Monday, 18 October 2010

Wearing the Clever Trousers

I seem to be interested in prodigies of late. Geniuses, savants, people of unusual intelligence. I always like to see characters with a brain being appreciated and explored since a lot of attention is usually given to the more athletic and therefore more physically attractive characters.  My current favourites are Spencer Reid of Criminal Minds and the boys from The Big Bang Theory but I seem to have picked up a pattern in the films I've been watching lately, and discovering more in them than just admirable intellects.

My favourites seem to deal with the dichotomy of genius, which is that a mental ability in one area can be accompanied by a deficiency in another. Sometimes it's a simple lack in social skills from too long spent outcast from the popular kids, or a mental illness that counterweights their genius, and sometimes is what makes it possible at all (e.g. Reid shows mild signs of Asperger syndrome, and Rain Man's Raymond is autistic)

So here's this week's playlist:
(Titles link to trailers)

Good Will Hunting
When I read the summary I assumed it would be the classic case of 'Lonely Nobody discovers he has Supernatural Abilities. He is now a Hero!' Almost like a superhero, Spiderman maybe. But instead it focussed on something I hadn't considered before- unfulfilled potential.

Will, the protagonist, is incredibly gifted. He can work out problems overnight that took his professors years to solve, he understands mathematics the way Mozart understood music, and can recall hundreds of facts at a moments notice, yet he spends his time working as a janitor in MIT and getting into pointless fights.

When one professor discovers Will's talents he decides that such a great mind cannot be wasted and bails Will out of jail with great ambitions for him, including formal lessons and therapy. However as Will slowly begins to speak with Sean, the only therapist to survive his vicious repartee, we see that it isn't that he is unaware of his own intelligence -on the contrary, he is so aware of it that he deliberately and antagonistically runs mental rings around anyone he meets just because he can- but that he has been so emotionally damaged by his life so far that he refuses to attempt anything he really wants, for fear of losing it.

There's a lot in this movie; the desire for success versus the perceived shame of failure, what happens when the need for recognition takes over, the assumptions we make about other people's lives, how fear can paralyse and isolate us, the effect cruelty and rejection has on people, the cost of abandoning troubled youths to the judicial system, the merits of intelligence versus empathy, and why we need to know ourselves and examine our actions carefully. It's a very moving film in places, funny too, and surprisingly profound in the aftermath. I highly recommend it.

Catherine Bryggman struggles to make sense of her life following the death of her father Robert, a great mathematician. When a proof is found in her father's study that may resolve an important theory in the mathematical world, and which Catherine claims to have written, she has to come to terms with the fact that as well as inheriting her father's brilliant mind, she may also be carrying the mental illness that haunted him until his death.

The cast is small which makes it very intimate to watch -the play it is based on only has four parts and they mostly keep to that- and the relationships very tangible. I like the quiet of it, the long pauses, the silences it leaves, and the math joke (I'm a sucker for a nerdy pun). While Proof deals with the same topic as A Beautiful Mind, that of fearing your own mind, I think I prefer Proof for keeping it small-scale and personal rather than going for the career-spanning grandiose air that A Beautiful Mind has, although each is justified in it's filming style for the story it tells, it's just a matter of taste.

A Beautiful Mind
John Forbes Nash Jr. is one of those guys whose ideas and discoveries are behind a lot of the processes we take for granted today. His work as a mathematician focussed on using maths to describe and analyse human behaviour and strategies, and the patterns and effects caused by variations in the environment (please excuse my Laymen's, all those with better understanding of it). He also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Many people get schizophrenia confused with multiple personality disorder (I did until I looked it up), where the sufferer switched between personalities, but schizophrenia is more like switching between versions of reality. The sufferer experiences things that simply are not there, hallucinations and delusions, while often appearing perfectly normal in all other ways.

For most of his career Nash struggled against the advance of the illness, and the film (based on the book of the same title) shows him trying to reconcile with the fact that his most treasured possession, his mind, is also the source of his greatest suffering.  It's a window, albeit a decorated and slightly Hollywood-ised one, into the fascinating life of one remarkable man, and just how resilient humans can be.

Rain Man
This is supposed to be one of those films that 'Everyone Has To See', so I gave it a go. For the impossible few that haven't heard of it the story revolves around Charlie Babbit, a young man very bitter towards his estranged and recently deceased father, who discovers that he has an older brother, Raymond, who is autistic and living in a care home. Their father bequeathed three million dollars to Raymond in his will, only leaving Charlie his old car, so in an effort to claim 'his share' Charlie hits the road with Raymond, hoping to use him as leverage. However the more time he spends with his brother, the more his attitude changes towards both Raymond and himself.

Rain Man doesn't really fit my genre since it's more about Charlie learning how to be loyal, compassionate and generally less of a selfish ass than he was before than it is about his brother's genius, Raymond is just the catalyst that begins that transformation and it is his disabilities that are the real focus.

In that sense Raymond's mind isn't really explored much, but the portrayal of autism has been highly praised and that's important because this is the other way of approaching the topic. The other movies (Proof and A Beautiful Mind in particular) show highly intellectual people holding the fort of cleverness against the onslaught of mental illness or emotional trauma and for the most part succeeding. Rain Man approaches it from the other end of the spectrum. Raymond has never fought as John and Catherine fought, because from the moment he was born he was already lost to autism, but rather than portray him as someone to whom mental illness represents a long fall into darkness Raymond is shown as a complete person, and not a lesser one for being autistic. He is eccentric and bound by the need for routine, but he is complete. Moreso than Charlie in many ways, and as he learns to recognise Raymond as a valuable human being he has a connection with, Charlie is humanised in turn.

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