9 April 2008

More on Kubrick and Asperger

Stanley Kubrick was sixteen years old when Asperger was first identified as a form of autism and died before Asperger was officially recognized by the medical community in 1994. Here's a snip from a New Yorker piece written by an artistic aspie last year:

In the fall of 2000, in the course of what had become a protracted effort to identify—and, if possible, alleviate—my lifelong unease, I was told that I had Asperger’s syndrome. I had never heard of the condition, which had been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association only six years earlier. Nevertheless, the diagnosis was one of those rare clinical confirmations which are met mostly with relief. Here, finally, was an objective explanation for some of my strengths and weaknesses, the simultaneous capacity for unbroken work and all-encompassing recall, linked inextricably to a driven, uncomfortable personality. And I learned that there were others like me—people who yearned for steady routines, repeated patterns, and a few cherished subjects, the driftwood that keeps us afloat.

The syndrome was identified, in 1944, by Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician, who wrote, “For success in science or art, a dash ofautism is essential.” Yet Oliver Sacks makes a clear distinction between full-fledged autism and Asperger’s syndrome. In The New Yorker some years ago, Sacks wrote that “people with Asperger’s syndrome can tell us of their experiences, their inner feelings and states, whereas those with classicalautism cannot. With classical autism there is no ‘window,’ and we can only infer. With Asperger’s syndrome there is self-consciousness and at least some power to introspect and report.”

In his 1998 book “Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals,” Tony Attwood observed, “The person with Asperger’s syndrome has no distinguishing physical features but is primarily viewed by other people as different because of their unusual quality of social behavior and conversation skills. For example, a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome described how as a child she saw people moving into the house up the street, ran up to one of the new kids and, instead of the conventional greeting and request of ‘Hi, you want to play?,’ proclaimed, ‘Nine times nine is equal to 81.’ ”

David Mamet, in his recent book “Bambi vs. Godzilla,” discerned redeeming qualities in the condition. Considering filmmakers past and present, he stated that “it is not impossible that Asperger’s syndrome helped make the movies. The symptoms of this developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence, and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutia of the task at hand.”

Sounds like a thumbnail sketch of Stanley Kubrick. Asperger can be applied widely, probably due to its being such a recently characterized phenomenon.
The Asperger’s spectrum ranges from people barely more abstracted than a stereotypical “absent-minded professor” to the full-blown, albeit highly functioning, autistic. Symptoms of Asperger’s have been attributed ex post facto to successful figures, but these are the fortunate ones—persons able to invent outlets for their ever-welling monomanias. Many are not so lucky, and some end up institutionalized or homeless. (In the late nineteen-seventies, I saw a ragged, haunted man who spent urgent hours dodging the New York transit police to trace the dates and lineage of the Hapsburg nobility on the walls of subway stations.) For some—record collectors with every catalogue number at hand, theatre buffs with first-night casts memorized, children who draw precise architectural blueprints of nineteenth-century silk mills—a cluster of facts can be both luminous and lyric, something around which to construct a life.

We are informally referred to as “Aspies,” and if we are not very, very good at something we tend to do it very poorly. Little in life comes naturally—except for our random, inexplicable, and often uncontrollable gifts—and, even more than most children, we assemble our personalities unevenly, piece by piece, almost robotically, from models we admire. (I remember the deliberate decision to appropriate one teacher’s mischievous grin and darting eyes, which I found so charming that I thought they might work for me, too.)

So preoccupied are we with our inner imperatives that the outer world may overwhelm and confuse. What anguished pity I used to feel for piñatas at birthday parties, those papier-mâché donkeys with their amiable smiles about to be shattered by little brutes with bats. On at least one occasion, I begged for a stay of execution and eventually had to be taken home, weeping, convinced that I had just witnessed the braining of a new and sympathetic acquaintance.

Caring for inanimate objects came easily. Learning to make genuine connections with people—much as I desperately wanted them—was a bewildering process. I felt like an alien, always about to be exposed. Or, to adapt another hoary but useful analogy, not only did I not see the forest for the trees; I was so intensely distracted that I missed the trees for the species of lichen on their bark.

My first and most powerful obsession was music—the same records played again and again while I watched them spin, astonished at their evocation of aural worlds that I not only instinctively understood even as a toddler but in which I actually felt comfortable. I was both terrified of and tantalized by death (which was absolutely real to me from earliest childhood), and by the way recordings restored Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba to life for a few minutes, ghostly visitors who had returned to sing for me at 78 r.p.m., through a hiss of shellac and antiquity.

When I was ten, I became fascinated by silent films, the visual complement to my old records. I spent hours at the library of the University of Connecticut, a few minutes’ walk from home, researching the lives of actors and actresses on microfilm, and recall the genuine sense of mourning that came over me when I saw Barbara La Marr’s sad, youthful face on an obituary page from 1926. Not surprisingly, “Sunset Boulevard” was my favorite “talkie” (I actually called them that—in 1965!), and I’d regularly set the alarm and wake in the middle of the night to watch Chester Conklin or Louise Dresser take on minor roles in some B movie that the Worcester, Massachusetts, UHF station put on when nobody else was watching.
Kubrick totally immersed himself in film, as he had with chess and photography, when he was living as a bohemian bachelor in New York in the early 1950s. Kubrick eventually drew in his girlfriend to help him make his first feature and had been married twice by the time he made his first mainstream picture, The Killing, in partnership with James B. Harris. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

Matt J said...

Kubrick didn't die before 1994!!