"The movie itself is all over the board; it jumps from gritty to campy to moving to comic to pretentious so often that I don't really know what to make of it." - Dave Sindelar, SciFilm
Like any stereotypical preacher's kid, theology student Steve Adams is having problems, but his run a little deeper than most. Someone has drained the blood of over 20 people in town and Steve, based on his need for monthly transfusions and vague memories of biting his childhood pet in the neck, is beginning to suspect he may be the culprit. Meanwhile, to make matters worse, Steve's best friend The Detective has brought in the vampire expert from England responsible for killing Dracula in order to help capture this latest blood sucking fiend. To top it all off, Steve's father has a heart attack while Steve is off in the woods having one of his episodes. Right before Steve's father dies, however, he finally tells Steve of the strange circumstances surrounding his birth and the subsequent death of his mother. The final pieces of the puzzle, the old minister says, can be found with Amy, the midwife who mysteriously disappeared that faithful night and who has recently returned looking for Steve. Paying a visit to Amy and her handless man-servant Zork, Steve learns that his pregnant mother was seduced by Dracula himself, a union which passed the vampiric curse on to the unborn child. In an effort to free himself from his accursed fate, Steve tracks down the coffin of Dracula and pulls the stake from the vampire's heart so that he can, uh... drive a stake through his heart. Really, from there I kind of got lost. It all comes down to some confrontation between Steve and God.
Let's just be honest up front. When I first heard of Deafula, the only movie ever filmed entirely in American Sign Language, all I could think of was that old Monty Python skit where they put on the semaphore version of Wuthering Heights. The whole idea sounded like it was going to be an experiment bordering on bad taste with jokes made at the expense of the deaf. ("Listen to them, the children of the night." "I can't you idiot!" That kind of thing.) But when I finally ran across a copy of the near-impossible to find film I got something of a shock. The movie, filmed in glorious black & white, starts with a moody, well staged introduction to the main character. The camera pans across an empty room to a doorway where a bloody hand slowly sides up the frame followed by the haggard face of Steve appearing in the opening. His blood-drained victim lies face down in the bathroom sink. This is followed by an equally unsettling flashback to Steve's childhood where we witness him, compelled by his blood lust, to murder his beloved puppy. This is no laugh fest. We've got a real movie on our hands here, one with a serious and somber tone, made by people who know what they're doing.
And then it happens. Steve is accosted in the street by a junkie on a motorcycle who repeatedly stabs Steve while signing "money" at him. This triggers Steve's first onscreen transformation into Deafula, a leering vampire dressed in a Lugosi cape with... a big freakin' rubber nose. Seriously, it looks like one of those disguise kits from the Party Store with the glasses removed. And I start giggling, even though I'm not sure I'm supposed to because the scene doesn't appear to be going for laughs. Fortunately, after this incident, the movie starts to head back into serious territory. That is, until the inspector from England shows up. He's weird, fidgety, and has all the mannerisms of a chimp. He's constantly bobbing up and down and poking the American detective who, in obvious disgust to the Brit's very nearness, keeps signing for the man to "shut up" and go away. And I start giggling again, starting to feel a little guilty for it because I don't know if the guy's mannerisms are part of some kind of affliction. Following another serious section in which Steve learns of his birth and tracks down the mysterious Amy, we are finally introduced to Zork, a weird puckering homunculus who (I kid you not) wears cans on his hands. Now I understand his character is supposed to be handless as punishment from God, but c'mon, he's wearing tin cans! I'm so completely losing it that by the time the English detective identifies Steve as the vampire due to (wait for it) the presence of unshelled peanuts in his vomit, my ability to take any of this seriously is all but gone. The final scene, in which the newly ordained Father Steve (he's a Pisky) stands in the middle of a church signing vigorously to God for forgiveness, should be riveting. But it's just too late, far too much silliness has happened, and I can't manage the u-turn back into pathos. All I can think of as the movie ends is how many decades of the rosary I'm gonna get in confession for laughing so hard at a movie made by people with what many would consider a serious physical disability.
