The cursed blessing of subtitles

Hannah Cooper/Senior Staff

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My mother and I have a wide variety of things in common: an appreciation for a well-marbled, medium-rare steak; keen interest in the development and consequences of Chinese politics; and perhaps most importantly, a love for cinema, in all its range and diversity.

The hegemony of Hollywood in the film market and our background as Chinese speakers meant, however, that all movies shown at the Yen Household Theater on Friday nights were invariably accompanied by subtitles. So ubiquitous and quintessential are subtitles to my filmic experience that I was utterly shocked and dismayed by my friend’s (polite but firm) request to turn them off as it was “distracting” and “detrimental to the overall enjoyment of the film.” What nerve!

As it happens, the movie was promptly paused as a righteous crusade for the inclusion of the all-enlightening word violently clashed with the equally unrelenting blasphemers. I jest, but the ensuing debate was nevertheless intriguing, and I would like to present the two opposing sides with as much clarity as I can muster.

The reason my friend was adamant that subtitles should be used sparingly, if at all, is because its very existence contradicts the intent of pure cinema, which is the representation of that which is not representable through words alone. If he had wanted to read he could have just stayed home and read the screenplay (a powerfully compelling argument if I ever heard one). Words on the screen amounted to nothing more than an obstruction, a rude shattering of our immersion and pleasure. Movies are the enjoyment of spectacles reading should be reserved for next week’s lecture.

I must admit, he made a thoroughly solid case. But a rebuttal I must make.

Far from treating subtitles as an impairment, I cannot see it as anything but a necessary component. With my ESL background paired with the dismaying and deeply disconcerting trend of the under-the-breath murmuring on the rise in Hollywood productions, I can safely say that at least 25 percent of any movie I watch falls under the umbrella of “Huh?” Not to mention when I need to watch a French New Wave film to renew my hipster credentials, by which my comprehension would be nil if not for the life-saving graces of a few inconspicuous lines.

I know my argument is incredibly flimsy, and in all honesty, I am more inclined to agree with my friend than I would like him to know. The presence of words on a screen, however, like the opening crawl of the Star Wars franchise, is to me as iconic and purely cinematic as the image itself. From the silent era to the modern day of global cinema, movies have been unable to come into itself as a purely visual medium, and perhaps this is for the best. Ultimately, the written word, in whatever way and in whatever medium it presents itself, becomes a source of comforting clarity.

Film would not be film, cannot be film, without the written word.

Contact Andrew Yen at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @andrewyen329.