We Report, You Smile
The premise of How’s Your News? sounds exploitative: five mentally and physically disabled adults on a cross-country street interview tour. And when I heard about it, I was ready to get my intellectual knives sharpened and carve out the hearts of the documentary’s makers if they made even the slightest misstep. That says something about my paternalistic instinct towards people with disabilities, as if they are too weak to do anything other than be protected.
The involvement of Matt Parker and Trey Stone also made me apprehensive. South Park sometimes excels in its satirical willingness to openly laugh at the excessive sensitivities of identity politics, but it’s also not averse to cheap shot shock, the most readily available machismo substitute of the terminally dorky. Instead, How’s Your News? picks apart the pernicious assumptions that underlie some widely held sympathies for the disabled, the ways some of us assume the “agony” of their lives, and circumscribe our contact to the occasional donation.
How’s Your News? ably dismantles such pre-conceived notions. The film turns the laughter back on the so-called “normal” folk and chastises us for our capacity to act as intellectually superior caretakers for people who seem far healthier and well adjusted than anyone I know. More importantly, How’s Your News is a point of view, a perspective on life that’s devoid of artifice without being falsely romanticizing. Disabled people aren’t “special” in the sense that they exist to cipher the appreciation of life for the non-disabled. They’re people, a fact obscured by ableist prejudices that attempt to confine them to the neutered disempowerment reserved for puppies, children and the elderly.
The film project, produced by Matt Parker and Trey Stone, emerged from a video production class at Jabberwocky, a camp on Martha’s Vineyard for people with disabilities. From those initial tapes, the project evolved (with additional funding) into a sightseeing tour of America where the reporters (Ron Simonsen, Susan Harrington, Larry Perry, Robert Bird, and Sean Castello) approach random strangers (and animals) for off-the-cuff Q&A.
Much of the project’s value lies in exposing “our” patronizing attitude towards disabled people in our culture. When the film works, it hits moments of understanding that devastate and enlighten. But a few of the segments are difficult, because of able-bodied prejudices and the casual cruelty can be palpably thick. Larry Perry, multiply disabled and on wheels, had the most difficult time attracting interviewees, in part because he is unable to manage “normal” speech and his wracking attempts to produce such looked like painful convulsions.
I admit that I felt deep empathy during his interviews, as the filmmakers stuck him on urban sidewalks with a microphone. Though I don’t doubt their intentions, the first few sessions seem cruel insofar as Perry was mostly ignored, pitied, and simply swallowed up by the fearful indifference of the daily fray. With the aid of a sign, his track record seemed to improve; though I still strenuously wished that an intimate of Perry’s could have been on standby to make sure that he was actually enjoying the proceedings. Perry’s initial segment aside, the rest of the film is filled with funny exchanges, bolstered by the How’s Your News? crew’s candor, earnestness, and curiosity.
Susan Harrington’s personality and interviewing techniques are a nonstop charm offensive. She never fails to insert the “live from” rejoinder and her grace under fire would make Barbara Walters fear for her gig. During one piece, Harrington interviews a homeless Vietnam vet who has nothing but contempt for the entire world (perhaps understandably). Though he’s abrasive, nihilistic, and incredibly difficult, Harrington stands her ground politely, trying to get him to talk about local tourist attractions before sidling away to do her sign off. She’s gold. Her unabashed rendition of “Respect” in a karaoke video booth had me glowing with shared joy as much as it made me examine my own self-consciousness.
If there’s one thing you have to admit watching this documentary, it’s that these subjects have no trouble being who they are without shame or embarrassment, which begs the question of why it seems such a lifelong thorn for the rest of us. One of the most entertaining aspects of How’s Your News? is watching the reactions of the people interviewed. In an egregious scene, Vince Van Patton (son of Dick) uses the interview opportunity to plug his second-rate cable acting gigs, steamrolling interviewer Ron Simonsen and returning the conversation repeatedly to the gaping maw of his ego. But most interviewees seem duly charmed, if not slightly confused as to why they’re being interviewed. We can probably thank reality television for at least part of that extra helping of suspicion.
Music serves as a unifying thread between segments as well as an icebreaker for interviewers. The crew writes songs for each of the places they visit and perform many of them in local clubs (performances that are one of the DVD’s extras). Simonsen typically breaks into spontaneous song during interviews or asks the interviewees to join him in some popular tune or song made up on the fly. After their RV breaks down and they are forced to get to Los Angeles by bus, Harrington leads the entire bus full of strangers in a touching rendition of the How’s Your News? theme. It might sound like a “Hands Across America” cliché, but this documentary shows the nearly universal pleasure of music.
At this point, I realize that I’m making the movie sound as if it’s some sort of moral molestation, with every segment leading to the “lesson.” In fact, it’s more honest than that. But it’s impossible not to do a little genuine soul-searching while watching this film because it reframes disability in terms that aren’t super-heroic, but ordinarily virtuous, deserving of respect, and not in some dire need of pity.
The DVD extras include left out interviews that were not a part of the trip, including film festival Q&A, an interview with Parker and Stone, and Simonsen’s ecstatic meeting with his idol, soap star Chad Everett. Like nearly all audio commentary, the track for How’s Your News? adds little but canned obviousness. The film is both moving and deeply humorous, and in such a straightforward manner that an explanatory gloss only highlights how unnecessary it is to have your hand held.
How’s Your News? wins your adoration by celebrating the humanity that no difference of birth or circumstance can rob from us. It’s a mirror held up to the cutting ways in which we erase people from our view because of whatever petty psychological or theological discomforts they might cause us. But on the balance, the film also shows that even with uneven gifts of language, there is still much common ground upon which to communicate, love, and laugh.