Bear: I can’t find any subtitled screenings for The Artist.

Me: *rolls eyes*

See what I have to live with? Bear and his terrible jokes. I should’ve retorted: “No, it has intertitles” (my film buff friends tell me that’s the right word for the dialogue captions between frames in silent movies). Anyway, off we pootled to see it the other night. It’s had a lot of publicity, so tales of disgruntled cinema-goers demanding refunds when they found out they’d paid to see a silent film, were hilarious – surely they must’ve heard about its USP? It’s also left viewers in confusion on the other side of the Channel: the idea of a film muet apparently had some wondering if the subject was “deaf-mute” people! (note my quote marks . . . their words, not mine!)


Their reaction as hearing people mirrors some of my previous experiences as a deaf person with subtitled screenings – going on the blink, not synchronised, fast-forwarding and all sorts – though things are now improving. (Visit http://www.yourlocalcinema.com/ for up-to-date shows.) At one cinema – a few years ago now, before captioned screenings were as common as they now are – all the shows were running late owing to an incident. It was decided to run the non-subtitled print instead of the subtitled one as advertised (why? does it take longer to run a subtitled print, or was it just the unloading and reloading of the relevant film?), so I kicked up a fuss and demanded to see the manager. He persisted in refusing to screen the subtitled version, then he said, “Well, you can see it another time.” “Another time, where?” I asked. “We’ve come a long way especially for this. I can’t go to another cinema nearby to see it subtitled, so my next opportunity to see it will be when it goes to DVD.” He paused, then said, “OK, it’s back on!”. We had virtually our own private screening . . . whee!

The Artist isn’t totally silent – its music reflects the days when a pianist would accompany the film live in the theatre with an appropriate selection of music. I would have appreciated the film far less without my CI, and not only on that score (but I won’t give anything away for people who haven’t seen it yet). The film starts in silence though, before the score kicks in, and sitting in darkness without sound I wondered if I’d been misled, and there was no sound at all; then whether I could actually take an hour and a half of sitting there with no sound at all. Irrational, but a definite feeling, worming its way up. I told myself: “This is stupid: two years ago that’s how it would have been for me. Anyway, lying in the dark with no sound at home in my own bed doesn’t bother me at all.” But the feeling that I couldn’t sit there for that length of time having no sound input was so strong, and my relief so great when the music started up, that I left the cinema shaking my head at myself – and having thoroughly enjoyed the film. I told the Bear about it. He said he’d had exactly the same experience. Perhaps it was that unnerving moment at the beginning which had predisposed some audiences to ask for their money back. But it also got me thinking about how audiences in the 1920s would have seen silents. Did they feel the same? Was it the communal experience of sitting there in silence that was the odd thing for modern audiences, or did 1920s audiences feel it too?

It’s quite a transformation for me. It seems that I’ve come further down the road from my last silent film, where I kept expecting to hear sound, despite knowing it was a silent. I was relieved to see I could still lipread the dialogue before the intertitles flashed up though, because undoubtedly my lipreading skills aren’t quite as good as they were: so I still got more out of the film as a deaf person than someone without that lipreading experience. This meant that my enjoyment transcended the film’s artistic merits: the two halves of me could respond in different ways. And its central theme, that of a silent movie star learning to live in the world of the talkies, is pretty much a metaphor for my new life.