Thank God (seriously) I managed to find an old interview with producer Gary Holstrom in which he discussed the making of Deafula. He assures us that from the beginning "it was quickly decided that a light-horror and light-comedy feature would be the best mix." Whew, so despite the ponderous tone of much of the movie, it was supposed to have some comedic elements. (What a relief. I was not looking forward to trying to explain all of this in the confessional.) But what about that gigantic rubber nose, wasn't that going a bit too far? Holstrom says, "Light comedy. The deaf loved it, the hearing didn't." And bingo, right there I finally catch on. You see, I came to Deafula expecting just another wacky 1970s variation of Dracula (Blacula, Old Dracula, Countess Dracula, Dracula's Dog, you get the idea.), with the hook this time being a deaf vampire. But Deafula isn't that at all, it's really a movie made primarily for members of the Deaf Culture (that's deaf with a capital [D], a concept we [C]atholics should be more than comfortable with). In their book For Hearing People Only, Moore & Levitan define Deaf Culture as "a social, communal, and creative force of, by, and for Deaf people based on American Sign Language (ASL). It encompasses communication, social protocol, art, entertainment, recreation (e.g., sports, travel, and Deaf clubs), and worship." As a movie nut I'm no stranger to this idea of a Deaf Culture, I saw Children Of A Lesser God after all. But that was made for a hearing audience whereas Deafula is not. In a certain sense, Deafula is a "foreign" film for a mainstream moviegoer like myself.
Writing in the Bright Lights Film Journal, Boris Trbic notes that a "viewer can, in spite of the best intentions and abilities of the translator, miss out on the specific cultural references in a foreign language film." For example, states Mr. Trbic, "Western audiences viewing Hong Kong films about immigrants from mainland China are frequently oblivious to the social, economic, and cultural references, problems of status and identity, brought about by the distinctions between Mandarin and Cantonese." I believe it's that kind of "cultural" misunderstanding which derailed Deafula for me because I wasn't expecting it. Now of course, some of the stuff is obvious, even if you're not looking for it. The movie exists in its own alternate universe in which every persone is deaf, uses ASL, and owns TTY text devices instead of telephones or police radios. But by itself, that could still be considered just a gimmick. It's the small stuff that matters, stuff an outsider to Deaf Culture like me might not catch on the first go around. For instance, the voiceover track provided for the non-deaf is a barely-acted literal translation of the hand signs, which results in some bizarre yoda like speech patterns. ("Hearing matters not, ... Look at me. Judge me by hearing, do you?" Okay, that line's not really in the movie, but wouldn't it be cool if it was?) Really the voice track is just a courtesy to "sound sensitive" members of the audience; you're expected to be able to draw the subtleties from the body language and signs rather than the voices. The intermittent score consists almost exclusively of percussive piano pieces and bass-heavy orchestration. It's fairly bland to listen to, but if you crank up the volume, all of a sudden you can "feel" the changes in tension vibrating through your body. And there are even more subtle things going on which I stood no chance of catching until I did a little research afterwards. In particular are the scenes in which the American detective keeps turning away from the irritating English inspector. Deafculture.com tells us that "Deaf social protocol is based on Deaf people’s need to maintain good eye contact and visibility, and to make signing easier and more comfortable." So while the scenes have some intentional humor for the hearing and non-hearing alike, to the deaf they also portray the total disregard the American has for the Brit as a person. (Like I said, the guy comes across as some sort of primate. Now that I think about it, the University of Nevada did teach that chimp Washoe to use ASL in the early 70s. I'm not saying there's a connection, but, you know...) When you put it all together, there's just no way a deaf audience and a hearing audience will see this movie in the same way. They get all the jokes and I don't and that's okay. Vive la difference and all that.
Some critics don't like the idea of a Deaf Culture, believing it further isolates the non-hearing from the rest of society. The editors at DeafCulture.com, however, see Deaf Culture as "a positive term, indicative of pride and a communal identity" much in the same way that "each ethnic and religious group has its own culture. In the case of U.S. mainstream Protestants, the characteristics may not be sharply defined. Recent Hindu or Hmong emigrants, for example, will likely have a well-defined, all-encompassing culture—a distinct mode of dress, a distinct cuisine." Journalist Russell Shaw notes that a significant and visible Catholic subculture once existed in the U. S. during the middle of the 20th century. In fact, he surmises that "the Catholic Church in America... was on its way to becoming the dominant influence in the shaping of the nation’s culture as a whole." BUT "largely behind the scenes, the dismantling of the Catholic subculture largely responsible for the Church’s success had commenced among Catholic academics and intellectuals; it continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s—indeed, it continues to this day." The Holy See appears to agree. In March 2007, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State, stated that the "main objective" of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate was "to recover the authentic Christian identity and to explain and confirm the intelligibility of the faith in the context of widespread secularism." Piping in again, Shaw adds, "Unless believing, practicing Catholics... can re-create a strong new Catholic subculture as a basis for their efforts to engage and evangelize the increasingly secularized culture surrounding them, there is virtually no chance that the larger culture will change for the better, but an excellent chance that Catholicism will further decline." (Yow, that's bleak. Sounds like Mr. Shaw could use a dose of Smile, Darn You, Smile!)
