Fill the Void

The action in Fill the Void centers older sister Esther’s death and subsequent pressure on younger Shira to marry the widower, but it’s Shira’s independent Aunt Hanna who is the strongest advocate for caution. Hanna is missing both arms and remains unmarried, but explains to Shira that she did once have a serious suitor; she called it off because she simply did not want to be married. On the advice of her rabbi, Hanna has been covering her hair like a married woman would ever since, to forestall personal questions and pity from their marriage-centric Hasidic community.

Forms of dependency other than marriage are also explored through Aunt Hanna. Hanna seems not to have any sort of paid personal assistance, instead relying on her sister Rivka and her nieces for activities of daily living, such as eating. The drawbacks of this are evident one day when Rivka is annoyed with Hanna and deliberately holds each forkful just a little bit too low, necessitating Hanna bend forward to eat it, eyes glittering with suppressed anger.

The Lookout

The Lookout depicts a character, Chris Pratt, dealing with the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury in the somewhat unlikely context of a heist movie. Though he has physically recovered well, Chris attends Life Skills classes (taught by a wheelchair user) and holds down a job as a janitor on the graveyard shift at a Kansas bank. He still has flashbacks of the fateful night when he crashed his car into a stalled truck on prom night, killing two and leaving his girlfriend an amputee.

Unhappy when he contrasts the life he expected to lead (as a star hockey player in high school) with his current existence, Chris initially tries to work within the options readily available to him, asking to work as a teller in preparation for an executive training program out of his reach and discussing opening a small restaurant with his blind roommate Lewis.

Chris and Lewis have a symbiotic relationship; Chris does the cooking and presumably tasks that require sight, while Lewis prompts Chris and talks him through crises. Though Lewis serves as the somewhat cliched portrayal of the sagacious blind man, he came by his street smarts honestly; he was a biker and tough guy before blinding himself while cooking meth.

Recognizing him as vulnerable, a local crook named Gary begins grooming Chris to become one of the gang, plying him with alcohol and the attentions of an exotic dancer named Luvlee Lemons. In one scene, Gary takes Chris “home” to a new makeshift “family” (most of which are in on the heist), promising him a better life. An elderly person shuffles into the room with a walker and is quickly ushered out again with unkind words, and we quickly get the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps they’re being held captive for their Social Security check.

Lewis recognizes the signs of someone trying to manipulate Chris, but lets him make his own decisions about getting involved. When Chris gets in too deep and endangers Lewis as well, he must fall back on the life skills practices he so abhorred.

If there’s one completely unrealistic element of The Lookout (caution: here be spoilers) it’s the glib way his role in the heist was overlooked by the police and court system. In real life, mentally impaired people are rarely given any passes for criminal behavior, even when gullibility is part of their diagnosis. In the United States, it’s quite common for people with intellectual disabilities and low IQ to be executed for crimes they were talked into.

Code of the Freaks

Fans of Salome Chasnoff’s previously linked Hollywood Images of Disability (since disappeared) can breathe a little easier now; it hasn’t gone away for good, it’s just being reworked into a full length documentary titled Code of the Freaks.

The Oxford Murders

Our first glimpse of the myriad allusions to disability in The Oxford Murders is that of an elderly lady, Mrs. Eagleton, who rents out a room to Martin, a promising young mathematics student who just arrived at Oxford. It is not the intent of Disability Movies to unnecessarily conflate advanced age with disability; we are not shown explicitly what Mrs. Eagleton needed help with or why she had no home health aide–she seems perfectly able to walk to the door, feed herself and play board games–though she is described as a cancer survivor. Her daughter Beth is introduced as her sole caregiver, and vocalizes her resentment of that role to Martin.

Martin attempts to meet an old friend of Mrs. Eagleton, prominent mathematician Arthur Seldom. Seldom gives him the brush-off until they happen to visit Mrs. Eagleton’s home at the same time to find her dead, with a broken nose. The police briefly question her daughter, but Martin–who has been attracted to her–assures them she wouldn’t have done it. Instead, he turns their attention to a strange sequence of symbols they notice. The two mathematicians and the police concur that there’s something fishy about this, and speculate wildly about the meaning of the symbols.

