Joe Does the Movies: Accessible movie reviews in Toronto

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A Beautiful Mind

Seen: 2002.01.04   ¶   Reviewed: 2002.01.15

I now enjoy massive VIP-style privilege in the form of my Big Card, a gratuity from Famous Players (thanx, Joanne!) that gets me into any screening at any Famous Players or Alliance cinema. Not bad. If the Card had raised numbers, it would be something of a challenge to wear them down flat.

In any event, we finally got another MoPixed movie at the Silver City Yonge & Eg: A Beautiful Mind, the latest feel-good Ron Howard vehicle. It’s really more like A Beautiful Man; as the New Yorker put it, Russell Crowe is too solid and gorgeous, and too evidently smart, to credibly play a schizophrenic nerd. (Pace Kevin Spacey in The Shipping News. Really, the only marquee actor I know who can entirely convincingly play stupid is Joaquin Phoenix – Cf. To Die For, and even the swishy desecration of Vito Russo’s legacy in Gladiator.)

I planned on trying a new MoPix experiment: Watching a movie at peak hour, in this case a Friday 7:00 showing on the first official day of release. I did, however, hedge my bets, opting up front to use description only and no goddamn captioning. There are only so many scythes one can wield in a crowded auditorium.

I “buy” my free ticket and queue up at the Guest Services desk, where an obviously troublesome uppercrust female “professional” is hogging the attention of the sole employee (“playa”). You know the type – everything’s a rush, she’s always more important than you, she demands top-flight service, she’s entitled to everything, even her underwear is better than yours. I hated her on sight.

Seven minutes pass. One man is ahead of me in line, two other people behind. A manageress is brought over, and she executes the worst plan of action in such circumstances: Both staff now work for the very important single customer. A good way to engender resentment, that. Got two staff? Serve two people. Delegate the first playa to the next person in line.

I tell the desk to serve the rest of us first and get back to this woman’s intractable, endlessly time-consuming, microdetailed complaint later. “My show starts in one minute.” “So does mine,” she replies, with the fake viperous smile associated with her species.

I am served. What happened to the logbook? I asked. Somebody lost it, the manageress replied. Hmm.

I am eventually given a description headset, but golly, I have to trade in ID. Really? Since when? Ever since that fellow worked there, he told me. No sign-in book anymore.

It is of course ridiculous to give credence to the scheduled start time of a Hollywood movie at an evening showing in a big city. The movie started a full 15 minutes late, after the stream of overloud cinema adverts, trailers, bumpers, and teasers to which we have all become inured.

Good thing, too. It took me that long to get a seat.

Every seat in the body of the theatre was taken. All that were left were the front rows – the equivalent of a penalty box in any house with “stadium” seating. I had just finished watching The Royal Tenenbaums from a similar penalty box and was not in a rush to repeat the experience.

I found an usher and a manager. “Can you find me one seat anywhere up there?” I asked. The playa ran off to do that. (Endless enthusiasm with these kids.) The manager diverted attention from his headset and walkie-talkie to give me a once-over. I pointed to the front rows and told him they made me “more visually-impaired,” dangling the headset and making no effort to correct his impression that I actually was to begin with. (It was a true statement. Sitting in the front row makes you functionally visually impaired. You only ever see part of the screen, and even then in unreal fisheye perspective.)

The playa runs back and sez the best he can do is the very back. “Perfect!” The back row is the bestest in a stadium-seat auditorium: The screen is right at eye level and you get that Master of All I Survey feel. The seat in question was at the head of the stairway and covered by coats. The nice people on either side clear it for me. “We were holding it for you,” the older fellow says.

Time passes. I’m already hot. The movie starts. I put on the gigantic hemispheric headphones, still very much feeling like a DJ from Studio 54. Older fellow at my elbow stares at me for four full seconds. I pretend to be visually-impaired. (He’ll take two more glances throughout the film.)

It occurs to me I’d forgotten my intended prop: A sliver of duct tape. Yes, I had planned to hack the headset, covering the overly conspicuous glowing LED so everyone behind me would not be forced to follow the ray-tracing of my head during the show. D’oh! Better luck next time. (Of course, no one was behind me tonight.)

Description quality

I have absolutely never heard so many descriptions in a program in my entire life. Ordinary conversations between two people could have five or ten minidescriptionettes. Someone was putting a lot into it. The surprise? I had to keep reminding myself to pay attention to the descriptions; even with so very many of them, they blended in well and became virtually unnoticeable.

There were noticeable errors in the descriptions.

  1. Venetian blinds were described as vertical blinds once (they weren’t) and horizontal blinds later, which is like saying “horizontal and vertical columns.”
  2. Early in one of Nash’s delusions, he seals an envelope with wax and stamps it CLASSIFIED. Much later, an envelope with that same stamp is passed across a desk. We are told it reads CONFIDENTIAL. It doesn’t.

No, that’s not a large number, and no, they’re not “important,” unlike, say, getting the movie’s name wrong.

It was amusing to hear that John Nash “hungrily” kissed Alicia, but not at all amusing to hear repeated references to the attractiveness of various actresses with no mention of what any of the men even look like, save a couple of perfunctory words about Nash. I can readily assure you that Akiva Goldsman did not write a scene in which Princeton’s air conditioning conked out merely to advance character and plot. While it allegedly did exactly that, it served as a perfect excuse for a mathematician to teach a class wearing a T-shirt. The mathematician happens to have Russell Crowe’s musculature and proportions. Funny how that never got mentioned. Remember, this is a movie where ordinary conversations got interrupted a half-dozen times by the describers.

It is fair game to describe the look of the actors, if there’s time. There certainly was time here. And you have to describe what you see. Of course, true to the history of Hollywood, where an actress never needs to be talented but merely needs to be pretty, the loveliness of women onscreen can, will, and must be documented, but mention of any manner of male appearance must be individually justified and defused. Get with the program.

