Tag Archives: disability

Link Dump: #90

This week’s kitty is from The Sessions, a movie that doesn’t take many creative chances but is unusual by virtue of being about disability and sex. And now, a whole bunch of links:

And here are our recent search terms, which read like a window into some sad Google user’s erotic nightmares: “fat firl uteras pics,” “www.real-virgil-pussy-ukraine.com,” “she bends on her four ready for deflowring her stories.”

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Link Dump: #38

Hey, look! It’s the cutest kitty in all of science fiction! Of course I speak of Jones, resident feline of the spaceship Nostromo. He may have led Ripley to risk her life needlessly, but really, look at him. You can’t be angry with that kitty. Now here are some links:

Not much lately in the way of search terms, but I did enjoy “why copy editors are important.” In case you were wondering, it’s because copy-editing makes writing coherent and professional. Hurray for correct grammar and spelling!


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“Let her try it…”

Angeleno: Let her try it. Let her try doing anything to one of us.

Wife: You’re right. She don’t know us. But she’ll find out!

This is one of the many scenes in Freaks (1932) that shows the quiet, workaday existence of its sideshow performers. Here, Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) pours out a drink for his wife (Martha Morris) as they discuss Cleopatra’s treatment of their lovestruck compatriot Hans. I’ve always been struck by this scene’s very subtle intimations of underlying horror. What are they threatening? Do they suspect, or know, the gruesome fate that’s in store for Cleo? They seem so innocuous and cozy, going about their normal lives, but their dialogue implies that, hidden in the collective mind of the “freak” community, is something that Cleo will only “find out” when it’s already too late.

Rossitto, incidentally, is one of my favorite character actors. Less than three feet tall, he appeared in over 80 films and TV series across seven decades. Highlights of his amazing career include weird Bela Lugosi vehicles like The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Scared to Death (1947); Samuel Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona (1950) starring Vincent Price; the bizarre, no-dialogue Daughter of Horror aka Dementia (1955); and of course Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). He rarely got to do much acting, but was always a magnetic presence. Morris, meanwhile, had no film career outside of this scene in Freaks, and little is known of her beyond a few pictures.

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Demons and disability in Jacob’s Ladder

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about Adrian Lyne’s nightmarish horror movie Jacob’s Ladder (1990), starring Tim Robbins. I thought, and continue to think, that it’s an uneven movie whose meandering, occasionally saccharine plot threads are balanced out by all of the shocking, phantasmagoric imagery. Well, imagine my surprise when I was paging through a book of photographs in my American Studies class the other day, and happened across the inspiration for one of the most unforgettable images in all of Jacob’s Ladder!

Some background: this class is called “Extraordinary Bodies in American Culture,” and we were examining the photography of Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin in relation to early 20th century freak shows. The photograph in question is Witkin’s Indulgences Man with No Legs from 1976, collected in Gods of Earth and Heaven. You can see more of Witkin’s work in this blog or this official gallery, but be warned: it’s very, very NSFW, and contains distorted, sexualized, and grotesquely posed images of disabled people and corpses.

Sexualizing and distorting human bodies was pretty much Witkin’s stock-in-trade. It’s easy, therefore, to see why he was such a major influence on Ladder‘s hyperkinetic demons. Although much of his work was done within the past 30-40 years, it’s often so grainy, blurry, and scratched-up that it looks older – as if consigned to some ahistorical netherworld. He casually mixes costumes, gestures, and backdrops in his photographs to evoke disparate sectors of life: a single Witkin photo can suggest BDSM practices, police brutality, Renaissance paintings, carnival sideshows, archaic medical technology, and more.

Certainly Indulgences conjures up numerous eras and activities with its ambiguous, faceless subject. It also raises countless questions, starting with “Why is his face covered?” When coupled with the raised, boxlike structure he’s sitting on, it reminds me of kidnappings – an uncomfortable association, and probably one that Witkin’s aiming for. It’s also very dehumanizing, and this is a consistent feature of Witkin’s work: his disabled subjects are invariably masked, veiled, or facing away from the camera. It feels like Witkin uses disability to facilitate an otherworldly atmosphere.

