Category Archives: Reviews

The Cinematic MRI

A review of Paul McGuigan’s “Victor Frankenstein” (Davis Entertainment Company, 2015).
By Derek Newman-Stille

I’ve been giving thought to the cinematic gaze lately and the way that is configures disabled bodies. Frequently camera angles focus in on bodily difference, breaking disabled bodies on screen into dismembered parts – zooming in on prosthetic legs, panning to blind eyes. The camera breaks the disabled body up into parts of difference, divorcing it from its bodily context and from the personhood associated with it. 

This figuring of the disabled body as parts mimics the medicalized lens, brining attention to individual parts of the body in isolation, as pathologies rather than parts of a bodily and identity wholeness. Much like the freak show and the medical theatre, film seeks to break people down into their parts

“Frankenstein” was written by Mary Shelley as a body text, exploring the idea of how life and death are entwined into bodily existence and examining the perception of medical science that it could conquer the body and bring nature to heel. 

In the many adaptations of her text, the monster’s body has taken an iconic voice of its own, the monster losing his original eloquence to become the childish, silent figure of film, a creature that was all body and no voice.

Paul McGuigan’s film “Victor Frankenstein” continues his bodily silence and performs the medical apparatus of the body. Building on the investigative lens used by the BBC’s Sherlock, with camera panning into key pieces of evidence, the camera work of “Victor Frankenstein” takes a medical investigative approach to the body, giving both Victor and Igor the ability to see the inferiority of bodies, medically diagnosing them with a glance. Bodies are written over by anatomical drawings, writing skeletal and cardio-pulmonary systems on the exterior of the body.

The body is rendered a passive object, offering up its inferiority to the diagnostic gaze.

We first get introduced to Igor at the circus where he is functioning as part of the freak show due to his hump. He becomes the circus medic through private learning and thus has the potential to complicate the notion of disabled body/ medical doctor by inhabiting both roles. However, when first seen by Victor Frankenstein, he is rendered a passive subject by Victor’s medical gaze, prefiguring him as an object in the same way that people witnessing the freak show had done. 

Freak show transforms into medical theatre when Victor takes Igor, still treating him as property, and alters his body without his permission, piercing his hump and forcing him into corrective clothing to adjust his posture. His body becomes property of science and he loses any ability to disrupt the simple binarism of medical practitioner and medicalized body offered by his own knowledge of medical science.

Igor is partially complicit in his own enfreakment, desiring normative bodied identity and visiting a medicalizing lens on the body of the monster that he and Victor construct as a medical fix-it for death. 

Victor Frankenstein” constructs an enhanced medicalized lens by not only focusing the camera on parts of the body that are non-conforming to ideas of bodily normalcy, but also by rendering the interior of these bodies onto the externality of the body, turning the camera into medical equipment – part cinematic camera and part MRI. This lens, combined with the treatment of bodies as open to experimentation and modification, marks the film as one of disabled bodily passivity and medicalized control. 

Advertisements

A Review of What’s Left of Us

A Review of What’s Left of UsBy Derek Newman-Stille

Performed September 29 at Nozhem Theatre, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Performed by Justin Many Fingers and Brian Solomon.

Sponsored by Tangled Art + Disability and Nozhem Theatre, Trent University.

Justin Many Fingers and Brian Solomon describe their performance What’s Left of Us as “Two 2 spirited ndns, with only two hands between them. A gloriously deranged world of dance, storytelling, and the unexpected things that make you sexy”. What’s Left of Us was a beautiful fusion of identities, bringing disability, indigenous, and two-spirited identities together in a way that celebrated the power of movement and narrative for shaping lives, but more than that, this was a tale of resistance and of writing our own stories. 

Justin Many Fingers and Brian Solomon wove multiple tales together in their performance, drawing on the power of polyphony and resistance to a singular narrative. Their performances were about breaking barriers, stretching out into new spaces, and resisting confinement into one story or one space. They began by preparing for their performance in front of the audience, costuming, putting on make-up, eating, practicing shadow puppets, and stretching in front of the audience, breaking down the idea that there is an easy separation between performance and life. They lived performance. They gave chocolate to the audience, walking between audience space and acting space to illustrate that we are all part of and involved in performance. 

Many Fingers and Solomon began their official performance by critiquing the music choices on their entrance, playing with the form of theatre and the idea of theatre as something that is always polished. They then burst out onto the stage to circus music, sharing a bicycle and bringing attention to the history of treating disabled bodies, indigenous bodies, and queer bodies as parts of the freak show tradition. They brought attention to the way that people look, the way that people stare, and the fact that performance has always had an interest in the spectacle of different bodily presentations. 

