The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

SUBTITLES: There are any number of good reasons why Americans don’t like foreign films, but I think the main reason is that most of the film industry’s target audience doesn’t like to read. Now your average foreign filmmaker has a problem when it comes to breaking into the lucrative American market: the multicultural and hence multilingual audiences of other lands do not exist here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, both of whom speak only English, so your foreign auteur has a conundrum of sorts on his hands. If he makes his film in English, he risks the opprobrium of his native audience, who will resent having a foreign language stuffed into their mouths for the convenience of Americans too lazy to learn their language, and then he risks the wrath of the local chattering classes, who will rise up in a mighty chorus, all of them as one charging that the filmmaker, like some cinematic Benedict Arnold, has sold out his family, his honor, and his native land for filthy Hollywood lucre.

So what is the foreign filmmaker to do? There is dubbing, of course, but Americans only tolerate dubbing in cheesy Hong Kong kung fu movies, where the awful dubbing becomes the comic relief in what would otherwise be an endless stretch of Asians engaging in utterly pointless violence. There’s just something about actors delivering reams of corny dialogue without actually opening their mouths that tickles the collective funny bone in this neck of the woods, and I’ve always been fond of the parts where the hero stops the action and delivers a long philosophical neo-Zen, paleo-Confucian fortune cookie diatribe about the need for all people to live in harmony with each other and in oneness with nature just before he pummels the villain into a pile of hamburger meat. Not enough philosophy classes end in all out hand to hand combat in the West, and I think we’re poorer for it; I wouldn’t mind kicking the crap out the occasional Marxist or even a disciple of Foucault, although I am told that Foucaultians tend to enjoy that sort of thing.

And then there are subtitles. I really can’t say why the American movie going public regards subtitles as the cinematic equivalent of jabbing a red-hot fork into one’s left eye, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this is the case. The only exception to this rule, and all rules have exceptions to them, even the Golden Rule, which requires that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Jesus got this pearl of wisdom from the great rabbi, Hillel, who said that this rule was the heart of the Torah and that all else was merely commentary. That may be true; Hillel must have been pretty smart if Jesus quoted him with approval; but almost lost in all of that commentary is the exception to this great philosophical truth, which says that you shall not sign a promissory note for a relative’s car loan, lest you discover what a lying, thieving, no-good skunk he really is. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a nice idea, but not one you ought to carry to its logical extreme.

I seem to have drifted, so let’s leave Foucault to the philosophers and return to the subject of this particular screed, which is, you’ll remember, why Americans don’t like to read subtitles. This is purely my opinion, an opinion without the least bit of scientific evidence to back it up, but a lack of evidence has never stopped any number of other people from jumping to unwarranted conclusions and I see no reason why I should deny myself the same privilege. Millions of people thought the world of Karl Marx, after all, and I think it’s pretty clear at this point in history that the man didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I mean, Karl spent his days warming a chair in the British Library; I sit in a library all day long too, but I don’t think sitting here gives me any special insight into the workings of capitalism or the revolutionary potential of the working class. I do know a lot about whales, though, because the fourth graders are doing whale reports for their science classes this year, and I get to entertain them with tidbits like did you know that killer whales are not really whales at all? No, they are not fish, either; although they are cetaceans and therefore related to the whales, killer whales are, in fact, the largest of the dolphins, Flipper on steroids and with an attitude problem to boot. Now stop picking on your little sister and be quiet, this is a library, not a zoo, for Pete’s sake.

Anyway, to get back to the subject at hand, I think the problem with subtitles is that the teenagers who comprise Hollywood’s target audience don’t like to read them; for most of the nation's teenagers reading is an exceedingly dull activity done in school, under the close surveillance of a teacher whose job it is to make sure you’re reading, because reading is good for you in the same way calves’ liver is good for you, that’s why you have to eat it, young man, so you grow up big and strong and get into a good college, and you wonder, as you gag on this disgusting chunk of meat because, let’s face it, no matter how many onions your mom puts it to disguise the taste, liver is liver, you wonder how you’re ever going to grow up and get into a good college if you choke to death on this piece of liver right now.

This is a great truth; well, maybe not a great truth on the order of the Golden Rule or e=mc2 or Mark Twain having a better mustache than Salvador Dali, but it’s up there in the overall truth hierarchy. The American love affair with reading, of which E. B. White wrote of so eloquently in the 1920’s, is long over and, I fear, will never return. I realized this while watching a Brazilian film that somehow jumped out of the art house ghetto the market usually consigns such films to in the United States and wound up on a screen in our local metroplex next to theaters running the standard Hollywood fare of loud music, louder explosions, and nubile and mostly unclothed eye candy to take the male audience’s minds off the lack of even a minimally intelligent plot. I was watching the opening credits, having settled down for a long immersion in Brazilian culture and social problems with my large Diet Coke and big bag of heavily salted buttered popcorn, a movie treat with enough calories in it to keep the population of any small Third World country you care to name alive for a year, when a group of young people came in and sat down. I don’t know if they’d actually paid to see this movie; Brazilian movies don’t usually play well in the United States unless there’s a generous number of beautiful Brazilian girls wearing bikinis made from single strands of dental floss in them, and this was not that kind of film at all. My guess is that they were waiting for another movie to begin and decided to kill some time here in beautiful but tragic Brazil.

In any case, the voiceover began, the narrator speaking in Portuguese, as Brazilians are wont to do; I don’t believe they are doing this maliciously to annoy North American movie audiences, of course, not by any means, but rather that the narrator’s penchant for Portuguese is an unfortunate social byproduct of his environment; and the subtitles began flashing across the bottom of the screen. This hitherto unknown and altogether unexpected phenomenon caused one of these young people, a young man with a mouth filled with half-eaten nachos, to loudly exclaim, “WORDS!!! I didn’t come in here to READ!!!” At which exclamation, the young man and all his cohort, shocked by this sneaky and somewhat unethical attempt to induce them to read in a public place, fled the theater posthaste, so that they might avoid the horrid contagion of literacy. After all, there’s too much life going on around us all the time to stay in a darkened theater and read, not when houses and cars and the people contained therein are getting blown to pieces in a loud and truly awesome manner in the theater next door.


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