I watched the movie Home of the Brave (2006) (summary in German / English) and still feel nauseous and wretched from that. That movie hit too close to home. That is because Jessica Biel really nailed it. It was not just good. It was so good I almost puked.
And that is relevant, because the portrayal of (possibly faked or real) arm amputees in movies matters.
Even more so because it seems like she just takes a (part of a) 100 minute walk through some of the more uncomfortable if not painful aspects of (also) my life, she manages to plug in some of the real monsters that populate(d) my daily roller coaster of my life, switch them on, wiggle them a bit - and after that, and in all beauty and elegance, she manages to walk out of the movie and into her own perfect actress world. There, she als is married to Justin Timberlake.
She even said in an interview that "it is work, you get there, you get emotional, you do your thing, you have got to let go and move on to the next scene".
She must be an acting machine, managing that dive-in and dive-out with real elegance. Leaving everyone else trying to get some fresh air and wonder why some buttons of their jacket still remain stuck in the button holes - despite even having a prosthetic arm. Great acting, absolutely great work - but, phew. What is going on with her.
But I anticipate too much, too early. Let me write in temporal sequence.
In that movie, Biel plays Vanessa Price. Vanessa gets injured in Iraq, loses her right arm below the elbow and the story then shows how she deals with some situations as a recently amputated right below elbow amputee who happened to also have lost her dominant hand. Wait, she lost what? Screw it. I knew why I felt this concerns me too.
Get it here:
[Images all Copyright (C) MGM United States]
In one scene, Vanessa Price sits on the bed and tries to unbutton her jacket. Her disappointment, sadness and resignation is palpable. She struggles, she just struggles with the jacket, sure, but with lots of other things as well.
Indeed I still struggle, particularly with small buttons at the collar of my shirts. Frustration can definitely boil very high there. Then I may start to sweat from exertion to get the necessary postural control. Things can be hard, definitely. Buttons, one handedly, are a huge thing to start such a movie drama with, though. Maybe buttons and these thin silver chains a guy like me sometimes wears around his neck.
And well yes, with all the dissimulation everyone does, life missing a right hand contains the close adjacency of extreme loss of a identifying part of yourself with all consequences to life, social and practical, emotional and rational, immediately next to an everyday life where nothing at all earth shattering ever happened and where people tell you to "just" move on. That defines a mine field of tensions that I still find very hard to walk at times. It does take a lot of time and practice to get used to it. Vanessa sitting there with her jacket, fighting buttons. Fuck it, I knew then, early into the movie, that they nailed it - and I knew I had to watch this one through. I started to feel nauseous and as I type this now, I still do. I feel wretched and nauseous. The movie brings back those times in an extremely emphatic manner.
Obviously, real life drama does not continue like that.
What is bad is getting used to the first moments of this. Nowadays I just tootle around until miraculously or through sheer persistence my buttons open or close. There really is no big drama because I know it is hard, and if there is an emergency for any reason I just rip it off and fix it or get a new one, simple as that. I simply insist and play with situations until things work out or not, or I plough right through it, whatever feels right. The emotional downfall is largely - not completely but for the most part - gone.
Vanessa drops a box containing some stuff that she later wants to place into the trunk of her car. She really looks like she needs some more practice with the prosthetic. She also looks like she hates being treated like a cripple, like a lesser valued person, like someone that needs help and support all the time.
In the movie, a fellow teacher then helps her get the stuff off the ground but it is not a good moment for her as not only is she hurt, confused and angry at the accident - she appears to be far more hurt by not being treated as capable. She refuses all that the guy offers help, going for a drink, all of that.
I am the exact same.
Being offered help in exactly these moments is awkward as it is the one thing you'd desperately want and hate at the same time. This constitutes a hard dilemma. Only in this movie did I, for the first time ever, learn that non-disabled people can understand these dilemmas to a degree they can even reproduce it.
