The New York Times started its “Op-Docs” feature about a year ago; this is the first time I’ve felt motivated to comment. This 12-minute doc was aired yesterday, on my birthday, March 14; it’s called Perfectly Normal and it’s directed by Joris Debeij.
First the name reminds me of “Bosom Buddies.” In the intro, didn’t Tom Hanks say, “see, this whole thing is perfectly normal,” just before Billy Joel’s “My Life” began? Despite the maddening rabbit hole you’ll go down if you try to google this, I say yes he did.
Too often, representations of autism sufferers in the media are kids, or young adults. It’s rare that you see an afflicted person in or past middle age. Sometimes wifey and I have wondered if that’s because they don’t tend to live that long.
Bet you didn’t expect to read those words today, eh?
Wifey and I worry about Dar’s entire life, from cradle to grave. I’ve never felt much separation from people in generations before mine. Just yesterday, I got a birthday card signed by a dozen septuagenarians who I haven’t seen in almost a year. Yet it’s very, very hard for me to picture Dar as an old man. (It’s easier with the other kid. Maybe it’s his large forehead.)
So Perfectly Normal came as a breath of fresh air. The lead, Jordan Kamnitzer, isn’t exactly old, but he’s hardly young. He’s got the telltale grey balding pate, sagging jowls, and pants winched up above his belly button.
Now, Asperger’s and autism are hardly the same thing. Or are they? Without weighing in on the latest American Medical Association designation, let’s just say that wifey and I don’t consider a condition like Jordan’s to be exactly equivalent to our kid’s. Nonetheless, it is uplifting to watch this person with a disability live so independently.
WAY more than I should, I think about WTF Dar will be able to do with his professional life. I breathlessly waited to see what Jordan was doing with his. As his punch card let him into his work site, the little machine very visibly read: SUCCESS. I thought, nice touch Debeij, now give us the gravy.
The one professional thing we saw Jordan doing was stuffing envelopes. Ah. Will there still be envelopes to stuff when my kid is Jordan’s age? Anyway, watching the stuffing while hearing Jordan’s voice-over say something about routines not being disrupted: well, heck, even I had to think of Rain Man. And I go months without thinking about Rain Man.
Less than a minute later, Debeij has got Jordan in the spotlight playing a lovely tune on a piano. Jordan voice-overs, “I’m not Rain Man,” and it’s hard to argue.
When I say “Debeij has got Jordan in the spotlight” I mean that quite literally. I mean look at these screenshots.
Clearly, this isn’t any actual place where Jordan spends his normal life. In terms of film syntax (and I ought to know), this suggests (or connotes) that we’re deep inside Jordan’s cranium, in a special sanctuary/refuge where he can be his real, beautiful self. Okay, sure. But I couldn’t help notice the artifice and wonder what that was like for Jordan. Did he love it, or was it traumatizing? Maybe films like this should come with a disclaimer: NO PERSONS WITH AUTISM WERE HURT IN THE MAKING OF THIS MOTION PICTURE.
I noticed a few of Debeij’s other jazzy tricks. He used an anodyne shot of Jordan washing his windshield to punctuate a voice-over of “…and then it feels like I’m drowning.” At another point, a clock is shown upside-down. At another point, we see some quick cuts between Jordan’s face and some simple shots of grocery store aisles, suggesting chaos. I wondered if the church bell sounds in the lovely Echo Park twilight were actually what Jordan (said he) was hearing. The supermarket cashier scene almost seemed staged. I suppose Debeij must present Jordan’s condition in some filmic way; “pure” realism, as in, say, Andrea Arnold’s films, wouldn’t suffice to communicate Jordan’s struggle. Yet I find there’s something reductive about all the techniques, particularly in a documentary.
Of course I was thrilled to see Jordan in a relationship with a real human female. (I’m guessing that by the time Dar is Jordan’s age, he won’t be the only person dating a robot.) Toni seemed so nice, in fact, that I cringed to hear Jordan say that he has learned to accommodate her disabilities, as though she hadn’t had to do something similar with him. I would pony up for the sequel about Toni.
Of course I have nothing but love for the central message: no one is utterly normal. And who wouldn’t fall in love with a disabled man singing, while playing on his home piano, “Self-advocacy! Self-advocacy!” (Thanks for not putting him back in that creepy room, Debeij.)
I’ll remember Jordan Kamnitzer well. He’s a sign I hope to someday see, sorta like “You have now reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.”