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Murder by Numbers (ROADTRIP SPECIAL!)

Seen: 2002.04.22   ¶   Reviewed: 2002.04.23

Your obedient servant did Ottawa and spent precious hours schlepping way the frig out to the middle of nowhere, putting up with Sandra Bullock, and getting sneered at by some attitude-queen “playa” upon exit.

I was whisked superexecutively to Ottawa to give evidence to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. (Transcript.) Ottawa had had a MoPix installation (at a Famous Players theatre) a few weeks before. So I looked it up: Coliseum Ottawa, 3090 Carling, in the west end.

The phoneline was completely useless in telling you how to get there, assuming as it did that everyone drives. By coinkydink, I found a bus heading that way and arrived just on time. (And not one of the impressively advanced low-floor articulated buses, either – this one was straight outta 1978.)

The first reflector panel the chick tried to give me I turned down. This is my new advice for Rear Window captioning viewers: Inspect the panel and give it back if, as is usually the case, it’s scratched to shit. (The place has only been running MoPix for two weeks and the reflector already looks like the plexiglas behind a hockey net.) She unscrewed the plexiglas off the stalk and screwed on another one – first time I’ve seen that.

Then there was the usual ID saga. She was ambivalent two ways:

  1. When asked what the official policy is, she said there wasn’t one.
  2. When asked what her policy is, she told me “If the person is comfortable with letting me keep their ID, I like to keep it.”

In other words, (a) anything goes, unless this person is in charge, in which (b) mutually exclusive outcomes are equally possible.

My Woman’s Intuition was screaming like a crow in the presence of a great horned owl at this, but of course I ignored it. The woman jotted down my name and phone number (wasn’t she surprised to hear it begin with 416) in the book. I was the third entry on the second page, making me about the 22nd person to use the systems.

Schlepping up to the theatre, I decided to try sitting at the back of the frontmost section of seats, heavily recessed from the walkway between the sections. (You really had to step down.) Within seconds it was clear that the caption characters were as big as the ingredients list on a jar of mustard. No friggin’ way.

So, with the movie already started and a bright LED on the top of my head, I trudged all the way back through the auditorium, cleverly tripping on the small step between the staircase and the floor of the seating row.

I was now about five rows in front of the LED display. I had at least four people behind me. I would now spend five full minutes frustrating myself trying to get the goddamned display to sit in the right place.

The gooseneck stalk is too long. Simple geometry dictates that the closer you are to the display, the farther down the reflector will sit. But you cannot really “lower” the reflector. The gooseneck does not telescope in on itself. All you can do is bend a U in it, which places the joint between the stalk and the panel at an angle, thus placing the panel at an angle.

What does this mean? A triangular sliver (sometimes a triangular chunk) of the movie screen is darker than the rest because you’re watching it through the smoked plastic.

So future installations need to give you either a collapsible gooseneck or a choice of short or long goosenecks.

What we really need is a support on both lower corners of the panel – in effect, planting it on both sides. I suppose that would eat up both your cupholder (which some benighted deaf activists whine about already) and your neighbour’s.

The caption characters were, at this point, ginormous, and I liked them that way.

Quite a bit later in the movie, I had to do a tiny readjustment. It took five seconds max. Nonetheless, this chick behind me immediately muttered “Ohh, maaan” to her boyfriend, as though she were thinking “Not another five minutes of this deaf weirdo fucking around with that stupid plastic.” A bit de trop, I thought, but I am merely reporting what went on.

Now, what about the film? It is somewhat less trite than generally claimed. I do certainly tire of beautiful young female homicide detectives; there are almost no female murder cops, Homicide notwithstanding. (The definitive works on the subject are Night Train by Martin Amis, which I cannot say enough good things about, and Chasing Cain, the CBC movie that, like all CBC movies, is impossible to see after its first and only telecast. That means you will never enjoy Alberta Watson’s perfect embodiment of the middle-aged policewoman.)

I had just finished seeing The Believer at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival the night before, making me one of the few to have seen this triumph of cinema in an actual theatre. A stunning achievement, devastating, even, with a performance by Ryan Gosling (a Canadian! and a veteran of CBC TV movies) that will be respected for generations. And there he is again, with a full head of hair, doing his Richard Gere thing in Murder by Numbers. (By the way, can someone please explain why the ancient song by the Police bearing the same title was not used in the film?) He’s all about motile eyebrows and hugging and caressing, again, I assure you, exactly like Richard Gere. (Internal Affairs, the ne plus ultra of the Gerean physical-acting œuvre, was in fact written by Henry Bean, writer–director of The Believer.)

