APRIL 20, 2018
THE PREMISE OF A Quiet Place is that sign language helps a besieged family survive. The Shape of Water and Wonderstruck, too, were centrally about Deaf characters.  Baby Driver also had a Deaf actor, and the short film The Silent Child featured a Deaf actress. Most of these latter films were nominated for Academy Awards, and two won. Unlike films in which deafness is featured as an oddity, a lack, or a sign of difference, most of these new films point to deafness as a positive and useful thing. This cinematic trend is in keeping with advances in Deaf studies. Dirksen Bauman and Joseph J. Murray, for example, have come up with the term “Deaf gain” to counter the idea of “hearing loss.” They argue that society has seen deafness as a deficit but that it should be seen as an asset. Their terminology, they write, highlights “the myriad ways in which both deaf people and society at large have benefited from the existence of deaf people and sign language throughout recorded human history.”
Co-written and directed by John Krasinski, A Quiet Place is a post-apocalyptic horror film about Deaf gain. Starring Emily Blunt and Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, the film follows the Abbotts, a family living in a world in which blind, ravenous, hideous aliens have invaded the Earth apparently for the sole purpose of devouring humans. Since the aliens are blind, they have incredibly sensitive hearing, and the slightest sound will bring them to the audible source in a matter of seconds. Fortunately for the Abbotts, their daughter Regan is Deaf and speaks American Sign Language (ASL). We have to assume that the family all learned to speak it in order to communicate with Regan. Because of their “gain” from ASL, they can communicate with each other silently, thus giving them an advantage over all the other humans who didn’t and are presumably dead.
The film asks us to consider deafness and silence. There is minimal dialogue, mostly in ASL, with subtitles for the hearing audience. When we get Regan’s point of view, the soundtrack drops out of the film entirely so we just hear the ambient sounds in the theater — rustling of paper, eating of popcorn, whispers. We are reminded that silence is both noise and absence, that there really is no silence in the world except for the profoundly deaf. The film also can be raucous and cacophonous when the alien appears, but more than other films, A Quiet Place puts us in the position of listening very carefully — to the creak in the floorboards, the whimper of a baby, the groan of pain from a minor accident — all of which can trigger a horrific attack on the sound maker.
In a telling moment, Lee, the father, played by Krasinski, takes his young son on a dangerous expedition to open fish traps in a nearby river. The son, who presumably spent his last 475 days post-invasion being as quiet as possible, is terrified of making noise and attracting the monsters. But the father makes the point that a louder noise can mask lesser ones. Behind a massive waterfall, Lee yells as loudly as possible to the terror of his son, who then learns that he, too, can lustily yell because the waterfall creates its curtain of white noise. The camera angle moves us from the power of the human scream to another position where we see them yelling but can only hear the waterfall. The viewers are being taught the nuances and gradients of sounds and silence as the sound design in the film becomes central to the viewing experience.
Without a noisy soundtrack to distract us, we also are taught to look at the visuals with a more leisurely and enhanced cinematic eye. As Ben Bahan has described Deaf people with the phrase “people of the eye,” so the viewer becomes more visually attuned when watching. If you see this movie in a theater, you will have to sit through 20 minutes of trailers which are an assault on sight and sound — the standard fare of films that rely on upping the ante for habituated viewers who need more and more powerful stimuli to get a kick from their movie fix. Dropping out sound and most dialogue makes us pay attention to the visual details — the rows of corn in the field, the trails of sand laid out to avoid making crunching footfalls, the strings of lights in the night that serve as warnings when they all turn red. Even the backstory of the film is represented visually, with no aural cues, through notes and newspaper articles that Lee has tacked onto his workroom wall to try and figure out what happened and what, if any, are the weaknesses of the insect-like overlords.
The Deaf gain of the film reaches its peak as Regan realizes something about the external processor she is wearing, a perpetually broken cochlear implant. Her father, who is a technical wiz and tinkerer, is trying to fix the device. In his subterranean laboratory with banks of black-and-white televisions and various dials, microphones, and gear that harken back to 1950s sci-fi films, he solders the processor and offers it to his daughter who refuses, signing: “They don’t work. They never work.” Nevertheless, she puts it on with teenage disgust, and when we get her audio POV, we hear the silence that, paradoxically, indicates that it doesn’t work.