To overcome these problems, I needed to start to step back and consider the overall situation against my own strength and weaknesses. Now I pull up the car in front of the house. I activate the warning blinking lights. I open the trunk. I do one thing after the other. There are no tricks. Just step by step planning and careful carrying out of all things related to transport. Obviously I crashed boxes, food items, I splashed milk cartons, shattered cups and plates, dropped soft drinks, shopping bags, supermarket items, I dropped hot dogs, I deeply scratched and severely banged my stump to the point of nausea and dizziness with pain setting in only half a day later or so. Mostly, no one offered help but instead people stared with eyes wide open. Paralyzed to even offer some joke or statement of comfort. These are the situations when hell almost kisses earth and you stand there, right there. And no way out. So I started to develop strategies to avoid that by all means. I go out of my way to avoid these moments.
To me, this is emotionally extremely adequate nerve wrecking movie watching. I hope and I also fear that this movie will show more about the kind of prison that my societal and emotional responses lock me in.
I feel shocked others manage to so precisely reproduce what I thought were unique experiences of amputee life. Turns out that after all, situations and societies are very similar. Responses to visible disability seem a lot more stereotypical now that I (as a Swiss) see this raptor-class get-in-and-out-of-situations US-actress without disability nail the emotional aspects of right below elbow amputee life. With the dominant right hand gone one also lives life with a remaining clumsy left hand. That can't be easy. And, well, turns out it isn't.
Also with this subject of lifting and carrying stuff and the offering of help, life goes on. In the meantime I - and I alone - moved our three to four person office - including heavy furniture, boxes with printed matter, several workstations and computers - alone and (literally) single handedly. I manage to transport boxes, I manage to not let stuff drop too far, and I can manage without additional damage (considering that all moves are potentially lossy). I walk up to the supermarket register and move and pack my stuff quickly and swiftly and without any drama - and people don't offer help and the regulars don't stare too much either.
With that comes great sense of achievement, and I shall say that these aspects are also a real fact of my life.
She sits at the doctor and reports pain, all the time. The doctor obviously does not get it. The doctors tells her discomfort is normal - and Vanessa states she is having constant pain. The doctor recommends some recreational fishing add-on to her prosthetic. Obviously Vanessa wants to simply use her hand (the absent one) to express frustration. She then suggest a prosthetic to show her middle finger. She is offered (more) medication but refuses.
Man, can frustration build up. I never knew it could build up so much and so permanently until I started to use prosthetic arms that constantly failed and until I started to get phoney excuses. One risks to become bitter and angry.
Doctors may not understand but there is a point where I neither want more appointments nor any medication. There comes that point where all support systems disable me, steal my time and attention, cannot provide fixes anyway and may make things even worse. There comes that time when any solution that keeps my doctor or prosthetists appointments low is great.
How funny there is a mild bit of satire here - the "fishing add-on" for the prosthetic arm "costs 21'000 dollars" (or thereabouts). TRS sells these. Indeed I once wanted a TRS Adult Gripper, made from the same company - and Bob Radocy pointed me to Centri Sweden, they referred me to Frey Orthopaedie Switzerland, all in an attempt to avoid me direct ordering from TRS. Swiss law explicitly allows me to directly order from TRS in the United States of America and if they don't sell, ship and deliver I can get them fined rather heavily for that. The TRS Adult Gripper costs around 2'000 USD if you buy it through official channels. That is a device where there are absolutely no Youtube videos on how to use it because it is rather obscure. All Youtube videos of real prosthetic arm usage are related to voluntary opening (VO) devices. Why are there absolutely no instructions, classes, tips and tricks? Why are people on American amputee meetings either wearing standard Hosmer VO hooks, or no prostheses at all? Why is TRS not selling their stuff like hot cakes? Fishing bit, 21'000 USD - great movie, thanks guys, I did get a chuckle out of that.
And so, I did all I could do to deal with stump pain and phantom pain without medication. I did craniosacral therapy. That was good. I did Tai Chi. Super. I went for body therapy, learning to refocus stump pain, phantom pain and what it means to me. That was a very important lesson for me to learn. I started to do more recreational swimming. Overall, dealing with pains has become a lot easier.
Not because it is cool in any way but because being dependent on drugs, on side effects, on stuff that still does not really remedy the problems, is the last thing I'd ever wanted. Because really and at one point in time, there is pride. Pride to overcome and to walk alone, to stand tall alone and that means to accept and deal with limitations the hard way. I decided to do that a while back and it is sometimes far from easy. But it makes me proud, at least periodically. And I would not swap these moments for anything despite suffering in between. But it means to overcome hardship through a few bad jokes. And this movie catches also that dilemma extremely well.
