Multi-Handicapped is the fourth and final film in the so-called Deaf and Blind Series. The institution is announced by three signs in succession:
Helen Keller School of Alabama - Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind
Welcome Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind - Helen Keller School of Alabama Campus
125 Years of Service 1858-1983 - Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind
This is followed by a fourth sign as a car goes up a road toward the building: Caution Deaf & Blind Children at Play
I think it was at this point that I finally realized that you must have sight in order to read these signs, and it pointed up what the film makes you acutely aware of: the huge number of activities which we take for granted which must be taught to handicapped children. We see over and over again tasks that are simple for most of us being accomplished with considerable difficulty. Multi-Handicapped is deeply concerned with showing how those basic tasks can be taught, and is also very much about teaching in general. Moving up the rungs, it’s a film examining what has to be handled in order to live. It takes the most challenged of children, many both deaf and blind and sometimes with extra problems on top of that, and shows us institutional attempts at figuring out what they need to learn and offers us large samples of how hard that can be to accomplish. It puts us in their situations and gives us at least a sense of how difficult that might be. We’re not in the world of work and adjustment here, we’re in the world of survival skills and hoping for the ability to take care of oneself.

Before we head in, a word first about the openings of all four films. They’re brief, just a few minutes, and quite similar - usually some shots of ugly highways and strip malls and fast food, followed by a bit of the old commercial district, and then either some well-chosen old houses and churches or bits of poorer neighborhoods. While all four of these films hew pretty close to their institutions, these suggestions of the surrounding community are likely previews of Wiseman’s eventual shifts in at least some films toward looking outside of individual places. This is probably also a spot to tip a hat towards the remarkable cinematography of John Davey, who by this point has shot eight of Wiseman’s films. I already back as early as The Store expressed appreciation for how rock steady his non-tripod camera is. It’s time to marvel at the variety of framing choices we see in a film such as this one. Watching children play or walk along a path from a distance, showing a teacher from a few inches away, tracking down a street as a student learns to use a cane - these films shot on the fly are every bit as visual as the most professional of studio productions. There’s actually quite a bit of movement, but I can’t think of times when you feel like the camera is wandering around looking for something to aim at. Instead, the sense is of careful framing which I think is quite hard to do in unplanned situations. Somehow he can cover a space cinematically - wide shots when needed, moves to other positions to keep the camera unobtrusive. A good deal of this may be accomplished in editing, but the raw material is certainly there to make that possible. I can’t think of a single annoying shot where the camera does some cute little movement to emphasize an odd gesture or uncomfortable comment. The feeling is of looking at things directly - a style so strong that I think you could take about five minutes from any of these films and recognize the cinematographer right away. It’s a most fortuitous collaboration.

Before we get to those signs and that School, and just after our town montage, Multi-Handicapped has a brilliant beginning. I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about the journeys made by a couple of kids in Blind, how scenes of navigation are so thrilling in these films, because they provide a sense of the skills required for the handicapped to get themselves from place to place and also because they involved patient teaching along the way. As the handicaps compound, as they do here, with deafness and blindness often in combination, these needs still continue. It’s the first order of business here, as a small bus marked School for the Deaf and Blind on the side stops on a quiet street and out comes the woman driver and a deaf and blind man. She puts a black sleep mask on his eyes, which seems unnecessary given that he's already blind. She hand signs him, which means he's both deaf and blind, and then they start off down the street. As this is our fourth film, we now know what's going on. It's another navigation scene, a teacher showing someone how to get around. He does pretty well, finding the edges of the sidewalk and keeping on a straight path for a couple of blocks. When he gets to a possible turning or crossing point, the teacher starts to explain where he is. This time, we don't have to go any further. As the handicaps compound, the teaching and things that need to be taught remain the same. The communication between the teacher and student may vary, but how to undertake basic aspects of living is still the most central of concerns. The cover for his eyes is either to protect him from painful glare or to be sure he’s not affected by any light sensitivity. It’s not explained to us, and it doesn’t matter. What matter is how hard this simple task is, but also their determination in having him learn how to do it. Even before we arrive at the school, this message is being driven home.

A quick word needs to be said here about the school’s namesake, and for me and I’m sure many others the immediate cinematic referent is the Arthur Penn film "The Miracle Worker”, which is truly great, one of those movies where if it doesn't deeply move you, I don't think I want to know you. Penn was a major film-maker in his own right, too much known simply for Bonnie and Clyde, when he also made a bunch of really terrific films. (Little Big Man most definitely, Mickey One, and certainly Miracle Worker too.) The scene where Patty Duke as the young Helen Keller finally learns to communicate by touching water and understands there is a way to express that as a sign is truly exhilarating. This is a complete aside, except to say that Penn's fictional account resonates strongly, and it's another movie everyone should see and love. (And Helen Keller was born in Alabama, which perhaps relates to the state’s commitment to these schools.) That you can be deaf and blind and still learn to communicate does seem something like a miracle, so it’s admirable that Wiseman makes this major stop here to conclude the series, leaving the most difficult for last. I’d say this one is probably the least upbeat of the four and maybe therefor the most Wisemanesque, with its share of difficult cases and ironic ambiguities, but even here, the film exudes admiration for the processes of communication and learning which are so well struggled for and earned throughout the film. Challenging cases and problems abound, and never feel glossed over.

