A CRIP
AT THE FLICKS

BLAINE WATERMAN
REVIEWS FILM AND TV

 

"THE COLOR OF PARADISE,"
Starring Mohsen Ramezani, Hossein Mahjub, Salime Feizi, Elham Sharifi, Farahnaz Safari. Directed by Majid Majidi. Iran, 1999 (Also released as "The Color of Heaven.")

WWhy are TV news shows so depressing
and movies about crips so relentlessly chipper? Both, I think, are reactions to what we perceived to be "normal". Who wants to watch a news show full of trains arriving on time, happy, safe children and nice people being nice to each other? All these are presumed to be the NORM.

The news is about what isn't working, bad things so bad they're fascinating, horrifying. Conversely, our society's accepted norm for crips is UNHAPPINESS. Blind, deaf, deformed, paralyzed, crazy—these conditions are, by definition, expected to make us miserable. Who wants to see movies about that? It's all so depressing, and not exactly news.

In reaction, Hollywood gives us happy crips, saintly crips, super-overachieving crips, rich crips. Whether ludicrously saccharine or gritty and pseudo-real, the films about disability I've seen have in common the sense that we're watching a narrative about triumph. Until now.

Though "The Color of Paradise" is sprinkled with moments of intense joy, it is not triumphant in any conventional sense. Instead, by showing us the shame and rejection all crips feel at some point, exactly the reality strenuously denied or overcome in standard gimpfests, this modest film from a Third World backwater displays an emotional power that the glossy Hollywood product rarely delivers.

I do not normally associate Iran, home of the Ayatollah Khomeini and fundamentalist Islam, with cinematic sophistication. When my boyfriend recommended an Iranian movie I was dubious, to say the least (although I've since learned that there is a vigorous New Iranian Cinema). I'm glad I set aside my skepticism.

This film about a lonely, precocious ten-year-old blind boy and his rural family is as powerful a treatment of disability as any I've seen. Mohammed (Mohsen Ramezani) attends a school for blind kids in Teheran, which is closing for an eight-week vacation. On the day the kids are to return home, his father is a no-show. Mohammed is left to spend the day by himself on a bench, waiting, waiting.

The next day his father (Hossein Mahjoub) finally arrives, staring at him from a distance without greeting. Papa then goes into the principal's office and begs the school to keep his son. His wife died a few years earlier, he explains, and he cannot care for a blind boy any longer. When the headmaster refuses, Mohammed's father grudgingly agrees to take his son home. As they make the journey by foot, train, and horse, Papa never cracks a smile. He projects the air of a man carrying a heavy burden he's desperate to unload.

The picture at home is different. There Mohammed has two younger sisters and a grandmother who love him. He has great fun seeing them, and impresses everyone at his sisters' school when he visits one day and reads aloud in Braille the same story the hometown kids are reading in their textbook.

This idyll is short-lived. Mohammed's father wants to remarry and believes he must get rid of the shame of his son to snare the woman he wants. Rather than letting Mohammed return to blind school, he instead apprentices the boy to a local carpenter who is also blind. The carpenter is a good man, but Mohammed is distraught at being sent away from his grandmother and sisters.

Grandma is furious with her son and tries walking all the way to the carpenter's to retrieve Mohammed. Along the way she falls sick. Her son brings her home, only to watch her die days later. Frightened by this disturbing omen, the bride's family calls off the impending marriage. Motherless and now wifeless, Mohammed's father reconsiders the decision to send his only son away.

As he sets off to reclaim him, he is still too full of ambivalence and confusion to bring about the kind of Happy Ending I both did and didn't want to see. The film offers us something more complex, which I'll refrain from ruining for you by explaining here.

Although I may have missed some subtleties of Iranian culture, I think this film is remarkably accessible to a foreign audience. Beautifully filmed by director Majid Majidi, the Iranian countryside bursts from the screen in vivid colors. Majidi conveys much of the action visually and by means of natural sounds—some of the best scenes have little or no dialogue. (It is sadly ironic that one wordless scene where Mohammed returns an injured bird to its nest high in a tree will be unintelligible to blind moviegoers.)

Best of all, there is no saccharine in "Color of Paradise." Parts of it could accurately be labeled "heartwarming," but it doesn't achieve that effect via phoniness or manipulation. Majidi offers us a deeply moving drama about an unwanted disabled child. He refuses to trivialize or sugarcoat his story or his characters. That alone is reason enough to put off seeing "The Klumps" for a week and read subtitles instead. It's worth it!

© 2000 Blaine Waterman

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SOUTH PARK, "CONJOINED FETUS LADY,"
Episode 205, Volume 9 of the South Park Collection on videocassette

Political incorrectness has its virtues.
Part of what makes speech or art "offensive" is its challenge to people's strongly held beliefs about themselves or the world. Jesse Helms tells us gay is not good; Jack Kevorkian's mercy killing suggests it's better to be dead than a crip. I find the ideas of both men offensive, but I'm glad they are free to say what they think. I know where they stand and I know where their supporters are coming from.

