Friday, September 25, 2009

The white-on-white subtitle phenomenon — or, why did New Yorker hide so many great acquisitions?

To complement this week’s episode of the Funhouse, on which I discuss the death of the arthouse distributor New Yorker films (which I wrote about on this blog), I offer the following scene from one of the many, many masterpieces that New Yorker acquired but never released on either VHS or DVD. Jacques Rivette’s L’Amour Fou (1969) is an absorbing film about a marriage in crisis, that finds the lead couple warring as both a theatrical production and a documentary are taking shape.

The sequence I uploaded here is one of the most notable moments in the film, as the lovely Bulle Ogier and the intenser-than-most Jean-Pierre Kalfon reach an impasse. It is noted in the very fine documentary on Rivette by Claire Denis and Serge Daney that Kalfon did indeed cut his chest when he did this scene (method!). The film is one of eleven superb Rivette films that is not available on DVD in the U.S. (including the overwhelming and quietly, insidiously brilliant Out 1). Out of those eleven, only two were ever out on VHS; one can only hope that Rivette gets some representation over here while he is still with us and still making films (his latest, Around a Small Mountain, is currently on the film festival circuit).

But the fact that L’Amour Fou was acquired and then hidden away by New Yorker is NOT the only reason I’ve uploaded this clip. The other is the fact that it contains some dreadful white-on-white subtitling. As all but one of the American DVD labels specializing in arthouse releases still use the white-on-white method, I’d just like to note that it is often really very fucking hard to distinguish white-on-white titles (why dance around the topic — I’m not getting paid to write this….). I know that the answer to this dilemma, yellow subs, is loathed by certain video/DVD labels, as it presumably “distracts” from the beauty of the visual (and this can well be the case with gorgeous black and white films or specially stylized color features), but some filmmakers are as brilliant at screenwriting as they are at directing. Thus, you have a dilemma: would you rather see a pristine print of a Bergman film with white-on-white subs where you may well miss a portion of the dialogue, or would you rather have yellow subtitles that may “distract” for a short while (the eye becomes used to them very quickly) and understand all that is being said by the characters? (And why can't modern computer-titling advancements that "enhance" titles with a slight gray backing be used?) This debate is virtually moot, as only Koch Lorber seems to still use the yellow-subtitling method that renders every line readable.

So, if you watch the following clip from L’Amour Fou and comprend le francais, you will be entranced (although the picture quality does suck too, but Kalfon and Ogier’s performances can make one forget that for a bit). If you don’t understand French, you will lose the dialogue that leads up to Kalfon’s intense act of self-destruction. I think the one and only lesson that comes from watching this kind of godawful print of an arthouse feature is indeed how devoted fans can be to great filmmaking: to fall in love with a film that looks THIS BAD means that truly you’re watching a great work of cinema.

After I posted this, I discovered that another fan had put the clip up in a clearer copy; he has taken it from Denis and Daney's documentary (also unavailable over here), so it's much shorter and is missing the lead-in to the violent act. It can be found here.

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