Last night I watched a film for the first time in my life. I have been to the cinema hundreds of time and watched thousands of videos and DVDs, but yesterday I realised what watching a film really means.
We left the boys with Grandma and took the tandem out to the cinema to see Bel Ami. As I was booking the tickets, I noticed that the performance was audio described (it turns out that all Odeon films are audio described at every screening. Who knew?). It had never occurred to me to bother with audio description before. After all, I can see more than enough to get a great deal of enjoyment out of films and have been watching, teaching and writing about them for years. What could audio description give me that I wasn't getting already?
But I thought I'd give it a go, if only so that I could write about it here. As the usher handed me a headset I wondered if audio description was just a politically correct waste of time and money.
I could not have been more wrong. Hearing a little bit of extra detail as I was watching the film was a hugely enriching experience. It was unobtrusive, informative and engaging. And it made me realise that there are three elements of film that I have been missing.
Firstly, the describer helpfully told me who people were. The first time a character appeared they were referred to in a gently informative way: 'a young man enters a crowded bar' or 'a tired-looking woman climbs the stairs'. So far so obvious. But on subsequent appearances the character was helpfully named and usefully situated: 'Duroy is sitting in Forestier's office', 'Clotilde is lying naked on the bed in the love nest'. This elegantly overcomes my biggest problem with film. Just as in real life, I struggle to recognise people when they reappear in a new or different context, especially if they have changed their clothes or hairstyle. Bel-Ami features an array of handsome men all dressed alike in the ubiquitous nineteenth-century French habit noir. Without a friendly voice whispering their names in my ear I would have spent the film failing to tell them apart.
Secondly, audio description is extremely good at drawing attention to apparently inconsequential details. Without it I would not have known that Clotilde likes to have a cherry in her drink or that Duroy wept when Forestier died. Audio description isn't necessarily about the big picture, and it doesn't have time to recount the truly insignificant, but it does linger on the details which are hard to see but which add depth and meaning to the film.
The third, and most enlightening benefit of audio description is much more subtle. I was struck by the fact that the describer always paid a great deal of attention to how people communicated wordlessly, particularly with their eyes: 'Duroy looks at Madeleine with a mixture of sorrow and reesentment'; 'Clotilde's eyes flash with hatred and contempt'. I have never been very good at interpreting facial expressions and usually don't even bother trying. I judge people's mood by the sound of their voice and the way they behave. So I was amazed to discover how much facial expression can tell you about a person. I had no idea that facial expression was so important nor that people could pass messages in that way. I began to wonder how many silent conversations I had missed by not knowing that they were even going on in the first place.
Audio description is not a sop to accessibility legislation. It is a highly sophisticated supplement to the filmic experience which has the potential to become an art form in its own right. It has been cleverly conceived by someone who knows which parts of visual culture are particularly mystifying to the blind and partially sighted. Facial expressions are described not just because they are difficult to see, but also because their importance is difficult to understand. Audio description does not just tell you what is going on in the film, it tells you how the sighted use their eyes to engage in wordless conversation.
As we left the cinema I felt oddly bereft. I was already missing my invisible friend interpreting the sighted world for me through my headset. How illuminating it would be, I thought, if audio description existed in real life and not just at the movies.