My eyes are drawn to the written words flashing on and off the bottom of the screen, more so than the image or the sound; this phenomenon reminds me of a TikTok I saw. Two friends are watching a movie together. They get one scene into it when Friend A, without warning, grabs the remote to turn off the subtitles. Friend B, gripped by a familiar dread, is horrified to find they can no longer decipher the action on-screen.
In the comment section, people who are distracted by subtitles, like Friend A—people I’ll never understand—chime in: “I can never watch movies with subtitles.” Or, “It’s so distracting!” There’s a seemingly primordial difference between the pro- and anti-subtitle people. It’s humorous to imagine all those relationships in which one partner needs subtitles to understand what’s happening while the other needs the absence of subtitles to understand what’s happening.
With that TikTok in mind, I found myself delightfully transfixed by Charles’s subtitles. Charles makes sure, almost always, to supply a textual speaker who accompanies, rides along with the visual and sonic worlds of her films. Unlike subtitles, the role of this textual speaker isn’t just to support the action, to mimic the dialogue. Instead, an entirely parallel conversation is happening—one that revolves around the pragmatics of language. I don’t mean pragmatics as in logical, sensical action, but rather the field of study within linguistics about how contextual clues shade how we hear meaning. There are both verbal and nonverbal types of context clues. For verbal clues, think: intonation, cadence, and the speed at which one speaks. For nonverbal, think: how you sit in your chair as you speak, the look on your face. These clues, plus the actual words you’re saying, are how some people try to get to know us through our speech.