Six Reasons to Say “Yes!” to Subtitles

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There are two kinds of people in this world: people who turn on the subtitles while watching movies and shows, and people who I don’t understand.

Because admit it … captions come in handy for more than just the viewing of foreign films and aiding the hearing-impaired. They are a crucial tool for conscientious (or borderline obsessive-compulsive) film and TV viewers like myself who can’t abide missing a single word of dialogue. Forget French, Portuguese or any other language you no speaka … it’s no easy task making sense of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s serial mumbling in Brick (2005) or keeping up with the tech-speak satire of Silicon Valley (2014) without a little subtitular assistance. But sometimes, subtitles aren’t just a nice little onscreen shoulder to lean on—they’re essential to understanding what you’re watching. So, taking foreign films and hearing impairment as givens, let’s explore six other perfectly practical reasons you really need to switch on those captions.

1. Atrocious Accents

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Your unique manner of speaking makes you a special snowflake, but it also makes it hard for me to understand what’s coming out of your mouth. The most common cause of subtitle-itis? Accents thicker than bank vault walls.

Prime Offender: Snatch (2000)
Guy Ritchie’s cockney crime-comedy is the one of this list’s most egregious offenders. The film is absolutely riddled with English accents so strong that they render much of the dialogue utterly incomprehensible. Brad Pitt’s gibberish-spewing gypsy character, Mickey O’Neil, takes the top (or perhaps bottom) spot. Mickey speaks Pikey, a heavily accented language that, according to Snatch’s protagonist Turkish (Jason Statham), is “not Irish, it’s not English, it’s just … well, it’s just Pikey.” Pitt is so impossible to understand that there is an entire scene in the film where even the subtitles don’t understand what he’s saying, simply displaying “?” rather than words.

Other Culprits: Trainspotting (1996), In Bruges (2008), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), The Town (2010), Bronson (2008), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Scarface (1983), Layer Cake (2004)


2. The Bard Strikes Back

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Nearly 400 years after Bill Shakespeare’s death, his writing lives on. Unfortunately for us, the Bard’s plays, so frequently quoted or converted into films, are worded in a way that’s extremely hard to parse for modern audiences when read, let alone listened to.

Prime Offender: Much Ado About Nothing
In his 2012 take on Shakespeare’s classic comedy, Joss Whedon makes a directorial decision that film fans like us will rue for the rest of our days: he chooses to update the mise en scène of Shakespeare’s tale, moving the proceedings into modern times, but leaving the Elizabethan dialogue intact, down to the last “thou.” The result is a film so hyper-literate that even subtitles can only help so much. Characters spout knotty lines like: “Why, i’ faith methinks she is too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, too little for a great praise.” Best of luck to those of you viewers who majored in anything but English.

Other Culprits: Romeo + Juliet (1996), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Richard III (1995), Hamlet (1996, 2000), Coriolanus (2011), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999), Cymbeline (2014), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)


3. Scientific Mumbo Jumbo

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Science rules, right? Wrong. Esoteric science-y mumbo jumbo can spell the death of audience understanding when a film or show’s dialogue is riddled with it. Intelligent entertainment rules, but past a certain point, jargon may as well be gibberish.

Prime Offender: Primer (2004)
This cerebral sci-fi drama could easily epitomize most of the offenses on this list, but its primary issue is its pervasive use of technobabble. The film follows four fledgling inventors who create a mysterious device that may or may not be a time machine—unfortunately, their words are more often than not just as baffling as their invention. And to make matters worse, the two main characters, Abe and Aaron, mumble like the soft-spoken, garage-haunting scientists that they are, which is an especially huge obstacle when their murmured dialogue consists of this:

Abe: Look, everything we’re putting into that box becomes ungrounded, and I don’t mean grounded like to the earth, I mean, not tethered. I mean, we’re blocking whatever keeps it moving forward and so they flip-flop. Inside the box it’s like a street, both ends are cul-de-sacs. I mean, this isn’t frame dragging or wormhole magic, this is basic mechanics and heat 101.

Whatever you say, Abe—looks like I’ll need subtitles and a physics textbook to keep up with you.

Other Culprits: Contagion (2011), Interstellar (2014), Bones (2005), The Bourne Legacy (2012), Transcendence (2014), The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Big Bang Theory (2007), Pi (1998), Lucy (2014)


4. Tripping the Light Slang-tacular

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The English language is difficult enough to master when words are set in their meanings, but alas, here comes slang to throw a massive monkey wrench into our collective movie and TV comprehension. In this category, you’ve got some decoding to do, viewers.

Prime Offender: The Wire
Everyone loves HBO’s all-time-great portrait of inner-city Baltimore crime and punishment, even if no one can quite follow all of it. The notoriously realistic series’ dialogue is at least 50 percent slang—hell, even the title is a slang term for a wiretap—and therefore so difficult to stay abreast of that Redditors created a digital dictionary to accompany the show. Series producer George Pelecanos has argued that watching The Wire with subtitles on is missing the point: we’re supposed to work for it. Ease up, though, George—most of us don’t speak Bawlmer.

Other Culprits: A Clockwork Orange (1971), Halt and Catch Fire (2014), Snatch (2000), The Sopranos (1999), Trainspotting (1996), Peaky Blinders (2013), West Side Story (1961), Empire (2015), Brick (2005)


5. Thick as a Brick

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This linguistic film and TV pitfall is a distant cousin of the Shakespeare issue—the category comprises movies and shows with dialogue so dense as to be impenetrable. Overcrowded language is confounding, and often a writer-specific issue. (We’re looking at you, Aaron Sorkin.)

Prime Offender: Deadwood (2004)
David Milch’s epic HBO western was cut tragically short after running for just three seasons, but it contained enough profane, rapid-fire dialogue for at least 10 seasons of an average show. The underappreciated series is known for its torrents of language as erudite as they are obscene, as antihero Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) especially is apt to blow your mind with his wisdom, then call you a cocksucker in the same breath. Even his threats are elegant: “Lie the fuck back and listen. I need your truthful reply—lie, I will know it … and death will be no respite.”

Other Culprits: The Social Network (2010), NYPD Blue (1993), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Luck (2012), The West Wing (1999), Heist (2001), The Newsroom (2012), just about anything penned by Sorkin, David Mamet or Milch


6. Sound-Mixing Mediocrity

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You can’t comprehend what you can’t hear, which is to say that poor sound production makes subtitles indispensable. Movies and shows under this category’s umbrella are difficult to make out due to shoddy equipment, lackluster audio engineering, or in some cases, director self-sabotage.

Prime Offender: Interstellar (2014)
Christopher Nolan’s Academy Award-winning space odyssey was well-received at the box office, but many audience members took to the web after watching to voice their discontent with its sound. Nolan referred to his approach to mixing the film, which resulted in Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack and other audio effects drowning out a good bit of the dialogue, as “adventurous and creative.” “I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue,” the director told The Hollywood Reporter. You know what, Nolan? We don’t agree with you.

Other Culprits: Fury (2014), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Public Enemies (2009), Inception (2010), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), Jamaica Inn (2014)

Let us know what movies and shows we left out, and for goodness’ sake, turn the subtitles on.


Scott Russell lives in Atlanta and studies writing at the Savannah College of Art & Design. You can follow him on Twitter and his website.

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