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Big Screen, Little People
by Angela Mac

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Glad I'm not the only one neighbors bother.

Glad I'm not the only one neighbors bother.
"A man who wished for nothing more than solitude."

Any number of actors could claim a stab at that role. It's a brilliant opening. A deft keyboard could take that morsel and stroll into Anti-Hero Land, or the recesses of situation comedy, with equal eclat.

Or even a decommissioned train station.

That's where Peter Dinklage ended up.

In 2003's THE STATION AGENT, Dinklage portrayed a man who inherited a matchbox sized, defunct train station. Far off the beaten track, his intention was to enjoy the quiet, and watch the trains pass. As hot dog vendors and locals have a tendency to hinder plans, the solitude doesn't last long. A slice of the story film, we arrive in the midst of a new beginning for Finbar (Dinklage), and depart somewhere in the middle. Just long enough for the brilliance of THE STATION AGENT to pierce through.

It's a film that was much overdue.

What writer/director Thomas McCarthy accomplished in that hour and half was tapping into a nest of realizations a previous century worth of film hadn't much bothered to acknowledge. What's life like for a man with dwarfism? Certainly, it can't be all time traveling and dancing around. Love life? Societal response? By the time the credits roll, so does the big question: why hadn't a film of this gravity been crafted fifty years before?

A Rose is a Rose

Contrary to the wealth of misinformation lauded as public opinion P.T. Barnum did not coin the phrase, "There's a sucker born every minute."

He also did not create, nor advertise, the term, "midget."

By most accounts, one of the earliest appearances of "midget" appeared in a novel by that bellwether lass, Harriet Beecher Stowe (the little lady who started that great, big war). If we were functioning in a world where words were harmless, then certainly one so closely resembling the name of a bikini-clad lovely would be welcomed. However, words in this world bear both origin and definition. "Midget" is about as far away from the pleasant ring of "Gidget" one can get. Derived from "midge" a gnat-like insect -- it's understandable that people with dwarfism might want to shake a fist at use of such a inherently derogatory term.

... but they didn't always.

In Hollywood's very first full cast of Little People, THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN (1938), one of the very first images bears the intro, "Jed Buell's Midgets'' and announces an "All Midget Cast". Not a case of an oblivious Hollywood, rather, the term was simply in favor at the time.

Dwarfism is far from a singular event; a blanket term for over 200 conditions resulting in heights below 4'10". Achondroplasia is the most common, affecting 1 in 25,000 people (Peter Dinklage among them), and deals with disproportionate arms and legs. Proportion plays into the terminologies a great deal.

In Barnum's day, and continuing well after, traveling shows were big business -- Little People a staple of them. It seems the status of Little People in the circuit was cleft in twain: the proportionate and disproportionate. Proportionate dwarfs, such as Barnum alum General Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton), were considered Midgets, and more star than an "attraction"; an inferred distinction which carried into Hollywood and beyond.
Little Guys with Big Guns? Boy, sure never works out that way for me...

Little Guys with Big Guns? Boy, sure never works out that way for me...

So, where did the phrasing "Little People" come into play?

The first national gathering of Dwarfs was held by one, Billy Barty, under the banner, "Midgets of America". Given the presence of so many disproportionate dwarfs, the name was changed to, "Midgets and Dwarfs of America". As "Dwarf" numbers quickly overtook the "Midget" numbers, a compromise was reached: Little People of America. Thus, leaving us with Little People as a proper term.

Use of "Dwarf" fell by the wayside with the advent of "Little People" then regained popularity later on. But Little People? Outside, looking in, referring to an adult as little seems possibly as derogatory as basing a person's label upon a midge. Perhaps that's the trapping of being part of a title-enabling society at large, to begin with.

Oh, You So Funny!

Monkeys don't amuse me. It doesn't matter if they're playing an instrument, are dressed like humans, nor even smoking a cigar -- not funny. I can comprehend the methodology behind the audience giggles ("He's acting human but he's NOT human! My ribs hurt!"), but it just doesn't smack the funny bone in my head around.

Watching THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN yields a similar nonplussed stare. Billed as "A Rollickin' Rootin' Tootin' Shootin' Drama of the Great Outdoors," the action plays out on a stock Western set, brimming with cattle rustling and the blazing riding footage that was standard in the Western film genre. Blazing, indeed. Little People being little cowboys, on their Shetland ponies. It's painful to see actors onscreen, diligently working through their characters, while having to, quite literally, tackle a set designed for a breed of persons with considerably longer legs. Though tailored to an audience in the final days of The Great Depression, I can just imagine how locals to this day would find uproarious humor in a villain who moseys into the saloon, easily sweeping in below the swinging doors, a bartender who can barely see over the bar or the cattle thieves roping calves instead of cows. The depiction of Little People in cinema has, thankfully, come a long way.

