My colleagues’ suggestions about exploring an alter ego are still rings in my ears, and although this post fails to address that it does look at something similar: constructed identities. I had looked at film representations of paralysis for my first degree, but from a different viewpoint. Back then I focussed on three films’ general imagery that created contrasting perspectives on wheelchair use and disability. These were: Coming Home (1978); The Raging Moon (1971); and The Men (1950). But time moves on, and so here I have included a more contemporary film – Gattica – and also changed my focus to concentrate on the way films help create, as well as reflect, ideas of disabled identities.
These images from The Raging Moon show how the film created conventional and old fashioned views of what it is to be a wheelchair user. The film created stereotypical imagery of wheelchair users, and omitted any of the gritty reality of living with paralysis. This was a film generating ideas of what non disabled people thought what being a wheelchair user would be like, rather than a realistic portrayal. The characters, storyline and imagery all look very out of date now, with blankets and care homes dominating. I would suggest most people paralysed people would see much of the imagery in this film as invalid, such as the wheelchair users on a stony beach, as access to that is almost impossible.
Gattica contrasts massively with The Raging Moon and presents a wholly lost future for disabled people by contrasting the natural frailties and vicissitudes of what it is to be human against genetically engineered physically superior healthy beings. The weakness of the approach is wrapped up in a character played by Jude Law who was one of these super-beings until he became paralysed. Because of that his life and future is lost and doomed and so he lends his identity to another non disabled, but natural man. In that way the film is very conventional as it implicitly asserts that to be disabled is to be doomed – in that world anyway.
While the film is set in the future, Jude Law’s character is presented within the framework of very old fashioned disability imagery. For example, Law is presented as a rich., paralysed super-being who somehow can only afford a very old fashioned heavy cumbersome wheelchair. In that way the film is weakened and the character made incredible.
Coming Home offers a fresh alternative to both the films mentioned. It is quite different in the way it constructs and portrays the main character. Whereas both of those films construct rather lop sided and incredible versions of wheelchair users Coming Home explores the relationship between John Voight – a paraplegic Vietnam vet – Jane Fonda and her husband.
Here the wheelchair user is presented as an active, combative, strong character while the non-disabled man is presented as mentally broken by combat experience. But the film goes much further and does not deny or omit the issues of physical impairment in the character but rather presents the real life complexity of aspects of mental strength alongside physical and mental breaking points. For example, the film shows incontinence, sex, driving and many other aspects of life omitted from the other two films mentioned. The imagery of this film is dynamic, the colour bright and the characters realistic.
What does this mean for my project?
Each film presents a type of truthful characterisation in their own way. The Raging Moon shows rather old fashioned gender and class stereotypes and Gattica presents a futuristic image of life and an old fashioned image of a disabled man. Coming Home does neither of these things and presents a much more complex and real reflection of what it’s like to be a wheelchair user. In there own ways each film created its own defintion of paralysis and what it is to be a disabled person. However none of the films really take a good look at disability rather than disabled people. Thus none really address the physical, social and attitudinal barriers the characters face, although Voight’s character in Coming home gets closest to it.
The narrative qualities of each film outweigh almost anything else and so if I think about any of the imagery in a still frame setting the body dominates too much. Therefore all of these films present me with a problem in terms of thinking about how to reference the body and my identity in my body of work.
I think Coming Home does offer me some other ideas but at present I am unsure how to use them. For example, the film has lots of imagery that is worth considering as a model for developing within a project but maybe not this project. Cars, incontinence, dynamism, sexual relations etc. are all aspects of life I could consider including but I am unclear as to what end. Yet I know there is something here and so will ponder on that.