Looking Down On Subtitles

Posted on June 24, 2010


I read a lot. At any given time, I may have four or five books going at once. So when I watch a movie, I want to sit back and be lazy. Having to frantically read subtitles doesn’t seem relaxing.

Now I realize that sometimes they may be unavoidable. Foreign films are made in another language (that’s part of what makes them foreign films), and I’m prepared for that from the outset. But frequently, an American or Canadian movie that depicts a foreign setting starts out in the language of that setting, with accompanying subtitles. Then, about a third of the way through, something changes and the characters are suddenly speaking English. Why not just use English in the first place? We all know Nazi soldiers spoke German and Roman gladiators spoke Latin; if they’re speaking English in the movie right from the beginning, we accept the gift without protest, silently thank the director, and move forward. But when the characters start out speaking a foreign tongue, then abruptly switch over to English, I find it jolting. I wonder what amazing language course these guys took, and if it’s available for Italian. Most annoying is when some of the characters make the switch while others don’t — now we have the jolting change and we still have to deal with subtitles.

The subtitles are especially maddening when they’re flashed on and off too quickly. Most baffling is when they’re written in white letters and placed against a light background. These are high-budget movies with intricate plots and sub-plots. The producers spent millions of dollars on actors, sets, costumes, transportation, equipment, computer graphics, and special effects. The credits at the end of the film show the names of hundreds of people who worked on the production. Didn’t anyone notice that the subtitles are hard to read? I have enough trouble following the action when I understand the language.

You may be wondering why I don’t just avoid movies with subtitles. I try. But sometimes they surprise me, appearing in films in which I wouldn’t expect to find them. Then what am I supposed to do? I’ve invested all of that time in watching half a dozen previews, copyright warnings, and opening credits. Do I bail out? Or do I sit there, straining to read barely legible subtitles?

I do have a plan. From now on, whenever I go to a movie, I’m taking a book with me. And one of those tiny, clip-on reading lights. If I have to read, at least I’ll know what’s going on.

Posted in: Mildly Annoying