Many Fingers and Solomon brought attention to their spirit hands, their smaller left hands with tiny fingers and the way that these hands had shaped a wide variety of emotions, letting their faces show isolation, laughter, fear, strength, and sexual freedom with alternating expressions. They illustrated the way that others tried to tell stories ABOUT them, exploring the power of speech in constructing identity by having loud, clamouring voices of doctors describing their hands in medicalised ways, trying to structure them as flaw. But, while these voices sought to overwhelm them, their bodies moved with passion, responding to what was being said in a way that told the audience “our bodies can speak for themselves, no one should tell our bodies who or what they mean”. Narratives tried to overwhelm them in the performance, but their bodies spoke for themselves, moving in ways that illustrated strength, beauty, and raw sexuality. 

Many Fingers and Solomon danced strength into the performance, illustrating the power of their bodies to be capable of speaking for themselves, while narrating their own understandings of themselves to resist the earlier stories of doctors, sharing their own histories – moments of joy, playfulness, change, and journey. Their stories interwove with each other as they shared the similarities between their two lives as people who both have spirit hands, both came from reservations, and both came out as two-spirited people while they moved around the stage, meeting and separating from one another, showing similarities and differences through movement. 

Many Fingers tied story and hand together by creating shadow puppets first with his right hand and then switching to his spirit hand. He illustrated the power of hands to speak, to tell their own stories, shaping them up on a screen and creating a dual performance of the stage space that featured Solomon’s movements on stage and Many Fingers’ hand shapes on the projected screen. Many Fingers emphasized the connection of voice and hand by using the light from his cell phone (a symbol of speech) to project the shadows of his hand.

What’s Left Of Us was the most accessible performance I have ever attended, with accessible seats, descriptive audio and ASL interpreters. Not only were interpreters present, but the performance disrupted the normal isolation of the interpreters and the challenge of interpreters being off to the side of the stage (meaning that Deaf or Hard of Hearing audience members would have to divide attention between performance and language interpretation). Instead, interpreters were centre stage, woven into the performance. Many Fingers and Solomon made the space a bilingual one, not separating Deaf space from Hearing space, but illustrating that both were significant by bringing interpreters into their performance space and interacting with them. The interpreters were also able to move with the music and signed in a form of dance, face and body animated in a way that few interpreters are able to accomplish. The interpreters were dance partners in this glorious performance of body and language.

What’s Left of Us was powerful, creating a sense of the ability for those of us who are disabled, LGBTQ2IA, or indigenous to speak for ourselves, to disrupt the simple gaze of the audience and a society that is focussed on staring and remind people of the history of that gaze in the history of performance and medicine. It was a performance that suggested that we can stare back, that we can move from spectacle to spectator, and that we can tell our own stories even while others are trying to narrate our stories for us. This was a performance that was about the power to express.

Sign Police and the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.

A review of Roz Rosen’s “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” in Deaf Culture Fairy Tales (Savory Words, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

The fable of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse is one about craving what one doesn’t have, and about discovering what is most valuable. In Roz Rosen’s Deaf Culture version of the tale, Town Mouse convinces Country Mouse that he isn’t getting enough quality food, so he convinces his Country Cousin to join him in town, allowing him to see the generous feast offered by the wealthier family that Town Mouse stays with.

Of course, there is a drawback to all of the wealth of food and beverages… the house is guarded by guard dogs who prevent the use of sign language. These “Dog Sign Police” begin to bark and attack the mice whenever they use sign language, forcing them to repress their language if they are going to stay on the premises. Country Mouse is forced into a debate about whether he is willing to give up his language in order to experience the luxury of food or whether he values his language and right of expression enough to go back to eating beans, corn, and stale bread. 

Rosen expresses the idea that one’s cultural expressions and language are another essential part of life, a fundamental need that is as strong as the need for food and water. 

To find out more about Deaf Culture Fairy Tales, visit http://www.savorywords.com/dcft-by-roz-rosen-2/

Beautifully Deaf Swan

Beautifully Deaf SwanA review of Roz Rosen’s “The Ugly Duckling” from Deaf Culture Fairy Tales (Savory Words, 2017).

