Frankly, My Dear, You’re Seeing Closed Captions

The UCLA community and Westwood Village are well-known for hosting movie premieres which attract Hollywood A-listers, closing down foot traffic in Westwood, and employing expensive security. These premieres, which affect Westwood’s student population seemingly every other week, are hosted by the popular Regency Theater on Broxton and Weyburn. Though the Regency has the ability to attract the rich and famous, it still lacks the ability to accommodate students and hard-of-hearing moviegoers.

 On April 26th, I went to see Marvel’s long-awaited film “Avengers: Endgame” at the Regency Theater in Westwood. The 8:15 showing was filled with excited moviegoers of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and genders–it was a place of togetherness for one opening weekend only and everyone felt it—well, almost everyone. 

I took it upon myself to have an experience as a different kind of moviegoer that Friday night. You could call my motivation for doing so “investigative curiosity”– I wondered what accessibility measures the theater had in place for hard of hearing movie patrons, as well as felt the need to understand the struggles movie patrons experience who want to enjoy their movie-going experience. I used the Closed Captioning [CC] device that is provided and mandatory by law in every theatre in the U.S. Assisted moviegoers are provided with these devices if they are hard of hearing and may be secured to cupholder, and captions will follow the movie thereafter where closed captions are read in white words on a small black screen held up by the neck and extending all the way down to the clip on the cupholder. These devices are meant to accommodate hard of hearing and deaf moviegoers, though through this experience, socially and in a theatrical setting, they have failed to do so.

I first went to the frantic help desk before previews began–while the theater filled up, no one recognized me among the requests for buttered popcorn and single-sized Icees. Just before the credits began, I managed to find someone in uniform and ask for a [CC] device. Drawers and desks were checked behind the counter but no devices were available among extra popcorn bags (what a shock!). There was no specified or designated place for these devices, just as there is seemingly no place for these particular moviegoers in need of such assistive technology. The lack of prioritization and proper placement of these important assistive devices contributes to the stigma and inconvenience plaguing disabled individuals who deserve respect and relaxation in public spaces. 

In order to receive my device, I was also instructed to hand over my driver’s license with no assurance that my identification and personal documents would be protected in any way, but that this sacrifice was necessary to simply watch a movie. In an attempt to enjoy myself, to have my ID taken away to enter a public space and to risk losing it at any capacity would be troublesome; and the same may be said for hard of hearing moviegoers who must make it their routine to make their “disability” into a spectacle of identity for “security purposes” especially where a trip to the theatre could easily lead to a lost ID. For some with intersectional identities or differing photos from their outward appearance will make it more difficult for trans and nonbinary individuals to get their IDs back. And if these devices are treated so carelessly, what happens to the IDs of deaf moviegoers under these circumstances within a hectic lobby of a cinema? It’s slightly comedic that there are anti-theft policies for an object not even worth renting in the first place. But this was barely the beginning of an uncomfortable, stressful, and actually the most difficult experience I have ever had as a moviegoer. 

The device itself was outdated and clunky–definitely oversized for its purpose and inflexible; I had a hard time getting the device to adjust to my height (while sitting). Because the [CC] device was too large to put on my armrest, I was forced to hold it between my knees throughout the film. I was told that when the movie started, the captions would connect to the device, but that I would not be able to use the device for the previews of upcoming films. This  was slightly disheartening; for me, one of the best reasons to go to the movies is watching the previews and seeing which movies are coming out next. I believe this experience should be inclusive and completely accessible for all.  

I also think it is important to mention that throughout the film the “Top 50 Movie Quotes of All-Time” played one after another as a form of dummy captions for the entertainment of the [CC] moviegoer. These captions, which are displayed as a type of entertainment, are not only a type of degradation of one’s intelligence that simple quotes will keep one entertained, but that the simplicity of these quotes are enough quality entertainment for an adult to enjoy while so many things are happening right on screen. After the 10th repeat of the dummy captions, I felt less intelligent and more annoyed that I remembered which quote came after “Frankly my Dear You’re seeing closed captions”, a reminder after every 100 dummy captions. This YouTube video by Deafies in Drag is a good visual example of my personal struggle in the theatre having to handle these devices. Casavina, who is shown in the video, is a deaf drag performer experienced with theatre and captioning devices. Their experience holds more validity than I can say for my one-time experience with a faulty device. For any movie patron to sit back and enjoy the immersive experience in a theatre while forming an intimate and maybe even beloved connection with a highly anticipated film, that cannot be done with devices that can not stay upright or function to accommodate the needs of a moviegoer.  

