I remember a few things about the Zdenek article that I think are worth mentioning:

1) I read the article in Anne Gere’s Composition Theory class my first semester at Michigan. I remember really liking the article – it being one of those that made me think about something I took for granted in a new way. Who knew that closed captions often sucked? Why not figure out a great way to do closed captions since people with all levels of hearing use closed captions in some way? We didn’t talk about the article much in class though.

2) Ruth Anna, in my cohort in JPEE, is the person I have heard talk about deaf studies / education the most. She is deaf. I will try to avoid just repeating her views and stories as it seems an unfair burden on her and in poor taste (“um, I have a deaf friend, so I think I would know…”). That said, one of my favorite Ruth Anna stories is her describing how funny she finds it when closed captions describe music as [tropical music playing] or [scary music playing]. Since she has been (I think she calls it ‘profoundly’) deaf since birth, she has no idea what that even means.

3) I remembered the story about Pirates of the Caribbean cannibals, but I think I might have made up the [dead Bruce Willis says…] line; it’s written in the margins of my old copy. I think I just thought I was being funny.

I remember the article and want to write about it because I got stuck again on the idea of closed captioning the law, the anti-censorship, the accessibility vs. using the original TV show / movie as a kind of “available design” for the new design that would be accessible to more people (and be, in a way, wholly new). After Zdenek lays down his guidelines, he says:

“Captioning is an art. The captioner must contend with spatial and temporal constraints while being responsible to the rhetorical needs of the narrative…Captioning is not an objective science; it is a highly interpretive practice.”

That just doesn’t sound like something any third party could ever do (especially live, for TV events like the upcoming Grammy’s or the Super Bowl). When he says this, Zdenek intends for the reader to think about movies or TV. It is telling, though, that he mostly mentions Hollywood movies like Pirates or The Happening. No snobbery intended but if he is surely counting on the idea that the worst that could happen with a poor captioning effort is the lack of Johnny Depp’s jaunty voice (how would a caption describe that? or Orlando Bloom’s terrible acting for that matter? – [Bloom overwrought says…]). Couldn’t someone make an argument that a movie working to be a piece of art itself (one made by a director who calls him or herself an auteur) can simply never be translated? Zdenek spends time discussing the necessary attention to narrative arc and purpose, the things that make a movie. Unless the people associated with the movie itself are involved in the captioning, how would that work? A rhetoric of closed captioning would need to consider a whole set of new circumstances. It would be a great interview question honestly, asking a director how he or she would remake the movie without sound. You’d have to think that a whole host of other choices might have been made in the images with that knowledge. Okay. In some way, this is all overthinking. I imagine that people who are deaf (and others who watch movies without sound for other reasons) have a perfectly great time watching movies and would be quite happy to see the tweaks that Zdenek suggests.

That said, I thought about a few what ifs. What if the movie and TV makers were the ones redesigning the pieces for closed caption? Would they stop at better decisions on background noise? I tend to think they might want to do some different edits. What if films were redesigned? What could Jurassic Park look like if sound wasn’t lacking but simply never there in the first place? I can imagine something like a comic book, inserting text boxes on the screen itself – narrative ones on the top, speech bubbles, and object vibration lines for sounds. The image would be much busier but maybe more integrated.

Anyhow, I finished the article this time (like that last) kind of excited to think about all Zdenek’s ideas, but feeling as if maybe he hadn’t gone far enough in terms of a rhetoric of closed captioning. His suggestions seem pretty practical but, in the end, come up a little short for me.


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