Disability & Cinema
Chapter Three: Family and Disability
'I was their number one son and they treated me like number two; but it's human nature to fear the unusual. Perhaps when I held my Tiffany baby rattle with a shiny flipper instead of five chubby digits they freaked, but I forgive them.'
The Penguin (Danny DeVito) in Batman Returns
This chapter discusses how the family, and idea(l)s of the family, are represented in films, in order to suggest how they effect the representation of disability, demonstrating how issues and ideals of the family have a direct and specific effect upon such representations. The central film under discussion will be My Left Foot and this is followed by briefer studies of the other key films used in the thesis to show any similarities, or none, whilst extrapolating whether or not familial ideological discourse constructs impairment as being specifically valid or invalid.
My Left Foot is examined at length to explore the relationship of the disabled character Christy Brown to his Mother and Father in order to identify familial ideology and its role in the construction of disability. In examining the family this chapter identifies, above all else, the normalising effect of the family upon the impaired individual and how this effect is subsequently utilised therein to create the normalised good cripple. Conversely, it is also identified as negating the impaired individual due to his / her inability to match the normalising hegemony of the family as either a unit or a procreative base.
The ideological conventions identified are little more than the conventions of mainstream commercial film form and style; the originality of the chapter is in demonstrating their application to disability within familial ideology and the identification of how each ideological structure (familial and disability) works to support the other. For example, in identifying that abnormality is negated in comparison to normality, then normality is likely to be reinforced as positive and thus superior. In the core films of this thesis such a dual scenario occurs in relation to disability and the family; this chapter shows how. Throughout the chapter, as in other chapters, identified non-core films further demonstrate the point that the processes identified in this thesis are not restricted to the selection of core films studied here in relation to disability. Equally, the identified processes are often the same ideological conventions as those of non-disability films.
My Left Foot is the most appropriate film to study here as it is specifically about a family, and the film’s premise is rooted within an acceptance of the family as an ideal and as a natural way of life. Consequently, My Left Foot is a clear affirmation of traditional family ideology, given that it fails to address any other social relevance, agency or factor in the creation (or perpetuation) of familial ideology within it. The film fulfils for family ideology exactly that which Nichols (1981, p.290) ascribes to it: 'ideology seeks to hide [ ... ] ideology seeks to [make representations] appear other than what they are'. My Left Foot is a selective view of the Brown family's history, a view that hides the social consequences and ideology of the film’s and the family's social place and time whilst appearing to portray a realistic account of what it is / was 'actually' like. The film utilises the ideology of the family as a way of entertaining us by saying that no matter how bad it is out in the 'real' world, especially and ideally, we still have our families.
The other elements of family life, what it is to be a brother or a sister, for example, are all just as 'ideally' (and ideologically) constructed as the Mother in My Left Foot and in culture. The siblings of Christy Brown are as idealised by My Left Foot as is the Mother; they are constructions saturated in the idea(l)s of what it is to be a good brother or sister as much as by Brown's own lived reality. My Left Foot, being about Christy Brown, who had twenty-one siblings of whom 12 survived, cannot help but advance a view on Brown’s existence as a sibling, but it is a perspective that turns out to be nostalgic at the very least. The uncritical form and style of My Left Foot, which abdicates creative responsibility by its claim to being a bio-pic, ensures that it unreservedly shares all the illusions of family ideology that it can. Equally, such an uncritical form ensures that the story of Christy Brown remains sentimental because of its adherence to the ideology of the ideal family. The Browns, especially the Mother, are offered to us as an ideal family through their dedication to the family via self-sacrifice. The only negative character within the family is the Father, a character who is not capable of representing the ideal Father as he is unable to discipline himself to the required ideal level of self sacrifice. Significantly, the Mother is not given a name; she is either Mother or Mrs Brown, even in the credits: her role is the role of the archetypal mother, in the kitchen and wearing a kitchen apron, dressed in the uniform of domesticity.
The brothers and sisters, who vary in both number and character throughout the film, all portray an almost saintly degree of self sacrifice as well, whereas disharmony (except in relation to the Father) is never an issue. Just as the family is romanticised so is poverty; that the Mother had twenty-two children, of whom nine died in infancy, is never addressed - except in that Mrs Brown is (or seems to be) pregnant in almost every scene of the film. That some of the deaths of her children must have been related to their poverty / social conditions is never raised; consequently, grief is non-existent in the film. The family is thus given as the key requirement in the transcendence of poverty through love and, it could be argued, 'love' is considered as natural only when within the family. The family here transcends everything and, consequently, all love that is outside the 'traditional' family - homosexual or purely sexual - is constructed by extension and through its absence within family ideology as unnatural. The common-sense view of the family as ensuring the existence and perpetuation of such an ideology is, as such, reinforced. In My Left Foot, the Mother gives her 'love' and self unconditionally to all members of the family and at all times.
Kaplan (1992) talks of the early modern Mother as being primarily concerned with the production of children; Mrs Brown is represented as little other than a being whose existence is purely for procreation and familial support. Because Mrs Brown is as central to the film as Christy Brown is, one could almost see the film as being addressed to, and for, women. Mrs Brown is a maternal role model embedded in melodrama; an idea of melodrama as described by Kaplan, quoting Brunsdon (Kaplan, 1992), when she states that melodrama is that which addresses the female audience with issues pertaining to women’s presumed familial responsibilities. In the case specific to My Left Foot the issues are pregnancy and the 'domestic' upheavals caused by a deformed child. Significantly, if we also use the roots of the Greek meaning of melodrama - music plus drama in a two-dimensional characterisation - My Left Foot would again clearly be generic of this form. This may be a simplistic definition of melodrama, but, and this is my point, the film is a simplistic representation of the life of poor working-class Irish people who have numerous children, one of whom has severe cerebral palsy. The use of music in the drama has the effect of wringing every last drop of emotional feeling from the spectator, with the violins, symptomatic of extreme feeling, reducing every instance of emotional or physical intensity to a pathetic 'isn't it brave / sad' moment of pure sentimentalism.
My Left Foot is more a melodrama (although even this is superficial) than any of the other films explored in the thesis precisely because it has at its core a significant woman alongside the disabled character of Christy Brown. Whilst the other films have central female characters they are there either for the ideology of feminisation or disability to work more effectively (Ken in Whose Life; Bruce in Raging Moon; Joseph Merrick in Elephant Man) or to indicate how impairment desexualises (Stephanie in Duet for One; Jill in Raging Moon; Joe Egg). My Left Foot is a melodrama within a conventional mainstream social issue drama rather than one in the more complex – and well documented – social realist mode (cf. Hill, 1986). As such its use of melodrama is rather more conventional than complex in entertainment, rather than being campaigning and informative or rather than polemical or dogma driven.
If, traditionally, the Mother represents the gentle side of the family, then the Father is its discipline and violence (Segal, 1983; Atwood, 1997). The Browns fit such a paradigm comfortably. The Father first appears in a flashback (flashbacks constituting most of the film) surrounding Christy Brown's birth. When Brown's Father, Paddy, is walking to the maternity ward we are left in no doubt of his physical presence even though we do not see his face. Paddy’s entrance is tracked by a high angle close-up of his feet - in heavy working men's boots - the camera tracking back as he walks towards the camera and maternity ward. The diegetic sound is nowhere near fidelity; it grossly exaggerates the sound of his boots (and baby crying) so that they seem to echo around the hospital. The concentration on his walking style and its awesome noise leaves us in no doubt that this is 'the man' of the family: the Father. Upon being told of his son's abnormality, Paddy goes straight to the pub, ordering a short and a pint, and head-butts a fellow customer for implying that he will not have any more children. The film thereby gives us further proof of his status as masculinity personified in Fatherhood and marriage: i.e., the proud family man. Both the nurse who tells him of his son's deformity and the man who is head-butted, are much smaller and weaker in comparison to Paddy, so these scenes serve to emphasise that his power and authority are based upon his physical rather than his mental strengths. As a result, the Father is signified as the epitome of the masculine early on. The ideology of patriarchy, and the position of the Father, is an ideal (to advocates of the bourgeois family unit, that is) that places the Father as either a good Father or a bad one; if his power is invisible but effective (usually categorised as earning 'respect') he is a good Father. If his power is visible and aggressive, not under his control, he is a bad Father. Mr Brown is a bad Father due to his inability to control his aggression and drinking, which result in his becoming violent and unreliable (a common, stereotypical representation of Irish masculinity [Caughie and Rocket, 1996; Rocket, 1996]). Masculinity in itself is not criticised, only its excesses.
