Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 23, 2024 5:26 pm 
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Man with a movie camera

Director Reid Davenport shows us from first hand what it is like to take the BART system in the Bay Area as a person with cerebral palsy in a wheel chair. He narrates the film and shot it himself. He says he made several films before but didn't do the camera work as he does here. Those films showed what he looks like to the world. This time his purpose is to focus on what the world looks like to him. He captures the rhythms and clatter and beauty around him as he moves about.

Mark Zoller Seitz in his review suggests that in these moments Reid evokes early experimental and essay films like the 1929 Soviet Man With a Movie Camera , Stan Brakhage's experimental Super 8mm home movies or the more aftful work of Michael Mann, Terence Davies, orTerrence Malick.

Reid says the new camera allows him "to be more spontaneous and look for shapes and patterns and not worry about meanings and words."

Well, it doesn't quite turn out that way. Plenty of "meanings and words" break through. This still becomes a, if somewhat sketchy, picture of Reid's life. He lives in Oakland, California, where he can be an artist, which he says he has settled on after striking out at a series of other occupations. We don't learn altogether what all that means, but Oakland apparently is a place where it's relatively easy to get around. It has a friendly system of public transportation, particularly BART (one trip on a bus means an encounter with a driver who's annoyingly bossy), and there is a system of contiguous, even-leveled sidewalks.

Reid comes from Bethel, Connecticut, we learn, and goes back there several times, visiting with his loving mother, who wants nothing more than for hm to move back to the East Coast, and other family members. He says he sees Bethel as a "Purgatory" because it wants to be a suburb but isn't, quite. It seems like a bright, green, sunny place, and above all a place where loved ones are, which Oakland is not.

One thing we know: New York City isn't handicapped-friendly. Try taking the subway with a wheelchair, or going down a Manhattan sidewalk.*

While he is making the film, which he continually narrates, like a diary, near Reid's Oakland apartment a big red circus tent has gone up. It seems to haunt him. He never quite finds out what it is, but it awakens in him thoughts of the historic "Freak Show" in the time of the original Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus run by the impresario PT Barnum. It turns out Bethel, Connecticut was the home of PT Barnum. When he's back on a visit there, Reid films the Barnum house. It now has a new statue of the man that has gone up. A dubious monument indeed, for him. The Freak Show exemplifies all that was wrong with the way people approached difference and disability in the past, a legacy that lingers, Reid has found.

Reid finds that while the Freak Show is too impolite for today, he feels shadows of the attitudes of that time. His mother admits that sometimes he seems oversensitive to her, but on reflection, she understands. Mostly perhaps the annoyance is that people keep offering to help Reid when he doesn't need any help, thereby setting him apart. Toward the end, he approaches his apartment building and someone has laid out an electrical wire that's in his way. He is adamant about it, furious that such a thing has happened where he lives. Perhaps this just concentrates the frustration of being who he is, the daily difficulty of everything, even of handling a pair of glasses. He has the same eye doctor as his little niece in Bethel, he tells her. But putting on the glasses - that's different for him than for her, a complicated affair, sometimes impossible.

Watching this film was colored by an experience I had some years ago on a long train ride to a remote part of western Massachusetts. The only other person in the train car with me was a man with cerebral palsy, and we wound up having a conversation. I would frankly not have thought it was possible. At first I could not even understand him. (I am sure he was harder to understand than Reid Davenport is in the narration of this film.) He was a remarkable individual who was traveling to a place where he was going to teach disabled people and people with cerebral palsy. He also taught a program of dance for disabled people, he told me, a method he himself had developed. He had his own rig with him, which he was using, that enabled him to manipulate a laptop computer and to type. Part of it was made of wood. He had quite a bit of baggage with him. He asked me to get some of it down for him: that was how the conversation started. Once the ice was broken, being curious, I just kept asking questions. We spoke for an hour. I got his name and email address. The connection never developed further; still, it was a memorable experience for me that opened up a new awareness of how real, complex, and accomplished people with CP are, and how some people triumph over unimaginable difficulties.

Toward the end of the film, a neighbor has a friendly conversation with Reid and tells him he is heroic. This was how I felt about the man on the train.

The main thing is that Reid Davenport has made a film, providing a window into his world. Films about people with CP help open up their world to us. Just a trailer for one about a young artist who has severe CP (Reid Davenport speaks much more easily) called King Gimp brought me to tears.

We are all struggling to function in the world, I think. Just not this much.

*I was wrong - probably about many things - about New York. Reid has moved there now, as he explains in an interview. He reminds us that the New York subway system is accessible - just only partially, which "is absurd," Reid says.

We have a long way to go.

I Didn't See You There, 76 mins., debuted at Sundance, where it won a directing award; it has been in major documentary festivals and other international festivals. It was shown on POV and now was releaased on VOD Feb. 20, 2024. Metacritic rating: 74%.

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