Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical science fiction.


Cinematic Interpretations

Let's take a break from politics to talk about one of my favorite subjects, the movies. As a writer, I'm fascinated by the various methods of transition from words on a page, whether from a bestselling book or that hot new screenplay some Hollywood upstart typed into Final Draft on his laptop in Starbucks, to thousands of video screens all over the world. I follow a huge stack of beloved novelists, but I also track the work of such reliable screenwriters as Frank Darabont, Lawrence Kasdan and Steve Kloves. They've succeeded at something I was never able to do, which is break out as a professional screenwriter. That's a triumph, yet one that all too often goes unsung.

But what about those words that can't be shaped into cinematic or televised images? What about movies imported from countries where English isn't the primary language? What about languages spoken by non-English-speaking characters in American movies? Today we're going to talk about the subtle art of turning non-English words into video communication.

Subtitles in movies are almost as old as movies themselves. They evolved organically from the intertitles used to display dialogue between the live-action clips in silent movies. But until fairly recently, the technology used to inscribe subtitles onto moving images made them hard to read, hampering American's interest in and enjoyment of foreign films. I still remember watching The Bicycle Thief in a grad-school film history class. I gather it's a masterpiece but, thanks to the ghostly subtitles on black-and-white backgrounds, I still have little idea what that movie is about other than, apparently, some kid gets his bicycle stolen. Ideally, one should come away from a film viewing knowing more than what he could've gathered from the name of the movie.

Maybe that's one reason the subtitles in Star Wars (1977) are so effective. Keyed in bright yellow rather than the standard white, they're easy for even young moviegoers to take in. Yet for some reason producers' fondness for white lettering persists, albeit sometimes with thin, black borders or wider, black boxes around the white letters. Hey, movie studios: Any chance you could give those plain, white titles a rest for, like, ever? I think many of us would appreciate that. And by the way, subtitles need to be bigger. I know, I know, the middle-aged guy is griping the letters are too small, but hear me out. Titles that read perfectly well on a movie screen are almost impossible for most of us to make out on even an HDTV across the room. I'd love to be able to watch foreign movies on Netflix without having to scrabble around for my glasses.

Better yet, a few recent filmmakers and distributors have gotten truly creative with the banal art of subtitling their movies. Hopefully by now you've seen the Russian vampire thriller Night Watch (2004), but if you haven't, get on that. Its international cut not only subtitles the movie in readable English, it even plays with the layout of those titles to reflect what's happening on screen. They're not just consistent sentences at the bottom of the screen. Instead, they might be red letters that dissolve like blood underwater. They might be revealed in a wipe as a vampire slides across the screen. It's a fun movie, and for once, the subtitles are almost as much fun to watch as the action. It's more expensive, sure, and requires more creativity, but it helped Night Watch and its sequel earn millions in the U.S.

Even American filmmakers sometimes get to play with fancy subtitles in their own, primarily English-language movies. When Egyptians speak their own languages in the 1999 Mummy starring Brendan Fraser, the subtitles appear to be in the Papyrus font. See, papyrus is Egyptian! And they're speaking in Papyrus! And it's Egyptian! Get it? I suspect somebody took a victory lap around the office that morning.

There have even been movies in which the characters appear to notice the subtitles with which they share the screen. In The Impostors (1998), a character hiding under a bed can understand a foreign, non-English-speaking character by simply reading his subtitles. This joke echoes one in Fatal Instinct (1993), in which spies can follow a Yiddish conversation by reading. Other similar jokes include a subtitled horse in Men in Tights, subtitled conversational subtext in Annie Hall and a bar conversation amplified via subtitles in Trainspotting. In both Riff Raff and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, standard-English subtitles are used to clarify characters who are speaking English but in impenetrable accents. And in an episode of the sitcom Green Acres, Lisa (Eva Gabor) is not only able to read the English subtitles when she converses with her mother in Hungarian, she complains they're not accurate: "No, no, no, I said you hadn't changed a bit. We have a lot of trouble here with subtitles."

