Killing Me Softly with Subtitles: “A Quiet Place”

Spoilers? Certainly. We’ve met, haven’t we?

Full disclosure: I hate subtitles. I mean I hate them with a searing passion. Few things diminish my emotional response to a film more than reducing it to text. This surprises people who want to pigeonhole me as some avant-garde gothy chick. A friend of a friend once laughed at me for declining to watch a foreign movie and said I was going to get banned from wearing black. But I’m coming out of the closet with this one. Subtitles are the worst.

Take an artist like Barbara Kruger. Her work incorporates text to put across a strong message. She was making powerful political/satirical memes before the internet existed, co-opting the graphic language of propagandists. The viewer is not invited to dwell in her work and draw their own conclusions. There is no mystery. The power of words blasts away visual nuance and makes a statement.

Words are more clear than visuals. There’s no dictionary of images we all subscribe to: even Freud’s not so sure about the meaning of that cigar. Words appear to be more concrete and reliable than images. The discomfort and unease experienced by viewing certain images can be coddled and corrected by the balm of the right words. (The inverse is true, which is where I try to go with my writing: words that undermine certainty so that you create the picture in your head, dear reader.)

Most of us are taught how to read, but not how to look, and I resent words sneaking in where they were not invited, into art galleries and films. I’ve been to gallery openings where the artist walked among viewers like a human cliff note explaining what one should see. I don’t need a dissertation when I look at art. I don’t want a short cut to rob me of experiencing the work directly.

“A Quiet Place” was good enough to stand up without any subtitles. Words plastered on the screen distracted me from the beauty of the actors’ faces and emotions. The performers were good enough that words imposed upon the screen diminished their message. The words undercut their beauty. The words jabbered at me and did not fill me with fear.

Words on the screen engage a part of the brain that is not welcome in the liminal, numinous world of horror. The kinds of words we want to get revving up our horror hackles aren’t common, and they’re not the kinds of words found in the uninteresting dialogue of this film. The words themselves seemed cheap and weak compared to the gestures of the actors’ impassioned signing.

Words invite more critique than images. They engage a part of the brain that analyzes and organizes. The brain sits back and thinks, “Hm, why didn’t they build a birthing hut by the waterfall? That’s what I would do.” With one critical thought, the magic dies.

While watching “A Quiet Place,” I imagined how frightening the film would be if the only words allowed were the few written down by the characters, spoken aloud by the waterfall, screamed involuntarily or heard in a song. I imagined how much more dread and helplessness I’d feel watching it that way.

I’d like to see a version without subtitles. How much more powerful to witness the unspoken connections and rivalries acted out in a close knit family fated to survive the apocalypse by the unexpected skill of signing.

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