Don’t mourn for them

The HBO film Temple Grandin, which I wrote about back when it first aired, recently won 7 Emmy awards, including Outstanding Made for TV Movie. Here’s what I had to say about the movie back then:

I encourage you to watch this film with an open mind. It may just help you understand the sentiment that those with autism are different, but not less, and are most definitely not broken.

This sentiment was flowing in full force at the televised ceremony last Sunday. It is one small step, but what a powerful example Grandin’s life is of what is possible. Even if you can’t imagine it ever being possible.

From her website:

Dr. Grandin didn’t talk until she was three and a half years old, communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping, and humming. In 1950, she was diagnosed with autism and her parents were told she should be institutionalized. She tells her story of “groping her way from the far side of darkness” in her bookEmergence: Labeled Autistic, a book which stunned the world because, until its publication, most professionals and parents assumed that an autism diagnosis was virtually a death sentence to achievement or productivity in life.

Dr. Grandin has become a prominent author and speaker on the subject of autism because “I have read enough to know that there are still many parents, and yes, professionals too, who believe that ‘once autistic, always autistic.’ This dictum has meant sad and sorry lives for many children diagnosed, as I was in early life, as autistic. To these people, it is incomprehensible that the characteristics of autism can be modified and controlled. However, I feel strongly that I am living proof that they can” (from Emergence: Labeled Autistic).

All of this has brought back to mind what I – and many – consider one of the most important essays about autism by an autistic person, Jim Sinclair’s Don’t Mourn for Us:

Some amount of grief is natural as parents adjust to the fact that an event and a relationship they’ve been looking forward to isn’t going to materialize. But this grief over a fantasized normal child needs to be separated from the parents’ perceptions of the child they do have: the autistic child who needs the support of adult caretakers and who can form very meaningful relationships with those caretakers if given the opportunity.

Continuing focus on the child’s autism as a source of grief is damaging for both the parents and the child, and precludes the development of an accepting and authentic relationship between them. For their own sake and for the sake of their children, I urge parents to make radical changes in their perceptions of what autism means.

Please take a few moments and read the entire essay. You’ll be glad you did.

Different, not less (or broken)

Tomorrow night HBO will premier the film Temple Grandin:

Starring Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn Temple Grandin paints a picture of a young woman’s perseverance and determination while struggling with the isolating challenges of autism at a time when it was still quite unknown.

Temple Grandin and Claire Danes
The film is based on two of Grandin’s books about autism, Emergence: Labeled Autistic (written with Margaret Scariano) and Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism. Given the typical Hollywood treatment of autism (Rain Man, anyone), I had my doubts – fears, maybe – about how this story would be told. A review of the film in yesterday’s The Atlantic has helped to alleviate those concerns:

Stereotypical characters with autism are a convenient and powerful device for convincing neurotypical people to mend their ways, or for demonstrating the saintliness of the people who put up with them.  These cinematic conceits make HBO’s Temple Grandin, a biopic of the acclaimed animal scientist and autism advocate (to premier on HBO on February 6 at 8 p.m.), particularly remarkable.  From the life of one of the best-known individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, director Mick Jackson has managed to make an utterly original movie about autism, simply by allowing Grandin, portrayed in a stunning performance by Claire Danes, to be the center of her own story.

If you are at all involved in the “autism community”, I know that you will probably be checking out this film. If you are not involved with, or even familiar with, autism, I encourage you to watch this film with an open mind. It may just help you understand the sentiment that those with autism are different, but not less, and are most definitely not broken.

Learn from all experience, not just the failures

It was not quite 3 years ago when the New York Times announced that James Cameron had signed on with 20th Century Fox to direct Avatar.  I wrote the following not long after that announcement.

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You can – and most definitely should – learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others, but it is also important to remember that you can learn quite a bit from your past successes.

