Variety reports that a group of seven blind people filed a class action lawsuit last week against AMC Theatres, alleging the chain violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by “failing to provide properly functioning audio description technology.”
Back in 1973, movie theaters didn’t offer amenities such as assisted listening devices, and visually or hearing impaired patrons were simply asked to bring a friend.
Chicago’s Bryn Mawr Theatre was a fourth-run grindhouse — 75 cents for a double-feature — located directly under an elevated train platform on the city’s North side. Like it or not, every film that played the single-screen hellhole was presented in glorious bursts of Sensurround every ten minutes or so. The booker clearly had taste, but the nincompoops that managed the joint were responsible for countless marquee howlers — most notably, “Fred Fellini’s Amarcord.”
You think cell phones are a distraction at the movies? At the Bryn Mawr, it was not uncommon to see rats scamper across the bottom masking. Patrons were wise to place kitty litter over their nostrils to help filter the pervasive stench of urine, and no evening screening would be complete without the sound of at least one kicked-over wine bottle noisily making its way down the raked, uncarpeted floor. What did people think three-quarters of a dollar was going to buy them?
The marquee didn’t entice patrons in with “Bernie Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris” the night of my fourth viewing of the then-scandalous sex drama starring Marlon Brando. The film was on its last legs; there couldn’t have been more than 20 patrons in attendance, including a curious married couple parked four seats to my right.
Tango was filmed in both French and English. Everything was peachy until the subtitles hit the screen. In a voice that made Jeremy Irons sound like one of Monty Python’s Gumbys, the husband began reading aloud every word printed across the bottom of the frame, including all of the graphic dialogue exchanges. Admittedly, for ten minutes I was biting the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing, but this was Bertolucci, not Bronson, and eventually displeasure needed to be expressed.
Leaning forward in my seat, I politely asked, “Could you please stop...” before stopping myself. The image of his wife wearing sunglasses burns bright to this day. “I’m sorry,” the husband whispered, “but my wife is blind.”
Of all the cinemas in all the towns in all the world, she has to sit in my row. My initial perplexity at the thought of a sightless person attending a movie half-filmed in a language unfamiliar to her quickly gave way to feelings of enormous guilt. “No, please,” I insisted, “continue reading.” He’d have none of it. Finally, in an uncommonly polite show of auditorium-acquiescence, I got up from my customary fourth-row center seat and moved ten rows back. The narration soon resumed. It was the only time in my life that I welcomed the sound of someone’s voice echoing anywhere but from the screen.