Moreover, Murder by Numbers featured a strangely gay-seeming Ben Chaplin. I could not figure out who seemed gay: Ben Chaplin or his character, Sam Kennedy. (Suspiciously moviestarlike names in both cases, nu?) In fact, I kept thinking “This is the way a well-dressed, handsome, closeted mid-30s police detective would behave.” Until Sandra Bullock ripped his shirt off. But we’ll get to that, won’t we?

I am now certainly an avowed goslingist and would admit to creeping chaplinist tendencies.

UPDATE: After seeing the minireviewette by one of my few readers, Ken Gerrard, I understood two things about my reaction to the film:

Description quality

  1. Whilst walking to my second seat of the evening, imagine my surprise to hear Miles Neff read an opening credit: “Luciano Tovoli, director of photographer.”

  2. DVS never seems to get clocks right. This came up in Time Machine, too. “The clock with its hands stopped at 9:26” was previously described as having its hands at 9:27. (So did the movie dialogue. But then history was rewritten to say “9:26” in the movie dialogue.) Later still, the clock is described as reading “9:26” when it’s more like 9:28.

    You can approximate lots of things in description – ages of people, heights of objects – but one should probably be more careful with analogue clocks. I am not in a big rush to rewatch the movie to figure out if the describers were following along with a continuity error as best they could or if they flubbed it.

  3. “Cassie, Sam, and two other officers watch Richard”: No, one of them is concentrating on paperwork or something at his desk.

  4. “Vertical stripes” and the “vertical” light and shade they produce were mentioned. But, as with A Beautiful Mind, these were Venetian blinds.

  5. “Cassie turns the TV back on”: No, she unmutes it. It’s been on all the while, showing Matlock, another of those callow pop-cultural references. Perhaps it was cheaper to license than Spenser: For Hire or Vega$ (one of the earliest captioned shows).

  6. “A file marked Carl Hudson” is mentioned twice. It is actually marked “Hudson, Carl.” There are certain elisions and combinations we carry out in description (we might say “a newspaper headline reads ‘Kennedy shot’ ” rather than “the headline of the Dallas–Ft. Worth Observer reads ‘Kennedy shot’ ”), but this isn’t in that category.

    (A sign outside a town reads ENTERING WILMONT, POPULATION 1,340. The description just says “Entering Wilmont.” I think there was time to add the population, but big deal.)

  7. “The blonde hurries down some concrete steps”: I really hate this sort of thing. It’s old-fashioned, i.e., out-of-date, sexist language. “Brunette” is a similar term. (“Redhead” has more of a female sense, though it is much more amenable to describing males than the other two.) I suppose next up is “coed.”

I am willing to go along with the idea that Det. Cassie Mayweather, suspiciously beautiful and young, pre-emptively seduces each and every male partner assigned to her, even though it has stale Black Widow overtones hinted at in the script. But I will observe that describing Sam as “bare-chested” and mentioning his “chest” without any further elucidation (hair? muscles? nipples?) is yet another example of describers finding female attractiveness worth describing and male attractiveness nonexistent. (“Blondes” hurry down concrete steps, which perhaps illustrates how they are also “leggy,” while men merely have “chests” that are sometimes “bare.”)

Should the overblown and overrated “male gaze” be transferred wholesale to audio description?

Yet interestingly, the various homoerotic head-caressing and hugging done by our man Gosling are fairly and accurately described. So what’s going on there? Describing through clenched teeth?

Caption quality

I have noticed before, but probably never mentioned, that the flashing light from the Rear Window display is bright enough to spill over onto the rows in front of the display. During nighttime movie scenes, it is quite possible to see an amber tinge turn on and off over the backs of the seats and the people in front of you.

Install enough of these things in real-world theatres, and eventually people are going to start complaining.

There were lots of little inconsistencies and errors in the captions.

