Bedding In: An interview with Liz Crow

In response to the coalition's benefits overhaul, Liz Crow is Bedding In.

Bedding In, the latest performance by artist-activist Liz Crow, has been created in response to the coalition’s attack on disability benefits. Over three days, Crow, who has a disabilty herself, will perform her “bed-life”: “I wear a public self that is energetic, dynamic and happening. I am also ill and spend much of life in bed,” says Crow. “The private self is neither beautiful nor grown up, it does not win friends or accolades, and I conceal it carefully.”

For forty minutes each day, viewers will be invited to approach the bed and engage Crow in “Bedside Conversations”, discussing the piece and its context. Here, Crow talks about disability hate crime, the role of art in social issues and the Paralympics' media coverage.

You ascribe a 50 per cent rise in disability hate crime to a propagandist campaign. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Over the past couple of years, and especially in the run up to the Paralympics, I’ve watched an extraordinarily divisive reporting of the benefits reforms in the press, particularly in the tabloids, across the political spectrum. They portray disabled people as inventing or exaggerating impairment, being too lazy to work and living lives of luxury at the taxpayer’s expense. They tell a story of disabled people as fraudsters and scroungers, in complete contradiction of the DWP’s own recorded fraud rate of 0.3 per cent. Alongside this press reporting, the reporting to police of disability hate crime has risen exponentially. Talking to other disabled people I know, many of us find we have become hyper-vigilant when out in public, and vast numbers have experienced disability-targeted aggression or worse. There’s been a rise in reported disability hate crime of 50 per cent and research from Glasgow Media Centre has at least partially attributed that to the fraudster/scrounger rhetoric. It’s a dangerous reporting in a time of austerity that encourages the general population erroneously to place blame on disabled people for the country’s financial woes.

What role can art play in politics and social issues?

Art can give glimpses into other people’s lives and broaden our view of the world. It can ask questions and present viewpoints not seen elsewhere. Artists are good at communicating, at raising difficult questions, and at exploring creative alternatives. Playful or provocative, it can make us see and think differently, make an emotional connection to audiences and go on working long after the piece is officially over. It can act as a provocation to spark a deeper debate about particular issues. We can only make change for the things we know about; for me, the most exciting art brings to light lives on the margins and invites the onlooker to become a part of creating change. In showing art in a range of settings, from galleries to schools, festivals to community settings, we can reach audiences who wouldn’t usually touch art, and audiences who wouldn’t usually touch politics, and take both by surprise.

Do you think participatory art such as Bedding In is a particularly effective means of engaging the public in social issues?

One of the things that Bedding In can do, which I haven’t much seen elsewhere is that it can portray the human story set within its broader social context. So the work is not just about me; I am symbolising the thousands of people who live a bed-life, but, particularly through the Bedside Conversations, I am able to enter into a dialogue with the public in a way that allows them to ask questions, relate it to their own lives and take it out beyond the gallery space. I could write about my bed-life, but there is something about playing it out in a public space that goes deeper to the heart of what that life means against the current backdrop of benefits reform. It is an opportunity to raise more challenging questions and to set the bed-life overtly within the present difficult political climate.

What do you hope would be the outcome of your performance?

I want to make a hidden group of thousands visible, but also to demonstrate that what others see as contradiction, as fraud, is simply the complexity of real life. For those of us with complicated, fluctuating and invisible impairments, the new benefits system has proved to be incapable of supporting us appropriately. The assessment process fails to measure these kinds of impairments and so we fall through the gaps. In doing so, we become even more invisible. My hope is that Bedding In will join a much larger conversation of disabled people, supporters, the Sparticus campaign, DPAC, Black Triangle, UK Uncut and others; that by using a wide range of approaches we can be much more effective in reaching many more people. My hope is that these voices combined will inform the public enough that their outrage will force a change in benefits reform towards a system that is more humane.

What do you make of the coverage of this year's Paralympics and its portrayal of those with disabilities?

The Paralympics was a strange, wild collision course for me, where the extremes of benefits and Paralympics reporting hit just as I make my way to my own benefits tribunal. It was exhilarating to see disabled athletes so completely and naturally at home in their bodies, and I think it shifted many people’s ideas of what disabled people can be, yet the experience was also bittersweet. Just as the athletes will struggle, away from the Olympic stadium, to live up to that ‘superhuman’ ideal, in the context of benefits reforms, the idea that “with determination” any disabled person (or non-disabled person!) could be superhuman has repercussions that are deadly serious. At the root of this is that we are measuring two very different groups of disabled people; the benefits classification system is based on a mechanical view of impairment that fits most athletes but which excludes those of us with chronic and fluctuating conditions, even though we are the most likely to be out of regular employment and in need of ESA.

What do you have planned next?

I’ll be taking another version of Bedding In to Salisbury in April (just as the replacement of DLA with PIP hits), this time occupying my bed round the clock for three days and broadcast on webcam.

Bedding In takes place at the Ipswich Art School Gallery as part of the SPILL Festival of Performance until 3 November.

Liz Crow in Bedding In.
MURRAY CLOSE/GETTY IMAGES
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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era