FILM FORTNIGHT: Rain Man

Hey, I run out of ideas sometimes, and it is partly for that reason that I like my little on-running series’ (although I try to minimise continuity here as a rule). So, for the next two weeks, I’ll be putting up six film reviews as posts. These are films selected pretty much at random from my back catalogue of ‘stuff that is reasonably interesting to write about and that I’ve watched fairly recently’. First up, something that I only got round to watching a couple of days ago; four-time Oscar winner Rain Man.

Rain Man has a lot to answer for nowadays; not only does it suggest that card counting in blackjack is illegal (it isn’t provided you use no electronic aids or camera equipment, but will get you thrown out of every casino in the world) but it is also responsible for almost every presumption going on the subject of autism. Back in 1988 autism was a rather poorly-understood issue by the general public, so when a film about an autistic savant completely lacking in social and human skills but with a superhuman memory and mathematical ability came onto the scene, it was projecting itself onto a somewhat blank canvas. Unfortunately, this has lead (perhaps understandably) to a public perception that autism automatically equals superlative brainpower alongside mental deficiency, which is both very wrong and a heinous oversimplification of a complex issue. However, the film does at least have the guts to put such a serious and previously largely unknown illness on the big screen, and deserves plaudits for managing to do so with respect without being preachy.

But back to the actual film; our first lead character is Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), a west-coast car dealer and insufferably arrogant berk with a somewhat stormy relationship with father Sanford. When said father dies, Charlie learns that he will not be inheriting his father’s $3 million estate but has instead been left a ’57 Buick and a few rose bushes,as something of a final ‘get stuffed’ from beyond the grave. To say Charlie is slightly annoyed by this would be rather a gross understatement, and he is quick to seek out the Cincinatti mental institute which his father has made a trustee of the money in search of a few answers. He finds them in the form of long-lost brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), the elder of the two siblings who Charlie was hitherto completely unaware of. Raymond is confined to the institution on account of crippling autism, giving him a religious obsession with schedule and routine and a near-total inability to communicate or interact with the outside world. This doesn’t sit too well with his brash, outgoing brother who dislikes the idea of $3 million going to a man with ‘no concept of money’ so he whisks him away to LA (where his business is located) in an effort to wring some cash out of the institute in court. Unfortunately, Raymond refuses to fly or drive on major highways, turning what should have been a simple journey into a long haul, cross-country road trip, which rather strains the nerves between the mumbling autistic and the guy who thinks it’s all just some big show.

And that’s… pretty much the film; indeed the entire second act can basically be summarised as two guys in a car getting angry at one another for an hour. In this small way it is vaguely similar to The Motorcycle Diaries, but whilst Diaries featured two relatable, funny and genuinely meaningful central characters we here have one person who we don’t want to relate to (re the ‘insufferably arrogant’ comment above) and one to whom it’s almost physically impossible to do so. It is possible to build a meaningful, compelling storyline around an unsympathetic character as District 9’s Wikus van der Merwe proved (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I highly recommend changing that), but it’s certainly difficult and Rain Man doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. That neither character either develops or builds any sort of relationship to the other for the first two-thirds of the film hardly helps matters, and this period is not one of compelling watchability once we’ve got over the essential theme of ‘Hey, autism! It’s weird!’. Yes, it’s all very real and due kudos to the director, but it tends to get a little too real in patches, concentrating on the facts and parts of life that don’t make compelling screentime.

That the first part of the film is rather trying to watch is certainly no fault of execution; director Barry Levinson won an Oscar for his work on this film, and his cinematography is certainly effective (if somewhat clunky and obvious in places). Added to that, we have the acting; Cruise offers up a complete performance, bringing his character’s personality to the fore through his every action, big or small, and manages to make up for the communicative difficulties of Hoffman’s character and carries the film with aplomb. However, even his impressive acting performance is knocked into a cocked hat by a piece of typical Hoffman brilliance; Hoffman reportedly spent time with American memory savant Kim Peek (the man who inspired the film) among others before taken on his role, and it shows. His performance is so whole and complete that it’s genuinely mind blowing, and even to someone such as myself who has very little experience with severe autism it feels more real than any other acting role I’ve seen this year. His is a performance made in the details; not just all the little ticks, but the repetition of them, the execution, the little movements of the head and hands that are never explicitly mentioned, even the way his expression changes, all manages to portray a powerfully consistent image of a trapped, distorted mind hidden away somewhere. This is the first time I have been genuinely moved by an acting performance alone, and it was a fantastic experience.

