Sunday, March 27, 2011

Todd Drezner's LOVING LAMPPOSTS offers a different --but necessary-- look at autism

Of the many autism-themed documentaries to come down the pike over the past few years (the subject accounts for practically a mini-genre in itself), LOVING LAMPPOSTS is among the best. And not because it offers any ironclad assessment about this condition (that seems to affect an increasing amount of children world-wide) or its cause (which remains, as ever, up for grabs). Rather, this quiet and relatively short (82 minutes) film -- produced, directed and edited by Todd Drezner, who is himself the parent of an autistic child -- deals more with the societal perception of autism, including (perhaps most important) that of these kids by their own parents.

Many autistic children focus to near-obsession on odd objects, and Mr. Drezner, shown at left, begins his movie with shots of his son (the cute kid on the poster above) who has a thing for lampposts, particularly those in Brooklyn's Prospect Park near where the family resides. The filmmaker spend little time on his own situation, however. Instead he's off talking to many other parents, doctors, educators, therapists and -- most important for his thesis -- the autistic themselves, both children and adults. The diversity we see here is, well, stunning. And this, of course, changes our perception. There are so many variations in abilities (some obvious, others not so), and even -- another surprise -- within the same person, depending on the moment, that you cannot come away from the film without realizing the autism does indeed mean "different" rather than "sick" or "crazy."

Drezner understands how most parents of autistic kids (that's Christina Chew, with her son Charlie, above) want to help their children more than anything else. The filmmaker also understands how easy it is to play into the "fight" scenario (let's declare war on autism!) or the even easier-to-assimilate autism "epidemic," with its attendant and confusing we-must-find-a-cause, which has included villains such as vaccines (for which the filmmaker gives a pretty fair pro-and-con assessment, before coming down clearly, as has medical science, on the pro-vaccine side).

What is Autism? We hear many of the wide-ranging definitions, from the physically- to the mentally-ill to the simply "different."  Yet, how different the person is from the accepted definition of "normal" usually paves the way for the autistic child's life ahead. Perhaps, the filmmaker suggests, parents of these children might want to turn their mind from the idea of making their kids "normal." Drezner shows us, via several of these children and adults, that autism can mean brilliance (as in the case of Sharisa Kochmeister, above, right, with her father Jay) as well as great difficulty, though the difficulty remains a constant to some extent.

One of the really "choice" subjects is autistic adult Stephen Shore (above, left), whose explanation of how he came to understand the concepts  "dating" and "interest from the opposite sex" is quite extraordinary. This section may call to mind the movie Adam, in which Hugh Dancy plays an Asperger syndrome man (Asberger is considered to be a milder form of autism), and in fact makes that fine film seem even more believable.

Mr. Drezner asks so many good questions, too (and then tried hard to get answers from his subjects): "If we think about not thinking 'normal,' then what do we think about?" is one of these. "Not even wrong" is another phrase that is explored to excellent effect, because once we can understand the meaning of not-even-wrong, explains one fellow, then we're primed to understand so much more.

Even low-functioning and high-functioning can reside in the same person (that's Dora Raymaker, above) and can in fact change back and forth within the same day. Still, there clearly is a kind of continuum, and according to Drezner, the name/label neurodiversity may be the best way so far to view the autistic and may also be the ticket into society for many of these afflicted (if I may use that word).

Like the alcoholic, it would seem, the autistic may never be fully "cured" but will remain so even after "getting better" or incorporating into normalcy.  In fact, suggests Drezner, the attempt parents make at having their autistic children ape normalcy may be doing more damage than good for many of these kids, perhaps tamping down some of their more brilliant qualities in the process.

The words "Autism is..." appear on the screen often throughout this film. No answer is forthcoming, however, but the idea that the condition may be a gift, as well as a curse is certainly suggested. Stablization treatments, the filmmaker shows, can include everything from changes in diet to "imitating" your autistic child in order to enter his/her world.  But he cautions viewers that "a fight against ____'s autism should not become a fight against _____ himself, or against ______'s being the way that s/he is."

Fill in the blanks above with the name of the autistic person in your life. And do see this film, which will be available on DVD starting Tuesday, March 29, from Cinema Libre Studio. You can purchase the documentary here.  Or rent it from... where?  You can save it at Netflix, but that is no indication that this increasingly remote DVD behemoth will ever bother ordering it. At Amazon, you can't rent or stream, but you can save one buck off the retail purchase.  Blockbuster? Forget it. How much longer, in fact, will this mistake-from-its-inception (but one that managed to put many small video stores out of business) be with us?  Still, Loving Lampposts is a film that absolutely ought to be streamed or rented. Ah, well....

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