If you could see any classic film on the big screensubtitled...

M Arnold ma_iku at hotmail.com
Fri Apr 9 19:24:11 EDT 2004

Apologies in advance for a long message. . .

I think I agree with both Roland and Mitch. Subtitles can detract from the
visual composition of a film, but I'm uncomfortable assuming that talented
filmmakers communicate more through picture than dialogue, that viewers
simply or naturally understand what they see, or that the viewers don't need
the dialogue (or audio if it's a sound film) to appreciate or understand the
"picture." (I know this isn't what Roland was suggesting to begin with.)
Dialogue and narration--and the soundtrack itself--are often crucial
elements in films (although that's not an absolute). I don't think we can
necessarily treat subtitles as a separate entity either. Of course sometimes
it can be hard to understand all of the dialogue even when you are fluent in
a language, but without translation I think it would be difficult, to say
the least, to appreciate a "movie" with dialogue or narration targeted for
speakers of a language you don't understand.

While I'm at it, this discussion reminds me of four films: 1) Jarman's
"Blue," which I saw on video in Tokyo with Japanese subtitles 2) the loud,
subtitled bar scene in Lynch's "Fire Walk with Me" (which I thought was much
noisier in the theater than on the DVD) 3) Kill Bill 1, and that film's
interesting attempt to make the different nationalities speak in the "wrong"
languages and through subtitles and 4 ) Lost in Translation, which is full
of "jokes" that relied on the problematic notion that the audience
understands the Americans more or less but can't figure out what the heck
the Japanese characters are saying and doing without translation (linguistic
or cultural).

Speaking of which, I wrote a message for the recent Lost in Translation
thread but forgot to send it out. Here it is:

"The mushrooming discourse on Japan's cultural cool in U.S. media (something
I can't help but read along side current international issues and earlier
American fantasies of "Japanese culture") has kept me thinking about Lost in
Translation since we last discussed it here. Although I agree that a story
about lonely foreigners doesn't have to be about Japan, I think it's crucial
that this particular film is in fact set in Japan and framed through the
eyes of wealthy, white Americans (both of whom are connected to the
image-making business, incidentally). And it still fascinates me that so
many of the reviews I've read (especially the positive ones) claim to
identify with that imaginary experience. Out of curiosity I watched The
Virgin Suicides recently and my strongest feeling was that the overdone,
sparkly yellow and pink-ish flavor of the costumes, mise-en-scene and
photography looked just like what I see in the display windows of Urban
Outfitters. (Someone told me the novel was actually very sharp and
satirical. Is that true?) Here, American adolescence in the 1970s becomes
fashion. In Lost in Translation, perhaps the "reality" isn't fancy Shinjuku
hotel life but rather nostalgia for the American 1980s--Bill
Murray, MTV generation "new wave" rock bands (Roxy Music, Jesus and Mary
Chain, My Bloody Valentine), and stereotypes about Bubble-era Japan. If
nothing else, movies with Coppola's name on them seem to be good at
capturing a certain feeling [-tone]. Incidentally the average review rating
for Lost in Translation at Amazon.com has definitely dropped over the last
few months."

Now back to subtitles. I watched a lot of unsubtitled films when I was first
learning Japanese, but my goal then (as now) was to understand what the
characters were saying, not to see the picture at the expense of the script.
I still enjoy watching unsubtitled films in languages I don't understand,
but I don't see how I could comment on a film's story if I didn't understand
the dialogue. . .

A few retrospectives in Japan in recent years have allowed me to see a lot
of the movies I wanted to watch on the big screen (films by Suzuki Seijun,
Masumura Yasuzo, Ogawa Shinsuke, Wakamatsu and Adachi, even the PFLP film!).
Eureka was incredible in the theater, with and without subtitles.
Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen was fantastic as well. Much of my enjoyment then was
the way the odd sound mix echoed through the cavernous Shinjuku theater.
That's something you don't get on video. I think a lot of excellent
suggestions have already come up, but I'd love to see one of the Ishida
Eri-era "Tsuri baka" films, any Shintoho horror, and any pre-90s Takakura
Ken movie. Also the 1963 Toei Doga "classic" "Wanpaku oji no orochi taiji."
On top of that, any Crayon Shinchan movie. Is anyone planning on seeing the
new one? Looks like some kind of Western this time.

Michael Arnold

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