Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Autism: The Musical

by Drew Martin

A couple of nights ago I watched Autism: The Musical (2007) directed by Tricia Regan. The documentary follows Elaine Hall, her adopted autistic son and a true cast of characters through the rehearsing and staging of a musical with autistic tweens. They are tweens because they are between being kids and young adults and are also somewhere between being brilliant and challenged.

All the people in the movie are impressive, especially Hall who tirelessly navigates her son's world and, if that was not enough to exhaust most single parents, takes on a dozen more autistic kids and interacts with their loving but worried parents to put on a show.

The kids are unique. Henry Stills, the son of Kristen Stills, one of the movie's producers, and Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills & Nash) and is an Asperger keen on paleontology. One of the most touching scenes is when his super-articulate friend Wyatt tells him that he is very smart. Henry sincerely responds that he had always wanted someone to say that to him. Such moments make the film special because they catch you off guard. You see the kids doing things that simply are not normal. They run around wildly or have a tantrum or contort themselves and you assume these actions are the manifestations of what is happening inside them but then they pause for a moment say something incredibly lucid that makes you to realize there is a very calm and intelligent person inside.

At a therapist, Neal (Hall's son) seems uncomfortable and fidgets. He is nonverbal so they are trying out a texting machine he can use to express himself with written words. His first stunning sentence is that he wishes his mother would be a better listener.

Wyatt speaks like a person twice his age, asking himself why he and others go into their own worlds. He yearns to be around people and to interact with them but explains that sometimes he is alone and therefore retreats to a closed-off place. He also has an issue with bullies and clearly sees his dilemma of being placed in a school program with others like him. He complains his class is "100% retarded."

The parents' concerns are also expressed. The father of the only girl the documentary focuses on, Lexi, says the one thing he has nightmares about is what will happen to her when he and his wife are gone, suggesting she is the perfect potential victim for sexual abuse because she does not have the capacity to report such a violation.

He and the father of a musically inclined boy named Adam independently discuss the friction there is with their respective wives. Lexi's father walks out on her mother during the film, Adam's father had an affair prior to the filming. From the outside, the transgressions would appear to be escapism due to the inability to accept their lot but they are both very clear what happens: the mother becomes so obsessed and consumed with her child's autism that there is nothing left for anyone else. If the apple does not fall far from the tree, the parents have to face and overcome their own quirks and limitations to do the best they can. Stephen Stills is the first to admit that he was very much like Henry when he was a boy.

One of the most interesting comments by the parents is from Lexi's father. He keeps trying to solve the impossible riddle of parenting a disadvantaged child and how to plan for her future. He thinks it over and over but the solution is never right. His wife, by contrast, in an earlier part of the film blurts out that she could take her own life.

The film shows troubled moments and starts with the alarming fact that in 1980, autism was a relatively rare disorder, diagnosed in one in 10,000 children in the United States. Now it is one in 150.

What you discover by the end of film, however, is that there is so much joy in the lives you witness and that you could love each of these kids as much as the parents if they were in your own home.

Pictured below: Adam, Neal and Elaine Hall, Lexi, Henry & Wyatt.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Passion and Purpose

by Drew Martin

I recently watched Philippe Séclier's documentary An American Journey in Robert Frank's Footsteps (2009). What I found most interesting was the discussion of how the actual title of Frank's photography book The Americans (1958) caused a stir.

Photo historian, Stuart Alexander explains how many of the same images appeared in US Camera 1958 and were accepted as Frank's personal experience but by using the title The Americans, his capturing of uncomfortable truths seemed judgemental.

I wish the idea/motif that it takes an outsider to show an American what the country is about could have been better balanced or expanded. This is true of every place, not just America, is it not? It is also inherently false, which is why the French filmmaker's retracing of this expatriated German-Jewish-Swiss' footsteps first comes off as presumptuous and as annoying as an American abroad digging deep for genealogical records. What saves the film from estrangement for a US audience are the candid and quirky Americans who are interviewed and guilelessly come across as good natured and nonjudgmental.

In the film, photographer and acquaintance Wayne Miller recounts a talk Frank gave at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956, where he discussed how good photography can only come from a combined sense of passion and purpose; one without the other does not work. Miller explains that part of Frank's purpose was anger. The most interesting thing he noted about Frank was that he would edit his negatives. This means that instead of cropping the exposure of an image in the darkroom, Frank would cut the actual negative before making prints and throw away the rest. Miller was in awe of this method, which he said took courage and conviction. He added that he was envious of his servitude and insurance.

