The Frustrations of being a Deaf Cinephile... Part 1 - The Cinema
I’m a kid of the 70’s and the 80’s when everything was analogue and celluloid, it was the era of the summer blockbuster, we had films from Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones), George Lucas (Star Wars), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and Joe Dante (Gremlins) This meant as a Deaf child I loved the fun and spectacle of those films not worrying about what the characters were saying.
During the 90’s I started to read film magazines, published scripts, film tie-in books, original novels and film biographies just so I could understand the basic stories of the English-speaking films I watched at the cinema even if it meant knowing what happened before watching them. Case in point; the infamous ending in ‘Se7en’ I knew beforehand no thanks to the book’s film tie-in book but if I didn’t read the book I wouldn’t have known what was in the box.
By then I was very content in not quite understanding exactly what was going on, I would vaguely know or I would guess but it was just watching films that I loved.
Around the 00’s we started seeing subtitled showings at the cinema, this was where they projected subtitles on top of the film, essentially shining a light at the bottom of the screen making the rest of the screen dark, not perfect but it was progress. However we would get more free tickets from the cinemas after failed subtitled showings than the number of subtitled screenings available.
Nowadays we have better subtitled screenings and crucially digitally which means the hard drive the films comes in have a subtitle option and you just press a button for burnt in subtitles so the quality of watching subtitled films has increased ten-fold but…
I want to watch any film I want to wherever I want to and whenever I want to.
This point I’m making is fruitless and futile despite the many incredible advances in film technology, we Deaf Cinephiles can’t enjoy films on the same level as everyone else, it’s a constant hassle.
If I wanted to watch a particular film at a particular cinema, perhaps at my local VUE down the road in Wandsworth I have to find out when the next subtitled showing is, they usually are shown only once or twice a month at any one cinema on a specific time and a specific day so I have to schedule around that specific day and specific time if I wanted to go to my local cinema.
Even worse the screening times are either during the day time during the week, implying Deaf people are unemployed and have nothing to do, or so soon after work that my wife can’t get to the cinema in time and this is just my local cinema so I have to start looking afar, perhaps VUE Fulham or Odeon Wimbledon just to find that one screening my wife and I can attend. I’ve had to drive down to VUE Croydon, I’ve had to travel to the city to Leicester Square’s cinemas whilst my friends just pop round the corner to their local cinema.
The cinema trip doesn’t just end there, I have to double check with staff there definitely is a subtitled showing, it took 5 of VUE Wandsworth’s staff to find out if there was one for ‘Birdman’ and another time at the same cinema a staff member did not understand what subtitles was.
This doesn’t distill much confidence in staff of the major chain cinemas unlike smaller places like Clapham Picture House who always know they have subtitled showings and even take the time to write this up on their film listings chalk boards.
I also can never relax in the cinema (whilst enduring 30 minutes of non-subtitled adverts) until the film starts and the first line of subtitles comes on, I just want to be able to kick back and look forward to watching not worrying.
There’s that dreaded moment when a character in the film starts speaking and the subtitles don’t come up so my wife is forced to complain to the staff and so they stop the film, explain to a very disgruntled audience it was a subtitled showing (one time during ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ a woman shouted out ‘SUBTITLES?! SUBTITLES?!’ as if it was something completely alien to her before storming out) and restart the film.
I should not have to make a fuss every time there’s problems with subtitled screenings, we should have faith in our local cinemas but when it happens I can’t help but get frustrated after having missed one of very, very few opportunities to watch a film and rightly so.
This brings to mind my friend, a die-hard Trekkie, who kicked up an almighty fuss when his cinema didn’t show the Star Trek reboot with subtitles and ended up banging on the projectionist’s door until the management relented and restarted the film leading some hearing people to berate my friend for ruining their night out. Those are the lucky sods who can watch this film at any time they like whereas my friend can’t.
I have noticed more and more hearing people attending subtitled screenings, I know a majority of them are hard of hearing or foreign people learning English but perhaps the rest of the cinema-goers find those subtitled screenings less busier, perhaps they didn’t know about the subtitles or don’t give a toss.
I watched a subtitled showing of ‘Black Swan’ in an absolutely rammed large cinema room, I expected at least half the audience to walk out but no, every single person stayed through the whole film, it probably was because of the film’s huge success that people just wanted to watch it.
Back to my earlier paragraph about being a kid who grew up on 80’s films, there’s been a trend of screening classic films in 35mm on the big screen as an antidote to the digital revolution at places such as The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square who have had marathons such as an Arnie-All-Nighter but these events never are subtitled.
Just the idea of watching scratchy 35mm prints of my favourite films of the 80’s on the big screen with subtitles would be wonderful but it’s too much of a hassle for the cinemas to sort out and even if they did the majority of the hearing audience would complain and the cinema would need to see a large amount of Deaf people attending to justify the hassle and costs.
That’s another thing the cinemas baulk over subtitled screenings; the loss of profits, those subtitled screenings don’t really generate much money and not many hearing people like subtitles so they are put in silly time / day slots but that in turn means they lose more money especially when they are shown whilst everyone is at work.
What people fail to understand is the simple fact that by subtitling films this means more people get to watch them and generate more money.
It’d be a whole lot easier if I was unemployed, not married to my wonderful wife and fellow film-buff Mary and living on benefits just so I could watch as many subtitled screenings as I liked - exactly what the Tories and the chain cinemas want.
It seems by bringing in subtitled screenings just so there’s more ease and access for Deaf people has in turn created less access and more hassle.
Quite often I wish we didn’t have those blasted subtitled screenings just so I could enjoy non-subtitled films contently and just simply watch them all over again on Blu-ray but with subtitles and enjoy them more a second time around like I used to but the tide has passed, I can’t watch a film without subtitles knowing I can watch those films with subtitles somewhere, somehow, eventually.
I should mention some positive things in this otherwise negative-sounding article; we have the Your Local Cinema website showing all the subtitled screenings in the UK highlighting a real need from Deaf people to watch films as well as Soho’s Curzon hosting subtitled screenings of English-speaking arthouse films, low budget and contemporary cult films every now and then.
And, despite the silly screening times and lack of choice of cinema venues, we are seeing a real wide range of films being shown with subtitles whereas it used to be just the major films that were subtitled.
Some people reading this article probably will think if I’m a Cinephile then I should make the effort to watch a film, I should be determined to watch a film no matter where it it but that’s not the point. Films are there for everyone to relax, watch and enjoy without the hassle, raising a fuss and having a lack of confidence in cinemas.
And don’t say I should be grateful for cinema subtitled showings, you hearing lot can watch whatever film you like, whenever you like and wherever you like, full stop.
(Sidenote: there are special glasses developed by Sony Pictures people in the US can wear that displays the subtitles of a film they watch at the cinema, this means we can go into any screen to watch a film but this hasn’t yet hit our shores, it was last reported in 2011 and there hasn’t been any progress since to the best of my knowledge)