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Autism and the Movies

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Do the recent spate of movies dealing with autism and Asberger’s syndrome present a shift in a wider understanding of the condition?

Wikipedia define it:

Asperger syndrome, also known as Asperger’s syndrome or Asperger disorder, is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and atypical use of language are frequently reported.

NHS Direct say:

Autism and Asperger syndrome are both part of a range of related developmental disorders known as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). They begin in childhood and persist through adulthood.

ASD can cause a wide range of symptoms, which are grouped into three broad categories, described below.

  • Problems and difficulties with social interaction, such as a lack of understanding and awareness of other people’s emotions and feelings.
  • Impaired language and communication skills, such as delayed language development and an inability to start conversations or take part in them properly.
  • Unusual patterns of thought and physical behaviour. This includes making repetitive physical movements, such as hand tapping or twisting. The child develops set routines of behaviour, which can upset the child if the routines are broken.

Last Friday, actor Brian Cox was on The Review Show on BBC2 as a panellist to preview the films up for consideration this year.

He vigorously defended Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which features a central character with the condition.

As I wrote last week, Stephen Daldry’s film was the subject of an unusual amount of venom from some critics.

It is fair enough to criticise the film (and I would echo some of those criticisms) but was there something revealing in the more negative reviews?

Many seemed to focus on the central character’s condition as “annoying”, which could have been reflective of a lack of understanding and tolerance regarding the condition of autism and Asperger’s.

One person who can’t be accused of ignorance is David Mamet, who wrote an interesting chapter about it in his 2007 book, Bambi vs Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business.

He makes the claim that it may have played a key role in the shaping of Hollywood:

I think it not impossible that Asberger’s syndrome helped make the movie business.

The symptoms of the developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence, and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutia of the task at hand.

This sounds to me like a job description for a movie director.

He goes on to say:

Let me also note that Asberger’s syndrome has it’s highest prevalence among Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants. For those who have not been paying attention, this group constitutes, and has constituted since its earliest days, the bulk of America’s movie directors and studio heads.

Referencing Neal Gabler’s book An Empire of Their Own, he points out the fact that key early Jewish pioneers of Hollywood – Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Joseph Schenck, William Fox and Carl Laemmle – all came from an area of Europe within a 200 mile radius of Warsaw.

Mamet goes on to note that many prominent Jewish directors share this Eastern European lineage, from Joseph Von Sternberg right through to Steven Spielberg.

In 1999, just a few months after Kubrick’s death, Spielberg gave a lengthy and fascinating interview about his friend, in which he talked about his mastery of technique:

“Nobody could shoot a movie better than Stanley Kubrick in history”

In their book Asperger Syndrome: A Gift or a Curse?, Viktoria Lyons and Dr. Michael Fitzgerald have a whole chapter exploring the notion as to whether or not Kubrick had Asberger’s.

They note his obsessive interest in photography, all aspects of the filmmaking process and exhaustive research.

(It is also worth noting that Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell and Patricia Highsmith also appear in the book as case studies)

In a comment on a blog about Kubrick’s Napolean project, for which he conducted industrial amounts of research but never actually made, someone says the key may lie in his films:

“The best evidence for Kubrick being an Asperger is not perfectionism,it is the recurring themes of his films.
Aspies see themselves, or think the world sees them as robots, computers, or aliens. In A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the main character is a robot who thinks he is human. HAL, in 2001 is also a piece of artificial intelligence, a human-like computer. The definition of “A Clockwork Orange” in the first page of the book “a clockwork orange-meaning that he has the appearance of an organism but is in fact only a clockwork toy”

His preference for enormous numbers of repeated takes might also indicate something: a simple line by Scatman Crothers in The Shining (1980) was reputedly shot 148 times, a record for the most takes of a single scene.

But that attention to detail and exhaustive research pays off in the final films, even if they took a number of years to be fully recognised for what they are.

Asberger’s was the subject of Adam (2009), a drama about a young man (Hugh Dancy) and his relationship with his new neighbour (Rose Byrne), which won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at the Sundance festival – an award that acknowledges films that focus on science and technology.

In the film Dancy’s condition and interest in science, specifically the cosmos, is presented with tact and sensitivity.