In art, trying too hard to avoid giving offense leads to Bad Art. Censorship inhibits the honest flow of ideas, leading to tame, safe music/movies/theater/etc.

Happily, Comedy Central's South Park is a bastion of political incorrectness on television. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker use their half-hour animated segments about four grade-school boys (Kyle, Cartman, Stan, and Kenny) in fictional South Park, Colorado as a forum to address touchy issues in a brutally unsentimental manner. In "Conjoined Fetus Lady," South Park takes a very "offensive" look at disabled people and the feelings we evoke in the physically-"unchallenged."

Nurse Gollum is the school nurse at South Park Elementary. The kids are all terrified of her, for a very understandable reason: she has a dead fetus attached to her face!!! When Kyle comes home babbling about her, his mom, Sheila Broflofski, reads up on conjoined twin myslexia. Horrified at how the kids are reacting to Nurse Gollum, Sheila launches a one-woman crusade to raise awareness about conjoined twin myslexia in South Park. Her effort culminates in an Awareness Week that practically drowns Nurse Gollum in a flood of sentimental praise and unwanted attention.

I loved this episode. Where to begin?

I loved the fact that Nurse Gollum's medical condition was treated as patently bizarre, repulsive, and unrelated to her physical abilities. So much contemporary discussion of disability is couched in emotionally neutral talk about "limitations" and "accommodations." While those discussions have their place, they ignore an important emotional truth: people whose looks or mobility don't fit the norm are Very Scary, Repulsive even, to many Normals. I'm sure to some Castro Boys the sight of me whizzing about in my electric chair, with my misshapen hands and permanent slouch, is almost as Freaky as seeing someone with a dead baby attached to her head. Of course I'd rather pretend that's not true, but it is true, and we ignore even very uncomfortable truths at our own peril.

I also loved the painfully accurate look at how trying to "do something" for The Disabled (or anyone, really) is often a tangled mess of mixed motivations and dubious methods. By parading Nurse Gollum around town and giving her a Life Achievement Award, the good burghers of South Park aren't really doing anything for her or about her.

Instead, they're giving themselves something to feel good about; they are affirming that they are charitable enough to embrace someone they perceive as violently ugly and repulsive. I couldn't help but think of the modern spectacle of the Telethon, events which, it's true, raise money for good causes, but also shamelessly make crips objects of pity and bolster the visibility of washed-up performers—who thereby get to feel good about themselves.

Finally, I loved how the writers make Nurse Gollum herself the voice of sanity. When she gives an acceptance speech for her award, most of the town's folk are wearing plastic fetuses on their heads, in tribute to her. She angrily tells them to take them off. They look stupid. She didn't want a week of being a Hero, of people talking obsessively about her condition and trying to make it OK for themselves. She just wanted to be the school nurse, an ordinary person, and if kids needed to make fun of her before they were comfortable with her, she could live with that. Better take the bad with the good than be turned into a living adult poster child.

I'm with her.

 

"BEING JOHN MALKOVICH"
Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Malkovich. Directed by Spike Jonze. 112 minutes.

Music video director Jonze makes his feature debut with "Being John Malkovich," a surreal comedy which manages to be both thought-provoking and hilarious at the same time.

Cusack is Craig Schwartz, an underemployed puppeteer who takes a Manhattan office job to help make ends meet. Once there, he: a) develops a major crush on coworker Maxine (Keener) and b) discovers a magic door which allows the entrant 15 minutes inside the consciousness of actor John Malkovich, before being unceremoniously dumped from the sky onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike covered with ectoplasmic goo!

We're not talking realism here—obviously. The absurdity of the scenario works, though, and helps to create the most bizarre menage a trois in cinematic history, involving Craig, Maxine, and Craig's wife Lotte (Diaz). Both Craig and Lotte fall in love with Maxine, and both visit Malkovich's brain while he's having sex with her, since she won't have either one of them. Eventually, Malkovich learns about the portal into his own brain. Then things get even weirder. Along the way, the film gives us its hilarious takes on gender roles, identity, sexuality, transgenderism, and immortality.

One of the things I liked best was the way the film's bizarre premise lets the audience see how many of the ideas we have about our identities are rooted in the particular physicality of the bodies we happen to be lodged in. What if women had dicks? What if guys could cheat on their wives by using another man's body? What if I could hop from body to body at will, avoiding the end of my individual consciousness indefinitely? You'll see all these possibilities and more explored in "Malkovich."

Cusack and Diaz look like aging neo-hippies and are fun foils for the vampish Keener. Malkovich does a great job playing himself, possessed variously by Cusack, Diaz, and numerous other spirits as well. Charlie Kaufman's script is witty and fast-paced. Jonze makes an utterly ludicrous premise REAL. I imagine this is the first of many films we'll be seeing from this talented director.

Not recommended for Jesse Helms.

©Blaine Waterman 1999

 

BLAINE WATERMAN
(BlaineW638@aol.com) is a reference librarian and avid filmgoer. He lives in Berkeley, CA. You can also go to his webpage .