Ready for My Close-up: Disability and Popular Media, Part I
For better or worse, in sickness and in health, I have had a lifelong love affair with film that borders on obsession. Especially with movies made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, when stories about class and manners and social struggle were often depicted in black and white, a format that emphasized the mood and conflict of the characters as their impulses moved the story forward, while Technicolor and CinemaScope created highly glamorized, larger-than-life escapist fare.
Cinematic life, for me, is how real life ought to be: Well-written and succinct. Problems are explored and neatly wrapped up within two hours. Hair, make-up and clothing are always immaculate, and everybody—even the supporting cast—has a key light shining on their faces during a dramatic moment. In fiction, every character is there for a reason. No one is irrelevant.
Before I developed MS, I allowed the stories to draw me in. But something has changed. After developing MS, I imposed a new meaning on these familiar plots and characters. What used to be a compelling story on its face is now a metaphor for a life with disease. Here are a few examples:
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944): A film noir about how Walter, a life insurance salesman, and Phyllis, the conniving wife of a wealthy curmudgeon, commit the perfect murder by offing her husband in a train “accident,” the only circumstance under which the insurance company would pay double the value of the policy. Walter has always had a closeted dark side, while Phyllis is just rotten to the core.
“We’re in this together, baby,” Walter tells Phyllis, “straight down the line.” Walter’s boss, Keyes, who has an uncanny gift for figuring all the angles people devise to defraud the insurance company and who is unaware of Walter’s involvement with Phyllis, tells Walter what’s in store for the two murderers:
”. . . It’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.”
Multiple Sclerosis patients and their rogue T-cells are, like Walter and Phyllis, stuck in a toxic relationship, the rotten renegade eating away at the congenitally damaged accomplice. Straight down the line. Till death do us part.
MOBY DICK (1956): A story about one man’s obsession with vanquishing a whale that had once bitten off his leg and then gotten away. Captain Ahab just can’t leave well enough alone and neither can I. For me, the story is now an allegory about battling MS. Earlier in my disease journey, I saw myself as Ishmael, once a poet who took to the sea. I approached disease as an adventure, something I could embark upon thoughtfully and report on as both observer and participant. Over the years, disease wore me down and I took charge of my quest for the ideal monster weapon. Soon I became like Ahab, scarred and crazed and crouched on the foc’sle, harpoon in hand, waiting, taunting the white monster, daring that chalky mug to break the surface.
AVATAR (2009): Though not a product of the Golden Age, this contemporary film is possibly the most relevant and potent one in my bag of favorites. It is a seminal, 21stcentury, technically visionary piece of sci-fi fantasy. If I had viewed it before developing MS, I would have described it as being about a disabled vet who uses a virtual avatar body to save an alien world from military industrial exploitation. But, as a disabled woman, I would say it’s about a paraplegic named Sully who permanently escapes his broken body.
Movies built around a disabled main character have been done before, that’s nothing new. We’ve seen plenty of movies about disabled war vets trying to assimilate back into the cavalier world of the physically fit. But this is different. There is no settling for a life on the fringe with a urine bag secreted beneath a wheelchair. At story’s end, Sully chooses to remain in his avatar body and live among the Na’vi. This story is one of complete redemption. It is the private, anguished dream of every disabled person. After Sully frolics in his virtual body he must return to his real body lying inert in a pod. The first time he awakes, the memory of his dream-like liberation still fresh, he glances at his legs, realizing they are once again useless, and quietly struggles out of the pod. I’ve had such dreams and awakenings; Sully’s reaction matched my own, nuance for nuance.
To my mind, the whole superhero angle about Sully saving the Na’vi’s culture and environment is really just a subplot to gratify the able-bodied audience. We cripples simply yearn to be whole again. We don’t want to save the world, we just want to walk normally. Able-bodied people love stories about heroes restoring moral order to the cosmos, it makes them feel less ashamed about being lazy or ineffectual or for not having voted in the last presidential election. I know because I used to be one of them.
On a lighter note, I’ll leave you with a famous line in a movie from and about Hollywood:
From SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950): “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.” That’s what I tell the MRI tech at the Imaging Center, of course, don’t you? Really? Oh, c’mon, not even once? Okay, I’m a cornball.
Are movies meaningful to you in a different way now that you have MS? I’d love to hear about it.