& old-fashioned Hollywood cripples
By Anne Finger
Two films in recent release -- high-budget, Hollywood Gattaca and edgy Critical Care -- concern themselves with issues of vital interest to disabled people. Gattaca is set in what it describes as "the not-too-distant future," where current trends in reproductive technology and genetic screening have reached the point where discrimination, in the words of the voice-over narrator, has become a science. Although "geno-ism" is illegal, it is nevertheless ubiquitous: potential employers can find out one's genotype from the cells left on a doorknob, from the saliva on the edge of the envelope in which one's resume was sent: one's "interview" consists of nothing more than a genotyping.
Critical Care, on the other hand, opens with a tracking shot of a nurse (played by Helen Mirren, with the usual hard-edged intelligence she brings to her roles) as she circles through an intensive care unit, stopping at immobile patient after immobile patient lying atop beds filled with translucent blue gel, surrounded by machines and tubes and wires, while a rendition of "Dem Bones" ("the thigh bone's connected to the knee bone, the knee bone's connected to the shin bone . . .") is sung by a deep bass voice. One of these comatose patients is Mr. Powers, whose two daughters -- one a mini-skirted model, the other a frumpy fundamentalist Christian -- are locked in a struggle over whether he should have a feeding tube inserted.
From these premises, I expected Gattaca to offer a radical critique of -- in its own terms -- "genoism"; and Critical Care to be a version of Night of the Living Dead, with disabled people in the role of the zombies who prey upon the living -- and found both these expectations frustrated.
Before I say anything else, let me warn you: I REVEAL THE ENDING of Gattaca. If you want to stop reading now, do. Although, I guarantee you, if you have a modicum of disability consciousness, this ending won't surprise you.
But first things first. Within minutes of his birth, the hero of Gattaca, Vincent -- conceived "in the wild" as it were -- is revealed to have a 99% probability of developing a serious heart condition; his life expectancy is judged to be 30 years. He becomes what is known in the world of the film as an in-valid, a de-generate (with the second syllable pronounced as "gene"). A second brother is conceived in what's become the "normal" way: eggs are harvested, inseminated, and typed, and the "perfect" son "Anton" is created.
For a while, the film offers a critique of "genoism" that parallels the concerns of many disabled people about the frightening possibilities of genetic engineering. The visually stunning film shows a world of uniformity: people work in vast rooms at glistening, undifferentiated computer work stations; hushed electronically generated voices shepherd them about. Every fingernail, every bit of skin, every strand of hair has the potential to reveal one's innermost genetic secrets, as the opening credits underscore, where enormously magnified hairs and flakes of skin loom threateningly.
Vincent has never wanted anything except to be an astronaut, but of course, given his genetic "defects," that is beyond the realm of possibility. So he goes to an underground broker and borrows the genetic identity of Jerome, a "9.3" who has become a paraplegic. I was so drawn in by the radical critique of this movie that when Jerome (bitter, friendless, of course) appeared on the screen, I didn't assume the posture I usually do when I see a crip on the screen: arms folded across my chest, my body hunched over -- a variation on the position I learned to assume in non-violence training, prepared to get clubbed. I should, of course, have been clued in by the sight of Jerome's wheelchair, which looks like the last airport chair I rode in: everything else in the movie is sleek and high tech and futuristic.
A murder of the director of the space program sets the plot in motion, and soon we're wondering if Vincent will elude detection and fulfill his dream of taking off to Titan. In the end -- with some complicity from a lab technician, whose son "isn't all we were promised" -- Vincent does blast off into space. Shots of the fiery rocket boosters are intercut with shots of an incinerator into which Jerome has dragged himself and where he is being immolated.
His death seemed so gratuitous, so uncalled for, that at first I couldn't figure out why it was in the film. But after chewing it over for a while, I think Gattaca was scared of the radicalness of its critique: in its futuristic world, virtually everyone watching the film would be classified as a "de-generate," an "in-valid." Rather than leave the audience members in the uncomfortable position of thinking of themselves as disabled, the film had to create a "really disabled" person, someone who fits our social stereotype of what a crip is. In the end, despite its possibilities, Gattaca doesn't really challenge the terms of the debate. It tells us that with hard work and "spirit" we can overcome, but it still leaves intact a division between "us" and "them," those whose bodies succeed and those whose bodies fail.
Critical Care, on the other hand, seems at the outset to come down firmly on the side of those who see intensive care units as modern torture chambers and who believe that high-tech medicine only serves to uselessly prolong suffering. A fresh-faced young doctor -- played by James Spader -- is seduced by the comatose Mr. Powers' beautiful daughter who, unbeknownst to him, tapes him while he is trying to have sex with her -- and she is trying to get him to say (for the benefit of the tape) that her father should not have a feeding tube inserted.
The frumpy daughter, on the other hand, is convinced that her father is communicating with her by squeezing her hand, although the doctor believes that this is merely random movement. Soon, suits and counter-suits are being filed; and Wallace Shawn -- as a devil complete with clawed hands -- is appearing to another ICU patient who is dying of kidney failure and whose body has rejected two transplants. And the hospital's position? They want to play it safe, and continue to collect payments from insurance companies for as long as possible.
But soon it is revealed that the daughters' motivations are anything but pure. As the film moves on, we slowly approach the figure of Mr. Powers, until finally we see him, not just the collection of wires and tubes surrounding him. One of the ICU nurses discovers that Mr. Powers, a former navy signalman, is tapping out in Morse Code: IF YOU LOVE ME, IF YOU LOVE ME, IF YOU LOVE ME. In a sentimental moment -- the film seems to get away with it because it's a post-modern sentimental moment -- a magnificently-wimpled Ann Bancroft as a white-clad nun -- appears to Spader and lectures him on death, eternity, and our obligation to love one another. A run-down of the plot makes it sound simplistic; it's the intelligence of the acting and wit of the direction that make this such a moving film.
While the ending of the film might not satisfy everyone, Critical Care nonetheless makes important points about the financial circumstances and social attitudes surrounding end-of-life care, and about the obligations of members of the human community to care about and for each other.
Anne Finger is the Fiction/Poetry editor of Ragged Edge.
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