A Few Thoughts On Watching Foreign Films (Or: Why I Prefer Dubbed Movies To Subbed Ones)

I really don’t like watching subtitled foreign flicks. I know most film aficionados prefer the subs because they’re more authentic and I can understand that, but being the multitasking maniac that I am, I have a lot of trouble reading a movie while doing something else (usually reading or writing on my computer). Yes, that makes me lazy and unfocused, but that’s just how it is. There’s lots of movies on my Netflix Instant queue that I’ve been really excited about watching, but have turned off once I hear a language I don’t understand and those familiar white letters pop up on the screen. Sorry La Femme Nikita, today’s not the day for us to finally hang out.

Last night, when I turned on 13 Assassins, I wasn’t surprised that it was subtitled, but I was surprised that I wound up watching it. Having done some actual work during the day and only tackling a few personal blog posts, I decided to go with it. I think some of my annoyance with the slow pace of that movie, as discussed here, came from having to read SO MUCH in what I thought was an action movie! I get that the filmmakers were also trying to layer some drama in there, but that’s not really what I was looking for. This is roughly the equivalent of being angry with The Dark Knight for not having enough fight scenes.

I realized while watching 13 Assassins, that subtitles make me feel even more disconnected from a foreign flick than I already am. We like to think that we’re people of the world and understand how other cultures work or maybe that people aren’t really all that different around the world, but that’s not the case. Culture and history are very singular to particular areas and unless you’re from that area or have fervidly read up on them, there’s going to be a disconnect when you try to absorb the art coming from, based on or set in that world by someone who comes from that world. There will be in jokes and points of reference that the people who do come from that culture will understand, but outsiders might not. I don’t think this is a reason not to watch a movie by any means, I’m just saying that it can inhibit understanding and enjoyment.

Basically, you’re missing out on some of the filmmaker’s intent. Adding to that problem is the fact that subtitles completely destroy the cadence of dialog. You’re reading lines at your own pace (if you’re fast enough to catch them all) which makes everything seem rushed and off. Jokes are ruined, timing is off and you’re put out of the story even further.

It’s like this. Consider a movie being played in a theater. You’re sitting there as the previews play, but before it starts, you have to put on these glasses that are just the slightest bit foggy. The fog is not understanding the culture. Add on top of that the idea that you’ve got to focus your eyes on the bottom of the screen, drawing your attention away from action, drama or whathaveyou to read the subtitles. Then imagine the speakers have been switched from the actors’ voices and replaced by your own voice reading the script. That’s a lot to deal with while trying to kick back and enjoy a movie.

For the record, I’m not crying out for the kind of dubbing where they insist on trying to match up the dialog with the mouth movement, Godzilla-style. Creating good, intelligent dubbing that doesn’t sound awful and also represents the original cadence can be difficult, but I think good films deserve it.

So, you’ve got the foggy glasses on and your eyes are focused on the bottom of the screen where nothing of importance visually happens so you’re missing things. You’re also probably confused about who’s who when it comes to the characters. I’m not falling into the old “they all look the same to me” stereotype, but when your attention is already split and this group of people is all dressed very similarly (as is the case in 13 Assassins with their dark robes, similar haircuts and swords) you’re inevitably going to get confused about which character is which. Wait, is that guy the main guy’s nephew or is he one of the building-block guys (the initial set of five or so guys who aren’t super important on their own aside from offering numbers and swords to the flick). Obviously, this isn’t Power Rangers and I don’t expect everyone to sport a different colored uniform or anything, but a little more visual diversity would be great. I remember the spear guy and the guy who isn’t actually a samurai and the main guy and the guy that looks like a combination of Robert Downey Jr. and John Belushi (HE’s the nephew). But, wait, what were their names? Aw crap, what’s happening NOW? Gah!

Basically, foreign films make us work a lot harder than ones in our own language with familiar set-ups. You can’t just plop down, understand the basics of culture and enjoy these films. They require some deftness from the audience, more of your attention and brainpower and maybe a little Wikipedia research to fully appreciate (or at least appreciate the majority of as I don’t know if anything can be fully appreciated). With so much going on and attention being payed, would it be so bad to help us out a little bit by going the dubbed route? Methinks not.

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