Sometimes subtitles are used to translate languages that don't even really exist, as when Greedo speaks "Huttese" to Han Solo in that Mos Eisley cantina. This proved so compelling that Star Trek was obliged to up its game. When the opening scene of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was shot, its Klingon characters spoke English dialogue to each other despite the fact that no Terran-English speakers were present. Actor James Doohan, the Canadian who played engineer Montgomery Scott, volunteered to create "Klingon" phrases that sounded plausibly alien but also matched the shape of the actors' mouths as they spoke. In some cases, the English subtitles were then rephrased so the overdubbing wouldn't be as noticeable to moviegoers with any facility for lip reading. A few years later, when the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan included an elevator conversation between aliens, linguist Marc Okrand (then working on closed captioning for the Oscars) was recruited to turn the actors' English-language lip movements into a plausible Vulcan sound library. That gig led to Okrand designing the Klingon language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a task complicated by the need to incorporate the few phrases Doohan had already devised for episode I. Obviously, nitpicky Trekkers would have noticed any possible discrepancy. Interestingly, Okrand complicated his own job by deliberately excluding forms of the verb "to be" from the Klingon language, purely as a private linguistic challenge to himself. Imagine his dismay when the script for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country included an extended riff on Shakespeare's "To be or not to be speech" from Hamlet ("You have not experienced Shakespeare," one alien character boasts, "until you have read him in the original Klingon").

Now it's standard practice for filmmakers to devise self-consistent languages with complex vocabularies and syntax for fictional races and alien species. Consider, for example, the "Dothraki" language devised by linguist David J. Peterson for Game of Thrones. If you find this stuff as interesting as I do, allow me to recommend the book In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent, a fun read by an author who not only teaches linguistics at the University of Chicago but has also earned her first-level certificate from the Klingon Language Institute (an actual thing). She's not to be confused with Marc Okrand, however, whose Klingon Dictionary was featured prominently on my bookshelf until the year I realized it was scaring away potential girlfriends. In point of fact, I only know a handful of Klingon words and phrases, including the standard greeting "nuqneH" -- "What do you want?" Friendly!

A special storytelling challenge occurs when characters speak to each other in a language that isn't English, conveying story points that English-speaking viewers still need to understand. It doesn't make sense to imply, for example, that all the Russian seamen aboard the Krasny Oktyabr in The Hunt for Red October (1990) would speak to each other in Russian-accented English. Director John McTiernan got around this problem in a memorably clever way. On page 15 of a screenplay draft by Larry Ferguson, a Russian character is reading from Revelation chapter 22, verses 12 and 13. McTiernan swaps that passage for Revelation 16:16, which refers to "a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon" (King James Version). Since that place name is the same in Hebrew, English and Russian, McTiernan's camera closes on actor Peter Firth's lips until he says the word, then backs away. At that point, the movie shifts from spoken Russian with English subtitles to spoken English (except in later scenes in which Americans share their environment). Even better, the movie's international cast members speak, for the most part, in their own accents: Sean Connery in Scottish, Stellan Skarsgård in Swedish and New Zealander Sam Neill in — well, Russian. I admit I've never figured that one out.

McTiernan was inspired to do this by a scene in Stanley Kramer's 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. In that movie, Maximillian Schell plays German defense attorney Hans Rolfe. There's quite a bit of business in early scenes to establish how the plot's trial is being conducted in both English and German, including translators and translation headphones. (Ironically, there's also some business with translation headphones in Star Trek VI.) Soon, however, the camera closes on Schell's lips as he speaks German, then backs away as he switches to English. We know he's actually speaking German, the other characters on screen "hear" him in German, but we get to hear him in English. This saves the audience the trouble of reading hours' worth of subtitles, something American audiences are notoriously loath to do under the best of circumstances.

My wife prefers it when foreign-language films have been dubbed into English. I do, too, but only when that's been done exceedingly well, as in the Disney re-releases of Japanese-language films animated by Hayao Miyazaki. Otherwise, I feel I'm getting only part of the movie, because I'm missing the vocal performances of its actors. I'm an actor who believes the way I say something matters at least as much as how I look when I'm saying it, and I don't necessarily trust another actor to translate that for me. For my money, creative solutions are always the best ones. I hope American film directors and distributors will continue to look for new ways to address these challenges, making the cinema produced by increasingly wealthy and well-crewed studios in countries all over the world more accessible to movie lovers right here at home.

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What's the best movie you've ever seen? Now: what's your favorite?

If you were to ask me about the best movie I've ever seen, my off-the-cuff response would be Citizen Kane. I've seen Citizen Kane upwards of a dozen times, and I've enjoyed it immensely each time. That's the mark of a great movie. Same goes for The Silence of the Lambs, another strong candidate for "best movie I've ever seen." But my favorite? That's a whole other story.

Suppose for the sake of discussion we were to define a person's "favorite movie" as the movie he or she would be interested in watching the greatest number of times. In that case, I've seen The Empire Strikes Back over a hundred times all the way through in my life, and I'm probably down for a few more. The Empire Strikes Back is by far my favorite movie. Other finalists include Aliens, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the original Star Wars, each of which I've seen dozens of times and will likely watch again.

