Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Eloquent Silent Message of Lily Tomlin's “Grandma”

At first, Lily Tomlin as Elle Reid (aka Grandma) is not a character you like very much. She picks fights with everyone, including the barrista whose “drip” coffee offends her palate. She snaps at family members, chases off an adoring young lover, and accuses the proprietor of a Lesbian café of being not a peaceable, matriarchal bonobo so much as a gorilla. She’s financially helpless in a crisis because she’s cut up all her credit cards and made them into wind-chimes, but she’s a terror when she wields a hockey stick. Frankly, she resembles all the curmudgeonly old coots played by male actors like Ed Asner and Clint Eastwood and Bruce Dern, except that she’s probably the most unpleasant of the lot.

Then, as the movie progresses, you realize two things. First, that this is a woman who’s been deeply hurting ever since the death of her long-time partner. Second, that she’ll do absolutely anything to help her young granddaughter in her hour of need. By the end of the movie, we’re firmly on her side. And we’re rooting for her to move on with her life.

I saw Grandma at a special screening hosted by Kat Kramer’s Films That Change the World series, in conjunction with SIGNmation and a group of fans known as “The Grandma Gang.” Kat, a passionate supporter of her friend Lily Tomlin, chose to make this screening an open-caption event designed especially for Deaf and Hard of Hearing members of the film community. (Open-caption implies the use of a print with subtitles visible at the bottom of the screen. Prints of this nature were promised decades ago by the film industry, but Grandma’s open-caption screening was in fact the first in 24 years.on the Sony lot, and the first such in decades at any Hollywood studio.) 

Part of what made the screening memorable was the presence of writer/director/producer Paul Weitz, whose many credits include About a Boy and Little Fockers. He was also responsible for American Pie, and quipped to the audience (with the help of an American Sign Language interpreter) about “the distance traveled between that and this film.” Grandma was written especially for Tomlin: it reflects her crusty but caring personality, though not the facts of her life. Somehow it was shot in 14 days for a mere $600,000, without studio participation but with the help of such major talents as Sam Elliott, Marcia Gay Harden, and Judy Greer. (Tomlin’s own ancient, oversized Dodge also played an important role.)

For Weitz, one key theme of Grandma is that “you can’t reduce people,” but must respect them in all their complexity. It’s a theme that resonates with the Deaf community, who are always looking for opportunities to show their skills in Hollywood. That’s why two guest panelists featured at the screening were a director and an actor, both Deaf, who have joined forces for an upcoming feature film, a sports drama titled The Inside Track. Jevon Whetter, a graduate of the American Film Institute, and Troy Kotsur, a veteran of Deaf West Theatre, explained how their challenge couldn’t stop them from pursuing their showbiz dreams. Poignantly, Jevon noted that his own grandmother—also Deaf—used to love silent movies. But when talkies arrived, she and others like her were shut out. 

Thanks to Jo-Ann Dean, founder of SIGNmation (and other productions for the Deaf). She’s partnered with Kat to launch “Creative Accessible Cinema & Content,” for which this screening was a pilot event. The Deaf, I’ve learned, “applaud” by shaking all their raised fingers in a kind of “jazz hands” gesture. So imagine me doing “jazz hands” for all involved with this splendid evening.