Only in a era of enforced home-marathons would I ever celebrate a virtue of the non-theatrical experience: closed captioning.

Whereas subtitles for non-English language movies in American theaters convey the dialogue and nothing more, closed captioning on televisions for Anglican fare spell out other sounds, detailing non-dialogue noises that can’t be deduced from the visuals; if there are shots of a school full of boys eating in a cafeteria, there’s no subtitle about “interminably-deafening chatter”, because that’s a given. But if this scene were underscored by silence, that’d probably be noted, because it’s not assumable from the picture.

In the hands of thoughtful captioners (I’ve been hoovering Criterion Collection Blu-rays, which tend to improve the accuracy of cross-language translations from their initial releases, so perhaps other companies aren’t as thorough?) — or, ideally, if the director’s in charge — the noises picked to be highlighted may point viewers to consider elements they otherwise could’ve ignored, and unpack why the powers-that-be felt they were necessary to call attention to for the hard-of-hearing, especially because not all sounds are textually specified (and how they’re described, the precise choice of verbs/adjectives/adverbs, can be key).

For instance, on Criterion’s version of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes (I flipped on CC due to the heavy British dialects; while we’re on the subject, my one-sentence “review” of the movie: the next time someone asks me for the definition of cinema, I shall tell them to throw in this disc), during a prolonged vocal absence, the subtitles direct us to notice a clock ticking in the background. And in the film’s expressionist soundscape, even abstracter noises are clarified, as when faint chatter offscreen — never seen, because the audio’s not so much detached from the visuals, but rather in artistic harmony; they inform each other without being of the same source, simply explaining and underscoring — is distinguished as a rabble of children.

The subtitles also provide factual tidbits. Since voiceover’s employed heavily throughout, the captioning indicates who’s speaking with character names, lest we fail to recognize their dulcet tones alone. Audio excerpts from movies (the protagonist’s a budding cinephile) identify where they hail from, and when someone performs an impersonation, we’re told who he’s mimicking. And the title’s listed for every song played. If audiences don’t know or can’t place or aren’t familiar with these references, they’ll miss the opportunity to analyze how these elements relate to the overall work.

Now, tabula-rasa moviegoers are liable to resent this quasi cheat-sheet. Imagine if The Cherry Orchard‘s infamously-vague noise heard in the far-off distance was revealed; it’d potentially squash a century’s worth of debate spurred by the mystery, and where’s the fun in that? The more information that’s made clear to us, the less we have to conclude for ourselves. But there’s nothing wrong — filmmakers permitting — with audiences deciding for themselves which approach they prefer.

And with personal glasses being invented that will offer just that, what you’re about to finish reading might prove prescient.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s