Sure, subtitles are great for shows with heavy accents or lots of jargon—but they’ve become a defense against a world of chaos.
In this moment, there is only one thing I wish to know, and those are the words coming out of Sylvester Stallone’s mouth—if indeed they are words. I’m watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Incomprehensibly, Stallone has a small part in it, speaking, as he often does, incomprehensibly. But, gosh, he looks very important. Therefore he must be saying something important. Probably the whole of this film depends on it.
So I rewind Netflix, one of life’s more torturous little rituals. Then I squeeze my eyes shut—the better, I believe, to open my ears. Don’t anyone move, I mind-command the empty room. When Stallone speaks again, I’m prepared, my breath held tight. This is what I hear: “In Santo which is warmer but I ain’t got married and I said let me oh I know the girl.”
Stallone’s a special kind of mumbler, obviously. But this is not some rando-Rambo exception. I find myself rewinding constantly in the modern era, straining to hear. Auditory breakdowns repeat, loop, divide. Movies and TV are, it seems, simply harder to hear in general these days.
Part of it is relative: When you watch more TV, you miss more TV. This very second, in living rooms nationwide, innumerable couch-bound bingers are failing to synthesize a piece of dialog emanating from their new-age sound bars, and it pains them. Whether it’s Bernard in Westworld or Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, the lines are not cohering into meaningful English. “What did he say?”—already the most uttered (and annoying) question in the history of talking pictures—is by now a nightly interrogation, yanny/laurel times a million.
Some of it might be the happy result of ever-globalizing TV options. As the world shrinks, more people of every background are losing themselves, via the hottest new escapisms, in foreign dialects and cultures. Chewing Gum, the British comedy set on a council estate in East London, sparkles with slang that blows right past most Americans. Without the right context, we don’t hear it.
But that’s an issue of comprehension, of understanding. My concern here is more the failure of literal, physical hearing. (Bernard speaks very slowly in Westworld, yet I hear very little.) You sense it, don’t you? More “Huh?” in conversation, more “Say again?” and “Beg pardon?” What’s so frustrating at home, in front of the TV, is that actors won’t repeat themselves. The problem is more acute.
Maybe the problem is our ears. Maybe, jabbed and stuffed as they are with so much sleek contemporary accessory, they’re simply overburdened. Except mine, I dare say, are not. I protect them from the oontz-oontz of so-called music, along with any other unwelcome invasions; earbuds have been pressed into their softness maybe three times. (So pristine is my hearing, in fact, that I can count among my favorite sensory experiences the sound a semi-sautéed mushroom makes after it slips out of a French skillet and falls, by gravity’s good grace, to the kitchen floor. If the linoleum is just right and the room sensibly hushed, you’ll perceive a wet, perky slap—bpuhk!—as though some tiny winged creature with tinier hands has popped an interdimensional bubble. Hearing something so small enlarges your soul.)
Even aurally gifted as all that, however, I still find myself constantly asking of the television set: “Eh?”
Here’s what Stallone really says in Guardians 2: “After going around in circles with this woman I end up marrying. I said, ‘Aleta, I love you, girl.’” Of course, I only know that because I cheated. Clicked Menu, clicked Subtitles, clicked English CC. When I turn on those words, my body untenses. Not even the most inconsequential bit of throwaway dialog is safe from the rigorous, trustworthy pen of closed captioning. At last, I can hear everything.
Subtitles have been around since the early ’70s. (Julia Child was one of the first beneficiaries, her joyful warble rendered in sentences her audience of “servantless American cooks” could follow, both linguistically and culinarily, with ease.) Essential for deaf people and English language learners, and scientifically shown to promote reading comprehension and retention, subtitles have only recently become essential for many TV watchers, period. A smattering of online encomia tell you it’s the only way to watch. One Redditor asks in r/movies, “I like having subtitles with everything I watch. Anything wrong with this?” Almost everyone responds supportively, including this person: “I cannot fully enjoy any video without subtitles. At all.”
Many people I know IRL can relate, from bankers and meditators to jocks, UX designers, and writers. My anecdata turns up no gender preferences. Couples seem overrepresented, presumably because one influences the other. “Well, they insist on watching everything with subtitles,” one says of their partner. “But now I like doing it too.” Great, fine! But uh, why bother making excuses?
Because—there’s still something not quite right with the idea, is there? It doesn’t sit well, watching everything this way. Last year, Refinery29 ran a piece, “Get Over Your Fear Of Subtitles, Please,” in which the writer extols the benefits: you can appreciate the script, you know whose off-screen voice you’re hearing, you can chuckle at the poetic attempts by caption writers to convey background noises (“[bestial squall]”). To those others have added: you can watch at low volume, you can clean or eat or otherwise make general ruckus while watching. Inside the screen, diegetic minutiae—passerby conversations, a snippet of a TV news story—takes on new clarity, giving shape to the world of a story. The fuzziness solidifies, control overlaying chaos.
Thus the modern condition asserts itself. If there is something we can know, we do everything in our power to know it, regardless of our actual level of investment. When someone at the dinner table idly wonders, say, what Memorial Day memorializes, it’s a game of fastest Google-finger. Uncertainty causes gas; search is Tums. Now we can keep eating.
Except these are quick fixes. They provide only momentary relief. They also upset natural rhythms. The same is true of captions. They ruin anything dependent on timing, like jokes or moments of tension. (Imagine reading “Luke, I am your father” a half-second before hearing it.) We end up staring more at actors’ torsos than at their faces. As in life, we make less and less eye contact. Small bursts of text are how we comprehend the world now. We must see the printed words in order to believe them. Look, can you believe he said that? Yes, it’s right there!
Just as quickly, though, the words are gone, comprehensively forgotten. “After going around in circles with this woman I end up marrying. I said, ‘Aleta, I love you, girl.” What even is that? None of that filler matters to the Guardians 2 plot (such as it is). Half of those words are spoken off-camera. In a very real way we were not meant to know them, merely to register their hum. But like Google, closed captions are there, eminently accessible, ready to clarify the unclarities, and so, desperately, we, the paranoids and obsessive-compulsives and postmodern completists, click.
No, subtitles are not the solution. They flatten our perception. Sounds are more muted these days because there are too many of them, every utterance equally weighted and demanding of us total comprehension. Look at the words themselves. All too often they are meaningless. Yet we painstakingly rewind Netflix anyway, backward, backward, backward, stuck in a garbled loop. Bpuhk, pop—get me out.
All Rights Reserved for Jason Kehe