This is where the story takes an unsavory turn. Shannon began secretly filming people interacting with him, giving unsuspecting, usually good-hearted people trying to help him the full Borat treatment. Then he produced shows with the videos in which he ridicules them in front of a live audience. To instigate more intense responses, he began intentionally falling down or pretending he was unable to reach a water bottle sitting on the ground. The fact is, with his crutches, skateboard, and extraordinary training and skill, his dexterity surpasses that of most people. It certainly exceeds the capacity of anyone with arthritis or other mobility limiting factors.
In his 2007 show Window Bench Traffic, he went so far as to bring a paying audience on buses to watch him humiliate random strangers in real-time. The dance performances of his shows are pure and accomplish what the best art does: elevates and ennobles the human condition. The rest is, to say the least, unkind. Shannon manipulates people into interacting with him, then drags them unknowingly into a performance, trading on the human impulse to help others so that he can generate content, ultimately making a point about how ignorant they are. Sasha Baron Cohen as Borat at least chooses targets who are, themselves, usually doing something harmful in some way.
“…we are ‘othering’ a disabled person by not fully embracing their situation as a normal variation.”
The question hangs in the air whether this was just punk-ing people to watch them flounder, Fail Army style, or whether new insights on human behavior were gleaned from treating empathetic people as ignorant rubes to be ridiculed. Sadly, his narcissistic impulses are all too familiar. We’ve seen these behaviors in people with untreated mental illness or personality disorders. In the absence of a diagnosis, it only requires observing these performances to see that he’s just mean and sh*tty.
We are told by an onscreen expert how terrible our assumptions of disability are, that we are “othering” a disabled person by not fully embracing their situation as a normal variation. Living through the appalling agony of joint pain can confirm for you that the experience does not feel like a normal variation. Bone necrosis is not like having big ears or being very tall. The expert, it turns out, is Susan Cumings, whose credentials are a Ph.D. in English. Currently a teacher at SUNY Albany, Cumings has no specific expertise in this area, and it’s unclear why she is commenting on medicine or the phenomenology of disability.
Currently, Shannon is working with children with conditions similar to his and seems to have settled into a less confrontational approach to dealing with it. With Crutch documentarians Sachi Cunningham and Chandler Evans weave together old video and new interviews and do a solid job of introducing us to Shannon while avoiding canonizing him. They even call him out on the ethics of his antagonistic street performance art. Those missteps take nothing away from his genius, ability, and perseverance. He successfully fused hip-hop sensibility with his unique approach to movement. Moving in his own way, he seems to float above the ground. The crutches do not keep him earthbound. They make him fly.
"…good job of presenting Shannon, while avoiding canonizing him..."