Monday, July 30, 2007

Deaf Characters in Film for the EYE Generation

Earlier this month, the Washington Post included an article "The Eye Generation Prefers Not to Read All About It: Students in Film Class a Microcosm of a Visually Oriented Culture". A professor of theater and film at Montgomery College, Peter Schwartz teaches a three-week Summer Movie Production Workshop at the American Film Institute. When he could take it no more, he yelled, "Stop! Try to think less about which movie scene you are reminded of and more about the way people really act in real life. Everything isn't related to a movie!" Yet, most of the students in this very workshop were members of the Eye Generation, the visually oriented generation which acquires as much as 50% of their knowledge from visual texts over written ones. While my generation had television, movies, and video games (like Atari’s Pac Man), this generation interacts through YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace clearly feeling more at ease expressing themselves in visual forms.

The challenge, however, is that these students while taught how to read and how to react critically to literature, are not taught how to read and analyze visual images. Their ability to assign meaning to the visual texts is still quite passive which makes them victims for being easily manipulated as students, consumers and citizens.

This goes beyond traditional literacy of reading and writing.

After reading the Washington Post article, I kept thinking about the final activity of the CAID conference. Miram Lerner who works as an interpreter at NTID/RIT put together an evening of film, "Popcorn or Milk Duds? The Choices we make…".

As a movie buff, Miriam shared her insights into the representations of deaf people in film. Some of the literary functions of Deaf Characters in Film that Miriam shared with the group included: "adjunct informant" character where the main function is for the audience to learn more about the main hearing characters; "metaphor" whereas the deaf character epitomizes loneliness and isolation; "psychosomatic" which includes a subconscious decision not to hear based on some sort of trauma; "sign language as a hero" where the characters are somehow 'saved' because they know sign language; and "the normal guy-or-gal-who-just-happens-to-be-Deaf" category where the character is just a regular ol' character who happens to be Deaf.


****Below you can read my interview with Miriam Lerner****


SPW: Can you tell me a bit about yourself-- what do you do for fun?

ML: I LOVE TO READ AND WATCH MOVIES (OBVIOUSLY)! I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO ATTEND THE TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL FOR A FEW YEARS IN A ROW, AND THE FIRST YEAR I WENT FOR 8 DAYS AND SAW A TOTAL OF 55 FILMS ! I THOUGHT I HAD DIED AND GONE TO HEAVEN !

MY HUSBAND, KENNY LERNER, IS THE PERFORMANCE AND CREATIVE PARTNER OF PETER COOK IN THE DUO FLYING WORDS PROJECT. WE HAVE A LOT TO TALK ABOUT AND BOUNCE OFF OF EACH OTHER IN TERMS OF SIGN CHOICES, TRANSLATION, IMAGES, ETC. KENNY TEACHES HISTORY TO DEAF STUDENTS AT RID. I CAN’T IMAGINE BEING MARRIED TO SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T SIGN OR ISN’T INVOLVED IN DEAFNESS IN SOME WAY.

SPW: You seem very passionate about the films. Can you explain how you began creating a list of Deaf Characters in Film?

