Anghus Houvouras on whether Americans are too stupid for subtitles…
Recently Helen Mirren stirred some controversy while discussing her latest film, The Hundred-Foot Journey. Mirren was hoping for the movie to be filmed in French, the native language of where the story is set. Sadly, that was not to be. As the lovely Ms. Mirren put it (courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter):
“The reality is that it’s a Disney movie,” Mirren said. “The other reality is that the vast American public will not accept films with subtitles. People in Ohio have to go and see the movie.”
Are Americans too stupid for subtitles? As the most American writer on Flickering Myth, I believe I am best equipped to answer this question.
Short answer: Yes.
Americans hate work and despise a challenge. Not ALL Americans, mind you. There are those Type-A go-getters who found Microsoft and take home gold medals at the Olympics. But that represents a fraction of a percent. Most Americans would rather be beaten with a whiffle ball bat that sit through a two hour movie with subtitles. They would prefer to watch a game of Soccer to being forced to read while going to the movies. They would sooner perform twenty minutes of exercise than be forced to engage additional brain cells at the movies.
I remember going to see Pan’s Labyrinth on opening night, eager to see the latest creepy bedtime story from Gulliermo del Toro. The previews ended, the lights dimmed and the movie began. At the first sign of a subtitle someone in the audience declared, and I quote:
“No one told me this movie was in Mexican!”
I could hardly control the laughter, which quickly turned to incredulity as half the audience had exited the theater within the first 20 minutes. This is not a rare experience in my part of the world. The American ticket buyer prefers to go into a theater and switch off their brain. To be lulled into a stupor by the magical computer wizardry and mind wiping sights and sounds.
Americans can watch a movie. They can listen to a movie. They can’t be expected to read words printed in their own language to help them follow along. That is just too much of an ask. Can you really expect someone to watch a movie, consume an unreasonable amount of candy, soda, and popcorn, text their friends when their fractured attention span wanders, AND read at the same time. No sir. Not in America. Take that shit to Russia you communist.
There are exceptions. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon managed to crack 100 million dollars here in the USA, but that accomplishment deserves an asterisk. Why, you ask? That movie had a lot of fighting. Americans will see a movie with subtitles if someone is punching, kicking, or involved in gravity defying sword fights.
There are those who hope America will one day embrace subtitles, but that would imply the citizens of my home country are getting smarter. Let me put that to bed; we’re not. Intelligence is a liability in a country where the people believe that there isn’t a problem that can’t be bombed into oblivion, that propelled the Kardashians into the spotlight, and believe that Young Adult literature isn’t complete shit.
So yes, Ms. Mirren, you are correct: Movies with subtitles in America tend to fail. Subtitles are enjoyed at the movies about as much as public sex acts in the row behind you and Aaron Eckhart in a leading role.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter.