Friday, December 18, 2015

Subtitles and Subtexts

English-speakers are famously apt to be monolingual. As English is the world’s most widely spoken second language, they can get by almost anywhere, and they tend to avoid the few circumstances where they can’t. Anglophones are not really lazier by nature than other folks; they just have a greater opportunity to be lazy in linguistic matters, so they are. The laziness extends to subtitled foreign language films which always face an extra challenge at the box office: “I don’t want to read at the movies!” is the gist of the complaint, and it is one I’ve heard many times.

This raises the question of the relative merits of dubbing and subtitles. I think the type of movie makes all the difference. If it’s a guy in a rubber monster suit stomping on a miniature Tokyo or if it’s one of the Hercules movies, choose to dub: it’s less distracting and nothing important will be lost. If it’s Kurasawa or Fellini, opt for subtitles. So too if it’s Rohmer (Pauline at the Beach) or Tykwer (Run Lola Run). There are nuances in language and delivery that no dubbed translation ever gets quite right, and these are often as meaningful as the strict dictionary denotation of the words; it is better to hear them in the original.

Besides, a willingness to “read at the movies” opens the door to marvelous films from all over, e.g. Tangerines (Estonia/Georgia), Timbuktu (Mali), Venus in Fur (France), and Leviathan (Russia) as a few recent examples. A particularly fun one (no art house credentials required) released on DVD earlier this year is the Argentine film Wild Tales [Relatos salvajes].

Quite a lot of harm in the world is committed not by bullies aggrandizing themselves and abusing others for fun, though plenty of such people exist. No, it’s done by people who regard themselves as victims. On account of their victimhood they feel completely justified in lashing out in the most disproportionate ways. Bullies don’t commit mass shootings: self-identified victims do. Listen to proselytizers of extreme and violent ideologies: their talk is all about how abused and put-upon they are. That’s not to say they haven’t been bullied: they surely have been. Who hasn’t been bullied? Some far more so than others. That never justifies more than a proportionate and properly directed response. Often it doesn’t justify any.

Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales has six stories of people who are unquestionably mistreated, but whose reprisals are, to put it mildly, immoderate. (1) "Pasternak": All the passengers on a plane discover they know a flight crewman named Pasternak, and that he has a reason to bear each of them a grudge. (2) "The Rats": A waitress contemplates a creative use of rat poison when she recognizes a customer as the gangster who ruined her family. (3) "The Strongest": Road rage erupts between two drivers on a lonely highway. (4) "Little Bomb": A demolition professional has his life and career ruined when he fights with bureaucrats over parking fines and towing fees. (5) "The Proposal": A wealthy man’s son has a lethal hit-and-run accident, which the detective in the case and the man’s lawyer both see as an opportunity for extortion. (6) "Until Death Do Us Apart": During her wedding reception, a bride ascertains that her new husband had cheated on her (presumably during their engagement) with one of the guests. She retaliates.

Wild Tales is well-directed, well-constructed, well-acted, and full of graveyard humor. It also has a point, which it doesn’t need to articulate explicitly: the tales themselves say it all. Recommendation: Put on glasses (if you need them) and read the subtitles.

Trailer Wild Tales (2014)


  1. Wild Tales sounds interesting enough, I'll have to see if NF offers it. I don't mind subtitles unless I'm tired. Some foreign movies tend to rely less on Hollywood tropes as well, which I also can appreciate when hunting for something different. The last movie similar to this that I remember watching was Paris, Je T'aime, which I thought was pretty good.

    1. Anthology movies are usually hit and miss internally. In “New York Stories,” for example, only the segment by Woody Allen works well. Most of the parts of “Amazon Women on the Moon” are funny, if a bit sophomoric. “Paris, Je T'aime,” as you say, is actually pretty good throughout. So is “Wild Tales.”