ML: AT NTID/RIT INTERPRETERS ARE DIVIDED INTO TEAMS, AND WE HAVE WEEKLY BUSINESS MEETINGS …AROUND 15 YEARS AGO I TOOK A POLL TO FIND OUT IF BRINGING IN CLIPS OF MOVIES WITH DEAF CHARACTERS WOULD BE INTERESTING TO EVERYONE FOR ONE OF THE MEETINGS AND FOLKS WERE ENTHUSIASTIC. I STARTED TRYING TO REMEMBER ANY FLICKS I HAD SEEN WITH DEAFNESS REPRESENTED. THE FIRST ONES I REMEMBERED OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD WERE “NASHVILLE’ AND “LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR” AND “CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD” AND “MURDER BY DEATH”. I HAD HEARD OF “JOHNNY BELINDA” BUT NEVER SEEN IT SO I RENTED IT, AND SOME FOLKS IN MY TEAM TOLD ME SOME TITLES THEY KNEW OF AS WELL. I FOUND A WEBSITE THAT LISTED FILMS WITH ANY DISABILITY PORTRAYAL AND I FOUND A BUNCH OF TITLES THERE TOO.
I BEGAN JUST WATCHING THESE FILMS AND SLOWLY IT DAWNED ON ME THAT SINCE MOST OF THESE STORIES WEREN’T ABOUT DEAFNESS, PER SE, WHY ON EARTH WERE THESE CHARACTERS DEAF ???? I REALIZED THAT THEY FURTHERED THE STORY SOMEHOW, BY THE VERY FACT OF THEM BEING DEAF. ONLY IN THE CATEGORY OF “NORMAL GUY-OR-GAL” IS IT A NON-ISSUE THAT THEY ARE DEAF. THE CATEGORIES STARTED TO SORT THEMSELVES OUT AS I WATCHED MORE AND MORE FILMS, AND I DEVELOPED THIS THEORY ABOUT EACH ONE. MY TEAM ENJOYED THE PRESENTATION AND I STARTED COLLECTING MORE CLIPS AND GAVE THE PRESENTATION IN EXPANDED FORM A FEW MORE TIMES HERE AND THERE. I BELIEVE THAT RIGHT NOW I HAVE AROUND 30 CLIPS, MEANING THAT I HAVE 30 SELECTIONS THAT I CAN SHOW IF THERE’S TIME OR IT FITS THE AUDIENCE NEEDS. THERE ARE TONS MORE THAT I JUST CAN’T GET MY HANDS ON BECAUSE THEY ARE FOREIGN AND/OR OBSCURE AND UNAVAILABLE FOR RENTAL, IT’S DEFINITELY A WORK IN PROGRESS, AND I COUNT ON MY FRIENDS AND PEOPLE WHO HAVE ATTENDED MY PRESENTATIONS TO E MAIL ME WITH TITLES THEY COME ACROSS.

SPW: This may be a difficult one.... Do you have a favorite movie or a favorite Deaf Character?

ML: I REALLY LIKE MARLEE MATLIN’S CHARACTER OF JEANNETTE IN “THE LINGUINI INCIDENT” BECAUSE SHE IS SO CONFIDENT AND THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON FOR HER BEING DEAF IN THAT ROLE. SHE’S JUST A FUNNY PERSON !
I THINK DAVID IN “FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL” IS VERY FUN BECAUSE HE IS SUCH A BROTHER TO HIS BROTHER. THEY BUST EACH OTHER’S CHOPS, HE TAKES LIBERTIES WITH THE FACT THAT, OTHER THAN HIS BROTHER, HEARING PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND HIM, SO HE CAN BE OVERT ABOUT THINGS AND HIS BROTHER HAS TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO VOICE IT IN A MORE PALATABLE FORM. HE IS ALL HEART AND HONESTY, AND I THINK HE’D BE FUN TO HAVE AS A FRIEND , OR A BROTHER !

SPW: What kind of advice would you give to young people who are watching a movie with a Deaf Character or even thinking about writing a screenplay including a Deaf Character?

ML: I DON’T KNOW IF IT CAN BE CALLED “ADVICE”, BUT WHEN I WATCH A FILM AND A DEAF CHARACTER COMES ON THE SCREEN, I IMMEDIATELY WONDER, “WHY IS THIS PERSON DEAF ???” THE FACT OF THE MATTER IS THAT WE LIVE IN A PREDOMINANTLY HEARING WORLD. IF THE FILM IS NOT ABOUT DEAFNESS, AND IF THE DIRECTOR OR SCREENWRITER IS HEARING, THEN THEY HAVE MADE THIS CHOICE FOR A REASON. WHAT IS IT ???? THAT HELPS ME TO UNDERSTAND THE REST OF THE STORY BETTER.
SO, IF SOMEONE IS THINKING ABOUT WRITING A SCREEN PLAY, THEY WOULD HAVE TO DECIDE WHAT DEAFNESS SIGNALS TO THEM, OR, WHAT THEY BELIEVE DEAFNESS SYMBOLIZES TO THE AUDIENCES FOR WHOM THE FILM IS BEING CREATED. THE WONDERFUL THING ABOUT FILMS IS THAT NOTHING IS ACCIDENTAL ! EVEN DOCUMENTARIES ARE CAREFULLY CONSTRUCTED AND EACH ELEMENT IS CHOSEN FOR EFFECT. CINEMA VERITE TRIES TO SHOW LIFE AS IT IS, BUT THE MOMENT SOMETHING IS EDITED AN ATTITUDE IS SUPERIMPOSED, AND CHOICES ARE INFLUENCING AUDIENCE PERCEPTIONS. IF A WRITER CHOOSES A DEAF CHARACTER IN A FILM NOT OVERTLY ABOUT DEAF FOLKS IN A HEARING WORLD, THEN THEY MUST ASK, “WHY DEAF ???”