Throughout the entire film, I not only sat and waited for captions that never came, but realized that there could never be a perfect time to leave my seat and receive a functional CC device–for many individuals, staying seated with no captions isn’t an option. I turned the device on and off and nothing happened. I figured (and hoped) that the device itself was lagging, but the dummy captions never stopped. I held tightly to the neck of the one-eyed device hoping that maybe if I watched enough terrible movie captions I would finally get a proper sentence from Captain America himself or even Captain Marvel (though I’m sure the captions I was given had more lines and emotional range than Captain Marvel had throughout the entire film).  

During important fight scenes, my eyes were glued to the screen, and the many fast-paced movements made it especially hard to keep my eyes moving from the screen to the [CC] device (even though they were still dummy captions). There have been no technological advances for [CC] devices the same way that red and blue 3D glasses have evolved to be multidimensional and now used for a truly immersive experience. Why can’t the same be said for the way the industry has gone about perfecting assistive technology? Rather than luxury, the capitalist enterprises profiting billions off of moviegoers, especially in Westwood, could certainly afford immersive “smart glasses” (created and released in October 2017), which should have already debuted in theatres across America. Where is the urgency to find more convenient and influential technological advances meant for deaf moviegoers? Obviously there is none.

At one point in the film, open captions were used on the screen when characters were speaking Japanese, but the subtitles on the screen did not affect the quality of the film–it actually made it a lot easier to digest. And thus, I was a bit disappointed to have to continue watching the film without subtitles or a proper [CC] device, especially when there was either cheering in the theatre or loud sound effects in the movie and I couldn’t hear the characters. Though the common argument against subtitles on screen or “open captions” is that it detracts from the visuals in the film, in this and many other cases of missed dialogue it would benefit an entire audience.

I understand my experience being unable to hear characters because of a loud or rowdy audience in no way equates to the difficulties of maneuvering through a world where everyone sees deafness as a handicap and not easily accommodated because their needs are seen as an “extra step” rather than a necessity. There is, then, a disconnect between a movie and an individual when the moviegoer lacks the capacity to watch the movie properly and create the bond formed between the viewer and the film. For both hard of hearing movie-goers and movie goers who do not need the devices and still experience difficulties with audio in movie theatres, this provides more proof that open captions can create a welcoming environment where everyone may be able to clearly understand the film.

When I finally had to give back the [CC] device, I was handed my ID and the device was thrown casually and carelessly into a pile with its other fallen and used look-alikes. I tried explaining that the device was broken but it seemed like the employees couldn’t care less.  Though I could understand the stress and amount of energy that takes a toll on the workers, the maintenance of such [CC] devices is the responsibility of the movie theater itself, one that has obviously been ignored. Lack of organization and on-hand devices contributes to the lack of care to deaf and hard of hearing moviegoers. This in general shows a lack of awareness for these differently-abled moviegoers who need more and better equipment care and items in stock, not less.

I was lucky enough to actually not need the device I was given, but for many, [CC] devices are a necessity for each movie they attend. Had a hard of hearing person shared my experience, they might’ve missed some of the coolest or funniest scenes in the film. It’s time to talk about the ableist notion that people with disabilities don’t go to movie theatres; the reality is that movie theatres have created an environment not welcoming or capable of accommodating people with disabilities. In the end, theatres have more work to do in technologically advancing their outdated devices and policies to allow an easier way for the hard of hearing to watch movies without being alienated. In reality, a case study was done in 2006 where out of 7.5 million U.K Television viewers who used subtitles, only 1.5 million were hearing impaired–and these numbers have been predicted to increase since the advances in smartphone and other technological capabilities.  With this knowledge, maybe open captioned movie nights could serve as a solution in theatres worldwide. There should be nights specifically reserved to allow open captions in movie theatres–and not just one night a week, but several nights. The goal of cinemas should be to make an experience inclusive, not exclusive, and this includes taking one step further for diverse groups, not only those who are considered able bodied, but differently abled- to cultivate inclusivity in all of the public domain. We must demand and require these accommodations, not as a luxury or a want. Because frankly, my dear, it’s absolutely ridiculous.

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