... but not because Werner Herzog helped them along.

EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL is repugnant. Some people bill it as a "beautiful work of art", some, as a comedy. I'd say both are correct if the viewer happens to be of the small caliber of person stricken with a severe mental sickness which allows them to find piglets nursing off their murdered mother amid the heckling laughter of deranged Dwarfs to be a beautiful or humorous event, supersaturated with meaning. Touted as an allegory on the dangers of ostracism, the film is, instead, an experiment in Herzog yet again confusing "artistic" with "audaciously indulgent".

Meaning can be derived from anything, warranted or not. To that end, sure, EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL reveals the horrors of how irreparably the human mind can become warped, if tucked away from the world and left to its own devices. Question is: would there have been a better way of presenting that unsettling notion than smacking piglets with sticks, murdering a pig, then torturing the piglets, then using a chicken's body as a torch, then crucifying a monkey? One would certainly hope so. That said, the first quarter or so was mesmerizing, seeming to lead somewhere of interest unfortunately,
Little Guys with Big Guns? Boy, sure never works out that way for me...
that somewhere was a doll-like Dwarf with the most creepy laugh in the universe, misconduct towards animals, a food fight, pyromania, a cock fight, tying a steering wheel so a truck drives unmanned in a tight circles ... and then the movie ended, ultimately arriving nowhere. Perhaps craft services stumbled upon a field of shrooms, and following lunch, all copies of the script were directly sacrificed to Ares.

None too soon, the 80's arrived, bringing with it, TIME BANDITS. Finally, Little People who weren't hiding behind Ewok masks, or skipping down a yellow brick road! One might laugh with Randall and his compadres, but no one would dare laugh at them. While working for The Supreme Being, a group of friends, all with dwarfism, happen upon a map of secret back doors to Earth's timeline. A masterful Terry Gilliam romp, TIME BANDITS presented the timeline trotting group in a most affable light. Names like Randall, and Wally are quickly gleaned and immediately invested in. Certainly, towards the end of the film, when Wally finds himself attached to a rope that's just snapped, I gasp in fright, every time. The humor which transpired didn't occur because they were small, rather, because the characters were being funny.

The tactic of letting the characters do the work was most definitely furthered in WILLOW. Focusing on a plot and the people who filled it allowed the size of the Little People of WILLOW to be a detail, rather than a definition of the film.

Possibly the most genius move in a film presenting the world of dwarfism, though, would be casting an actor who hadn't been born with dwarfism. Gary Oldman stepped up to the task in TIPTOES. Matthew McConaughey portrayed Steven, the full-sized brother to Oldman's Little Person, Rolfe. When Steven's girlfriend becomes pregnant, he's forced to admit the truth of his lineage to her -- that he is the only normal-sized member of his family. What follows is something so rarely seen in large casts of Little People: simply being people. There's a family, friends, pasts, lovers, and at the end of the day, it's not the people with dwarfism who harbor difficulty with the condition.

Since THE STATION AGENT and TIPTOES, there has been a reality television show, LITTLE PEOPLE, BIG WORLD centered upon the lives of a set of parents with dwarfism, and their children (one with, and three without).

It's incongruous to think a group of people who have been such an integral part of cinema are still discriminated against in both places of work and education. Over the years, society has paid to see Little People as everything from cowboys to masterminds to time travelers, and yet, the startling reality is, they're not welcomed in the police nor military. What a drastic change from the days when many Native American tribes believed Little People to be imbued with magical powers, and worthy of revered, priestly positions.

This trend in expository dwarfism in cinema and on television (how delicious was Meredith Eaton on BOSTON LEGAL?) can hopefully accomplish leaps forward in society's understanding and acknowledgement of their stories, their lives.

And really, not allowed in the military? I'd bet even Al Qaeda would shudder at the sight of a red raincoat.

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Other columns by Angela Mac:

Fetish Lovers Unlock Secret Joy in Film

Not Just for Chewing: Aluminum Foil in Film

Roller Skating: Not Just for Porn Stars

How Much is that Actor in the Window?

Time Travels for the Resolution Impaired

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Angela Mac
Coming Soon.

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