Transforming Captions

hearing impairedBy Karla Fetrow

I have survived once again the bottle rockets red glare, fireworks bursting in air, the four wheelers kicking up dust and the neighbors we don’t trust except once a year when we all come together for a little patriotic celebration. In the interest of memorable, I participated in all the usual glories that have become as much a solemn ritual and tradition as decorating the Christmas tree, yet one aspect stands out. My son and his one day to become his wife took me to the movies. Not that he had never taken me to the movies before. There are some that absolutely must be seen on the big screen in order to relish their graphic action. With this in mind, I sat in a small, stiff backed chair, longing for enough room to curl my legs up under me, and politely waiting until the end of the movie to pee, so I could view the awesome advances in modern technology in such movies Indiana Jones, Star Trek and any Marvel Comic Book related super hero. These are obligatory movies, watched more for their explosive consequences than half a mind to any real plot line. The movie they were taking me to see wasn’t exactly one that was high in my list of “must see” as it was the new “Transformers”, but they said they had a surprise for me. One of the theaters had started something new in our wonderful City of Anchorage, which occasionally demonstrates a little consideration for others. The showing the kids took me to had captions.

What a novel idea in a society whose only solution for the deaf has been to try and make them hear better. The program directive of this mentality is, if you can’t hear, put on a hearing aid. The problem is, hearing aids work well only for those whose eardrums have been damaged. The aids are designed so they bypass the drums and deliver sounds directly to the nerves that translate these different vibrations into categories of words and noises. The only thing they do for nerve loss damage is amplify the sounds received by the living nerves. This causes the live nerves to work over-time, generally sending them to an early death. Have you ever heard ringing in your ears when you went to bed at night? If you have, these are the nerve endings screaming in pain after a day of listening to noises too great for their endurance. This is what a nerve damaged person goes through every night after using a hearing aid. My deafness is a nerve loss, with eighty percent deafness on my right side, and a thirty percent random nerve loss on the other. Because I miss a few tones in all the pitches, amplifications are distorted, carrying machine noises, clattering object, pencils dropping, even foot steps well above the sounds of human voices.

The theater owners were a little cautious about their captions as they didn’t wish to annoy the movie viewers who found distaste in the distraction of words flying across the screen, interfering with the graphic eye feast. They didn’t place the captions in little white boxes like they do for television, VHS and DVD’s. They were pale yellow, and could barely be seen on light colored backgrounds, although they showed up nicely in the evening shots.

Still, I discovered myself falling into the lazy, comfortable habit that began when captions became a part of media technology, of reading; when I was able to at least; what the characters said instead of trying to lip read the more obscure phrases; the dramatic whisper or the words spoken gravely within a two-dimensional background of noise and conflict. For the first time, I was able to “hear” what the machines had to say. The first thought that came to my mind was that the Transformers had the best lines. While reflecting on this peculiar role reversal, it occurred to me that this must be the reason the era that followed the Marvel comic book generation of Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and a host of other Super Heroes, was so captivated by the Transformers. The love affair once embodied by man and dog had been taken over by a new bonding of man and personality driven machine. Beginning with the first robot whose only articulation was a “beep”, the apprehension over evil artificial intelligence has been replaced with a more human and endearing persona than our own. It actually seemed a pity to me that the main story line focused on the romantic involvement of our human hero, who is really terribly bland without his machines, instead of developing out the humor and personalities of the transformers.

Seeing an action movie with captions changed my perceptions of going to the big screen for the sake of the fast action. I actually began squirming with restlessness during the graphic storm that bombarded my eyes and the entire sequence of exploding jets, trampled buildings, dizzying spectacles of flying machine parts seemed an inconsequential and very thick padding for a rather simple and predictable plot.

On the way home, my two charming hosts were unusually quiet about the actual movie. Usually, they would have been comparing this latest escapade of the Transformers to the first production, but instead, they had much to say about the scarcely visible captions. They are such dears. My son was raised on mom’s insistence in programming captions into the television, and grew accustomed to having the little boxes flash across the screen. He admits that though he has perfectly good hearing, the flashing words have helped him in his awareness and appreciation of dialog. When he first introduced me to his girlfriend and her family, they found it just a little disturbing at first to program their shared movies into captions, but soon adjusted. If the television is on when I walk through the door for a visit, nobody even has to say anything to the remote control holder anymore. Whatever is being viewed is switched immediately into captions.

