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Black Hawk Down

Seen: 2002.01.19   ¶   Reviewed: 2002.01.19 ΒΆ Updated: 2005.07.24

Well, the big plan was to sit right in the thick of a packed evening crowd, but this time I ended up at a Saturday matinée: Black Hawk Down. I am not wild about violent films (I find them actually disturbing), but, in retrospect, I do OK with so-called war films, a subset of violent films. And anyway, I pledged to watch every movie that hits Toronto (quite obviously, I missed Ali); not only does that include war movies, it will also include Stuart Little 2. Don’t say I’m not making sacrifices for you lot.

I knew the place wouldn’t be busy, but I got an early ticket anyway. I asked the ticket-taking “playa” how he deals with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person. Well, I send them upstairs to Guest Services. Is it possible to buy a ticket there? Yes. But how do you even communicate? He made some kind of noncommittal hand gestures.

OK. So what do you do with a blind or visually-impaired “guest”? You can at least talk to them right here, yes? He confirmed that sometimes they sell a ticket right then and there, but in any case the standard practice is to “take their hand” and guide them up the escalator. This I hadn’t heard about. Do you get training for that? Yes, he said. It’s part of the standard training whenever a new playa starts work.

Hmm. There you go.

Upstairs, three playaz loiter around the fourth player sitting behind the Guest Services desk. “Could I have a description headset and a captioning reflector?” “Um, may I ask why you need both?” the sour-faced little man asked. It’s not a good idea to interrogate customers about that, I told him. I’m an accessibility consultant. I realize they seem mutually exclusive.

He seemed to buy this, then asked for ID. Isn’t that strictly optional, I asked? He didn’t get it. I explained what happened the last time: The manageress told me it was up to each playa to decide whether or not to trade in ID. If he didn’t take ID, he told me, someone could steal it (pointing to the headset) and he’d be responsible. I’m not gonna steal it, I said. These things are expensive, he said. Fifty dollars for the reflectors, I told him; I don’t have a quote on the headsets. Um, reflector? I reminded him. He dug one out. Now they come with little condom-like antimacassars, which he had to peel off. (I don’t know why they bother. My reflector, as on the very first showing of Harry Potter, was scratched and marked.)

I walked in during trailers. Maybe one-fifth-full house, mostly populated by Regular Guys. I easily find a central seat. It takes ages to decide what combination of coat and vest to leave on.

I note that the Rear Window display is not turned on. It usually reads “Welcome to Rear Window. Please adjust your reflectors.” I wondered if it was gonna be off the whole time.

After a trailer for Panic Room (also set to be generically Media Access Grouped – looking forward to it, because of and despite the fact it features the gargoylish Forrest Whitaker), the movie started unexpectedly, so I was fumbling with headset and reflector. No duct tape this time, either, so all the Regular Guys could ray-trace every wobble of my head all afternoon. (Like night-vision goggles, shurely?!)

Where were the captions? I eventually got them in focus. No problems.

Now, what I don’t get about Black Hawk Down is why reviewers consistently lie about it. You bloody well cannot keep the characters straight, and you cannot tell where you’re situated geographically at all times. I heard the former once and the latter three separate times. (Here is the erudite Roger Ebert simply blowing it: “We understand, more or less, where the Americans are, and why, and what their situation is. We follow several leading characters, but this is not a star-driven project and doesn’t depend on dialogue or personalities.” What was that about “more or less”?)

It will not surprise seasoned readers to hear that captions and descriptions do not really help any of this. I doubt anyone else saw the movie with both at once. I thus had more information than anyone on the face of the earth (picture, sound, captioning, description) and still could not figure it out.

I couldn’t keep anyone straight, except the commanders and Ewan McGregor. He’s the film’s sole “quirky character,” itself usually proof positive of juvenile writing and character development but, in this case, the best that A-list Hollywood war-movie directors and screenwriters working within the modern military-industrial-entertainment complex can come up with. We’re working only one tiny increment of comprehensibility above the interchangeable monosyllable soldier names in The Thin Red Line. And there, as the kids used to say, you’re hurtin’ for certain.