All of which is a welcome contrast to the ‘mad scientist’ archetype that’s been so pervasive in pop culture since the “It’s alive!” scene from Frankenstein (1931):

Given that scientists in are usually the most sane and rational people whose discoveries and inventions have helped save countless lives, it begs the question as to why this notion persists.

The irony is even richer if we accept Mamet’s theory about Hollywood’s founders – a system created by people who may have had Asberger’s, actually perpetuates the stigma surrounding it.

Films like Rain Main (1988) seem to be the exception that proves the rule and even that film’s legacy is still debated.

But could that be about to change?

David Fincher – like Kubrick, a meticulous director of rare talent – has recently been attracted to projects with two lead characters who appear to show traces of Asberger’s and autism.

Animal welfare expert and autism advocate Temple Grandin recently talked to George Stroumboulopoulos about the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010):

(For anyone doubting the accuracy of the book or film check out this interview with Aaron Sorkin, this one with producer Scott Rudin, this intriguing Quora thread and this /Film article here).

Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) is another computer hacker with limited social skills, but her character is arguably a key reason why the book caught on in the way that it did.

Not only does it reverse the gender stereotype seen so often in Hollywood – e.g. man saves ‘the damsel in distress’ – but it possibly reflects a generation of women not only comfortable with computers, but capable of using them as a tool to fight their various battles.

In the same way that Zuckerberg uses his coding skills to outwit the entitled Winklevoss twins, Salander utilises her hacking skills to get revenge on various sleazy and sexist men.

Let’s not forget that the original title of Steig Larrson’s novel was “Men Who Hate Women” and that the female protagonist was partly inspired by the author witnessing the gang rape of a girl, which led to his lifelong hatred of violent abuse against women.

Her position as an outsider is thus cemented by her endurance of abuse as well as her distant personality – the fact that her character has resonated so strongly in pop culture, surely suggests something about the sexism and intolerance that is still prevalent in the modern world.

On the official site for the original Scandinavian production, there is even a whole section devoted to whether or not the character has Asberger’s, but it isn’t presented necessarily as a flaw – it is just who she is and in some ways works to her advantage.

After all, she is described by her employer (Goran Visnic) in Fincher’s film as “one of the best investigators” he has but “different”.

She is the latest in a long line of obsessive loners in Fincher films: there is the disillusioned, library-dwelling cop in Seven (1995), the coldly distant financier in The Game (1997), the split-personality at the heart of Fight Club (1999), the determined mother in Panic Room (2002), the outsider-cartoonist in Zodiac (2007) or the old-man-getting-younger in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).

All feature some special gift, which can often be both a blessing and a curse.

If this sounds like a superhero movie, you might be interested to know that Fincher was offered the first Spider-Man movie but this extract from a Q&A session at the BFI Southbank in Febraury 2009 reveals why that never happened:

Q4: You’ve made films where improbable things look realistic. Did you ever consider making a superhero movie or fantasy, where things are bit more difficult to make believable?

Fincher: I was asked if I might be interested in the first Spider-Man, and I went in and told them what I might be interested in doing, and they hated it. No, I’m not interested in doing “A Superhero”. The thing I liked about Spider-Man was I liked the idea of a teenager, the notion of this moment in time when you’re so vulnerable yet completely invulnerable. But I wasn’t interested in the genesis, I just couldn’t shoot somebody being bitten by a radioactive spider – just couldn’t sleep knowing I’d done that. [audience laughs]

But if you think about it, The Social Network is a kind of superhero movie where geeky outsiders (like Peter Parker or the X-Men) use their special talents to create something bigger than themselves – its just in this case its a website that connects millions of people rather than a symbolic crimefighter.

If you want to take that analogy further, Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, depicts Jewish outsiders working during the ‘Golden Age‘ of comics, which is loosely inspired by the lives of real people including Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Like Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin falling out over Facebook, Spiderman creators Lee and Steve Ditko had some disagreement over the character who would become famous – essentially, Lee did the writing whilst Ditko did the drawing.

People I discussed The Social Network with seemed divided about the central character: older viewers perceived him as a jerk who betrayed his friends, whilst younger one saw him as a hero for sticking it to the privileged Harvard elite and building a website that has become a huge part of their lives.