At the end of each year, we're often asked which pieces of entertainment we enjoyed most from that year. Our responses often depend on which way the question is asked. What was the best movie I saw last year? Keep in mind I haven't seen Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave yet, but the best film I saw in 2013 was probably Captain Phillips. I was really impressed by it. But my favorite movie last year, meaning the one I've seen the most times? There wasn't a single movie I saw twice in the theater (kind of unusual for me), but I ran out and bought Frozen the first day I could. My wife and I loved that picture, and I think it's a safe bet it'll be remembered as our favorite movie of 2013. It did win Best Animated Feature (and Best Song) at the Oscars, but was it nominated for Best Picture? Not even close.

I thought about that this morning as Frozen kept getting mentioned on Facebook. Frozen was the #3 box office hit of last year, and it's still making money in theaters even as people snap up the Blu-ray and DVD releases. The highest-earning Best Picture nominee was Gravity, at #6. Below that, American Hustle was way down at #17, The Wolf of Wall Street at #28, Captain Phillips at #32. To find 12 Years a Slave, you'd have to go all the way down to #62. What we love and what we respect are often two different things.

So I tried something. I listed all the years from 1927 to 2013, the years for which the Academy has named Best Pictures. Then I pulled up the IMDB Top 250, which charts IMDB users' rankings of the movies they most admire. Best? Favorite? I guess it's a little of both. For each year, I listed the highest-IMDB-ranking movie for that year. If a given year had more than one such movie in the Top 50, as often happened in the 1990s (there are a lot of thirtysomething IMDB users), I listed all of those in order and separated them with single dashes (/).

Since many years contributed zero movies to the IMDB Top 250, I typed "NONE" in their spaces. Then I looked at the top 200 box-office successes, adjusted for inflation. If the biggest hits for a given year weren't already on the list, I added them after a double dash (//).

One thing we learn from compiling a list like this is that some years (1939, for example) were much better movie years than others (I'm looking at you, 1970). You also learn people didn't spend a great deal of money on movies throughout the 1930s, Snow White notwithstanding. I've read many times that King Kong was a massive success in its day, for example, but it turns out it was only the third-biggest hit of 1933.

If a given year was still blank, I typed a triple dash (///) and looked up the biggest hit for that year. That happened a lot from 1928 to 1938. I can certainly understand why people didn't have a lot of disposable income back then...but seriously, why were the movies so damn bad?

Finally, I marked a movie "(N)" if it was nominated for Best Picture, and "(W)" if it won. Here's the completed list:

1927: Metropolis
1928: NONE /// The Singing Fool
1929: NONE /// Gold Diggers of Broadway
1930: NONE /// All Quiet on the Western Front (W)
1931: City Lights
1932: NONE /// Shanghai Express (N)
1933: NONE /// Queen Christina
1934: It Happened One Night (W)
1935: NONE /// Mutiny on the Bounty (W)
1936: Modern Times
1937: NONE // Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
1938: NONE /// Alexander’s Ragtime Band (N)
1939: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (N) / Gone With the Wind (W) / The Wizard of Oz (N)
1940: The Great Dictator (N) // Pinocchio
1941: Citizen Kane (N) // Fantasia
1942: Casablanca // Bambi
1943: NONE /// For Whom the Bell Tolls (N)
1944: Double Indemnity (N)
1945: NONE // The Bells of St. Mary’s (N)
1946: It’s a Wonderful Life (N)
1947: NONE /// Unconquered
1948: Bicycle Thieves
1949: The Third Man
1950: Sunset Boulevard (N)
1951: Strangers on a Train
1952: Singin’ in the Rain
1953: Roman Holiday (N) // The Robe (N)
1954: Seven Samurai / Rear Window
1955: Diabolique
1956: The Killing // The Ten Commandments (N) / Around the World in 80 Days (W)
1957: 12 Angry Men (N)
1958: Vertigo
1959: North by Northwest // Ben-Hur (W) / Sleeping Beauty
1960: Psycho
1961: Yojimbo // 101 Dalmatians
1962: To Kill a Mockingbird (N)
1963: The Great Escape // Cleopatra (N)
1964: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (N) // Mary Poppins (N) / Goldfinger
1965: For a Few Dollars More // The Sound of Music (W) / Doctor Zhivago (N) / Thunderball
1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
1967: Cool Hand Luke // The Graduate (N) / Jungle Book
1968: Once Upon a Time in the West
1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (N)
1970: NONE // Love Story (N) / Airport (N)
1971: A Clockwork Orange (N)
1972: The Godfather (W)
1973: The Sting (W) // The Exorcist (N) / American Graffiti (N)
1974: The Godfather, Part II (W) // Blazing Saddles
1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (W) // Jaws (N)
1976: Taxi Driver (N) / Rocky (W)
1977: Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (N)
1978: The Deer Hunter (W) // Grease
1979: Apocalypse Now (N) / Alien
1980: Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark (N)
1982: Blade Runner // E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (N)
1983: Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
1984: Once Upon a Time in America // Ghostbusters / Beverly Hills Cop
1985: Back to the Future
1986: Aliens
1987: Full Metal Jacket
1988: Cinema Paradiso
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade // Batman
1990: Goodfellas (N) // Home Alone
1991: The Silence of the Lambs (W) / Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1992: Reservoir Dogs
1993: Schindler’s List (W) // Jurassic Park
1994: The Shawshank Redemption (N) / Pulp Fiction (N) / Forrest Gump (W) / Léon: The Professional // The Lion King
1995: Se7en / The Usual Suspects
1996: Fargo (N) // Independence Day
1997: Life Is Beautiful // Titanic (W)
1998: American History X / Saving Private Ryan (N)
1999: Fight Club / The Matrix / The Green Mile (N) // Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
2000: Memento / Gladiator (W)
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (N) / Spirited Away
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (N) / City of God / The Pianist (N) // Spider-Man
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (W)
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind // Shrek 2
2005: Batman Begins
2006: The Departed (W) // Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
2007: Like Stars on Earth (Indian)
2008: The Dark Knight
2009: Inglourious Basterds (N) // Avatar (N)
2010: Inception (N)
2011: The Intouchables (French)
2012: The Dark Knight Rises // Marvel’s The Avengers
2013: The Wolf of Wall Street (N)

