Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Best Picture

During the course of researching my next article for RampUp I was once again reminded of the film that I believe gives the most accurate representation of what it is like to be confined to a wheelchair. Coming Home is not a film you hear too much about these days, which is quite extraordinary given that it won 3 of the big 6 Oscars in 1978. Released in the period of Vietnam War revisionism that dominated the era, it often takes a back seat to the more widely regarded The Deer Hunter, which covers similar ground. However, Coming Home is the one film I would recommend to anyone who wants to gain first hand knowledge of the experiences of having a physical disability. 

The plot is thus:
Sally Bender (Jane Fonda) is the wife of a Captain in the United States Marine Corps (Bruce Dern). He is sent over to Vietnam, and Sally is alone. With nothing else to do, she decides to volunteer at a local veteran's hospital, where she meets Luke (Jon Voight), who went to high school with Sally. Luke was wounded and is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. When Sally begins to fall in love with Luke, she has to make a crucial decision about her life.
Given that Luke lost his mobility during the conflict, his experience is obviously different to my own, but I identify and relate to it so much. There is the undeniable anger that Luke feels when he realises he is unable to perform the most basic tasks. The scenes with Luke in the hospital expressing his frustration at the inability of the nurses to take care of him are harrowing, because they are real. Too fucking real. I have been in that exact place emotionally. During the entire first act Luke is a vulgar and harsh character, rude to everyone he encounters.

The crucial scene in the movie is the sex scene between Luke and Sally. At first Sally is timid, doubting that Luke is ready or willing to satisfy her. Then passion takes over and both of them are completely naked in both the physical and metaphorical senses. Despite being married, Sally experiences her first ever orgasm as Luke goes down on her. The camera lingers on Sally's face at just the exact moment where you can see the relief, excitement, joy, wonder and shock of those few seconds. From that shot onwards both characters are liberated in every single way.

Voight and Fonda both won acting Oscars for their portrayals. Both performances are brave, risky and uncompromising in a way that never occurs anymore. When was the last time you saw a person with a disability having sex in a mainstream movie? As respected critic Roger Ebert notes, the development of both characters in the film is astonishing.
Coming Home is uncompromising in its treatment of Luke and his fellow paraplegics, and if that weren't so the opening sequences of the film wouldn't affect us so deeply. Luke literally runs into Sally on their first meeting, and his urine bag spills on the floor between them. That's the sort of embarrassment he has to learn to live with -- and she too, if she is serious about being a volunteer.

She is, she finds. Luke in the early days is a raging troublemaker, and the hospital staff often finds it simpler just to tranquilize him with medication. Zombies are hardly any bother at all. Sally tries to talk to Luke, gets to know him, invites him for dinner. He begins to focus his anger away from himself and toward the war; he grows calmer, regains maturity. One day, softly, he tells her: "You know there's not an hour goes by that I don't think of making love with you."

They do eventually make love, confronting his handicap in a scene of great tenderness, beauty, and tact. It is the first time Sally has been unfaithful. But it isn't really an affair; she remains loyal to her husband, and both she and Luke know their relationship will have to end when her husband returns home. He does, too soon, having accidentally wounded himself, and discovers from Army Intelligence what his wife has been up to.... Coming Home is great filmmaking and great acting.

And it is also greatly daring, since it confronts the relationship between Fonda and Voight with unusual frankness -- and with emotional tenderness and subtlety that is, if anything, even harder to portray.
The frankness, tenderness and subtlety that Ebert speaks of is unheard of when portraying characters with a disability on screen. Luke is neither a victim nor a 'supercrip'. He is a deeply flawed human being, capable of being an interloper that breaks down a marriage, an angry soul embittered by what the world has done to him, and yet capable of giving and receiving the purest forms of love: because he craves affection as we all do.

Most people will tell you that Coming Home is an anti war film. It is so much more. It is the best 'pro crip' film there is. This crip is not flawless or helpless, he is real in every sense. That is the reason you must see Coming Home

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