Stay tuned: this year Miriam will be working on a special project making a documentary about ASL Poetry that will certainly be fascinating! The information below is from a handout Miriam created to accompany her Deaf Characters in Film presentation.

SOME LITERARY FUNCTIONS OF DEAF CHARACTERS IN FILM
by MIRIAM NATHAN LERNER

**** Please bear in mind that these are fluid categories – films fit into more than one at a time, and there are undoubtedly new sets and subsets that you may notice on your own. Keep me posted as to your ideas and any films you discover to add to the list ! ( mnldis@rit.edu)

ADJUNCT INFORMANT CHARACTER: The deaf person’s primary function to the story line is to give the audience more information about, and form more of an affinity with, the main hearing character(s). They may be fascinating in their own right, but generally the deafness is a marginal point of interest. Our attitudes about the hearing folks are affected because of their involvement with a deaf individual.

THE FAMILY STONE
GRAND CANYON
GAS, FOOD, LODGING
LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET
AMY

PLOT DEVICE: Sometimes used as slapstick/sight gags, sometimes as the obstacle to safety in a dangerous or terrifying situation. Deafness is to a deaf person in “Hear No Evil” as blindness is to a blind person in “Wait Until Dark” ( sounds like an SAT test, doesn’t it….?) Other times the novelty of how a deaf person lives or copes within a Hearing world, or interacts with other Hearing characters is presented humorously. In “Bangkok Dangerous,” the deaf protagonist becomes an adept hit man as a vengeful response to being teased as a child. In “Dear Frankie,” the cause of Frankie’s deafness is critical to understanding why this whole story is happening . Chief Bromden in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” pretends to be deaf, thus he functioing as the audience’s ears.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL
HUCK FINN
HEAR NO EVIL
MURDER BY DEATH
SUSPECT
CALENDAR GIRL
BANGKOK DANGEROUS
SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE
DEAR FRANKIE
KUNG FU HUSTLE
THE QUIET


THE PIANO **** *
MUTE WITNESS**
MYSTIC RIVER*** these three movies use the characters’ inability to vocalize as the means of their isolation. In all three cases they can hear, understand, and interact with their environments, but require only one “interpreter” who understands their signs and voices their responses to others.

METAPHOR: In a literary sense, a deaf character in certain contexts epitomizes isolation, loneliness, and serves as a device for the projection of other characters’ repressed emotions, etc. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” is an excellent example of the deaf person as a tabula rasa onto which other hearing players project their fears, hopes, dreams. “The Stand” sets up the deaf character as empathetic and Christ-like. His martyrdom is predictable. “Code Unkown” presents deafness as a language literally indecipherable to hearing people while simultaneously placing it as yet another example of other languages, situations, and attitudes that render people incapable of communicating with each other. “What the Bleep do We Know ?” presents a deaf protagonist who experiences mysterious psychic rifts which lead to self awareness. Why deaf ? Perhaps as a way to emphasize her visual journey without auditory distractions.

THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER
ILLTOWN
THE STAND
CODE UNKOWN
WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW ?

PSYCHOSOMATIC: In some cases there is a subconscious decision not to hear as a response to a traumatic event. “Ramblin’ Rose” presents a woman during the ‘30’s whose deafness conveniently leaves her oblivious to her family’s secrets, allowing her to be the one optimistic and balanced member.

PSYCH OUT
TOMMY
RAMBLIN’ ROSE


BIOGRAPHICAL/HISTORIC : Pure and simple, the story of a person’s triumph over disability, their trials and tribulations. “Man of a Thousand Faces” is the story of Lon Cheney, Jr., who had deaf parents and was a fluent signer, which greatly influenced his career and relationships.

THE MIRACLE WORKER (two versions)
SILENT VICTORY: THE KITTY O’NEIL STORY
MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES

SYMBOLIC COMMENTARY ON SOCIETY ; Directors and writers use a deaf character as the ultimate outsider, disempowered, literally and figuratively without a voice within his or her culture. A combination of deafness and youth, or deafness within a society which places a high value on verbal wit, or a deaf character caught helplessly within the whirlwinds of historic change in another country can create a potent focal point of commentary. Notice how deafness is utilized in “The Shop on Main Street. ” Because an old Jewish deaf woman can’t hear, her Aryan “keeper” can’t make her understand what is happening in her town as the occupation advances.

