CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 21 . . . . June 8, 2007
Shameless: The ART of Disability might have been called Freak Show, Piss on Pity, In Your Face, Exposing Ourselves, Dreams of Freaks, or My Fractured Art Career, hard-hitting titles a group of (dis)abled activist artist friends came up with for Bonnie Sherr Klein's candid and compelling film about "disability culture" and "the transformative power of art." Then again, the title could have been dubbed, When Life Hands You a Lemon, Make Lemonade because that is what this film reveals about these remarkable "stars" who have admittedly pushed back "the demons of shame and humiliation." Driven by their art and drawn together by their differences, they have overcome seemingly impossible obstacles to find or maintain their identity, dignity, self respect, joie de vivre and place in society.
As the group, namely stand-up comic and motivational speaker David Roche, aka "Reverend Dave" of his one-man show fame, The Church of 80% Sincerity, Catherine Frazee, poet, writer, teacher, speaker and "disability guru," Geoff McMurchy, choreographer, artistic director of Vancouver's 2004 KickstART celebration (an international festival of visual and literary art, music, theatre and comedy performed and created by people with disabilities) and "Renaissance guy," Persimmon Blackridge, visual artist, sculptor, writer (Prozac Highway, Still Sane, Sunnybrook: A True Story with Lies) and "bad girl", sit around a table to brainstorm ideas with writer/director, disability rights activist and "earnest filmmaker" Bonnie Klein, their opinions convey an honest, frank and even lighthearted show-and-tell-it-all-like-it-is attitude as to how they want to be portrayed in Shameless. They insist that do not want to take people down the sentimental or overly-heroic road. There is definitely a dogged determination among the group to dispel the perceived myth of disability as tragedy. Klein is an award-winning "pioneer of women's cinema" (Not a Love Story: A Film about Pornography, 1981) who suffered two near fatal strokes in 1987 that left her paralyzed and able only to move her eyes as a means of communication. A respirator helped her to breathe and talk, and brain surgery and extensive rehabilitation allowed her to "fight her way back" from complete helplessness. Whether on a motorized scooter, a three-wheeled bicycle, a walker or two canes, Klein is both the interviewer and the interviewee who is in the driver's seat as she works with her camera crew to document the individual stories of her diverse artist friends. Not only does the film intimately show each person's (including Klein's) vulnerabilities, frustrations and challenges, it uncovers a surprising and perhaps enviable richness of life that many so called "normal" people never experience.
Set mostly in British Columbia (Vancouver, Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast, and Hornby Island, one of the Gulf Islands in the Strait of Georgia) with brief clips in San Francisco and Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, the documentary opens with Klein's image in her bathroom mirror. She is putting on her makeup. As if she's having a conversation with the viewer about her film, she confesses, "I try to hide the blemishes as much as I want to talk about presenting authentic images." A few minutes later, the camera zooms in on a lively conversation that Roche, Frazee, McMurchy, Blackridge and Klein are having about how they think society sees them. They make a game of identifying stereotypical images of people with disabilities similar to theirs in old Hollywood movies. Roche, born with a vascular malformation which he describes as "veins gone wild and mixed together in strange ways") easily picks himself out as the "monster" with the distorted face in The Elephant Man. He jokes that he belongs to "a gang of cooler disfigured guys in show biz - Frankenstein, Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera" and adds "but I'm such a loveable guy!" Frazee, who has no physical mobility (she gets around in a head-supported mechanized wheelchair) and requires constant care from her partner, Patricia Seeley, (Frazee jokes that Seeley "jumped a helpless cripple"), points out that she has a genetic deficiency on chromosome five. She has far outlived her predicted life expectancy. She and Klein see themselves portrayed as Clara, "the poor crippled girl" in Heidi and laugh when Heidi (Shirley Temple) tells Clara that she will walk again and that all she has to do is "try hard." McMurchy, who ended up with a "busted neck" at the age of 21 and became a quadriplegic when he dove off a pier and hit the bottom of Lake Wabanum just outside of Edmonton in 1977 on his way to Halifax to attend the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, comes across in Klein's words as "such a private guy." He recognizes similarities of himself in his early stages of incapacitation in the character of the paralysed Klingon in Star Trek: The Next Generation - Ethics, especially when the Klingon declares, "I will not live a life of pity or shame; my life is over." Blackridge, who did not talk until she was three-years-old and calls herself a "learning disabled crazy chick," grew up with a father who lived by the theory that, if he hit her enough, she would start being normal. In 1998, she and Klein collaborated on a book, Slow Dance: A Story of Stroke, Love and Disability. Blackridge sees herself as Baby Jane (played by Bette Davis), "the psycho jealous sister and cheerful sufferer with the invisible disability" in What Happened to Baby Jane? The group ends the game with the decision that it is time to present their own "authentic" images at the KickstART Festival which McMurchy is organizing. Blackridge offers to put together a mixed media portrait of them all using photos and "objects of meaning" belonging to each artist. One of her creations, a group diorama which is featured on the cover of the DVD, definitely triggers curiosity and certainly gives the film "view me" appeal.