I went to all this trouble in the hope that your favorite movie of all time is on that list somewhere. Did it work? If so, did your favorite win Best Picture that year? Probably not. Was it a huge box office success? Maybe, but not necessarily. According to IMDB users, The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest movie ever made--an assessment that leaves me baffled, honestly--but it isn't one of the thousand biggest box office hits of all time, even before inflationary adjustment. It made a mere $28.3 million in its domestic run. Even the Robocop reboot made more than that, and it's probably terrible.

There's a disconnect here. A lot of IMDB users are about my age, so of course we contributed our favorite 1980s movies to the Top 250 list. Yet the Academy didn't like our favorite movies, so huge box office hits like Empire or Back to the Future weren't even nominated. Should they have been? You tell me. If our collectively favorite movie of 2013 was Frozen, didn't it deserve a nomination? One could argue that many box office hits (Independence Day or The Phantom Menace, for example) are so bad it proves we have awful taste and should listen to the Academy, but Frozen is a really well-made movie with terrific songs, strong performances, jaw-dropping production designs, and one hell of a third-act plot/thematic twist. I submit to you that it deserved to be a nominee. It's just hard for Academy voters to take animated films seriously, a problem they've also had with comedy, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Romantic comedies sometimes get a pass.

This becomes especially relevant as stage troupes plan their upcoming seasons, which many are in the process of doing right now. If you ask people at the end of a season to choose the finest play they saw, it's usually a well-acted drama. But if you ask them which show they're most excited about from the upcoming season, it's usually a musical. And if you ask specifically, "What was your favorite play from last year," then the answer will often be a comedy. That's why it's so important for theaters to select plays from each category. It's also important they pick scripts you may never have heard of, because most people pay little attention to new dramatic plays. Furthermore, once you've found a theater you like, it's vital that you trust that company's play selection committee and artistic director. Go see their picks even if they're obscure or sound "weird." Live a little. I mean, how attractive a title is Frozen? A cartoon about two sisters who can't interact, set in frigid Scandinavia...ugh, right? Sometimes, our favorite entertainment comes clean out of nowhere.

What's the best movie you saw last year? If it was an Oscar nominee, there's a strong chance you'll never, ever sit down and watch it again. But your favorite movie? In many homes, your kids are watching it even as we speak.

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Big Things Come in 23-Minute Packages

As promised, here's my quick review and somewhat deeper, (mostly) spoiler-free analysis of Ridley Scott's Prometheus. I like that there's so much to say about the movie, but I also wish less of it were legitimate complaints.

P.S.: My wife just pointed out to me that I linked to Part 2 twice instead of linking to Part 3. How annoying that must have been for you! Sorry about that. The glitch is now repaired...

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