Why no words on images ?

July 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

The subtitle mystery continues.

This opinion in French from Alain Masson (L’image et la parole, 1989) : images + words written on separate title card = discourse recomposed in the spectator’s mind. Subtitles in silent films thus create a tension, threatening to empty images of their significance while being necessary to their intelligibility. Not sure I’d agree with this last sentiment, but I agree with the tension, though to me the tension is between an image where interpretation is free and subtitles that try to steer the film back to its narrativity.
In this view, words flashed on the image itself are either assimilated to visual signs (hence their use, mostly, in comic-style situations for cartoonish effects) or they totally cover up the image (in the documentary context). Flashed separately from the images, they help in the creation of a complex film discourse, heterogeneous, juxtaposed, unified in the audience’s perception only.

This tension goes both ways : it also raises the possibility that the image will surprise and not just fulfill the program announced by the subtitles :

d’abord, les intertitres. Ils précédent presque toujours l’événement ; ils sont rarement équivoques. Mais la netteté de l’annonce change l’illustration en variation ; sous peine de pléonasme, dans la séquence qui suit une légende, ce qui ne l’illustre pas prend la plus grande importance : la nuance indécise, non l’exécution d’un programme. (52)

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