And actually, Adam Sternbergh gets this right: “The soldiers are faceless and all too similar; when one dies, you’re less likely to be thinking ‘That’s tragic’ than ‘Wait, is that the guy from before, in the camp, with the thing?’ As for the Somalis who battle the soldiers, they don’t even get names: The entire population of Mogadishu is presented as a terrifying swarm of black savagery, apparently free of motives, reason or individual will. (In parts of the movie, as the shrieking Somalis converge on the pinned-down U.S. troops, they seem unnervingly similar to the waves of insectoid aliens in Starship Troopers.)”

Anyway: Nobody, but nobody, delivers the line “Fu-u-uck... thi-i-is... shi-i-it!” like Ewan McGregor.

Caption quality

I haven’t mentioned this much, but MoPix captioning is quite a separate idiom for the Caption Center. I would love to have seen the very first MoPixed films. (Really, MoPix movies are like limited-run operas: Each production is slightly different. If you miss a production altogether, you can never go back to reëxperience it.) Have typography and the general approach changed any?

First of all, WGBH’s own colour brochures, no doubt several years old, show a Rear Window display (manufactured all or most of the time by Trans-Lux, the Microsoft of LEDs) that uses small capitals. Probably not very legible small capitals. Then again, with a chintzy dot matrix and no descenders, the existing U&lc captions look terrible. (I suppose I should justify this extreme assessment by mentioning my 20 years in typography, my large publishing history in graphic design, my own job as a night typesetter, and the fact that I have written not one but two articles on caption typography.)

Anyway, the Caption Center has finally, after two decades, decided viewers are now ready for commas at the end of a caption on TV (always deleted, historically; they look too much like periods, despite the fact every other captioner uses them). Where are the caption-ending commas in MoPix?

The Caption Center uses the debased subtitling practice of a dash (just a dash – we don’t have en dashes [] or em dashes [] in this system) before the text of a new speaker when more than one speaker must be placed onscreen at a time. Such lines should be flush left, even if the blocks of text are placed somewhere specific onscreen; currently they’re centred.

We do use uppercase speaker IDs here at Chalet MoPix. Offscreen speakers cannot be indicated by italics, so there is much more reliance on actual IDs, and a greater willingness to mention manner of speech (“halfheartedly” was my fave in Black Hawk Down).

Only left, centre, and right positioning is used, but, again transferring the limitations of Line 21 television captioning, right justification is actually a left-justified block of text shoved over to the right. There is no flush right margin, and there ought to be. It’s not technically difficult.

Incidental music is indicated by two staffnotes, an annoying habit used prominently by Captions, Inc. and various Canadian captioners.

When a character says the same thing twice or something almost the same, captions must move up a line or to the left or right, or be redesigned so the linebreaks are different. Otherwise you simply reread the caption and think it’s an error or you don’t notice the change at all. I could not figure out if this is actually done in MoPix. It ought to be.

When a character moves his or her lips without producing a sound, you can’t just leave off a caption. Otherwise deaf viewers wonder what the hell is going on; they feel you the captioner are lying to them or holding back information. You have to say (no voice). A general error is to use (no audio). There’s tons of audio, especially here with guns firing left and right. There just isn’t voice. Black Hawk Down uses (no audio).

This was my first MoPixed movie with full-on profanity throughout, including a number of variants of fuck and the occasional shit. Hardly uncommon in film, quite rare on TV, still has a kind of shock value when you know the word is displayed to an entire movie house, albeit in mirror-image.

But we ain’t heard nothing yet!

Description quality

Well, it’s very good, as ever. I’m sorry, but the motherfuckers down at DVS are motherfuckingly good writers.

Did you know that describers have to do some voicing for onscreen characters? They read out subtitles (much less of a problem than some people think – I’ll skip the details), but must also tell us words a character mouths with no voice. In Fatal Attraction, it was “Five minutes.” It popped up once in A Beautiful Mind, but I forget where. An episode of The Associates on CTV featured “The lawyer mouths ‘Three hundred’ to Amy.”

