Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Film, Sex, and the Single Cripple
By Erika Jahneke
There has never been a disability-friendly American Pie, much less an accessible Annie Hall. I know on the long march to equality, we crips have bigger problems than being under-represented in sex comedies. Being left out of the actual mating dance of life is far more serious, but beyond the scope of this article. I think the fact that there hasn't been a sex comedy involving crips says something about our place in society as people the world does not think about unless they are forced to. Any thoughts about disabled life are generally either blurted by vulgar grandmas in comedies, or left in the Sensitive Indie Drama section where the renters are either people like me, starved for something we can halfway relate to, or other kinds of artistic hipsters who are proud of how much of looking at us they can "stand". But that doesn't mean I'm completely disappointed in some of the recent DVD offerings featuring characters with disabilities.
Generally, I find it tiring when disability is used as a metaphor for anything, whether it's internal struggle, or in the case of the French film Rust and Bone, the damage society inflicts on all of us. But the amazing performance by the radiant Marion Cotilliard as Stephanie, the barhopping ex-orca trainer who somehow insists on being a full and lively character anyway, makes this film a treat to view. Her efforts at regaining and retaining her independence and sensuality after an unthinkable amputation are probably more successful than her boyfriend Ali's engagements with society, although most of his scars,not the street-fighting ones, appear to be internal. I also love, in a perverse sort of way, that the film begins when Ali, club bouncer, intervenes after Stephanie gets smacked in the face in a crowded club. In an anti-cute meeting, he blames her skimpy dress. Still, she calls him after her injury because he tells it like it is, and the film itself doesn't sugar-coat much. Watch it if you can handle subtitles, and people who get by in life by doing unsympathetic things.
I also have a lot of great things to say about The Sessions, and not all of it about how great fifty-year-old Helen Hunt still looks naked, although she really does. We do see John Hawkes as polio-survivor Mark O'Brien naked as well, and he does actually look impaired, except for, in true MPAA double-standard fashion, the magic sheet that always keeps the viewer from seeing the full monty. I'm not sure which is the biggest optical illusion. It's a sweet, humane, and terrifically acted story, although the only love affair it really reignited was the one I have with Northern California. In one sense, everyone should be initiated into physical pleasure so gently and tenderly, so I feel badly about wishing it could have been a little more...fun to watch, instead of just “good” to watch.
William H. Macy, as Mark's priest, and the actress who plays Mark's lead attendant, try really hard. Of course, I should have known a movie called The Sessions is not going to be a full-scale erotic romp, not that O'Brien, from his iron lung, could be down with much romping anyway. But I wonder what, say the Farrelly brothers, could have done with similar material, based on their gritty-yet-still heartwarming Outside Providence. My guess? It would be funnier, and not quite so sacramental. Although the O'Brien character, isolated by survivor's guilt and family habit, at least as much as the paralyzing after-effects of polio, does seem to worship women, almost without exception, from Berkeley students who smile at him on the street to his attendants.
Maybe reading that as a persistent theme in O'Brien's memoir right before I rented the movie sort of negates the "twist" anyone could see coming, wherein a besotted O'Brien begins to intrude on the surrogate Cheryl's personal life, calling her on off-hours and sending her his "Love Poem To Nobody In Particular.” Maybe it was too painful to watch because it recalls many self-inflicted wounds I've gone rushing after in the times I was the most in love with love. It's still a powerful film, due to the work of Hawkes and Hunt, but it's very much a "film" designed to be appreciated earnestly by people like me, as opposed to enjoyed over popcorn with the family, and not just because of the multiple instances of nudity and sexual themes. God and the prospect of sooner-than-expected death make an appearance, so as much as I really liked The Sessions, it's not quotable fun or spank-bank material. It's tender and thoughtful, and should be fully experienced once. Like life itself.
I suppose I'll know we're really equal when there's a crip Little Darlings.
Erika Jahneke is a wanna-be novelist, lifelong disabled person, and movie freak making the best of things in Phoenix, Arizona, where she is discovering that editing her own work might top the list of her least favorite things, along with case reviews, Brussel sprouts, and hard-core right-wing thinking.