In November 2000, for some reason the Showcase network aired, on a Sunday matinée, the film The Hunchback (the Mandy Patinkin–Salma Hayek version, 1997) with descriptions by AudioVision Canada. There was no advertising for the show that I could find, and neither the Web site, TV Guide, nor any onscreen or voiced announcement advised that the program would air with descriptions.
This is the sort of thing Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting likes to describe as “experimenting” with audio description.
And, as with The Arrow, AudioVision’s work is appallingly slipshod and overwrought, wildly editorializing and insulting the intelligence of the viewer. Several scenes are described with factual inaccuracies.
The good news? The work is not quite as substandard on The Arrow. But we’re merely dealing with the difference between contemptible and inept.
And, as ever, the reproduction quality of the tape is poor (it barely compares to broadcast quality) and the recording levels of the hayseed, incompetent, breathy, drama-queen narrator are too low. When you have to strain to make out the words and the picture is blurry, you know you’ve got a problem.
Worse yet, I was subjected to equally appalling Canadian captioning. Yuck.
Who’s at fault? The chief miscreant of AudioVision Canada, Marco Sauren (spelling uncertain). He wrote and produced the descriptions. (So I guess there weren’t any editors.) Narrator: Valerie Hunter.
- The irksome Alliance Atlantis intro runs. What should be described as “Against a blue background, translucent crystal pyramids rotate and rise upward. The final pyramid transforms into a stylized letter A atop the words Alliance Atlantis” is instead rendered as “A presentation of Alliance Atlantis, with narrative description by AudioVision Canada.”
- Was there a title giving those words? Why did the describers not describe what they saw?
- Now we have yet another confusing, muddy-the-waters synonym for audio description (“narrative description”), joining all the others (“audio description,” “descriptive video,” and even the execrable “audio captions”). Just what we need.
- The narrator, a young woman named Valerie Hunter, is, in true AudioVision style, overwrought and puts tons of stress on words she WANTS US to understand are important! That’s not all that’s wrong with her. She streeetches out her wooords eeever so sliiightly – the length of a half-syllable, no more – lending an aaair of impooortance to eeeverything she saaays.
- Worse, everything seems remarkable! and amazing!
- A scrolling title appears, though we are not told as much. The title is at least read verbatim.
- A group of robed men is accurately described as they walk through rainy streets. Then: “Their leader throws open the door.” Streets have doors? Doesn’t he throw open a door? (The editing makes it unclear just which door it is.)
- “As the others follow with a horse-drawn cart, Dom Frollo stands over a printing press.” But how can the horse-drawn cart follow Dom Frollo inside? Where are we, exactly? (Answer: The robed men are all outside in the rain, save for their leader, and he is the one standing over the printing press.) We’re three minutes into the program and already we’re lost.
- “...and supervises the unloading of the confiscated press.” We don’t know it’s confiscated. The press could have been handed over willingly.
- Opening credits are not named as such, but merely read. AudioVision replicates its annoying habit, seen in The Arrow, of sitting there mute when no credits appear on the screen and reading the names only when they do appear, thus losing crucial seconds to describe whatever else is happening. It’s as if the nitwits producing the descriptions – there is no evidence any of them isn’t a nitwit – feel like they’re not allowed to talk unless words are on the screen. Haven’t these twits ever watched a DVS home video?
- Yet they can’t even be consistent with that philosophy. The title credit merely reads The Hunchback. It is, however, read as “in The Hunchback.” Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: You can add a word if you want, but you can’t read all the credits continuiously so as to give enough time to tell us what else is going on?
- And in this case, we miss a lot: Dom Frollo walks slowly and with trepidation toward a lone baby on a building’s steps.
- Oh, but we’re not done with the credits yet. Suddenly AudioVision decides to read the supporting cast continuously. Why the change of heart, kids?
- “The priest steps out to meet his mounted pursuer.” The priest wasn’t pursued; the boy was. And the description of the town square did not mention anyone on horseback (though hoofbeats were audible), let alone state that the boy had a “mounted pursuer.”
