The Fine Art of Ruining a Good Joke
For some probably very Freudian reason, I forgot to mention in my Annie Hall review that the HD version that recently became available on Kaleidescape makes a mess of the famous subtitle gag during Alvy and Annie’s first extended conversation together. That mistake can’t be attributed to Kaleidescape nor to whoever it is that turns out the lights over at MGM/UA these days. It’s been in every home release of the film I’ve seen. I’m pointing it out here in the hope that somebody will finally get it right when Hall (hopefully—and hopefully soon) makes its way to UHD. I’m also pointing it out as an example
of the kind of tone-deaf changes tech people with (presumably) good intentions but stunted creative instincts can introduce into a film.
Here’s the problem. Woody Allen carefully sets up the gag at nine minutes into Hall when Alvy refuses to go in to see Bergman’s Face to Face because Annie showed up at the theater after the movie started. (“Jesus, what did you do, come by way of the Panama Canal?”) He then suggests they go see Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity instead. When Annie says, “I’m not in the mood to see a four-hour documentary on Nazis,” Allen cuts to the beginning of the Ophuls film.
Anybody who knows Bergman’s movies knows they’re in for an almost continuous stream of subtitles while the actors chat and brood in Swedish. And in the days when people had to go to revival houses to see foreign films, Bergman became synonymous with subtitles, since no real cinéaste would even consider seeing a dubbed version of one of his films. Allen then reinforces that reference by showing
the titling in the Ophuls’ movie, which looks typically rough and washed out, then hits the same note again later on with some subtitled footage when Alvy again drags Annie to The Sorrow and the Pity to avoid spending the evening with Paul Simon.
But when we get to the gag with Alvy and Annie talking on the terrace of her apartment, the subtitles are sharp and bright and, strangely, colorful (in yellow, no less). Far more video- than filmlike, they’re eons from anything you’d have seen in any art house of the time. By beefing them up for readability and the proclivities of the masses at home, some drone-like schmuck killed Allen’s gag—a transgression that’s persisted for decades.
Hairsplitting? A teapot tempest? Much ado . . ? The hell it is.
If this was a single transgression, that would be one thing, but the examples of tech guys deciding to “improve” films in post are legion, with their efforts ranging from “enhancing” titles to mucking around with the original color timing (now referred to as grading) to scrubbing away grain to that most heinous of crimes, colorization. And the potential to inflict grievous harm becomes more and more acute as the technology becomes more and more sophisticted. The problem—and it is a problem—comes down, I think, to the deeply mistaken notion that this is a tech problem when it’s actually a matter of taste. And, let’s be honest, most tech people—like people in most professions and, well, most people—lack meaningful taste, at least taste on par with the most accomplished filmmakers. It’s not unlike that well-meaning dope who’s running around Europe screwing up all those frescoes.
But that’s only part of the problem, because the current culture displays an unparalleled arrogance that shows a consistent contempt for the past arising from the mistaken belief that today represents some kind of signifiant leap forward, beyond being just a haphazard collection of often dubious technological improvements. This has led to the frequently cavalier treatment of older titles under the ignorant assumption that “we” somehow know better than “they” did. (It doesn’t help, of course, when contemporary filmmakers keep fiddling with their movies after release, resulting in things that are rarely a net improvement—but a great way to generate yet another revenue stream.)
Somebody needs to come up with the filmmaking equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath and then get the vast and continually swelling hordes of techies to swear to it, on pain of death, before they’re allowed anywhere near any older films, classic or otherwise. I can tell you from experience that hardly any of these guys know how to tell a good joke—but they sure know how to ruin one.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.