The dining table - again, both in culture (Segal, 1983) and this film - is a central motif of the whole family and its attitude. A significant number of scenes, and shots, in My Left Foot revolve around the dining table, because the family dining table is the traditional gathering place where the 'true' meaning of family life reaches its zenith. Thus in My Left Foot the central ideology of the family is acted out in the mise en scène; in the first scene at the dining table, and there are at least seven more dining table scenes, we are shown the hierarchy of power within the household. Initially, one son is not coming down for breakfast quickly enough but a few threatening words, and implied violence, from his Father brings him down instantly; meanwhile, Brown is sitting under the stairs, separate from the table (where he remains until he is able to prove that he can think). Once all the other children are eating at the table we get a point-of-view shot from Brown under the stairs: a medium shot from a low angle looking up (as Brown is on the floor) and in deep focus. To the forefront are the other children sitting at the table eating whilst in the background is Paddy. Paddy is standing central in the frame, towering over his family, his authority visible and overtly implied. Interestingly, Paddy leaves the shot - to go to work one presumes - and we are left with exactly the same shot except the Mother has been revealed to be directly behind Paddy. Consequently, we can read this as signifying that the Mother is behind the Father, to act as support and buffer between the Father and the children. It is a literal visualisation of the saying that behind every successful man is a good woman.
The mere presence of the Father as the symbolic, and actual, controller of behaviour is further signified by another medium shot in the film. In a scene later than the one discussed above, the Father is shown to be the all-seeing eye over his children and wife as they do their home, or house, work at the dining table. One shot during this scene is a point-of-view shot from the Father, sitting in his comfortable chair reading his paper, from which we (and he) can see all that happens in the living room and kitchen - including Brown under the stairs. Paddy, the family Father, is thus seen as much as a presence as a subject. Paddy never helps with the housework (clearly the Mother's domain) but maintains order, behaviour and silence when required. Paddy's physical attitude is sufficient and his natural role is implied by a lack of criticism either from the film or from within the Brown family. The only criticisms of Paddy as a Father are when he crosses the line of implied violence to impending or real violence. The Father's discipline, 'respect', is clearly seen as necessary and ideal, with the bad Father manifesting in Paddy when he appears to be out of control and excessive. Mr Brown's character is so two-dimensional, closed, that he, his representation, acts as little other than a simple example of either a good or bad Father.
When Brown first starts to write (an 'A' and then 'Mother' in chalk on the floor) one of his brothers - aged about ten - comes down the stairs, stopping half way, and says to the gathered, hushed, family: '[W]hat's up?'. In a series of shot / reverse shots - with the Father presented from a high angle in medium close-up and the son in low angle medium close-ups - the Father angrily tells the child to: '[B]e quiet!'. To which the child replies: '[A]ll I said was "what's up?"', and sits down. The child's assertion that he asked a simple question, combined with the effect of the Father's stature in reply (the height of the camera angle down in his portion of the shot / reverse shot clearly reduces his stature), leaves us in no doubt that his reaction has been an excessive reaction. My interpretation is a view further emphasised by the Mother's reaction of giving Paddy money to go down to the pub. He remonstrates with his wife at this point, demanding that: '[A]ll I need to be is obeyed in my own house!', which further demeans him. Paddy’s anger and unnecessary aggression act as signs of what is, for the film’s makers familial ideology, the bad Father, made apparent when the status of the Father is abused by its unnecessary exercise. Paddy is partly redeemed, as a Father, to the family by his immediate admiration of Brown's writing 'Mother' on the floor: with tears in his eyes he carries Brown off to the pub, signifying that he 'loves' them all really – and that he will now treat Christy as he would any other son of drinking age.
In a later shot the Father's violence is again implied as excessive when he is shown as volatile under duress. The Father is now unemployed. Brown makes a joke that undermines the Father's position. Brown's joke makes the Father react angrily, at which point he rushes across the room to hit Brown, who is sitting on the settee. We then have a plan américain shot of Brown on the settee with the Father's right hand in a clenched fist on the very left of the frame. The fist is not in focus as its presence is enough, it is within the family frame; its hazy appearance is sufficient to re-assert the power of the Father. No one laughs at the Father there or again within the film.
One of the key roles a Father must play in the traditional family, to be a good Father, is the role of breadwinner; as Segal (1983) states:
the traditional family model of the married heterosexual couple with children - based on a sexual division of labour where the husband as breadwinner provides economic support for his dependent wife and children, while the wife cares for both husband and children - remains central to family ideology. (p.13)
My Left Foot seems to support Segal's view, in the representation of the Father of Christy Brown, as not only true but also ideal. A good example of this is when the whole family is plunged into the depths of poverty - eating 'porridge for breakfast, dinner and tea' - through an irresponsible (in his wife’s view) outburst of violence by the Father at his place of employment. The Father’s outburst of violence is seen as irresponsible in itself, making the Father appear to be selfish and, therefore, a bad father. When the Father tells his wife (whilst the family is at the dining table, of course) that he has been laid off, her enquiry as to ‘Why?’ is met by the Father's retort of: '[D]on't you question me in front of the children'. During this scene the Mother and Father are in a medium shot with the Mother in the light to the left rear of the scene, with the Father sitting at the table. The top lighting lights the Mother very clearly - positioning her positively - whilst the Father's eyes are shaded by his trilby hat. Consequently, the Father's (re)actions are seen as resulting from his dark (violent and irresponsible) bad side. The Father further tells the family that he was laid off because: '[A] brick hit the foreman, accidentally on purpose, in the head'; indicating quite clearly his irresponsible nature. The other male members of the family (now young adults) laugh at this, whilst the daughter (given a strong identity as a pillar of the family by her dedication and love for both Brown and her Mother) frowns and appears unamused. The daughter's disapproval, highlighted by a close-up of her face with full frontal lighting, acts as a signification of 'feminine' awareness at the consequences of the loss of money and an awareness of the results of the Father's irresponsible behaviour: i.e., porridge, frequently. The Mother's question: '[W]hat about Christy's wheelchair?', reinforces the male as unthinking towards his family; making it the 'duty' of the wife / mother to think ahead and the Father's to provide the money for her to do so.
The long-term welfare and preservation of the family as the duty of Mother is strongly reinforced by her regularly saving money to buy Brown a wheelchair. Immediately after it has been established that the family is poor - by porridge eating and the stealing of coal – Mrs Brown's money saved for a wheelchair is discovered by the Father. The film’s audience is aware that the Mother has been saving for it, from an earlier scene, but the Father is not aware until this point. The money box, with the cash in it, is hidden in the fireplace and when it falls into a raging fire the Father proceeds to recover and open it, discovering that there is £28.8s.3d in it and is told that it is for Brown's wheelchair. He says to the Mother: '[W]e've been sitting here in the freezing cold eating porridge for breakfast, dinner and tea and you have £28.8s.3d up the fucking chimney'. The Mother does not reply, and there is a cut to another scene, but what is significant about the scene is its mise en scène. The Father and Mother are both shown in medium close-ups, the Father sitting down in his chair and the Mother standing up facing him. In a series of shot / reverse shots, done in a conventional dialogue style, their relative family attitudes are revealed, one as good or ideal and the [O]ther as bad or anti-familial. The Mother's image is clearly lit, with her being looked up to (from the Father's point of view in the shot / reverse shot sequence), and she is framed firstly by, a door frame, and secondly, by two of her children who are clearly focused in the background. The two of her children framing her, both young male adults, place her actions firmly in the interests of the family; that the children are clearly focused by the deep-focus shot draws your attention to their presence and meaning in the context of the scene. It must also be remembered at this point that the reason for their poverty is a result of the irresponsible actions of the Father. The power of the Mother as central to the family in the above image is reinforced by the mise en scène of the Father's shot. In the series of shot / reverse shots under examination the Father is shot from a high angle, the Mother's point of view as she is standing making him look small and demeaned. More significantly, the Father is framed by nothing, the depth of his shot is black and bleak, thereby making him appear isolated. Consequently, we are led to see the Father as isolated from the family by his non-comprehension of self-sacrifice in the name of the family by all of its constituent members.
The Father is not specifically criticised for his lack of forethought, as forethought is assumed by the film to be the responsibility of the Mother (if for no other reason than that she takes it). In My Left Foot the Father is merely supposed not to impede the Mother in the execution of her duty. As long as the Father remains a breadwinner his actions are seen as insensitive but natural due to his character: i.e., he is physical rather than emotional - signified when upon building an extension for Brown (poverty inexplicably becomes an irrelevance at this point) the Mother tells Brown that: '[T]hat's the nearest he'll ever come to saying he loves you'. The Father is shown as practical (earlier he also builds Brown a mobile cart / chair) but emotionally impaired. Significantly, the only affection we see him give his wife is a caress of the cheek in the street. Thus, parents are denoted as non-emotional breeding stock in My Left Foot. The Mother seems to be pregnant all the time, and the Father's head butting of a fellow pub customer for impugning his fertility at the beginning of the film seems to emphasise the rightness of the Father's role as providing his wife with the fulfilment of her natural being: motherhood. The universality of sexual reproduction is thus assumed to justify the logic and 'naturalness' of the family and its procreative role (Close, 1985), meaning that Mrs Brown's options are zero and she lives as she 'should'.
