In hindsight, we should have picked the movie about the spelling bee over the cute animals marching two by two into Russell Crowe’s ark.
I mean, how loud can a spelling bee be, whereas Noah turned out to be a surprise candidate for the Loudest Movie I’ve Ever Seen award. But who knew? The other choices for a movie night with the Hearing Husband and my hearing friend Wendy were action/thriller films that we figured would be too loud with non-stop and over-the-top visual effects.
Spoiler Alert: Noah is too loud with non-stop visual effects.
While it’s not a religious movie, there are angels in the form of gigantic stone-lava transformers. And there are hordes of screaming people who can’t swim and don’t have tickets for the ark. When le déluge starts, the water comes not only from the sky, but from mighty geysers roaring up from the earth, hundreds of feet in the air, presumably as part of the Creator’s plan to get that boat afloat as quickly as possible. And all of these noise sources happen at the same time, creating a mega-decibel cacophony that almost melted my hearing aids.
I wish I had been able to turn on the Decibel Meter app on my cellphone to measure the volume. But I didn’t have any free fingers. I had taken out one of my in-the-ear hearing aids because it was magnifying the already loud noise (when is compression supposed to kick in?) in a sensory onslaught that made my head vibrate and my eyeballs ache.
My other hand was helping to balance my popcorn and drink, because the drink holder contained my CaptiView caption thingy. (I’ve complained about this before; if my caption device is in the drink holder, I have to hold the huge drink in my lap. A shout out to movie chains – get the Sony Caption Glasses system. It places the captions where you want them and leaves your hands free for food, drink and hearing aids.)
As I pushed-pulled the hearing aid from my ear (the little plastic pulley had long since broken off, which is OK, because it never lay quite flat enough), I was nervous about dropping it into the black void of the theatre floor. I’d been munching on popcorn and had the residue of butter-fingers. The screaming from the screen would have been nothing compared to the sound of my freaking out over a $2000 hearing aid lying somewhere on the floor among popcorn and discarded candy wrappers, just waiting to be stepped on.
With hearing aid safely inside my curled fist, I could still hear the movie and I could read what Noah was shouting into the wind. I was actually better off than the rest of the team – my husband had his hands over his ears and Wendy’s pointer fingers were firmly inserted in hers.
To be honest, Noah was enjoyable in other aspects, and much of the film fell within industry noise standards of 85 dB. But those are standards, not regulations, and the noisy sequences were lengthy. I understand that it would be tough to adequately portray the apocalyptic flood quietly, with raindrops gently pattering into puddles and all. But there has to be a middle ground, without compromising a movie-goer’s hearing or comfort.
Today’s filmmakers are producing louder movies, simply because they can, thanks to state-of-the-art digital technology. Theatres receive the movies the way they’re produced and have limited ability to effectively turn down the volume. The ear-shattering impact of explosions might be quieter, but dialogue would also become difficult to hear.
A 2010 study published in Ear, Nose and Throat Journal looked at the sound levels of 25 movies. Anna Warszawa and Robert T. Sataloff of Drexel University College of Medicine’s Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, found that the volume exceeded 110 dBA in 22 of them, with Transformers maxing out at 133.9. (Ouch!) The preliminary study called for further investigation into whether hearing loss can result from the exposure to movie noise and suggested, if that should be the case, changes in movie industry sound practices should be explored.
Hearing loss organizations have been advocating for captioning access for many years and it’s time to add something else to the wish list – movie noise ratings that would warn of a movie’s extremely loud sound that could be disturbing, dangerous or downright uncomfortable. This idea has been kicking around in the movie industry for some time, but apparently we shouldn’t hold our breath it will happen any time soon. But if there had been a noise rating for Noah, we would have chosen another movie that night – and watched it at a later date on my high-def, pay-for-view television or computer. At home, my hearing aids would stay in my ears, volume adjusted when necessary, the captioning would be in a font and size of my choice, and the popcorn would be a fraction of the price. How heavenly is that?
For now, until the industry turns down the volume (including those loud movie trailers), or at least offers noise ratings and warnings, here’s the best advice I can offer when choosing and viewing a big-screen movie. Before you go, ask someone who has seen it, and who understands your issues, to advise on the noise level. Carry earplugs in your bag or pocket, for both you and the non-hearing aid user. And if you must take out your hearing aid, be very careful. Choose licorice over popcorn, and sweet-talk your date into letting you use their drink holder.