Susan's Blog

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Extremely Accurate and Incredibly Beautiful

“Now what I have is disappointment. And that’s better than having nothing.” This is what young Oskar Schell tells one of the many people named Black that he visits, in search of information about his father Thomas. Oskar is the main character of Stephen Daldry’s film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based on the beautiful novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. (That’s right, click on the Amazon link and buy the book, it is one of my all-time favorites, a stellar portrait of grief in the face of senseless tragedy; 9/11 writ small through the story of a darling neurodiverse boy and his wonderful parents. Wonderful because they get it; oy do they get it.) The simple truth Oskar learned, that having disappointment is better than having nothing, is a new spin on the old adage: Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about that truth, pure and simple: that love of others enriches our lives, even — and perhaps especially — when there is pain and disappointment.  The unexamined life — the unscarred life — is not worth living.

That’s what I got out of it. But the movie has been pretty much panned by the cynical film review clique. The New Yorker, which is usually my go-to source for movies, totally borked the whole thing. Is it possible that the bright and talented David Denby has never met an Aspie before? I think not; far more likely Mr. Denby doesn’t want to like a thought-provoking, moving, well-directed and well-acted Hollywood movie. If the movie had been made by some pierced-and-tatooed thirty-something single guy indie filmmaker, then I believe The New Yorker would have had a hit on its hands.

You want to know if a kid is true-to-life, ask a mom. I have a feeling I was surrounded by moms in that theatre. The sniffles all had a feminine lilt to them. The whispers were so familiar, they were kind of what we say to each other when we’re having a girls’ night out.  Where David Denby gets tired of the movie because the kid is a “hyper-articulate boy talking semi-nonsense [who is] very hard to take,” I loved the movie for that. Hyper-articulate? Apparently irrelevant fact-after-fact spewed out regardless of what the other person in the conversation is thinking or feeling? Welcome to my world. I’m not naming names, but let’s just say I have known quite a few Oskars in my life as a member of the autism community. Annoying kid? Damn right. Damn true. Damn human.

The thing is, Foer did such a wonderful job drawing Oskar, making him unique, that I did not even realize he was an Aspie when I read the book! Foer had such a deft touch, he simply gave us Oskar without labeling him. Oskar was Oskar. So in the movie, the director and screenwriter are much less secure with that story, and so they tell us. Oskar was (now don’t flinch) tested for “the Asperger’s Disease,” he says. That’s so people who don’t know will get it and forgive him.

The autism mom needs no such apology. We love our kids in spite of their Spectrum Stuff, and because of it, too. It’s part of what makes them who they are. But it is so much a common, unremarkable part of our days that we scarcely have time to think, “why won’t he hug me,” or “think about someone else for a change!” or “use words!”  Sure, sometimes we scream that, but for the most part, we are simply being mothers: worrying, helping, loving.

[SPOILER ALERT!!] Which brings me to Sandra Bullock, the mom in the movie. Her relationship with Oskar should get her The Oscar. While we are watching the movie, mostly through Oskar’s haunted eyes, thinking of his mom as in her own world because of grief, we learn something towards the end about her, and her power and prowess as Oskar’s mother. For while Oskar is out there sniffing into the most faraway crevices of New York City, trying to find out where his dad’s key fits, Oskar’s mother has been there before him. She did her own Aspie detective work and she figured out the puzzle of Oskar’s obsession, she deciphered his unique system of categorization, and she contacted everyone he would be tracking down himself. “Do you think I didn’t know every hour where you were?” she told him later when he discovers the magnitude of what she’s done.

I realized that this was a mom’s movie, in so many real ways (helplessly watching your child have a tantrum of unresolvable despair and anger; accepting the fact that your child cannot or will not tell you what he is going through; wanting to say the right thing but only coming up with the often-unsatisfactory “I love you”) and also in fantasy. For Oskar’s mother got to do what we all want to do: completely control our child’s world and keep him safe. Of course, the irony is, she did this after Oskar’s dad died in 9/11. She learned this about herself — and Oskar learned it about her — that she was more like Oskar than either of them realized. And that is exactly what I’ve learned, in having one child definitely and firmly fixed to the Spectrum, and two more floating very close by, that I am as much like them as their Uber Geek father.  And they are also like me.  God knows that life with them has not been easy and has given more pain than I ever dreamed was possible before motherhood. But they’ve also given me pretty much everything wonderful in my life, too.


Well, you’ve convinced me to see it.

— added by Kate on Monday, January 23, 2012 at 4:24 am

Saw it today, Susan. I, too, was moved. I thought it had some problems but not what the insensitive critics had to say. Now that it’s gotten Oscar nods for best picture and best supporting actor (the splendidly silent Max von Sydow), let’s hope this will be much more than a mom’s movie. I think the treatment of 9/11, which I believe was the main theme of the novel (haven’t read it…yet), was handled with superb sensitivity and beauty.

— added by Beth Arky on Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Thanks for this wonderful post, Sue. I was wondering whether I’d like the movie as much as the book, so now I’m going to try to catch it in the theater, and take it in with your perspective in mind.

— added by Sha on Friday, February 3, 2012 at 8:22 am

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