Holding the baby

The Special One and I went to a movie premiere last night. Admittedly there was no Tom Cruise or Keira Knightley to wow the crowds, but then, this was no ordinary movie premiere.

“The Business Of Being Born” is billed by some as a “The Inconvenient Truth” of American childbirth, providing a faintly chilling insight into obstetrics in the United States. While 70% of births in Europe are attended by midwives, here it is less than 8%, with most mothers handled by surgeons in hospitals who’ve rarely – if ever – seen a live birth before they handle their first.

Essentially the filmmakers (Abby Epstein and former talkshow host Ricki Lake) are proponents of natural birth and homebirth, and if the sheer and unrestrained joy on the faces of the mothers moments after giving birth naturally in the movie is anything to go by, it’s difficult to argue against it. Certainly, given that The Special One gave birth to both The Eldest and The Youngest at home, you’re not going to find any argument here.

Compelling though the documentary was, it also reminded me of how the United States has more of an island mentality than anything that Britain could ever conjure up.

Dr Michael Odent is a French OB/GYN who features at length in the movie, talking movingly about the connection between mother and child, and the importance of the chemicals released during birth in establishing a mother’s love for her newly born. He speaks in English, and very good English at that. But he speaks, inevitably, with a clear French accent. Nothing though that couldn’t be understood by anybody who can a) speak English and b) hear.

But that didn’t stop the filmmakers from feeling the need to subtitle every single word he said.

Essentially if anybody ‘speaks a bit foreign’ in movies or TV in America, they stick a subtitle on it. French or Mexican, Taiwanese or German, it doesn’t matter whether they’re speaking English or their native language. Forget a need to cater for the ‘hard of hearing’, this is a palpable concern for the ‘hard of intelligence’.

I can only assume that there’s a feisty union who threaten to go out on strike unless filmmakers keep subtitling levels above a certain point. Before long they’ll be sticking subtitles on 24 whenever Chloe speaks. And it’s best not to think about what would have happened if they’d ever brought Auf Wiedersehn Pet over here.

Anyway, if you get the chance to see “The Business Of Being Born”, you honestly should go. Frightening and heartwarming in equal measures, it leaves you with real food for thought.

And I never once needed to put my iPod on and go to sleep as colleagues had suggested might be necessary.

PS When I told The Youngest that we had seen Ricki Lake the previous night, her response was “who’s he?” That’s showbiz!

9 thoughts on “Holding the baby

  1. Dylan Post author

    To be honest though Fish, with something like Footballer’s Wives, you can kind of understand the need for subtitles can’t you?!

  2. gabi

    When I’m hard up for something to do on a weeknight, and get stuck watching crappy TV like “Wife Swap” or some such other shite, and they pick a particularly inbred, hillbilly, white trashy, toothless wife for swapping, they sometimes have to subtitle her too. HAHAHAHAHA. I’m ashamed that I know that.

  3. Barbara

    The recent practice of using sub-titles when people speak English with any kind of accent other than the standardized American English accent is disturbing. The result is that people stop listening, get lazy and rely heavily on the sub-titles to understand what they are NOT hearing. And the worst part for me is that I think it also can contribute to an increase in zenophobic attitudes and beliefs (e.g. why can’t they learn to speak English; America: if you aren’t going to learn the language, leave it, etc.) That’s my take.

  4. Jonathan Jones

    That’s ridiculous. Subtitles are necessary for lots of people. There are many, MANY people whose hearing is good enough to be functional in everyday conversation, but not good enough to distinguish words in a movie spoken in an unfamiliar accent and/or drowned out by special effects. Even with excellent hearing, it can take a few minutes to “train” yourself to decipher a foreign accent, and by that time you may have missed the dialog.

    I, for one, watch DVDs with the subtitles enabled even if every character has a “familiar” accent, because otherwise I find there are times when I simply can’t understand what is being said. And I don’t consider myself “hearing impaired”.

    Barbara, I’m afraid I don’t agree that the practice is “disturbing” or makes people “stop listening”, or that the subtitles don’t match what is being said, or that they contribute to xenophobia. It is simply a way of removing an obstacle to understanding (and thus enjoyment) of the film.

    I’m having a hard time understanding your resentment. It might be that you misinterpret the purpose of the subtitles: They aren’t there for everybody, just for those who need them. This is not a symptom of America’s insularity, but of the filmmakers’ willingness to cater to a broad audience.

  5. Dylan Post author

    It’s a fair point Jonathan. And it’s not resentment, I promise. It’s just a very real contrast with my experience of seeing foreign people speaking on camera in the UK, where unless they have a absolutely impenetrable accent, there won’t be any subtitling at all.

    That said, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that as a general rule, America is more insular than, say, European countries. Compare the frontpage of the New York Times or Washington Post’s websites with that of the Guardian or The Times next time there’s a disaster in India or Pakistan, if you want to test out the theory…

  6. Babzy

    I rented “All the King’s Men” awhile back. I could not understand a word of it due to the Louisiana accents. After struggling to make out what was being said and rewinding many times to catch it again, it dawned on me to turn on the closed captioning and VOILA. Not only could I relax and make sense of the movie but I could turn down the volume for my neighbour’s sake.

  7. Jonathan Jones

    To clarify, I was responding to Barbara’s message, which I perceived to be resentful in tone.

    I won’t deny that the U.S. is more inward-looking than European countries. But a large part of it is attributable to the size disparity. I.e., a larger proportion of world events happen outside the UK than outside the US. A fairer comparison would be between US news coverage of foreign countries and UK news coverage of non-European countries.

    With the advent of the European superstate, things that happen in Brussels, or even Paris, have to be regarded as important in the UK. Then there’s the colonial history; European countries tend to have a special interest in what is happening in their former colonies. There’s also a foreign superpower out there whose actions have to be monitored warily. These factors give rise to the European mindset that foreign news is important.

    There are also American cultural factors at work, but I wouldn’t cite the ones Euros usually blame (stupidity, arrogance, a lack of cultural refinement).

    Isolationism has been a strong temptation throughout US history, there being nothing good that can come from “foreign entanglements”. At the root of this is the ideal of “rugged individualism” — self-reliance, “live and let live”, individual rights and responsibilities — clearly opposed to the collectivism that prevails in most of the world, to varying degrees. Many Americans just want to be left alone to tend to their own affairs in peace. They don’t want to know what is going on in the next state, let alone on the other side of the world. They only want to know if it’s something that potentially affects them.

    And generally, this attitude has served them well in the past; they have been able to live happy and full lives this way. So, quite rationally, it persists.

  8. Dom

    I’ve always found it odd that people on TV in America who don’t have American accents need to be subtitled. Is it because Americans genuinely can’t cope with ‘accents’, or do the programme makers just think the viewers are thick?

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