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.
Martin Norden isn’t the first cultural commentator to discover that Freudianism works wonders in small doses, but small doses aren’t available. The Freudian scaffolding rigged up to buttress the Introduction ends by threatening to pull down the whole building. Norden spoils a valuable point about the way disabled characters are arbitrarily inserted into screen adaptations of literary originals – he singles out the deformed lab assistant in Rex Ingram’s The Magician (1926), drawn from a Maugham novel, mysteriously incorporated into the James Whale Frankenstein and subsequently acquiring the generic name of Igor – by his grudging response to one of the few occasions when a disability materialises as an aspect of the hero. Howard Breslin’s short story ‘Bad Day at Honda’ has an explicitly able-bodied protagonist, while Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is famously one-armed. All Norden can think of to say is that Tracy’s character is ‘“remasculated” through his heroic deeds’. Since when was he demasculated? He looks pretty tough from the word go (even Norden describes him as ‘a self-assured, goal-orientated fellow’). The dismal equation of disability with an internal defectiveness is so thorough that it seems to have bewitched him into overlooking a rare exception, where the character who is physically impaired is the one to embody integrity.
Norden seems not to notice the film’s theme: that difference need not be the same as otherness – you can be one of them and still be one of us. Its self-consciously liberal message is that xenophobia cannot plausibly be the philosophy of the melting-pot. It cannot, in other words, be an American value. The town’s secret is that during the war some of its inhabitants murdered a farmer of Japanese descent. The guilty parties assume that Tracy’s John Macreedy has come to investigate the crime, when his mission is much simpler: to deliver a bravery medal to the father of the man who saved his life in combat. The two quests, though, the feared and the real, necessarily converge since the father in question is the murder victim.
Bad Day at Black Rock also includes an early appearance of Oriental self-defence techniques: Macreedy fights off his attackers with some basic judo and karate. This is a more plausible resource for a one-armed man than Hollywood fisticuffs, and has the advantage of showing the hero’s willingness to absorb non-Western skills without compromising his Americanness. Perhaps it even signals to the viewer the possibility that minorities in general might be able to use the majority’s strength against itself. But all Norden sees is the disability platitude he projects onto it, and a highly unlikely Freudian reading of geography to bring about that redundant recovery of virility: if film-makers ‘did not provide female figures to accomplish this remasculation, they at the very least offered female-like environments that allow the males to engage in heroic acts (e.g. the hostile landscape that John Macreedy penetrates in Bad Day at Black Rock)’. Since when is a hostile landscape a female environment? Are women deserts? Since when, come to that, is Spencer Tracy a phallus? Someone who has taken on the task of exploring our complicated investments in the bodies we see on screen should be able to provide a less preposterous gloss.
It’s never explicitly stated in The Cinema of Isolation that commercial films can be made exclusively, or even primarily, for a disabled audience, but the assumption lurks in many passages. In his discussion of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968) the author remarks: ‘anyone who knows [sign] language can readily tell when the hearing actors who play deaf characters are basically fumbling their way through it ... A scene in which Singer interacts with a black deaf person played by Horace Oats, who truly was deaf and knew the language well, only accentuated Arkin’s lack of facility with the language and underscored the impropriety of casting a hearing actor in such a role.’ Yet Norden has just finished telling us about the five-year struggle to get Carson McCullers’s novel filmed (the industry reaction was: ‘It’s absolutely beautiful and I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole’), and the decisive contribution made by Alan Arkin, who had long coveted the role of John Singer, and told the screenwriter: ‘You gotta give me the part now ... I’ve gone to all the trouble of becoming a star just so I could play it.’ Arkin is clearly more fluent in Hollywood hyperbole than in American Sign Language, but he deserves more than a ticking-off for his ‘impropriety’. No doubt his signing was substandard. But there’s little point in comparing the film that exists with one that could never have been made – the same project with a deaf actor.
Perhaps the makers of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter deserve praise for the fact that Arkin’s faulty articulation of ASL is the only barrier to a deaf audience’s understanding. Consider these strictures on Children of a Lesser God (1988): ‘many signings were cut off by the edges of the frame, executed in bad lighting, or obscured when the performer, [William] Hurt, usually turned away from the camera, and hearing characters would sometimes talk without signing.’ Norden doesn’t spell out what is implied here: that for signing to be properly intelligible it must take precedence over lighting, composition and editing. It isn’t insulting to suggest that many deaf viewers (whose exclusion from movies, after all, began only with The Jazz Singer) might consider this a bad bargain.
