A couple of posts ago, I wrote something with the title “Lance Henriksen has done more to represent the autistic than Suzanne Wright ever will”. This resulted in some confusion in conversations I had elsewhere concerning what I write here.
In one comment on my Fudgebook page, I was asked if Mr. Henriksen was “an ally of autistic people”. When I write that anyone, be they an awesome actor like Lance Henriksen or the drooling idiot who works in a Queensland McDonald’s (yes, I know I am being redundant by putting “drooling idiot” in the same sentence with “Queensland”, work with me here), has done more than a Hitler-wannabe like Suzanne Wright, I have a specific meaning in mind. As I have written in several previous posts, when a film, play, story, or piece of music represents the autistic well, or in a manner that can be considered fair and proper (note that this is a totally different thing to what Faux News called fair and balanced), it is by accident. Lance Henriksen‘s body of work is no exception to this rule.
Having said all of that, I generally like to believe that the majority of sentient creatures, even Homo Sapiens, are intrinsically decent at heart. Hence, I do believe that if Henriksen is indeed aware of the situation, he desires to do what is right by the autistic.
Unfortunately, people like Suzanne Wright have both the money and the connections to ensure that people in the media, and Hollywood, have a very different idea of what is right by the autistic as a collective than the autistic as a collective does. A few years ago now, I was absolutely shocked and distraught when I pointed one of my web browsers at the address of the Internet Movie Database, and was immediately confronted with photographs of celebrities that were purportedly taken at an Autism Speaks gala that I forget the exact stated name of. The IMDB has several message boards on which its administration, essentially employees of the online store known as Amazon, can be contacted. So there, I told them, plainly and simply, that Autism Speaks were so hated like autistic adults like myself that allowing Autism Speaks any coverage on anything Amazon ran was tantamount to telling the autistic that they do not want the business of the autistic. Some discussion followed, in which I further clarified that there is a difference between controversy and a situation where an organisation is utterly despised by the same people it claims to represent. My profile on the IMDB was changed so that anyone who loads it can see a heartfelt message stating the equivalent of “autistic adults all want Autism Speaks to fukk off and die”. Fortunately, this must have gotten through to the IMDB, because now not only is mention of Autism Speaks extremely scarce there, so to is mention of autism, period. Clearly, someone at Amazon talked to their marketing strategists and worked out that pissing off an entire market of people who sometimes show fanatical devotion to subjects of products they sell and cannot be easily identified was not a good idea.
To the best of my knowledge, Lance Henriksen has never so much as attended any Autism Speaks function. Leave alone attempted to raise money for them. (Note that this is a different proposition to the headline “…raise money for autism”. If you raise money for Autism Speaks, you are not raising money for autism or the autistic.) In writing that post, I am placing a lot of faith in Mr. Henriksen that I am not mistaken, and that I never will be mistaken. But this also attaches an interesting addition to my hypothetical about the demise of Autism Speaks and what we replace them with. I believe we should also have a register of celebrities who have done the right thing by us, and represented us well. Although my criteria for this list is fairly loose, it will be a smaller list than a lot of people think. And like my proposed council to keep those in power appraised of how to treat the autistic fairly within our societies, it would probably be best to keep it somewhat hierarchal in nature.
Some time ago now, I wrote a post in which I tried to list some of the accidental portrayals of the autistic that represent parts of me. This post was more a way of passing time for me, but further reflection on the subject as of now leads me to wonder… why do more celebrities not attempt to play us well? And the answer that the storytelling logician in my mind came up with was both unsettling and enlightening. Whilst I am sure that there are plenty of folks who praise Josh Hartnett and that screaming bitch who played his beau in Mozart And The Whale, I have some unfortunate news for folks out there. I have had the misfortunate to encounter someone purporting to be the real man behind the film’s character whilst wandering the IMDB’s message boards. And a worse representative of autistic adults who do not scream and hit themselves at the mere sight of steaming water, I find difficult to imagine.
Hartnett cannot be unaware that Powell types like myself express desire to punch him in the face for that film. Nor can Radha Mitchell be unaware that Powell types like myself feel that when her deliberate attempt to portray an autistic woman is compared to an accidental portrayal like Anna Paquin‘s in X2, she comes off second best in the same sense that most imagine Jaleel White would come off second best in a fist-fight with Mike Tyson.