However, waxing lyrical about an acting performance still doesn’t overshadow the film’s initial failings , but I am happy to report that the film’s twist (which I won’t spoil for you) kicks in at around the hour and a half mark and finally gives the experience some momentum. With events moving along nicely with a definite direction and emotional dynamic in place rather than the aimless meandering we were previously subjected to, one is finally able to settle back and enjoy the experience, and to immerse oneself in the film in front of you. It is something of a pity that Cruise’s character loses some of its steam when called upon to offer up some emotion, but he nonetheless does his job and the conclusion has an eerie, if somewhat cliched, beauty about it. Rain Man is a film that takes its time to get going, and one that I nearly gave up on after the first hour, but it’s most definitely worth sticking to; recommended, at least to to those with the patience.

Fitting in

This is my third post in this little mini-series on the subject of sex & sexuality in general, and this time I would like to focus on the place that sex has in our society. I mean, on the face of it, we as a culture appear to be genuinely embarrassed by its existence a lot of the time, rarely being referred to explicitly if at all (at least certainly not among ‘correct’ and polite company), and making any mention of it a cause of scandal and embarrassment. Indeed, an entire subset of language has seemed to develop over the last few years to try and enable us to talk about sexually-related things without ever actually making explicit references to it- it’s an entire area where you just don’t go in conversation. It’s almost as if polite society has the mental age of a 13 year old in this regard, and is genuinely embarrassed as to its existence.

Compare this to the societal structure of one of our closest relatives, the ‘pygmy great ape’ called the bonobo. Bonobos adopt a matriarchal (female-led) society, are entirely bisexual, and for them sex is a huge part of their social system. If a pair of bonobos are confronted with any new and unusual situation, be it merely the introduction of a cardboard box, their immediate response will be to briefly start having sex with one another almost to act as an icebreaker, before they go and investigate whatever it was that excited them. Compared to bonobos, humans appear to be acting like a bunch of nuns.

And this we must contrast against the fact that sex is something that we are not only designed for but that we actively seek and enjoy. Sigmund Freud is famous for claiming that most of human behaviour can be put down to the desire for sex, and as I have explained in previous place, it makes evolutionary sense for us to both enjoy sex and seek it wherever we can. It’s a fact of life, something very few of us would be comfortable to do without, and something our children are going to have to come to terms with eventually- yet it’s something that culture seems determined to brush under the carpet, and that children are continually kept away from for as long as is physically possible in a last-ditch attempt to protect whatever innocence they have left. So why is this?

Part of the reasoning behind this would be the connection between sex and nakedness, as well as the connection to privacy. Human beings do not, obviously, have thick fur to protect themselves or keep them warm (nobody knows exactly why we lost ours, but it’s probably to do with helping to regulate temperature, which we humans do very well), and as such clothes are a great advantage to us. They can shade us when its warm and allow for more efficient cooling, protect us from harsh dust, wind & weather, keep us warm when we venture into the world’s colder climates, help stem blood flow and lessen the effect of injuries, protect us against attack from predators or one another, help keep us a little cleaner and replace elaborate fur & feathers for all manner of ceremonial rituals. However, they also carry a great psychological value, placing a barrier between our bodies and the rest of the world, and thus giving us a sense of personal privacy about our own bodies. Of particular interest to our privacy are those areas most commonly covered, including (among other things), the genital areas, which must be exposed for sexual activity. This turns sex into a private, personal act in our collective psyche, something to be shared only between the partners involved, and making any exploration of it seem like an invasion of our personal privacy. In effect, then, it would seem the Bible got it the wrong way around- it was clothes that gave us the knowledge and shame of nakedness, and thus the ‘shame’ of sex.