As Norden points out, the defective signing in the film could be made good only by a subtitled showing – and less than five per cent of the American cinemas showing the film in its first run offered captioned versions. (Captioning for television is one area where technology may usefully be prevailed on to cater to minority needs, and it’s worth mentioning that ASL travels a lot less well than written English.) But if you’re going to caption a film anyway, why bother to try even as hard as Children of a Lesser God does to represent sign language? Though this isn’t an argument made by Norden, any film that gives importance to sign language is by that very fact less likely to treat deaf people as sensitive outsiders who should be allowed by the big-hearted majority to partake more fully in a wider world. The point here is not what sign language communicates to the deaf, but what it communicates to the hearing.
Norden’s thesis is not wrong: many Hollywood films encourage audiences to consider disabled people’s experiences as being remote to the point of unimaginability. ‘If I went blind I’d kill myself, I don’t know what I’d do’ – that is the basic premise magnified and distorted by the movies. But there is also the assumption that the majority’s experience contains and includes the minority’s. Nothing is more provocative, and sometimes more politically useful, than the claim to an unsharable life.
Coriolanus’ response to banishment: ‘I banish you.’ Long-ago weather reports on the Home Service: ‘The Continent is cut off by fog.’ T-shirts in the high street: ‘It’s a black thing. You wouldn’t understand.’ When deaf people sign, they make no such rhetorical statements, but discomfit the hearing no less. It’s not simply that a group is inherently a more resisting object than an individual, when it comes to certain fixed responses. It’s more that the majority is always eager to strike an emotional attitude – that feels good – but intellectual effort is something else again. The idea that you might have to go to some trouble to make yourself understood isn’t half so welcome. When deaf people sign, they pass the message to a wider audience: ‘Evening class first, sympathy second. Listen, and then talk.’
Yet Norden, in his analysis of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, speaks up for the majority in this particular matter: ‘Singer seems for ever isolated not only because of the other characters’ lack of responsiveness to his needs but also because the film-makers refused to make his signed conversations accessible to audiences unacquainted with American Sign Language.’ ‘Refused’ is a strong word, implying something more wilful than merely ‘deciding against’, as one of their many choices. Doesn’t there come a time when isolation plus resource equals something like resistance to being annexed? Something like autonomy? Or can disabled people only hope to be accorded their rights by flattering the majority’s illusions? By making some conversations in the film opaque, the film-makers place a trifling obstacle in the path of facile identification.
Deaf critics of Children of a Lesser God seem to have been less hard-line than Norden, and to have taken it for granted that this was a mildly progressive film aimed squarely at hearing audiences. Clearly there’s nothing more tedious for a minority than to be offered overwhelmingly grotesque or sentimentalised images of its existence, but it might also be said that minorities are under no obligation to bond with the positive images they are offered.
It may be, for instance, that a deaf viewer watching a properly captioned print of, say, Edward Scissorhands, will identify with difference as expressed in a strongly poetic register. Something similar might even apply to the sequences in Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston is abused by monkeys who refuse to understand what he’s saying, regarding him as by definition stupid.
It is also possible to prefer negative images over positive ones, provided they offer some bonus of power. The fatal woman in film noir magnetises female viewers as well as male. Gay audiences of No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) could be under no illusions that Rod Steiger’s campy vaudeville turn was any sort of sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual, but they took to their hearts the taunting catchphrase he used: ‘Doesn’t make me a bad person.’
So, too, with the stereotype that Norden calls the Obsessive Avenger. Clearly it is not the case that disabled people seek revenge on the able-bodied, but there might be times for finding that fantasy delicious. Norden can’t bring himself to appreciate Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) because of the notorious finale, in which an entire community of circus performers undertake to punish a pair of sinners (they kill the man and mutilate the woman). They’re not by any stretch of the political imagination ‘role models’, that desirable thing, but it certainly makes a difference that the disabled on screen at this point are in the majority, that wrongdoing was associated with able-bodiedness first, and that there is no comeuppance for these particular Obsessive Avengers. The subversions of Freaks are more thoroughgoing than Norden is prepared to admit.
