Van Sant: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is based on the memoir of the same name by John Callahan, who became a quadriplegic following a drunk driving accident when he was in his early twenties, and went on to become one of the most celebrated – and controversial – cartoonists of the twentieth century, after regaining partial control of his hands. One of Callahan’s biggest missions was to challenge the sentimental and saccharine ways in which the disabled tend to be depicted, and Van Sant also refrains from making any sustained or platitudinous comments on disability, while never ignoring the way in which disability shaped Callahan’s life either. Generating sympathy, but precluding pity, the film is suffused with a distended atmosphere, a laconic tone, a quotidian texture, a casual naturalism, and above all a rambling, ambling, shaggy dog quality that divests it of the kinds of big gestures and statements that typically characterise films about the disabled – an approach that ironically allows it to achieve a grandeur and profundity that disabled characters rarely achieve on the big screen. While some critics have may taken issue with the length – it’s almost two hours – that sprawl and sweep is essential to painting a picture of Callahan that is inextricable from his disability, but never blandly or tritely reduced to his disability either.
On the face of it, the film has a fairly traditional narrative structure, as we start with the night that Callahan, played by Joaquin Phoenix, lost the use of his legs and partial loss of his arms, as a result of a drink driving accident with his friend Dexter, played by Jack Black, who escaped unscathed. Yet Van Sant prevents that night signifying in any stable or consistent way, cutting between it and the present, and alternating between pathos and a more picaresque comic register, that prevents it ever quite settling into an object of pity, or a tonality capable of defining or anchoring Callahan over the rest of the film. While Don’t Worry is quite frank about Callahan’s trauma at waking up to his disability, and the trials of his initial rehabilitation, it quickly expands back out into a lifeworld that is as messy and as haphazard as before, with some new – and serious – challenges thrown into the mix. Sometimes those challenges are quite comic, as in his consultation with a sexologist, who gives him strategies for achieving reflexogenic erections now that psychogenic erections are no longer a possibility, while some of them are more serious, especially when they turn on the banalities of living everyday life with reduced mobility. Nevertheless, Van Sant’s sliding montages – sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal – absorb even the most traumatic or transformative moments into the broader rhythm of Callahan’s life as it gradually starts to reconstitute itself around the two groups and activities that comprise the rest of the movie.
The first of these is Callahan’s drawing career, and its genesis in the mechanical wheelchair that he brings home from the hospital. From a pretty early stage, the hospital attendants start to grow weary of Callahan’s continuous requests for new chairs and batteries, since he quickly takes to moving around his home town of Portland, Oregon, with a careening and reckless speed that sees him zooming across sidewalks, roads and public spaces with no regard for the gravity with which a disabled person is supposed to move, let alone a person disabled by a car accident. In fact, the film is bookended by a smaller, second accident, in which one of these high-speed vectors ends in the obvious way – with Callahan tumbling to the ground – only for a group of local teenagers to set him back up and invite him to experiment with their skating ramp. That combination of risk and resilience gives Callahan’s trajectories an incredibly comic resilience, culminating with a series of stand-offs with Suzanne, the hospital administrator, played by Carrie Brownstein, who plays her part just straight enough to draw Callahan’s zaniness into greater relief, in what often feels like a sketch from Portlandia as much as a subplot befitting the pathos of a film about disability – or at least posits Callahan as someone who fits right in with the motley crew of Portlandia.
It’s these careening trajectories that provide Callahan with his first real lease on life after his accident, so it’s only a matter of time before their combination of risk and resilience are translated into the provisional, fluid and spontaneous lines of his cartoons, which transplant these Portland-wide lines of flight onto the printed page. Criticised by the hospital for putting too much mileage on his chair, he insists that “I’m an active walker, not a fucking nursery home vegetable,” and then uses his drawing to ensure that he is always walking even when he is at home, lending the film a rambling, peripatetic quality as his cartooning career starts to take off. Taking his cues in part from a teacher who refers to art as controlled damage, his cartoons seem to arrive fully-formed just because their provisionality is what makes them so unique, as he outlines a macabre vision of the world that is certainly mediated through his disability but that also, the film suggests, preceded it, and was always a part of his personality. It’s no secret that these cartoons were often seen as offensive, but Van Sant never presents Callahan as deliberately seeking out controversy, or being reactionary, or translating his disability into a misanthropic or myopic account of the world.