James Cameron’s most recent film was Titanic, released 10 years ago. From the New York Times story ‘Titanic’ Director Joins Fox on $200 Million Film is the following account:

The making of “Titanic,” Mr. Cameron’s last full-blown Hollywood feature, was the stuff of movie legend. The film, released in 1997, went far over its planned cost to become the most expensive production that had then been made. But it went on to become a historic success, taking in a record-breaking $1.8 billion at the worldwide box office, and also winning 11 Oscars, including an award for best picture.

Mr. Cameron said that he had taken care to avoid the problems he encountered on his last gargantuan production, and that he was already four months into shooting the nonprincipal scenes by the time Fox gave final approval to the project today.

— ‘Titanic’ Director Joins Fox on $200 Million Film

I must admit to being a huge James Cameron fan (my personal favorite of his is The Abyss), so I was happy to see that he is finally directing another feature. But what struck me most in this article was Cameron’s recognition that even though Titanic was a huge (HUGE!) success, there were things that could have been done better. While it is hard to talk about “mistakes” when you have $1.8 billion in box-office, there are still things that can be learned.

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I’m curious to hear how Cameron thinks he did in avoiding the pitfalls from Titanic, and what new ones popped up for him to work around.

Is any project ever really finished?

Earlier this year, I came across Michael Rubin‘s book Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolutionat my local St. Louis County Library branch. What an unbelievable find of a book. In some great stories, and lots of detail, Rubin tells the early history of what has become the LucasFilm empire, not to mention the birth of Pixar and the evolution of digital film-making that can be found on any new Apple Macintosh computer.

More to the point of this post, though, is that the book explains Lucas’ approach to making – and in the case of Star Wars, tinkering with – movies, exemplified by the following quote:

A movie is never finished, only abandoned.

Back in the spring of ’05, during spring break, my then 12 year old son made it a point to watch all of the Star Wars DVDs that were then available, including Episodes I (The Phantom Menace), II (Attack of the Clones), and the original trilogy. To make sure he was up to speed for the upcoming release of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, he also bought and watched (several times!) the animated Clone Wars Vol. 1. Needless to say, when he was watching when I was home I sat down and watched with him.

As we watched some of the original trilogy, Ian asked what it was like to see the originals in the theater. In time, the conversation wound its way to the special editions of the movies in theaters, then the re-release on VHS. As we watched the DVDs, I would tell Ian where something was different, where things were added from the original to the Special Editions. Even I was caught by surprise at the end of Return of the Jedi; I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, suffice it to say that the special edition was tweaked just a bit for the DVD version, so there are now 3 different versions of Return of the Jedi. (And yes, I have all three versions.)

Though it is written as, and meant to be, a history, Droidmaker is an excellent – if long – case study on how to bring your vision to life. The conventional wisdom about LucasFilm seems to be one of an easy road, things that just fell into place to create this great success. Would you be surprised to learn that The Empire Strikes Back almost didn’t happen? I sure was.

I think we have all at some point “abandoned” projects, not because we thought we were finished but because someone – maybe us, maybe someone else – said it was time to stop. Some deadlines are hard, and you don’t have any choice but to deliver what you have. For example:

Though Episode II was shot entirely digitally, it still had to be transferred to film for display in theaters. This meant that the “final” edit had to be complete about 2 weeks before release date for printing and distribution. It was printed and distributed, but Lucas wasn’t really finished with the film and continued to edit a final final cut right up until release, when the digital version was distributed to the few theaters in the country that have digital projection. The vast majority of people that saw the movie in theaters did not see the “final” version of the film (which, by the way, is the version that is on the DVD.)

I’m not sure what my point is, if there is one, in this rambling post. On the one hand, there is the desire to have your art (and if the result of our work is not art, what is the point) truly reflect your vision for it, to make it as complete as possible. On the other hand is the practical reality that dictates to us that at some point we have to stop, whether we want to or not. And right in the middle is that nagging question, “Is any project ever really finished?”

Just something to think about as this Monday comes to a close.