Friday, September 11, 2015

Good Intentions

Quite apart from its qualities as a film, and apart from the extraordinary performances of its two principal actors, Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1988) is an exercise in cruelty. The film tells the story of Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise, who is a callow, selfish California luxury car salesman who learns of an inheritance from his deceased wealthy father in Cincinnati. At the reading of the will, Charlie is informed that all he has been awarded are a classic Buick and some prize-winning rose bushes. The bulk of his father's fortune is left to a mental hospital where Charlie's older brother Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffmann, is a resident. Charlie, who never knew of Raymond's existence, discovers on meeting him at the hospital that he is an autistic savant and incapable of caring for himself. Raymond's life is a repetitive round of actions - like watching The People's Court on television every day - designed to maintain a predictable and comforting sameness in which his autism can be controlled and studied. Determined to get more of his father's fortune, Charlie Babbitt schemes to gain legal custody of Raymond, absconding with him from the hospital and taking him on an impromptu cross-country trip to California in his classic Buick. (When Charlie tries to get him on a plane, Raymond goes into a hysterical tantrum about plane crashes and they are kicked off the flight.)
The rest of the film relates how the worm turns - how Charlie Babbitt gradually comes to care about Raymond, how he realizes that he is better off in the hospital and reluctantly sends him back to Cincinatti. Surprisingly, Rain Man was the highest-grossing film of 1988 and won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Hoffmann) and Best Director (Levinson). Hoffmann's performance is fascinating - a magisterial turn of method acting: how a talented, charismatic actor made himself into a cipher, a human black hole. He understood that Raymond, no matter how many scenes he's in, is only marginally there; other characters interact with him, or try to, but Raymond's presence in the room with them is incidental. His mental state effectively seals himself inside his own head. And because, to Charlie and to the instuitution that houses him, control of him means control of a lot of money, Raymond is used as a pawn by them to achieve their own ends. 

Hoffmann's performance was criticized by some who didn't seem to understand what he was up to. It was comparable to (though not as great as) Anthony Hopkins's performance of the butler, Stevens, in The Remains of the Day. Hopkins studied with an experienced butler in preparing for the role who told him,"when you enter a room, it should feel more empty." Raymond is, at best, an unwitting player in his own drama. He is not even complicit in his own actions. By subsuming himself inside Raymond, Hoffmann reveals to us how defenseless Raymond is when he is let loose in the world. Knowing this exposes the underlying cruelty of the actions of the other characters in the film toward Raymond, who reflects whatever ideas or emotions that they project onto him.

I was reminded of Rain Man by a teenaged son of one of my neighbors here in a province of the Philippines. The boy is not like Raymond, but he is what one might call "cognitively challenged." He is what we used to call, more bluntly and less sensitivelty, "retarded." Every day - several times a day - I hear him bouncing his basketball past my house on his way to the basketball court across the highway. He is prob├ábly unable to count the number of times a day that he performs this seemingly obsessive ritual, walking back and forth bouncing his ball.

His parents put him in a nearby public school when he was six, but he quickly fell behind in his lessons and they withdrew him. They tried it again the next year - and the following four years - with the same result. He's now 14. There are no "special needs" public schools in the Philippines, but the family managed to find a private school in a nearby town and they enrolled him there last June. Yesterday, I heard someone bouncing a basketball past my house and I looked out to see who it was. It was the boy, who, I was told, couldn't make it in the private school, who dropped out and has returned to passing the time the only way he knows how to.

I can't get inside the boy's head, but I think that he wishes he could be like the other children that he watches going off to school every day, but only because he feels so alone all day, with no one around to play with him except toddlers. I used to see him in the mornings with a book bag on his back, as if he might convince everyone that he, too, was going off to school. 

I'm sure that his parents had his best interests at heart by enrolling him, year after year, in school. They're far too poor to afford any sort of assessment of the extent of the boy's autism, so they have no way of knowing the limitations of his intelligence. But they also have no inkling of the cruelty of their repeated attempts at getting him started in school. They are like the incessant importunities of a parent to push a child into one sport or another, only to see the child fail again and again. The boy must be aware that he doesn't measure up to the standards of other children, that he isn't as smart as them. But to keep pushing him as they have, for eight straight years by now, is, I think, unintentionally cruel. They have been setting their boy up for failure time after time, without knowing of the toll of so much failure on him. 

If I were to return to this place in a decade, I would probably notice the boy, fully grown, obeying his strange compulsion of bouncing his ball across the highway to the basketball court (asssuming it's still there), or all the way home when whatever it is in his mind tells him that it's time to go home.

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