(Permit me a brief digression while I inform you of the fleeting shot of a black cab stopping at a curb across the street from our protagonists during one such conversation about the interpretation of the symbols, and once the cab pulls away it becomes apparent that a wheelchair user and companion have disembarked. Huzzah for the wheelchair accessible London cab fleet!)

Here the movie takes a turn for the weird. Seldom and Martin visit an old friend of Seldom’s in the hospital, deranged triple-amputee Kalman. An able-bodied actor was used, necessitating an uncomfortable false bed for the actor and digital trickery to erase the superfluous limbs:

Kalman with a human skull, presumably before going bonkers.

Kalman is a great part. He exists only in flashbacks, and (since flashbacks are usually mute) there is no scripted dialogue. He starts off a young chap in the 1970s, with sideburns, wide lapels and garish ties: the makeup people give me fresh, prosthetic cheeks, my own being too old and sunken. This is just the beginning. Kalman is an Oxford don, driven mad by his inability to solve a complex mathematical quandary. His laboratory becomes a lair; he showers in the kitchen; he throws computer monitors through the window (yay!). In addition to going mad, Kalman develops horrible cancers: both his legs fall off. He gets to buzz around in an electric wheelchair for a while, carrying a skull. Then one of his arms falls off, and he’s last seen lying naked on a hospital gurney, writing one word repeatedly with his remaining hand.

Kalman, a triple amputee due to cancer and mentally ill due to... mathematics!

Kalman is portrayed in a dehumanizing manner; stark naked on his hospital bed, rear end instantly noticable. His remaining arm is encased in what looks almost like an Ilizarov or Taylor Spatial Frame used for bone lengthening, with which he scribbles on paper madly. His arm assemblage is suspended by wires to enable him to write with less fatigue, but succeeds in giving him a tragic, puppetlike appearance. Nurses come and go from the room, leaving the door open while they talk to others in the corridor with nary a thought for his privacy. His visitors don’t even bother to talk to him, not even to see if he’s aware of their presence or will talk about the symbols.

And do I really need to explain the idiocy of suggesting mathematics can be a vector for mental illness? Any student will say their calculus class is driving them crazy, but that’s only a figure of speech.

The mentally ill and intellectually disabled mill about the hospital hallways.

The trip to the hospital to gawk at Kalman nevertheless proves fruitful, as the two amateur investigators meet a haggard-looking older man in the hospital corridor eager to discuss symbols with them. (The audience is meant to consider this man mentally ill or possibly intellectually disabled, as signified by his raving and bad teeth.)

A chance encounter leaves Martin slightly terrified and suspicious

Also, one nurse in particular catches Martin’s eye, and they embark on a relationship even though he had seemed to be interested in Beth. They share at weird sex scene where they make a mess with spaghetti.

Martin comes to the conclusion that the symbols mean a mass murder is imminent, and feeds his ideas to the police. A check of newspaper headlines reveals a field trip for students with intellectual disabilities, and police attempt to intercept their school bus but are thwarted when the bus swerves into a tree and explodes in a giant fireball. Much is made in the media of the catastrophe, and the students are consistently referred to as “children” and “innocents” (though they look to be young adults).

When the driver of the bus is found to be the same man from the hospital corridor, his motives are revealed; he didn’t orchestrate the accident out of some twisted desire to kill, but to obtain a kidney for his daughter who needed a transplant. (Ethical issues about organ transplantation from murder victims, and from the intellectually disabled who presumably have not given informed consent, are not discussed.)

Martin’s theory regarding the symbols collapses, and he realizes that he should have applied Occam’s Razor much earlier in the investigation. He confronts Beth about Mrs. Eagleton’s death, and she reveals that she murdered her mother in order to clear the way for a relationship with him.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge

The HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge , though focused on the singer/actress’s professional triumphs and disappointments, nonetheless offers a brief glimpse into her private life with her brain-injured daughter Harolynn.