By Derek Newman-Stille

The Ugly Duckling is a tale of non-conformity, family rejection, and self discovery, so it makes sense that Roz Rosen re-wrote it into a Deaf fairy tale to explore dynamics of exclusion and rejection. Rosen’s Ugly Duckling is a tale that brings attention to the medicalization of Deaf bodies, and Mother Duck, perceiving something to be different about her Duckling decides to invite in a doctor, who diagnoses him as Deaf, telling her that this is “bad news” and that the Duckling will need constant listening and speaking therapy as well as medical interventions. Mother Duck takes this medical advice and subjects her child to medical procedures and speech therapy to try to force him to learn to speak English and speech-read. When the Duckling isn’t learning speech fast enough, the doctor, appropriately named Doctor Quack for his quack ideas, forces the Duckling to have his wings bound so that he is forced to rely on vocalizations. This procedure mimics the experiences of many Deaf youth who were taught the oral method and forced to sit on their hands to prevent them from signing. 

The Duckling internalizes the ableism around him, eventually wanting to conform to the expectations of his parents, siblings, doctor, and duck society around him. He keeps his binding on even when he is at threat by hunters and allows his flying to atrophy. Despite all of his attempts to conform, he continues to experience isolation and loneliness, finally abandoned by his family to freeze to death in the winter. 

Fortunately he is rescued by a human being and his Deaf cat. The Duckling is introduced to Deaf culture through the cat, who he has an instant kinship to through their mutual Deafness. The cat tries to help him through the damage already done to him through an audist culture, and begins to teach him to embrace who he is, learn to fly, and learn to communicate without vocalizations. 

Rosen expresses the idea, as she does in many of her Deaf Culture Fairy Tales that there is a universal connection through sign language – that Deaf people recognize each other through a sense of shared identity, and that they can find a way to communicate with each other even if they come from different cultural backgrounds and different animal groups. Through this transformative tale, Rosen focuses on the liberating quality of being part of a Deaf community and the escape from audist norms and assumptions about Deaf people. She brings attention to issues with the treatment of Deaf children by hearing parents and the isolation that comes with being treated differently from the rest of the community. “The Ugly Duckling” is a tale of taking pride in one’s self and one’s difference.

To find out more about Deaf Culture Fairy Tales, visit http://www.savorywords.com/dcft-by-roz-rosen-2/ 

Narrating Blindness

A review of Rod Michalko’s “Explain Yourself” in Things are Different Here (Insomniac Press, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Explain Yourself”, the first story in his collection Things are Different Here, Rod Michalko exercises his characteristic wit and sense of play to bring attention to the way that sighted people are always asking blind people to explain how they became blind. Michalko plays with the overall notion of storytelling within the story by having a character, Jason, who invents stories about how his friend Matt became blind whenever he is asked. Michalko explores the subversive power of storytelling, using fiction as a mode for opposing ableism in public spaces. 

Frequently the able-bodied feel that they have a right to demand narration by disabled people, asking us how we became disabled and wanting us to give them our narrative. They frequently ask us how we became disabled out of an attempt to ensure that they don’t fall into the same “tragic” circumstances. There are power dynamics to that demand for us to narrate, and “Explain Yourself” is a story narration that is an act of resistance, a commentary on systemic ableism and the power of storytelling as a mode of resistance. Michalko is best known for his academic work in disability studies, but this shift to fiction stories is also an act of education (and I don’t mean that in the way that people often mean “educational” sources on disability – i.e. stories that explain our bodies). Michalko brings his readers into the critical questions and ambiguities that fiction does so well.

“Explain Yourself” is a tale about Matthew, a blind man, and his friend Jason, who is sighted. These two met at the gym and have a friendship based on mutual humour. Instead of people asking Matthew directly about his disability, they ask Jason because they are too uncomfortable speaking to Matthew directly, but still have their curiosity and ableist privilege to feel the right to question Matthew’s body. Jason had not asked Matthew how he became blind throughout the history of their friendship, but decided to let Matthew know how often he gets asked about blindness. 

Michalko uses this narrative to bring up critical questions about able-bodied allies. His character Jason interrogates why he feels proud to have a blind friend, and how he feels about narrating a blind man’s story as an able-bodied person. Like much of Michalko’s scholarship, “Explain Yourself” is an exploration of narratives – who gets to tell them, how they tell them, and what they mean.