It is precisely this “not working” that ends up saving the family. In a scary crisis amid all the other frightening ones (this is, after all, a horror film), the alien approaches Regan and she experiences brain-cracking feedback from the implant that makes her double up in pain, but so does the alien who writhes along with her. We begin to realize, as does Regan, that because of the alien’s exquisite hearing, visualized in the film by a mucus-filled, throbbing orifice that is its ear, the monster cannot stand the feedback either, which seems to interact with its proprioception and jams it. The cochlear implant, not to make too light of this, turns out to be the monster’s kryptonite. And the only person who can perceive this and knows what to do about it, is the Deaf character. Deaf gain indeed.
As A Quiet Place is set back in time, so, too, is Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck. Based on the novel by Brian Selznick, and also featuring the same Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck takes place in two eras — the 1920s and the 1970s. Selznick’s novel uses only pictures to tell the story of Rose, the daughter of a silent film star, in the 1920s. Haynes transforms that telling into a black-and-white silent film, featuring intertitles and pantomime.
We call films before 1929 “silent films,” but for the original viewers, these were just films: Deaf people could go to the movies on an equal par with hearing viewers. Deaf actors, playing hearing characters, were then highly valued for their facial expressions and communicative body language. But when sound entered film, it changed our relationship to the image. Aside from banning deaf people from the theater and the production lot, it also changed the way we see movies, diluting the purely visual with the audiovisual. This is, in fact, a plot point in Wonderstruck: one of the inciting incidents for Rose’s pursuit of her actress mother in Manhattan is the temporary closing of a local film theater that is transitioning to talkies.
Both the book and film also take on the controversy between oralism and signing. Deaf education began in the 18th and 19th centuries with Deaf teachers teaching sign language to Deaf students. But by the mid-19th century, the pendulum had swung toward oral-only education — what is now considered an oppressive intervention by hearing people into the lives of the Deaf. Rose is pictured as the victim of this educational trend. Her father insists that she read a book about oralism written by her private tutor. Haynes has us look at purely anatomical pictures of the mouth and throat, which Rose sees as hideous and tears out the pages of the book, a reduction of herself to a medical problem. Eventually, saved by her brother Walter, she attends a Deaf school where she learns sign language; she lives a fuller life within Deaf culture and meets her future husband.
Parallel with Rose’s story is that of Ben (Oakes Fegley), a boy from Minnesota who is struck by lightning and becomes deaf temporarily but doesn’t know sign language. The clunky plot of the movie has him try to find his father in New York City and ultimately to meet up with Rose, now an older woman played by Julianne Moore, who turns out to be his grandmother. Todd Haynes and Brian Selznick consulted with Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, both well-known experts in Deafness and both Deaf themselves, so the story has an informed feeling. But there was controversy within the Deaf community about casting hearing actress Moore to play the adult Rose when there are so many capable Deaf actresses who might have stepped in. Amelia Hensley, a Deaf actor from Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening blogged under the hashtag #fuckwonderstruck: “to have hearing person to play as deaf role was really hard for me to watch it. I couldn’t really enjoy the movie. I was restless. After the movie is over, I have to go to bathroom to cry … I couldn’t handle anymore. Enough is enough.” She also objected to using Simmonds, who speaks ASL, in a purely silent and mute role, while Moore, who isn’t fluent in ASL, plays the Rose who uses signs.
While both A Quiet Place and Wonderstruck might be said to have benefited from a Deaf perspective — whether from the hearing director working with the Deaf actress herself or from Deaf consultants — The Shape of Water falls into clichés about mutism and sign language that betray its all-hearing production. The film suggests that mute characters, like the Deaf, are simple people who have a kind of innocence and that sign language is just gesture and therefore equally simple and easy to understand.
