Sunday, February 1, 2009

Subtitles are for the weak

Pretty much every time we visit a new city, the ensuing blog post mentions the movie theaters we found and the films we saw therein. We enjoy the quirks of old movie theaters with bathrooms behind the screen, converted stages, adjoining cafes, sofas instead of seats, and the often strange movies they screen. And when the local movie theater (Dietrich and TAP) are showing movies we've seen, we'll rent movies. Indeed, one of the things we miss most about Champaign-Urbana is That's Rentertainment, possibly the greatest DVD rental location on the face of the earth, or perhaps just the best one we've ever seen.

That's Rentertainment in Champaign, Illinois

Their DVD selection rivals even Netflix. Their library of foreign films is truly astounding (to complement the University of Illinois' large international student (5,700)/faculty population). They have more movies from Germany than most stores have in their entire foreign film section. Besides movies from Africa, every country in (eastern and western) Europe, China, Russia, Korea, Japan, Thailand, and South America (I'm probably still missing a few),...

That's RentertainmentThat's a bunch of movies.

...they also have PAL DVDs. In case you are unfamiliar with PAL, it is a DVD encoding format that is mostly unplayable by DVD players sold in the U.S. (of course we nerdily purchased a DVD player that plays both PAL and U.S. formats. And brought it with us to France. Ahem.)

Why would That's Rentertainment carry DVDs that only a handful of people in Champaign have the equipment to play? It's because many of the DVDs are not available in the U.S. in a non-PAL format, and some of them are really good. Like Black Cat, White Cat or Ebertfest selection L.627.

So imagine the frustration when we got to Poitiers and found that: 1. the DVDs available for rental are mostly American films, 2. For the most part, DVD's of French films lack subtitles (even French subtitles for the hearing impaired! So much for that fraternite, egalite, blahblah thing).

For example...this (below) is the DVD for La Haine, a black and white film released in 1995, which won numerous awards in France and Europe. It has sound in French, Spanish (mono), Italian and German, with subtitles in French, English, Portuguese, Hungarian, and Dutch. However, I haven't found a single other French movie with any sound or subtitles besides French and English.  Believe me, I wish they were all like this. 

What you are more likely to find are DVDs like this one:
De Battre mon coeur s'est arrete (The beat that my heart skipped), which also won numerous awards in France and Europe. So why is there only one audio track (in "V.F." which means French) and no subtitles?

For a background on the technical aspects of subtitling, you can read this comprehensive article. It mentions the space and time limitations of subtitling. People can only read so fast, and the subtitle must be gone by the time the next character speaks. Since French is a wordy language, they have to condense dialogue a lot while still conveying the important information, like the emotions, jokes, irony, and plot points.

Apparently this is just too much to ask for.

And so, while the French bemoan their struggling movie industry, they still don't choose to subtitle their films in English for release on DVD. Even if it meant that 6 times as many people could understand them (in Europe alone). They don't even bother to add French subtitles so that deaf and hard-of-hearing French folks can watch them, not to mention the foreigners (i.e. us) who can understand written French, but have trouble with the colloquial/slang French spoken in most movies (Coluche was a NIGHTMARE, and pretty much anything with a comedian in it is nearly impossible to understand).

Leaving aside the complications of distributing a movie in the U.S., I assure you that there are enough Swiss, Germans, Spanish, Dutch, etc. who understand English well enough to make subtitling a French movie in English cost-effective. The cost of subtitling a movie is around 1-2%  of the total cost of production.

(YES, TWO #@%$^* PERCENT!!!)

You know what? Maybe I'm way off base, maybe not enough people would rent the DVD to offset the cost of subtitling a movie in English. But even then, they could think of French movies that foreigners can understand as advertising for France tourism. Advertising that the target audience in PAYING FOR! Or perhaps it is part of the plan to drive down the number of tourists. This in addition to rectal sausage. Oh yeah, and massive, frequent transit strikes.

"What time tomorrow does the first train not leave?"
"It depends on where you would like to not go, Sir"

We rented the French-Canadian movie C.R.A.Z.Y. (which also won lots of awards) because the box said it had French subtitles. Well, turns out it only has French subtitles for the French-Canadian dialogue, and not for the French language narration. The pronunciation and syntax (and especially the profanity) of Quebecois is sufficiently different from the French spoken in France that French-Canadian movies are often subtitled in French for release in France. Apparently the narration in this movie is not difficult enough to understand to require subtitles. So, what did we learn? The French don't give a shit about the deaf and hard of hearing. Apparently, the entire French film audience is people people who are fluent in French,  younger than 60, and who have no hearing problems.

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