As much as I respect the bold, confrontational spirit of his artistry, I find this manipulation of human bodies extremely problematic. It’s especially revealing to look at Jacob’s Ladder, where similar distortion effects are used in conjunction with rapid-fire editing in order to code disability and facelessness as hellish and frightening. This intersection of popular cinema with very marginal photography could prove a useful avenue for further research into the relationship between disability and horror; till then, I think I’ll try to not look at Witkin’s shudder-inducing photographs.

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Judging bodies and profiling actors

Finally, finally, I am writing another blog. So what thoughts have I had on my mind lately? My skin itches. Itches are funny things. If you have an itch, you have to scratch. Human skin itches and it’s a little, unpleasant sensation, sometimes intense and sometimes barely noticeable, that basically screams to your brain, “ITCH ME!” It wants y0u to drag your fingernails across it, or something sharp. An itch might be a kind of pain, or it might be a feeling below pain. It doesn’t quite hurt; it just requires action. Living in a human body is a strange experience overall. I’ve always felt as much. Everything reports back to your brain, but it took a long time for us to figure that out; we don’t experience our lives through our brains, but through our senses. I guess we perceive our selves as being localized around our eyeballs. Sight is our primary sense. So where does a blind person perceive themselves as being localized? I like looking into how the lives of the disabled are different from the lives of us – are we really the “abled”? The blind, the deaf, the mute, those with fewer limbs… it’s so fascinating to imagine seeing the world from a different body. I think a lot of movies manage that, giving us a brush with difference. And so, I was just thinking of a few either Oscar-nominated or well-recognized voiceless performances: Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda (1948); Marlee Matlin (who’s actually deaf) in Children of a Lesser God (1986); Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993). Wikipedia reminds me: Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962) and Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Which in turn reminds me – I was looking the other day for footage from Deliverance (1919), a movie produced by Helen Keller and based on her life. I didn’t find anything from that movie sadly, and I doubt I will in the near future, but I did find this great video:

I’ve also read about – and would love to see – Werner Herzog’s early documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), which profiles a deaf-blind woman. My point is that film can be a powerful way to experiencing difference. Especially when you’re led through the magic of narrative to identify with a character, and thereby take on their attributes and disabilities to yourself. You recognize your own weaknesses in the protagonist, and you can be led without realizing it to get a deeper understanding of difficulties you’ve never personally had. This connects to what I’ve said about horror movies, too; being led to identify with Frankenstein’s Monster leads you to simultaneously recognize him as being the Other, but since he’s the protagonist, you see in him everything rejected or hated about yourself. It’s an interesting kind of tension in spectatorship that I’d like to investigate further.

I’d like to segue into crystallizing an idea I’ve talked about with Ashley many times. It’s been said before, but I’m going to repeat it. Basically, it’s this: You do not have the right to judge whether someone’s body is good or bad. You never have the right to determine absolutely whether or not someone has a valid, acceptable body. Not you nor your friends nor society nor anyone at all. Because every single human body is just that: a body. (And when a body meet a body coming through the rye…) Some bodies are big, some are small. Some short and some are tall. Some are fat and some are thin; some… well, I can’t sustain a rhyme, but you see what I mean. Some have big noses, others have little noses. Some have light skin, others have dark skin, and others still have dark skin with light parts, or light skin with dark parts. Every culture, every era, and every group of people have their own idea of what constitutes beautiful. I guess when it comes to fashion magazines, beauty changes every other month. (As my father informed in euphemized terms, “Opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one.”) The point is that no single attribute of a human body is objectively bad. Some bodies are diseased. This is unfortunate, but they still have a body which must be respected as such; all bodies were created equal, because we are not a fucking thing but flesh and bone. (Blood, fibers, keratin, etc., you get the idea.) I think kids should be taught this from an early age. Fucking schoolkids reinforce shallowness and body negativity like every schoolkid before them by taunting for the same goddamn reasons – someone looks funny, or slightly unusual, or has some physical attribute than another kid deems worthy of mockery. I’m all for retaining valuable rites of passage and innocence in childhood, etc., whatever. What is the lesson of, “Ha, ha, you look vaguely different!”? That other people will hate you because of your appearance? FUCK THAT. My time’s running short, but this bullshit has always pissed me off. Shallowness is enforced in every aspect of our society. My point is a basic one, and it’s that my body is just as good as your body. Which is just as good as a model’s body. Which is just as good as the body is a 300 pound woman with one leg. Which is just as good as an athlete’s body. Which is just as good as a dwarf’s body. Which is just as good as mine. Because what the fuck does “good” mean in the end, anyway? An athlete’s body is more capable of running and jumping than mine; I grant this. A model’s body might be smaller than the overweight amputee; how is that a mark of being “better” in general? She might have a number of limbs closer to that which she was born with. But what does that mean? My point is that people who insult or mock those who look different are worthless fucking morons themselves, and it’s nothing against their bodies, but it does show that the minds occupying them are shallow and unable to accurately evaluate other people. I may go more into depth about this later, but that’s the general idea: there are no “good” bodies or “bad” bodies. You decide how good your own body is, and no one else has the right to determine that for you.