Working with persistent pain levels (that are nowhere near the pain I had before the amputation, but still), these become an everyday reality. They become part of a fabric that makes every day different or same. They weave into all perceptions. I cannot even say for any given moment how pain levels were, at least for the most part. I learned to not keep track too much. Too many gadgets for the prosthetic arm really suck. They are not what I want to live, to express.
Vanessa is then met by her former partner outside the hospital. It is obvious he does not at all comprehend the depth and amount of turmoil that tears her up. She thus tells him the relationship is over. He answers with some rough short comments. She cries.
This one goes extremely deep and I love how the movie does neither offer too much text nor too many other clues. This scene is offered as ice cold as it feels in real life. Blam, there you have it. The non-disabled partner has selfish requests and then rude comments. He reduces her problems to her hand and to her rejection.
Those are moments when I feel how much I may live on a different planet than many non-disabled (or differently disabled) folks. Some people simply don't get it. They dont understand when I am playing cool, they dont see what is hard, what is not hard but comes easy, and what can never ever be good again. There is a lot more than just absent anatomy. And it is a lot to deal with. Which is why my T-shirt slogan "it only looks like that" is so extremely bitter, funny, superficial and deep at the same time.
Essentially though, this movie moment is also about emotional blindness. People with some forms of mental illness may not be able to comprehend complex if not even simple emotional situations and particularly with loss of an upper extremity, all rules are off. There is no rule book to look up appropriate feelings any more and if you cannot generate these feeling yourself you will find no supplement anywhere. Formal dinners are to arm amputation - in terms of emotions and emotional requirements - like ice skating competitions to playing freestyle Neverball.
And then I am simply not able to offer the amount of energy necessary to comfort people that don't get it, particularly in private. I do not always manage to afford the energy required to keep a permanent subtitle running to explain each and every feeling that occurs. That is not feasible. Then I lock up, I twist situations, I content-wise might start towards another direction before taking an urgent sharp turn to my own way out that will leave others without clue.
As much as it may hurt (and it does hurt on occasion) some situations with other people are not there for me to suffer and to bear. And I cringe and I suffer but I then reject these folks. WIth just as little comment as Vanessa offers in this very well shot scene I take my way out and not just that, I also make sure I stay out.
I am not sure but I don't think one should prepare for such situations too much. They just happen. They hurt. But they go over. Then that is that.
Vanessa then gets in between a fight of two of her pupils. At the school where she is teaching. She falls or gets knocked over. The other teacher guy (who tried to help her before) again tries to help her up. But she rejects that. She then is seen in the bathroom, prosthesis off, apparently no visible injury but she seems to be in a lot of pain.
It might just seem to the average movie watcher that Vanessa is just sensitive or dramatizing.
But she is not. Pain particularly during the first year after amputation may be absolutely extreme. Even the slightest trauma on my stump would hurt a lot - to a degree I never had pain before. Co-contractions of muscles on both sides of the stump at once would cause a deep ripping pain with a reverb.
Once I banged my stump into a pool line during lap swimming. Immediately, stump pain and phantom pain fired off at once, I almost drowned from being blinded and gasping from pain.
Mostly, bangs almost killed me pain-wise but there are minor or even no visible injuries at all.
So there is this discrepancy, just as in the movie, between a minor looking trauma, an intact looking stump and severe pain.
These experiences were so extreme I stopped even considering any sports that could make me fall bicycle, inline skating, ice skating, all banned.
To this day I am very reluctant with these even though I slowly manage to bang my stump and it ends up actually not being such an overly painful experience.
Painful enough, though, is painful enough. Dealing with daily phantom pains doesn't have me crying for a lot more anyway.
I love how this movie does not explain what happens to the unprepared watcher. But this again is a key experience, and I get phantom pains just by watching.