His printer, Sid Kaplan, speaks of the challenging prints, which "took a lot of time and paper." In his creative relationship with Frank, he likens him to the architect and himself to the engineer. This relationship sounds hand-in-glove but he is also saying "he could not have done it without me." He shows a famous picture by Frank of people on a trolley car and he explains the under- and over-exposing that was necessary to make it work. Hearing him and seeing the final print is not validated until the same photo is shown at another part of the film on a contact sheet. It is a completely different image; flatter and washed out.

Peter Galassi, a curator at the Museum of Modern, explains that during Frank's time New York, the magazine aesthetic completely dominated photography; photography had a strong tradition as independent art, but was buried under weight of magazine world, in which Frank worked to make a living. He goes on to say that the photographers had to create their own place in the art world, which included the idea that a photographer could be an artist. It seems hard to believe, but according to the film there were no galleries in New York City at that time that showed photographs.

The Americans is hailed as a landmark book and a landmark view of the United States. Ed Ruscha said Frank brought together the American dream and American nightmare. Art critic Vicky Goldberg said Frank created a rent in the fabric that the nation had constructed.

Fellow photographer, John Cohen said Frank created the biographical photograph and photography teacher Jno Cook said that Frank made serial images that are cinematically related, which refer back to previous frames and make you wonder what is going to come next.

Frank's publisher, Barney Rosset lumped him together with Kerouac and Ginsberg because like them, Frank was able to connect with ruffians and "come away alive." Rosset explains that although it may not have been obvious in that period, "things come out in different arts but it takes a long time to make the connection."

The first appearance of The Americans was as Les Américains. It was published in Paris by Robert Delpire. Curiously, instead of using one of Frank's images for the cover, Delpire chose a drawing by that other great visual genius in exile, Saul Steinberg. Frank asked Delpire if it was too weird, to which he replied that is was complementary.

The film ends with Séclier's reflective narration offering that before Frank settled down in his adoptive home, he made this visual tour of America, covering 15,000 miles: He saw the land as it is, passed all the tests and felt the real pain of loneliness. He must have thought "I like it" and America responded "Ok you can be one of us."

Friday, August 5, 2011

Making Sense: A Library for the Blind

by Drew Martin

Although most artists are "visual" artists, art is not made with eyes. Most artists are guided with their eyes but the process is usually performed with their hands; a tactile process. Oddly, the experience of the art by the audience is typically visual, sometimes audio, but rarely involving touch.

What a shame. We would experience so much more by running our hands over great sculptures and brushing our fingers across some canvases. The art world would be quite different if this were the case. It would probably be much more authentic and the untouchable prestige would vanish with human touch. Of course, there are preservation shortcomings to fondling art, but what a tease that is.

I was in Philadelphia yesterday for a photoshoot and was fortunate to start the day off in the same building as the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Part of the Free Library of Philadelphia, this library provides services for people with visual impairments and physical disabilities that would prevent someone from holding a book or turning pages. Available to check out in person or to receive in postage-free containers are audio books and magazines; braille books and magazines; described videos; and, large print books. The audio book stacks are pictured here.

Pennsylvania's two Regional Libraries have over 75,000 titles for circulation. The library includes a public Talking Book Center with audio navigated computers that can convert printed word in braille, large print, or synthesized speech. With the cooperation of authors and publishers, books and magazines are recorded on cassette and produced in braille.

The idea of the audio book actually came from Thomas Edison who recommended that his invention of the record be used for the blind to hear their books.

The interior, opposing walls of the entrance to the library are flanked by relief sculptures with braille titles and were designed to be touched as much as looked at. One of these is pictured above. A plaque next to them reads: Main Line Center for the Arts, Sculpture Classes for the Blind and Sighted.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Middle of Somewhere

by Drew Martin

A couple of weeks ago I took a midday train home. The typical evening rush-hour professionals were absent. In their place were random suburban day trippers. Two elderly, platinum blondes boarded with a small boy, who I did not see before he was slipped into a high-backed three-seater.

The train left Hoboken, passed through a long, dark, old tunnel in a rocky hill and emerged into an overgrown slice of northern New Jersey.

The boy chirped in a tiny, high-pitched and concerned voice, "Are we in the middle of nowhere?"

He must have been only four or five years old and he sounded so sad and lost. The train continued on to the marshy and wide-open Meadowlands. He asked even more desperately, "Are we in the middle of nowhere?" He was so anxious that he might as well have been abandoned in the wilderness.

He repeated the troubled question, over and over. Each time, my heart sank. Finally, our train pulled into Rutherford, which has a town center and signs of life. The boy's voice did not change its tone but this time he asked with a glimmer of hope "Are we in the middle of somewhere?"

Illustration by Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber