Dear friends and readers,
I spent part of yesterday watching a movie made by a woman, Gerardine Wurzberg, about two disabled, to be specific, autistic people: Wretches and Jabberers, in an AMC moviehouse in DC. I sat with an acquaintance. The auditorium was crowded.
In a nugget generally, the film is about how the disabled are treated in many societies: indifference, fear, discomfort, repugnance. I long to see it widely distributed. It could awaken consciences. It shows common ideas about intellectual disability ignore and are themselves responsible for destroying these people’s real talents (not giving them any opportunity to develop them), and makes plain the risk of homelessness these people daily face.
Van Gogh’s painting is the emblem for this blog: Van Gogh was a mentally troubled/disabled man who created beautiful work but spent crushing time in an asylum, and died broke, in another words a gifted man his community/society did not take real care of, responsibility for (“an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence brought about by his bouts of sickness” as the wikipedia article puts it)..
Wurzburg tells the story of two now middle-aged men, Tracy and Larry, who live in Vermont and, with their autistic advocates (a sort of state-paid part-time companion) go travelling to three counties: Sri Lanka, Japan, Finland. There
they attend two conferences about autism, and meet with four young people who are autistic too. All six people are unable to speak normally or easily and communicate through typing on computers as I am doing right now.
The central characteristic of the film I want to emphasize is its lightness, nothing inflated, no exaggeratedly emotional moments. The film is not melodramatic, eschews wrenching your heart more than is necessarily (if you are someone whose heart is capable of being wrenched): in fact every effort is made to keep the tone light, easy, jogging along.
Thus it’s hard to write about as once I begin to tell the content I don’t think I am capable of conveying this tone as well as the content. As in many films nowadays we have a narrator as well as flashbacks interwoven with the present journey narrative, itself subdivided by insertions of Larry and
Tracy’s meeting with the four young people, their parents or friends and going with them to say a temple, a restaurant, walking in the streets of their city. The content tells of the shameful indeed devastatingly indifferent and therefore cruel treatment these two men met with earlier in life, how it has permanently maimed them, how precarious is their dignified and decent existence today. I was not surprised to find that the basic treatment of autistic people in Japan and Sri Lanka is no different (today in Japan worse in this way: the autistic young man is not allowed to go to public school, the schools will not have him; there is no money for the young man in Sri Lanka) and not that in Finland I saw the one place where the society and government has found the young woman a job appropriate for her real intellectual skills, but I was surprised to discover that Finland did little more than that and like the others the young woman was dependent on the kindness and income of a relative (one
remove therefore from a park bench perhaps).
Larry Bissonette today is an artist who lives with his sister, Sally. He has a bedroom in her house and a studio. We see him visit Bernie Saunders who decries tax cuts on the disabled. (Massive unemployment has soared among the autistic in the last 15 years with the policies of outsourcing and destruction of government meritocracy tests in the US.) Vermont it seems is not that generous a state. Larry is extraordinarily intelligent; his writing on his computer shows a depth of thought and lexical complexity that is startling given that he was not educated at all for most of his life, far from helped at age 8 put in an asylum for 14 years about which the film leaves it that the less said the less painful. Larry says of this time he desperately missed his sister. I felt today he might have been talking, not typing had he been able to go to a learning disabled pre-school of which Alexandria, Va had a fine one in the 1980s, since shut down, closed. Many tragedies have probably happened since then because of this closing.
He seems to have been rescued in his 30s and at long last helped to learn to use language, to use the typewriter. And now he makes modern art pieces which are centered on photos of autistic people across the spectrum (from mentally low IQ to relatively independent functioning people — some with jobs.
Tracy Thresher’s life is more at risk. It seems that he has no permanent home. He seems to have access to comfortable bedrooms in public facilities intended for disabled people only a certain number of nights a month. So here we see the limits of Vermont’s decency. He says he sometimes sleeps in a crisis center and also a homeless shelter. His advocate cannot be with him all the time so quite how he manages I don’t know. I assume someone provides him with some minimal income as he has no remunerative occupation or job.
The four young people they met brought me near to tears at moments — not quite though as there was this light talk and light music going on. I was nearest when the mother of the Japanese boy turned away to hide her face where she was crying silently. Also when the two men parted from each of the young people; the young people were so happy and gratified by their meeting with one another and Larry and Tracy and looked or spoke desolately of loneliness when the parting came. We see them (all of them) at autistic conferences: panels where they talk to audiences so like most other people, they choose a conference with similarly-minded people delving their own interests.