Descriptions read by Miles Neff (perennially). As with Harry Potter, authors of the descriptions were uncited. This I do not understand. And now that Newspeak has officially taken over, the source of the descriptions is not the Descriptive Video Service but “the Media Access Group at WGBH,” an offensively euphemistic and unspecific corporate blandishment that makes as much sense as the electronic keypad I once picked up that claimed it was “Made in European Union.”

Comfort issues

Headset comfort and audio quality remain serious issues. The headphones hurt the ears, press down on the top of the head (directly on bald skin in my case), and in fact shift position over time. Much more serious is the hiss that seems impossible to get rid of. Sound levels varied hugely in the film, and sound levels of descriptions varied along with them, but not faithfully. Ten or more times I adjusted description volume to balance hearing the descriptions, cutting down hiss, and hearing the actual movie.

I eventually figured out a way to place one speaker on the right ear and the left speaker behind that ear. This looked stupid (though not even the old fellow noticed) and felt unnatural. It was shocking to hear how clear and unhindered main auditorium audio actually was. This way, I could hear descriptions plus muffled main audio on the right side and enjoy a cool, unencumbered experience on the left. (Literally cool. Cartilage exposed to air and not headphone.)

Kids dig it

Owing to my seat’s position in the theatre, throughout the film I could see the captions change on the Rear Window display. I could see every caption if I bothered to look, and many times, with captions showing a lot of text at display right (flush left in reflection), the light was enough to distract my attention. There, I said it: Captions were distracting for the first time in my life. Peripheral vision gets in the way sometimes. If it was happening to me, it was happening to people around me. The display is not completely unobtrusive.

Amusingly, while watching and listening to closing credits (I always stay till the very last frame), I noticed two teenage girls and their bored, clueless Baby Boomer dad a few rows away. One girl pointed to the still-active display. “Look, dad! Captions!” I lipread her as saying. I whipped off the headset.

Dad mumbled something. “Kuz they go on the screen,” she told him (youth yet again explaining reality to the older generation), then thought for a second and said “They don’t go on the screen.” Dad mumbled something else, and off they all went.

As I’ve been saying for years, kidz not only get captioning, they like it. Why wouldn’t they? Kidz can handle multitrack stimuli, and they’ve never known a world without captioning. Now, description they don’t know about, but that’s gonna change.

Next time, I do a prime-time evening showing with captions and description. I am going to sit smack dab in the middle of the theatre and make people deal with it.

Exit interview

Time to go. I drank as much water as I could handle for as long as I could handle (you want hot? try a full movie house in winter, with everyone in sweaters and long johns) and headed back to Guest Services.

I handed over the DJ headphones and the playa instantly pulled out my ID – from his back pocket. You kept it there all this time? Yeah. If I left it in the drawer, somebody mighta taken it. Ah.

I asked him how common description/captioning use was. In the run of a normal week, how much equipment does he hand out? Two or three, he said, and he only works weekends. What’s with the ID thing? Famous Players had ixnayed that system because of the issue of kids who have no ID in the first place. Well, apparently some of the reflectors got stolen, so they had to put the ID system back in place.


Yeah, he said. They all got stolen.

And I was like, You’re kidding. These things are of no use to anybody outside the theatre. I know! he replied in fluent Teenager.

I went on my way, surprised.

At the bottom of the escalator, it occurred to me I needed to play journo here and investigate this. Back I went. Found a different manageress. Is it true they all got stolen? Oh, not at all, she said. They’d had a group showing and all the reflectors were locked in the (senior?) manager’s office.

A group showing? Yeah, a hundred kids. So you had to collect reflectors from other screens for that one, huh? Yup. (They’ve got 17 reflectors, not 50, she told me. Same number of headsets?) The hearing people in the audience must have been freaking out, I told her. Oh, it was a special screening just for them. I raised my brows. Now, personally, I would love to be in a “regular” audience with a whole whack of people with extremely visible captioning reflectors. Talk about audience reaction.

This manageress told me the largest number of headsets or reflectors she’s personally handed out was five. I was merely one of three people that night, which I could not believe, frankly, given that I was at the first screening and I know I was the only one. Where were the other two people in line? (Next time, I scan the incoming queue much more carefully.)

The ID thing, she told me, is optional. Playaz decide on the spot whether or not they need ID.

The manageress was not entirely clear about the intended functioning of the equipment. I kept saying “captioning or description” and she kept replying with “reflectors or headsets.” The issue is actually understanding the film, but at the level of “front-line staff,” it’s all about gizmos.

And here’s an interesting factoid: That day was only the second in which CC and DVS were actually available even though the movie had played for two weeks in “advance” release. How surprising. The Famous Players Web site listed A Beautiful Mind at half the cinemas and Ali at the others (the suburban ones – and the fifth screen showed nothing accessible). It turns out that Ali had been showing at the Silver City Yonge & Eg because “the distributor wouldn’t release the discs” until the official premiere date. (Actually the night before.) So I could, in fact, have seen Ali with CC and DVS, had anyone bothered to update the Web page (over Christmas, three weeks passed with only two “weekly” updates) or list the movie accurately in the newspaper, or even if it had been possible to telephone the theatre directly. (It isn’t.)

This means I may very well never see Ali with access, which I very much want to do. At time of writing, four of five accessible screens are showing A Beautiful Mind, which is not good practice. (The fifth screen isn’t showing anything accessible.) I think a certain rotation is in order.

(By the way, Famous Players’ Guest Services phoneline – still voice-only – disputes this recollection of events, claiming the Web site was accurately updated all through Christmas. I’ll be archiving the Web site every week from now on.)