  1. As with Panic Room, Sam was inconsistently named, either as VICE or SAM (Cf. MOM and MEG). Sam was consistently audio-described as Sam; in fact, he was peremptorily named or preidentified in the description (another thing we do, like reading “Ben Chaplin as Sam Kennedy” in opening credits even though the only visible words are “Ben Chaplin”).
  2. SATs and S.A.T.s were spelled both ways. The latter is the old Caption Center orthography used when all-caps captioning was the norm.
  3. Just before I got up to change seats, at the very opening of the film, two unnamed officers (I think) do some talking. They are IDed as OFFICER ONE and OFFICER TWO. Why write it out in words, since that is contrary to style and common sense? And besides, we see MAN 1 and MAN 2 later.
  4. There was too much use of all-centred captions during a scene in which Cassie and Sam speak and the phone rings. What is this, subtitling? You have to ID the speakers.
  5. “Wormwood-infused alcohol” needed a hyphen.
  6. (uses correct pronunciation) was certainly nice, though they of course add a colon.
  7. “I don’t know ask Sam” could use a comma. In fact, I seem to have noticed several absences of commas.
  8. “Rule number one: Talk to the neighbours” was flagrantly miscaptioned as “A little one-on-one: Talk to the neighbours.” It is mildly shocking to have to tell the Caption Center that, when something doesn’t make sense, you have probably mistranscribed it.
  9. “In the middle of a four-five-nine”: Here we go again. I’ve been complaining about this for years. Unless later dialogue specifically mentions it, there is no reason to provide narrow transcription of number readings. A phone number like “777-3886” can be read a number of ways, none of which is particularly important in captioning (e.g., triple-seven three double-eight six); just write it as 777-3886. A 459 is a 459 and not a four-five-nine.
  10. “Pre or postmortem?” was captioned once, but later, so was “post-mortem wounds.” Use hyphens in all cases: “Pre- or post-mortem?”; “post-mortem wounds.”

Exit interview

This was a Monday night. Nothing was going on. Nothing felt magical. We were out in the middle of nowhere.

But it was still majorly loud with booming videogame sound effects. At Guest Services, no one was there. At the ticket counter, a wee lass finally deigned to notice me. “Can I get my ID back?” I asked the three people there. The wee lass walked toward me and asked “What for?”

So I can go buy a two-four at the liquor store, moron. I’m obviously going to get carded with my beard, bald head, and visible wrinkles. Why do you think I want it back?

“So I can trade these in,” I said, holding the reflector and headset up.

She heads back to Guest Services, takes the gear, and starts flopping around. There’s no other way to describe it: She started flopping around the back desk, finding nothing. I knew this would happen, I told myself.

Suddenly, like flipping a turtle, my card popped up. She handed it to me and I told her this was exactly the thing I was hoping to avoid. She gives me that little frown that only girls and young invert men ever use, pauses pregnantly, conceals none of her indignation, and tells me “It wasn’t me who took it.”

That’s the whole point, I told her. There has to be a set system so that anyone can find the ID cards. (Obviously there’s staff turnover through a shift.)

She kept frowning girlishly with grand preoccupied annoyance. One of the other staff at the front desk was a man wearing a suit. I eventually got a straight answer from my wee lass (not exactly a “blonde,” let alone “leggy”) that he was higher on the totem pole than she was. I zipped right over.

I explained to this lad and the other chick what had happened, and that there has to be a better system for taking IDs. And get this: The other chick, who was very smart and on top of things, told me that the official system for the entire house is to see ID to determine who you are, and then merely to jot down name and number in the book. “Playaz” are not to keep ID cards.

I then complained about the treatment by the wee lass, who seemed very put out to have to serve me. Not the first time that’s happened, but not the first time there was no reason to act that way, either. (I may be a bitch sometimes. I am not a bitch all the time. Can we get that straight, please?)

I explained that every house has a different system when it has a system at all – every playa does whatever he or she wants, and there is no consistency. The fella told me he was just the treasurer and knew nothing about it. But the on-the-ball chick wondered what “other” theatres I was talking about, so I told her. She was a bit surprised. Maybe it seemed odd that someone not obviously deaf or blind would show up from Toronto to harangue staff over mismanagement of the only MoPix system in Ottawa, giving concrete example of other installations.

At this point, I was actually upset. I knew that having to shout to be heard was making me more upset still.

I walked out of the place directly to the bus stop, where two white-trash girls (takes one to know one) asked me what time it was and when the bus was coming. Faced with a 20-minute wait and an enormously lengthy bus ride (not even in a sexy new bus) or a tax-deductible cab trip that would be covered by the Commons expense per diem anyway, I took a cab.

Despite everything, I would be perfectly happy forever if Ben Chaplin were my boyfriend. We would then legally adopt Ryan Gosling.

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