We also listen a lot to the autistic advocates and learn their names: Pascal Cheng is with Tracy. I did not catch or do not remember the name of the man with Larry, only his sister, Sally.
The theme or thesis of the film is that the attitude the general public has towards high-functioning autism is based on ignorance of the people, of their real gifts and talents, and a rejection of their outward behaviors, which does include twitches, sudden gestures, an inability to socialize with ease, sudden emotional and physical outbursts like running about or getting very excited uncontrollably for a few minutes now and again. The movie wants us to see this as cruel intolerance and I for one do.
I have a hesitation and qualm about the film. First while I can understand the light approach may bring more people into a theater and thus function the way the film is meant: to bring home to a larger audience the plight of the disabled in our society, I am not sure eschewing strong drama throughout is rhetorically effective. In history we see that the melodramatic work is the one that makes the effect. Wurzberg may feel that this is not an era where compassion and justice get much purchase in the media, but I wonder if she had been willing to use more commercial techniques (told more of a full story with climaxes) she might not today at least have her film in many more theaters all day long.
Second. I reprehend the title. I have a book at home which is about individual autistic people in London and how they survive (including uses of group therapy) and don’t (one suicide). They are children of people with money so access to services in Britain even before the recent cuts is not adequate at all. It’s called Bring in the Idiots. This reminds me of how books which seek to de-scandalize women from earlier ages and tell their stories for real are forced to use lurid language in the title for the woman and include a sexualized picture on the cover. I cannot understand the makers of the book or this film bowing to this kind of pressure — or quite in this case the producer felt it necessary to label the film with a title coming out of the very rejection of autistic people the film is intended to fight.
These two thoughts come from my worry about how much good this film can do — one would like to see it reach many people and change their false conceptions (whatever these be) about autistic people. Funds must be put in hands of people across each country who are trained and empowered to provide jobs, homes, companions in centers for these people. But I noticed that as I came in the attitude of mind towards anyone going to this film was not open-minded. At first I couldn’t find the theater: no 13 out of 14. When I asked, the person who answered looked at me, with a glance of askance, of distancing, as if to say; “are you one of ‘them,’ a freak?” I heard someone say she was asked if she was the parent of such a person since she didn’t look like “one of them.” A curious atmosphere surrounded the stairs going down to the theater where ushers were. Like something very odd was happening somehow. Well I’m not and it was not. I wished I could believe that the audience was made up more of the general public, but I felt not so.
Jim asked me if I had a preference which film would I have people see; Even the Rain or Wretches and Jabberers. I’d say Wretches and Jabberers because the average person still will dismiss a fiction (no matter how closely based on recent Bolivian history and politics) and respect a documentary as “factual.”
I write this blog in the spirit of my blog on Even the Rain which even now is only in 16 movie-houses across the US. Wretches and Jabberers played once at noon in three theaters in the larger DC area (including Maryland and Virginia) and then not again. I encourage others to inquire about it and say they’d like to see it in their local theater. Here is a list of theaters where the movie is going to be screened this and next month.
A last related issue: while the theater I was in was crowded with people, it was not packed (as the latest Jane Eyre was two weeks ago) and it did seem that a number of people in the audience were themselves Aspergers Syndrome people (probably also high-functioning autism as there is no fine line) or related to someone who was.
Afterward, I walked amid the flowering trees of DC; I had intended to go on a walk with a group of people I’ve now joined (net group in Washington DC), but by the time I got back to my house, ate lunch, and was ready to go out again, it was late to meet the time line. I was emotionally tired from the strain of going out once already. But it was to be an excursion tour around the Tidal Basin to see the trees later that afternoon. Alas (or maybe happily for my projects at home), as is not uncommon with me, I got slightly lost getting back to the Metro so missed my blue train and got back home near 3:00, whereupon it rained.
So in the end Izzy and I were like Mrs Allen and Catherine in Northanger Abbey in our house, saying if only the sun would come out … (which it did, but too late to get back on time).
I did walk among the trees along K street on which the movie house is located: there beautification proceeds apace by the Potomac. Lovely scene. So I include a second impressionist picture of flowering trees.