Harolynn’s birth was a difficult one, though the doctors and nurses seemed to give no indication that she had acquired any disabilities because of it. As she grew, Dandridge realized her verbal skills were not progressing, and began taking her to a string of doctors who prescribed such remedies as hot baths and head massages. Finally (as young Harolynn stares blankly ahead and kicks repetitively at the furniture), a woman doctor bluntly informs Dandridge that Harolynn has anoxic brain damage from birth, and advises Dandridge to place her in an institution and get on with her life. (Perhaps today she would have been diagnosed with autism.) Dandridge refuses, but her husband (who once had hopes of sending their daughter to finishing school in Switzerland) can’t handle the pressure and leaves them.

Dandridge hires caregivers and nurses at first, but mounting bills and career misfortunes necessitate moving to a small apartment. The final straw came when she got involved with an abusive man who stole over $120,000 of her money; Helen Calhoun, whom Dorothy had been paying handsomely through the years to look after Harolynn, returned her when Dorothy could not longer pay for her care. In a tearful scene, Dandridge relinquishes parental rights so Harolyn could be cared for in an institution at age 18. Harolynn is briefly seen next to her crying mother in the courtroom; her limbs appear contracted, her lower lip juts out, and she seems unfocused and unaware of the goings-on around her.

Harolyn does not appear again in the film, though at one point her mother expresses the wish to get her back as her motivation for trying to make a comeback. She died suddenly before returning to the stage though, and her death was ruled an accidental prescription drug overdose. Ironically, she had just completed an autobiography, and would have given the profits to charities for mentally retarded children.

Harolyn reportedly lived out her days in a state mental institution in Camarello, California. She (again, reportedly) died at the age of 60 on April 14, 2003. No one claimed her body. Other reports state that she is still alive and living in an institution; if those reports are true, she would be around 67. Due to medical privacy laws and the wishes–or neglect–of her remaining family, it is likely we will never know for sure.

The real Dorothy Dandridge reportedly carried a picture of Harolynn wherever she went, both before and after relinquishing her.

Temple Grandin

The Temple Grandin biopic: “Clinically Accurate” and only slightly fictionalized.

I was afraid I was not going to like this picture. I’d heard and read about Temple Grandin, an autist who has gained fame for being able to accomplish concrete measures of worldly success and for being verbal enough and sophisticated enough to describe what certain aspects of autism are like, and give advice on how to help other people with autism relate to the world.

But anyone in the public eye is bound to have significant parts of their story exaggerated and/or white-washed in public portrayals. I’d expected that this picture would be the sort of hagiography a PR firm or an autism-related non-profit organization might use to promote Temple’s speaking engagements.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the veracity, or at least verisimilitude, of the cinematic portrayal. Though it is made clear that Temple has achieved a lot, and that her autism symptoms become less obvious to others as she gets older and develops more coping skills and gains intellectual knowledge of the behavior and expectations of others, it is clear that Temple has warts (metaphorically speaking) and doesn’t experience a magic cure.

Watching the version of the movie with commentary is instructive, as some of the commentary is given by Temple Grandin herself, who described the scenes where Claire Danes portrayed her panicking in sensory overload situations, self-“stimming”, and opening conversations with formulaic greetings in some parts of the movie as “clinically accurate”, to which I concur, having experienced similar sensory overload situations myself.

Temple did, however, have a veritable “perfect storm” of opportunities, chance meetings, and mentors whose influence allowed her career to take shape and grow, in addition to an exceptional mechanical aptitude that she exercised and demonstrated on her aunt’s ranch. It was because of her extended stay there that she developed an increasing interest in cattle and their behavior, even at one point bonding with the cattle by lying down in the cattle pen and letting the cows lick her. (That scene in the movie is not CGI, and Temple notes in the commentary that one can do this safely with cattle, so long as it is an enclosure containing only cows or steers, not bulls.)