Norden points out in his survey of recent films with a disability theme that it is particularly dramas with disabled people at their centres that are ‘problematic’: ‘they have registered mostly regressive qualities with many of the old stereotypes still in force.’ Less direct approaches are likely to be more rewarding.
An old episode of Hill Street Blues, for instance, dealt with disability issues in a glancing way. A police car on urgent duty was parked so that it happened to block one of the cutaway sections which since the Seventies have been required on American pavements, and an activist in a wheelchair sprayed angry graffiti on its bodywork. He was arrested. Later in the episode he was found guilty of vandalism, but his punishment – with soap-opera glibness of closure – was to give the police classes in disability awareness. Nevertheless, between the arrest and the cutely didactic resolution was an extraordinarily painful sequence, in which the man in the wheelchair needed to use the lavatory. The facilities in the police-station were not accessible to wheelchairs, so a policeman had grudgingly to escort him. Trying to hold the disabled man upright at the urinal, the policeman lost his grip. The two men’s encounter with shame, loss of control and urine was powerful precisely because it wasn’t part of some standard parable, some patronisingly smooth learning curve. The issue wasn’t neatly aligned with the dramatic structure: there was a welcome-element of syncopation.
Oddly, it is in cameos and bit-parts that ragged little bits of reality are more likely to show through the Hollywood gloss. In Viggo Mortensen’s brief appearance in Carlito’s Way (1993) – he plays a wheelchair-bound criminal – two points are made with surprising force. Referring to his wheelchair, the character says that when they really want to punish you, they don’t put you in a grave, they put you in one of these. The idea that life in a wheelchair is worse than death, actually a form of torture, is unusually stark for a thriller that is routine in most respects. And when the character is found to be wired for sound, and to have been hired to entrap Carlito, his defence of his actions is also striking: what else can I do to earn a little money, except sell out my friends? The economic powerlessness of the disabled, with the corollary that certain moral choices can become unaffordable luxuries, is rarely addressed by a cinema predicated on the power of individuals to transcend fate.
One film which receives no mention in The Cinema of Isolation nevertheless uses disability themes in a uniquely disorienting way: Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1988), best known as a sort of prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, with Brian Cox doing a turn as Hannibal Lecter. The serial killer in the film is an Obsessive Avenger with a vengeance, murdering entire families of strangers carefully selected on the basis of the perfection of their normality. His psychology is obliquely explored in the film – the murders are transformational rituals – but the source of his (to put it mildly) alienation isn’t explicitly stated.
In the middle of the film, after following the police investigation exclusively, Manhunter switches abruptly to the murderer’s world – his professional world, not his handiwork. He is tall and odd-looking. He works in a largescale film-processing plant. We see him talking to a female colleague, offering her a lift home after work. The part of us that is already unsettled by the film shrieks silently: ‘Noooooo! Don’t accept a lift home from the monster!’ She says thanks, but she doesn’t need a lift. He explains that his offer was selfish, since it would give him pleasure to drive her home. She accepts.
The viewer has been deprived of a piece of information known by both parties: the woman is blind. And yes, in her way she is a grown-up (and sexually competent) version of the Sweet Innocent. But in her discussion of her blindness and her job she shows a wry political awareness, of the sort that Norden searches for in vain in so many films: corporations in America must hire a quota of the disabled to be considered for government contracts, and employing a blind woman in a darkroom doesn’t require much in the way of modifications to the premises. No expensive wheelchair ramps, for instance.
It’s too much to expect the film to allow this character to wield the power of the gaze, but she does something remarkably similar. She wields the power of knowledge at a distance, which the sighted equate with sight. She congratulates her colleague on the clarity of his articulation, and on the excellence of the corrective surgery to his harelip. She remarks that he has trouble only with a few consonants – no one who hadn’t worked as a speech therapist, as she has, would even notice. This is one of the most forceful pieces of self-presentation by a disabled person in all cinema. She goes on to make a request: may she touch his face? He refuses, and she doesn’t insist.
