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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Review: Crutch

The Movie Report

*** 1/2; Not Rated

A feature documentary about a dancer/choreographer/performance artist who overcame a lifelong physical disability to become a celebrated figure and innovator in his field could, based on that basic description, be easily labeled, and perhaps shrugged off and dismissed, as a feel-good, inspirational, true life tale. In a number of ways, Crutch does indeed fit that familiar bill. But much like its subject, Bill Shannon, Sachi Cunningham and Chandler "Vayabobo" Evans's film ultimately defies easy, conventional, and--above all--comfortable categorization as it challenges mainstream notions about the disabled in a most confrontational and urgent fashion.

From its beginning stages and about a good two-thirds of its run time, Crutch does appear to go through the expected, though solidly executed, warm and fuzzy paces. Adding to this air is a loose framing scenario that has Shannon paying a visit to a camp for children suffering from Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease, the rare hip bone condition that has left Shannon on crutches from childhood and into his adult life.  However, such a physical impediment did not keep him from staying constantly in motion--not only in a literal sense, but in his mental state as well.  Through extensive archival video footage that covers just about Shannon's entire life, the film shows how his naturally rebellious spirit led to practical everyday ingenuity, adopting a skateboard/crutches tandem as his primary mode of mobility.  This, in turn, ended up feeding and manifesting into more creative expression, most notably and most improbably in the world of dance.  But beyond being a trailblazer for disabled representation in the arts through his creation of an entirely new language of melodic movement using crutches as organic, fluid extensions of the human body, he also helped break hip hop dance from the streets and underground onto the legit theater stage.  Shannon's career--and the film--appears to reach its apex when he gets the ultimate mainstream cosign in getting a call to choreograph part of a Cirque du Soleil production.

If Shannon's art and life only encompassed that, it would be more than enough fodder for an absorbing documentary, given his already engaging personality and his impressive athletic and creative endeavors.  But at the two-thirds mark, with all the above-described ground already covered and Shannon's wide-spanning story brought up to the present day, Cunningham and Vayabobo make a sudden backtrack to the heretofore skipped-over beginnings of his public performance career on the streets of Chicago, which initially comes off as a jarring and rather arbitrary chronology fracture.  But not for nothing does this sudden shift come not long after a scene of Shannon being read a review of one of his theater productions that negatively compares his work to Sacha Baron Cohen's (in)famously trolling antics.  Such an analogy seems a bit of a stretch given the awe-inspiring uplift of all that preceded it, but what the film then explores for the remainder of its run time shows how apt it is, and how it thus reframes Shannon and his work as not only creative but unapologetically subversive.  Contrary to what one would be inclined to believe from the film's first two acts, Shannon's story is not the common one of a rebel that was "tamed" and thus went on to earn more "legitimate" success.  Rather, it's one of a rebel who found a way to package his provocation in a public-palatable presentation.  On the face of it, tracing a through-line from his days on the Chicago streets pretending to be a helpless invalid in various predicaments in order to capture the reactions and actions of unsuspecting passers-by to dance performances on the proscenium stage may seem a stretch, but Crutch clearly shows it to be a rather canny evolution of how Shannon boldly confronts able-bodied audiences with a mirror and magnifying glass to their perceptions and resulting treatment of the disabled.  Shannon is shown to incorporate taped pieces of his simple hidden camera man-on-the-street in his more "formal" shows and continue to break new ground and push the envelope in that type of spontaneous and overt performance art (the latter as seen in the wildly ambitious, incredibly impressive and insightful magnum opus captured in the film's climax), but this late-inning deep dive into this more defining side of his work has the greater, retroactive effect of reframing everything we've seen prior of his more "respectable" dance works to even his hesitation to visit the kids' camp.  For an able-bodied viewer, the immediate, impulsive reaction to those productions is, as stated above, the "inspiration" of seeing a person overcome physical impediments to achieve such feats of athletic and artistic beauty.  But for Shannon and other disabled artists interviewed in the film, their perception and actual underlying motivation is to question such a notion and novelty of "inspiration": why is there such an implied, patronizing air of condescension in the able-bodied approach rather than a simple, level ground, truly and ideally equal perception of the art and the artist simply as being just that, art and artist?

Shannon does not pretend to offer any answer, much less an easy one, but merely raising such a scarcely thought-of, let alone asked, question is entirely his point--and thus gives Crutch an uncommon, even discomfiting, complexity than an average true life, "overcoming" disability tale.  Make no mistake, the film does satisfy the traditional demands of the latter, offering a wealth of footage of Shannon's physical and creative abilities.  But just as much as it is a document of its subject's life, work, and personality, it also serves as a rare and necessary mirror to the able-bodied viewer's deeply ingrained subconscious perceptions of the disabled.  As much as Crutch showcases how extraordinary Shannon's work and accomplishments are, it just as much makes the compelling case that Shannon himself and his community are ordinary in the most literal sense: the same as those not using (physical) crutches, and every bit as complete and whole.

The world premiere of Crutch is now streaming as part of DOC NYC 2020 through 11:59pm Eastern Standard Time on Thursday, November 19.

Update, November 20: Crutch will continue to stream through Sunday, November 29 as part of DOC NYC 2020 Encores.

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