The Browns seem to be the epitome of Harris's view, quoted by Close (1985), when he states that:
the bourgeois family is child centred [and that] with proletarianization, the family becomes the only creative sphere left to parents [ ... ] the children signify not the continuation of their parents' identity (as is the case of the bourgeois family) but their parents' capacity for production. (p.41)
The family is, by extension, reinforced both socially and in My Left Foot as the only place to have, rear and love children: a viewpoint reinforced by the manner in which a daughter becomes pregnant and has to get married 'on Friday' (it is a 'shotgun' wedding).
The daughter's pregnancy is initially given as her only escape from the repressive violence of the Father against her (in an 'I'm pregnant' scene) though subsequently it is of great happiness to her. The happiness is demonstrated later in the film by her Mother's looking at photographs, of the daughter happy and smiling with her children; she is now a proud Mother herself. Pregnancy is a woman's only option in this film and as it is validated as the only suitable option it is seen as natural. By having no alternatives to procreation, motherhood and the family - and the idea that the only way out of one family is to create your own / another - are seen uncritically as the only true roles for women within the film. The eradication of options for women in My Left Foot provides us with this logic in order to see the film as supportive of the ideology of the family. The ideological process is revealed by the principle that the ideology of the family function is to: 'obscure the nature of how we live [and] legitimate [the] single dominant form of "family"' (Segal, 1983, p.11). Having no options for the daughter (and her subsequent happiness within the one role she can have - motherhood) obscures the fact that there are options outside, and within, the family - need all daughters who become wives become mothers by natural progression? Consequently, the film legitimates the 'single dominant form of "family"' by its acquiescence to its logic within the narrative.
The Father is constructed as a functional being in My Left Foot; he is the breadwinner and 'father' and little else, such as when, for example, the Mother is concerned for Brown's (and the pregnant daughter's) emotional well-being. Paddy is concerned that Brown can talk more clearly (normally) or that his daughter's pregnancy will reflect badly upon him; even when Brown gets an exhibition of his paintings his Father would rather be in the pub - however understandable that may be due to his lack of sophistication and position. Consequently, as Barrett and McIntosh (1982, p.78) state: '[I]t is the over-valuation of family life which devalues [ ... ] other lives', the film's devaluation of Brown (as tragic) is in that he cannot have children (the spectator is led to presume) like those in the (his own) ideal family. Thus 'the family' not only values itself but devalues others unable, or unwilling, to replicate its own idea(ls).
The construction of the (ideal) Mother in relation to disability in the film will now be addressed. The role and duties of the Mother, a mother, are established very early on in My Left Foot. In the first flashback of Brown's life, from the literary reception, we quickly cut from his birth to his being ten years old - Brown and his Mother are not actually in the birth scene - a scene in which his Mother is giving the family breakfast. Once all the family leave (for school or work) Mrs Brown feeds Brown; in a medium close-up shot, from a low angle, the Mother sits on a stool and feeds Brown, who is sitting on the floor with our view being from the side. Consequently, Mrs Brown's authority is established synchronically and asynchronically as she towers over Brown. Mrs Brown is heavily pregnant and as she opens a locket around her neck and shows it to Christy Brown she states: '[T]hat's my Ma, that's my Da. I was their baby. I'll get this house organised before I go [to have the next baby]'. During this speech to Brown the shot cuts into a close-up of his Mother from a low angle, giving her words, and their ideological bent, a naturalness of logical progression: i.e., it is what my parents did, therefore I must do it. Here, then, the ideology of motherhood is given an aura of naturalness that has distorted its historical relationship to society - making it seem logical and progressive - whilst mystifying its historically oppressive reality. When she goes into hospital - immediately, as she injures herself carrying Brown upstairs after having fed him - a neighbour comments about her kitchen that: 'there is enough [food] to feed an army. You'll never go hungry'. This is a statement that further emphasises the Mother's duty to ‘provide’ for her clan even if she is about to give birth. This scene confirms and reinforces the ideology of housework and cooking as being the Mother's exclusive domain, especially as so many scenes in My Left Foot, especially those around the dining table, involve the Mother preparing, serving, or cooking food or washing up having eaten it. That she is seen laying the table, ironing and fetching, whilst her husband reads the paper and her children play, acts as further validation of the Mother's duties as self-evident.
Rojek et al aptly state that: 'the fact that women bear and nurture children creates an imbalance in family structures which underpins all other oppression'. He continues, quoting Engels, that: 'the modern individual family is founded on the concealed slavery of the wife' (Rojek et al, 1988, p.78). Mrs Brown, by talking of her parents, confirms the 'slavery of the wife' as historically based but, as such, that it is difficult to challenge due to its traditional base. The film’s makers, by uncritically representing the Mother as placing herself in a historically logical position, support the view that it is her role and duty which, in turn, makes the film itself part of the cultural ideology that supports the fallacies of the familial as ideal. In romanticising Mrs Brown and the problems of poverty, infant mortality and physical hardship that she endures, all are revealed in their absence to be an irrelevance in the 'naturally happy' role of motherhood.
There is never any question of others helping (or even offering to help) the Mother, not even, surprisingly, the daughters, but Mrs Brown is not unhappy with this situation since she sees caring and providing as her role. This is a factor signified when she becomes positively jealous when someone else usurps her role: she watches Dr Cole give Brown a drink (usually the Mother's role in the film) at the gallery exhibition of his work. There is a reaction shot in this scene of Mrs Brown that clearly leads us to read her distress or dissatisfaction at the loss of her role as the ‘mother’. The reaction shot is a medium close-up of the Mother sitting down against a white wall, turning her head away and down whilst biting her lip. She has clearly lost her uniqueness as the only one to nurture Brown.
The principal enigma of the film, that needs closure for a classically satisfactory ending, is whether Christy Brown's future can be assured (for us), knowing that the Mother will eventually die. It is a problem that the film opens and closes in the first few minutes of its running time: the rest of the film merely explains it. On arriving at a benefit for 'the cripples' at the beginning of the film the Mother hands Brown over to 'nurse Mary' (a shot in which the Mother steps aside from behind Brown's wheelchair to let the nurse take over). Nurse Mary is clearly to be Brown's ‘Mother’ from now on: her name is an indication in itself and, equally significant, her strong physical build is a virtual replica of the Mother's. Pertinently, Mary states at one point that Brown should not think that she is his Mother, proceeding to then feed Christy a drink exactly as his Mother does: she holds a glass of whiskey to Christy’s mouth as he drinks it from a straw. Narrative closure, the happy ending, is achieved in My Left Foot through Brown getting the nurse to 'go out' with him; it is followed by a screen credit that tells us that they subsequently marry. As one of the functions of a dominant ideology is to make things appear happier than they are, Mary’s becoming the / a Mother astutely fulfils such an ideological role smoothly and coherently. The nuances and alienating elements (including sexual) of Christy and Mary’s relationship are completely erased and or naturalised through a combination of Mother references and the absence of sexual ones.
In My Left Foot the role of the Mother is clearly defined in, and around, domesticity. Whereas the Father's occupation as a bricklayer is mentioned and rarely seen, the Mother's role is clearly and repeatedly shown. The way in which the film plays to the ideology of the family and patriarchy is in giving the work of the mother (Bernardes, 1985) as her role (i.e., it is not work that requires pay, or work that creates alienation from the self). The Father's work is never seen (except in building Brown an extension - when it is an act of 'love' rather than work) yet we know it to make him unhappy; the Mother, on the other hand, is shown working in her role for the family and happy with it. The film thus makes familial life for the Mother happy, and her work part of her role and, as such, natural to it (Kaplan, 1992), despite the fact that it is oppressive and very hard work indeed, even in the reality of the film. Consequently, the supportive work of the wife / mother to capitalism (the status quo) is mystified: the father would be unable (or less able) to give his all to his employer if he had to do the work the mother has to do as well as his own but this element is ignored. A mother's work is mystified and naturalised in ideology to obscure its function (Kaplan, 1992) in relation to the father and capitalism (Close, 1985). My Left Foot does not explicitly show this, but it is possible to de-construct the film to reveal how it acts as part of the current discourse that invokes and supports family ideology; primarily through having the Mother fulfil a 'role' while the Father 'works'.
When the female Doctor first comes to help Brown we are given numerous reaction shots of the Mother looking on and being disturbed by the Doctor's relationship with Brown, especially as Brown falls in love with her. The Mother, Mrs Brown, is shown to be jealous but accepts that she has to give Brown over to medicalisation (the Doctor and nurse Mary) for his own benefit. She thereby makes the self-sacrificial nature of motherhood apparent, ensuring that Mrs Brown's sole purpose in life is shown as that of a central family cog existing for the whole family and not any specific individual within it. As has been stated above, the Mother saves to buy Brown a wheelchair, something that only she could have thought of and done, with the agreement of the family, except for the Father. Also (particularly in the scene of the Father's isolation against a black background and the Mother's framing by her family), the Mother's actions are clearly highlighted as necessary and positive in the realm, and preservation, of the family and its members as a unit. It is interesting to note that The Elephant Man achieves a similar beatification of the disabled character’s mother, achieved by having Merrick's mother inform us at the close of that film that 'nothing will die' and that Merrick will be looked after (if not become normal) in the after-life because she is already there, ‘there’ being - one is led to presume – heaven. Merrick’s mother speaks as Merrick's spirit (a 'puff' of pure white steam!) enters the galaxy, signifying her eternal care for Merrick and placing her as Merrick's 'mother of love' for eternity. The ideal mother, so The Elephant Man would have us believe, looks after her children even after both their deaths.