He mentions that if she has time, he has a surprise that he would like to show her, on her way home. Again we bite our tattered tongues so as not to shout, in a crowded cinema: ‘Noooooo! Don’t let the monster show you a surprise!’ She says yes. She likes surprises.
When the killer shows his colleague the surprise, Manhunter enters a territory of perverse and extraordinary richness. The surprise is a tiger, anaesthetised for the removal of a wisdom tooth, flanks stirring faintly as it comes round after the operation, its threat for now suspended. The blind woman touches the beast with wonder and then something like greed, an amour fou of the fingers and the sensing skin.
This is an astounding sequence quite apart from its almost Surrealist strangeness. We are being shown that evil can be imaginative, can identify with other people’s lacks and desires. We are being reminded that blind people are particularly cut off from nature, our access to wild things being so largely ocular. And the murderer is conveying to her without using a word that he, too, is dangerous, but not to her.
It should come as no surprise that the romance on which these two people embark does not turn out well – if this is Beauty and the Beast, then the Beast can’t rise above his bestiality. But what is salutary about the film’s approach is that the murderer chooses to draw the dividing line differently, not as we do between her and him, representatives of good and evil, but between both of them and us – they with their difference, we with our defective normality.
Martin Norden has praise for a handful of films in Hollywood history, but there are two pieces of work that elicit outright acclaim: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler, and Coming Home (1978), directed by Hal Ashby. Both films represent responses to a recent war and are perhaps part of a surge of awareness in different decades about a class of newly disabled men: wounded soldiers – people with an interrupted sense of entitlement, recently dispossessed of privilege, and a feeling of having kept their side of a bargain with their country. In a sense, then, these are films about the honouring of – or reneging on – a social contract that may or may not extend to all disabled people, including those who cannot present their condition as manifestations of sacrifice, negative trophies of patriotism.
Both films seek to address the intimate aspects of disablement, with a comparable mix of forthrightness and equivocation. Wyler’s film, highly unusually, uses a disabled person, Harold Russell, in a major role. For once, disablement in the movies is a matter of visible absence rather than disguised presence, unlike Lon Chaney’s strapped-up legs visible in profile in The Penalty (1920), or Spencer Tracy’s theoretically missing arm bizarrely present in publicity stills for Bad Day at Black Rock. The Best Years of Our Lives goes as far as a bedroom scene, in which Russell’s character is helped by his girlfriend to prepare for the night.
This sequence is in its way highly daring in what it invites an audience to contemplate. Yet it is striking that there is one area where the film-makers made the character of Homer Parrish less functional than the actor who played him. Russell could put on his prostheses by himself, and wasn’t helpless without them. Could anything signal more clearly the reassuring fact – in this context – of impotence?
The character’s girlfriend reacts with true love rather than pity, but this need not mean more than that in a Forties film caring for men was still felt to be the female destiny – ‘nurse’ being only a special case of ‘woman’, and a nurse who married her disabled patient making a satisfactory contract between two people exempted from desire.
In Coming Home by contrast, the wheelchair-bound veteran played by Jon Voight can give Jane Fonda’s character sexual pleasure in a way her macho husband cannot. Here the equivocation is in the casting rather than the screenplay. The other inhabitants of the Veterans Administration Hospital in the film were disabled in real life, while Voight is a familiar face (best-known for Midnight Cowboy) attached to an able body. Coming Home contains sequences that are almost documentary, but it is the familiar actor in the standard triangle with whom audiences are expected to identify.
In films like Coming Home, or Brando’s early film The Men (1950), the paraplegic supporting cast guarantee the seriousness of the lead actor in the wheelchair, which is only to say: the disabled people in the background certify the excellence of the star’s performance. We never forget that performance is what it is. When Jon Voight pleasures Jane Fonda on the screen in front of us, we know we’re not really being invited to imagine the sexual experiences of the wheelchair-bound.
The logical next step from the actor-surrounded-by-real-sufferers strategy of Coming Home is represented by the Gary Sinise character in Forrest Gump (1994). Here the actor and the ‘real’ disability have been fused by special effects. Sinise’s legs aren’t there because some expensive digitised manipulation of the image has seen to it that they’re not. There is no strapping-up to be seen in a profile shot. This is one of the most visible absences on screen since The Best Years of Our Lives, but its significance is the opposite of the earlier one’s. It becomes less and less likely that actual disabled people will appear in films, now that anyone can be a temporary amputee. The authoritative visual shock of seeing the body Harold Russell inhabits is lost, when kids seeing the film that earned him his Oscar (a statuette that he was forced in time to sell off) may only be impressed that they didn’t know they could do that back then. After virtual disability realised to such high specifications, who will have (screen) time for the real thing?
