Recently I wrote about my cinematic fail in watching Force Majeure. Basically I failed to understand the newest Netflix interface and didn’t push that most important of buttons when it comes to foreign film-viewing: SUBTITLES Now, you can totally fumble your way through a foreign film without subtitles given the right conditions. Such conditions include:
- A passing familiarity with the language (I know enough French to follow some movies without reading the titles, but if anything gets more complicated than the present tense or basic concepts, I’m sunk)
- A passing familiarity with the culture (You don’t have to master the pluperfect verb tense to know when people are yelling at each other)
- A passing familiarity with the story (You might recognize themes or situations from famous plays, books, mythology, or graphic novels)
- A story simple enough to surpass language (Dead Snow comes to mind; do we really need to know why the zombies of reanimated Nazis are harassing these attractive skiers and ruining their holiday? Do we?)
But! As I learned, context is key, and for context you must have translation, some kind of intermediary to help guide you to the salient points.
Picture this: two well-dressed people are meeting in a Parisian cafe. The director has done his job, and despite the beautiful, laid-back surroundings, the score is tense, as are the faces of our characters. You know it’s a crime film, you know someone young was murdered and dumped in a ditch and had some kind of relation to these two. Now: what more do you want to know? Who started it? Was it justified? How long’s it been going on?
I don’t need translation to watch Godzilla to know that giant monsters destroying buildings is a bad thing, but what about trying to guess what was happening in the Avengers (assuming you were unfamiliar with the characters)?
“There’s a big blue ball, and it’s just absorbed this little gold ball, and now it’s… there are a lot of windows, and now there are robots everywhere but there’s also one robot who … is standing there talking about something, and now there’s a bigger one and a man in a suit with lasers and now there’s a farm where the people are and again we’re back to the city and robots lots of robots and OMG FLYING TOWN and another flying man with lasers coming out of his head and now everything is okay but might not be. Whatever, it was worth the 10 bucks.”
Context is everything, especially in an age when so little culture is shared on an intimate level. With no subtitles or dubbing, I might recognize a Thai person by their mode of dress or the sound of their language or the shape of the letters on signs in the background or the presence of tuktuks, because those are the big contextual markers. I won’t recognize the little nuanced ones, like the nature of their relationships with other people. I might miss little gestures accompanying the person’s movements that indicate their relationship, like a deferment to an older relative or a rolled eye to indicate a tiresome friend. Even something that should define a relationship, like a sex scene, doesn’t help because you don’t know if these people are together, cheating, or engaging in a forbidden affair.
Play a game of charades with some friends and see how far you get if you have to act out anything more complicated than simple nouns or verbs. Chicken? Easy. Chicken Little? Somewhat harder, but there will still be copious pantomiming to get the point across. Even if you know the person very well, you’ll still occasionally have to guess what they’re trying to depict.
A movie without context is a series of Rorshach images that the viewer can pull all kinds of things from, depending on their perspective.