A few days ago I watched the film “Armless”. Having previously seen Quid Pro Quo, I was hoping for a similar nice overview of BIID but with more of a lighthearted touch, as the film was supposed to be a comedy. This, I thought, would be an interesting mixture and something that I believe the right filmmakers could have pulled off very well.
Let me start by saying that it failed at both. It’s probably the worst representation of BIID that I have seen from the media (even worse than the recent Jewel Shuping story), and this is particularly disappointing considering that this film was released two years later than Quid Pro Quo, the latter of which gave an almost perfect representation. The comedy elements are also rather cheap, and are incredibly thin and dry most of the time. The plot also remains rather flat, and the ending is disappointing although could have been better with a different build-up.
Nevertheless there were a few funny moments, and perhaps two continued gags. There’s plenty to keep a viewer laughing on the surface for most of the film, but it’s not the kind of in-depth, well-planned comedy that I value. And considering that there is pretty much no value in the film from a BIID perspective – if anything it does more harm than good – I can’t see any reason for someone to watch this film over and above any other mediocre comedy, BIID sufferer or otherwise.
I’ve given a more in-depth look at the film below, however this section contains spoilers. You have been warned.
I’m not going to go into too much detail, but the summary is as follows: a man, named John, is shown recording a message on his wife’s answering machine before leaving home and running off to “the city” (New York). Once he gets there, he checks into a hotel room. Meanwhile, his wife, Anna, gets home and finds that he is gone. On digging through his drawer, she finds a photograph of a man with the arms cut out.
The next day, John buys a power saw, while Anna is shown talking to his mother. Then John goes to the hospital and finds the room for Dr. Richard Phillips. The doctor’s receptionist tries to book an appointment for him, but he insists on waiting right there until the doctor comes out of his previous appointment. Eventually Dr. Phillips comes to see John, who begins hinting at why he is there – to have his arms amputated – but is afraid to say it explicitly. John thinks that the doctor will understand him, believing that he has performed other voluntary amputations in the past, but the doctor does not understand, forcing John to spell it out, whereupon John eventually realises that he has found the wrong Dr. Phillips.
Anna decides to go search for John, reluctantly accompanied by John’s mother who insisted on coming with despite Anna’s objections. They first drive to the city, then Anna pulls over and phones John’s credit card company to locate the hotel where John is staying. John, meanwhile, is desperately on the phone trying to track down another Dr. Phillips in the area. He is interrupted by Anna’s arrival.
John and Anna then talk in his room for some time, and eventually he reveals his desire to have his arms amputated to her. He gets upset and is trying to calm himself when Anna discovers the power saw in his bag, which John does not want to reveal what it is for but we can infer that Anna works it out. Anna tries to understand John’s feelings but struggles, leading to her asking John to stop feeling that way, which he promises he would.
Nevertheless, John leaves the next morning with a note saying that he cannot change how he feels, and he runs off to Dr. Phillips’s office and locks himself in the closet with the power saw, intending to amputate his arms himself. Dr. Phillips arrives a few minutes later and protests, but is unable to intervene as John has locked the closet door from the inside and neither Dr. Phillips or his receptionist has the key. Anna, meanwhile, searches the hotel room and discovers a business card that Dr. Phillips had insisted on giving John the previous day, so she rushes off after John and arrives at Dr. Phillips’s office a little while later again.
After taunting the people outside the closet multiple times with the sound of his power saw, John eventually declares that he will amputate his arms and Anna, through her tears, mumbles “yes”. We then hear the power saw running loudly while Dr. Phillips’s assistant starts banging on the door handle with a fire extinguisher to bash it open. The door flies open and John is sitting on the floor in a bundle, looking rather scared, and the power saw is bolted to a shelf some distance away. John declares that he was unable to get the courage to amputate his arms, and the film ends.
The good points
Despite the overall weak plot, there are some interesting scenes here and there. John’s mother is an amusing character, although rather stereotypical. The initial interactions between John and Dr. Phillips’s receptionist, and later Dr. Phillips himself, really make the viewer laugh despite John’s later disappointment. Similarly so with the aftermath of the meeting between John and the doctor, where first John and later the doctor are both shown with a telephone directory dialling every private medical practice in the area to locate another Dr. Phillips. There are also a few places where a seemingly minor plot point later becomes significant, such as with the business card from the doctor, and these add a nice sense of surprise to the film.
