Crutch


Art knows no disability.

(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Bill Shannon, Cornelius Henke III, Randy Shannon, Bill Clark, Earl Cole, Ben Shannon, Bethany Jones, Gavin Evans, Jeff Chavez, David Foster, Emmanuel Vega, Jackson Clark, Frosty Freeze, Rennie Harris, Richie Tempo, Claire Cunningham, Leah Lazarondo, Roseanne Garland-Thompson, Susan Cummings. Directed by Sachi Cunningham and Chandler Evans

Bill Shannon may not necessarily be a household name, unless your household is into breakdancing and performance art. He was born wth a condition that led to bone necrosis (the loss of blood flow leading to the death of the actual bone cells) in his hip, leading to chronic pain and an inability to walk without aid.

Before his diagnosis he loved skateboarding, trampolining, running…the things kids love to do, he was just always in motion. It was a devastating blow to discover that his motion would be limited. Hip replacement surgery was offered as an alternative, but he turned it down; the issue was that he would spend a lifetime enduring a succession of follow-up surgeries when his replacements wore out and eventually, the hip replacements would no longer be effective. He chose to learn to endure the pain.

One thing that helped was the use of rocker crutches. Rather than coming to points, they have rounded “rocking chair” type bottoms that allow greater mobility. They didn’t just allow him to move; they allowed him to dance.

Being a hip-hop fan from an early age, he found that he could really bust some moves with his crutches. At first, his ambition out-stripped his ability and he endured a lot of falls, but Shannon was never afraid of falling. He would just get up and try the move again, over and over again, until he got it right. Soon, he was winning breakdancing competitions in his native Pittsburgh, and then in Chicago.

He also began to see himself differently, not just as someone overcoming a disability, but as an artist and an innovator. He helped popularize breakdancing to the point where it was given shows in legitimate theaters, and incorporated them into performance art pieces. He gt a call from Cirque du Soleil to choreograph a routine for some of their performers to use crutches as he did. This led to an epiphany; was he being given credit for being an artist, or was there an asterisk implied: artist with disability. He had always been bothered by people staring at him on the streets, and really hated feeling pity from the able-bodied, especially in light of him being more dexterous and graceful than most people who don’t have crutches.

He began to experiment, watching how people reacted to him. He would fall on purpose and see how people responded. He took to filming encounters with hidden cameras and showing the results at some of his shows; he built an entire show around it, putting the audience on a bus and staging the Borat-like sequence for their entertainment, I guess you’d say.

In some ways, this last section lies at the heart of Crutch. This isn’t just a feel-good documentary about a man overcoming obstacles to be successful in a way nobody ever had been before, given his circumstances. There is a saying that art knows no disability, which is a fancy way of saying that genius is genius, regardless of who is blessed by it and in that respect, Shannon is a hands-down genius as both choreographer and performer. Hands down, no asterisk.

But I have to admit that I was a bit uncomfortable with the staged “weight of empathy” sequences. Full disclosure; I’m also disabled and get around with the use of a cane. Due to a neurological disorder, I’m prone to falling and from time to time have taken spills in public. When good Samaritans try to help me to my feet (I’m a big fella and it’s not an easy task), I am grateful. If people stare at me, I really don’t notice. It wouldn’t bother me if they did, but apparently it bothers Shannon. I guess I can see his point; the staring is a way of objectifying; ask a pretty woman if she enjoys being stared at sometime and see what answer you get.

He sees empathy and the instinct to render aid as a form of being patronizing, and at times seems to ridicule the gesture. Now, I’m willing to admit that my discomfort with the sequence may be me reacting to the concept that I might be patronizing in those instincts, but I think there’s also a good chance that Shannon just has a chip on his shoulder, one that has enabled him to accomplish what he has. Most good artists have an edge to them, after all.

It is a good thing when a film forces us to examine ourselves and our own attitudes. We can’t learn and grow if our preconceptions aren’t challenged once in a while, so kudos to Cunningham, Evans and Shannon for doing just that. And while it seems that Shannon doesn’t necessarily want to be praised for turning a disability into something different, his disability is nevertheless a part of him, like it or not, and the fact that he has accomplished so much with so much adversity in his way is to be commended and admired. His art speaks for itself, as art does.

REASONS TO SEE: You can’t help but admire a man who lives life on his own terms.
REASONS TO AVOID: The third act may be unpleasant for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shannon was diagnosed at a young age with Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease, a lack of blood flow to the head of the femur which causes the bone tissue to die. It affects about one in 1,200 children.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shameless: The Art of Disability
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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13 Minutes

Blood Stripe


Kate Nowlin canoe, can you?

