A little while ago, I saw the word “mumblecore” in reference to a film. Finally! I thought. Some smart person has labeled this issue that’s been bothering me for at least a decade now. Unfortunately, when I looked up the term, it wasn’t what I thought at all.
Let me start from the beginning, which was even more than a decade ago, when I visited my then-girlfriend’s (now-wife) house. It was a fine house, a very, very, very fine house, until I turned on the TV.
“You’re not deaf, are you?” I asked.
On the tube was some talking head, and on the bottom of the screen, in white sans serif font on a black background, a slightly delayed transcript of what the person was saying scrolled up two lines at a time.
“I like having it on,” she said. “Usually I’m doing other things, and if I hear something I like and I didn’t quite catch it, I look up to see what it was.”
Initially, it distracted me. It was like watching a foreign film, except not really, because these subtitles were optional. I didn’t have to read them, but because they moved and because they are letters, I felt the need to read them.
It bothered me enough that I clicked off the “CC” button whenever I watched television, but then I’d see that she’d turned them back on, and eventually I either gave up or got used to it (a crucial trait to master for the good health of any long-term relationship, in my opinion).
And then Benicio del Toro happened, and closed captioning for the hearing impaired became a dire necessity.
No doubt I’m being completely unfair by blaming this wonderful actor, but for me, Benicio was the first guy who made it acceptable to mumble. In 1995, he was a supporting actor in the film The Usual Suspects. I think everyone saw this movie — who can forget the name Keyser Söze or the weasel-worthy Kevin Spacey? As great as the movie was, I hardly understood a single word Benicio said. Because he mumbled.
Since then, mumbling has gotten significantly worse in Hollywood. Heath Ledger was amazing in Brokeback Mountain, but I missed half of his dialogue. Philip Seymour Hoffman is another favorite actor of mine, but there are places in Synecdoche, New York where his voice trails off and I’m left wondering how that sentence was supposed to end. And what about Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? This one is actually borderline comical — when she’s the granny on her deathbed and the camera is on her, she’s unintelligible. Yet when the scene shifts and Blanchett becomes the voiceover, suddenly her voice clears up.
If you watch any movie from, say, the forties or the fifties, every single actor enunciates every word with surgical precision. I’m sure technology had something to do with it (mikes didn’t pick up the actors’ voices then as well as they do now), as did the acting style (pre-Brando), but still. I don’t mean to sound like Andy Rooney, but actors, can you please speak a little bit clearer? I’m afraid I’m not getting any younger, so my ability to decrypt these mumbles will certainly decrease as time goes by (unless Hollywood plans to hook up every theater with this thingamajig).
I can’t be the only one who feels this way, right? I hope not. Otherwise, I am indeed just getting old (and going deaf).