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AudioVisionWatchThe Last Days of Disco


Updated 2001.07.15

Failures in audio description:
The Last Days of Disco

For some reason, on 2001.04.05, Showcase aired an open-described version of Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (reviews).

Now, I hate Whit Stillman, largely because I hate the twee, neurotic yuppie scum he celebrates. Stillman would like us to believe he is actually examining this cohort, but that is hardly credible.

I surprised myself in enjoying The Last Days of Disco. I was vastly more surprised to find relatively few outrages in AudioVision’s descripton of this film.

“Written by Marco Sauren, narrated by Valerie Hunter, and mixed by John Carlisle.”

  • We start off as inauspiciously as ever. Universal Studios’ bumper, consisting of a spinning Earth in space whose continents glow beams of light, is undescribed completely. Seconds pass, and we are eventually told, with vast self-satisfaction, “This film has been described by AudioVision Canada.”
    • Moments later, we are told “Universal.”
    • Here, as ever in AudioVision’s rendering of opening and closing credits, the sole effort is to avoid annoying sighted people. Only onscreen typography is read out loud (not always accurately), and it is only read when it actually appears, squandering precious seconds to describe what is actually happening.
    • As usual, DVS does this right: Credit sequences have the text of credits intermingled with whatever other visual effects require description. (DVS does add some annotations and will also say which role an actor portrays even if the credits do not. Reasonable people may quibble here.)
  • Exactly the same thing happens with the sweeping lighthouse searchlight and rising sun of the Castle Rock Entertainment intro. Full description: Long silence. “Castle Rock Entertainment. A Time Warner Company.” We’re missing a lot here.
  • Actual opening credits move by very quickly and are described just as quickly. We aren’t told they are credits, but we get the idea. Some editing had to be done; there was no time to include every name. All this happens while a theme song is playing. AudioVision handled this segment just fine.
  • We are not told, however, that other titles appear: “The very early 1980s. September.” Those words are simply read out. How does the describer know? Same very much later with the title “Spring.”
  • “Two attractive young women in their 20s stride along a city sidewalk” is quite fine. There is nothing wrong with stating that a person is attractive if, as in this case, they’re well-groomed and well-dressed. It must be pointed out, though, that there is a cultural bias toward pointing out the attractiveness of females. A group of attractive men would never be described that way. It would never occur to straight-girl describers that they had license to make mention of it; straight guys and dykes won’t notice; and gay describers will feel all closety and hesitant to state the obvious.
  • Several minutes of good solid description are enjoyed until we hit “Suppressing smiles of relief.” Yup, they’re suppressing smiles, but how do we know they’re relieved? Describers are not mind-readers.
  • “Several beautiful girls emerge from a limo.” Are girls girls or women? (I personally use both, but some delicate sensitivities are injured by the alleged sexism of “girl.”)
  • “Alice, the blonde, looks at Jimmy.” In captioning, the only voices unidentified by the program that the captions may identify by name are famous or recognizable voices (famous actors, heads of state, that sort of thing). But in description, it is sometimes necessary to name characters in description before they are named in the program. It is simply too unwieldy and, more to the point, confusing to resort to periphrasty, describing everyone by phrase.
    • Here, Alice and her “brunette” friend should have been identified much earlier. I suppose everyone should have, really. This is at worst a venial sin, but a good script edit would have caught it.
    • Shortly: “As the brunette, Charlotte, leads Jimmy’s guest off to dance”: This too could have been done much earlier.
    • “Meanwhile” – program continues; man calls to Jimmy – “Jimmy heads up a laneway,” an echo with a previous description that a man heads up an alley. This Jimmy is not identified as the dark-haired man previously seen in a limousine. You’d need pretty sharp ears to keep the voices straight in your mind.
  • “Upset, Jimmy starts to leave. Then he turns back to her.” I complain frequently about AudioVision’s interpreting invisible emotional states, but this is not invisible, and it is necessary to counterpoint how Jimmy looks when he walks away with his chastened demeanour when he “turns back to her.” As with many components of audio description, blanket prohibitions of impressionistic writing cannot be made.
  • “Des watches him leave.” Actually, the ice in Jimmy’s drink tinkles and he sets down his glass, all quite audibly. Describe what you see.
  • To their credit, AudioVision shuts up and lets the astonishingly fabulous music simply play from time to time. The don’t call it The Last Days of Disco for nothing.
  • “Across the dance floor, Des notices Josh.” What this really means is: On the opposite side of the dance floor, Des notices Josh. Des is not looking at Josh over the teeming heads of the dance floor.
  • At a commercial break: “Our story will continue.” Hmm. Is this really necessary? I certainly don’t think it’s harmful. But amazingly, the entire next scene up to the following commercial break exhibits no description atrocities whatsoever.
  • I hate Whit Stillman, but can I give props here? Actual dialogue: “These apartments were actually planned in the last century as tenement housing for working-class families. Now all the yuppie roommate combos are crowding them out.”
  • “Alice does mind, but Charlotte and Jimmy have already gotten up.” This is a bit de trop, too clever by half, also presumptuous. In fact, Alice’s face registers disapproval. She glances disapprovingly. Instead we are told she “minds.” In fact, AudioVision is presumably reading her mind for us.
  • “In the morning, Alice rinses out her mouth in the bathroom.” We merely know it is morning. We haven’t been watching the clock continuously all night. Don’t jump to conclusions. Same with “Walking home after her visit to Charlotte, Alice is pensive.”
  • “Alone, Josh heads for home.” Well, no. He walks down the darkened street.
  • One notes there is no real description of what “the club” looks like. Rather as with failing to describe what the Arrow looks like in the eponymous film, this rather undercuts the whole point of the movie.
  • “Lying in her hospital bed, Charlotte begins to sing.” I was not aware we were engaged in captioning.

So there you have it: AudioVision is not incapable of doing marginally half-decent work when they put their minds to it. The question becomes: Why don’t they put their minds to it more often?