In My Left Foot the Mother’s looking after her children is seen as natural. Yet they also need a moral upbringing, in order to conform to social norms. Just as Mrs Merrick had taught her son to read and recite the Bible, for instance, Mrs Brown provides a moral up-bringing for Brown by taking him to church in order to pray for souls on All Souls Night - you pray to transmute a lost soul from purgatory to heaven. Mrs Brown teaches Christy all about it. In this scene we see Mrs Brown as concerned for all souls, not just her own and the family's; as such, she is shown as a truly moral person. This interpretation had already been indicated when she had earlier brought the priest around to give Brown a talk and told Brown that God is watching him and that it is a sin to steal (i.e., coal). During the church scene Mrs Brown leans down to Brown in his wooden cart, in a medium close-up, and tells him that they should: 'say some prayers for all the poor souls in purgatory'. What is significant about this shot is the method of lighting. Mrs Brown is placed in front of a wall that has light reflected upon it to appear as a semicircle of light around her, similar to representations of saintly light - halos - in religious iconography and icons. That she is telling Brown of lost souls is no coincidence: she is clearly as concerned for her family's spiritual and moral well-being as for its physical state. The family's decency, signified by the saintly light around Mrs Brown, is made equally apparent in the brothers' and sisters' attitudes towards Brown. For example, his family integrate Brown as much as they can in their lives, taking him along to their games (Brown is the goalkeeper and penalty taker in the scene of his brothers playing football) and liaisons with other people (predominantly girls). Even the Father integrates Brown, to some extent, by taking him to the pub. Brown's problem (and Merrick's in The Elephant Man) is not that he lives in an unfair social setting, but that 'outsiders' are not nice to them. The problem is, consequently, solved in My Left Foot not by changing the unfair social structure but by having various individuals (mainly one's family) being nice to the disabled. Christy’s brothers' consideration for him, by including him in their lives, clearly manifests that the Mother has succeeded in bringing her children up decently. The perspective is reinforced by the fact that there are never any significant squabbles between siblings, and in the scene where Brown has been rejected by a girl he took a fancy to, his brothers are indignant on Brown's behalf.
A brawl which Brown initiates at his Father's wake would seem to contradict the view of the Brown family as decent, but the brawl is shown (rather bizarrely) as being part of what being a 'real' man is. Part of the Father's character, his masculinity, is his ability to drink and be violent; violence is justified if it is activated in defence of the family; thus making controlled male violence part of what a 'real' man is. The mother is not upset at the brawl because, it seems, boys will be boys; equally, drinking is accepted implicitly by its masculine character and its ability to release aggression in a 'safe' male setting outside the family. Such a reading conforms to the view that the Father (the man) is allowed his violence / drink as compensation for being the breadwinner and repository of physical power and discipline within the family (Segal, 1983; Bernardes, 1985; Atwood, 1997). Assertions of male aggression as natural produce a tension within the masculine (Hark, 1993) – a problematic tension when it becomes excessive and therefore abnormal - and My Left Foot tries to resolve this tension by giving examples of Mr Brown as both a good Father and a bad one. The ambiguity within the film, and its supporting ideology, lies in its not being crystal clear as to what it advocates and what it abhors, but the result is the same as if it had been crystal clear – the mystification of the process of various ideologies at work.
This apparent contradiction of the Father’s being both the good and the bad father figure does not mean that the film escapes effective ideological closure. On the contrary, it provides a more effective closure because the film offers two contrasting scenarios in which the logical results of each scenario (behaviour pattern) are played out to their good and bad results. By creating the two contrasting and seemingly contradictory patterns of the good Father and the bad Father, the film facilitates a more effective ideological closure by answering the question it poses of what constitutes a good or bad father. The issues raised by the film as a social issue drama with simplistic melodramatic overtones are provided with a degree of closure which reduce the film to a sentimentalised core that lacks any real critique of its subject.
One example of this gratuitous sentimentality is found in the scene in which Brown attempts suicide. It is prefaced with a point-of-view shot of his parents as symbolic of what he will not be (parents) and as such he (and the film) feels this renders him a nothing. This feeling he acknowledges himself when in his suicide note he states that: '[A]ll is nothing, therefore nothing must end'. Brown, just prior to writing his note, looks out of his upstairs bedroom window and sees his Mother calling his sister in for supper in a medium long shot from a high angle (a point-of-view shot from where Brown is). The Mother is standing in the street alone, when the Father cycles up to, and around, her. The Father then stops in front of his wife, and gently fondles his wife's face. Then there is a cut to a distraught Christy Brown, a low angle medium close-up; with tears in his eyes Brown then proceeds to attempt suicide. Christy Brown's view is that off authority and power (above), which as an artist / writer and intellectual (both to and within the family), it is a position he holds within the family, if interpreted conventionally. The shots are to be read conventionally at first, but then inverted to be read as emphasising how intellectualism - Brown - is never equal to being a Mother and a Father. Significantly, Brown then decides he is nothing because, no matter how great a painter or writer or intellectual he becomes he will not be a father (with the validity of such a view narratively left unchallenged). Consequently, the film sees being a ‘Mother’ and a ‘Father’ (within a family) as the zenith of human existence. If Brown's decision to attempt suicide had been seen as wrong, or based upon unsound judgement, such a reading could not be made. The suicide attempt is not seen as wrong because the primary ideological – disabling - thrust of the film is that Brown is a second class citizen (as a cripple, and intellectual, who will not have a family) in the film and in general. The overall narrative thrust of My Left Footreinforces rather than undermines my interpretation.
Brown is not the only character represented as pathetic due to the inability for whatever reason to have a family. Doctor Cole's proposed marriage is shown as liable to be un-fulfilling as - like Stephanie in Duet For One - the doctor is very 'unwomanly' (not feminine in the conventional - cinematic - sense) and a career woman rather than ‘Mother’ figure. The doctor's appearance and general physical attitude combine to make her a very unnatural woman and, as such, in the logic of My Left Foot, unfulfilled. As the Doctor is an older, aggressive career woman with a short haircut (these two-dimensional characterisations are as simplistic as they sound) one is left to presume she will not have children; thus, it is the assumption that she will not have a family that characterises her as unfulfilled. It is implied that Brown cannot have a child rather than that he chooses not to, represented by the complete lack of physical contact between him and Mary except in the 'care' mode. For example, Brown and Mary do not kiss. That Brown will not have children is implied as being due to his continued dependence and infantilism and his eventually marrying his Mother (Mary the nurse being clearly paralleled to, and as, his Mother). The Doctor, it could be argued, is actually shown as even more 'pitiable' than Brown because her childlessness is a personal choice, one that goes against the ideology of motherhood, femininity and the family as inculcated in My Left Foot in its mise en scène and narrative logic.
The ambiguous and contradictory aspects of motherhood and the family make it difficult to differentiate between the duty, the role and the place of a mother. Consequently, ideology and society tend to merge them all into one another (Rojek et al, 1988), and My Left Foot is no different – as demonstrated above in my discussion of Mrs Brown and Christy and their relationship to one another and Mr Brown. Merging the contradictions and ambiguities into one natural role-model is what (family) ideology does as it hides and smoothes over the cracks that appear and reveal oppression (Kaplan, 199); equally, My Left Foot achieves this by reducing complex social relations to simplistic ideals. Thus, in the last scene in this chapter to be described from My Left Foot, this thesis will show how all the characters and duties in an ideal family are revealed and collectively shown as an ideal, good, role model. This is a factor which makes the film undeniably pro-family and ideologically complicit in, rather than critical of, its affirmation of such an ideology as natural and good, thus proper for the care and maintenance of disabled people, especially of those assumed to be congenitally abnormal (an assessment of cerebral palsy which is, more often than not, inaccurate).
After Brown's suicide attempt he is suffering from depression, refusing to get up from his bed, when his Mother comes in and sits on the foot of it. It is a deep-focus, medium close-up shot of the Mother, to the right of the frame, with Brown lying in bed with his back to us stretching to the left of the frame. It is a continuous shot that lasts for just over fifty seconds - very long in comparison to most Classic Hollywood Narrative’s (Bordwell and Thompson, 1993) film shot lengths - and serves to emphasise the Mother's anguish. The Mother, looking off screen left and not at Brown to her right, tells Brown: '[Y]ou're getting more like your Father every day, all hard on the outside and putty on the inside. It's in here (clenching a fist to her heart) that battles are won, not in the pub pretending to be a big fellow in front of the lads. Right! If you're giving up, I haven't'. At which point, she stands up. The next shot is of her outside, starting to build Brown an extension. In the fifty-second shot the Mother is seen as the heart of the family (holding her fist there to emphasise the point); her role is understood as being to ensure that the struggle of life goes on in the name of love and the family. For My Left Foot the Mother must encourage her children and ensure that they are loved, to the extent of standing behind them with words and deeds. After all, in the film’s logic, it is the role and duty of the Mother to ensure that no one gives up, thus Mrs Brown is encouraging, self-sacrificing, and making sure that what needs to be done is in fact done. Under no circumstances would the Father have been able to take part in such an emotionally interactive scene: the Father is the practical one, the Mother is the emotional 'loving' one.
