Mumblecore Reviewed

“How now, brown cow.” That phrase may not be as well-known as “the rain in Spain,” but it was a cliché of actor training decades ago. It may still be a standard practice, as far as I know, but for reasons I’ll mention later I suspect it probably isn’t. But it was once commonly used as part of the set of drills that helped an actor produce clear, well-defined diction with distinctive vowel sounds. It may be that such repeated vocal drills were primarily important for stage actors, the performers who not only had to project their voice across an entire auditorium, but to do it in distinct clear forms, to make certain that the customers in the cheap seats could understand the dialogue. However, once the talkies became standard, it probably carried over into films as well, with stage actors moving to the big screen and stage directors and acting coaches taking their skills to Hollywood.

Whether that was true or not, and it likely was, things seem to have changed. I’m not sure when it started, but I believe I first became aware of it in the early 2000s. In many movies since then I’ve noticed that sections of on-screen speech became slurred, the actors rushing into and through their lines in ways that made many words unintelligible. Most recently, I noticed this tendency again in a dramatic series called Yellowstone, a Kevin Costner production that seems to be a sequel-quality rewrite of the excellent earlier serial Longmire (the description “sequel-quality” is not a compliment, by the way, but you probably already knew that).

Longmire was about a crusty rural sheriff-protagonist (Robert Taylor in full Harrison Ford mode) who battles with corrupt land developers and casino managers and an Indian tribe. Yellowstone was about a crusty rural rancher-protagonist (Costner) who battles with corrupt land developers and casino managers and an Indian tribe and the local sheriff. But I’ll never find out to what degree Costner copied Longmire because I’ve decided not to watch anything else after struggling through the first episode. One reason for my choice is that much of the important dialogue in Yellowstone is delivered in tossed-out phrases in which the key plot points are obscured, as in “We hafta get the sirble nevunth now!” So I often was not quite sure what anybody was actually planning to do or who was going to do it. That can take a lot out of a plot line. When I’ve had this kind of comprehension problem in other television presentations, as, for example, in BBC productions that include characters with heavily-inflected Manchester or Glascow accents, I’ve been known to turn on the closed captioning feature. That usually helps.

If you haven’t tried closed captioning on foreign movies, I can recommend it as a potentially diverting and informative form of entertainment, especially for someone who likes to play with language. Obviously, I’m not talking about those movies that have the original foreign-language dialogue supplemented by subtitles. These will probably seem to be straightforward to you unless you’re fairly fluent in the language in question, in which case you’ve probably noticed that you can enjoy the varied editorial choices made by the translator who decided which English phrases to use in the subtitles. No, the movies or serials I’m talking about are the ones that are produced in a non-English version, then dubbed into English and then also provided with English closed captions. In many of these the dubbed English dialogue seems to be chosen to try to match the lip movements of the actors. The captions, on the other hand, seem to be chosen based on … well, I’m not exactly sure what criteria are used, but they obviously haven’t attempted a faithful reproduction of the dubbed English. I’ve seen dramas in which the dubbing is in United States dialect and the captions use United Kingdom terminology. In other movies, it seems as if the caption writer might have been doing the job while downing excessive pints of Guinness in a loud and rowdy pub. In either case, you get two versions of any discussion among the actors, both of them in English but often varying widely in content or connotation. If you enjoy discordant language experiences, I recommend it. If not, better just leave the captions off. Let that be a warning. At least, in most cases, the voice actors who perform dubbed words in these films tend to use fairly clear diction, although sometimes in a strongly variant (i.e., “un-American”) accent.

To get back to Yellowstone, however, I must admit that I tried to turn on closed captioning in my attempt to view it on NBC’s Peacock service. I failed to do so. Either that option wasn’t available or I wasn’t able to access it; I must also admit that I didn’t try very hard. For one thing, the powers that control Peacock‘s free debut on xFinity chose to make it an odd sort of streaming service, one in which you can fast forward through the program itself but not through the commercials. That’s perhaps understandable from a revenue-specific perspective, but it’s still one major strike against them. For another, from what I did manage to understand about the confused plot line and the writing in the first 90-minute episode of Yellowstone, I decided that it wouldn’t be worth the effort to find and activate the captions.

A couple of decades ago, when I first began to notice questionable enunciation in movies and television, I at first thought that it was a sign of my own aging auditory system. After all, people my age are known for needing hearing aids even if they’ve taken good care of their hearing, and my own eardrums never really recovered fully from my youthful live encounters with groups like Jefferson Airplane and Credence Clearwater. But through rather extensive research on Turner Classic Movies I’ve found that I have hardly any difficulty with James Cagney’s gangster asides or Eli Wallach’s pseudo-Mexican accents or Michael Caine’s real British slang, even when the soundtrack in question has itself suffered from age-related deterioration. I also have little difficulty with “on-the-street” interviews, unless the background traffic or the hurricane winds are too noisy. I’m also not one of those senior citizens who keeps the TV up so loud that it can be heard four houses away. The problem, then, seemed to lie with some modern actors and movies, not with my ears. Early on I decided that this “sirble nevunth” tendency had become so common in modern movies and television shows that it needed a new name as a descriptor. Given that it was akin to carelessly misarticulated speech, and yet central to the performances in question, I decided a good title would be “mumblecore.” I was quite happy with it. In a pre-Internet world that term might have stuck, that is, I might still be using it for my own purposes. But even back then, in the very beginnings of the twenty-first century, a cursory search on the web was available, and it indicated that my word already had an accepted definition within the acting world. Unfortunately, that prior definition had only a limited applicability to my own desired usage:

Mumblecore: (film) An American independent film movement of the early twenty-first century, characterized by low-budget production, focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors. (from wiktionary.org)

In short, my own planned use of the term mumblecore seemed to have some similarity with the dialogue qualities resulting from “mumblecore the movement”, which may be why the name was coined by a sound editor, Eric Masunaga. But the other key characteristics of the above definition would make it difficult to apply the term to well-funded scripted major studio productions employing aging (experienced) actors like Kevin Costner, even if they featured semi-intelligible dialog. Of course, this background story in the definition of mumblecore might indicate where the “sirble nevunth” problem originated; young actors and directors and sound engineers graduating from under-financed indie movies to films with professional-level funding and equipment without changing their verbal approach to the script. Maybe they simply didn’t recognize the difference, or they didn’t consider proper enunciation important. Because of this I will from now on refer to this tendency as “mumblespread”. I had thought about using “mumblespeak”, in homage to George Orwell, but that would imply that the spread from indies was intentional, which it doesn’t seem to have been.

I should note, in summary, that I am using Yellowstone only because it is the most recent example I’ve seen. It is far from being the only offender in this decades-long decline in diction. For that reason, I encourage all actors to repeat after me, slowly, clearly, “How now, brown cow.” Follow it with “The cow in Spain browses mainly in the plain.” Now do it again, with feeling this time!

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