Somehow, I missed Hanna Kozlowska’s article “Look at Life Through Autistic Eyes” when the New York Times published it last year, and I also missed it while I was reading, and then reviewing, “Carly’s Voice.” If you’re like me, and this article is new to you, let me make a recommendation. There are two videos on the link. Click the second one, then the first one.
The second one is a video version of a scene from “Carly’s Voice,” mostly from Carly’s perspective. In a world where every new film gets pitched as “It’s Boyhood meets The Avengers,” you could say that the video is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly meets Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Sumptuous quick cuts of coffee prep, familiar to anyone who’s seen Jerry Seinfeld’s web series, are joined with the sort of techniques that Diving Bell fans know well: reliance on first-person POV, blurred boundaries, occasionally hallucinogenic visuals, and sudden cuts designed to make us worry about the elided time. We’re talking about the sorts of avant-garde visuals and edits that Stan Brakhage was pioneering 60 years ago, in the context of a “normal” visit to a café. The actor playing Carly’s father projects the calmness of an ideal dad, and the film is smart enough to play on that, to hold his close-up of “what can I do for you?” enough to give the moment tragic dimensions. The girl playing Taryn, Carly’s twin sister, is almost distractingly attractive, but that’s also logical, as Carly’s projection of the idealized girl she was “supposed to be.” (In the book and on her blog, Carly writes, “They want me to be Taryn but I’m not.”) The two minute film ends with a slowly expanding, back-tracking medium shot of the real Carly (!), standing in the café as the world speeds around her – somewhat like a standard Cisco Systems commercial.
The first half of the café scene feels almost too much like a scene from My Left Foot, The Theory of Everything, The Sea Inside, or some such film that presents first-person perspectives of a paralyzed, trapped person. Carly’s father holds up two hands and asks her to choose between drinks – Carly’s inner voice tells us that she wants neither, and when she gets a hot chocolate, well, she guesses that’s okay. I liked the second half, when things go haywire – the coffee bean grinder out of control, the café water overflowing. Through clever editing, the movie manages to pitch these visuals on a line between realism and fantasy – at first, the chaos almost seems like it’s truly happening; even when you know it’s Carly’s projection, you get the sense of disorder and disruption that is an autistic person’s daily life. It’s a haunting, grim reminder that not everyone is blessed with the same faculties that most of us take for granted.
However, I liked the first video even better, because it seems slightly less specific to Carly and more applicable to more severe cases…probably like Dar. It deploys avant-garde animation techniques that really go back to pre-Disney animation, and pre-sound animation, when most film animators were experimenters. Once again, an adult is shown in POV close-up with blurred edges, and once again, the adult’s concern is somewhat placed in quotation marks. The therapist calls the autistic subject “lovey” and projects a genuine concern, but the genius of the filmmaking is that you feel the subject’s simultaneous appreciation and alienation. The movie only has two live-action shots: the first is a blurred-edge shot of a spinning ceiling fan that pans down to the therapist, the second (and next) shot is something like Kaufman cards, presented as melting/transitioning into animation. I find the strategy of beginning with live action rather effective: you know there’s a near-normal, and throughout the rest of the film your retained memory reminds you how hard it is to return to near-normal.
During the cartoons, the unseen therapist says all the “right” things, like “here are some things you like,” and “dogs or cats?” and “what does a dog say?”, but the fleeting, erratic animated shapes and the therapist’s disembodiment suggests that the subject is relating to her about as well as Randle McMurphy related to Nurse Ratched. The subject perceives the Kaufman cards without images, and she feels lost in dog questions, and she’s slipping, and panicking…until a blaring phone rings. This apparently interrupts therapy. (I could relate well to all this from personal experience.) And we hear a new disembodied voice – presumably the subject’s mom. We hear her side of the phone chat clearly; every word she says is accompanied by a popping animated shape – a circle, triangle, something else. I love this choice. Without abandoning the viewer’s need for narrative forward momentum, the sound-shapes remind us that autism makes the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.
The topic of the phone chat is a disruption in the routine, as the mom raises her tone: “What do you mean she can’t return? Where else are we supposed to go?” As a parent who’s had conversations like that, it’s easy to forget that as we work to advocate for our child, our very tone is making that child more agitated. I love the way the film captures that difficult paradox. The rest of the film is a slow descent into chaos, with even more of a feeling of the subject feeling trapped, victimized by her perception. The subject says “Too loud! Be quiet!” as the therapist, obviously not hearing her, tries to move her onto other tasks with the chipper-yet-empathetic “look what I have for you.” Through the subject’s inner voice, we sense the dissonance between perception and reality, and our lead’s resentment at being someone who can speak as she does (to us) yet still be treated like a pet. It’s harrowing, nearly claustrophobic. An animated Newton’s cradle becomes a striking pool ball becomes a ticking clock…sure, we’ve seen this sort of thing in films like Tommy, but it’s never painted more of a grim picture than it does here. The film satisfies our generalized desire to have a story end with elements coming together in an explosive denouement followed by a (painful, in this case) silence. For most of us, it’s an unrecognized privilege to have most of our stories end that way. For the subject of the film, she’ll live these two minutes over and over without recovery or such predictable closure. And so the film leaves you somewhat like an autistic person is often left – better understood, but on some level, farther away.
I’m thrilled that people make 2-minute films like these. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly notwithstanding (and even that is stylized for viewer comfort), I don’t know that very many people would have the stamina to experience 90 minutes of an autistic person’s day. As we increase awareness that people we love are experiencing those 90 minutes every 90 minutes, we can’t help but want to do more to help. Perhaps as we keep going, autistic people will make these films about themselves.