Crip Camp;

A Disability Revolution

(USA, 2020)
Directed by
James Lebrecht & Nicole Newnham
Executive Producers
Barack and Michelle Obama

Review by Lois Siegel

Having a disability can make your life miserable but if you can fight the barriers and antiquated public notions, then you can become part of the world. This is the message of Crip Camp, a film set in a 1970s summer camp in the Catskills; it’s for disabled kids, and it’s run by hippies. At that time, disabled kids were told they couldn’t even go into an ice cream parlor because it would make others uncomfortable. The kids at this camp try to change this by becoming activists.

Jimmy films and narrates Crip Camp. He’s 15 years old and into cute girls. He has to wear diapers, then a bag, but everyone has some body ailment to cope with, and some come from terrible institutions – the ramshackle Camp Jened is a place where they can all work together and gain confidence.

These kids face all kinds of obstacles – they aren’t even accepted into Scouts because they are considered different. One girl has been run over by a bus, another guy is blind. Jimmy gives everyone his phone number so he can communicate with them.

The counsellors aren’t experienced with the disabled, but the environment is relaxed – it’s a place where teenagers can be teenagers. The kids smoke and make out. They are even given a lesson on how to kiss. Protective parents are usually a problem, watching their kids every moment at home. But at camp, they have the freedom to roam around, make friends and learn how to fit into a world not built for them. Public transportation and most buildings in the early ’70’s were inaccessible to the disabled. Kids had to ride their wheelchairs in the street, dodging traffic.

Willowbrooke State School on Staten Island, which opened in 1947, is a shocking example of an institution for children with intellectual disabilities. The school was designed for 4,000, but it had a population of 6,000 by 1965. Conditions, questionable medical practices and experiments prompted Senator Robert Kennedy to call it a “snake pit.” Kids were left naked, and the institution was chaotic. Public outcry led to its closure in 1987.

During Richard Nixon’s years as president, the Rehabilitation Act was proposed to provide equal access for people with disabilities by removing architectural, employment and transportation barriers. It was to prohibit federal agencies from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. It was passed by Congress, but Nixon vetoed it twice. It would cost too much, he said.

So the kids at Crip Camp learned to be activists. They demonstrated in front of Nixon headquarters. There were wheelchairs in the streets. Fifty paraplegics stopped traffic in Manhattan, shutting down parts of the city.

The Center for Independent Living was formed in 1972 to help the handicapped become self-sufficient. It was run by and for people with disabilities, offering support, advocacy and information. In 1973, Nixon finally signed the Rehabilitation Act.

Crip Camp is filled with great music, including Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” Richie Havens’ “Freedom” from Woodstock and Bear McCreary.

This film is part of a deal that Barack and Michelle Obama signed with Netflix to release seven films through their production company, Higher Ground, which they started in 2018. Their goal is to amplify the voices of the underprivileged, focusing on race, class, democracy and civil rights to educate and inspire.

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Available: Netflix 

Quai des orfèvres

(France, 1947)
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Review by Paul Green

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s third film – his previous outing, the 1943 classic Le Corbeau, led to his being blacklisted for a time after the war, owing to its allegedly pro-German sentiment – is a “film policier,” or police procedural, set in the sometimes seedy but always fascinating milieu of Paris music-halls and Tin Pan Alley-style music publishers. It is December 1946 and with the shortage of coal in post-war Paris, it seems almost everyone is wearing coats indoors.

Quai des orfèvres is a delightfully atmospheric film that makes ample use of what the critics like to call “chiaroscuro” which, in the hands of a skilled black-and-white cinematographer, had something to do with the subtle interplay between light and dark and shadow. With its steady succession of scenes shot in smoky music halls, the grotty offices of music publishers and dark, rainy streets, Quai is a classic film noir.

While the film’s whodunit aspect is important, it really serves as a pretext for Clouzot’s camera to cast a loving eye at the music-hall scene in all its tawdry glory, from dogs that walk on their hind legs and trapeze artists to the singer Jenny Martineau (stage name: Jenny Lamour) whose talent and unsubtle beauty seem to place her at the pinnacle of it all. Wrote Pauline Kael: “When this voluptuous slut sings ‘Avec Son Tra-la-la,’ she may make you wonder if the higher things in life are worth the trouble.”

The fabulous Jenny is played by Suzy Delair, who passed away in March of this year at the age of 102. Jenny is married to the talented but insecure piano-accompanist Maurice Martineau. Played by actor Bernard Blier (father of director Bertrand Blier), Martineau is said to have been a star pupil at the Conservatoire de Paris when he “threw it all away” to marry the alluring Jenny, whose humble origins didn’t trouble him but from all accounts horrified his parents. Maurice is devoted to his wife but owing to his insecurities, he is never quite sure of her fidelity. Says a colleague: “He’s the son of a bourgeois, he sees vice everywhere.”

A downstairs neighbour is Dora Monnier (Simone Renant, said to be the most beautiful woman in Paris when this film was made), a lesbian photographer who suffers in silence with her unrequited love for Jenny. Dora – you can’t miss her, her name embroidered on her sweater – is beautiful in all the ways Jenny is not and worldly wise in a sad sort of way.

Now Jenny is not really unfaithful to her husband, but she is ambitious and not above using her ample charms to further her career. Naturally this lands her in the clutches of the notorious Brignon (renowned stage actor Charles Dullin in his final film appearance), a lecherous old hunchback who has money and owns a movie studio. Ignoring Dora’s warning and lying to Maurice who later gets wind of this, Jenny keeps her clandestine rendezvous with Brignon where she expects to sign a contract.

Not much more to be said here except that Brignon winds up murdered. Jenny, now in an awful state, goes to Dora and tells her she thinks she has killed the lecherous old man. For his part, Maurice, by now almost out of his mind with jealousy, also makes his way to Brignon’s place only to find that the poor fellow is already dead. He too makes the pilgrimage to Dora’s and tells her everything, swearing her to silence.

And thus we come to the fourth leading character in the film, Inspector Antoine (legendary stage actor Louis Jouvet), a case-hardened detective who has seen it all and lives only for his “mixed-race” boy whom he has brought to Paris from “les colonies.”

Here the film pivots from an affectionate and lovingly detailed portrait of the Paris music-hall scene to the grimy atmosphere at Paris police headquarters (the film’s title is the address) where exhausted, cynical and underpaid cops must reckon with contemptuous career criminals and other denizens of the Paris underworld. The detail here is stunning, from the unflappable prostitutes for whom arrest is part of the métier to the veteran reporter explaining to his younger colleagues that the Brignon affair has nothing on the notorious “la bande à Bonnot” before the First World War.

For all of Clouzot’s reputation as a bully on the set – he was said to have slapped around Blier to prep him for a police grilling scene – he clearly has a genuine affection for all his characters. In this he is not unlike Inspector Antoine who, his cynicism notwithstanding, is capable of a marked sentimentality in his dealings with others. While a police procedural on the surface, Quai des orfèvres is no less a study of human relationships that doubles as a period film noir. This is particularly evident in the odd triangle formed by Jenny, Maurice and Dora. In a remarkable exchange toward the end, Antoine observes in the presence of Dora, of whom he has grown rather fond, “You know, we’re two of a kind, you and I, we don’t stand a chance with women.” I need hardly add that a character like Dora Monnier could scarcely be found in a Hollywood film from this period or perhaps any other.

Clouzot would go on to make The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955), but Quai des orfèvres is the one I return to time and again.

French with English subtitles. Running time: 106 minutes. Available on the Criterion channel, and Glebe Video when it reopens.

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