Tuesday, August 18, 2009

this is a humble, yo

for fans of The Wire:

In Defense of Difficult Dialog(ue)

my take? George Pelecanos and Peter Suderman both frankly need to get over themselves, if only momentarily....

the comments beneath The Independent article are frankly hilarious in places, but in defense of subtitles - which i never used simply because it never occurred to me - if it helped someone stick with the show i really don't see what the fuss is about.

i spent much of season one having only the slightest idea what was going on. i loved it, but i am certain i missed a lot of plot detail. there were countless scenes where i relied on facial expressions and body language to tell me what was going on and many of the characters on the corners were just baddies - some baddies were merely bigger baddies than others and i knew that by the way the littler baddies cowered or dropped their eyes in the big guys' presence.

i think George Pelecanos is doing viewers a disservice. they actually bothered. now, it's not as hard work as watching without subtitles, but at the end of the day, i see no major difference to switching on subtitles for a foreign language film, bar the fact the writers of The Wire intended the dialogue to be incomprehensible. to watch with subtitles maybe therefore miss the point somehow but i'm not sure it makes it a comedy or even makes mockery of the writing as Suderman suggests.

The Wire is not like Hitchcock's "Pure Cinema", in which the framed image rules supreme and where, amongst other things, the plot itself is intentionally told without words where possible. Because of Hitch's early career in German silent films and the strong influence of Expressionism, the easiest way to see how Pure Cinema works is to cut the sound, which of course means losing the likes of Bernard Hermann's amazing scores and the typically strong scripts - and superb dialogue in the cases of Psycho and Rear Window - but it's a worthwhile experiment. the all-too-often derided Marnie, is a great example. just last night i stuck on the Rutherford safe scenes as a pick-me-up. and ironically, you don't even need to cut the sound for those scenes to appreciate just how scalpel sharp a visual filmmaker he was.
despite being more diffuse, much of David Lynch's work could be put in the same category to my mind.
a couple of recent French films that come to mind where a non-fluent French speaker could watch without subtitles or indeed sound at all and still have a very strong sense of plot and mood, were Hidden (which i thought blended Hitchcock suspense with Lynch's visual style) and the highly Hitchcockian, The Page Turner.

i'm not arguing it's necessarily better, it's just a different way of telling a story and The Wire is by contrast almost entirely dialogued based storytelling. and which is probably why Pelecanos is so derisive. but point being, there were times watching The Wire, when having the sound switched off wouldn't have made much difference. i would have had no less idea of what was happening. and therein lies the rub.

i have no idea what it would be like to watch it with subtitles. but if that's what it takes for someone to connect to the story, so what?
do they lose out on the pay-off when you find yourself gasping at a sudden turn of events even though you thought you didn't have a clue what was going on? almost certainly. does it draw the viewer into a false sense of security that they understand these characters? probably. does it mean the viewer is a bit lazy? maybe. does it mean the viewer is missing the point of why you went to that hard work to show how corner culture is foreign to, and alienated within, American society? perhaps.

but does it make a comedy out of tragedy? hardly.

in some ways the perceived need for subtitles on the part of some viewers only goes to proving the strength of the close attention paid to writing in patois as a device. rather than going on the defensive and feeling insulted, perhaps Pelecanos might do better taking it as a compliment. because it shows that he helped write one of the most stretching and demanding pieces of television created to date. that it uncomfortably exposes how social divide is manifested. maybe he might then be a little more forgiving that some viewers switch on the subtitles in order that they might understand the other better. because if they didn't care at all, they'd have stopped watching. so cut folks just a little slack, mate.

and i'm liking how similar subtitles and subtleties look. might be something in that...


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