Reach Me

A badly written, low budget picture, Reach Me nevertheless features a few short cameos by former Hollywood heavy-hitters, and a few stereotypes and misconceptions about people with disabilities.

A book of inspirational platitudes by an anonymous author has “gone viral” in this picture, shaking up the lives of those who read it and spurring all sorts of rumors about the writer. One journalist hears that the mysterious author has cured a lady with a cleft lip (referred to using the slang term “harelip”) of her accompanying stutter, and decides to investigate. He discovers her in the middle of being harassed for her tiny, barely noticeable cleft lip by a crowd of young black men. She introduces him to the reclusive author, who demonstrates his methods on the journalist to cure him of smoking; they turn out to be little more than making him walk out into the ocean and shouting at him, drill-sergeant style.

The “berating as cure” method of treating a speech impediment–especially one with possible roots in physical difference–has been thoroughly discredited long ago.

Another person publicly claims to have overcome his disability after reading said book; a young man with Tourette’s Syndrome appears on a TV talk show, waving the paperback around and blurting out compliments to the attractive hostess. The writers of the screenplay probably thought Tourette’s was solely about blurting out curses, when in reality it’s primarily a movement disorder; few adults with it have involuntary vocal sounds, and even fewer of them manifest uncontrollable cursing.

And finally, the “r-word” is used inappropriately, several times to criticize a wide-eyed man who shows no sign of actual intellectual disability, and also to make a joke about the sound of Professor Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer. Somebody really didn’t get the memo about Stephen Hawking, did they?

The Red Chapel

The Red Chapel is the name chosen by a Danish-Korean comedy sketch group that visits North Korea under the pretense of cultural exchange–ostensibly to perform comedic retellings of a Hans Christian Anderson story and an old Danish TV skit–but in truth to expose the stifled lives of the average North Korean, and find out more about what North Korea society does with their disabled citizenry. This is of particular interest to comedian Jacob Nossell, who has spastic paralysis. Many of the North Koreans they meet simply have no experience interacting with disabled adults.

Introduced to their handler, Mrs. Pak, she makes the common etiquette faux pas of not speaking directly to Jacob, but then bizarrely compounds her blunder by asking his companion if he is a baby. Once that awkward moment is out of the way, Mrs. Pak begins to smother Jacob with hugs and attention. Within hours, she declares that she thinks of Jacob as her son–no, more than a son!–and wistfully declares that she would like to live with him. People with disabilities are used to such hyperbolic declarations of love employed by new acquaintances to cover up their discomfort, but in this case there seems to be an element of truth to her tone; perhaps this is the only way Mrs. Pak can express a desire to leave. Indeed, as the film explains, Mrs. Pak and many North Koreans can only respond to questions about how they really feel about Kim Jong-Il by bursting into tears because they cannot trust their voices not to betray them.

Mads copes by pretending to join in the adoration of the Dear Leader but slyly insulting them, Simon by going with the flow. Only Jacob is unwilling to edit himself or participate in the groupthink exercises, causing panic among his cohorts when he flatly refuses to salute in the middle of a plaza filled with North Korean soldiers freshly whipped up into a patriotic fervor. Ironically, it’s his speech impediment that allows him to be the only one who can speak freely under surveillance, since the North Koreans can’t understand his speech anyway.

The punch line of their Danish skit, a joke about a spastic lady, keeps falling flat in their North Korean test audiences, and Jacob’s role in the show is systematically reduced to banging a drum and waving. The handlers don’t want him to speak or let on that he’s actually disabled; in their view, he should pretend to be an able-bodied person playing a handicapped person. (Similarly, the skits the duo had planned are axed in favor of standard issue propaganda.)

On their last day in North Korea, Jacob asks Mrs. Pak if he can meet “others like him”. She doesn’t know how to answer the question, so Jacob lets her off the hook by adding “next time I visit”. All smiles again.

The Court Jester

Danny Kaye plays a mild-mannered medieval jester Hawkins in The Court Jester, caught up in palace intrigues when he poses as one of many body doubles for forest outlaw The Black Fox. His former troupe of traveling entertainers–all little people–also volunteers to aid the rebellion, but are turned away by the real Black Fox, who thinks they’re too short to make a meaningful contribution to the cause. Unfortunately, Hawkins does not vouch for the capabilities of his friends, but instead bids them farewell.

Hawkins heads for the palace with Captain Jean, he disguised as a hard-of-hearing emphysematous old wine merchant, and she as his deaf and speech-impaired granddaughter. Their feigned disabilities annoy and frustrate the king’s guard into letting them access the palace without proper screening.

Hijinks ensue, and reinforcements must be called in. But the only way to access the palace is a secret entrance large enough only for a small woman or child; the Black Fox must eat some crow and call up the little people (described as “an army of midgets”.

The real story of the “army of midgets” is worthy of a Hollywood movie in itself. Credited only as “Hermine’s Midgets” in the film, the group was essentially collected by a Czech woman named Hermine and trained by her stepson in the circus arts. The small group left Austria in 1938, shortly before bad things began happening to little and disabled people there. Two Jewish little people were discovered in Budapest and added to their troupe before the impending Nazi invasion. The group was displayed at the New York World’s Fair, going on to tour the USA and perform in U.S.O. shows and war bond drives during World War II.