Once the Mother is outside and digging in the yard, Brown comes down and tells her to stop it; the Mother is very out of breath and clearly not capable of building an extension for Brown on her own. She states to Brown: '[Y]ou'll have me heart Christy Brown; sometimes I think you are my heart. Look if I could give you my legs I'd gladly take yours. What's wrong with you, Christy?' Brown, rightly castigated, replies: 'I'm sorry, Ma'. The Mother's speech is the most significant shot in the film, let alone the scene, when it shows us Mrs Brown as the ideal and saintly Mother. As she speaks of willingly sacrificing her legs we see her in a medium close-up, from a low angle - her authority and status re-affirmed. Even more important than the dialogue are the lighting and background. This is the only obvious use of back-lighting in the film which, combined with conventional front lighting, clearly defines her against the background with an aura of sparkle, but this is not all. The background to the shot is a pitch-black wall – unnaturally so, in comparison with immediately prior shots of her in the garden digging against a fairly well-lit greyish wall. The effect, when combined with all the other elements of mise en scène (including the nature of the dialogue), replicates traditional religious iconography even more clearly than the similar instance already described. The scene again indicates that this is surely a woman on the way to becoming a saint before our very eyes, saintly in motherhood.
If the Mother had simply started the extension and failed, the extent of her effort would be wasted. However, the Father and his adult children subsequently arrive home and take over, completing the extension (it appears) in the same afternoon. Thus, the Mother has acted as the catalyst in bringing the family together in an act of love and co-operation for the agreed benefit of a needy member of it: Christy Brown. At the end of the scene Mrs Brown tells Brown that that is the closest Mr Brown will ever come to telling him (Brown) that he loves him, thus the Father is reinforced as the non-verbal and emotionally repressed patriarch who 'loves' his family really. The Father dies in the next scene; the narrative seems to act as a warning to all of us good / bad fathers and sons to make their peace before it is too late. It is not only the Father but also the brothers who build the extension, an act which verifies my reading that men (Fathers and brothers) are constructed as practical and, as such, capable of showing love only in acts of practicality and integration. In totality we are, unquestioningly, shown the epitome of simplistic familial ideology in My Left Foot.
The Mother's speech 'I'd gladly give you my legs' points again to the mother as being self-sacrificial in the name of the family, especially the children, with her saintly appearance making her not just a good Mother but an ideal one. A similar use of religious iconography occurs repeatedly in The Elephant Man in the character of Merrick's mother, who is dead; she is seen and idolised over and over again through the manner and style of the photographs that Merrick has of her. Concomitantly, in My Left Foot, the Father and brothers are represented as ideal by their subsequent actions in building the extension, especially when taking into consideration their inclusion of Brown in their lives outside the family.
The Mother and the family achieve their reward from Brown (and society) by their presence at the 'benefit for the cripples' which surrounds the film (the flashbacks of Brown's story are from the nurse Mary reading his book, My Left Foot at the benefit). This is indicated by the fact that when Brown arrives at the benefit, to applause, everybody applauds and stands except his Mother; she remains seated (not applauding) as if the applause were for her also. Equally, when Brown is given a bouquet of flowers he presents them to his Mother, who is then persuaded to join him on stage. The film is thus as much about Mrs Brown as the ideal Mother (both generally and as the Mother of a cripple) as it is about Brown as the 'ideal cripple'. The Mother receives further reward from Brown when he gives her his fee from his first piece of writing, an amount of money that is more than his Father earned in a year: eight hundred pounds.
The context in which disability and parenthood intertwine is in the model of these parents as ideals; the film implies that a child with a disability requires ideal parents in order to fulfil his / her maximum capability. Social Services, or extra financial assistance, or even social change, are irrelevant in this film. Although the Mother must be prepared to include medical personnel and expertise, the traditional family is seen as what is best for all, especially cripples. Elizabeth Wilson, in Women and the Welfare State (1977), shows how the politics of welfarism are firmly rooted in sexist ideas which, in turn, provide a state framework to ensure - and positively encourage - that women remain in the home. For Wilson the selective availability and manipulation of income support and service provision (especially in relation to disability) combine to perpetuate female incarceration in the myth of motherhood and its social consequences (i.e., dependence on the male breadwinner). Mrs Brown is given only nominal help from the medical establishment - the Father states early on that his son will 'go in coffin' before becoming a burden on the state – so the family in My Left Foot establishes the familial home (or death) as the ideal place for the upbringing of a disabled child. By suggesting that the family be the main responsible agency for an impaired child the film ignores the social responsibility of society collectively to provide help and assistance as it does for all its able-bodied members. Similarly, as the film also colludes with traditional family ideology, it ensures that it is the Mother who becomes the sole guardian and bearer of a 'burden', a burden from which capitalism and society, and consequently the film, abdicates all responsibility. As Voysey has stated: 'the family cannot just be seen as a biological unit because it is "reinforced" by institutions which are "indubitably" social ones' (cited in Close and Collins, 1985, p.41).
In My Left Foot the family is constructed within the ideology of the ideal traditional family (as examined above) and, more significantly, the film seems to embrace the ideology whole-heartedly as an ideal for all families to replicate in order to be rewarding, satisfying and biologically natural. It fails to be critical or aware of any familial situation that is influenced externally – such as by disablement (Oliver, 1990; Oliver, 1996; Oliver and Barnes, 1998) - instead choosing to see all problems as internal or individual family problems; problems that only the family, or individuals within them, can resolve through co-operation and effort. Conversely, bad family members are those who fail to put the family first; consider the family at all times. If they did so, it would ensure conformity and a rigid code of behaviour; a normality rooted in the ideals of bourgeois morality. If we take into account what Bernardes (1985, p.209) states when he argues that 'family ideology is the main stimuli to ensure "conformity"', then My Left Foot can be seen as advocating (and by extension, revealing) such a rigid code of behaviour (i.e., conformity to the norm). Equally, the film is advocating familial ideology without asking the simplest of questions of it. Thus, the abject poverty that was a large part of the Brown's family life is romanticised out of all proportion by being made irrelevant, as in the examples of the sudden building of the extension. The extent of the family, if portrayed realistically, could have been read as a plea for Malthusian control (large families breed poverty and congenital deformity). However, the simplistic and romanticised filmic representation of the Brown family manages to appeal to the audience as an example of a living paradigm of bourgeois family ideals for its time and acts as an example to us all, now. The film’s makers are naively arguing that in the face of unemployment and family breakdowns family 'love' will bring you through. My Left Foot is a film that so distorts the realities of the family (let alone a family with a disabled member) that it invalidates itself (as a bio-pic or ‘realistic’ representation of any kind) under a cloud of romanticised family tragedy and inspiration. Thus, total ideological mystification of familial ideology occurs at the expense of real understanding, comprehension or revelation in a drama that sentimentalises (Cherniavsky, 1995) rather than explores or reveals any significant truth about its subjects, let alone disability or impairment.
The reverse of the same ideological coin propagated by My Left Foot posits the argument that if the family were not there (or are not an ideal version) the impaired person's life would, simply put, not be worth living. My Left Foot is not in isolation in doing what it does; other films do the same, for example: Afraid of the Dark; Almost an Angel; Antonia’s Line (Marleen Gorris, Holland, 1995); Dance Me To My Song; The Eighth Day; Live Flesh; Mandy; Rain Man (Barry Levinson, US, 1988); and many others throughout the history of cinema. This alternative perspective permeates The Elephant Man by having Merrick choose suicide as his best possible course due to his not having a 'real' mother but only a surrogate father, Dr Treves, in her place.
The films now to be discussed use the absence or dysfunction of the family as a valid reason to prefer death to life with impairments and without a family. For example, in Whose Life Is It Anyway? Ken Harrison's desire for suicide is diegetically supported by the absence of a family. Although almost all other characters have no direct family mentioned within the film, their presence is implied in other ways: for example, orderlies are never seen with their families yet they do go 'home', and two of them are having a romantic liaison - the precursor to 'home' and 'family'. Significantly, there are two scenes in the film that mention the family in relation to Ken Harrison.
