Hearing with my eyes (or: How I learned to love closed captioning)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With MeListen to your words they’ll tell you what to do,
Listen over the rhythm that’s confusing you. – U2, 1997

I’m a Twin Peaks dork. The groundbreaking television show turned me on to the brilliance of its creator, David Lynch. I was open to experimentation in all aspects of art as a teenager in the early nineties and didn’t realize I was starving for stuff like Twin Peaks, the films of the Coen Brothers, the writing of William Gibson, U2’s “ironic” phase, or even the music of Phish. That era paved a way for artists to screw with the mainstream and I was their worthy consumer.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the feature film prequel, was released at the end of August in 1992, a year after the TV series ran its course. I went to opening night with some fellow fanatics. The first act was inaudible to me. Actors Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Isaak, Kyle MacLachlan, and Miguel Ferrer all appeared, trading lines nearly silent to my ear. Louder characters played by David Lynch, David Bowie, and Harry Dean Stanton reacted to things the softer-spoken actors said, making my following of the storyline a complete train wreck. This was David Lynch’s style, you see, and it wasn’t just the fault of the movie theater’s sound system. Lynch subdues and manipulates the sound in a lot of his films — especially Mulholland DriveLost Highway, and Inland Empire — juxtaposing with the more insane, demented, and intense moments so they have more ferocious counterbalance effects.

I was devastated. This kind of pop culture event, trivial to many, was actually very important to me. I really wanted to see — and hear — that movie. When DVDs started gaining popularity around 1997 it was another five year wait, to 2002, for the Fire Walk With Me DVD to be released. Most first edition DVDs had SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) options. The captioning on television was mediocre at best, and often marred by delays. And David Lynch’s films seldom aired, even on cable. I bought the DVD when it came out and basked in its captioned heaven. Closed captioned television and films are the only way I can watch anything. With the invention of the DVD, I was able to revisit countless old films and TV shows, with the SDH option turned on — picking up on dialogue and story development that I might have missed. Lynch struck again in 2001 with Mulholland Drive, a film littered with ambient noise drowning out the dialogue. But this time I could acquire the DVD release only a few months later.

Partially deaf jazz fusion drummer, Kenwood Dennard, guested with Phish in Worcester last month. I admire his work with Herbie Hancock and Brand X, so I was thrilled when I heard he shared the stage with my favorite band. He wrote a piece a number of years ago about his deafness and the disability putting large amounts of stress and limitations on his work with more rigid, composed styles of music. Throughout his struggles working in these fields, he described the way he rehearsed as “hearing with my eyes.” In other words, he finds it easier in his playing with other musicians to look for visual cues, rather than audio. He succeeds more by rehearsing with video footage, rather than with sheet music or the recorded works of the music he needs to memorize. As a fellow musician and hearing impaired person I find this exciting, fascinating, inspiring, and excruciating. Luckily for Dennard, he’s an amazing drummer who has a logged history on some incredible projects. His reputation is no match for his near deafness.

The “hearing with my eyes” concept applies to most of what I do in life. For you readers with hearing loss, you know as well as I do that Kenwood Dennard’s situation is applicable in just about any social scenario: business, school, work, sports, being creative, and relationships. A hearing impaired person’s brain works to first locate a visual cue, a gut reaction, before anything else.

My love affair with closed captioning continues. We’re not talking rocket surgery here, but its very simple technology has made me appreciate not only a film or television show itself, but the art of scriptwriting, speechwriting, and, most of all, language. If I could have closed captions and subtitles for every instance in my daily life, I would. And like I noted in a previous blog post, my strength in listening has also improved. The visual cues on the screen mesh with the subtitles, physically making me look up and down, forcing me to listen more intently. Just because everything is written for me on the screen, doesn’t mean my listening is diminished, it’s actually strengthened and more purposeful. This whole process gives me an even better command of the English language, leading into an improved understanding and grasp of text in other forms — like books. I can finally explain to you what happens in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I appreciate closed captioning. I appreciate the method of hearing with my eyes, not just while watching TV, a Blu-ray, or going to the movies (when theaters have SDH assisted devices, I use them!). Like Kenwood Dennard, I developed more of an appreciation for communication, listening, and language using alternative methods of assistance — improving my relationships with people and the art they create.

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