Teresa Blankmeyer Burke


Last week I went to see a silent movie. Well, truth be told, most movies I watch are "silent" — at least for me. Iíd rather watch a captioned flick on my Macbook than watch a movie with hearing aid sound and floating captions on a weird bendy pipe arm, but thatís just personal preference.

In November 2011 my mother sent me a link to a New York Times review of a silent movie titled The Artist.) I read the review, and tucked away the thought that I might want to check out this movie for later. At some point, email invites started coming in from friends, and I decided to check the movie out.

It wasnít what I expected, but not for the reason you might think.

You see, Iím a bit of a (shhhh!) silent movie buff. I have a thing for Douglas Fairbanks --loved his swagger in Thief of Bagdad, and his Zorro makes me swoon like nobodyís business. Iíve got a talkie movie poster in my kitchen that features the Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, CODA* extraordinaire, who is listed next to George "Gabby" Hayes; few visitors to my pad ever get the joke.

I started watching silent flicks when Netflix started streaming online. Not enough movies with captions were available, and if I were to draw a Venn diagram of current run captioned movies, Netflix captioned movies and movies I want to see, the intersection would approximate a crescent moon sliver.

But The Artist was on my list for another reason. The last time Iíd seen a movie in a theater with a non-signing hearing friend was eighteen years ago. Iíve been to a few movies since, but with friends who sign, or movies that were subtitled. Iíve lost my patience with partial access to movies, and Iím not one for interrupting my friendsí flow of the cinema experience.

I took away two points from The Artist.

First, a contemporary silent movie done in retro style is great speechreading practice! I happen to be pretty good at speechreading Ė contrary to popular opinion, this isnít a common talent, even in the deaf community. Like anything else, some folks are more talented than others. I have a gift for speechreading, but if I had my druthers, Iíd much prefer WBNA star Lisa Leslieís gift for ball-handling.

As I watched The Artist, I kept thinking that the delayed "captions" were superfluous Ė why bother reading text when you could just see what they were saying? And of course, the captions were truncated versions of what was really said. I guess theyíre taking a leaf from German television? This is not to take away from the stunning visuals and clever effects and insider nods to films of olde. (Though I do wonder why the talkies got more game than the silent movies, but thatís a discussion for another timeÖ)

The second point is something Iíve been obsessing over for quite some time now: responsibility for communication. I stopped going to English language talkies with non-signing hearing friends because I didnít like the way the communication responsibilities broke down. I didnít want to feel dependent, and I didnít like the idea that my buddies would be checking on me to see if I was following the movie. Though I will admit to cracking up hysterically at my kiddos checking in on mom and trying to "interpret" Jar-Jar Binks for me - that was something I could have done without (on so many levels).

The Artist isnít truly a silent movie Ė there is environmental noise, and some spoken dialogue at the end. I entered the movie theater with the idea that Iíd be equal to the rest of the audience, and I left with the feeling that I had seen a different movie than they had Ė a movie with richer speechreading dialogue, but impoverished sound.

That bit about responsibility for communication I mentioned earlier?

Noise matters.

Without giving anything away, thereís a scene in the movie with noise, but no words. I would have missed this, but for a friend clueing me in. Of course, this was the perfect setup for the usual hearing/hard of hearing whisper dance, where Iím pulling away to speechread the whisper as my friend is leaning toward my ear to say it. No matter: I got the message.

This was a silent movie made for Hearing people.

I said there were two takeaway points?

I lied.

I think thereís a third. This one is still shaping up in my mind, but it has to do with friendship and compassion. Iím touched that so many of my non-signing hearing family members and friends have thought to invite me to see this movie, and hereís why: theyíve taken on some of that communication responsibility themselves.

For a long time I was angry about having only partial access to communication — this may be an inevitable consequence after one experiences what it is like to live in a world of full access. In my case, that was after learning a signed language and later working and living in a mostly signing environment, but there are other ways to do this.

After a lifetime of limited comprehension, I refused to go back to accepting partial communication. I spent more time hanging out with my signing friends, and less time with my non-signing friends of recent acquaintance. I told myself it wasnít worth the effort and frustration to speechread these friends, most of whom I interacted with more online than face to face.

Iím still not keen on mainstream society jokes at the expense of hard of hearing people, and Iím not above pointing out my purple and orange hearing aids when a cashier says to me, "What are you deaf or something?" I think that these attempts at humor do a very nice job of covering up the discomfort people feel when they havenít been heard. And thatís part of the default assumption hearing people share when it comes to spoken intercourse Ė itís your fault for not listening! When it becomes apparent that itís not completely your fault, discourse gets a bit wonky, and responsibility for communication becomes that thing that no one wants to touch. Why would they? One person is embarrassed and the other is resentful, or at least, aggrieved.

To be fair, my non-signing hearing friends are really good about following my lead re: hard of hearing and deaf jokes. They also know that I pull off a good Esther Williams imitation: I appear to be gracefully engaged in conversation, but underneath the surface Iím treading water like mad, grasping bits of sentences and words as they fly past me, cobbling together meaning when I can. But they still donít get how hard it is to hear, let alone listen.

The Artist purports to be about hearing, but really, it is about listening.

This is going to sound cheesy, but so is the movieís ending, so I think Iím entitled. (Or is that subtitled?) The Artist has done something that open captioned movies havenít; it has done the same thing for us that email and texting has — it has made reading text in a theater mainstream, if only for a moment.

That my friends have put this together shows they too, have been listening.


*Televised closed captions in Germany are simplified to make it easier for deaf readers. This has caused some controversy in the German Deaf community, as many find this a patronizing practice. See here for details. http://www.ndr.de/fernsehen/videotext/untertitel/gebaerdenuntertitel101.html


*CODA is an acronym commonly used in the signing Deaf community that refers to (a hearing adult) Child of Deaf Adults. These hearing children learn American Sign Language as their first language and are also enculturated in the signing Deaf community as a result of their parents' affiliation.


Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, Ph.D. is a philosopher and bioethicist at Gallaudet University. An emerging poet whose work has been recognized by the National Hispanic Culture Center, Teresa is an award-winning blogger for Duke City Fix, and currently blogs at Deaf Echo. She is writing a philosophical memoir about grief and resilience.