Then we must consider the social importance of sex & its consequences in our society generally. For centuries the entire governmental structure of most of the world was based around who was whose son, who was married to who  and, in various roundabout ways, who either had, was having, or could in the future be having, sex with whom. Even nowadays the due process of law usually means inheritance by either next of kin, spouse or partner, and so the consequences of sex carry immense weight. Even in the modern world, with the invention of contraceptives and abortion and the increasing prevalence of ‘casual sex’, sex itself carries immense societal weight, often determining how you are judged by your peers, your ‘history’ among them and your general social standing. To quote a favourite song of a friend of mine: ‘The whole damn world is just as obsessed/ With who’s the best dressed and who’s having sex’. And so, sex becomes this huge social thing, its pursuit full of little rules and nuances, all about who with who (and even with the where & how among some social groups) and it is simply not allowed to become ‘just this thing everyone does’ like it is with the bonobos. Thus, everything associated with sex & sexuality becomes highly strung and almost political in nature, making it a semi-taboo to talk about for fear of offending someone.

Finally, we must consider the development of the ‘sexual subculture’ that seems to run completely counter to this taboo attitude. For most of human history we have comfortably accepted and even encouraged the existence of brothels and prostitution, and whilst this has become very much frowned upon in today’s culture the position has been filled by strip clubs, lap dancing bars and the sheer mountains of pornography that fill the half-hidden corners of newsagents, small ads and the internet. This is almost a reaction to the rather more prim aloofness adopted by polite society, an acknowledgement and embracing of our enjoyment of sex (albeit one that caters almost exclusively to heterosexual men and has a dubious record for both women’s and, in places, human rights). But because this is almost a direct response to the attitudes of polite culture, it has naturally attracted connotations of being seedy and not respectable. Hundreds of men may visit strip clubs every night, but that doesn’t make it an OK career move for a prominent judge to be photographed walking out of one. Thus, as this sex-obsessed underworld has come into being on the wrong side of the public eye, so sex itself has attracted the same negative connotations, the same sense of lacking in respectability, among the ‘proper’ echelons of society, and has gone even more into the realms of ‘Do Not Discuss’.

But, you might say, sex appears to be getting even more prevalent in the modern age. You’ve mentioned internet porn, but what about the sexualisation of the media, the creation and use of sex symbols, the targeting of sexual content at a steadily younger audience? Good question, and one I’ll give a shot at answering next time…

The Curious Tale of Jack Dunlap

If, gentle reader, you happen to be from the USA, and especially if you happen to live in or in the vicinity of Washington, then you are likely to be more familiar than the rest of us with Arlington National Cemetery. This is a huge graveyard near the centre of Washington DC, and contains a number of war memorials and similar. It also contains the grave of John F Kennedy, whose final resting place it became 4 years after his assassination in 1963 (he had originally been buried in a small plot in the same graveyard, but was later moved to a plot containing a memorial). However, not long before Jack Kennedy was finally lain to rest, another Jack was buried just a little way away- one whose political significance was also huge, but went unknown to almost everyone. His name was Jack Dunlap, and his story is an extraordinary one.

In 1960, Dunlap led an unremarkable life. Married to an unworking wife and with five children, he was a sergeant in the US army with a distinguished record of service in the Korean war and the medals to show for it. However, now he was confined to more mundane work as a clerk-messenger, ferrying important documents around Fort Meade, the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Washington. This made him around $100 a week, which even in 1960 wasn’t much to feed seven hungry mouths.

However, in late 1960 Dunlap encountered a big slice of luck. A distant great-uncle of his died, and bequeathed him a plantation in Louisiana. Suddenly, the dough was rolling in, and Dunlap began living the high life. A new Cadillac, fine suits, smart restaurants, his own cabin cruiser, and his newfound passion for speedboat racing were now within his financial grasp, he told his friends, but he hung onto his job out of a sense that it was important. He didn’t tell most of them about the mistress he had set up in her own apartment, but to her he told a different story. He put on his swagger, and began to brag about how he ‘wasn’t what I say I am’, and all the top-secret stuff his job required him to handle, ending with the old line “If you knew what I actually did, I’d have to kill you”.