I won’t say much this time about the kinds of teaching situations we see. I’ve talked about that a lot already, and beyond admiring them further, there isn’t much I can add. Instead, let’s first look at another surprising form of difficulty in the film - the teachers regularly questioning what they should be teaching and how it should be done. I think there’s something like four meetings about curricular issues, trying to decide how to establish levels of competency, with much discussion about what belongs on each level. They get down to brass tacks conclusions several times, even if they continue to question. The first of these meetings lays out the plain facts. The speaker acknowledges that some of their students “will need support and guidance for the rest of their lives.” It’s like Wiseman to make us aware of the interconnectedness and handoffs that happen between institutions, as here the fellow says “We're going to be prepared at age 21 because we know that that individual is likely to need some sort of assistance by some other agency after they've left the Hellen Keller School.” The scene ends sharply with that statement, which I’ve noticed is a regular Wiseman editing technique - ending a scene with a summary declaration that rings more assertively because it comes as some kind of conclusion of an agonized discussion. A most touching continuation of the same problem comes up much later, when two teachers are trying to write down what they think are the necessary things the school needs to teach and what the rationale for these activities would be. They try to describe a curriculum for personal hygiene, and they know they can’t find the way to explain what would be included. In another abrupt end of scene concluding line, they have figured out what to say, which is “personal hygiene skills necessary for daily living.” It sounds simple, but the film regularly shows it’s anything but.

In between those two meetings, there’s another one of the so-called "self-help skills curriculum committee”. It gets a little jargony as they try to sort out what they call level three skills from those considered more basic. The things they know they need to teach becomes daunting. One person’s list includes “bathing, dressing, brushing, washing hands, things we do every day, toileting” and then they add "care of teeth hair and skin, glasses, hearing aids and braces.” As they do this, one makes the partly pained realization: "It's really everything.” It’s also a realization for viewers that these are all things non-handicapped people do routinely, an awareness of challenges for the handicapped we likely never consider. While the scene is about how teachers set up what their students need, it’s also about making us think about what we never think about.

The film is strong on feeling like lived experience perhaps because there are lengthy sequences without dialog, or where the only speaking taking place is hand signing between two deaf and blind students saying things to each other that we can’t follow. One rather masterful version of this is a lunchroom cafeteria scene, that’s one of those practically standalone episodes that feels like a complete little movie of its own. It starts with the students in line, many successfully able to select their food and take seats at tables. We see that some need help from aides to eat, and occasionally they help each other. There’s a very touching little moment when one little girl helps another to drink milk out of a carton. The whole scene really stretches out, as if they’re enjoying the ability to participate in the normalcy of what goes on in schools everywhere. The difference here is the lack of verbal conversation. Some signing here and there, but mostly just lunch noise, clattering silverware and dishes. When the meal is over, we see them putting their trays away and their trash deposited. We then see the large room empty, save for a cafeteria woman giving a last wiping to the completely clean tables. In its small way, it’s a triumphant moment - a whole necessary task that’s part of daily living has been accomplished successfully. No need to describe it in detail, but a similar subjective experience is offered later when students after class sit in their dormitory lobby, some doing nothing but sitting, others signing, others finding ways to occupy themselves. Again, no dialog, but for signing that we’re not able to follow.

It isn’t just because there’s a lot of talking that Wiseman films often seem to take a big interest in communicating. We’ve seen a number of instances in earlier films where translation is involved or misunderstandings occur because of language issues. Just seeing the difference between ASL hand signing in Deaf which can be done by those who can see, as opposed to the touch-signing form of language required by those both deaf and blind is a striking reminder that both forms of communication place great challenges upon their users. While some kids play pool, two kids along a wall talk to each other at length through touching hands, and not explaining what they’re saying to each other somehow becomes a respect for their privacy. But the desire to reach out, the ability to produce language in some form that is meaningful to others is driven home as an essential human activity.

I’d be seriously remiss if we left these four films without any mention at all of two recurring topics - songs and sermons. There was actually a big song in the previous film that I’m surprised I skipped past, a radio playing Foreigner’s “Double Vision” in a recreation room where a bunch are sitting around a table, which you just can’t tell me isn’t ironic as all get out. The one here is more deeply meaningful although brief, following another fairly long no dialog scene of helping some students with their eating. As the adults help the kids out of the room, one of the teachers starts singing a blues song with the line “one more river to go” repeated several times, and this one is right on the nose, these brave kids going through trial after trial. And just when you thought you might go four films sermon and religious service free, the end of this film tosses in a strange one. I don’t know what it says about the role of religion in the lives of the handicapped, but it sure is on the curious side. It’s a sunset meeting in some kind of auditorium, that begins with the minister calling for them all to stand and sing “God is here”. Many sign the song, and I’d say we start asking if it’s God that wanted these terrible infirmities to be visited upon these poor brave children. We’re almost back in Titicut territory when a boy in a suit stands on a box and repeatedly signs “Jesus Wonderful” as the minister keeps saying what he’s signing. Then a second boy able to sing takes his turn on the box, and wonderful is still the word of the day as he sings “God’s Love is Wonderful” several times. Then, weirdest of all, we see a small group being read to by the minister, as he tries to recount to them the story of Cain and Abel. But he can’t get anyone to say how many days it was supposed to take for the earth to be created, and when they get to Adam and Eve, a kid says they had a cat named Cringer. When Cain kills Abel, one asks what “killed” means. It’s abrupt ending time, as he continues to read the story, while the screen goes black as he continues to talk. It’s a final brief reminder of what the world looks like to many of these children, a world that feels very apart from religious observance, as that may be another basic need that is rather more difficult for the multi-handicapped to get solace from.