The Cinematic Effect of Closed Captioning

I was born moderately deaf in both ears. When I got my cohlear implant (CI) surgery in 2001, it wiped my residual hearing out completely. I can’t hear without my CI, at all. Even when it’s on, my hearing is far from perfect. I can’t pick up sounds or voices coming from behind me (though I could hear them with a different modified setting, but all the transitions between my processor’s programs are not what you call “seamless”).

For this reason, I need to turn on the closed captioning when watching TV or movies. Without the captions, I can maybe pick up half of what the actors say if I concetrate hard enough. But it really takes an effort, and sometimes it’s exhausting. A lot of the times, the actors just mumble or whisper their lines for dramatic effect. Hey, I don’t blame them. You do what you got to do. Art is art, and you can’t express it in a monotonous or robotic way. It ceases to be art if you go down that road.

Without captions, I sometimes miss crucial plot points. If you’ve ever seen Book of Eli, you’ll know of the “blind main character” twist. Well, when I first saw it in the theater all those years ago, that plot twist completely flew over my head. I only learned about it because I read a synopsis online after getting back home. The whole climax of the story was the bad ass main character, who beat up marauders, was basically a post-apocalyptic Daredevil.

And I missed it due to the lack of captions at the theater.

For those who aren’t in the know, there’s a little movement going around to get captions insitituted in movie theaters. Some devices have been tried over the years to accommodate deaf film-goers, albeit with limited success. One of these includes a pair of glasses that shows the captions inside the lenses. Users have unfortunately complained of optical discomfort.

Another method was a miniature-screen held by a flexible pole that’s inserted inside the customer’s cup-holder. Users, however, have complained of awkwardness and embarrassement since the device sticks out like a sore thumb inside a crowded theater.

In this day and age, there have been special screenings of theaterical releases containing dialogue visually showing up on screen in real time.

My position on the matter is this: Make captions available, but don’t make them mandatory.

The reason I say this is that text on screen has its way of detracting from the moviegoing experience. Sorry if I’m saying this to my own detriment, but it’s something I learned today when rewatching Sonic the Hedgehog on DVD. When I saw it in the theater a couple months ago, I got the idea that it was a schmaltzy kid’s movie with themes of friendship and so on. I didn’t catch all the dialogue but I still got the gist of what they were saying. But I was too distracted by the CGI of Sonic himself and the VFX of Dr. Eggman’s robots, I just didn’t care.

But when I watched it again with the captions on, something was…different. I was focusing on the text. I was paying more attention to the corny dialogue and mentally nitpicking its subpar writing. This wasn’t the dialogue of bad asses or suave Scorsese-gangsters. For some odd reason, I was bothered that this wasn’t Tarantino-level scriptwriting. Why should that even matter? Sonic is supposed to be a kid’s movie, and it succeeded at that. It’s based on a friggin’ video game! And it was nice to see old-school Jim Carrey on the big screen again.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that closed captions have a way of turning cinematic experiences to reading experiences. There’s a noticeable difference when you visually show what the characters are saying. When the captions are off, you’re experiencing the movie in a singular stream.

With the captions on, though, you’re experiencing it in two different streams. It’s impossible to be 100% invested in any particular stream when there’s more than one. Deaf people need captions because it’s all they have. At the same time, the average paying customer at any theater deserves to get their money’s worth for the experience.

That’s why I’m saying this: Make captions available, but don’t make them mandatory.

It’s a reasonable compromise, no?

3 thoughts on “The Cinematic Effect of Closed Captioning

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