- The pursuer is then identified as a sergeant-at-arms. How do you know?
- “A young man hands out leaflets.... Few in the crowd can read.” We don’t know that. Yet again, for the thousandth time, tell us only what is visible: A man crumples a page and throws it away. How do we make the leap to widespread illiteracy?
- A man is described as a “man” and then as “the tall man.” Aren’t those two different people?
- “Gyrating sensually, the young woman excites the crowd.” All we can see of the crowd are distant heads and clapping hands. Is that all you’re going on? And aren’t you trying to interpret invisible emotional states for us?
- “The young orator is smitten.” Really? I didn’t hear the standard Hollywood thunderclap signifying love at first sight. He certainly is staring raptly at Esmeralda, the dancer, as we are told shortly: “As he watches her, mesmerized, her dark flashing eyes find his and she seems to dance only for him.” Oddly, that is quite a concise and proper way to describe the filmic phenomenon of slomo and eye contact the scene employed. Why can’t AudioVision be this good the rest of the time? Why do they have to stumble across the correct way to describe things?
- “Smitten all over again, Pierre watches her juggle” three leather balls. “Smitten.” Oh, give it a rest.
- “Slowly, as though drawn by the music, his head emerges.” Now you’re really reaching. Since Dom Frollo gets up and walks to the window to “peer down at the beautiful young woman dancing on the stage below,” couldn’t we figure this out ourselves?
- “Her hips rock to the primitive beat.” We can hear the beat. We are blind, ostensibly, not deaf. Why are you attempting to caption the movie for us when you aren’t even competent to describe it? (This, in fact, is a typical AudioVision trait. I think I’ve figured out where their atrophied minds are coming from: They think they script they’re writing will only ever be read off paper, with no relation to any soundtrack or visual imagery. In short, they think they’re writing letters to their friends.)
- There are, of course, cases where the source of an ambiguous sound must be described (e.g., a click that sounds like the cocking of a gun but is shown not to be), but this is not such a case. (One does come up later, as odd, wordless voices bleat in the background: “Pierre slowly regains consciousness to find himself surrounded by jibbering, rag-covered beggars.” “Jibbering” is perhaps a bit odd, but the approach was correct.)
- “But her image stays with him as he drifts back into the scriptorium. And soon it calls him toward the window again.” We don’t know that. We have no way of knowing that at all, full stop. It is plainly evident that Dom Frollo walks away from the window, pauses, turns slowly, and returns. It could simply be the music, you know.
- And AudioVision seems to admit that: “Dom Frollo is not the only one enticed by the music.” That would be the Hunchback himself.
- “Grabbed by several people, the hunched figure is hustled toward the stage.” An inelegant treatment, what with the passive voice and beginning the sentence with “grabbed.” How about “The hunched figure hurries away” – an overlooked fact – “but a small group of people pull him bodily toward the stage.”
- “Then he peers up at the beautiful young woman. To please her, he puts the crown back on.” We don’t know that’s why he did it. It is apparent that he has a smile on his face.
- It is generally accepted that attempting to describe individual dance movements is not the way to go, if only because dance resists quick encapsulation in words. Still, it is desirable to say something about an extended dance sequence, time permitting. A 25-second dance sequence here runs without description of the dance itself (apart from “sensuously” – fair enough). The silence is broken by a couple of descriptions of Quasimodo and Dom Frollo, but there was time to give a greater understanding of Esmeralda’s dance technique. A subsequent 20-second sequence also goes undescribed.
- “The Hunchback’s childlike joy evaporates." Is “childlike” really necessary?
- “After a moment, Quasimodo takes off his crown. He peers at it longingly.” Prove the longing.
- “That evening in the square”: All we know is that it is evening. You have no business jumping to any other kind of conclusion. Same with “the next morning.”
- “The young orator” is now identified as Pierre. It is quite often OK to identify characters by name before the name comes up in dialogue, but why do it now instead of when we first see him? And it is generally necessary only if:
- there is no convenient naming phrase for the character (“the young orator” is nice and short, unlike, say, “the tall man with the curly black hair handing out leaflets in the town square”), or
- if the character is not addressed by name soon after. Neither is true here.
