Joe Clark: Media access

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Seen: 2003.07.28   ¶   Reviewed: 2003.08.06

Right. An uplifting tale of a redhead and his horse – just the sort of overdetermined, overproduced, overbudgeted, overwrought star vehicle immediately offered to an underdog actor after he unexpectedly makes the studio money. Isn’t it hard to imagine that an overdetermined, overproduced, overbudgeted, overwrought piece of pabulum like Spider-man (whether I enjoyed it or not, all the foregoing are true) could have so much more life and spontaneity than a film about barely-domesticated giant animals?

If you want historical docudrama, watch Beefcake. I am, as the kids say, totally not kidding. Seabiscuit needs to lie more to tell the truth. The movie ups its own ante through the interposition of historical news footage and still photographs, abetted by the worst idea in Hollywood movies all year, narration by David McCullough. I have a hard time squaring McCullough’s reputation as a narrator of historical documentaries, which dominate his two decades’ experience, with his work here as a narrator of fictionalized history.

If you’re gonna sign up someone whom the hearing audience is accustomed to trusting, you need to counter and transcend the resulting gravitas. We know the rest of the movie is fake no matter how accurate the footage, stills, and narration are (or are they, in fact? We’ll see about that shortly), so up the ante a little. Be serious and factual part of the time and something else the rest of the time.

Any story involving red hair, boxing, the landed gentry, and hypnotic races around a track lends itself to magic realism, for example. I appreciated the spectacle of jockeys beating the shit out of each other on their mounts. I suppose that is intended to be all shocking and revelatory, but the truth of the racing experience seems better embodied by the jockeys’ mutterings to their steeds while galloping at full tilt (itself an equestrian term). It seems like a dreamstate, where the overwhelming sensory inputs force you to close off your conscious and rational mind.

Wouldn’t that be a better contrast to David McCullough sonorously educating us on life during the American Depression?

Tobey Maguire does not work as an angry young man. The giant eyes, familiar from velvet paintings stereotypically found in trailer parks or, in a more recherché reference, from anime, connote a loving all-seeingness. You find yourself aswim in their pools. Large eyes are a symbol dating to antiquity, and he’s got them. He’s a he, moreover. It is not quite a feminine quality but it is a softening one.

And the movie gets his blindness wrong: At one point it portrays him as having a reduced right-side field of vision, which would be consistent with visual-cortex damage, while at another occasion having him blurt that he cannot see on the right side. Wait till the writer finds out that both eyes provide left- and right-side vision.

Jeff Bridges, as usual, acts with his smile. His nonspecific Americana has been his selling point for two decades, but it’s so nonspecific he represents nothing. He can’t even be a proper character actor, like Vincent D’Onofrio or Christopher Eccleston, because of too many star billings. He comes off as benevolent and opinionless, and carries the standard of the worst casting of the Coens’ lives. There’s nothing dudelike about him. He only barely preserves credibility here as a benevolent businessman, with, it must be noted, a trophy wife whose role epitomizes that of the woman in cinema: To do nothing but look beautiful.

A more credible portrayal of a wife in the ’30s is found in Tick Tock McGlaughlin’s “squeeze,” as she is described in the credits. I’ve upgraded her to “wife.” They probably weren’t living in sin. And living they were: The audio description lied throughout the movie that Tick Tock was broadcasting from a “studio.” It appeared to be a small living room in a cramped, dark house – their house, judging by the squeeze’s nonchalant flipping of magazines in the background. I loved her gum-popping, I-don’t-know-why-I-put-up-with-this-jackass demeanour. I see a real person there, not an actor’s smile or an actress’s wardrobe, hair, and makeup.

Sound mix was sometimes poor. I can tell when a fake horse’s neighing is dragged from the crypt. I’ve heard that same fake neigh a thousand times before. The intrusive triumphalist fanfare during the $100,000 race was an object lesson in why feel-good composer Randy Newman (even his name feels good) needs to be avoided like the plague. “He fixed us,” the movie tells us (us-us-us!). “All of us.” You don’t say. Or should not have had to.

I certainly had a good laugh when, during a dinner scene meant to depict Red’s eating disorder, the plate starts out with nothing but vegetables. Tobey Maguire is, after all, a vegan. Then the plate is contaminated by pork chops, which, I noted, T. Maguire did not actually eat.

A beautiful overhead shot – so nice it’ll end up as a cookie in the Oscars telecast – communicates the tremendous mass and momentum of horse and rider. But, as ever, the typography used in facsimile newspapers was all wrong from start to finish. Someday a producer will spend a red cent and get this done correctly. I don’t see them taking similar huge liberties with costumes. Do you see Chris Cooper suiting himself up in a Nehru jacket or track pants?

I rest my case.

Theatre experience

Tonight’s playa had a sense of humour. I mentioned yet again to everyone present that it was a bad idea to have “guests” sign themselves in. (I was willing to do it solely because we were at the top of a new page with but one name above mine, which I was at pains not to read.) I should really tell my bosses about that, said the helpful playa (paraphrased). But I’ve been telling everyone about this for two years, I emphasized, while, for once, remaining perfectly calm.

I had noted, on the downstairs sign, that Seabiscuit was promised only with (RWC), a term that means nothing to real people. When I got upstairs, who should amble over but the same lying manageress who thinks her fake smile and gladhanding will work on me. There she is claiming that the movie has captions but no descriptions, and the headset, which she would not hand me, worked only for amplification.

I reached over and picked up the headset myself.

