Wednesday, June 2, 2010

American Psyche

by Drew Martin

One of my favorite television shows when I was growing up in the 1970s was The Six Million Dollar Man, also known as the Bionic Man. Every kid who watched it would mimic the bionic sound effects (used for Steve Austin's mojo moments) whenever we did something we thought was impressive and needed special attention, such as jumping over a log in the woods and especially during slow motion fights.

The show had a lasting affect on me: I was obsessed with artificial parts, which became the theme of several science projects. In middle school, I typed (on a typewriter) a 40-page English term paper on the history of prosthetics. In high school, I designed a spring-action artificial leg for runners before there was such a thing and for one graphic arts project I made a commemorative stamp for the Jarvik-7: the first human implanted artificial heart, for a patient awaiting a real, donated heart transplant.

When my mother checked in to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York a couple weeks ago to have her right knee replaced, hovering over the natural concern of a grown child for a parent was an element of fascination that I would have a Bionic mother.

This past Memorial Day Monday, my family went up to the Helen Hayes Rehabilitation Center to visit her. On the way there, my father suggested a detour by a house in Haverstraw, New York, which Edward Hopper used (and modified) in 1925 for his House by the Railroad. In the August 29, 1996 The Atlantic Monthly article Someplace Like Home, the piece's author, Paul Bochner, writes:

"The picture's quality of solitude is due in part to the radical surgery performed upon the model by the artist, who reinvented the architecture of many of his subjects. In this case he amputated the entire right side of the building, leaving the the central tower to nothing..."

It's an ironic and appropriate choice of words for this nearby attraction to the physical rehabilitation center. Hopper's House was used by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960 as his template for Norman Bates' house in Psycho. Likewise, Charles Addams drew a version of it for the mansion of the Addams Family. The House by the Railroad has been referenced in many other movies and visuals: Hopper's seed took root, deep in the American mind.

Similarly, the Bionic Man (as well as the spin-off character, the Bionic Woman) drastically changed a nation's thinking about something very matter-of-fact; disability. In this case it turned the injured body from a condition to be pitied into something of power. On my first memorable visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art as a kid, I vividly recall a hip, young woman passing in front of me, whose arm facing me had been amputated. She wore a crude artificial limb made of Band-Aid-tan plastic, with the split steel hook in place of a hand. My immediate impression was that she looked cool with it and I was taken by how casual she was about it; wearing a tank-top as if to show it off. The fact that I witnessed this in the Museum simply included the encounter as part of all the other visual stimulation and precious objects.

In 1946, The Best Years Of Our Lives beat out a line of film classics at the Oscars, including It's A Wonderful Life, Henry V, The Razor's Edge and The Yearling. Part of this had to do with the sobering performance by Harold Russell for the character Homer.

Unlike more modern films, such as Forest Gump, where amputation is a special effect, Russell had lost both of his arms in service during WWII. In the film, you witness his struggles and life with prosthetics as a double amputee. It is an inspiring and moving display of human effort and will. Previously, prosthetics were left to the roguish characters: Captain Hook and Captain Ahab.

On the other end of the spectrum, superheroes were models of perfect health and whole bodies, i.e. Superman. Aided powers may have been found in utility belts (Batman) and suits (Iron Man) which reference magic wands, swords, potions and cloaks of medieval tales; and, there was never a shortage of heroes, which were really reincarnations of Egyptian and Greek myths and other sources of hybrid creatures and animism. To my knowledge, the Bionic Man was the first popular image of mechanically integrated and post-human powers. That is quite different than Frankenstein's cadaverous monster and Fritz Lang's android, Hel (after the Norse goddess).

The Bionic Man established a new era of powers as well as expectations for science, design and the health care industry to meet. While Hopper took the mundane and raised its status to something exceptional, the Bionic Man elevated a crippled man to superhero status. This is the American embellishment to pragmatism. It is not a decorative or magical transformation but an embedded, functional shift, where a lone house becomes haunted (or at least haunting) and a machine is souped up.

The opening narration of The Six Million Dollar Man by Oscar Goldman is full of this transforming technological hope:

Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.

Driving by the Hopper house, one can see that it was just a house and nothing more than that, plus someone's imagination; and, seeing my mother use a walker and a wheelchair while getting used to her rebuilt knee offered the candid reality that we are mere mortals with lofty minds and a few good tricks.

(Pictured above is the world-class runner, Oscar Pistorius, from South Africa)