I have a feeling if the theaters expand the policy of providing captions at the big screens to movies whose sometimes very crucial elements lie in dialog, I will have to change my own policy of only going to the big screen when they have fast action and graphics. Movies in general had never captivated me like a good book, and I was always just a little puzzled by the great enthusiasm for most of them. The caption industry has opened my outlook to a whole different perception of viewing. The most electrical movie watching experience in my life was the first time I watched “The Godfather” with captions. I had always known it was a good movie. I’d watched it several times with friends and family members. But when I read the dialog, I realized it was a great movie.

I hope they continue to offer dates at the movies for the hearing impaired. I also hope they change the color of the captions to something a little easier to see. That yellow was nearly transparent. The only people who attended the late night showing we opted to were those who were hearing impaired or those who were accustomed to being around people who need to read captions. It wouldn’t have been hard, I’m sure, to make the captions a little easier to see. They do it all the time with sub-titled movies. In fact, while I’m on the subject, it wouldn’t be all that difficult for the American public to get used to allowing captions for the hearing impaired. The deaf aren’t the only ones who would receive a bonus. Those who are able to read captions while watching the action evolve the screen, can turn down the volume of their televisions to a whisper, saving their ears from nerve trauma at night. Those who are adept at reading captions, find it easier to appreciate the sub-titles of foreign films, build some language skills and understandings of foreign languages, and to pay attention to important dialog. Just because the hearing impaired don’t appear handicapped doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed the same considerations given other physical dysfunctions. How much more enriching if they could naturally enjoy the recreational activity with others of viewing movies or television wherever they are, and truthfully, wouldn’t it be beneficial to everyone?

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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9 Comments on “Transforming Captions”

  1. Movies in France are aired in the original English, with French subtitles underneath. In a cinema in Paris I found myself completely distracted by trying to read the French subtitles–when I obviously didn’t need to! It’s just human nature. That’s why advertising sprawled across our highways works. We just HAVE to read.

    And yes–it was ridiculous how they tried desperately to tug our heartstrings about the puny humans’ lives. WHO CARES? We ARE humans. We know what it’s like to be human. We know what it’s like to go away to college. Some of us know how hard it is to send our children to school. SO WHAT? Tell me about the robots. How are they like us? How are they unlike us? What are they all about? That was the charm of the Transformers television series, believe it or not (and I mean the one from the 80s, not the Animatronic ones or whatever the hell they’re called nowadays, when no one can be bothered to actually DRAW, much less come up with a complex plotline).

  2. Savvy, in Mexico, they also sub-titled the American movies. As well as giving me a clue as to what was being said, it helped me to learn how to read, and consequently speak Spanish more fluently, especially since the sub-titles were in conversational Spanish instead of formal Castillian. I know that the eye automatically travels down to read the lettering when it flashes across the screen, and this is the complaint i hear most from people who see the captions on my television. They say the captions pull their eyes away from the movie. It doesn’t, however, take the eye very long to learn how to compensate. If captions became a part mainstream viewing, it wouldn’t be long at all before captions rolling across the bottom of the screen would feel natural. We would adapt. We would be able to take Grandma Jones, that uncle who lost his hearing in Vietnam or friends who just never go because they don’t really know what’s being said.

    As far as answering your questions concerning the Transformers, I still don’t feel I have any expertise in the matter. You would probably find my answer concerning my perception of the robots a peculiar one. I see them as having personalities we dared to write into human characters at one time, but don’t any more. We must not have flawed main characters in an action movie. They can’t show the weaknesses of compassion, guilt, indecision, naivete, or guileless innocense. They can’t call each other derogatory names. They can’t have bad habits. The robots can. They bandy with each other freely. They each have a separate personality composition. They have a sense of community spirit within that diversity. They freely project their emotions, whether they are playful, sad, reproachful, cautionary, angry or confused.

