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Give me subtitles or give me death

Commentary: I don't want to watch a movie without subtitles ever. Even in English.


Greed and class discrimination are at the core of 2019's South Korean thriller Parasite.

CJ Entertainment

"Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films."

That's current internet darling and newly minted Academy Award winner Bong Joon-ho, quoted from a Golden Globes acceptance speech in January. He's talking about subtitles, which, despite being completely necessary and helpful and beyond useful, are apparently hated by some people.

In the month that's passed since that speech, Bong, a celebrated Korean director, has pulled in a ridiculous four Oscars with Parasite -- a fantastically made, multilayered dark comedy that delves deep into the underbelly of class divides. Parasite is an extremely deserving winner, and you should absolutely watch this movie.

Bong's quote was a way of gently chiding those who let subtitles hold them back from enjoying the greatest cinema the non-English-speaking world has to offer. 

The man is a goddamn prophet. Because in the wake of his Oscar triumph comes a discourse that could only take breath in a social media vacuum addicted to the galaxy brain take. Yep, people got upset about subtitles. 

It started with "Dubbing is better than subtitles," a (since revised) piece in Mother Jones. "Of course no one likes subtitles," it boldly states, adding that pretending subtitles aren't an issue is "faux sophistication of the highest order."

The Mother Jones story did inspire the kind of predictable online outrage it was designed to create. Because of course (for the most part) no one really minds subtitles and of course subtitles are an absolutely metric buttload of an improvement compared with dubs.

Dubs are an abomination and only useful if you're visually impaired or, for some other reason, unable to read.

And for sure there's a bit of performance around the idea of subtitles ("I'm smart and sophisticated and watch foreign movies"), but it's also completely insane to suggest dubs are better than subtitles. It's only marginally less insane to suggest that subtitles obscure the pleasure of watching a really well-made movie. 


The Expanse is awesome, but subtitles are a must.


So with that baseline for sanity now in place, I'd like to take the subtitle debate one step forward into the chaos realm. To push the boundaries in the complete opposite direction. 

So here it is, the galaxy brain take of galaxy brain takes: Subtitles are good. Subtitles are very good. Possibly even always good. No matter what language is being spoken, even if you speak that language, subtitles should be on and visible. At all times. 

When I'm watching Avengers: Endgame on Google Play? Subtitles.

Bingeing Sex Education on Netflix? Subtitles please.

Watching The Terror on Amazon Prime? You better believe those subtitles are on.

To be clear: Even when I can hear and understand the language being spoken on the television I am watching, I want subtitles on at all times, without exception. 

I believe this is common sense.

Subtitles do not detract from the viewing experience, they actually enhance it. If there's background noise, say a plane flying overhead or -- in my case -- two bafflingly loud children fighting over plasticine in the background, it's easy to miss details or subtle dialogue nuances. 

What if you're watching The Expanse, a show where roughly 30% of the characters speak Belter, an English/patois hybrid that doesn't always quite make sense to English speakers? What if you're watching The Witcher on Netflix, in which almost everyone speaks in a low, suboptimal grumble? 

What if the movie is simply mixed poorly? Anyone with young kids understands the dilemma. You're watching TV, remote in a vice-like grip, stressed about waking the kids up. You're hitting mute during action sequences, but cranking the volume during speaking sections so you can understand what the hell is going on.

Why not just turn on the subtitles? Problem solved. 

The idea that subtitles detract from the performance of actors is old-fashioned boomer mentality. My brain, and any brain for that matter, is capable of being present with both simultaneously. The subtitles are simply there to provide more information. I use "behind the lyrics" on Spotify to read song lyrics while listening. All that does is enhance the experience. TV and movies are no different.

If I'm watching a movie and the subtitles are off, it feels weird. I wish we had subtitles in real life.

Look, I'm Scottish. My accent is damn near impenetrable. If someone like me is on screen, don't you want to know what the hell that guy is saying? Trust me, if augmented reality allowed subtitles to appear magically over my head during conversations with Americans, I'd be more than cool with it. Actually, I'd recommend it. 

The truth is the one-inch barrier of subtitles isn't a barrier at all. If anything it's a pathway. Get them on, get comfortable with it. I promise you'll never go back.