always loved going to the movies.
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.
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.
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 Paramount's 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,
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.
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.
opens with a round of speeches celebrating the promise of technology,
the grit of the blind, and Paramount's 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 wouldn't have known it was Atlanta. Fine. Some sort of interference
keeps breaking up Scully's voice. I adjust my receiver, and the
sound improves, marginally.
(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.
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, there's 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."
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.
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
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
for the blind? To paraphrase Clint Eastwood's 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
Joel M. Deutsch.
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