Which brings us to the ultimate question here. When I state out loud like this that Lance Henriksen has accidentally portrayed multiple types of middle-aged autistic man and done so well on multiple occasions, the likelihood that this will be relayed to him or that he will have incentive to care is very small. It makes little difference at present to his work, and at this point in his career, the difference it is likely to make is minimal. But like portraying a mentally ill character, a retarded character, or any other kind of character far enough outside of the world audience’s understanding, an actor who does portray an autistic adult well deserves the fact acknowledged in a way that makes a difference to them. Both Jack Nicholson and Larry Drake have won accolades for portraying members of these groups in a fashion that not only went severely against the established grain at the time, but in a way that still receives positive response from members of said groups to this day.
On the now very-old television series L.A. Law, Larry Drake was tasked with portraying a moderately retarded man called Benny Stulwicz, who did the menial work at the law firm at which most of the stories are set. When you are a child growing up in the 1980s, your impression of the retarded and the cognitively handicapped tends to be a rather negative one to say the least. In 1989, I lived about half an hour’s drive from a hospital in Western Sydney that had several satellite facilities, one of which was a residential care facility for individuals with mental handicaps that ran the gamut in severity from moderate to extreme. To say that Benny gave a very different impression of the retarded compared to what I saw in a residential care facility during a brief detour on a drive to a nearby mental health facility is an understatement. But looking back on it now, I think I finally understand the difference. The facility in question was a place where these individuals were left to be forgotten and hidden. Benny, on the other hand, is accepted and, although obviously not thought of as an equal, is given a chance to be the best he can be. As dramatic as the difference between being autistic and being retarded is, the effect of these different behaviours from society is often the same.
When the film As Good As It Gets was first released, it took the general media of the late 1990s by storm. I still do not know whether the world should be pleased or deeply ashamed that it was not until 1997 that a film that portrayed the mentally ill as something other than a bunch of wantonly violent ne’er do wells was released and got this much attention. If you were to tell me in 1989 that I would be listening to a group of schizophrenic individuals and their families speak of his performance in a film in such glowing terms, I just would not have been able to believe you.
Unfortunately, it seems that every film studio wants to reproduce the big breakthrough that one of their competitors came up with. It never seems to occur to these people that you can only make the first film to portray war in a fashion consistent with what it is, the first film to portray the realities of an unpleasant profession, or films of similar kind, once. Which is one reason why writers, studios, and moneymen occasionally start to fall over themselves trying to market a film that the autistic will universally like. Sorry, but it is just not going to work that way. That old saying “nothing about us without us” very much applies. Possibly one reason why no film that has attempted to portray the autistic on purpose has ever failed to suck like a Godfrey’s showroom is because none of them have autistic adults anywhere in the process. Try this as an exercise if you do not believe me. Try to write a story about a person of a type you have never seen or physically encountered before. For your average Queenslander who lives more than a certain radius from Brisbane’s central area, that should mean pretty much anyone whose parents (or even they themselves) grew up in a distant land. Then, take that piece of writing it, and show it to a matching person, and ask them to comment on how the character is written.
Chances are, you will be told a lot about how people from say, Japan for example, do not move, speak, or stand around others the way you have written. Writing a character from a real-world place and writing them exactly as they would be if they had the experiences associated with that real-world place is a challenge. This is why authors, even ones like Stephen King, show a predilection towards writing characters of a type familiar to them. Differences are generally injected into the characters. Charlaine Harris‘ most well-known protagonist, for example, is a much fitter and more slender specimen than her appearances both in True Blood and online have revealed her to be.
It takes deliberate effort, and much work, to create a character that significantly differs from what one knows, is familiar with, or sees in the mirror. That is why no published work ever consists of a first draft. Even when a written work has been scheduled for publication, people within the publishing house will go over it with a fine-toothed comb, poring over every word in order to make sure it all “works” the way they believe it should. One aspect of the editorial process is to make sure that each character comes across in the way that reflects a synthesis between both the author’s intentions and the marketeer’s expectations. And that, friends and neighbours, is part of the problem. At least when the actual author is autistic, they can tell the editors and marketeers “the reason this character hates ruralists so much is because examples of their kind shut him in a hole for life”, and urge them to respond accordingly. But when nobody involved in the process is autistic, the chances that the finished product will reflect an autistic worldview is so barely above zero that it makes no odds.
Hence, when a screenwriter, director, and actor hit that magic combination that allows a character to resemble a real autistic adult, it is worth the kind of praise I give it. When I say that by doing this on multiple occasions, Lance Henriksen and those he was working with on those occasions have done more for the autistic than curebies ever will, I am commemorating the fact that they really have pulled something out of nowhere. Given how poorly represented we are in the media in spite of how such professions appeal to us, we should acknowledge that.
Barring the event that what I recommend becomes a reality, simply stating it out loud in such writings is going to have to suffice for now.
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