Out-of-focus black and white images are accompanied by a mysterious scratching, a ringing phone, an answering machine: “This is John. I’m a little too depressed to take your call just now. Please leave your message after the gunshot.” The camera focuses, revealing an extreme close-up of John Callahan, the craggy-faced quadriplegic cartoonist, at work, both of his partially paralyzed hands guiding a flow pen across a sketchpad.
This is the deft, darkly humorous opening scene of Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel, director Simone de Vries’ intimate profile of an artist whose work cuts through hypocrisy with minimalist simplicity and outrageous political incorrectness. The film captures Callahan in his power wheelchair as he cruises his Portland, Oregon, neighborhood, encountering street people and latte lovers, skateboarders and staring old ladies, haggard amputees and trendy joggers, all potential grist for his edgy gags. The editor of an alternative newspaper claims that Callahan has “the soul of a poet and the intellect of an assassin”; screen-size cartoons are paired with “Dear Editor” complaints from readers perplexed by his subversive humor and social satire. The effect is humorous, but the documentary invites deeper reflection.
Callahan tells his story: drunken car crash, spinal cord injury, recovering alcoholic, lack of sensation (“I still feel like a floating head”). Admirers including Robin Williams and Tom Waits make cameo appearances, and the sound track reveals Callahan the singer-songwriter. Inevitably, the lens turns to Callahan singing, exposing his heart, his rich irony, his sadness. In the end, the title song, “Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel,” elicits a playful smile.