Saturday, November 24, 2012

Reel to Wheel 3

Rust and Bone

With five new films about people with disabilities getting major attention, critical raves, and box office success, it seems I'm distantly part of a new trend in the arts. What's the new surprise for the mostly non-disabled media? Disabled people have sex!

I've examined the depiction of disabled characters in films before, but most of them were low-budget horror flicks and weepy melodramas. A few included disabled characters as part of an ensemble, while others focused on disability as a main theme (see 'Reel to Wheel 2'). TV characters have had their own representations and misrepresentations, while actual disabled artists have expanded boundaries (see 'Arts, Access and Artie') in fictional and reality show settings (see my 'Push Girls' feature in the Bay Area Reporter).

But the new slew of films take on such diverse perspectives that it's expanded the notion of how disabled people can (or should?) be depicted beyond any prior notions.

Rust and Bone (De Rouille d'Os): Salon discusses this drama about a whale trainer amputee (Marion Cotillard) and her steamy romance with a single-dad kickboxer (hunky Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts). They're sexy. He's muscular. Her CGI non-legs provide a new take on bedroom positions, and how sometimes the disabled person's amour isn't the cliché kindly caring pseudo-caregiver, but an indifferent stud with fumbling relationship skills.

Apparently, Rust and Bone wins over the reviewer because it doesn't dictate a "message" so much as visualize a unique and unusual love affair.

But the French don't just make ephemeral films. The Untouchables offers up the predictable feel-good story of a tetraplegic man and his affable ex-con attendant. They get through their travails with a cheerful attitude and a little ganja. The film has become the highest-grossing non-American (English) film ever, apparently.
The Untouchables

The Atlantic's Ian Buckwalter critiques the film for providing cheery pat situations that remedy misery in his (hopefully) ironically titled article, "Feel-Good Films About Disabilities Need to Also Make You feel Bad." Buckwalter dislikes the feel-good aspect of The Untouchables, and the U.S. film, The Sessions, which stars Helen Hunt as a sex surrogate for a man paralyzed by polio.
The Sessions

Why? "The problem with Intouchables and The Sessions is that they achieve their sunny dispositions by pulling punches. Any hint of difficulty is immediately tempered so as not to upset the lightly comedic tone of both films."

Buckwalter prefers the tragic Amour (also French, obviously) because it depicts the harsh realities of disabled seniors facing mortality. But another film writer for The Atlantic appreciates the adult aspect of The Sessions, which depicts a rare adult take on sexuality.

The UK Guardian's Film Blog focuses on the seeming renaissance of disability-themed cinema, including a light overview of recent movies. It mentions Harvey Weinstein having snapped up the English rights to remake The Untouchables, because Americans apparently can't stand films with subtitles. It seems best to see the original before the tainted, Adam Sandler-Chris Rock (just a possible idiotic casting duo) Oscar-bait U.S. version no doubt ruins any aspect of subtlety in the original.

Another potential Oscar-bait role is Bill Murray as President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on the Hudson. USA Today notes the surprising secret sexual liason FDR had with a mistress. And of course Murray will be up against other strong contenders for the Academy Award, including Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar for his role as a disabled man in My Left Foot, back in the days when such people were for the most part limited to heart-wrenching depictions of agony and struggle.

From the X-Men's Charles Xavier to the recent Paralympics, the visual depiction of disabled people, from science-fictional to athletically and amazingly real, is as diverse as the spectrum of humans and some not-so human, as in Avatar, which eliminates disability via transformation. In the TV series Downton Abbey, a war-wounded paraplegic is "miraculously" -and conveniently- cured, due to a mere spinal bruise, rather than a permanent injury.

Hyde Park on the Hudson
How disabled people are depicted has finally evolved, says media and disability expert Lawrence Carter-Long. "The same story lines of people with disabilities being tragic or heroic just for waking up in the morning are played out," he told USA Today.  Carter-Long curated the recent marathon series of disability-themed films for Turner Classic Movies.

That series, and the new crop of films, prove that any story can be inclusive, and as Carter-Long argues against Buckwalter's somewhat disdainful view of The Untouchables and films like it, such films needn't fulfill anyone's presumed requirement of tragedy or melodrama.

While considering the events of the sequel to Every Time I Think of You, my novel about a young man who loves another who becomes disabled, I'm not concerned about what should or shouldn't happen in the story, other than for historic accuracy. What's daunting is the multitude of things that can happen.

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