Unexpected access: The Sound of Mucus

We just finished writing a large treatise about online accessibility and how access features could be reused online. We also put forth a more catholic definition of the term. Allow us to beat a vegan dead-horse substitute here and give an example of how accessibility can be fun!

We recall reading, for the first and only time in over 20 years, a believable explanation for the value of captions (or, in this case, same-language subtitles, though they are one and the same) for hearing people. In the 2000.02.14 New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes of the phenomenon of Sing-a-Long-a-Sound of Music, where an entire theatreful of people dresses up as nuns (or Girls in White Dresses with Blue Satin Sashes, as you will) and heads to screenings of The Sound of Music where all the songs are open-captioned.

The idea is simple. You watch the film – uncut, as nature intended, in a scuzzy print, with alarming colour shifts as the reels change. The only difference is the added subtitles, which come alive, like the hills, during every song. These enable viewers to join in, which they do with undisguised lustiness. The titling of The Sound of Music was prepared by Martin Wagner, for London’s National Film Theatre, and it struck me as the one work of unquestionable genius that I encountered last year. I tend to be embarrassed by subtitles;

– here comes the standard pompous hearing person’s attitude: ignore subtitles except to act superior to them –

their audacious efforts to snatch at foreign vernaculars end up stressing, rather than allaying, the alien qualities of the setting. With The Sound of Music, however, they bring home just how tightly, even soothingly, we are wrapped in this unignorable film. In a sense, Wagner had a head start; what was required was not translation from another tongue but the simple transcription, for karaoke purposes, of words that most of us know pretty well. (I was appalled to discover that, after a thirty-year break, I was close to word perfect.) This, however, is where Wagner shows his hand; who else would have thought to include the Latin chant that rises from the abbey as we pan down from Julie Andrews on a hillside and get ready for “(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria”? I had never noticed it before – no audience is meant to notice filler, the blah that keeps a soundtrack ticking along – but suddenly there it was at the bottom of the screen (“In saecula saeculorum”). Things get even better halfway through the picture, as the children gather at the foot of the stairs to bid the party guests good night. Friedrich sings, and the titles follow him closely:

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu,
Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu.

That was it for me. For thirty years, I have wondered about this torturing little rhyme. It should have been easy to avoid; if you want “Adieu” to rhyme with “you,” you don’t pronounce it in French – simply opt for the Anglicized version, “Adyoo,” and take it from there. But no: The Sound of Music made a tragic move to sound classy, and it paid the price. As for the yodelling in the puppet scene, it inspires Wagner to his finest work – a cluster bomb of meaningless vowels. For anyone who believes that The Sound of Music shows Hollywood at its most hopelessly square, what could be more bracing than to see it reborn as a Dadaist art happening?

The Sound of Mucus is finally available on DVD; Sing-a-Long-a-Sound of Music will tour America. Some kind of online presence is assured, eventually. We imagine downloadable QuickTime videos with open subtitles – searchable, of course. [Frisson] This could be the next big Internet meme, as gormless AOLers and ASP programmers delete their dancing babies and “I kiss you!” files in favour of gathering friends and colleagues ’round the monitor to exclaim that “Mi!” is “A name I call myself!”

Posted on 2000-08-31