To discover more about Things Are Different Here, visit http://www.insomniacpress.com/new-books.html

Breakable

A review of Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Dreams as Fragile as Glass” in The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017).
By Derek Newman-Stille

While Caroline M. Yoachim tells a story of a girl turning to glass in her story “Dreams as Fragile as Glass”, she uses this speculative medium to invite questions about the way that parents react to their children being diagnosed with illness. A contagion of transformation into glass is an appropriate medium for her to use since our society generally portrays children with congenital disabilities as fragile, and parents are normally convinced that they need to treat their children as quintessentially breakable if they are disabled, cutting them off from experiences they may want to have. 

Hikaru’s greatest desire is to surf. She views surfing and the magic of riding the waves as something that makes life worth living, but she has inherited genes from both of her parents that make her inclined toward a disability of becoming glass. Just as she is convincing her mother that she should be able to surf, Masumi notices the first part of Hikaru becoming glass. Masumi needs to balance her own desire to protect her daughter as she is showing signs of her disability with her desire to let Hikaru live the life she wants to live. 

Yoachim invites critical questions about the way congenital disabilities are thought about in “Dreams as Fragile as Glass”, exploring the complexities of parental relationships with their disabled children and the desire to both protect them and allow them to live a life worth living. 

To find out more about Caroline M. Yoachim, visit http://carolineyoachim.com

To discover more about The Sum of Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/ 

A Green Lantern with Anxiety

A review of Sam Humphries, Robson Rocha, Ethan Van Sciver, and Ed Benes’ Green Lanterns Vol 1: Rage Planet (DC Comics, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

The Green Lantern rings are supposed to go to people who have an ability to conquer fear… so what happens when a ring goes to someone who has agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress? Green Lanterns Vol 1: Rage Planet explores Jessica Cruz, a woman with agoraphobia who did not leave her apartment in three years. She is open about her anxieties and throughout the comic she constantly questions whether the Green Lantern ring chose correctly when it chose her. The ring constantly assures her that she is the person that it was meant for, but she keeps believing that she does not deserve it. The Green Lantern that she is partnered with, Simon Baz, also keeps believing that she is not suited to be a Green Lantern, referring to her as a “nervous wreck”.

Her anxiety interferes with her ability to form green light into constructs, a power that all of the other Green Lanterns have. There is a danger in this inability to use her ring to its full extent that may illustrate that the comic is trying to suggest that people with disabilities cannot achieve what non-disabled people can. 

The Green Lantern rings choose people by saying “You have the ability to overcome great fear. Welcome to the Green Lantern Corps”. This opens up the notion of “overcoming” in disability narratives, particularly in the case of Jessica Cruz who we are introduced to in the middle of her work to overcome her fears. Most of the other Green Lanterns are introduced as people who have an abundance of self confidence, which is generally connected in Green Lantern comic to the power that the ring draws on: Will power. But Jessica complicates easy notions of fear and will power through her anxiety. Frequently in public discourse around disability, and particularly mental health disabilities, non-disabled people will tell disabled people that they can overcome their disability by working harder and putting in effort (namely, that they can overcome their disability through will-power). We see this image replicated through what we in Disability Studies call “Inspiration Porn”, those problematic inspirational messages like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” or “Before you quit, try” or “Excuses. Let’s hear yours again”. Statements like these are intensely problematic because they ignore the bodily reality of disabled people and our knowledge of our own bodily limits. So, creating a Green Lantern who has anxiety, PTSD, and agoraphobia invites critical questions about the way we define disability. There is a danger that this comic could become more inspiration porn because it could become another overcoming narrative, after all, the statement “you have the ability to OVERCOME great fear” is built into her induction into the Green Lanterns and this has a danger of being linked to the fact that the ring is powered by will-power, which is what inspiration porn messages try to suggest can overcome disability with their messages that “if you try hard enough, you can overcome your disability”. 

While there are dangers in the portrayal of Green Lantern Jessica Cruz, it is fascinating to see a superhero with anxiety, PTSD, and agoraphobia, particularly since the superhero genre is frequently about big adventures outside of the home (and for the Green Lanterns, frequently off planet), engaging in activities that could cause PTSD while not having emotional or psychological repercussions for any of the events that happen to them. Jessica Cruz represents a potential destabilizing of these superhero narratives of the person who is impervious to trauma (or who can get over trauma in the space of a single issue comic book). This could be helpful in critiquing the overall portrayal of heroism as something that resists trauma or psychological repercussions at a time when it is important that we examine the toxic culture that ignores traumas visited on people who are put into dangerous situations and the culture that makes people with trauma frequently hide it in order to fit with the image of the “hero” who overcomes everything. 

To find out more about Green Lanterns Vol 1: Rage Planet , visit the DC comics website at http://www.dccomics.com .