When I used to see the Bergmans, they were being shown in horrible-looking, white-on-white subtitles, barely readable in the prints that were sent around to rep houses by Janus films and other distributors during the 1980s. The films still had the power to blow one’s mind (Persona is of the ’60s and yet it is timeless, as are The Silence, Hour of the Wolf and Shame). What’s odd is that now that we possess absolutely pristine prints of these films on DVDs with imminently readable subtitles, the subs are still extremely intrusive because they haven’t been MOVED DOWN on the image. Granted, Bergman did work for the most part in the 1:33 ratio (read: square, box-like, the TV ratio), but I just watched The Passion of Anna tonight, which appears to be 1:66 with small letterboxing, and the DVD company (in this case, MGM-UA, who did a phenomenal job otherwise on these ’60s classics) has kept the subs where they always where — namely, on Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow’s mouths.
I attended the “Tutto Fellini” traveling festival in NYC about a decade and a half ago, where perfect prints in Italian were screened, with English subtitles present on LED lettering. The effect was slightly odd, like the operas that do the same: you feel like you’re watching the absolutely most sublime print of the film in the world, and yet you’re reading the dialogue off of a robotic “crawl.” Nonetheless, it is a good deal more preferable than the placing of subtitles on the bottom portion of the screen, when the filmmaker in question is, like Bergman, obsessed with the landscape of the face. I’ve noticed that this method has never been used since in the NYC area for film; I in fact was even told by one major museum curator that “our viewers have complained about it, they hated it,” leading to the institution in question to show un-subtitled prints rather than copies with LED subs. (I would bet that these same complainers were the people who wander into the auditorium, not knowing what film they’re attending….)
I know my tiny voice carries no weight whatsoever, but as a film fan, I think it’s time to reconsider LED technology for these films. At least for the theaters that can afford it — and, I have to ask, how come the wonderful Anthology Film Archives could afford to do it some years back for a great print of Bunuel’s Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore (Sunrise), and the two main institutions in town that show absolutely brilliant rep and have major arts funding behind them have never done it?
And for the DVDs, when letterboxing is involved, could you guys PLEASE move the fucking English subs just a few centimeters/inches down so we can see the actor’s mouth when they’re speaking and not have words sittin’ right over their faces?
And the fact that white subs are still being used in digital-land when there are several other methods available (yellow subs, greying the letters, providing a dark band behind the words) is a subject for another rant sometime in the future. If you want to know how ridiculous it can get see the end of Assays's Les Destinees, where a character imparts the "secret" of his life and it is seen in the print available over here on white subs that can't be read over his bed clothing. C’mon it’s 2007, people!