Cinematically Challenged

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Cinema of Isolation by Martin Norden
    Rutgers, 385 pp, $48.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 8135 2103 3

This book by its own admission goes for breadth over depth in its consideration of disability in film. Like many a cultural archaeologist coming upon a rich site, Martin Norden does what Schliemann did at Troy and sinks his shafts in haste, turning up many treasures but profoundly disturbing the strata in the process.

Norden lists a vast number of early silent films featuring people with disabilities – slapstick offerings such as The Invalid’s Adventure (1907) or Near-Sighted Mary (1909) – which would have to come into the category of mocking the afflicted. He is sometimes moved to sarcasm in his descriptions: ‘Gaumont also found it necessary to share with the world its enlightened views on the subject of disabled people and marriage’. He even calls such films ‘assaults’ on physically disabled people in the name of humour.

Norden’s Introduction to The Cinema of Isolation has the feeling of a historico-theoretical framework run up after the event, but at least it touches on an explanation. He quotes from Freud’s 1919 essay on ‘The Uncanny’: ‘anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated’ – fear of castration being ‘what gives the idea of losing other organs its intense colouring’. If disability raises in the able-bodied viewer the spectre of castration, the so-called humour of those early films becomes not more attractive, but at least more intelligible, as a form of compulsive disidentification. This refusal of empathy is perhaps symmetrical with the attitude prevailing later, of sympathy offered as if from an invulnerable height, sympathy that denies any claim of kinship. Those who murmur ‘There but for the Grace of God go I,’ after all, disclaim their entitlement to an able body on a humble plane, while reasserting it on a more elevated one. God wants them as they are – and God wants the others other.

If Norden has an overall message, it is that the representation of the disabled in films confirms their status as inherently different: ‘most movies have tended to isolate disabled characters from their able-bodied peers as well as from each other.’ The social ideal would be for the two not so very different groups to mix on a regular basis. Norden cites studies such as Nancy Weinberg’s ‘Modifying Social Stereotypes of the Physically Disabled’ (1978), which have shown that ‘as contact between able-bodied and disabled is intensified, the stereotype of the disabled as different diminishes ... There is a positive relationship between contact and perceived similarity: as contact increases, perceived similarity increases.’ It isn’t clear how this attempt on the social level to reverse the mutual impoverishment of minority and majority could be realised or abetted by films.

As a consequence of his unrealistic expectations, some of Norden’s judgments seem faintly absurd. No doubt The Invalid’s Adventure and Near-Sighted Mary are lamentable pieces of entertainment, but how many other films of the period 1907-9 are congenial to modern taste? It seems a little quixotic to expect higher standards of artistic achievement from films that happen to have disabled characters in them.

There is the occasional whiff of good intention even in early films, but the results seldom tickle Norden’s nostril. Deaf Mute Girl Reciting ‘Star Spangled Banner’, a single-shot film of about 75 seconds made in 1902 (perhaps at Gallaudet, the famous institute for the deaf), can make some faint claim to progressiveness, with its Old Glory backdrop and patriotic performer of American Sign Language. What is it saying, if not that the deaf are also citizens? Yet Norden sees only the ‘desire for freakish entertainment’, and a pandering to that desire. The deaf girl had novelty value, to be sure, but is that really the same as ‘freakishness’? He is at risk here of presupposing the attitudes he seeks to rebuke.

A leitmotif that Norden discovers in early cinema is of the disabled person as fraudulent. Silent films swarm with beggars feigning. Again, he becomes incensed that the able-bodied world should libel a disadvantaged minority in this way (though it is the fate of minorities to be libelled). It might be rewarding to characterise this motif in another way: the desire to represent the disabled in movies is constantly shadowed by the desire not to represent them, somehow to separate the person and the disability. To expose a disabled person as a sham is the antagonistic version of this desire, while an insistence on curability (never entirely absent from films, but having, as Norden shows, definite seasons of prevalence) expresses the same drive in an apparently more sympathetic version.

Norden looks for a social-realist depiction of disability in films, with particular reference to economic conditions, which again seems a little naive. Hollywood cinema has only ever had spasms of realism in these matters – why would it make an exception in favour of the disabled? The workings of money are fairly thoroughly suppressed in mainstream cinema.

He also seeks to assess ‘audience positioning’ – whether viewers are encouraged to identify with disabled characters or with the able-bodied ones who look at them. With particular reference to blindness, he doesn’t explain how a visual medium could appropriately accommodate the priorities of the sightless. In general, his judgments have an insensitivity to tone that can sometimes verge on the deranged: ‘Though commendable for its explicit recognition of the able-bodied exploitation and relatively balanced in its representation of character gazes, Heidi otherwise deals with issues of physical disability in a simplistic and facile way.’ But Heidi deals with the Alps in a simplistic and facile way. It’s a simplistic and facile film. Who ever thought any different? We’re not talking about Persona here!

With other films, by contrast, Norden’s rudimentary analyses, particularly of camerawork, don’t do justice to sophisticated strategies. A case in point would be The Elephant Man (1980), a still from which appears on the cover of the book. David Lynch’s film may indeed demonstrate ‘time-worn points of view’ in some ways, and its central figure may indeed combine the stereotypes of the Sweet Innocent and the Saintly Sage (Norden is inordinately fond of categories like these and the ‘Elderly Dupe’, ‘Noble Warrior’, ‘Civilian Superstar’ and so on). But his camera plays an ambiguous game, in two stages.

First of all it withholds the full sight of John Merrick (John Hurt), tantalising the audience with reaction shots, glimpses, a silhouette against a screen. The viewer’s appetite for freakishness is played with, worked up and then strangely shamed. After Lynch has shown Merrick at last, the camera dwells on his appearance until it acquires its own integrity, if not actual beauty. Lynch questions in turn both of the rights that make up our position of privilege – first the right to look, and then the right to look away.

In his watchfulness about ‘ableism’, or able-bodied bias, Norden sometimes overstates his case, precisely where one might expect him to acknowledge distinctive efforts. This, for instance, would be a fair comment about a great many films: ‘the fulfilment of actions ordinarily associated with mainstream members is an acceptable substitute’ for miraculous recoveries temporarily out of fashion. ‘In other words, the characters should start acting like majority members if they cannot be cured outright.’ It’s just that this verdict is passed on The Miracle Worker (1962) of all films. When Helen Keller made her first communication with another human being, it wasn’t a lot like selling out a considered political position. What it was like was a painful birth, and Arthur Penn’s film doesn’t play down the pain of her entering into language. The distinctive element in The Miracle Worker, which makes it still so eminently watchable, is the acknowledgment that in her isolation Helen Keller’s resistance to communication was all that she had. Before she could express No explicitly, she was entirely clenched round a No that she had to give up. The film does what it can to honour that.

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