Rain Man: Austistic defection agency

[Screenshot]Man, I’m just going to use that Aarseth line over and over until it ceases to be even remotely funny.

Longtime readers have surely noted that I miss a lot of culturally significant cinema. Rain Man definitely qualifies; Dustin Hoffman one of the most memorable (and spoofable) performances in cinema history. Also, it seems to have marked a turning poing in popular perception of insanity: traditionally people with serious mental disorders were portrayed as gibbering loons, usually murderous, basically Reefer Madness without the reefer. Rain Man seems to have been one of the earliest films to look at mental disorders in a sympathetic and vaguely factual light. No, Dustin Hoffman’s performance isn’t a clinically perfect presentation of autism, but it’s a pretty good pop-culture first-order approximation, and it seems like people with disorders have been portrayed more convincingly, or at least interestingly, since then: Rain Man brought us extreme autism, and more functional autism appeared in The Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (along with a smattering of other disorders) is brought to our homes by Monk, and I dunno what disorder Vincent D’Onofrio’s pretending to have in Law & Order: CI, but he’s definitely got some very mild disorder on the obsessive end of things.

What intrigues me is that modern audiences are far more interested in methodical mental disorders then in the chaotic madmen of bygone eras. Maybe we’re starting to actually care about how accurate portrayals are, or maybe we just find an off-kilter but internally consistent mindset a far more interesting character than one which is a complete cipher. One thing which bugs me, though, about all of these is that they’re basically comedies. Rain Man (and its aforementioned predecessors) invite us to laugh at their main characters’ quirks. That’s OK when the character in question is just wacky, but when they’re ill too there’s a bit of an edge to it, and it kind of hurts the overall tone. Anthoer rather worrisome trend is to present the methodological disorders as actually having inordinate gifts attached to them, especially gifts of memory and calculation. I don’t know how typical this is, but I think it’s perhaps a disservice to those who do suffer from real problems that there’s an expectation that their curse will also be a blessing after a fashion. Fortunately, most of these works—and especially Rain Man—have a bit more to it than the “get a load of the freakshow!” vibe: there’s cause not only for laughter and awe but also commiseration, and that works. On the subject of character rapport, let me applaud the courageous decision not to take the easy, and mawkish, way out of having Raymond learn to comprehend love. He’s not a character who really can develop much, and shouldn’t. It preserves the integrity of the story far more for him to change other people than to be himself changed.

As I so often do, I have a parting shot. Namely, a question. I have a vague idea of the particular dysfunctions associated with autism, and I thought one of the things they had tremendous difficulty dealing with is high levels of sensory input. Shouldn’t being on the floor of the casino have caused Raymond to panic outright? Most Vegas casinos are a bit overwhelming even for those of us generally able to hold ourselves together.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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