Still, the Louisiana story was enough for his NSA bosses, and he received red carpet treatment. Not only was he given days off to go speedboat racing, but after an accident in which he injured his back they sent an ambulance and transferred him to a military hospital. As Jack joked to his friends “They were afraid the sedatives might make me tell a lot of secrets I know”

But to find out the real truth, you’d have to know about a curious fact of his work.  Some of the documents and papers he was entrusted to deliver would turn up late. Very late in fact- nobody noticed, but it might take a day or so for an important paper to get to where it needed to when it passed through Dunlap’s hands. This was because it had taken a little detour- first up Jack’s shirt, then to a man in Washington who would photograph or photocopy them, before being taken back to their intended recipient. The man in Washington was a Soviet agent, and Dunlap was selling his country’s secrets to the USSR.

This was where his newfound wealth had come from- a $50,000 annual salary, around ten times his NSA one, had been offered to Dunlap by the agent in a meeting that autumn ‘to help him bear the expense of his five kids’, in exchange for the information he provided. And provide it he did. Jack Dunlap carried on playing his game of betrayal for nearly four years, on one occasion even bringing an unsuspecting mistress with him to a meeting with his Soviet contact.

However, all good things come to an end, and in Jack Dunlap’s case that end was rather abrupt. In March 1964 his NSA term had come to an end, and he was due to be posted elsewhere- somewhere he might not be able to continue his lucrative trade in information. To try and keep his position (and thus his illicit income), he said that his family were too settled in Washington to move, and asked that, if he could not work for the NSA as a soldier any more, perhaps he could resign and assume work as a civilian.

This would have been a great plan had it not been for one catch- the lie detector. Whilst Army personnel were considered safe, all civilian NSA staff were required to take a session on it before assuming work and, try as he might, Dunlap could not persuade them that his military record excluded him from that. He tried to persuade himself that four years of casual espionage had kept him cool, calm and collected enough to beat the lie detector (which was a fundamentally flawed and eminently cheatable device), but unfortunately it was not to be. Measurements of his muscle movements, breathing, perspiration and heart rate when answering rather sensitive questions altered the NSA opinion of him from a trustworthy, honest, efficient worker to a habitual sneak ‘capable of petty theft’. Whilst not a damning indictment of the high treason he was performing, it was enough to get Dunlap transferred to a desk job and to get his bosses asking around. The plantation in Louisiana was found to be bogus, and they started trying to find out where Dunlap’s wealth came from.

For Dunlap, this was a terrifying time. Without any secrets to ferry and sell, he was abandoned by his Soviet contact. He knew perfectly well that four years of betraying such sensitive information was more than enough to send him to the electric chair, or at least the rest of his life in maximum security without a hope of parole. His mental state began to unravel- he had paranoid fears of shadowy men in dark corridors asking him to ‘just come this way’, or a platoon of soldiers kicking down the door. Finally, it all got too much for him, and on July 22nd, 1964, he drove to an abandoned creek and suffocated himself with his car’s exhaust fumes.

During his time as a spy, Jack Dunlap ‘told’ the Soviet Union almost everything about the United States’ coding machines, revealed exactly what the US knew about Soviet military power, and handled some information concerning Oleg Penkovsky a Soviet double agent working predominately for the British that went straight back to the Soviets and almost certainly helped lead to the eventual capture and execution of one of the most influential intelligence tools the western powers had (Penkovsky was a Soviet colonel who, disillusioned with his country’s politics, had begun to play exactly the same treacherous game as Dunlap). And that’s only the stuff we know about- the KGB have (understandably) never released the information they got from Dunlap, so he could even have contributed to Kennedy’s assassination for all we know (far be it from me to add yet another string to that particular conspiracy theory). Many might consider him a traitor, a villain who gave up both his principles and his country for a couple of hundred thousand bucks- but then again, we might consider Penkovsky, playing the same game, a hero who died in the fight against communism. What we can all be sure of, however, is that Jack Dunlap almost certainly changed the course of history in his own little way- much like the other famous Jack spending his eternal slumber just a stone’s throw away.