Portrait

Blind since birth, Tommy Edison has made his mark in a most unexpected field – film reviewing. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Blind film reviewer Tommy Edison’s ways of seeing

His laugh is disarming, a whole-body chuckle: head thrown back, nose scrunched. He tells me that growing up in affluent Greenwich, Connecticut, was difficult, because all the other families had chauffeurs and his didn’t: mouth open, straight teeth bared, shoulders jiggling up and down. I confess that I’m primarily a fiction writer. “Perfect. You can just make it all up. Tell people I’m much more handsome.” One hand softly slaps the top of the table, next to where his folded white cane is resting. It’s a contagious, kinetic energy that bounces off Tommy Edison, ricochets round the empty room. He laughs so often that his closed eyes can seem like the swollen-cheeked product of a hearty chuckle.

Tommy’s thick, neatly trimmed hair is the kind of shimmering silver people pay for. His physique is bear-like: lift-off-the-ground-when-hugging-you big. He’s dressed in neutral tones: faded blue denim, tan-coloured jacket, dusk grey shirt. Sorting the washing, he randomly tells me later in our conversation, isn’t as difficult as people think: denim separately by feel, always a cold wash. 

It’s Tommy Edison’s first time visiting Australia. I ask him about his new surroundings. “The birds,” he says, lifting up his chin slightly, face tilted towards the ceiling. “You have some amazing birds out here. Wow! And the road crossings. That sound they make. Y’know, meep-meep-meep-meep-meep. So you can find where the button is. Bumps on the pavement so you can feel where to cross. We don’t have those back home.”

Blind since birth, Tommy’s foray into the world of film reviewing began some three years ago. He and his mate Ben Churchill had just soldiered through a “scream” movie in which the entire resolution occurred without dialogue, rendering Tommy unable to follow it. Beers were downed. An idea bubbled up: what if Tommy were to review films from the perspective of a blind person? Ben had been filming documentary-style material about his friend’s life anyway. The first review was uploaded. Renowned US film critic, journalist and reviewer Roger Ebert unexpectedly tweeted it. Cyberspace went wild. The click-throughs mounted up. They started to post regular reviews. “The Blind Film Critic” gained notoriety. Viewers started to send in questions about Tommy’s life. How do you use your phone? How do you take the photographs on your Instagram account? What do blind people know about colours? Tommy and Ben started filming replies and a spinoff video series, The Tommy Edison Experience, was born. Tommy recounts this journey, in his excited, slightly breathless way, rolling words one after the other until he runs out of breath, drawing in air, continuing again. 

Tommy Edison loves to talk: he skips seamlessly from one topic to another, loops back to things we spoke about earlier. A traffic reporter on Connecticut radio for 19 years (he developed a large network of on-the-scene callers whose voices he trusted and “checked with the cops” if in doubt), there’s a frantic but captivating rhythm to his delivery. When he speaks, it’s one part calmly narrated meditation CD, one part punchline-perfect stand-up routine.

Dustin Hoffman is Tommy’s favourite actor. “The sheer range of his work. I mean, Rain Man – that was brilliance!” CGI film frustrates him (“You have these incredible images and action scenes, but it’s like they gave the writers the day off. It’s really boring for me.” We get to the topic of accents in films and somehow swing round to Jamaican patois. “My dad’s from Jamaica,” I say. Tommy skips a beat. “Does that mean you’re black?” he asks. “I’m black,” I declare. For some reason we both find this hilarious.

To help guide his way out of the interview room, Tommy puts a hand on my shoulder and walks behind me, following step for step. “Cool jacket,” he says immediately when his fingers touch a puffy denim sleeve. It is a cool jacket. It’s a searching-through-op-shops-for-weeks-to-find-the-right-one jacket, perhaps the only “cool” item of clothing I’ve ever owned. Tommy can see that.

Several days later, in a North Melbourne auditorium, the 1920s silent horror film Nosferatu flickers onto the giant screen. Monochrome cinematography commences. A live pianist atmospherically accompanies the action. The first contestant: a young man in the front row of the audience, starts narrating. “It’s windy,” he says. “There’s piano music playing…” Tommy and the other two judges, both also vision impaired, chuckle. “You don’t have to narrate the sound!” an audience member calls out. After five minutes of narration, the film is paused and the judges give their verdict. The next contestant takes the mic. This continues for the duration of Nosferatu, audience members competing to take home an iPad, in what turns out to be the live captioning contest to end all live captioning contests.

Tommy sits facing the audience, both hands wrapped firmly around his microphone. He alternates between cautiously enthusiastic and diplomatically encouraging. “You asked a lot of questions,” he says to one narrator. “That made me want to turn around and look at the screen.” The audience giggles. “Well,” he says a few minutes later to another contestant, “the good news is that you won’t have to strain yourself carrying home a mini iPad this evening.” More guffaws from the captivated crowd. Mic resting in lap, Tommy reaches around for the glass of Champagne he’s been drinking, raises it to his lips with both hands, throws his head back, gulps a mouthful. Someone offers to refill his glass. The bubbly keeps flowing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 31, 2015 as "Ways of seeing". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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