- Dom Frollo does not, in fact, “whip himself until his back is bloody.” His back and chest are both bloody from the first moment we witness his self-flagellation (a term that could have been used).
- “In the depths of the dungeon”: We haven’t seen “the” dungeon before. Isn’t it a dungeon?
- AudioVision, a service for people with disabilities, perpetuates the demonization of disability through its descriptions.
- “A terrible hump that twists his spine and pushes his head to one side.” How abusive. A large, even huge hump; a massive hump; a noticeable or prominent hump. But not “terrible.” Which is worse – having a hump, being a blind, or perpetuating old stereotypes?
- It gets worse: “She looks at him steadily, undaunted by his terrible ugliness.” Could you possibly be more offensive here? She merely looks at him steadily. You are projecting your own opinions about his “terrible” ugliness (there’s that word again), like an anti-abortionist projecting fears of never having been born. Don’t worry, AudioVision: You will never be as “terribly” deformed as Quasimodo. You won’t ever be a decent writer, either, but your deep-seated childish nightmares will not be realized. Now that you’ve been reassured, perhaps you can stop heaping scorn on fictional characters whose appearance disgusts you.
- “He holds his face, bloody and disfigured, close to his guardian’s.”
- “Esmeralda takes his misshapen head in her hands.” Well, thank you for demonizing his disability once again, but in fact, she uses one hand and caresses the “good” side of his face. Indeed, a moment later we are told “Quasimodo grasps her slim hand in his rough ones, holding it to his cheek.” Her hand, singular. His cheek, singular.
- We had a run of about five minutes with accurate and apt descriptions – the longest yet. Then: “But as the sand [in an hourglass] slowly runs out, his defiance dwindles to a pitiful plea.” AudioVision is again attempting to caption when they can barely manage to audio-describe. Indeed, sands flow through the hourglass, but we are perfectly able to hear the Hunchback’s cries. “The crowd mimics his plea.” Yes, we can hear that, too, thank you very much.
- “At this further rejection, the Hunchback lowers his head in despair.” Again with the telepathy. All we know is that he lowers his head, quite arguably in despair.
- “Dom Frollo stops dead at this.” “This” was a remark, an audible remark. Just say “Dom Frollo stops dead [in his tracks].” For all we know, he stubbed his toe out of frame.
- In a passage with particularly scenery-chewing vocal delivery, we are told that Quasimodo rings the bells. Um, how? By whacking them with a mallet? No, by pulling on great ropes attached to pulleys in the ceiling. “Quasimodo pulls thick ropes to ring the bells.” Quick. Easy.
- “Overcome by a surge of rage, he lashes out at the carved figure on the cross!” Granted, Dom Frollo scowls up a storm here, but that’s all you can tell us. “Suddenly grimacing, he takes up his whip and lashes out at the carved figure on the cross.” And please give the overripe rendition a rest. Stop sounding shocked on our behalf. We can think for ourselves.
- “Then he drops the whip, horrified by his own sacrilege.” Who says? And who gave you the authority to narrate Dom Frollo’s unseen feelings and urges?
- “Hearing the bells, Esmeralda turns and looks back toward the bell tower.” We can hear the bells. Obviously so can she, or she would not have turned and looked back at the bell tower. Describe what you see, not what you hear.
- “Cautiously, Esmeralda steps to the back of the wagon and looks inside. It’s empty. Dom Frollo appears from behind the wagon and steps slowly toward her.” No, he appears from the opposite end, idiot. From the front of the wagon.
- “Moved by her beauty, he reaches out gently and caresses her cheek.” Just how do you know that? “She sees something that horrifies her.” I would say “startled,” which is borne out by the quick change in body language and expression and the dropping of a knife.
- “Desperate, Esmeralda finds Pierre.” No, she runs into the room, skirt flying behind her, arms flittering, and then finds Pierre.