It only takes common sense to understand that the sex lives of the disabled are a taboo subject because this private area is one where the majority sensitively prefer not to trespass. So much for common sense. In reality the able-bodied imagination intervenes with great intensity in this area. The disabled are insistently sexualised – it’s just that they are sexualised in a highly particular way. What is sexualised is not the life but the loss. For the majority, the disabled are by symbolic definition unable to function sexually. If on the level of individual fantasy we equate disability with impotence, as if the wheelchair or the white stick were only outward and visible signs of an inner castration, we can hardly expect more realism from our films.
It should tip us off to the way our thoughts are being shaped that the limbs of the disabled in movies – Lon Chaney’s legs, Spencer Tracy’s arm, Gary Sinise’s reverse prosthesis – are body parts that both cannot and must be there; a formulation classically applied in psychoanalytic theory to that necessary phantom, the mother’s penis.
Yet Freudian theory is problematic in its own way. The Oedipus complex may contribute to an explanation of our compulsive disidentification with the disabled, but its root-myth itself both begins and ends with disabilities viewed symbolically. Oedipus is ‘orthopaedically impaired’, to borrow a recurring phrase of Norden’s, as a result of being exposed on the mountainside as a baby, an impairment that is commemorated in his name. As an adult he blinds himself in a highly expressive piece of self-mutilation: he has seen too much, and at the same time, up to the day of his blinding, he has seen nothing at all.
The Oedipus complex is not an optional experience. Freud proposes it as universal and unchanging. But if disability is symbolically viewed by the able-bodied as castration, how is it viewed by the disabled themselves – by the estimated 15 per cent who are born disabled, but also by the remaining 85 per cent? Do they negotiate the complex in its female version, irrespective of gender, viewing themselves as already castrated? (And does this also mean that Freudian theory in effect constructs femininity as a disability?)
The theory of the Oedipus complex depends fairly heavily on seeing, on the glimpse of the mother naked that reveals her genital anomaly. Freud presented his theories as contributions to science, but if he had really wanted to test them scientifically, he might have taken an interest in the sexual development of those born blind.
Freud features only intermittently in The Cinema of Isolation, in the Introduction and then in the concluding pages, but he’s present quite enough to destabilise the whole enterprise. Freud is invoked in the first place to explain hostility towards the disabled, as if this was a minor thing that could easily be disposed of, but then Freudian analysis itself seems to endorse able-bodied fantasies about what disabled bodies represent, and even to be composed of them.
The final paragraph of the book tries to put the genie from Vienna back in his bottle. It starts with a tone of modest confidence: ‘Though the Oedipal crisis cannot entirely account for the construction of movie images of physical disability, there is little question that the Cinema of Isolation – good films, bad, and everything in between – is heavily indebted to it.’
The confidence reaches a peak a few lines later: ‘Though the Cinema of Isolation has hinged so strongly on this retrograde male fantasy, it need not continue to do so. The Oedipal framework remains a formidable challenge to movie-makers wishing to represent the physically disabled experience with some measure of equity, but it is not insurmountable.’ At this point, on page 323, we are four lines from the end of a long book, and it begins to look as if the author has left it rather late to show us how the future can be made to differ from the past.
Here is his attempt at it: ‘If movie-makers, disabled and able-bodied alike, can break away from this narrative structure that has served as the foundation for the whole of mainstream narrative media (and indeed the whole of patriarchal society) and pursue alternative strategies for telling their stories, we may at long last see some real progress.’
In the course of a single paragraph the Oedipus complex has gone from being one factor among others in the shaping of cinematic images of disability, to being the strong hinge of the genre and, finally, to being the foundation of the entire society that makes and consumes the films. The Freudian tail has wagged the critical dog throughout The Cinema of Isolation, but with this particular convulsion even a sympathetic reader may wonder whether the doggedness which is the book’s chief virtue is merit enough.
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