Friday, February 20, 2009

Going to the movies

I used to go to the movies -- a lot.

Of course, growing up totally deaf meant I was unable to appreciate the sound track, let alone understand most of the dialogue. Much of that takes place out of camera range, and what is visible is often difficult if not impossible to lipread.

But I enjoyed the movies anyway. As a teenager I could neck with my girl friend in the balcony and pay no attention to the movie. Later on I could provide my own imaginary scenario and dialogue to fit the action and moving lips on the screen. (Sometimes, it turned out, my inventions were better than the real thing.)

I enjoyed subtitled foreign films, too, but there's one drawback to those: Subtitles only reproduce spoken lines -- they do not describe tone of voice, offstage sound and the like, all of which are important to a moviegoer's understanding. Still, subtitles were better than nothing.

When closed captions arrived on DVD movies as well as broadcast films, I could finally appreciate everything a hearing person does. Closed captions provide a great deal of information besides spoken dialogue -- they indicate who's speaking and what their tone might be, as well as offstage and onstage sounds. They even provide the lyrics to theme songs.

Small wonder that I stopped going to the movies for almost 30 years, except for one instance in which I reported for the Chicago Sun-Times on an experimental theatrical closed-caption scheme called "Rear Window." The viewer plants a transparent plastic panel on a gooseneck into his seat's cup holder. The captions are displayed backwards on the back wall of the theater, and the plastic panel picks up the reflection of that the right way around, but is invisible to patrons in adjoining seats.

Only a couple of theaters in the Chicago area had Rear Window, and they lay both more than an hour's drive from my home. The technology was promising, but it never caught on widely.

So lately I have been waiting for movies to be released as captioned DVDs, and that satisfies me. Of course the DVDs usually appear long after the films' runs in the theaters, which has kept me a step behind everyone else in water-cooler chat about popular culture.

The Lady Friend likes the movies, and if I won't go, she goes alone. Last weekend, however, she prevailed upon me to attend a local showing of "The Class," a nominee for this year's best-foreign-film Oscar.

Mere subtitles notwithstanding, I enjoyed myself immensely. "The Class" is an excellent French film, shrewdly and beautifully photographed. The art of subtitling seems to have advanced in the last 30 years -- the timing seems better, for one thing.

Much of my appreciation lay in the larger theater experience. The big screen gives far more immediacy and intimacy than even a big high-def television set. Modern movie cineplexes (this was the Century in Evanston, Illinois) are far superior to the cavernous old ones I grew up with. The rooms are smaller and seat pitch is much steeper, meaning viewers don't have to crane around heads in front of them.

And the same glorious aroma of buttered popcorn still wafts through the theater. It was as if I'd shed half a century of inaction and returned to fond memories of youth.

No, I didn't neck with the Lady Friend. Maybe next time.


  1. And "The Class" is very dialogue heavy! But, yes, a good one.

    What about silent films? I love them. Keaton, Murnau, Lang?


  2. I loved the silents, too, especially the Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films. If there were a revival house near me that would bring them back to the big screen I'd go, buy a bucket of popcorn, and enjoy 'em again.

  3. As you say, movie houses that offer captioning options are few and far between (I've lived in 4 states and the closest has always been at least 45 minutes away), not to mention that the times they offer them are also few and far between.

    I bet if movie houses did more about this, they would get a lot more customers and therefore the slumping (they are blaming the economy) movie industry would improve!

    Research has shown that captions appeal to not just the hearing impaired, but other groups too such as those learning English as a second language.