Instead, being offensive – or being able to be seen as offensive – comes as a relief to Callahan, since it lifts the burden of pity from his shoulders, which becomes almost as oppressive as the experience of disability itself over the middle part of the film. For that reason, Callahan actually tends to be drawn to people who dislike his cartoons, since they “tell it like it is” – they don’t mince words or “account” for his disability in their criticism of his work – to the point where his cartoons often feel like a way of freeing other people from the burden of having to pity him as well, by engendering a response that doesn’t have to be mediated through pathos, or take the spectacle of his disability into “account” in a regular way. In other words, cartooning becomes a way of wresting himself out of a subject position in which pity is supposed to trump all else, a way of dissociating disability from pity that also means that his cartooning is never able to guarantee an instant transformation or catharsis either, just as the film is unable to – and uninterested in – simply equating him with his art.
For there’s a whole other community that comes to define Callahan over the course of the film – the AA community, which he starts attending shortly after the accident. After finding himself drawn to Donnie Green, a local convenor played by Jonah Hill, he asks him to sponsor him, and then becomes part of a smaller and more intimate group, which meets at Donnie’s house, and who all work on their sobriety together. It’s here that the key moments in the film occur, partly because AA provides Callahan with a space where he can be confessional without being primarily defined by his disability, and the pity and pathos automatically attached to his disability. In fact, it’s the irreverence of this community to everything but alcoholism that proves crucial to his rehabilitation, as their diverse stories, but also their shared alcoholism, gradually displaces disability as the main lens through which he seems himself, or at least conflates the symptoms of disability with the “manifestations of sobriety,” precluding him being exclusively defined by either situation.
In other words, the AA meetings provide Callahan with a genuinely intersectional space, in which everyone is partly defined by alcoholism, but also partly defined by some other trauma or situation that has produced their alcoholism, meaning that nobody can ever be defined by one thing. The result is a queer kinship, and a queer conjunction of bodies, that are all mediated through the rituals of AA, and helmed by Donnie right up until he passes away from AIDS towards the end of the film. In many ways, the relation between Donnie and Callahan is the emotional kernel of the film, since while it is never exactly homoerotic, it is suffused with the tender closeness between men, and the loving taste for the contingencies and unpredictabilities of the male body, that characterises Van Sant’s queer ethic, and that is so prominent in the first part of his career. For the first time in some time in Van Sant’s body of work, I felt traces of the burnished romances of Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho culminating with the final time Callahan and Donnie meet – an embrace between an AIDS-ravaged body and a disabled body that manages to be unspeakably beautiful and poignant while devoid of even the slightest trace of condescending pity. As Donnie points out, “a big part of this program is losing people you don’t want to lose,” and yet that perennial possibility of loss is part of what makes these AA sessions, and this relationship, so profound, as well as landing Hill with his single best dramatic role to date.
In the end, then, Van Sant suggests that a queer ethic – here mediated through an AA ethic – is the most generous and least condescending framework for representing and figuring disability; the ingredient that turns disability into different ability, as much as you sense that Callahan would have preferred the former term. On the one hand, as Donnie points out, there is no single, epiphany, no “lighting bolt,” since “some of that pain will remain there forever, some of that shame will remain there forever – you have to fight it, or you fucking die.” Yet Callahan’s realisation that there is no epiphany also means, for Donnie, that he has arrived “right on time,” like he has for every other step of the AA program. And it’s in that combination of contingency and reassurance that the dignity of the AA community lies, just because it allows Callahan to be undignified, much as he allows himself to be undignified in his cartoons, divesting himself – and encouraging other disabled people to divest themselves – of their tedious burden to be treated by the able-bodied as static exemplars of dignity. Instead, dealing with disability, like working on sobriety, is an open-ended process, a way of living, rather than an achievement that ossifies him into an exemplar and then discards him, which is perhaps why Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot finally feels so open, so emergent, and so suffused with Callahan’s own unique personality and sensibility.
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