My husband and I have a tradition: on Christmas day we go to the movies. This tradition is a preemptive gesture, a way to escape the anxiety that so often accompanies that Pavlovian phenomenon of crowding relatives into a room adorned with lights and red felt, the aroma of fresh pine boughs making us grin and blurt an impersonal “Merry Christmas” to siblings with whom we once shared a bathtub and pooped in. The surrealism is too much, honestly. Escape is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
This year we saw “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” a dizzying, Guy Ritchie-masculine superhero revision that employs slow-motion previews of Holmes’ fight strategies. He thinks through his moves and then perfectly executes them moments later, vanquishing his attackers. Oh, how that device resonated, imagining an action before my body attempts it. My mental previews mostly involve grabbing a bottle of prune juice from the refrigerator without dropping it. Slashing and gutting a Cossack, not so much, but the Girl Scout in me knows it’s always a good idea to be prepared. Downey's Holmes has a mind I ache for, reflexes I would kill for. His precision and reasoning are so hyper-attuned, they hobble him socially. I wish I had that problem.
My husband loves action films. I think they bring back his youth, a time when men push the limits of their endurance and strength. I enjoyed it, but my thoughts went back to a Christmas film I saw in 2009.
James Cameron’s “Avatar” is a Multiple Sclerosis patient’s greatest escape fantasy. I sat through it in tears, peering through 3-D glasses, sobbing about a thing that I’m convinced was lost on every other person in that theater: A paraplegic main character who temporarily, then permanently, escapes his broken body.
This point was not lost on James Cameron. I once heard him interviewed, and in the middle of that perfunctory press junket he suddenly blurted that he was surprised no one had mentioned the significance of having a disabled lead character. The interviewer did not respond to this, as though Cameron had suddenly lapsed into Russian. She waited a beat for him to finish his thought and then fall silent so she could pull him back to the special effects again, the problem of having to invent a new camera to shoot this kind of film. I saw a shadow of confusion, perhaps disappointment, on Cameron’s face as he relented and dutifully answered these questions. After that, I tried to watch every interview he gave during the film’s promotion, hoping that other interview would materialize, the one where he is encouraged to speak more about this character, about the disability angle. I never found one.
A disabled lead character is not new in Hollywood movies. Jon Voight in “Coming Home,” Tom Cruise in “Born on the Fourth of July,” it’s been done before. But not like this. These are stories about wounded war vets, their grief and anger and troubles assimilating back into an apathetic culture. They become activists/advocates and find love again. But they do not escape their bodies. These are stories of acceptance and consciousness-raising. The able-bodied audience feels good, relieved, in fact, about the endings of these stories. The wheelchair guy isn’t going to be miserable forever, he pulled himself up by his wheel spokes and got a girl.
The ending of “Avatar” makes the disabled audience feel good. Sully chooses life as a Na’vi avatar over one he already knows so well. His activism, his altruistic dedication to preserving a culture and its environment is a feature I consider to be a subplot to gratify able people. Somehow, it isn’t enough for him to choose life as an avatar just because it would make him happier. In the Hollywood mainstream storytelling ethos, cripples are too damn selfish if all they want out of life is a perfectly functioning body. They must also save the world, somebody’s world, it doesn’t matter whose, just so it isn’t all about self-gratification. An able-bodied moviegoer’s ultimate escape fantasy is all about the salvation of the world. They want somebody to fix it so they don’t have to. The disabled person just wants to walk again. But we cripples do have an advantage. We remember the time when we walked away after seeing a movie (without limping) and felt gratified by mere world redemption. I can't expect an able person to empathize with the mere act of breaking free from a shredded nervous system.
The most memorable part of “Avatar” occurred much sooner in the film. The first time Jake Sully enters his avatar body, he tries out his legs, quivering and falling like a newborn fawn. He crashes outside, walks, then runs. I am right with him, inside that body, feeling the joy. When he awakes in the pod and sits up, realizing his legs are once again useless, his reaction is spot on and my tears flow anew. It is an understated reaction, a quick glance at his legs and a subtle look that passes across his face. Only a disabled person would know how accurate, how convincing this is. I still wonder about the discussions Cameron and Worthington had about how to play this scene. They knew, I keep thinking, how did they know? It would have been so easy to lapse into sentimentality, overplay the grief and anger of having wakened from a dream in which the body has no affliction. I’ve had such dreams and awakenings; Sully’s reaction matched my own, nuance for nuance.
When I watch Robert Downey, Jr. move like a bionic Victorian comic book hero, when I thrill at Sam Worthington’s journey out of disability, I suppose one could say that Bobbie and Sam function as my avatars. For two hours, through them, I have been whole again.