtitles make it easier to understand everything, they made every movie better. (To be honest I’ve thought this ever since the Bollywood movie Lagaan described the whole of England in its subtitles as a “Frozen Little Island”)
The key is that subtitles transcribe not only dialogues but also a wonderfully diverse array of all kinds of sounds. Gunshots, explosions, footsteps and shouting yes, but also feeling, musical tonality, even the sound of inner turmoil (spoiler alert: it sounds like diarrhea). While watching 1990s Legends of the Fall its entirely possible to see “[sweeping orchestral music]” appear on screen whenever there is a closeup of a mountain, followed shortly by Brad Pitt [riding dramatically with blond hair]
Isn’t that perfect? Not [sound of hooves], not [horse riding] but [riding dramatically WITH blond hair]. I am obsessed – obsessed I tell you! – with the ability of my television’s prophetic ability to reduce everything down to its basic component. With little else to do these days, I’ve been watching all the old classics. Anyone who watches Friends (the 1990s white sitcom that has aged worse than Madonna) knows the character Janice has a distinctive laugh, never more perfectly described than my by my TV: [machine gun belly grunt]. Star Wars epic battles are a cycle of [pew pew, pew pew, pew pew]; Chewbacca little more than a [feline cries].
Seeing horror movies is particularly satisfying because I hate surprises and scare tactics, and I find it comforting to look at the screen and see the words [moderately ominous music] that give me fair warning. Music is where subtitles come to life. Every Ms Marlpe episode is a mix of [pleasant pastoral music] and [murder sound], (if ever there was an ode to brevity). If you’re really lucky you can see a violent stabbing described as [poke poke thud death].
But what I love most is when the subtitles describe actors. It’s not that they are wrong, far from it. I just never knew how many teen dramas have an actor [pout pointlessly] or that House of Cards has someone [scream with knowing wisdom]. A supernatural show simply showed a closeup lead face with the words [activates bitchface] running below bright yellow letters for the full ten minutes he slaughtered demons [squish slam boom evaporating sound heavy body falls]. Things get murkier with international productions, which is how we end up with descriptions like [stares in Japanese] or [non-English talking lovingly to Korean robots].
I used to think that there had to be someone somewhere writing these things down. Only a human with working knowledge of the late 1990s rom com scene would think to attack [Julia Roberts laugh] to any belly laugh on screen. But given that my iPhone says “You should be in bed now” to me completely unsolicited, I’m sure the technology exists. Maybe that is why the subtitles are so universally funny, because reading them forces us to remain one step removed from the action, keenly aware that reading [anxiety filled rising harp music] is vastly different than simply feeling anxious.
For what its worth it turns out we were right, they have been making dialogues harder to hear. According to a recent NYT articles, in recent years the dialogues of film have been relegated to the side of sound mixing studio to make room for thongs like [hoverong aircrafts] or [alients scuttling]. Apparently the rush to get the product of audiences outpaces ay effort to make them intelligible. But honestly, who needs anything else when we have things like [loudly implied cannablism] or [intesity intensifies intensely] to read instead?
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