RIDICULE
ILLTOWN
TO LIVE
IN THE COMPANY OF MEN
THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET
THE PERFECT CIRCLE

SIGN LANGAUGE AS A HERO : Here is a new and exciting use of signing. The issue of deafness is entirely peripheral to the plot. What is most important is the hearing characters’ use and comprehension of sign language as a way out of a jam. The signing even takes a purely iconic form when the handshapes are drawn on a log !

THE RIVER WILD


NORMAL GUY-OR-GAL-WHO-JUST-HAPPENS-TO-BE-DEAF : Here is a person who is deaf – no explanations, not a lot of dwelling on pathology. “Four Weddings and Funeral” has a deaf hero ! I have a separate category of the clever gimmick used in the film at the end, but the crux of the David character is that he’s this very nice guy, and
PS) he’s deaf . In “Crazy Moon” the “normal” hearing man is the misfit, and the deaf woman shows him how to become a person of action and confidence. Similarly, in “The Family Stone” the deaf gay character is more “normal” and self-actualized than other
family members.

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL
CRAZY MOON
THE LINGUINI INCIDENT
IT’S MY PARTY
POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES
LIAR,LIAR
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM
THE FAMILY STONE


STORIES ABOUT DEAF/HEARING RELATIONSHIPS ; The focus of the story is the deaf character(s)’ interactions with the hearing family, lovers, husbands, community, etc. Deafness can be used to represent the obstacle a hearing character must face to further understand themselves, as illustrated in the father/son relationship in “Mr. Holland’s Opus”.

JOHNNY BELINDA (two versions)
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD
MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS
MANDY ( THE CRASH OF SILENCE)
BEYOND SILENCE

PARALLEL CHARACTER: In “ I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” the deaf girl we meet in the very beginning has a different disability than the main character, Charlotte, who is a dwarf. We see them in their first moments of the film when they are little girls together, and again near the end at Charlotte’s wedding when Rimalda gets the bouquet. Without having seen the deaf counterpart, we can still assume that her story has contained similar struggles for “normalcy” and acceptance. The scene is 1930’s Spain, and disability awareness is zilch at that time. Rimalda’s mother attempts to commiserate with Charlotte’s mother, establishing a simultaneous but unknown ( to the audience) story line somewhere else in town.

I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT

LET YOUR FINGERS DO THE TALKING: Sign is used to express something that the Hearing character can’t or won’t. It’s an ironic way to use a silent language to give “voice” to feelings that the hearing person is incapable or unwilling to deal with. This creates an interesting symbiosis – the hearing person much voice what they truly feel, yet can’t say for themselves. The deaf person is capable of expressing the feeling, but must rely on the hearing person to disseminate the message !

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL
JERRY MAGUIRE. (the phrase, “You complete me,” is a verbal foreshadowing of character metamorphosis and development. Because the exact phrase is repeated later, I
call it a pre-emptive echo, which I know is an oxymoron but I like it anyway !

THE DEAF EXPERIENCE

Fictionalized representations of deaf characters getting by in whatever culture/society in which they find themselves. “THE PERFECT CIRCLE” portrays a deaf child caught in the ravages of war in Bosnia. “STILLE LIEBE” introduces two isolated and lonely deaf individuals, one a nun and one a pick-pocket from Latvia, who find each other and fall in love.

THE PERFECT CIRCLE
STILLE LIEBE
TO LIVE
RIDICULE

DEAFNESS = LACK OF COMMUNICATION: This is new – two films that I know of use deafness and sign language to exemplify the ultimate lack of communication in our world. It is used as a parallel to the global inability of all people to connect with each other

CODE UNKOWN
BABEL

2 comments:

Franny said...

Hi! I was sent a link to your blog from the comicscholars listserv.

One of my research interests is superheroes and disability--in the research I've done to date it's seemed like there are some disabilities that are frequently represented and others that rarely are. Deaf characters are few and far between, which is suprising to me in such a visually oriented medium. (Comparatively, there are very many characters who have visual impairments including quite a few blind characters whose superpower is...to be able to see. Seriously.)

Anyway I see you have Echo on your list but you might be interested to know that the character Penance from the Generation X comics in the early 90's was originally supposed to be deaf but the series changed writers and things got really wacky after that.

Sharon said...

Thanks Franny! I love finding out tidbits like that about Penance. Hmmm, I wonder why the writers changed their minds.

I'm now following Echo in The New Avengers. I'm honestly a little nervous about what is going to happen to her especially after Elekta being a well, you know no spoilers, and at the end of issue #32.