(2016) Drama (Tandem Pictures) Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Rene Auberjonois, Ashlie Atkinson, Tom Lipinski, Taliesin Cox, Ken Marks, Greta Oglesby, Sunde Auberjonois, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Johnson, Louis Jenkins, Reed Sigmund, Emily Zimmer, David Clay, Scotty Nelson, Benson Ramsey, Kristen Gregerson. Directed by Remy Auberjonois

 

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to slog on with no end in sight, Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers have seized upon the return home of combat veterans as a theme with varying degrees of quality. In all honesty, the question I ask myself when viewing one of these is “What, if anything, new does this film bring to the subject?”

A nameless Marine, referred to in the credits only as Our Sergeant (Nowlin) – I suppose in an attempt to make her something of an everywoman – returns home to Northern Minnesota. Picked up by an in-law from the airport, she receives a somewhat muted welcome home from her husband Rusty (Sullivan). It is clear from the get-go that she has got a lot of issues, from an overreaction when she gets an overenthusiastic hug from a drunken male guest at her welcome home party to her constant insistence that she’s fine when she clearly isn’t, she eats little, sleeps hardly at all and drinks heavily. She runs obsessively and mows her lawn in the middle of the night. When Rusty hesitantly asks if she shouldn’t see someone, she says tersely “There’s a wait.” As it turns out, there’s a 129 day wait at the local VA, a situation which has fallen off the radar of late.

She acquires a job working on a highway repair crew but is given little to do. One fine day, she just seems to snap; she stares off into the distance while a co-worker talks to her, a haunted expression on her face and without a word turns and walks off the job, climbs into her husband’s truck and just drives away.

Where she winds up driving to is a summer camp that she attended as a kid. It’s off-season now and the tranquil waters of the lake shore are quiet, the sounds of children vanished with the heat of the summer. The caretaker, Dot (Schwimmer) has a load of work to do and only an aging handyman with a bad back to help her. She takes on the Marine giving her room and board in exchange for her efforts lugging and lifting. When Dot compliments her on her work ethic, the Sergeant says “Nobody ever drowned from sweat,” attributing the quote to a drill sergeant.

The hard work and lovely scenery seems to bring some solace to the tortured soul of the Sergeant and when a small church group led by elderly pastor Art (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father) she finds further solace with one of the younger parishioners (Lipinski) who acts as their fishing guide. He also has a troubled past of his own.

Still, she can’t outrun her demons; a pair of hunters who blare Metallica from their car stereo everywhere they go trigger a defensive reaction in her and she ends up reconnoitering their home to see what they might be up to. Attempts at intimacy with the fisherman end up disastrously and calls to her frantic husband range from cold to crisis. Can this woman ever find peace?

The movie, co-written by Remy Auberjonois and Nowlin (who are husband and wife in real life), doesn’t give us a lot of background into Our Sergeant which is both maddening and admirable. We don’t know what trauma caused her breakdown and there aren’t the obligatory flashbacks to show us definitively what put her into that state. We surmise that she was either tortured or sexually assaulted (or both) from the scars on her back and her general reaction to men but there are no absolute answers which lead us to make up our own narrative as to her past.

Nowlin is a real talent and she captures the bearing and posture of a Marine minus the swagger. We can absolutely believe she’s been to war and acquitted herself with honor. We can also believe that she’s been through hell and is haunted by demons that we civilians can’t even imagine. Her expression during the breakdown scenes tell us everything we need to know.

Cinematographer Radium Cheung also acquits himself well, giving us some beautiful vistas of the northern Minnesota lake country as well as some interesting shots during the final third of the movie that help us see inside the protagonist’s head. This is a lovely movie to see visually.

The subplot about the Metallica boys seemed unnecessary and contrived; the writers had already established that Our Sergeant had a touch of paranoia about her. It seems to inject elements of a thriller into what was already a fine drama; they should have left it with the drama which seemed to be much more in their wheelhouse.

The character of Our Sergeant is central to the film in any case and she’s a fascinating if enigmatic character indeed. Schwimmer and the elder Auberjonois both deliver solid supporting performances as does Lipinski even though the romantic chemistry seems a bit forced and again feels like it was a tangent that the filmmakers should have avoided. What we’re more interested in is Nowlin’s character and whenever the focus came off of her the movie suffered.

This was an award-winning entry at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and only last month did it get a brief theatrical release. It will likely show up on some streaming service or another at some point; it is worth seeking out when it does because movies like this one which fly even a little bit out of the box should always be supported and in any case there is enough quality here to recommend it.

REASONS TO GO: There is some lovely cinematography. Nowlin does a bang-up job.
REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure the metal-head hunters’ subplot was absolutely necessary. The romance doesn’t work very well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, some violence, disturbing adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blood Stripe refers to the red stripe on the trouser leg of the dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lucky Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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All Eyez on Me