A clear memory I have when I first visited my grandmother is sitting on the couch, turning on the TV and wondering what the hell this was, sprawled across the bottom of the screen, unpleasantly dictating what I could already hear . Subtitles were a totally new thing to me, and to be honest I really didn’t expect to see too much of them outside of grandma’s house
“Subtitles (literally) highlight the talent and hard work of screenwriters.”
Fifteen years on, and subtitles are so common that they seem to be the norm, especially when it comes to streaming shows and movies online. The reason for this is clear: watching a video has taken on the easier role of a sideline that we use to pass the time. We no longer have to drive or rush to the cinema to operate the TV remote to watch what we want – we can take a shower, bake brownies, crunch on our fries and rustle the parcel … shows and movies with subtitles give us the freedom to be as loud as we want without missing a thing.
There’s no question that subtitles have also removed all the language barriers and accents that once limited us to Hollywood, making movie watching a much more accessible and inclusive activity. Even when they’re not needed, subtitles (literally) bring out the talent and hard work of screenwriters, highlighting details in the script that are often lost in the noise. Character names, puns, lyrics, crucial plot points that always seem to be whispered, they are all much easier to pick up when you can see them in plain writing.
But is this all worth it? Not in my opinion. When enabled, the subtitles become the primary focus, muting all the nuances of the cinematography, acting knowledge, and soundtrack of the movie. Essentially, using subtitles is like reading the screenplay of the movie, while the movie itself, in all its beauty, plays softly in the background. Not to mention the total lack of tension or tension this results in. Imagine the monolith appears in it 2001, except “[Francis Travis — Requiem for Soprano]Is in the foreground. Or follow Jodie Foster with night vision goggles in them Silence of the lambs, with “[heavy panting]”In clear letters at the bottom of the screen. Or just reading the line “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” without paying attention to Anthony Hopkins’s horrifyingly calm demeanor. Or watch Star Wars for the first time and read “I am your father” a second before Darth Vader actually says it.
“Using subtitles is like reading the screenplay of the movie while the movie plays softly in the background.”
Don’t get me wrong – good dialogue is good dialogue, both written and spoken. But an exceptional film takes this dialogue and weaves it into something that we can experience, a series of light and sound in which we can lose ourselves. When we are fed with dialogue so explicitly in writing, it is almost as if we are exposed to the inner workings of the film that we are not allowed to see, and we lose any sense of immersion. Subtitles actually lock us up and serve as a constant reminder of the screen that separates us from the world we are viewing.
Indeed, directors can use these subtitles and their unpleasantness as artistic aids, especially in comedies. Bring the opening credits to Monty Python and the Holy Grail or into the Cantonese scene Wayne’s World. But it is precisely because of the absence of subtitles in every other scene that these jokes come to the fore and can work. And when it comes to actors’ attempts at comedy through timing or tone – they all become useless when the audience reads their lines with them.
Nevertheless, subtitles are only getting more popular, and as a result, people are paying more and more attention to writing scripts. After all, the more details we know, the more details we want to know. So what does this mean for the future of film? Script writing will certainly improve, or at least become more complex and information-heavy. This could increase the chances of more Gilmore Girls-like scenario – the benefits of which I can certainly see – but can also see a decline in more organic, natural dialogue. Directors can also use subtitles as an opportunity to include a wider range of accents that may be difficult to understand without subtitles – Game of Thrones be a good example. We might see a world of films that rely on subtitles at their core, shaping their cinematography and acting around these subtitles, rather than letting them hit post-production if need be.
But this is all looking ahead. The way I see it now, reading text at the bottom of the screen only distracts from the cinematography and destroys all the subtlety and tension that directors and actors have worked so hard for. And so, as long as movies are made to be seen, not to be read, I’ll keep the subtitles off where I can.
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