No spoilers: meet the film critic who's never watched a single film
By Luke Buckmaster
Tue 2 Dec 2014
The next time you're watching a big budget action movie – a superhero spectacle, perhaps, or a Michael Bay-directed brain hemorrhage – try this out. When a chaotic special effects-stuffed scene is just about to click into top gear, close your eyes. Keep them closed. And only open them only once the scene is over. Then ask yourself: what happened? Did all those audio effects tell a story or were they just a collection of thuds, screeches and explosions?
The way sound and music convey information is an area of particular interest for film critic Tommy Edison. A star on YouTube, where his videos regularly rack up more than a million views a piece, Edison has reviewed dozens of movies with his signature good-natured style: lots of humour, lots of self-deprecation and lots of fast-paced banter.
But he hasn't, in the strictest sense, watched any of them. Born with an undeveloped optic nerve, Edison has never been able to see. Endorsed by the legendary film reviewer Roger Ebert in 2011, and having chalked up appearances on countless US media outlets from CNN to the Howard Stern Show, Edison is known as the Blind Critic.
His motto: "No spoilers. I don't even know what happened."
The chatty American's idea for his channel was borne out of frustration. As a film lover, he watched (for want of a better word) as film after film revealed its key plot moments using a visual language he has never been able to translate. A language that understandably left him hanging.
"I thought it might be fun to review movies from a blind person's perspective to show sighted people what that frustration is like," says Edison.
"Some people say: 'How can you even review a movie? You can't even see it.'" But a word to the wise, he says: "After 1928, they started putting dialogue in films. They're not all silent any more! Before that, OK, yeah, I couldn't review movies. But now I can and I love it."
Edison's favorite films may surprise. "I loved Hugo. And you wouldn't think so, because it's this giant beautiful thing to look at. But that story just was cooking. I love Goodfellas. I mean, who doesn't love Goodfellas? That's a film I believe any sighted person could watch that without pictures, on a broken television, and be able to understand. Clerks was another one like that. I also really liked American Hustle. That movie won awards for costume design, which was completely lost on me!"
Edison is currently in Australia as a guest of the Other Film Festival (Toff) at Melbourne Brain Centre. Billed as the world's leading disability film festival, Toff programs a suite of films and events themed "to embrace the lived experience of disability".
A topic regularly discussed is audio description. Available in only a small number of cinemas and DVDs (provision is constantly lobbied for by the vision-impaired community), it's essentially a voiceover track that narrates visual experiences so audiences without sight can understand them. The technology allowed Edison to experience his first silent film last year. "I got it. I knew what it was. That was huge for me," he says. "Pardon the pun, but it was really eye-opening."
In 2014, Toff will hold a competition to create the best audio description of F.W. Murnau's 1922 horror classic Nosferatu – and Edison is one of the judges. But when it comes to the films he reviews as the Blind Critic, having audio description – or even a friend telling him what's happening – is against his rules.
"It would sort of cloud my viewing or understanding of the film, because then it would be about their experience," he says of the describer. "I can ask questions when it's all over. But during it I don't want to know. I'd rather try to figure it out by myself."
Edison's candid and funny film reviews, and his persona as an affable pun-slinging chap who would never wish to be pitied, has led to another kind of fame. He now spends much of his time making videos that address questions random commenters used to pose to him under the line on his YouTube reviews about living with blindness. Questions like "how do blind people use the ATM?" and "can blind people open their eyes?"
So for the record, yes, he dreams, but he cannot see in them ("my subconscious doesn't know how"). Yes, he enjoys a tipple, though he doesn't quite know what to make of "beer goggles". Yes, he relies on his other senses, but doesn't think his ability to use them is innately better than yours or mine. And no, he doesn't understand what colours are.
And on the subject of attraction and falling in love? "I do it backwards," he says. "People look at a person in a bar or something like that and think: my god I've got to talk to them. Then after you get talking you learn what their mind is like. I do it the other way. I learn somebody's mind first and then I learn what they look like afterwards. I think that's wonderful."