Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Went to see the excellent documentary, “Murderball,” last weekend at Coolidge Corner. For a movie that cost very little to make, it was far more entertaining and affecting than any of the summer’s bajillion dollar blockbusters from Spielberg or Lucas, with their canned plots and two-dimensional heroes. Unflinchingly unsentimental, “Murderball” is the story of the US quadriplegic rugby team’s journey to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. But it is an intensely personal film as well, following the lives of team members, who face the challenges of life with disabilities with courage, tenacity, and humor. And not a little rage, which is why the sport now called quadriplegic rugby was dubbed “murderball” in the first place.

One of the best things about the movie is its raw humanity, something Hollywood hasn’t delivered since the edgy, character-driven dramas of the ‘70s. If there is a culture war on, it is in large part a continuation of the old struggle between propriety and authenticity. In an era when “reality TV” seems faker than a cartoon like “The Simpsons,” when what used to be marks of gritty authenticity (tattoos, or a pair of well-worn Levis, for example, not to mention whole schools of thoughts or belief systems) have become symbols of bourgeois self-indulgence, it’s authenticity that’s taken a battering. In an age of “x-treme individualism” there is an eerie sameness underneath the superficial differences. What is admirable about someone like Mark Zupan, cocky, foul-mouthed spokesman for the US quadriplegic rugby team, is that intrinsic spark of unstoppable humanity, his rude, in-your-face insistence on remaining fully human, on being much more, not less than what he appears. The same goes for his teammates.

In one of the last scenes of the film, Team USA visits Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a demo murderball match for new quads and amputee soldiers fresh from Iraq. Most barely out of the teens, the reality of their condition has not fully set in. They look dazed and confused, shell-shocked, hesitant to embrace their rage, unaware in their hospital environs of the indifference of society.

As far as I know, there aren’t any veterans on Team USA. The plight of vets seems unique. According to the latest figures from The Department of Defense, in addition to the almost 1,900 US fatalities in Iraq so far, there have been over 13,000 wounded, many with lost limbs. Nations are generally lousy at providing for their permanently disabled vets. At best they’re given too little to live on, at worst they’re ignored altogether. Maybe it’s because they serve as too painful a reminder of the ongoing cost of wars that never seem to yield the peace and prosperity politicians promise. They’re mostly invisible to us. Aside from the occasional propaganda piece about what excellent care our new population of amputees is receiving and how well-adjusted they are, and rare inspirational tales of wounded soldiers struggling to get back to the battlefield, their rage, in this age of propriety, is strictly off-limits.

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