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).

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

One response to “Mumble and Mumble”

  1. Sung J. Woo says:

    Comment by Irene Zion on the road again |Edit This
    2009-03-22 06:51:30

    I have noticed the same thing on TV. Luckily, we have a TIVO-type device. We give it three repeats. After three we just assume we were just not meant to understand what was said. Especially with TV, it doesn’t usually matter. I find that in the movies I wish there were such a device. But, oh well, there isn’t.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-03-22 06:58:26

    “After three we just assume we were just not meant to understand what was said.”

    I love it, Irene. For shows that do not have closed captioning (and there are lots, unfortunately), I’ll utilize this three-strikes-you’re-incomprehensible method.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell |Edit This
    2009-03-22 07:00:13

    BWAHAHAHAHA! I thought this was going to be a post about someone else’s distaste for the Duplass Brothers! Alas, I am still alone with my feelings about them.

    Regardless, I think you’re right an all counts: My friend watches with the CC on, and it bugs the crap out of me, actors DO mumble much more today and defend it with “character” and bad sound recording is just that: bad sound recording.

    From someone who does this for a living (and did theatre and opera first), I think indecipherable speech is indefensible – especially given the technology we have today. Even if you don’t catch it in the camera, there’s ADR, people. A.D.R.

    I think your eye will forgive a glitch much more easily than your ears will. Just think of that lovely out-of-sync scene in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6CuBK0cgX4&feature=related

    Of course, it’s subtitled – just in case we’re both wrong and you are going deaf…
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-03-22 07:22:39

    In the list of mumblecore films on Wikipedia, I’ve only seen one — “The Puffy Chair.” I actually sort of liked it, and now I see it was created by the Duplass Brothers, so maybe I’m a fan of this genre. Wait, I also tried to see “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” and turned it off after twenty minutes. So maybe I’m not.

    I think Brad Pitt also spoke a fair amount of gibberish in Snatch, but I think that was like a joke.

    Believe it or not, I’ve never seen Singin’ in the Rain in its entirety. That scene is very cute.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Autumn Kindelspire |Edit This
    2009-03-22 15:45:38

    Oh my god, I’m so ashamed. I like to watch movies with English subtitles on. I never really thought about it until now.

    I like to watch Disney movies when I can’t sleep, and rather than have the sound on at all I just put on the subtitles. (I know all the words anyway.)

    I also do it for most British-narrator documentaries, and any kind of documentary involving southerners, drug addicts, and/or the mentally ill.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-03-22 16:04:24

    It’s gotten to the point in our household where if English subtitles do not exist for a movie, that movie will not be watched. I’m not kidding. Usually movies have one or the other — CC or subtitles, quite often both — but older films are less likely to have them.

    Some British movies are foreign movies. Those Cockney accents can be really tough! I remember seeing The Full Monty in the theater and had lots of trouble with it. But you know, it’s funny — the exact opposite might be happening in British cinema. I recently saw Brideshead Revisited (the new one) and didn’t have any problems.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by James Michael Blaine |Edit This
    2009-03-22 21:07:13

    Can I get an amen on mumble during the talk scenes and then blow me out with the music and commercials? That sucks.

    Why dont they put compressors on tvs?
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-03-23 03:07:19

    There’s actually a bill in Congress that a rep tried to pass — not sure what happened with it, but it was called CALM, Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation. Check it out:

    Reply to this comment

    Comment by josie |Edit This
    2009-03-23 11:15:12

    Mumblecore: every home movie ever made that someone mistakenly thought had “potential” lol

    I love CC. I like to mute the TV and read the dialog. Kinda weird I know but it’s more peaceful, like reading a book in a quiet corner with really vivid imagery. lol
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-03-24 02:36:54

    I also read somewhere that immigrants who don’t know the language well can benefit quite a bit from putting CC on. It must be the reading thing that reinforces what they’re hearing. And of course it’s also prevalent in bars — seems like most of them have it on to battle the background music. It’s nice to see that there are other folks who find CC useful.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Chuck |Edit This
    2009-08-08 02:40:58

    I totally agree. Some actors speak like they couldn’t care less. I like watching Cold Case and John Finn is really hard to hear. The dude barely moves his lips and mumbles almost all his lines.

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