Sunday, August 26, 2007

Gilliam does disability wrong

(Note: The following bit of writing contains spoilers regarding the movie Tideland)

Terry Gilliam, a director who has made a slew of great movies, including Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, also wrote and directed Tideland which I just got around to seeing this past week. The movie was largely panned due to its graphic content - though I found it approximately as controversial as Sesame Street.

I did however find its treatment of disability disappointing. The movie ends with Dickens, a person with a developmental disability, blowing up a passenger train that runs near his house using dynamite he stole from a construction site that he had been holding on to in order to do just this deed- which, according to the film, is because Dickens doesn't understand what he's doing. Not only has he most likely killed dozens of people, he too seems to die in the explosion. I'd like to do a little unpacking of two points.

1) The implicit message is that people with developmental disabilities are a threat to the (so-called) non-disabled world. This is a classic in film and literature (see, for instance, Of Mice and Men) and is the exact opposite of reality. The non-disabled world daily visits horrors upon people with disabilities and generally seeks a world devoid of "them". But film and literature would have you believe the opposite - that the disabled world seeks the destruction of the non-disabled world (see, for instance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Personally, plots to kill the able-bodied world by someone with a disability is not something I spend much time worrying about. It's disappointing that Gilliam would subject his audience to such malarkey.

It is the case that Dickens is in need of help. We could blame him for making errors in reasoning except that we know that his reasoning is atypical which makes those around him complicit in his acts. We could blame his sister, who is his caretaker, but she appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the death of their mother and disappearance of her lover. As always, we need to look at the lack of social services available to the majority of people with (and without) disabilities in this, the richest country in the world. We can, for example, give billions of dollars in "aid" to Israel and Saudi Arabia (and in this case "aid" means "weapons to kill people with") but we can't get a respite care worker to aid Dickens and his sister.

2) That Dickens dies implies that he simply cannot live in this "able-bodied" world. There is no place for him in the world that Gilliam shows us in Tideland. Again, this is a common theme that goes something like, "The safest thing for 'us' and the best thing for him is that he should die so he can never hurt anyone else." (Again, see Of Mice and Men for another "fine" example of this.) Gilliam, and the rest of us, should at very least become reconciled to the fact that the difference we label as disability has always existed and always will. We may be able to kill "them" off in film and literature (and we may attempt to do so in real life- see, for instance, the Nazis) but "they" are here to stay. When we accept that we might be able to start figuring out how exactly "we" are going to have a society that considers "them" as more than an after thought we'll be getting somewhere.

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