The first reference is to Ken's inability to have a family, soon after he becomes a quadriplegic. Ken's girlfriend, Patty, visits him regularly, visits that are beginning emotionally to torture him once he realises that he will not be able to be what he was in the past: i.e., normal. Ken tells Patty: 'I know you love me, Patty, but if you don't want to torture me you'll go, now. Now'. The scene is a series of shot / reverse shots in medium close-up: Ken is lying in bed whilst Patty is, to reinforce their difference, standing against a window. The setting is significant in that the window is being lashed by rain as thunder and lightening rage outside; concurrently, violins increase in volume and intensity upon the sound track to make the intensity, and validation, of the scene explicit both by the mise en scène and the non-diegetic manipulations. There is a cut to a close-up of Ken lying on his side in bed, motionless, tears running down his cheeks (as he is a quadriplegic he can neither move nor wipe his tears away; a nurse does this for him prior to the end of the scene). Equally, the bed Ken is in has cot-sides - emphasising his now childlike dependence which is assumed to be asexual and his imprisonment, by their name and function - cot-sides which are up. Ken says to Patty: 'I just want you to find a new life. Find a man, get married and have babies'. At this point Patty leaves and, we are later told, tries to do just that. The whole scene manages, stylistically and philosophically, to invalidate Ken's life as a quadriplegic; epitomised by his own (in his own eyes) inability to be a man - get an erection and ejaculate - and have children. Thus, marriage is, as such, not an issue.
The above scene invalidates Ken's life by his not being able to have that which he desperately needs for his sense of self, a family of his own. The second reference to the family invalidates Ken's life by his not being a member of one. Ken's lawyer will take Ken on as a client only if a psychiatrist, nominated by the lawyer, determines that Ken is of sound mind, and it is during the visit of this psychiatrist that the second reference to the family is made. The psychiatrist asks Ken: 'What about your parents, are they living?' The psychiatrist is shot in close-up and fairly well lit. Ken replies: 'No. No, I have no living relatives. Which isn't really bad considering birthdays and Christmas, you know, presents. After all, how many hats can you wear?' In contrast to the lighting of and the focus on the psychiatrist, Ken is in medium shot sitting up in the bed, cot-sides up; the lighting (supposedly from the sunshine outside) is much lower key, with the shadow of the slats of Venetian blinds crossing Ken's whole body and immediate space. Such a mise en scène, especially the slat shadows, place Ken further into a dark, imprisoned world. It thereby validates his desire for real death as a positive choice / option over the apparent 'living death' that he is inhabiting in this room and scene. Interestingly, Ken’s comment is given as sufficient in itself to justify this interpretation even without the added nuances of mise en scène. What he actually states is even more damning than it first appears; that Ken offers the example of 'hats' seems quite bizarre except that he must mean it as a metaphor (as it is often accepted) for social roles (Goffman, 1991). The implication is that Ken will now only have one hat, whereas normal people have a multiplicity of them. The hats, in turn, signify the essence of life in that the hats could also be taken as roles he will never fulfil. The film soon demonstrates, also, that Ken is so physically incapable that he could not go shopping and buy the ‘presents’ he mentions for his family – were there indeed anyone for whom to buy them. It could be argued that an extra nuance of Ken’s negation as a disabled person is the implication that, although we see him being freely pushed in his wheelchair around the hospital, the same would not be possible outside it.
The psychiatrist, after a couple of other apparently pointless questions, leaves. Significantly, Ken is also seen by the hospital psychiatrist, who is ordered to find him 'clinically depressed and commit him', yet it is Ken’s lawyer's psychiatrist who appears at the court hearing. The hearing is held in the hospital – to emphasise further Ken's dependence on medical assistance - to decide whether to let Ken choose to die. Significantly, it is this psychiatrist's only other appearance in the film and he states that Ken is rational and able to make up his own mind; a 'diagnosis' seemingly based on the single statement from Ken that he has no family. The social issue of providing Independent Living facilities for disabled people is avoided (and to some extent crushed) by individualising Ken's problems whilst providing almost no alternatives for, or to, him. Whose Life Is It Anyway? places disability as an individual or family problem in order to excuse society - the state - from providing assistance to the individual in any form whatsoever. For this film, if disabled people have families their life might be worth living only within them, and if they have no family, it is society's responsibility to provide them with the freedom to kill themselves and not provide alternative independent support. Consequently, if a disabled person wants to live independently whilst they have a family, they are prevented from doing so by the scant provision that is available from the welfare sector of society (Barnes, 1990). This is due to welfare provision’s being predominantly directed - via social policy - to those who remain in the family unit (cf. Wilson, 1977; Barrett, 1980). Thus, the family (i.e., usually wife / mother and also husband) act as cheap care whilst appearing as right and natural. At the same time capitalism, and society, ensure that (usually) women stay at home, thus saving the state from having to take a greater degree of social responsibility or, for example, extend Independent Living schemes (for further elaboration on these points see Stone, 1984, and Oliver and Barnes, 1998).
Duet For One follows a similar line of representation to that of Whose Life Is It Anyway? Stephanie sees death as a positive alternative to a miserable life (with MS) predominantly because she has no 'real' family. She has no children and has concentrated upon her career; she is, as such, seen as an un-feminine woman and / or incapable of being a Mother. Various scenes throughout the film lead us to conclude that her marriage, to David, was one of mutual career self-help. David helped her performance whilst she placed him on the world stage via the conducting of her concerts; love has had little to do with it, as she is shown to know that he has affairs. More significantly, when David embarks on an affair with his secretary, Penny, he tells Stephanie that he has: 'never felt like this before'; clearly signifying 'love' rather than self-interest. We are left in no doubt about the whole relationship because just prior to David's affirmation of love for his secretary he and Stephanie have just had a heated argument in which they state how each has used the other as regards their respective careers. The way in which Stephanie is invalidated is in the development of David's relationship with Penny: Penny gives up everything to help David compose (which is what he really wanted to do, not conduct) and immediately becomes pregnant. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Penny and David almost immediately become a family once David leaves Stephanie to marry Penny – Penny then becomes pregnant.
In one of the first scenes of Duet For One Stephanie visits a psychiatrist, Dr Feldman, in which she tells him that she and David have not had children: '[W]e never had time'. The narrative reality and attitude are consequently seen as part of Stephanie’s selfish attitude towards her career and life in general. The inferiority of such an attitude is signified by the representation of her first meeting with Dr Feldman. The scene is shot in a conventional shot / reverse shot mise en scène with the Doctor shot from a low angle and Stephanie a high angle, combined with positive lighting and background for the Doctor and vice versa for Stephanie. Soon after she has told the Doctor that she has no children, she tells him of how she lost her first violin in the Blitz. The bomb that destroyed her violin also killed her mother, Stephanie continues: 'I cried more about the violin than I did about her, can you believe that?' Before and after this statement Stephanie and the Doctor are shot in medium close-up (shot / reverse shots) but, as Stephanie tells us about how she loved her violin more than her mother, we move to a close-up of Stephanie. A change in the camera shots is set up to emphasise Stephanie’s emotional hardness to intensify visually the moment and the nature of her comments. It is this hardness, familylessness, which the film seems to give us as the problem Stephanie has to solve for herself; she does this by letting David leave her for his secretary, thus consequently becoming a 'real' family man. Being a man is to be a Father for all the films discussed here; not being a father (or mother), by implication, renders an individual less than human and, as such, abnormal.
Although issues of the familial aspect are dealt with more directly in Duet For One, they are more subtly invoked than in the other films studied here. In our first glimpse of Stephanie's 'home' immediately after she has seen the psychiatrist, in an extreme long shot, we are shown Stephanie's house and home as a large, almost gothic, foreboding place; dark in its private grounds, wealth and opulence. On moving into the house we cut to a wall that is covered with photographs and in a fairly long montage sequence we are given extreme close-ups of the photographs. Whereas conventionally in a 'home' filled with an aura of a family we would expect family photographs - graduations, birthdays etc. – in this montage sequence we are shown career highlights: Stephanie with the Queen; Stravinsky; Charlton Heston (an American icon of right-wing family morality); Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson; and in concert. Whilst the camera is on the photographs a particularly moving Bach violin sonata is playing (soon revealed as Stephanie and her protégé practising). The whole feel of the montage places Stephanie (and David) in a realm of wandering musicians, rootless and obsessive in their careers, not a family but a business partnership. The film’s emphasis is initially on success and power outside the context of family. The film later goes on to show how the family - parenthood and female domesticity – is validated as the only possible form of female happiness through David's consequent success (as a composer) and happiness at becoming a father and 'real' husband; all of which is paralleled with Stephanie's subsequent misery as a familyless 'invalid', a woman who has not fulfilled society’s role for her.
