The blind, the deaf and the cinema.

02Oct11

I went to see Drive on Thursday, arriving at the Odeon on George Street in Oxford excited and ready, only to be told in a ‘just so you know’ way that the screening I had selected would be subtitled. Puzzled, I asked why. The staff informed me that they had to show a few subtitled screenings a day now, and one told me that it was no big deal – it just meant the dialogue would be written at the bottom of the screen.

I thought about it for about a minute, and decided that, no, it was in fact a big deal. Imagine reading the dialogue on the screen as you then hear it delivered. All the drama would be sapped out of the cinema from the constant pre-emption, and any prospect of tension surely obliterated from the beginning.

Of course, when it comes to foreign cinema this is somewhat inevitable. Often you will discover a crucial plot development not by watching a Spanish character tragically deliver the news that she’s got cancer by moving her own mouth, but instead, quite jarringly, by reading the words ‘I have cancer’ two seconds earlier. Nobody would deny that this is a pain, and it definitely detracts from the pleasure potential of foreign cinema in an unfortunate way. But at least, given you are unable to discern all the emotional nuances conveyed in the tones of voice anyway, the experience is necessarily an imperfect one. The subtitles just soften the blow by making any sort of comprehension possible. The reason it is intuitively worse when watching films in your mother tongue is that the opportunity is available for the full-blown cinematic experience, no strings attached. The subtitles would be unnecessary toxic baggage, and I don’t think I’d see my favourite English language films with them if somebody paid me to.

This is not, I must stress, to say I object to cinemas showing films subtitled. It is just to note that I could never watch them personally. Clearly the intention is to be hospitable to the deaf, and to this I can make few objections. My favourite films derive a significant proportion of their power from the audio – from GoodFellas’ soundtrack to The Social Network‘s rapid talking – but this doesn’t mean no worthwhile experience remains in stone cold silent cinema. If anything, I would think good reasons could be found for arguing that like the legal provisions now available for lifts, braille signs and disabled toilets, however few the number of people needing these may be, some films shown should have to be subtitled in the name of equality and social harmony, ensuring an already marginalised section of society is not excluded even further.

Having opted for a non-subtitled screening of Crazy, Stupid, Love instead of Drive, however, a trailer prior to the film alerted me to another possibility that was less easy to reflect upon and form judgements about. An Odeon advert informed me that, not only did they show subtitled screenings, but they also had versions of films with ‘audio description’ enabled. A clip from How To Train Your Dragon explained how this works: as the boy jumps on the back of the dragon and flies off, the film plays normally with sound and video, but over the top we also have a narrator saying ‘the boy jumps on the back of the dragon, and flies off.’

Now this type of cinema experience is unfathomable. There is no way someone with the gift of sight could stomach it. But a more interesting question is – would blind people even appreciate it? I don’t want to be so arrogant or paternalistic as to claim I would know what all blind people would enjoy, but something just tells me that to pay to sit in a cinema and listen to what is, to all intents and purposes, an audiobook, would be an exercise in absurdity. But, then again, if you have no conception of sight and, music aside, this is the purest art form available to you, perhaps it would not be so strange after all. It’s not like you would be thinking ‘damn, I wish I could also see the film,’ however counterintuitive this sounds to our ears. And I guess the same defences I made of legal provisions to secure inclusivity also apply here. Just keep me out of the screenings, and don’t tell me the experience would somehow be the same.

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4 Responses to “The blind, the deaf and the cinema.”

  1. 1 Chris Lambert

    Can’t argue the idea, but…I wouldn’t go see an English movie subtitled. I don’t mind reading foreign films; I prefer subbed to dubbed. But, you’re right: if the film is in your speaking language, subtitles are abominable. I wonder, economically, how this will play out?

    The “audio description enabled” films…Are they for the average viewer as well? Like, I buy a ticket to the 7:05 showing of…Toy Story 3 (for example’s sake) and it’s ADE? I’d imagine they’d have to show in two theaters? One ADE and one not. Otherwise, that is “unfathomable”.

    • 2 jacobwilliamson

      No way is it economically productive, so either they’re doing it for PR purposes, they have an acquired moral sense, or they’re being compelled by law. I can’t work out what to Google to work out if it’s the latter (?), but the staff comments perhaps suggest it is that.

      ADE is definitely just aimed at the blind, and I don’t think there’s regular ADE screenings like there are subtitled ones. The ad seemed to imply you should inquire at reception about the facility. Again, a little unclear and odd. Maybe they do them upon request, but at extra cost or not, I don’t know. And again, don’t know what the law is on that or how to find it out!

      • 3 Matthew Clayton

        I’m pretty sure audio description is done through headphones for those who request it rather than the cinema speakers. That seems a much better solution for all involved, certainly.

  2. 4 jacobwilliamson

    That would make a lot of sense; thanks for enlightening me! And then the subtitled films gather a significant audience anyway because presumably they’ve discovered only a few with hearing mind. So both services don’t require major economic sacrifices after all.

    If anyone can confirm this is not in fact a legal requirement though, I’m still interested to find out.


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