Additionally, while the ending is not what I was hoping for, it does make the viewer laugh simply because it follows the rules of humour: after the build-up, the viewer expects that when the door is bashed open there will blood all over the room, John will be standing there with no arms, and perhaps there are two arms lying on the floor below the power saw. A gruesome-sounding picture I know but it looks funny as one anticipates it. Then when the door is opened and the scene is completely opposite to what is expected, the viewer must release their energy of anticipation and this is what causes the laughter. For me, however, this laughter felt somewhat empty as the ending nevertheless felt flat despite the amusement.
The bad points
There is a lot that I could say here, but overall the plot and comedy are weak in a lot of places, which detracts from the overall quality and enjoyment of the film. Although the film does make the viewer laugh, it does so in a rather textbook manner and this enjoyment feels rather empty and superficial. The plot is incredibly predictable in places, probably as a result of the fact that the film follows a somewhat established comedy format and does not have much in the way of originality.
The humorous elements are in many places poorly integrated with the plot. For example, John’s mother – who becomes one of the main sources of amusement in the film – is tagged along with Anna on her search to find John, but then disappears in a somewhat undeveloped manner never to be seen again. Similarly so where Dr. Phillips is in fact at the bar in the same hotel where John is staying the evening after John’s meeting with him – something that feels like it should have more significance but the viewer is unable to find this significance because really there isn’t any.
I’ve already spoken about the ending, but I’ll just say again here that while it is successful at getting a laugh, there really needs to be more to make it feel like a satisfying ending, which it isn’t.
Portrayal of BIID
I’ve kept this section separate as it is somewhat of a different issue. Overall I would say that I am incredibly disappointed with the inaccuracies in this area, considering that this film is two years more recent than the almost-perfectly-accurate Quid Pro Quo. John’s feelings towards his arms are underdeveloped initially, making it seem as if it is more of a compulsive disorder than an identity issue, and when his feelings are developed they are developed in a way that implies the wrong cause for BIID: he is shown to be wanting some mixture of the experience of the pain of losing his arms, the difficulty of overcoming the loss of his arms, and the resulting dependence on others – three “causes” of BIID which have been suggested by sufferers before but there is no real evidence to suggest that these are really the cause of any instances of BIID, and if there are people who have these reasons I suspect that there issue is something other than BIID.
The one nice point (and ironically enough this is where Quid Pro Quo fell down) is that the brief representation of the BIID community is mostly accurate. John refers to an online chatroom for people with BIID, and this sounds somewhat more similar to the mailing list that I’m subscribed to and the former transabled.org than Quid Pro Quo’s “underground communities” did. While the topic highlighted is the recommendation of doctors willing to perform voluntary amputations, it is implied that there is other discussion in the chatroom as well and the recommendation of doctors is not too far off as I have actually seen such discussion in some of the more obscure BIID-related forums.
This, then, makes it even more disappointing that a little while later when Dr. Phillips refers to BIID – the one place that it is mentioned explicitly in the film – he gets the name wrong: the correct name is “Body Integrity Identity Disorder”, but he calls it “Body Identity Integrity Disorder” (the latter implies that it is referring to the integrity of one’s body identity, which is not the case; it is an identity disorder concerning the integrity of one’s body). This may have been intended to represent his lack of any real interest in John’s struggles, however it requires the viewer to already know about BIID to pick up on this so I doubt that that is the intended effect; more likely it is an error on the part of the filmmakers.
The portrayal goes incredibly downhill from there, as it is later in John’s hotel room with Anna that it is then revealed what the origins of his BIID-style desires are, and as I’ve already explained this is not accurate at all. The one generally-correct detail is that John’s feelings started after seeing an amputee at a young age, however the rest is completely off-track with the way that this event made him feel and is not at all like what real-life sufferers of BIID describe their feelings to be when they see someone with their required disability.
Overall the film leaves the viewer thinking that BIID sufferers are irrational and they get the wrong idea about how a BIID sufferer really feels, a stark contrast with Quid Pro Quo where the feelings of BIID sufferers are shown in a way that the viewer can empathise with then and accept them as people despite their condition. (Noticeably, however, the latter film didn’t really look at what triggers BIID, which is the one area that this film almost got right.)
Overall I do not recommend this film at all. There is better comedy out there if that’s what you’re after, and there are better portrayals of BIID if that’s what you’re after. This film combines a completely misleading representation of BIID with poor-quality comedy, leaving nothing to be desired. Watching this film with the hope of learning about BIID is only going to do more harm than good for sufferers of BIID, and yourself if you suspect that you have BIID and are trying to learn more about the condition. If a neatly-presented, accessible overview of BIID is what you’re after, I strongly recommend that you watch Quid Pro Quo; you won’t get that from this film. If you’re looking for comedy with a twist, this isn’t it. This comedy is bog-standard, just with a weirdo sick guy thrown in as the main character.