But what exactly would constitute this new Catholic subculture? Cardinal Francis George remembers what it used to be. "Catholicism as a distinctive way of life was defined by eating habits and fasting, and by days especially set aside that weren’t part of the general secular calendar. They were reminders that the church is our mediator in our relationship to God, and can enter into the horarium [calendar] that we keep, into the foods that we eat, into all the aspects of daily life, into sexual life." (See, eating fish on Fridays actually had a purpose.) So does that suggest the best way to rebuild a Catholic subculture is simply to re-emphasize all of the old traditions and rituals that have fallen into disuse since Vatican II? Well, it couldn't hurt, but just bringing back all of the old stuff probably shouldn't be the primary focus.
What should? Well, before I throw my two cents into the ring on that question, it might be helpful to look at an old 1999 survey taken by the National Catholic Reporter which yielded the following results. "The number of Catholics saying one can be a good Catholic without going to Mass rose from 70 percent in 1987 to 76 percent in 1999. The number saying one can be a good Catholic without obeying the church's teaching about birth control increased from 66 percent in 1987 to 71 percent in 1999. The number saying one can be a good Catholic without obeying the church's teaching regarding divorce and remarriage climbed from 51 percent in 1987 to 64 percent in 1999. The number saying one can be a good Catholic without getting married in the church jumped from 51 percent in 1987 to 67 percent in 1999. The number saying one can be a good Catholic without donating time or money to help the poor increased from 44 percent to 56 percent. Finally, the number saying one can be a good Catholic without obeying the church's teaching on abortion also grew from 39 percent to 53 percent. Thus, by 1999 a majority of Catholics think it is possible to be a good Catholic without abiding by church teachings in all six of these areas." Is there any reason to believe the numbers have decreased since then?
When asked about a new Catholic subculture, (possible next president of the USCCB) Cardinal George suggests that "Catholic identity, basically, is there if someone holds the Catholic faith in its integrity, understands it well enough according to age and disposition. It’s somebody who holds the faith in a sufficiently catechized way and can say, ‘I accept all of it.’ (ALL OF IT!) At the same time, he or she does that in Catholic communion, someone who has a pastor and who knows what a bishop is and who understands the relationship to the universal church, because that’s the network of visible communion established by the Lord when he asked the apostles to take up the mission." It sounds to me like the cardinal is suggesting the best way to rebuild a Catholic subculture is by first rebuilding individuals as Catholics. Being a revert to the faith, I agree.
The Catechism reminds us that "periods of renewal in the Church are also intense moments of catechesis... Catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the Church's life. Not only her geographical extension and numerical increase, but even more her inner growth and correspondence with God's plan depend essentially on catechesis." The resurgence of the old rituals is edifying, but the primary emphasis must always be on the teaching. And even though those survey numbers suggest that the teaching might currently be falling on a lot of deaf ears (figuratively speaking), if Deafula has anything to show us, it's that there is always a way to reach everyone. Big freakin' rubber noses, however, are optional.
Regular readers of this blog might have noticed I don't use the "first person" too much when writing these reviews. But I did a lot in this one for a particular reason. Blame. If I've inadvertently insulted any deaf people out there with this review, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I'm sorry. And if I've inadvertently insulted any Catholics out there who don't meet Cardinal George's "requirements" for authenticity as noted above, well, I'm sorry for that too, but, you know... getting your butt back to mass wouldn't kill you, would it?
(Speaking of falling on deaf ears, are these things getting too long winded to read? I get a little research happy sometimes.)