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'Sound and Fury'

Hearing challenges family's silent world in 'Sound and Fury'

Saturday, April 14, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Is silence golden or god-awful?

"Sound and Fury" asks that of the deaf for the only meaningful answer, which turns out to be -- both? neither?

'Sound and Fury'

Rating: Unrated, but PG in nature for domestic conflict.

Documentary Performers: The real-life Artinian family.

Director: Josh Aronson.

Web site:


Deafness runs through generations in the Artinian family, the "stars" of this wonderful Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Josh Aronson now playing at the Harris Theatre, Downtown. Thirtysomething Peter, wife Nita and all three of their small children were born deaf. They communicate superbly with one another through sign language, functioning happily and healthily in their Long Island deaf community until confronted with a major techno-existential crisis: the "miracle" of cochlear implants, by which many deaf brethren have been dramatically enabled to hear. Heather, their precocious 5-year-old, has learned of the device and wants one.

"When she came to me and said she wanted a cochlear implant, it upset me," says -- rather, signs -- Peter to the documentarists. "I'm really very happy being deaf. It's very peaceful. If someone gave me a pill to make me hearing, would I take it? No way. I'd spit it out!"

Meanwhile, other close family members face a variation of the same dilemma: Peter's brother Chris and his wife (both hearing) are devastated that one of their newborn twins is deaf and determined to do a cochlear implant on the infant. Grandma Marianne favors it for both Heather and the newborn. But Peter is deeply disturbed by the idea:

"It doesn't seem right for a deaf person to want this or do this. Our natural world is in sign language and with the deaf. ... English is just moving lips for me; it has no meaning. Signing is so real, so visual!"

We find out -- very quickly -- that the mainstream concept of deafness as a "handicap" differs radically from the deaf self-concept as a proud minority with higher, not fewer, skills than the society at large.

The close-knit Artinians are torn apart by the dispute, and Heather is too smart not to be aware of it. She could hardly fail to be, given the constant, heated arguments -- hands louder than voices -- among her elders. "I will talk AND sign," she says, trying in sweet, optimistic innocence to reconcile them and the problem. She wants to live in both worlds and thinks she can.

We think so, too, at first, in the presumed superiority of the hearing world. But in the United Deaf States of America, many -- including Heather's parents -- think otherwise and, as their debate rages, we are forced to rethink what initially seemed an obvious course of action.

Director Aronson was inspired to make this film by meeting a deaf woman who'd just had a cochlear implant and could talk on the phone for the first time in her life but was grieved to find deaf friends of 20 years rejecting her because of it. Such powerful emotional ambivalence infuses "Sound and Fury."

It is not just an intrafamilial but intracommunity battle, climaxing at an outdoor gathering -- the film's most marvelously complex scene -- with 15 signers' hands flying at once on both sides of a picnic table: "You feel deaf people are inferior!"... "The implant's a threat to your way of life!"... "Don't you want to hear the beautiful rain hitting the earth?"... "I can SEE the beautiful rain, taste it on my lips -- I don't need to HEAR it!"

Despite their powerful prejudices, Heather's dutiful parents explore all the options, taking her -- and us -- to visit hearing and nonhearing families with cochlear-implant kids, before finally discovering a 130-year-old school for the deaf in Frederick, Md., the deaf-oriented community of which nails down their decision.

Brother Chris and sister-in-law Mari make an equally difficult, equally brave decision -- rising above all the dual demons of peer-group doubt and parental guilt.

Using excellent voice-over "translators" unobtrusively matched to the characters (rather than subtitles), Aronson captures these remarkable people in a natural, objective way that puts to shame "Survivor" gimmickry -- those pretenses of real people "captured by" but in fact performing for the camera as much as any card-carrying Screen Actors Guild member.

By contrast, these chubby Artinian menschen ARE real -- no heroes or villains among them, wrestling with one other in pure love over a vital collective identity crisis. Fine parents, all, in a wrenching generational, cultural and community conflict -- striving to make the right decision, and doing so in heartbreakingly different ways.

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