Monday, February 14, 2005

I Dub Thee

MAN: Don't you love foreign movies?
WOMAN: Oh, yes. Don't you hate subtitles?
MAN: Oh, yes.
-- From the Dick Van Dyke Show episode "The Lady and the Tiger and the Lawyer"

In one of his interviews with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock says something offhand that Truffaut doesn't really pick up on (which isn't unusual -- I like Truffaut's movies, but he's a rather clueless interviewer). I don't have the exact quote here, but it's something to the effect that a movie loses a certain percentage of its impact when it's subtitled, and somewhat less than that when it's "well dubbed."

When I first read that, I was a little taken aback, because I'd become accustomed to thinking of dubbing as something awful and crass, done for the benefit of audiences too clueless to accept subtitles. And here's a major filmmaker saying, matter-of-factly, that his movies lose less when they're dubbed than when they're subtitled.

But when I thought about it, I realized that this is pretty much true. It's not hard to read subtitles and watch a movie at the same time, but it does detract from the moviegoing experience to a certain extent, because you can't lose yourself in the movie, focus all your attention on the experience. With a movie in my own language, I can sometimes get so caught up in it that I almost forget I'm watching a movie, and just experience the story as if these are real people in front of me. This experience can even happen with a movie that I don't think is all that great (I don't think Gone With the Wind is great art, but when I'm watching it, I don't feel like it's a movie; I just feel like something's happening before my eyes). But it's very hard for it to happen with a movie in a language I don't understand, because the effort in reading the subtitles, however slight, constantly reminds you that you're watching a movie.

Yet this isn't a plea for dubbing, because I can't stand dubbed movies and I know that many other people feel the same; that's why dubbed movies never really caught on in English-speaking countries. What puzzles me is why this is so. In France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, etc., audiences have no problem with hearing big Hollywood stars dubbed into the appropriate language.

And since Hollywood movies mostly use "direct sound" (that is, the voices are recorded on the set, simultaneously with the action), they arguably lose a lot more in dubbing than in those Italian movies where everybody is dubbed anyway. Remember the Italian actress in Day For Night who is used to just saying nonsense words or numbers while filming, and can't adjust to having to memorize her lines. Or remember Joe Queenan's fury over discovering that the movie Il Postino was subtitled but the voices didn't match the actors' lip movements: "The movie, which lionizes a lazy, semi-literate Commie poet, is both dubbed and subtitled. For this I needed to pay nine bucks?"

Moreover, it's not like English-speaking audiences have never sat still for dubbing. What about Dr. No, the first James Bond movie, where something like half the characters -- including all the female characters -- are dubbed? It seems like we're willing to accept the idea that someone can be dubbed over to disguise their bad Lina Lamont-esque voice, but not so that we can, you know, understand what they're saying.

Of course, I sort of answered my question -- why can't English-speaking audiences accept dubbing -- above, when I noted that English-language movies traditionally try to have dialogue recorded "live," simultaneously with the filming. English-language audiences seem to be fussy about this, about the idea that the voice should exactly match the actions and the lip movements. You can just about get by with re-voicing an English-language movie because the voice will still match the lip movements. But put English words to the lip movements of people who aren't speaking English, and it looks cheesy, stupid, What's Up Tiger Lily-ish. But why does it seem stupid in English, when it's just par for the course in French? Is it something about English, as a language, that makes it hard to match with lip movements in other languages? I'm really not sure.

Here's a follow-up question: what are some good dubbing jobs you've heard in a movie?

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