- A wooden wagon called a tumbrel is mentioned repeatedly by name, but never defined. (“A crude cart used to carry condemned prisoners to their place of execution, as during the French Revolution.”) Sometimes you use le mot juste and leave it to the viewer to figure things out, as in baseball. Other times, with antiquated or foreign terminology, a quickie definition is helpful. This is such a case.
- As “guardsmen” try to ram their way through a cathedral door, Quasimodo drops two big logs and a wheelbarrow off the roof. (Actually, it could be but one log. The editing is unclear.) Other guardsmen fire their crossbows at him. What is the full description of this passage? “A squad of guardsmen lift the heavy beam and charge the door with it, jarring the priests inside.” Pause while Quasimodo drops a log, crossbows fire. “And again.” Another pause, log, wheelbarrow, more arrows. AudioVision deliberately covers up the fact that Quasimodo continues to fight the guardsmen, who launch arrows right back at him.
- Quasimodo tips over two cauldrons of molten metal (it’s called “lead,” but we don’t know that), though we are told he tips over only one. Appalling.
- “On the roof, Quasimodo exults.” Actually, he hollers in laughter (the sound is ambiguous; he could be crying) and hobbles from one column to another. “Exults” attempts to collapse a full audiovisual scene onto a single word from a thesaurus that the describer can feel all proud and clever for having chosen. That’s why God gave us editors.
- “She looks around, alarmed by the strange surroundings.” Maybe she merely thought she would lose her balance and fall off the cot she woke up on.
- “Then, in mounting agitation, he kneels and stares upward in fervent prayer.” He was looking up well before that, and how do you know it isn’t resignation or desperation or simple fatigue, or giving in altogether? Who are you to say?
- “With a smile of satisfaction, the monsignor mounts the steps to the throne.” The smile could merely be of smug triumph, and suddenly “Dom Frollo” is “the monsignor.” One attempts to be consistent in naming characters, or one at least uses synonyms more often and earlier in the picture (Cf. Quasimodo, Hunchback).
- At a printing press, Dom Frollo “confirms his suspicion that it has been used recently. He peers at the ink on his hand.” It’s nothing less than outrageous how many steps these twitfaces at AudioVision are willing to skip. It is not your business to tell us why a character does something. Just tell us what happens. Dom Frollo pats his hand on an ink-stained plate and looks at his hand. We can draw all the inferences necessary, thank you very much. Do you think you’re talking to elementary-school students who cannot put two and two together? (Obviously, in AudioVision’s opinion, blind viewers need all the help they can get. In reality, overwriting like this improperly stokes the ego of the describer. “I am so smart for being able to understand the intentions of the director, and I am going to make sure all of you poor blind people recognize and submit yourselves to my brilliance.” Shove it, kids.)
- “Then, his anxiety mounting, in the vast space of the empty cathedral....” Um, how can you prove his anxiety is mounting? Why are we not left to determine this ourselves from his frantic tone of voice, among other clues?
- “The Hunchback struggles to understand this. And fails.” That is a bit broad. He clearly was struggling to understand, but my reading of his expression is more along the lines of “Suddenly understands but is not surprised, given what he knows of Don Frollo,” not that we could actually say that.
- “He holds his face, bloody and disfigured, close to his guardian’s.”
- “Esmeralda and Pierre have laid Quasimodo on his cot.” We don’t know that. Quasimodo merely lies on his cot, flanked by Pierre and Esmeralda.
- “Her relief drains away.” Do you see a puddle of relief on the floor or something?
- As Quasimodo lies dying on his cot, Pierre and Esmeralda ring the bells in the loft. “And the great bell begins to toll... for Quasimodo.” Sure, ruin it for us. Think of how poetic and grand it would have been to describe the scene with a simple “And the great bell begins to toll.”
- Highly abbreviated reading of end credits, but there was no alternative: They raced past.
Someday we’ll get rid of these twits. And just remember, for the moment they’re the only game in town and can do whatever the hell they want. How does that sit with you, viewers of audio description? I figure that makes you a captive audience.