Finally, I’ve wanted to write about certain actors recently. And I think I’ll start by talking briefly about Charles Laughton. Laughton is – God, where to start? He was a great actor. Not really a “movie star,” even though he could do Shakespeare and act opposite Clark Gable and Maureen O’Hara, and he carried a number of movies by himself. His single directorial effort, Night of the Hunter, is one of the great films and in a class by itself, a unique, beautiful vision that captures ideas and images no other film has quite managed. When acting, Laughton’s roles varied from cowards and buffoons to great, bloated symbols of power and corruption. He’s magnificent in his last role playing Senator Seab Cooley in Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962), in which he’s nominally the villain, but really an integral part of America’s two-party system, as the aged southern senator who sits over the rest of the Senate like a tiger batting a mouse around in its paws. I’ve noticed over and over – in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Paradine Case (1947), acting under Wilder and Hitchcock respectively – how Laughton can easily fit himself into any place in the justice system, acting like a chess piece in the machine of jurisprudence, fully aware of the mechanisms operating around him. When Laughton is in control of a situation, he can easily be scary; he was the original Dr. Moreau in The Island of Lost Souls (1932), and you can really imagine him playing God! After all, he was doing it for half his career. Then there’s the matter of Laughton’s appearance.Charles Laughton

He has a fascinating, craggy, offbeat face. Like I said before: no movie-star glamor. He was an actor. He could be likeable, he could be a bastard. This also connects to my points earlier about people trying to put labels of attractiveness on others’ bodies. (Oddly enough.) You can’t do that with Charles Laughton. He was the affable hero of Jean Renoir’s American wartime allegory This Land Is Mine (1943), as well as his next movie, Jules Dassin’s early comedy The Canterville Ghost (1945). He was Rembrandt and King Henry VIII (I want to see both movies). He could be larger-than-life, or he could demonstrate that you didn’t need to be pretty to star in a movie. Also, very appropriately, he starred (again opposite Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda) in the post-Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Oh, and that’s right, he also embodied the extreme decadence of Christianity-oppressing Rome while playing an indulgent, hedonistic Nero in The Sign of the Cross (1932). Sometimes he was excess and measured sadism incarnate; other times he was cuddly and lovable. Charles Laughton is just a great figure in film history, and I really think he fits well with the other ideas I’ve been discussing today. Look into his face. Sometimes maybe you’ll find the grim depths of absolute authority. Other times you’ll see the pain of being different. Another fun fact? Laughton was also homosexual, despite being married to his close friend Elsa Lanchester (aka the Bride of Frankenstein). It really just adds an additional level to what I’ve been discussing here. If you’ve never seen him, check out Hunchback or Witness for the Prosecution whenever they’re available. You will not be disappointed.


Filed under Body, Cinema, Media