The main thrust and power of this film revolves around the artists' individual stories which speak volumes about their spirit, warmth, sincerity and genuineness. The camera follows Klein as she visits each artist in his or her home, studio, cottage or place where their souls seem to thrive. As she looks through their photo albums and watches some of their video clips, what comes across is her inviting, relaxed and natural conversational style, which, when combined with her infectious sense of humour, puts both artists and viewers at ease. With Roche, Frazee, McMurchy, Blackridge and Kline speaking freely, openly and bluntly, Klein challenges viewers to redefine their perceptions of disability. As the final scene captures the group hamming-it-up in a celebratory photo, a tearful Klein looks into the camera and speaks from the heart, saying that it took her a long time to get over her loss of identity when she had her strokes. "Filmmaking was a huge part of my identity," she tells viewers. "That's who I was." Well, with Shameless Klein is back! And regardless of being in a wheelchair, she has come full circle to achieve her goal of wanting people to understand that "Bonnie Klein the filmmaker is still Bonnie Klein the filmmaker."
Technically, there are several reasons why this well-paced film works. First of all, it's in your face. Most of the camera shots are close ups; the artists look viewers in the eye and seem to be saying, "I am a person; look at me, not my disability." Secondly, the camera hides nothing. Viewers see McMurchy experiencing tremors in his legs. They watch as Klein trips on her walker, loses her balance and falls to the floor. Blackridge, who says she hated herself and still suffers from depression, shows her numerous arm scars, the result of self-inflicted mutilation with a knife. Roche takes out his dentures, lets his purple tongue hang out and does a convincing impersonation of Igor (the demented hunch-back in Frankenstein films). The viewer is front and centre when paramedics rush to a very sick Frazee's bedside and watch as she is placed in a special lift and taken to hospital and is seemingly hooked up to every tube imaginable. The camera also captures some very tender moments, in particular: footage of dancer Kelly Smith in a wheelchair, moving gracefully and beautifully to McMurchy's choreographed piece, "Wingspan Solo"; Frazee and her partner Patricia relaxing in a bubble bath with candlelight and wine; Klein and her husband Michael paddling their canoe at sunset and Marlena Blavin, a massage therapist, who was first attracted to Roche's sexy voice, professing her love for him ("he was too hard to resist") after being married to someone else for 17 years. The background music (cello, harp, piano, bass) is subtle and effectively emulates the sentiments of the artists. Throughout the film, there is the playful snake-charming sound of a lone clarinet that rises, falls and sways to the mood of the film.
There is a lot to digest in Shameless. Thought-provoking, it is an eye-opener of a film that may shock viewers at times and may also cause some to feel uncomfortable. However, as Klein and her collaborating artists intended, the film will get people thinking about disability "as a valued human condition that contradicts everything we're taught and that we fear." This is a "must see" documentary that should be in all public, high school and university libraries. A valuable resource with wide-spread appeal, Shameless certainly would pique, arouse and stimulate interest and discussion among students, educators and professionals involved in areas of disability studies, family studies, women's studies, rehabilitative medicine, ethics (the artists talk about euthanasia and refer to the highly publicized Tracy Latimer case in Saskatchewan), psychology, the arts and special education.
Lois Brymer is a graduate of the University of British Columbia's Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program, a West Vancouver Memorial Library volunteer and a former publicist/public relations practitioner.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.