VIEWERS MIGHT SEE SOMETHING OF THEMSELVES ON TV SCREEN
SPIT IT OUT
Produced by Jonathan Skurnik and Jeff Shames
(Mint Leaf Productions, New York)
Reviewed by Warren Brown
There’s a delicious moment at the start of Spit It Out, Jeff Shames’ video documentary on stuttering. Jeff is standing on a largely deserted beach, reciting a poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, with pebbles in his mouth. He is trying to imitate Demosthenes, an orator in ancient Greece who believed that putting pebbles in his mouth and speaking over the sound of the sea might cure his stuttering.
After letting the pebbles fall from his mouth onto the sand, Jeff speaks directly to the camera to explain his experience. As he speaks — fairly fluently, I would have to say — his brow furrows. Then he spits out another pebble, flashes an impish grin and carries on talking. I guess the reason why the incident is so memorable for me is that we live in a world where so much of what we see on television is manufactured and rehearsed. TV emotions are stylised and homogenised. TV speech is smoothed to a steady and relentless fluency. Tears are used only for dramatic effect. Flashes of humanity are so often edited out.
The fact is life is often quirky. People who stutter are not always aware of what is happening in their mouth. I felt a great sense of relief seeing someone on screen talking with a pebble in his mouth that he didn’t know was there. Jeff’s on-camera blunder gives him warmth as a human being.
It is a warmth that he manages to sustain throughout his 55-minute documentary, filmed with the help of Mint Leaf Productions. It would be true to say that Jeff has rather more problems than most people and only some of those problems are related to his stuttering. He had a difficult relationship with his father, his parents split up when he was a teenager, he married a woman who developed a drinking problem and he has battled his own addiction to cannabis.
Perhaps it’s something to do with his competitive New York environment but he just keeps trying to pick himself up and turn his life around. He comes across like a middle-aged character from a Woody Allen movie — full of turmoil but searching relentlessly for solutions. His quest leads him to a FRIENDS convention, where he helps a nine-year-old boy deal with his feelings towards stuttering; to a National Stuttering Association convention, where he feels accepted as a human being; to a couple of gestalt therapists, who deal with his marriage problems; to Mel Tillis, a country and western singer who stutters; and to a New York theatre group for people who stutter, where he acts the role of a father whose son stutters.
What is perhaps unique about this documentary is that it looks at stuttering in terms of the relationships that people have with each other. Stuttering is a communication difficulty. Relationships are built on communication. If someone stutters in a relationship then that will have some effect on the way that that relationship develops.
How Jeff relates to his family plays a big part in this documentary. It left me thinking whether Jeff’s live would have been dramatically different if he had never begun stuttering.
Parts of the documentary evoke strong feelings of recognition and empathy. The most fraught part is when Jeff’s wife, Elisa DeCarlo, is talking on camera about her relationship with Jeff’s father, Bill, and she casually lets slip that Bill tried unsuccessfully to seduce her when she was dating Jeff many years ago. Bill’s come-on line was that there was something not quite good enough about Jeff but that he was the man she needed.
Jeff, who it seems had never suspected that such a thing had happened, becomes angry and upset, leading to an unscripted sequence in which Jeff repels his wife’s attempts to soothe him and splutters about how humiliated he feels because of his stuttering.
Perhaps it’s a good thing to witness someone else’s setbacks and their valiant attempts to overcome them. To see another person who stutters in those situations can be instructive, ennobling, embarrassing or cathartic.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that people should get hold of the video and watch it. It’s not light entertainment. They might see something of themselves on screen and gain insights from it.
Air Flow is the quarterly magazine of the New Zealand Speak Easy Association. Its library reference number is ISSN 1172-2355. The opinions presented in Air Flow are not necessarily those of NZ Speak Easy. All correspondence to the editor: Warren Brown, 250 Te Rapa Road, Hamilton 2001, New Zealand; ph/fax: 07 850 8234; or by e-mail at: email@example.com