    The days of great cinema personalities seem to be fading rapidly into the past. It’s an era of marketing skills and graphic stimulations. As humans, we have become monotonously sketched, stereotypical humans with nothing to show for ourselves except a set of extraordinary circumstances. The artificial intelligences we manufacture for the screen are the ones that win us over for at last, we are allowed once more to have characters whose most endearing human traits are something more charming, more heart warming that a hero who spends all his time chasing tail or involved in a family crisis when he isn’t busy saving the world.

  3. While I have never been bothered by captions of any kind and have a great love of “foreign” film and so have watched captioned movies quite a bit; another thought comes to mind…Could this be the thing that saves America and continues to require the overwashed masses to read? Hmmmm.

  4. While you’re reflecting on reading advantages, you might wish to consider this as well. The number of nerve deafness losses have risen greatly over recent years, not through hereditary disfunction, but through noise pollution; loud music, heavy equipment operations, congested traffic, etc. While it would take a great deal of innovation to make the world a quieter place, accomadating for those whose hearing has suffered because of noise wouldn’t take a great deal of effort. There is even a new technology scientists have been developing that would involve placing a plate glass in front of public speakers, at the windows of tellers in banks, post offices, etc., that would automatically translate the words they say into captions at the bottom of the glass. I quit going to public meetings after awhile because i always had to bring someone along to take notes so i would know what the speaker said. Even a minor impairment can cause inattention as the act of concentrating on what is being said can be tiring. Captions are a win-win situation.

  5. Hearing loss is a definite problem, especially for the Generation Next. Loud music both ambient as well as confined (head phones etc) has been prevalent since I was in H/S. It doesn’t take much, 60-80 decibels is the standard acceptable exposure level, and a lawn mower can produce 110-130 decibels. 80-100 decibels in work standards requires hearing protection, over 100 decibels requires double hearing protection; meaning ear plugs as well as ear muffs. A standard flight can produce 80-148 decibels at extended exposure.

    Noise pollution is a definite problem that is on the rise, with little hope of stave. I know many people with that persistent ringing in their ears, aka tinnitus. Tinnitus is a form of presubcousis, or the damage to the nerve receptors within the ear. When a person experiences tinnitus, they can rest assured that the tone of the ringing they hear, is a tone that they will never hear again beyond that insistent ringing that is a phantom sound relating to nerve damage.

    I believe it would be a wonderful advantage to have the glass interpretation technology you speak of Karla. And believe it or not, I too watch movies, from time to time, with captions. Once your mind no longer interprets captions as a distraction it can heighten the movie experience.

  6. Karla, I think the teller translation an excellent idea and would love to see more of it. I have no hearing loss and I can’t even hear what they say. And I agree with Littlechief, I no longer even notice the subtitles after say 2 minutes into a movie.

  7. Grainne, much of hearing technology is very much in the developmental and expensive stage, but some of the available devices have opened up a whole new world for the deaf and hearing impaired. Telephones that automatically text messages. Vibrating systems that help the deaf to hear tones. The little amplifying machines they put in court rooms are awful. They pick up the static, the scraping chairs, the rustling papers at head splitting decibels, but they don’t amplify the voices. I was recently pleasantly surprised when a mutual multiply friend of ours posted a U-Tube video that contained captions.

    I recently held a discussion with a young woman who didn’t believe it was a good idea to begin showing more public movies with captions. She felt it would cause fewer movie goers if part of the scheduled showings had boxed captions. She felt it took too much effort to learn how to watch a movie and read simultaneously, or to mentally block out the words. I felt a little sad thinking about this, and wondered to myself how much effort she truly thought it took a hearing impaired person to watch a movie s/he can’t hear or even to hold a conversation. I don’t see asking for more available and easier to read captions any different than installing wheel chair ramps and elevator access for the physically handicapped, or braille instructions for the blind.

  8. I love your first paragraph, Bravo! I myself am not bothered by captions, and have even found myself turning the captions on when there were certain scenes where the script was half-mumbled by the actors. It’s all in the mind and how we let things affect us. I am with Grainne on the pro sub-titled foreign films. When reading captions you may or may not fully catch the on-screen details, but it allows one to formulate their own scenery which I personally find film-enhancing. There is some type of link to gaining emotional understanding through reading which is not fully attained simply by viewing. Or maybe it’s just that foreign films are more dramatic with their soap opera background music which stirs up these over-exemplified emotional reactions. But I’m thinking the latter, it has to be the reading.

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