In fact, the film works as a brilliant metaphor for Hollywood itself – brilliant Jewish upstarts defy the East coast establishment (represented by the Winklevoss twins) to find their nirvana on the West Coast (Silicon Valley).

Although many see the final scene as a Rosebud-style comeuppance for Zuckerberg, they seem to forget the small matter of him not only becoming a billionaire, but having an unusual amount of control of the company he founded.

The geek really does inherit the earth.

The photo the Zuckerberg character he keeps refreshing is that of a former girlfriend played by Rooney Mara, the very same actress who plays Lisbeth Salander, reinforcing the connection between the films.

Mara was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and was on the red carpet last Sunday.

It was the very same carpet where Sacha Baron Cohen poured ‘the ashes of Kim Jong Il’ over Ryan Seacrest (a stunt which spread like wildfire on Twitter and already has 7.2 million views on YouTube):

What does this have to do with Asberger’s or autism?

Sacha’s brother is Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and director of the University’s Autism Research Centre.

Wikipedia have more details:

He is best known for his work on autism, including his early theory that autism involves degrees of “mind-blindness” (or delays in the development of theory of mind); and his later theory that autism is an extreme form of the “male brain”, which involved a re-conceptualisation of typical psychological sex differences in terms of empathizing–systemizing theory.

Here he is giving a lecture in Stockholm:

In a recent interview with the broswer he was asked about books and films he’d recommend.

Among his choices were The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-time by Mark Haddon, the 2003 bestseller which featured a narrator with Asberger’s, and Werner Herzog’s film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

The central character is famous in Germany for being – as the title might suggest – one of those real-life enigmas who has inspired endless debate.

He appeared in a Nuremberg village in 1828 with no language, he was taken in by the local doctor who tried to help assimilate him to normal society.

Part of the fascination with central character and Herzog’s film are the underlying questions it throws up, but Baron-Cohen thinks it is significant for other reasons:

Kaspar Hauser might be the first well-documented case of autism in literature, or even in history.

Some people wonder whether autism is just a modern phenomenon, but here we have a very early account. The film (and the original book) raises very similar issues to those raised in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and shares a main character who is somehow detached from humanity.

Like The Curious Incident, Kaspar Hauser also suffered neglect and abuse (of a different kind – he was reportedly chained up and isolated for the first 17 years of his life), so this by no means represents autism.

Indeed, it could be more similar to the case of Genie, a so-called feral child who was also reared in isolation and never properly developed language or social skills.

It taps into the same fascination that anthropologists have with other cultures, but in this case it is a fascination with someone who is not part of any culture.

There’s a sort of mirroring that goes on, because the character is so detached he is observing other people. Some people with Asperger syndrome describe themselves as feeling as though they came from another planet: they watch human interaction and they don’t quite understand it. They don’t feel that they can participate in it.

Baron-Cohen has hit on something here about autism and the power of cinema.

It is a medium which presents us with an immersive ‘second reality’ on screen and that rare chance to escape from our sense of self (as long as the film isn’t really bad).

‘Escapism’ is often used as a derogatory term for disposable entertainment, but surely any film that achieves a sense of escape from ourselves is successful on some level.

For people suffering from a sense that they can’t participate in ‘normal society’ (which by they way, isn’t so normal these days), it may come as a welcome relief.

The spectrum of autism – of which Asberger’s is a part – is something that the mainstream media and general public finds hard to grapple with.

Perhaps because the stereotypes perpetuated and recycled through the media, only increase the social taboo, prevent discussion and increase the sense of isolation.

But it is heartening to know that one of the UK’s leading experts finds something of real value in a Herzog movie.

The German auteur has carved out a unique career in both features and documentaries, and Kaspar Hauser was his international breakthrough – it is ironic that a film about isolation should connect internationally.

Perhaps the recent spate of films dealing with autism can have a similar connection, not just with people who have the condition but with the wider public too.

Asberger’s and autism is much more than the ‘annoying kid’ in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close or Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant in Rain Main (1988).

It may be embedded in the very DNA of Hollywood and some cinemas greatest filmmakers.

>; More on Asberger’s Syndrome at Wikipedia
>; Extremely Loud and Autism
>; Review of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
>; Wrong Planet on ‘Asberger’s Movies’

Written by Ambrose Heron

March 2nd, 2012 at 7:04 am