The film’s main character, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), is mute and uses ASL to speak. How she lost her voice is a bit vague. We learn that as an infant she was discovered next to a river with scars on her neck that apparently damaged her vocal cords. She grew up in an orphanage, but how she learned ASL is left equally vague. There are only two people she communicates with in the film: her gay next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her African-American co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). The film’s hackneyed representation of mutism as disability and sign language as primitive may well be because Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor had little experience with the realities of sign language. Or it may be because the film is set up so that the true identity of Elisa is left deliberately vague — is she a human or actually a sea-creature herself? Is this a fairy tale or a realist story?
It may seem deliberately dense to make Deaf activist complaints about the film since it fits into the genre of magical realism and, true enough, the main character isn’t deaf, just mute. But there is a very large body of criticism on disability stereotypes in literature and film that makes it hard to see this film without becoming aware of its pitfalls.
To begin with, the mute character falls into a long line of naïfs who are disabled and isolated. You can think of Lon Chaney’s deaf hunchback, the character played by Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, or John Singer in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Such characters are both simple and idealized. Sally Hawkins described how she understood her character: “Finding the purity of Elisa, and getting her soul right […] That purity of her soul was important […] I think it’s something we are often really, really missing in this world.” Mute Elisa is the typical Deaf innocent even though she can hear.
In addition, Elisa has no Deaf friends. But sign language is a social language, learned and practiced with other Deaf people. The blithe way that Giles and Zelda “understand” Elisa belies what ASL is all about. There is even a scene in which Giles is looking in a mirror and not at Elisa but he responds to her signing without seeing her. Moreover, the complexity of ASL communication is undercut by the screenplay, which has Elisa speak in the simplest of words. In fact, for the majority of the movie, Elisa says no more than two or three words at a time. And the only scene in which she really has a substantial monologue is voiced by the hearing Giles because she awkwardly asks him to “say what I sign.” Clearly this gambit is the director’s attempt to make the monologue more meaningful to a hearing audience by having it voiced. Or, as del Toro put it, “I knew that because I had a mute character […] I wanted a monologue. I knew the monologue would be interesting because it needed to be verbalized through a second character.”
Elisa at this point “speaks” through Giles after he says that the creature is a “thing.” She responds through Giles’s ventriloquism: “And what am I? I move my mouth — like him — and I make no sound — like him. What does that make me?” Then she goes on, “The way he looks at me, he doesn’t know what I lack … or how I am incomplete.” For many disabled and Deaf people, such a statement echoes the response they face from “normal” people who continually see them as being incomplete or flawed. While del Toro wants us to see that love conquers all, he nevertheless leaves us with the idea that not speaking is a minus rather than a “gain.”
It is hard to say why Deafness is suddenly grabbing the attention of the film industry. Perhaps the work of Deaf scholars and activists is finally percolating down into the creative unconscious. Disability and Deafness are latecomers to the diversity movement and perhaps filmmakers see these as ways to deal with relatively untreated subjects in the portrayal of minority identities.
Paradoxically, though, as Deafness becomes the next big thing, it is also represented as something increasingly historical. It is worth noting that A Quiet Place, Wonderstruck, and The Shape of Water are either period pieces or strongly evoke the past. Could this be because hearing people are increasingly seeing deafness as a historical condition? It has long been argued in the Deaf community that cochlear implants are an attempt by hearing people to eliminate the Deaf community, its history and language. While this may be an overstatement, the reality is that because 95 percent of deaf babies are born to hearing parents, there is a strong push on the part of audiologists and cochlear device companies to implant these electronics on as many deaf infants as possible and as early as possible. While these implants don’t restore hearing, they are perceived by the general public as doing so. That public is then writing screenplays, directing films, and going to the movies with the thought that deafness has gone the way of the horse and buggy.
While it is exciting to see these films, among others, trying to show us Deafness as a part of diversity and as something that is a “gain” rather than a loss, we won’t fully get the Deaf experience on screen until writers, directors, and actors are actually Deaf people themselves. Right now we have movies about Deafness for hearing people. We can hope for a future with many Deaf and disabled stars, but till that time, we must remain content to be “people of the eye” on rare occasions and get our gains when and where we can.
 I’ll be using upper-case “Deaf” to indicate those who are part of the Deaf culture and community and use sign language. Lower-case “deaf” simply refers to those with a hearing impairment.