JOURNAL

Red Sea

Losing the Movies

I always loved going to the movies.

I loved the big screen, the popcorn, the transient, sweet sense of being in communion with a room full of strangers. I loved the growing accumulation in my memory of scenes, shots, dialogue and soundtracks, of heroes and villains and stars. I didn't even mind waiting in line, or complain about the rising price of popcorn, as long as I could find a few films worth seeing amidst the glut of blockbuster eye candy and brain-rot. But then, as the deterioration of my sight crossed into new realms of dysfunction, the cinema began fading out of my life.

A merciless retinal death squad started intercepting images before they could reach my brain. Actors' faces became unidentifiable silhouettes. "Hey," I whispered to my friend in surprise, at a screening of Wayne Wang's Smoke, one of the last movies I tried to see in the theater, "Is that William Hurt, the guy standing on the left side?" I hadn't been able to decipher the opening credits, and had just then recognized the familiar actor's voice with a start.

Critical bits of business--love scenes in darkened rooms, money changing hands under tables, the lifted eyebrow--were completely lost. Fast cutting created not kinetic excitement but the effect of strobe-lit, senseless Rorschachs. Two hours into the epic-length Schindler's List, I had to abandon my puzzled date to spend 20 minutes pacing around the lobby before I could go back inside. I was exhausted, not by my renewed sorrow and outrage over the Holocaust, but by the desperate effort just to see Steven Spielberg's grim pageant clearly and, failing that, not to fall apart. I never saw the little girl dressed in red, the symbolic spot of color in a black and white scene that was being heralded as a masterful, painterly stroke.

Soon after that debacle, I said goodbye to the multiplexes and neighborhood art houses, and resigned myself to only renting videos. With the 20" RCA three feet from my face and the Brightness and Contrast controls cranked up radically, I could make a movie look almost normal again. Whenever my eyes grew tired, I could call an intermission, and there was always the Rewind function for reviewing anything I suspected I had missed. So I still had the movies, if not quite as they were meant to be shown.

Which is not to say I didn't long for the immersion and spectacle of the big screen, as well as being part of an audience. I did, very much. So when a postcard arrived inviting me, as I managed to make out under my illuminated high-power reading glass, to come to Paramount Studios for the premier of a process called Theater Vision, demonstrated with Paramountıs recent hit Forrest Gump, my curiosity and expectations were aroused. Perhaps at least some remnant of my movie-theater past could be salvaged, after all.

At the door, an attendant hands me my Theater Vision equipment, an FM receiver no larger than a beeper, and a single earphone. "Just turn the little wheel until you hear something," he says, ushering me inside. The Theater Vision commentary, I remember from the invitation, is broadcast from a tape synchronized with the regular soundtrack, so as to slip neatly into its silences.

The house, its lights turned up for the benefit of those of us to whom illumination levels still matter, is filled nearly to capacity. I can make out a lot of white canes and a fair number of guide dogs in the Down position on the floor beside aisle seats. With our blurry sight, our tunnel vision, with our perception only of light, or darkness, we have come to watch, or at least sit again in the presence of, the movies.

In the several years since the passage of the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act, the vision-impaired have been regaled with a host of adaptive modifications to the public environment. There are Braille-encoded ATM keypads (though, absurdly enough, no alternative way to read the information on the ATM display screen, yet) and elevator buttons. There are chirping traffic signals, at least in such benevolent cities as Santa Monica. And now, there is even a way for the blind to "access," the movies.

Settling myself in one of the few remaining seats, I am conscious of a small but desperate hope that Theater Vision will be a revelation. That it will be like standing blind on the floor of Yosemite Valley while the perfect guide--a combination poet, painter, forest ranger and geologist--causes the hooded visage of Half Dome, the implacable face of El Capitan, and the skinny, sparkling tumble of Yosemite Falls all to body forth once more in my visual cortex, as life-like as virtual reality.

The program opens with a round of speeches celebrating the promise of technology, the grit of the blind, and Paramountıs generous hand in the development of Theater Vision. A youth chorus performs two inspirational songs that make the treacly "We Are the World" of ten years before sound as edgy as heavy metal. Finally, the stage is cleared the house lights go down, and the curtains are drawn back.

I wiggle the button-size earphone into place, turn on the little receiver and locate the Theater Vision frequency in time to hear our narrator, sportscaster Vin Scully, read the opening credits, and then intone, "A feather floats down through the sky over downtown Atlanta." I can see that‹the feather shot is well lit and held for a long time‹although I wouldnıt have known it was Atlanta. Fine. Some sort of interference keeps breaking up Scullyıs voice. I adjust my receiver, and the sound improves, marginally.

Forrest (Tom Hanks), enters and joins a middle-aged black woman on a bus stop bench. The woman looks weary, perhaps from hard work she is a little too old to still be doing. But the script forces her to submit to the story-framing device of Forrest's unsolicited monologue. Rosa Parks as the Wedding Guest. And the narration goes something like, "Forrest Gump sits down on a bus bench next to a black woman. Okay, whatever.

