Sunday, May 13, 2018

Which vvitch? The one with subtitles

When I first added Robert Eggers' 2015 film to my various lists of movies seen, it was before it was released or even before a poster was available. To see what I had to use when I watched it in August at that year's MIFF, and then wrote about it on my blog, see this post. That's the very definition of "placeholder."

And so I alphabetized the movie in the W's, knowing no reason not to. If I happened to notice that the title was stylized with two V's when I watched the movie, it wasn't a thought that was still lingering with me after the credits ran.

If I watched it today for the first time (rather than Friday for the second time), I might consider the V section. Those V's are an essential part of the title, though it does present an interesting problem of only really working when the entire title is either capitalized or not capitalized. You can't call it The Vvitch because it does't really look right.

The version of the title is not what I'm interested in today, though. It's the version of the dialogue, as in, with an assist from the written word or not.

The first time I saw The Witch (easier I think) at MIFF, subtitles were of course not an option. And in a way that was key to the movie's charm. You felt truly immersed in the 17th century, as if you'd stepped out of a time machine and started eavesdropping on a bunch of religious fundamentalists who had banished themselves into the woods. If you were really there with them, you wouldn't catch half of what they were saying. Why should watching them from the third row of your local movie theater be any different?

But I did miss a lot, I think -- a lot whose gist could be understood in context, from inference, but missed material nonetheless. It's sometimes useful to know the nuances that cause a family to tear itself a part from fears that one or more of them have been corrupted by the devil.

And so this time, when it was available for streaming on Netflix, I availed myself of the subtitle option. Which made the film both better and worse.

Better because there were indeed misunderstandings and moments of ambiguity that led characters down certain paths from whence they could not return. I had wondered why some were so credulous to believe the worst of others, and knowing exactly what was being said allowed me to appreciate why things unfurled the way they did. Besides, when you've got this type of antiquated speech, seeing it in print allows you to appreciate its poetry and beauty on a literary level as well.

But worse because knowing exactly what was said and done seemed to be putting too fine a point on it. Poetic the written words may be, but rob the events of some of their mystery they do. The first time I watched The Witch, it seemed like inability to fully understand the language might have been part of the point, part of the confusion inherent in a situation involving a bewitching. Those characters don't understand what's happening to them any better than we do. Having some of that clarified inevitably reduces the disorientation that works in the favor of this film's tone.

Still, I'd do it again. I can get a lot of things from context, but I don't want to have to. The other night I started watching the French film Things to Come on Kanopy, but I had to stop because the quality of the stream would go fuzzy from time to time, and the subtitles would almost become illegible. Now, I took plenty of years of French so I can make out some of what they're saying anyway, and fuzzy English words usually look enough like themselves for you to work out what they must be, especially in the context of other unmistakable words in the sentence. But I don't want to have to do that (I stopped watching Things to Come), so The Witch (or THE VVITCH or the vvitch) with subtitles was ultimately the way to go.

Which doesn't mean I liked it any better, and in fact, I think I liked it a little bit worse. With some of the mystery stripped away and an ending that I still don't like, expressly because there is not enough mystery in it, the movie's just a bit more pedestrian than I'd like it to be. While still of course being a singular type of vision, and a great recreation of an era.

It'll be interesting to see vvhich vvay Eggers goes from here.

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