I've been profoundly deaf since the age of four and until now the only movies I could enjoy were those with subtitles -- usually that meant the foreign ones. The ticket girl handed me my change, which didn't amount to much: As at Broadway plays and other artistic performances, deaf and hard-of-hearing persons rarely get a price break, even though they aren't absorbing the full experience. Alas, they really just buy seats to the show.
Jurassic Park wasn't my first choice, but captioning is set up for only one movie at a time, at the manager's discretion. So I picked up the Rear Window device at the customer-service desk. As my friend and I walked to our seats, all eyes were on us: This assistive technology wouldn't win any awards for its design. I felt like I had walked into a funeral parlor carrying a golf club.
LOW TECH. Rear Window is a tinted square of Plexiglass attached to a bendable arm that is supposed to fit snugly inside your cup holder. (Where you're to put your soda, I'm not sure.) Mounted on the back wall is a digital panel that resembles an electronic stock-ticker board. When the film begins, the movie script is spelled out backwards on the back wall, and the Plexiglass -- when adjusted oh-so perfectly -- catches the words and reflects them for the reader.
It's not exactly quantum physics. My friend quipped that the technology is about one step removed from a guy holding up cue cards. It also took about 20 minutes of shifting and bending the arm to catch the captioning just right. But once there, voilà, I was set.
Being a wordsmith, my top concern with captions is the quality of writing. Hastily transcribed captions can sometimes strip away the flavor of language and expose a film's dependence on its script. Thriller dinosaur flicks like Jurassic Park are crafted with simple plots and lots of visual action, which gives the caption writers a chance to show off a little. In one scene, a battle royale between a T-rex and a spinosaur was described with lots of pizzazz: roar, snarly growl, neck ripping, bones crunching. No more T-rex.
In another scene, the paleontologists and their cohorts are locked inside an oversize birdcage with an angry flock of flying pteranodons, and there's all sorts of staccato growling, rhythmic cawing, loud hissing, crickets chirping, and other illustrations that drum up violent visions of winged carnivore vs. suburban soccer mom -- sanitized, of course, for a PG-13 hearing-impaired audience.
MINIMAL INVESTMENT. I recalled that Saturday Night Live actor Norm MacDonald once joked that the Academy Award-winning Italian film Life Is Beautiful would have been a great movie if he didn't have to sit there and read it. What's great about Rear Window is that it lets deaf and hard-of-hearing people "read" the movie without bothering anyone else.
The operational costs are low, too -- about $2,000 to caption a movie and another $5,000 to outfit the theater with the billboard and Plexiglass sets. Once the captions are created, they can be reused when the film is released on home video and DVD.
There's one crucial field where the caption writers could have used some advice from those who can't hear. When the characters on screen weren't speaking, the billboard went blank. I felt like I'd lost my connection to the movie. I kept thinking, did a fuse blow? Was my Plexiglass adjusted wrong? Was someone narrating off screen? Or did someone just discover a giant footprint and was too stunned to speak?
It turned out to be the latter, but these are the invisible nuances that deaf people wrestle with. Sometimes, this can drain the fun out of movies.
WHY SO FEW? The good news is that deaf and hard-of-hearing movie lovers can now buy a box of popcorn and laugh on cue along with everyone else in some theaters. The sobering news is that the technology is only offered in 10 states, mostly along the Atlantic coast. I live in Manhattan, and had to take an hour-long bus ride to New Jersey. The Motion Picture Access Project (MoPix) funds the Rear Window Captioning System, but only General Cinema has installed the technology so far.
With such puny startup costs, why aren't all theaters and all movies in the U.S. captioned for the deaf and hard-of-hearing under the Disability Act? Stay tuned, because I plan to find out: This is only a preview.
MoPix is an initiative of the Media Access Group at the Boston-based WGBH, the country's largest public broadcasting station. For more information, go to www.mopix.org. You can also write to your local theater and tell them you would like the technology to be available, or write to members of the motion picture industry. Robitaille is a reporter in New York for BusinessWeek Online