The Exile’s Roving Russophobe discusses the many non-pleasures of going to the cinema in resurgent, Neo-Soviet Russia:
There are few better ways to relax than a nice trip to the cinema. On the face of it, Moscow should be heaven for film lovers. There’s a rash of new Western-style multiplexes, which come with the distinctly un-Western advantages of being open 24 hours and selling beer in the foyer rather than selling watered-down coke. There’s also a thriving “intellectual” movie scene, which should mean plenty of action for those of us who prefer our Solondz to our Schwarzenegger. But as anyone who has ever ventured into a Russian movie theater, or turned on Russian TV, will know, it’s only heaven if you don’t mind the fact that there’s some Russian fuck droning over the top of all the dialogue.
Now, when it comes to the multiplexes, perhaps we can allow some leeway. Despite those suspicious statistics stating that post-Soviet countries have almost universal literacy, the average Russian bydlo teenager can hardly manage to speak coherently, let alone read. After a hard day drinking vodka, eating dill, and kicking the shit out of Tadjik girls, the last thing they want is to go to the effort of reading a load of subtitles. Or reading, period. And admittedly, it’s not like the viewer of X-ÌåïÇ is going to miss too much in the way of acting subtleties by having the dialogue in Russian.
But what’s disturbing is that the voice-over phenomenon is not limited to the multiplex cinemas showing trash films for idiots. I thought that heading to an arty cinema would solve my problem. At Novoslobodskaya there’s a little cinema showing the most cliched array of “alternative” movies imaginable. The Three Colors trilogy, Kusturica movies, Jim Jarmusch, and so on. Students go for half price, and even the full price tickets are only about 100r. The signs were even more encouraging when I arrived to find plenty of serious looking bearded students who looked like they hadn’t washed in a while. Even the females had facial hair (above the lip) surely this was as a good a sign as any that these were serious intellectuals; the sort of people who would insist on watching films in the original language.
I bought my ticket for Kusturica’s Underground, feeling fairly certain that here, at least, I was in high-brow subtitle territory, and could enjoy the full madcap craziness of Kusturica’s Yugoslav characters. Even without much knowledge of Serbian, part of the joy of the film is the sheer insanity of the characters, evident from body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. But, of course, I was wrong.
It turns out that independent cinema just means less money for dubbing; thus instead of a reasonably competent multi-voice dubbing, you get just one guy voicing-over the entire movie in a monotone, let’s-get-this-over-with voice: “That’s it I can’t take these Germans any longer I’m going to defend my city no you’re not you’re going to see that tart no I’m not yes you are I know you are no I’m not I’m going to fight please don’t go I love you I love you too but I have to go…” etc etc etc.
If the idiots are going to dub the thing, and if they are going to dub the whole thing with one voice, could they not at least find someone who doesn’t sound like Rain Man. Find someone who could inject just a touch of emotion into his voice and maybe differentiate in tone between telling someone he loves them and telling someone he wants to blow their fucking head off? I was left wondering who this guy is Does he pop a whole packet of diazepam before the recording? Does he speak to his family in the same monotone? Does someone tell him to cut out any tiny hint of emotion?
The fact is that Russians simply can’t bear to see a subtitle, and will employ bad dubbing whatever the cost. Anything to avoid having to read. In the Russian film Voina, where a pathetic ginger Brit snitches the Russian hero to the cops just because said hero slapped around a few Chechens in the course of his patriotic duty, the filmmakers actually went to the trouble of hiring a lame ginger Brit to play the role of lame ginger Brit, only to dub his English lines back into Russian! The same happened in the atrocious Milkhalkov epic The Barber of Siberia. And it’s not just the way that Russians fear subtitles that makes them far less cultured than they like to think they are it’s the kinds of films they want to watch. That’s right, the country that produced Tarkovsky just can’t get enough of shit Hollywood films. And chem shittIer, tem luchshIer. Recently, I was on a media tour to a Siberian oilfield. Twenty Russian journalists, by all accounts educated, cultured, interesting people, were on a long coach journey from the airport to the oilfield. To pass the time as the monotonous taiga passed by, the company had kindly provided a selection of videos. None of them were particularly inspiring, but the final choice was simply mindboggling. Home Alone 2. A coachload of adults. Real adults. Not down’s syndrome patients, but Russian journalists. Home Alone 2. Not one voice of dissent. Nobody pointed out that even most ten year olds would think that it’s crap.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so pessimistic, however, because I was thrilled recently to take home a pirate DVD and find that it came with a soundtrack in Ukrainian, and Russian subtitles. Clearly, this director was not about to allow his artistic vision to be ruined by dubbing. The film was Yulia, the work of LDPR Duma Deputy Alexei Mitrofanov, featuring filthy Ukrainian-language cavorting between a double of Ukraine’s slut-PM, a midget, and a hirsute Saakashvili lookalike. It’s the best thing the LDPR have done since Zhirinovsky suggested dumping nuclear waste on Latvia. Let’s hope it’s the start of a subtitle revolution.
But given that those countries where everything is subtitled tend to produce generations of English-speaking people and who are economically competitive in the global market, it’s probably too much to expect that the Russians could follow suit, and manage to do something that doesn’t cut off their nose to spite their own vodka-jaundiced faces. In thirty years’ time, when all the oil dries up, the rest of Central and Eastern Europe will be thriving knowledge-based economies hooked into the West’s success, while the defiantly monolingual Russian Neanderthals will be stuck in their shit country, the shelves of Azbuka bare, their Hummers rusting outside their rotting faux-European kottedzhi. All because they couldn’t be civilized enough to put subtitles on movies. Eto sudba? Nyet. Eto idiotizm!