Temple claims that her autism gives her an intuitive understanding of cattle and other prey animals; perhaps because she observed that often the same things in the environment that raised her anxiety levels would “spook” cattle as well. Observing the problems in the cattle-handling processes in the stockyard design common to that era allowed her to do what every successful entrepreneur claims: to “find a need and fill it”. In this case, it was the need for processing facilities which kept cattle calm and reduced accidental cattle deaths and stampedes, which was initially a “hard sell” for a cattle industry which was at that time male-dominated, rife with sexism, and resistant to change. (Which one had the autism again?) There was even a point in time when a rule had been laid down that women weren’t allowed in the cattle yard she was studying. I had to smile when she adopted the animal kingdom’s age-old strategy of camouflage: after buying a pickup truck and covering it in mud, she donned overalls, and rolled in the dirt. With her hair tucked underneath her cap and sunglasses covering her eyes, the yard boss waved her right in.

I liked the fact that the movie portrayed the way in which her spiral-shaped cattle processing line worked with the natural behavior of cattle and the way in which it was set up intuitively led the cattle to move through the facility without bunching together or stampedeing. I especially liked how they portrayed one of the cattle going through the dip vat in her facility without incident, and then using the little stairs she had built in to climb safely out of the dip, in contrast to the older-style processing line in which cattle could tip over and drown trying to get out of the dip vat and often had to be pulled out. Though the cattle yard personnel actually sabotaged her first facility, evidently something changed at some point: the end of the movie noted that in the present time, over half the cattle handing facilities in the US use the cattle processing system she designed. “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be” she said.

She was fortunate to have a number of mentors who helped her as her higher education and then later her career developed, from the high school science teacher who was able to recognize her visual thinking for what it was, consider her “different, not less”, and channel her aptitudes into animal husbandry, a marketable, if then non-traditional career for women; to those whose help took less direct forms, such as that of the secretary for a cattle journal who took her shopping for the decorative Western wear outfits which are now her trademark look; to the office worker who slammed a can of Arrid Extra Dry on the desk in front of her and flatly told her to use it.

The opening scene of the movie, with deafening sound from the engines of an old-fashioned prop plane and heatwaves shimmering off the tarmac as Grandin deplaned and met her Aunt Helen for an extended stay on her working ranch, did what I would have done in a cinematic story told from the point of view of someone with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder: presented a picture of a situation of “sensory overload” and gave the audience an opportunity to develop an intuitive understanding of the kind of situation that can be uncomfortable if not overwhelming for a person with autism and “set them off”.

Indeed, throughout the movie, Temple gets “set off” by loud noises, crowds, cafeteria lines, unfamiliar environments, and more. When she saw how a “squeeze machine” calmed cattle and made them hold still for vaccinations on her aunt’s ranch, she gave it a try and found that it has the same effect on her without triggering the sensory overload and panic a hug from another person did.

Temple notes that in real life, she used her first self-constructed squeeze machine in high school, though the movie portrays her as having constructed it as she was about to go to college. She did get into trouble with the college administration and alienated her first roommate when they thought she was using her device for some sort of psychologically unhealthy sexual self-stimulation. (In the movie, this was determined by a psychiatrist so Freudian he affected the appearance of his role model.) Temple got to keep the “hugging machine” after she designed her own psychological research experiment proving that it is effective for calming other (non-autistic) people. The squeeze machine, it is later noted, becomes a recognized means to calm autistic children and get them more accustomed to touch. Ironically, Temple revealed in her commentary that she takes antidepressants (and has for 30 years) in order to prevent her propensity to panic in sensory overload situations. Admittedly, modern SSRIs were not widely available during the time period in which much of this movie was set, but it is a bit disappointing to think that her non-drug calming method is by her own tacit admission gathering dust.

27×40 movie poster

The Book of Eli

 Simply including The Book of Eli on this site of disability movies is giving away a major plot point, so do not read further if you don’t want to be spoiled…

Still here? Ok, this movie belongs on this site because the major plot twist at the end reveals that the main character Eli is blind. As Hollywood movie producers are wont to do, Eli is portrayed as having superhuman hearing, and can miraculously hunt flying vultures, shoot at snipers and fight off seven attackers at once through the wonders of echolocation. Oh, and he’s got the protection of God while he’s on his mission, too.

The Book of Eli has English, French, and Spanish subtitles, and is available in Blu-ray format. A soundtrack and 27 x 40 movie poster are also available.

Rory O’Shea Was Here