At the very end of the film there is a birthday party for Stephanie, a party to which Stephanie sends all the others (her psychiatrist, David and the pregnant Penny) whilst she watches it from outside. Stephanie is seen looking from outside - in a cold, bleak, autumnal landscape - whilst the others are all happily having fun, enjoying life in a warm and cosy living room. The party is a virtual parallel to Stephanie's birthday party the year before, shown at the beginning of the film. The party has the same guests except for the addition of the psychiatrist. The first party shows Stephanie's friends as her surrogate family, one filled with tension and deceits - as when almost all refuse to acknowledge Stephanie's illness, for example. As a surrogate family and not a 'real' family they are shown to be inadequate with long-term non-participation and death seen as preferable, a situation similarly depicted in The Elephant Man in Merrick's relationship to Treves. At the first party there is between the protégé Constantine and Penny a conversation around the ability to have an orgasm from playing a double bass. It is a conversation that leads to tension and anxiety (and an element of distastefulness): emotions not traditionally seen as elements of a happy family party. At the second (final) party David and Penny are soon to be parents and Constantine is married. Stephanie's agent (a grandmother-type figure) is there, as she was at the first. The contrast between the parties is striking; yet all that is different is that it now consists of two 'real' families in the shape of David and Penny, and Constantine and his wife. The second party is more like what would be considered (or hoped of) a family party: there is dancing and singing amongst them all and even the maid joins in the dancing and singing, in contrast to the first party the year before. Significantly, Stephanie, at this point, wanders off to sit under a tree far away, alone; her inability to have, or become part of, a family apparently justifies her separation and isolation. The psychiatrist fails to notice Stephanie's absence (even he is having fun). It is apparent that Stephanie has convinced him that her choice to distance herself from her friends and surrogate family is a rational one. Stephanie's (negative) view of herself (and her life) is allowed to be seen as right. Her decisions and awareness of MS are seen as correct both medically and morally, as is her decision as a disabled person to choose death. The representation of life within the family as happy and leading to success or, outside one, as miserable and closed is reinforced categorically and quite unambiguously.
However, family life in this film contains an element usually seen as disruptive in society, and that is male infidelity. Another interesting instance of family life, this time working-class, is also included in Duet For One with the introduction of 'the totter' - a 'rag and bone' man - Harry; a man clearly signified as working-class by his thick-set build and physical as well as his mental attitude, dialect, language, and profession. Here, as John Hill (1986) states (of social problem films) class is sketched in so as to be irrelevant, giving male infidelity as part of the human condition rather than social pressure or construction. Duet For One does the same as a piece of mainstream entertainment. After all, both Harry and David (men in general, the film would have us believe) are adulterers, and they are clearly of different classes. Stephanie soon embarks on an affair with Harry and during one bedroom scene asks him to stay for supper, to which he replies: 'can't, wife and kid waiting'. In a close-up of Stephanie expressing sexual pleasure at what Harry is doing (off screen) to her, Stephanie replies: '[A] real family man'. The irony of this is to reveal Harry's hypocrisy and the opposite of what a 'real' family man is. The subsequent scene of Harry and Stephanie, at a Working Men's Club - where Harry has bought Stephanie to meet his wife - Harry is on stage singing whilst his wife tells Stephanie that he is a wonderful husband and family man. Harry’s wife tells Stephanie that Harry has ‘always been good to me, he never even raises his voice. I always tell him that he should have gone in for one of the medical professions'. She continues to state that Harry has been good to their daughter (who has a 'hole in the heart'). Stephanie at this point realises that Harry's wife knows about their affair from her expression, Harry is indeed revealed as a good family man, with the blame for Harry's apparent hypocrisy being placed on Stephanie and not Harry. The wife is visibly upset - quivering lip and tear filled eyes - and when Stephanie asks her if she minds her liaison with Harry, the wife replies: '[O]h No, I'm not that sort', Stephanie feels so guilty about intruding upon this family that she then gives Harry a £250,000 violin - a very high cost indeed to pay for their 'sins'.
The meeting with Harry's wife undermines the irony of Stephanie's earlier assertion that he is a 'real family man' since the meeting reveals that Harry truly is a 'real family man'; he is someone who protects and provides for his wife the best he can by providing her with a child (however damaged – à la My Left Foot). The ultimate signifier as to Harry's family commitment is apparent in the song that he is singing during the meeting between his wife and Stephanie: The Green, Green Grass of Home. It is Stephanie's sexuality that threatens Harry's family, not his infidelity. Responsibility for sexual morality in Duet for One is displaced from the male predator (Harry) and placed onto the aberrant sexual Other of Stephanie (the impaired). Stephanie’s sexuality can be classified as excessive and aberrant as it is leading nowhere and to nothing further in her relationship with Harry, whilst also transgressing class boundaries. Consequently, the disabled Stephanie's sexual excess is seen as much of a threat to other families as disability is. Significantly then, it is disabled female sexual excess, not that of the normalmale, that is deemed Other.
The Raging Moon uses the family in its narrative in a similar manner as does Duet For One: life without a family is reinforced as a life not worth living and with class used in such a manner that class becomes irrelevant. The Raging Moon is, on one level, incoherent in what it thinks of the family: on one level it seems to be pointing out how insufficient it is, whilst on another it seems to invalidate all forms of existence outside the family. Bruce is clearly from a working-class family whilst Jill is clearly middle-class. That Bruce's family live in a block of flats and that the Father watches the television - football - whilst the Mother prepares pie and chips for the family is a clear indication of their class. Jill's parents, on the other hand, have an enormous garden - they had intended to have a swimming pool built - and her Father is a medical doctor. Each set of parents' clothes, manner of dress, speech and attitude all combine to make the class difference clear, yet each set of parents / families is unable to cope with their son or daughter's impairments. Bruce's parents are unable even to communicate with him. They resort to sending their other son to tell Bruce that they cannot have him home because the parental home is inaccessible, impractical and that the parents' ages prevent them from physically caring for him. This situation could have led to some serious questioning of available housing and care assistance in an Independent Living situation, yet the film's logic is justified by Jill's parents’ equal inability to have her home either. Her parents' (and others / own) attitudes make it unbearable for her. Money and class have no bearing on impairment and disability in these two films, yet money and class are the biggest disability that most people with impairments face in their everyday lives (Berthoud et al, 1993; Barnes, 1991).
Jill's parents' home is accessible - by the implication that, when she is at home, she can reach the bedroom and garden without apparent difficulties - yet she prefers to be in the Home as: 'they leave you alone [and] let you be what you are'. Our first sight of Jill at home, being pushed around their garden by her Father, is initially shot as if she is imprisoned behind high walls: a mise en scène which reinforces her feelings of imprisonment and that her home and family have become intolerable for her.
Consequently, Jill calls off her engagement to Jeffrey, an ordinary man - because he is 'frightened' of her impairment and all that it entails - and goes back to the Home. The last shot we see of Jill with her Mother is when the Mother walks in on Jill and her now ex-fiancé, thinks they were kissing, and tells Jill that she 'looks so pretty'. The shot is a zoom-in from the three of them in a medium long shot to a close-up of just the Mother’s and Jill's faces. The Mother has a forced smile whilst tears stream down Jill's. The image slowly fades to a shot of a pond - a reference to Alice, in Wonderland, drowning in her own tears (Carroll, 1995) - and then Jill back at the Home. The mise en scène of the shot reinforces the deterioration of Jill's relationship with her parents; especially Jill's position as her Mother's daughter, a position traditionally perceived as a strong basis for a familial relationship. The zoom-in, by excluding the fiancé to concentrate on Jill's face (exhibiting a look of inevitable despair) and her Mother's (forced happiness as it is a daughter whom she knows to be unmarriageable, and dependent), pushes the point beyond misinterpretation. The fade provides a suitable metaphor for Jill's relationship with her parents: Jill leaves home and never returns. The only other time we see Jill's parents is after she has died. The representation implies that once Jill is not going to marry Jeffrey she is never going to marry a normal person, and as such, will be dependent upon her parents or a Home for the rest of her life (a reality which comes to pass).