In Black Hawk Down, here it comes right through your headphones: “McKnight mouths the word ‘motherfucker.’ ”

Screenshot shows English subtitle reading Motherfucker. Motherfucker and separate Closed Caption window reading [ No Audio ]

Uttered very nonchalantly by our narrator, Miles Neff (perennially). I somehow imagined the scene in the recording studio to psych everyone up:

Director: OK, everybody, on three. One! Two! Three!

Director, describer, narrator, technician, hangers-on (together): Motherfucker!

Director: Thank you. Next!

Describers, like captioners, cannot alter the source material because they disapprove of it. We hate censors. Censors are motherfuckers.

I do have some quibbles with prosody. On three occasions, the exact stress pattern of Miles’ uttered sentences made it hard to understand the sentence. It had to do with words that could be interpreted as nouns or verbs. The only example I was able to write down is “Wolcott watches the compass display spin.” This really means “Wolcott watches the spinning of the compass display.” Miles read it more along the lines of a sentence like “Wolcott watches the compass display gibberish” or “Wolcott watches the compass display north-northwest.” It should be more like “Wolcott watches [the compass display] [spin].”

In closing credits, the admittedly-difficult name Želko (“Zelko”) Ivanek was misread. It’s pronounced Zhelko; the first phoneme is a voiced postalveolar fricative, like the one in the middle of the word “measure.” It’s two syllables. But the credits write his name as Zeljko, adding a letter j and missing the hacek or caron on the Z (hence Ž or Ž). Miles read it as “Zeleeko.” Twice.

Try as I might, I was able to hear any hiss in the headphones only once. Could it be the fact that Black Hawk Down is much noisier than the other two films?

Maybe I zoned out on this in A Beautiful Mind, but the descriptions were credited to “the Descriptive Video Service, a unit of the Media Access Group at WGBH.” Miles Neff named himself, but the description writers were again not credited. I would like to know why.

Also, I think I can go along with the use of quasi-slang terms for kill like take out and drop. Talk in the language of your audience – in this case, gung-ho Republicans with hi-’n’-tight haircuts.

Exit interview

I attracted not much attention. D00d to my right looked at me once. I am sure the two Regular Guys behind me found it all odd. But at the very end, during closing credits, I witnessed a typical heterosexualist moment a few rows ahead. Girlfriend requires several minutes to get her purse, sweater, scarf, coat, hair, and makeup together, while her Regular Guybf unit stands with barely-tamped-down impatience completely good to go. He was there so very long he had nothing to do but look around. He noticed me. He put two and two together. He noticed the Rear Window display. Then, finally, she was ready to go, and the combined oddity–triviality of the weirdo captioning guy ceased to be important.

I seem to have resolved to give feedback to the staff after every movie.

I returned the equipment to the Guest Services desk. D00d whipped out my ID immediately. I jovially said “See? I told you I wouldn’t steal it.” “I didn’t say you would,” he replied.

I mentioned to the playa to my left that this fellow had no sense of humour, and asked to speak to a manager, being sure to say I had no complaint to voice.

Eventually the same manager with whom I’d previously left the impression of being visually-impaired showed up. I told him five full times I wasn’t complaining, and I used my nicest possible body language, but he kept backing away from me. I mentioned:

  1. The “Welcome to Rear Window” placeholder message needs to be turned on.
  2. The film needs to be allowed to run to its very last frame. Today, after the five studio bumpers (called “logos” by DVS) that ended the film, Miles Neff’s voice was cut short: “This motion picture has been –” (probably a reference to a trailing film-rating slide).

Then, yet again, I discussed the sign-in procedure. To his knowledge (a term I was careful to use), the correct procedure is to ask for ID and jot down the ID card’s number in a logbook. I told him about the kids-with-no-ID problem, and the fact the logbook had been lost, and the discretion playaz apparently have. His ideal system is the one he himself mentioned. He’s gonna ask about all three issues.

In the run of a week, I inquired, how many people use captioning or description? Fewer than ten. Ten each, or ten total? Each. Still, that’s pretty good for a system that hasn’t been widely promoted, I said. He also confirmed that it was quite common to find blind and deaf people in the same audience, and also sets of blind or of deaf people who do not know each other. I was impressed by that, saying it indicated disabled moviegoers felt free enough to simply show up and watch a movie without having to travel in packs.

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