The plot moves through the travails of Forrest's handicapped boyhood, his miraculous recovery, the blossoming of the friendship that becomes his first love, his tour of duty in Viet Nam, his audience with J.F.K. I have to fiddle continuously with the little unit, trying to get Vin Scully's voice to come in clearly. And even though the copy he is reciting is dull, I try to be grateful for at least being tipped off what to notice. But my patience wears thin. For instance, thereıs the scene where Forrest's girlfriend is bent on relieving him of his blessedly oblivious virginity and Forrest doesn't seem to be getting her seductive drift. So she, young, lovely, and inexplicably longing for his goofy touch, makes the simple, cunning gesture of removing her blouse. Her back is to the camera. I can see well enough to know that we're being shown Forrest's face, the reaction shot. But I can't see his expression, just his silhouette seated motionless across from hers. I try to picture his astonishment. I want to hear something like, "Forrest's jaw drops. His eyes tell us that even he, slow, simple Forrest, knows this moment will be forever indelible." But all I get from Theater Vision is something like, "Forrest just stares."

"Forrest just stares?" Still I keep watching, waiting for the promised redemption of Theater Vision, doing my valiant best to hold disbelief suspended.

At this, I ultimately fail. I can't stop myself thinking about how thrilled I was when, to underscore Forrest's arrival in Viet Nam, the dark, slashing opening chords of Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" erupted from Paramountıs state-of-the-art audio system and pounded the auditorium like a Rolling Thunder bombing run, and I realize that this was the first moment of Forrest Gump I enjoyed, and that the thrill was purely auditory. Eyesight to the blind? I donıt think so. This Theater Vision thing hasn't restored my failing sight with words; thatıs what poetry does. Pablo Neruda describes waves breaking against the cliffs like spider webs. He says Death is standing in the harbor, dressed in the uniform of an Admiral. These images, I can see. "Forrest just stares," I can't.

"There must be some kind of way out of here," goes Hendrix's opening line. And so there is. Well before the movie is over, I pluck the bug out of my ear, brush past a row of bent knees, and make it out to freedom, dropping my Theater Vision receiver onto one of the damask-covered tables set up for a post-screening champagne reception before stepping out into the dark, sprawling Paramount lot to find my way to the bus stop.

To be deprived of the movies is not, for me, just to lose a beloved source of stories that nourish, illumine or at the very least divert. In Los Angeles, where movies and the business of making them are widely followed with more ardor and fidelity than the play of world events, where implication and nuance are subtext and the past a back story, it also means the loss of common cultural coin. Falling out of touch with the movies punches a big, leaky hole in the oil can of social lubrication.

But, movies for the blind? To paraphrase Clint Eastwoodıs last words in Magnum Force, you've got to know your limitations. The problem isn't just narration about as evocative as a stock market wrap-up or freeway report on drive-time radio. It's something much more fundamental. From the Lumiere Brothers' sci-fi reels and the nickelodeon melodramas that astonished turn-of-the twentieth century audiences, film is first of all and more than anything a fiction of images. It is an artifice of frames and compositions, brightness and shadow. It is a pulsing of shots, camera angles and post-production edits, within which things appear to move and incidents to occur. Sergei Eisenstein, pioneer of montage, would turn over in his grave, I think, to see the medium being interpreted this way, as if a movie were a traffic accident, needing only for its material facts to be reported. Descriptive narration will not render the sinister, vertiginous chiaroscuro of The Third Man and Double Indemnity. It will not paint the vastness of battlefields and the snapping of vivid war-pennants against the sky in Ran. It will not translate the impish and dangerous glint in Bruce Lee's eye as he thumbs his nose in Enter The Dragon or convey the beautiful, heartbreaking effect of DeNiro's slow-motion boxing-ring ballet in Raging Bull. A film does not exist apart from itself, does not yield up its essence to being told. A Bordeaux administered intravenously is simply not wine. There are things, sometimes, that a person should just give up.

As I'm waiting for the bus at the stop outside the studio gate, a shouter comes up the sidewalk, a skinny white guy who I guess to be in his 40's, wearing an old Army field jacket. Every few steps, he yells something garbled but unmistakably vicious, out of some arsenal of useless, pointless rage. Suddenly he clams up and disappears behind the bus shelter, where I catch a murky glimpse of him, standing against the wall by the gate, trying to pick the street number, 5555 , off the cement with his fingers. I think about how a computer deletes a file by just erasing its address. I wonder if he believes he's working some voodoo like this on Paramount Studios. I think about how people begin to vanish when you can't see their faces anymore.

My bus arrives. The man leaves off picking at the wall, fires a volley of obscenities at the driver as I mount the steps. Pulling away, I can still hear his screams through the glass and steel and engine noise, fading with distance.

 

Copyright 2001 Joel M. Deutsch.
All rights reserved
Republication or distribution in any medium prohibited without express, written consent of the author

 

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