Nowadays, drama of banging my stump is mostly contained. I learned to avoid the biggest risks. I still injure myself - recently I caught very painful frostbite after skiing for two days. Just like the Vanessa character, I wait until the worst pain subsides, I rub the stump, I take care of circulation issues, I look after possibly damaged or injured skin and then life goes on, with more pain maybe - but what do you want.
Counter-strategies include the construction of a heating system for my prosthetic arm, identification of helpful arm sleeves and socks, identification of skin problem causes and so on.
These are all rather cold blooded matter of factual problem solving approaches, not too suitable for movie drama. But at first, whowhowheewa - banging a stump is one of the really bad things to do.
Vanessa sits on the couch with that guy who also teaches at that school. She tells him her story after he asks what happened to the hand. She closes saying she was lucky after all. Then he tells her he figured she was beautiful which she finds hard to believe. A love scene unravels that contains some difficulties not hard to figure out. They joke about it.
Very sympathetic scene. Indeed I find it hard to believe someone truly might be attracted to me as a disabled person when at the same time there are too many other guys that offer practically the same to any female candidate partner around but have a complete set of paws. It really feels not real, not realistic. And then, things take an eternity to sink in. They sure dont work overnight. Definitely not then and there. After a few years of the weirdest encounters with women, trust takes a long while to build. With that, the movie concludes on a bright note.
I watched How to Train Your Dragon and loved the way disability is portrayed - matter of factual, not overly dramatizing.
But this movie is making me keel over. It definitely hits home, and it hits home very hard. Congratulations, Jessica Biel, for contributing your skills to this movie. It is a unique feeling to see this portrayed in such a way. I feel that amputee issues were taken extremely seriously and handled extremely well by Jessica Biel.
Obviously this is not just great acting, but it takes a person to actually hunt down these moments and understand them very well to be able to deliver these with so little apparent effort and so much accuracy. On the other hand, when I watched this, it was also a bit painful, while at the same time I felt that actress indeed showed a lot of respect for people that lost an upper limb. At the end of the day, she showed a whole lot of respect, with this piece of work that she did. And then she just dismisses that and walks out of that like others step out of a train.
We do wonder why though. I mean, arm amputees are a rare species.
Why pick us to pick on? Portraying a person suffering from multiple sclerosis, peripheral arterial atherosclerosis, or from stroke, post traumatic stress disorder or cancer is so much more important statistically. These illnesses abound.
So why does Jessica Biel play an arm amputee (when in fact they should have gotten a real amputee as actress or actor) and why does her husband, Justin Timberlake, makes special efforts to ridicule arm amputees (when in fact he should have not gotten his fingers into that)?
For her it is very easy to walk out of this intact and all - and for any amputee it is not possible to walk out intact. I would have loved to not see this raptor-type uber-actress to actually grab all the heart ripping moments to improve her own career though but it would have been really nice to see a real amputee actor or actress doing this. Personally I would have preferred that - even with at risk that an amputee might have performed the emotional scenes less dramatic, and maybe also gotten in some humor which also is a fact of life, also with a disability.
The blows to my stomach that Jessica Biel delivered with surgical precision are a technical master piece but cinema to me is more than getting surgically precise blows to my stomach. I want to cry a little, maybe, but I also want to be entertained and laugh and have a good time as well.
There also is an interview with Jessica Biel about this movie.
Take home message:
- A real amputee actress should have played this. With that, quite possibly, some of the extra dramatic stuff may have been played less dramatically, and more playfully or matter of factually. I would have preferred that.
- Seeing that a waltz-in-actress such as Jessica Biel with a husband that publicly ridicules amputees (Justin Timberlake) nail the drama of a recent right below elbow amputation in an emotionally dense and very well portraying realistic fashion also points to the fact that my experiences (and these of other arm amputees) may be the result of extremely stereotypical situations. In fact, this movie was one of these eye openers where I saw where we may be following the wrong type of lead, as a person with a handicap. Also, one moves through these phases as portrayed in this movie as, quite possibly, "initial" phases - and after that, those are past. But the coverage and the way it is carried out, acting wise, is great work.
- People think that movies are about the disguise, about the silicone, about the latex and artificial blood, when discussing amputees. Those are some people. I am interested in the social and emotional aspects. Also here.