The Movie Waffler Sub Standard: 10 occasions when subtitles should be avoided | The Movie Waffler

Sub Standard: 10 occasions when subtitles should be avoided

If you don't want to be labelled a cinema philistine you should always opt for the subtitled option, right? Right?

Wrong. Here are ten occasions when subtitles can ruin a movie.

When they're unnecessary
Peter Greenaway's latest, Goltzius and the Pelican Company, is being shown in UK cinemas in subtitled form, despite the entire movie occurring in English. The film's distributor, Axiom, had this to say on the matter, "It’s a production decision to release the version with English subtitles in the UK and Ireland, due to the accents and the dialogue-heavy nature of the film. It’s important to understand the dialogue and it was felt that many audience members may have difficulty, which would impede their enjoyment of the film." Due to the accents? Doesn't every movie character speak with an accent of some sort? Will this herald a return to the days when actors had to perfect an RSC accent in order to find work? Impede their enjoyment? Who goes to see a Greenaway movie for enjoyment? 

When they counteract the director's intention
A recent and infuriating example of this occurs with the English language prints of Roman Polanski's latest, Venus in Fur. Throughout the film, the dialogue moves back and forth between the words of its central characters and the text of a play they're rehearsing. The intent of Polanski, presumably, is that both dialogue strands begin to blur into one another, so we lose track of whether the characters are speaking their own words or those of the play. If you're reliant on the subtitles, however, this effect is completely negated, as whenever said characters are quoting from the play, the subtitles appear in italics. This gives us an advantage that, as an audience, we're not supposed to have, and keeps us from being as immersed as we should. It's the most explicit argument for having a film-maker supervise the subtitling of their work I've yet seen.

When they can't be read
There was a time when subtitles appeared on a thin black strip. There was a very good reason for this: it stopped the text from blending into the picture and becoming indecipherable. If you strained your eyes while attempting to read the subs of recent French thriller Stranger by the Lake (white subs overlaid on a background of white sand for the vast majority of the film) you'll know just what I mean.

When they're badly translated
Often the dialogue of foreign movies is dumbed down for the English subtitle translation. I initially complained about how poor the dialogue of Indonesian action flick The Raid 2 was, only for some Indonesian readers to bring it to my attention that the dialogue wasn't half as poorly written when heard in its original language. The US DVD of Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In was heavily criticised for how reductive its subs were. It's also highly annoying when a piece of British or American slang is inserted into a foreign movie's subtitles. Nothing takes you out of a Japanese movie like reading one of its characters say something along the lines of "That's bollocks!"

When they're badly synced
This is probably the most common issue with subs: you read a line of dialogue a second or two before the actor speaks it. The one genre that suffers the most from this is comedy, because as we know, comedy is all about...timing.

When the subs have been censored
Aah, but this only affects those living in totalitarian states, right? Nope, Netflix US (a country that prides itself on free speech) has recently come under fire for censoring "bad language" in its subtitle tracks, despite the audio tracks remaining untouched. This isn't just censorship; it's bigotry. Hearing impaired viewers are being made to suffer in a way the rest of us don't have to.

When the movie was dubbed to begin with
If you're a purist who's waiting for an original subtitled Italian language copy of that obscure Sergio Corbucci movie, don't bother. Italian exploitation movies employed multinational casts, with actors speaking dialogue in their own mother tongues. In a single scene you could have actors speaking English, Italian, Spanish and German, all dubbed into English and Italian in post-production. So if you're debating which version of that Spaghetti Western or Giallo to watch, go for the dubbed option.

When it's an animated movie
Animation movies, by their very nature, are all dubbed. Why would you want the original dialogue in a language you don't understand? The recent acclaimed Japanese animation The Wind Rises featured an all star English voice cast including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt and Werner Herzog, yet most UK cinemas screened the original Japanese version with English subtitles. Who wouldn't want to hear a character voiced by Herzog?

When curtains get in the way
Some cinemas are run by film lovers who make sure every aspect of their theatre is geared towards an optimal experience for the paying audience, but some are sadly run by cretins who couldn't care less about your experience, once they've gotten your ten bucks in the till. A common problem in these establishments is bad projection; all too often the image bleeds offscreen because it hasn't been projected correctly. This causes mayhem for subtitles, with sentences disappearing under curtains. Thankfully, the few cinemas that bother to show foreign language movies are generally run by people who care about such details.

When you're seated behind a giant
As subtitles run along the bottom of the screen, you're screwed if a basketball player decides to occupy the seat in front of you. In this scenario you're likely to leave the cinema with a serious ache in your neck, thanks to your efforts to read Daniel Auteil's dialogue with the obstacle of Yao Ming's head in your way.

While these are all good reasons to avoid subtitles in specific scenarios, we at TMW encourage you to always otherwise opt for a movie's original version whenever possible.

Eric Hillis