AT THE FLICKS
REVIEWS FILM AND TV
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.")
are TV news shows so depressing
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, crazythese 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 soundssome 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
© 2000 Blaine
"CONJOINED FETUS LADY,"
205, Volume 9 of the South
Park Collection on videocassette
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
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
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
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
performerswho 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.
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 hereobviously.
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,
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.
recommended for Jesse Helms.
©Blaine Waterman 1999
a reference librarian and avid filmgoer. He lives in Berkeley, CA.
You can also go to his webpage