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William Faulkner (#110 of 8)

Grappling with Intellectual Disability Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories

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Grappling with Intellectual Disability: Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories
Grappling with Intellectual Disability: Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories

Michael Bérubé’s The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read is that rare book that manages to speak to its specialized academic audience while imagining and addressing a much broader readership. Bérubé, who’s the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, has crafted an accessible, if still rigorous, study of the way fiction grapples with intellectual disability.

“Representations of disability are ubiquitous,” he states in his opening sentence, “far more prevalent and pervasive than (almost) anybody realizes.” Take Disney’s Dumbo: You maybe wouldn’t use the language of disability to describe the oversized ears of the titular elephant, but at the heart of the 1941 film is a message about overcoming—embracing even—one’s differences in order to succeed. By the end of Bérubé’s book, you’re likely to start spotting the way disability is often used as a trope in films as diverse as Minority Report, Total Recall, and Mad Max: Fury Road. But Bérubé wants to push us further than merely understanding the ubiquity of disability in pop culture. This is especially important as disability (both physical and intellectual) is often used as a metaphor or character trait in popular art, significant only in the way it teaches us something about a story or a character with rarely any nuance with regard to the disability itself.

Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Dreileben

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Dreileben</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Dreileben</em>

There’s been no worse trend in 21st-century cinema than the emergence of the water-cooler puzzle movie. Defined by the films of Christopher Nolan (ambiguous highbrow entertainments) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (sentimental works of art-house prestige), they exist to carry no meaning of their own, preferring to offer a string of possibilities up to the viewer as a flattery to her ability to figure out a meaningless problem or make meaningless connections. It would be a mistake to call these talking-point machines generous; as much as the franchise film, these are the apotheosis of film as product, as a child’s desire for a new toy has been replaced by an adult’s to confirm his own intelligence.

Happily, I can report that Dreileben, a triptych film made of parts by Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhausler, takes this fragmented approach and makes something genuinely worth being called Faulknerian with it. The result of a conversation among the three on the state of German cinema, the film sets off from a central event—the escape of a convicted murderer, Molesch (an alternately blank and delirious Stefan Kurt), while visiting the body of his dead foster mother at a nursing home—and tells three tenuously connected stories that in concert present a brutal vision of a world on a wire. Because each happens to run a feature-length 90 minutes, the three sections of Dreileben are being shown individually elsewhere, a regrettable decision given how thoroughly dependent on the direct mingling of divergent aesthetics and contradictory narrative facts the cumulative wallop of the film is.

Keep Up, or Get Out of the Way: An Interview with Film Critic Walter Chaw

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Keep Up, or Get Out of the Way: An Interview with Film Critic Walter Chaw
Keep Up, or Get Out of the Way: An Interview with Film Critic Walter Chaw

As newsprint-based dailies and weeklies get the squeeze in terms of word count and content, one increasingly has to look to the World Wide Web for no-holds barred criticism. If Film Freak Central film critic Walter Chaw feels uncomfortable with the “Web critic” label, it might be because the medium throws amateurs and professionals onto the same playing field, and studios and publicists fail to distinguish between the wheat and the chaff. But when you find an online critic with writing chops as strong as Chaw’s, you don’t want to keep him to yourself. Where many Internet-based reviewers mimic the acerbic aspects of Pauline Kael, Chaw takes his caustic, occasionally hostile wit so far that one sometimes wonders if the Paulettes might ask him to tone it down a little. Barbed language aside, though, Chaw’s approach owes less to the obvious film critic models than to satirist, science fiction author and cultural pundit Harlan Ellison, who famously said, “Not everyone is entitled to an opinion. They are only entitled to an informed opinion.”

In that spirit, Chaw often references artistic sources that predate cinema’s brief history. Praising Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator as an “ode to needing to make movies—and needing to watch them,” Chaw invoked William Blake’s “idea of gods created in the breast of man [being] transmuted into the cult of personality and the patina of nostalgia for the titans of the silver screen’s golden age. This is a shrine to individualism and a critique of the dreadful cost of individuality.” In his review of Harmony Korine’s second film, Chaw said that Puccini’s ’O Mio Babino Caro’ aria from ’Gianni Schicci,’ a plaintive appeal for the acceptance of a lover, finds itself scattered throughout ’julien donkey-boy’ to further underscore these themes of alienation, sexuality, and a frustrated desire for familial harmony.” Chaw clearly expects his readership to keep up or get out of the way.

He shows an affinity for art house fare, singing the praises of Claire Denis’s astonishing and frequently misunderstood masterpiece Trouble Every Day as “the most insightful film about sex and gender that has perhaps ever been made.” But he’s equally quick to assault the pretentiousness of Sundance favorites like Primer, writing, “I suspect that a lot of people are afraid to admit they don’t understand what’s happening in the film, which talks too much in too stultifying a fashion, obscuring its heart of glass with blizzards of expositive candy.” He is frequently accused, at least by those who write in to Film Freak Central, of being an elitist and a snob.

But those readers might be surprised learn how many mainstream Hollywood films Chaw has championed over the years. He has given four-star reviews to V For Vendetta, King Kong, and Spider-Man 2, which he said “takes chances with its story that lesser films would not, affirming, along with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that big budgets don’t just by the fact of them quash unique, distinctive, ambitious voices.”

Chaw rages against the Hollywood machine’s depictions of class, gender and race, puncturing political correctness, but assailing films that still think it’s okay to use xenophobic or chauvinistic stereotypes. His jihad against dumbed-down content is so wide-ranging that I’ve occasionally wondered if he needed to take a break. He’s incinerated movies that were paper-thin in the first place: Bringing Down the HouseThe Dukes of HazzardBulletproof MonkxXx: State of the UnionLast Holiday. Maybe he justifies his vitriol on the grounds that he watches this junk so we don’t have to.