Significantly, Bruce never sees his family again once he has moved into the Home, a fact which reinforces my interpretation of Jill and her family as inadvertently representing disablist ideology (that disability cannot be coped with within a modern family because of what it is pathologically). Equally, The Raging Moon reinforces other pertinent issues such as access, relationships, class and social processes as irrelevant. Although this is seemingly a contradiction in comparison with the ideological thrust of other disability films that identify the mother figure as perfectly capable of absorbing disability into the family (i.e., My Left Foot, as explained earlier), this is in fact not the case. The ideal mother, or perfect mother, is clearly (even within My Left Foot) atavistic; after all My Left Foot is clearly a period piece. Combined with this, inconsistencies do abound in representations of disability, and Otherness overall, a fact which highlights the confusion of solutions to disability in culture in general. Confusion and inconsistency in interpretation are indicative of a culture searching for coherence in the face of an ever-changing world in which what constitutes disability (Otherness), and who are the disabled (Other), as changing as are its politics. The nature of what disablement is has radically changed over the past thirty years (Oliver and Barnes, 1998; Drake, 1999), the period in which the films in this study were made, and still it is in transition (as addressed in the introduction and literature review, Chapter One). It is equally significant to note that The Raging Moon does not seem too keen on working-class family culture per se: at Bruce's brother's wedding members of the working-class (Bruce’s family and friends) are shown to be lustful, negative, alcoholic, ill-mannered and ill-educated. The writer / director’s future role as writer / director of Conservative Party Political Broadcasts and friend of Margaret Thatcher (Forbes, 1992) although originally from an East Ham working-class family is in itself revealing. Significantly, given the film’s negative portrayal of working-class life and attitudes, the wedding party is the place where Bruce acquires his polio-like impairments. The same attitude to the working-class is characteristic of The Elephant Man, where Treves's family ideology - considerate, caring and liberal - is clearly advocated above all working-class attempts at integration: Mrs Treves, for example, has Merrick to tea whilst the masses - quite literally the great unwashed in this film - exploit him at every opportunity. The negativity with which the working-class is represented in both films clearly points to a one-sided view of which class is better equipped to deal with the deformed. For example, although the attempt by Jill's family to integrate her fails, it is seen as preferable, by far, to the seediness of Bruce's working-class family. The implied immorality of Bruce's brother getting his wife pregnant just to obtain a council house is so unsubtle that it is more of a polemical judgement than it is narratively relevant. Again, a social comment on how difficult it is for working-class couples (let alone disabled people) to obtain housing is turned into an attack on the working-class for its perceived attitudes and actions. Similarly, earlier on in The Raging Moon, when Bruce was normal and had told Harold that sex was 'not much without love', sex for a council house takes on a whole new meaning of negativity. Bruce's condemnation of functional sex (in criticising his brother's impending fatherhood) is significant because he himself had lived - when normal - specifically with gratuitous sex as his goal in life. Such a view brings us full circle back to good sex as being specifically for the creation of 'loving families', à la My Left Foot, Duet For One, Whose Life Is It Anyway?, 'Joe Egg' and The Elephant Man.
The inability to have sex and thus have children - a family - as apparent in all the films so far discussed is particularly so in The Raging Moon. In the final scene to be discussed in depth in this chapter, Jill and Bruce intend to get married and are being philosophical about it because Jill is, at this point, sitting up in bed ill (she dies the next day). Bruce is talking to Jill in her (sick) room in the Home when a sequence of scenes occur whilst the dialogue is, asynchronically, from their conversation in Jill's room, shot and synched as an image dialogue overlap. Bruce states: '[I]t's terrible to think really, isn't it. It's terrible to think that you [Jill and Bruce] can never have children. I never really thought about it before. It hurts really to think about it. Do you like children?' Jill answers: 'never wanted to really have children until this happened [her engagement to Bruce] and then it suddenly seemed terribly important'. Bruce concludes:
[T]hey say people like us can't have children. You know I've been reading it up in these medical books and it's possible, I'm sure it is. I suppose you were a good child were you? I was a little bugger, I remember they used to take me to Blackpool, I used to lift up the skirts of old ladies on the prom. I enjoyed that.
The words alone are proof enough that their intended marriage cannot be deemed or considered a 'real' family because of a lack of children. When the words are combined with the fact that Jill dies the next day and that Bruce is already seen to be a dreamer, we are left with no alternative but to see that Bruce's hopes of being able to have a child are as deluded as they are pathetic. The reference by Bruce to his childhood (and by implication, Jill's) also implies that both their families were relatively happy families prior to the intrusion of impairment, thereby reinforcing the film's message of impairment as their (and all) families’ nemesis.
The concurrent images, dialogue, and violin music on the sound-track, act as further indicators that Bruce and Jill are deluded and pathetic in their romance, it being a mere parody of a 'real' family. When Bruce states how 'terrible' it is not to be able to have children we see Bruce looking out of a high, upstairs room, window. There is a cut to a point-of-view shot from where he is, a view of numerous children happily playing in the gardens beneath him. They are distant (in an extreme long shot) and, as such, out of reach for Bruce; his position places him in lonely isolation from what 'real' family life is: the ability to have children. The children playing in the grounds of the Home is quite inexplicable as no one seems to have visitors (who could bring children) and children are never before or after seen at the Home. A virtual replica of this scene, in mise en scène and its visual message, is in Bette Davis' 1939 movie Dark Victory (Edmund Golding, US, 1939). In the final scene of Dark Victory Davis realises she is about to die and not have children, while in the distance (equally bizarrely) are a group of children playing; a mise en scène constructed to make the image of childlessness sadder for that very fact. The next scene, of The Raging Moon, still voiced over by Jill and Bruce's conversation, is of Bruce in bed. Bruce takes two photographs off his bedside cabinet and puts them under the covers with him and, as one of the photographs is of Jill as a child, it implies that she will have to be his child as much as his wife. This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the marriage will be a sexless (penetrativeless) one - as Bruce himself tells us earlier in the narrative in his quote from Deuteronomy when he tells us that: "[H]e whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord". That's me ladies and gentleman [ ... ]'. The musical accompaniment heightens the emotive content as the strings tug away at our hearts in a plethora of pitifully pathetic scenes which combine to invalidate all that Jill and Bruce have together - an unavoidable conclusion considering that she then dies.
Consequently, we can see that The Raging Moon uses Jill and Bruce to criticise their families for not being ideal whilst advocating their parents' heterosexual model for life. As Bruce and Jill's only apparent hope of happiness was to live as a husband and wife (as their parents do), and that this is ridiculed as impossible (Jill dies) or delusory, this thesis’s reading is fully justified. Bruce and Jill's failure to be a couple is pertinent to the film’s inability to decide coherently what it is attempting to portray, unless it is read as reinforcing normal marriage / family ideology by the film's mimicry of it. Thus, the film's closure, i.e., Jill's death, acts to validate normal family life above all others by closing off the possibility of an alternative way of life. The finale acts to reinforce the standard ideological view of the family because it is not capable of offering (let alone condoning) any alternatives. In this film, to be happy one must be heterosexually married, sexually active and capable of producing children (preferably not disabled one’s either). Having the conclusion that it effects, The Raging Moon erases any potential ambiguity that it might have implied; the death of Jill is the end of any possible or potential threat to normal and traditional family ideology.
The male care assistant / wheelchair fixer in The Raging Moon, on being asked if his ideal Home for 'cripples' will let people sleep together, clearly states that people of opposite sexes will be able to. There is no need to stipulate 'opposite sex' in the conversation except to point out that that will be all that is allowed. The idea of two cripples sleeping together obviously seemed risqué enough; homosexual cripples (in their absence) are totally beyond the pale (Dyer, 1993, p.16). Equally, homosexual cripples are redundant if one is specifically reinforcing traditional family ideology through a comparison with heterosexual norms. One of the few examples of a gay disabled character, made in the same year as The Raging Moon, was in the purely exploitative and sensationalist film Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (Otto Preminger, US, 1970), where homosexuality was just another element of the underside of American society. The delusory idea of a 'crippled family' works, in The Raging Moon, as a reinforcement of the able-bodied norm by its failure, and it is constructed as a failure due to its not being a normal family. The success of the film for a normal audience is its reinforcement of normality by the failure of cripples who are trying to be normal. The inclusion of homosexuality would both undermine and cloud, and raise a degree of ambiguity in, the issue and ideology being confronted and advocated: normality.
In conclusion, I would argue that the films discussed use disability to validate traditional family ideology by having their central characters' tears, sadness and tragedy initiated and determined by either their inability to be a normal member of a family or by their inability to create their own normal family. Death is seen as preferable for the disabled characters because of their inability to have, or be in, a family in My Left Foot, The Elephant Man, Duet For One and Whose Life Is It Anyway? The same narrative construction is true of impairment in films, not looked at in this thesis, such as The Big Lebowski (Joel Cohen, US, 1998), Bitter Moon (Roman Polanski, GB, 1992), Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Tiers, Denmark, 1996), The Eighth Day, Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton, US, 1996) and many others. The bizarre twist to The Raging Moon is to have death as a result of attempting to create a family - be it a family only of husband and wife. Such a narrative sequence is a far more questionable from a Social Model perspective in its ideology in comparison to the other films discussed because it implies that people with impairments are doomed before they have even attempted anything usually attributed to normal individuals. Alongside these points, Mothers are seen as the ideal carers (as in The Elephant Man and My Left Foot) with Fathers represented as somewhat ineffectual. Equally, institutional care or death is seen as preferable when the parents - or siblings - are either non-existent or unable to cope with the disabled person (as in The Raging Moon, The Elephant Man, Duet For One and, especially, Whose Life Is It Anyway?). By concentrating on the traditional family model, however ideologically determined, the films studied reinforce the same ideology by the failure or non-inclusion of any other family (non-family) models. The disabled are used to prop up normality, as well as the normality and hegemony of the familial unit, at the expense of their own validity or identity; disability is thus created out of impairment whilst at the same time making it seem natural and pathological. Such representations are relatively typical and scenarios of a similar type about impairment exist in films such as Broken Silence (Caroline Link, Germany, 1996), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Robert Ellis Miller, US, 1968), Hearts of Fire (Jeff Bleckner, US, 1992), The Horse Whisperer, The Switch, The Walking Stick (Eric Trill, GB, 1970) and many, many others.