There were maybe 30 people in the 500-seat auditorium, including a dumpy couple in and next to my seat. Mr. X and I were able to sit one row forward, and it was fine. The dumpy couple were dying to ask us about what we were doing, but, this being Toronto (“City Bylaw Nº 1: Thou shalt not talk to strangers”), they did not.

The movie started and of course there was description. Wanker.

Further anecdote: A manager unlocked the storeroom door (another bottleneck right there) for the playa to fetch our gear, then left. Another manager came by. I tried to explain the problem of signing oneself up. It was then explained that he’s not a real manager. “He’s... doing something else,” explained the playa as the “manager” walked away. Covering up for him, I should think.

Caption quality

We have extremely serious errors in this picture, caused, it seems, by post-postproduction sweetening and late delivery of a print. First Legally Blonde 2, now this.

  1. It was a land of opportunity (trite, and flat-out propaganda besides) appeared late after its utterance.
  2. A newspaper vendor (cliché, anyone?) is claimed to yell Extra! Extra! but only said the word once.
  3. A stadium announcer was entirely miscaptioned even though I could not completely make out what he was saying. Yet I know for a fact what was written was not it. That hasn’t happened very often.
    • DIALOGUE: You could find anything – food, companionship.
    • CAPTION: You could find food, companionship.
    • DIALOGUE: that were begun in those years
    • CAPTION: started in those years
    • DIALOGUE: Bucks like a fuckin’ airplane
    • CAPTION: Bucks like a frickin' airplane
    • DIALOGUE: Come on, George, don’t fuck around. [The mouth movements were unmistakable.]
    • CAPTION: Come on, George, don't fool around.
    • DIALOGUE: 100,000 hot dogs, 2,000 cases of beer
    • CAPTION: 60,000 hot dogs, 4,000 cases of beer (not the exact words, but the numbers are right)
    • DIALOGUE: Easy, Pops [nickname for Seabiscuit].
    • CAPTION: Ease it back.
    • DIALOGUE: It’s up to him, Red.
    • CAPTION: It's up to him now.

We can be more descriptive than just MAN:, WOMAN:, etc.:


(no audio) is repeatedly misused. In one case there was no audio – utter silence. In every other case the correct caption is (no voice), or, in some unrelated cases, (mouths words). One (no audio) instance occurred during uproarious cheering from the crowd.

5th and 6th rather than fifth and sixth.

NARRATOR (voice-over): Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. How many onscreen narrators do you find? Huh? Also CHARLES (voice-over): No, it is not. He’s out of frame. It’s not as though we haven’t been dealing with out-of-frame speakers for 30 years. just say CHARLES:.

(protesting) is concise but accurate.

Repeatedly we saw captions of plainly-visible events, as (hoofbeats pounding). Yeah, I can see that.

♪ Rock of ages, ♪

Errant comma.

The name of the Movietone announcer was IDed in a caption even though he never uttered his name himself (that I can recall).

Description quality

Miles Neff is our narrator.

Now, I figured this kind of movie would be just right for blind people, given that many of them are older, many ride horses, and many are “traditional.” I also imagined Lisa Simpson entranced by horses and ponies. Plus there’s such an extensive vocabulary concerning horses. I didn’t find much of it: “The horseman slows his steed to a trot, then reins him to a stop” (and later, in a separate scene, “bridles him”) “Chestnut steed.”

Tick Tock McGlaughlin’s “radio booth” is his front room, never explained.

Had to edit a sign held up by an unfortunate – from “$100 will buy this car. Must sell. Lost all in the stock market” to “Must sell. Lost all in the stock market.”

We don’t describe sounds unless they are truly ambiguous. We do not explain cause and effect between an obvious sound and later visual action. But that’s what DVS did anyway: “As he turns the key, the sudden ignition scatters” a group of crows in a tree.

Nor do we attempt to read characters’ minds, as AudioVision Canada pretends it can: Men “puff on cigarettes and pace in anticipation.” “As they cheer for their favourite”: Prove it, honey.

“Bustling in [their] crisp uniforms, the doctors and nurses pay no mind to Charles”: Unfortunate use of “mind” (can’t DVS read them?). That is actually what’s happening, though.

Here we go again with the “horizontal blinds.” They’re Venetian blinds.

Super-fast delivery of an onscreen title (not all of which were voiced, but it was unavoidable): “TeehwanaMexico1933.” (“Now, at the Santa Anita Park” interpreted an onscreen title.)

“Tom’s gaze shifts to the belligerent kid ahead of him, then back to the ornery horse behind him”: I see the parallel (I have a bruise on my scalp, right next to the mark left by the description headset, from getting hit over the head with it), but is that too precious and clever? Does it not fail to describe, and actually interpret?

“Then stands with his arms akimbo”: Akimbo? Huh? (Google "boy with arms akimbo" sometime and see what you get.) “Colourful picador lances cling to the animal’s bloody shoulders” in a bullfight. Le mot juste, obviously, but obscure.

“Now” too often used, a DVS peccadillo. Actual sequence of sentences: “Now they happily ride again side by side. Now, at a wedding chapel.”

“Past dense orange trees”: No, they do not bear oranges. “Past trees with dense orange leaves.”

“Posh” is used twice. You can’t say “fancy”? “Several working-class men nod”: I suppose that’s borderline. Then again, DVS won’t even mention when people are black.


A baby is a baby in captions and an “infant” in descriptions. But both media used the term “blows a raspberry” in trivially different forms.

Tom Smith is “Tom” in descriptions and SMITH: in captions.

Exit interview

I told the playa to tell the manageress that of course there was description. And I told him to tell her exactly like that. I then complained to Famous the next day.

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