Thursday, October 23, 2008


My new Netflix movie-finding technique is to use the DVD trailers appended to the front of the movies I like. It works pretty well. “Snow Cake” is a good example. I’m sure the title is supposed to echo “Rain Man” since it also about an autistic person, but it hadn’t registered with me until I saw the trailer.

I suppose it’s a bit of a chick flick, although Sigourney Weaver is one “chick” I can cheer for. Some reviewers suggest the movie was written for Alan Rickman, the English actor who sort of specializes in arrogant disdain. The plot is really another variation on that “wise virgin” trope, part of the role being played by a youngster with purple hair who’s killed very early, and part by her mother (Sigourney) who will never be more than a child and remains virginal (if not just repressed or something) in spite of having given birth. She doesn’t remember the conception because she is autistic and wasn’t able to raise the child, who rejoined her as a young adult.

They call this woman a “high functioning autistic” because autism is considered a spectrum disorder. (Sarah Palin’s baby has Down Syndrome, which is NOT the same thing, though McCain thinks it is.) Some victims of autism must be cared for constantly. Some others can get along pretty well if they have a little help. Sigourney’s character is out-of-sync and certainly obsessive-compulsive about everything having to be a certain way, but at least according to this script she is occasionally the “wise fool” who tells the truth.

The basic idea is that Rickman’s character just got out of prison, is making another of those “learning journeys” across Canada, and is more frozen than the weather. A semi smashing into his stopped car kills the girl with the purple hair in an echo of the loss of his son in an accident. There’s more, but it would spoil the symmetry of the story to tell you, even if it is pretty predictable. The girl has just bought some sparkle balls for her mother -- I wish I knew where to buy some! Jolted, tossed, dropped, they flash rainbow lights. Sigourney’s autism makes her super-sensitive to these, to jumping on a trampoline, and to snow. She loves the sensation of snow in her mouth, which she claims is better than an orgasm -- which she’s not supposed to have had because all nice girls, etc.

Anyway, this is the key relationship but to create an excuse to talk about it and to keep the Rickman character from falling into a too warm relationship inappropriately, there is a third character, a beautiful and generous woman who is intrigued by this veddy Henglish gent and his stony attitudes but plummy accent. Wawa, Ontario, not unlike Valier, Montana, keeps a close eye on all this and occasionally puts in an oar. There’s also a funny-looking dog. I think you’ll recognize it.

Autism is exceptionally interesting to me and a lot of other people right now because the rates are going up and up, especially in boys. It appears to an non-expert that the problem is most likely in the part of the brain I’ve been reading about: the limbic system, which is where things get taken in, sorted, remembered or dropped, intensified or dulled, and so on. Deficits can lead to obsession, hallucinations, wildly out-of-proportion emotion, mistaken substitutions, extraordinary number skills or music skills, addictions both to substances and to situations, and probably a lot of other things we just haven’t really pinned down yet, like hand-flapping, banging one’s head on the wall, cutting, and other self-afflictions in an effort to relieve huge inner threats and tortures.

BUT the normal kinds of bonding, humor, judgment, preference, can sometimes co-exist in there with all the jumble and trouble. I shouldn’t even try to comment since I only read about it. Even the people who work with autistic kids all the time might not be able to explain what’s going on. A human being woven together with shadows and terrors: we’re all like that to some degree, I guess.

In the end the Rickman character, whom some reviewers didn’t find believable, certainly persuaded me both that he was able in the end to at least sympathize -- maybe even empathize since he himself had been seized by unreasonable vengeance -- and to grow because of his exposure to sparklies, snowflakes, and straight-ahead fact on the part of this autistic woman. He grows up enough to see that an unbearable loss -- not just the death of his son but also never having really known him in the first place because he was casually produced in passing -- happens to everyone and isn’t unbearable after all. We bear it. We go on.

This story just misses sentimentality by an eyebrow hair or so. It DOESN’T become just another Hallmark card about crips because of the enormous authenticity of Sigourney Weaver’s creation of her character, coached by a woman with the misfunction. And also because Alan Rickman is so wryly acerbic while intelligent, trying honorably to play “cartoon scrabble” with made-up words, trying desperately to find a place to sleep, something decent to eat, how to do the right thing. And then finally getting taken to bed for comfort that doesn’t mean attached strings or judgment. He’s really “out of jail” by that time.

It seems to me that movies like this, and access to them in our homes, are changing the culture itself, even as our technology keeps throwing us new challenges. There’s no doubt in my mind that autism is being caused by something in our food, our inoculations, our environment -- something undetectable by ordinary means and therefore deeply disturbing. Our paranoia increases, our educations fall short, our safety nets -- WHAT safety nets? What can we do to be saved? What can we do to save those around us? How do we keep from freaking while we try to figure it out?

The clues here are: community, generosity, warmth, sensory pleasure, and -- oh, you know, that corny stuff we lump into the idea of love. Reaching out, tenacity... a funny looking dog.

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