As was the case with many of the things I did for the first time as a high-school boy in New York, the Fellini film was Simon’s idea. The art house in Soho was no less intimidating than the Guggenheim the first time I visited the museum with him or the legendary midtown department stores we had seen in Hollywood movies and that he insisted we enter.
I had never been to a cinema which showed old movies, much less movies that changed every day so that you could see a week of different films by the same director. In fact, I hadn’t really thought about directors at all until Simon talked about them.
Like cold soup, biryani and bourbon, the subtitles were a mark of a future self we were trying out. It took me time to get used to them. I didn’t want to miss what was happening on screen. There was so much to see. Mise-en-scène, Simon had called it once when we were watching an old Hitchcock movie at his place. He taught me to notice where the actors were standing and how they were placed, how the shot was lit and framed. He talked about the camera angle and the depth of the shot and shadows and highlights. He showed me how to read the clues a director left in the movie about the mood and intentions of the characters on screen, the truth that lay concealed behind the words they said. Simon made movies something that had to be worked with, unraveled, interpreted–and infinitely richer.
I realized these were things my father, who was a negative cutter, a profession now eclipsed with the advent of digital editing, could have taught me. But for the longest time we hadn’t talked much beyond the essentials of how school or track practice was going. I had longer conversations with my English teacher than with him.
I realized that if I didn’t keep up with the subtitles, I’d lose track of the narrative. I had to do both at the same time, watch the film and read. It was a little like being with Simon. There was always this tension between listening to what he was saying and hoping to see something in his eyes or the shape of his mouth that would tell me what he felt for me.
“So when are you going to ask someone to the prom? Or have you decided you’re not going?” he asked me after the movie as we sat on a bench in Washington Square eating hot-dogs.
I was annoyed by his question but tried not to show it. I had hoped he’d talk about the orgy and the stingray we’d just seen.
“Of course I’m going. I’m on the Prom Committee,” I said.
“If you wait too long, you’ll look desperate, and no girl wants to go out with a guy who’s desperate. Girls can tell.”
“Unless she’s desperate, too,” I joked. But I knew that when I finally asked a girl, it would be precisely that kind. I didn’t know all that many to start with. Going to a boy’s school meant I didn’t really meet girls, except the ones who came to our school to do AP Biology or whom we met at the rare mixer our school organized.
I was only going to the prom because, well, practically everyone else was, and I didn’t want to be one of the boys who didn’t go. That’s what I said to myself, anyway, and it was partly true, but the real reason was that Simon was on the Prom Committee, and joining it was a way of spending time with him.
“What about Deborah?” he asked.
Deborah was his date Jocelyn’s friend, a petite, model-thin girl. She had straight long hair parted exactly in the middle that sat perfectly on her head and fell like a satin curtain to her mid-back without a kink or curl to be seen.
“She’s kind of flaky,” I said. But in the end I asked her out.
The prom was a mix of ordeal and boredom. Deborah kept leaving the table to go to the bathroom or talk to friends at other tables, and when she was with me, I didn’t how to talk to her. Being with her was like watching a foreign film in which the subtitles appeared only every third or fourth shot. I danced with her more than I wanted to, and most of the time watched Simon dance with Jocelyn.
It wasn’t all a loss. Simon and I were proud of our spaceship theme. We had draped the entrance to the gym with long curtains of silvery beads and decorated a wall with strips of colored tube lighting, which was Simon’s tribute to HAL, but no one remarked on the Kubrick reference. He told me later he didn’t care. “You get it,” he said.
Simon and I saw other movies in the months after the Prom. The 400 Blows, Open City, Elevator to the Gallows, Persona. I saw Europe for the first time twice. Once with Simon in the movies, and then a few years later when I visited the cities and countryside we had seen together.
I had decided that Bergman had the best subtitles. It didn’t really sound like anything I would say—it was far too literary for that—but I could easily imagine that what I read on screen was a faithful rendition of the lilting, melodic words I was hearing. The shots were unhurried so I could read the subtitles and return to the screen. But the subtitles in other films sometimes seemed flat and ordinary.
Later, when I moved to Europe and began to speak a language that wasn’t mine, I understood why. In subtitles, the puns go first, then the references to cartoon characters and old songs that only the native speaker would know. Scraps of history are excised and slang rendered by more prosaic constructions. Obscenities seem to suffer the most. Standing on their own and isolated from the previous text like a slogan on a poster, the rendered curses and language of the street are either too quaint or too violent.
There’s no room for a translator’s gloss or extended paraphrase in the tight two-line, 35-character length of the usual subtitle. Language is stripped down to convey the key items of information in the dialog, without which viewers might not know why the woman is leaving her lover alone in the hotel room before room service comes in with breakfast.
This was the language I came to speak. A language of subtitles, flat, transactional, off-key at times, utterances squeezed into the short frame of opportunity in which I have to speak. It is not that I was given less time than my native speaker friends and associates, it’s just that I waste more of it. I speak more slowly, and squander my time with repetitions and backtracking to fix an ending or change a gender. (I can sense when I’ve made an error, and I can’t leave it alone. It’s as if I spilled my drink or left crumbs on the tablecloth. I have to clean it up.) My language is pitted with the lacunae of uncertainty as I sometimes grope for a word.
I realize that I had once been a non-native speaker in my own land, as a gay teenage boy, unsure of himself with the girl he had asked to the prom and with the boy he wanted to dance with but didn’t dare say it.
One reason native speakers talk so fast is because they are composing with larger chunks of the language than we non-native speakers do. Smokers are occasional or recreational, reformed or heavy or simply non-. Legs are bare or stiff, hands sure or good. The pieces native speakers use to compose their speech already fit together. They instinctively know what comes before and after.
I was missing the pieces that came before and after. Though I had heard and seen in the locker room and hallways and in the movies the scene I was to play with Deborah, it was as if it were written in a foreign language. She surely heard how awkwardly I spoke it, for we only saw each other once or twice after the dance.
The words I used with Simon were different. There I could speak the native language of our friendship but this, too, was marked by lacunae and false starts. I knew how to curse and make puns and play with the language–talking like this was yet another way to be with Simon–but I didn’t know how to tell him I loved him. I sensed what could come next but didn’t have the words for it. Perhaps it didn’t need to have been spoken at all.
Featured image: Charles Demuth, “Dancing Sailors”. 1917
The founder of the Cubism-inspired Precisionist school of painting, Charles Demuth is perhaps best known for his series of “poster portraits” that he painted to honor painters and friends such as Georgia O’Keefe, Marsden Hartley, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. But he also painted beautiful and (true to form) marvelously colored watercolors of homoerotic scenes depicting sailors (and one wonderful self-portrait set in a Turkish bathhouse).
I’m indebted to Afrah Hasan Jassim Radhi for his enlightening article on language learning and collocations, in which he makes reference to Pawley and Syder’s theory of language chunks.