Life, Animated – A Film Review

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Life, Animated

Film review by Thomas W. Campbell

Update:  Life, Animated was chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the best documentaries of the year.

On Monday, June 20, 2016 I moderated a National Board of Review after-screening Q and A of the new documentary Life, Animated. The participants were Pulitzer Prize winning writer Ron Suskind, his wife Cornelia, his son Owen, Academy Award winning director Roger Ross Williams, and Producer Julie Goldman (Weiner, Best of Enemies). The film, released on June 24, is about the life of Owen Suskind, who fell suddenly victim to the silence of autism when he was three years old. First told in 2014’s New York Times best seller Life, Animated (The story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism), the film picks up where the book leaves off, following Owen’s tentative steps into adulthood and self-reliance. Owen and his father Ron were able to stay for a short time before making off to a television interview and then a fuller discussion took place with the director, Cornelia and Ms. Goldman.  The complexity of bringing Owen on the publicity tour was on everyone’s mind but he seemed comfortable and not only answered questions about his experiences but shared some funny and precise impressions from his massive catalog of film and animation knowledge.

Life, Animated begins with a series of shots revealing Owen Suskind, a young man in his early twenties, walking around a parking lot in what seems an aimless circle and talking to himself in a cryptic and indecipherable manner. It’s the fear of anyone who knows an autistic person – that they will lose their way and you will not be able to help them find their way back. Can someone help this young man? Can he help himself? Putting us in a subjective place where we feel and experience the disorienting nature of autism is one of many strengths of this engaging, informative and ultimately entertaining documentary.

The book by Ron Suskind, Life, Animated (The story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism), which the film is based on, is over 350 rich, thoughtful and dramatic pages. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions – revealing in an honest, even unflinching way the complexities of the autistic experience from the parent and child’s point of view. There are complexities that a novice could never imagine. Having a child who is born into the autistic experience is a life uprooting experience. Having a “normal” child who, at the age of three, suddenly becomes one of these “different” children is arguably even more life-shaking.

Life, Animated picks up this story and moves forward though Owen’s life after graduation while dipping back in time, using photographs, occasional clips of home movies, and first person interviews with Ron, his wife Cornelia, and Walt, Owen’s older brother. We see a video, alluded to in the book as the turning point in the Suskind family life, of Owen and his father playing in the backyard, laughing and romping in a lawn of fallen leaves.  It would be the last memory of Owen, barely three years old at the time, before “the change”. Ron describes the impact as being akin to his own son’s “kidnapping” – a complete psychological disappearance of the boy he once knew.

The Suskinds struggled for answers, talking to professionals, losing hope. And then, two years after Owen went silent, there came a series of unexpected revelations.  Before the change he was joined by his older brother Walt, and often by his father and mom, in a ritual shared across the world by families with young children at the time – watching VHS copies of their favorite Disney animations. When Owen “went away” these viewings were the one continuity in his before-and-after life. If anything, Owen became even more engaged with the films – Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King – and began to spend increasing amounts of private time with them. One day Ron and Cornelia heard something that sounded like “juice” – heartened they poured him one kind after another but he would not take it. Later they saw him rewind a sequence he had already watched, and then rewind it again. And then again. It was a song, and the final line of the performance was “Just the voice”.  Owen repeated the line – he was not just “parroting”, he was communicating about his own voice. It was the kind of breakthrough the Suskind’s had prayed for. And the beginning of a remarkable journey of hope and discovery.

Animation is is used in three ways to bring life – and clarity – to the story. Excerpts from the Disney films are used to share and illustrate Owen’s self discovery and expression.  Black and white ink and water color animation is used for recreations that bring us back in time to events experienced by Owen as a child. And vivid color animation is used to bring Owen’s own screenplay to life, to illustrate his core belief that “No Sidekick is left behind”.

It is a testament to the producers that they were able to get complete cooperation from Disney and have access to the Disney catalogue. Owen only truly comes alive in his relationship to the films that are the core part of his life. Disney films, it turns out, are a great attraction not only to young minds but also to people with autistic-like symptoms who have difficulty decoding visual cues. Walt Disney literally told his artists, after the commercial failure of his first animated film, that the key to success was in the face – full, animated, exaggerated expression of all emotions would be the Disney way. And it worked. The next film was a huge success and the Disney formula had gained one if its’ most important cornerstones. And these expansive and expressive displays of emotion – in the face and across the entire body – offered a way into life for many people that Disney could never have imagined.

Previous films by Roger Ross Williams include the deeply moving Music for Prudence, a documentary about a physically disabled young woman in Zimbabwe who finds her voice in a society known for killing the disabled at birth and God Loves Uganda, about the way religion is used to marginalize homosexuality. He has crafted Life, Animated with assurance, intelligence and style. He has known the Suskinds since Owen was a young man, working with Ron on television documentaries and journalism stories, and was the only filmmaker they could imagine adapting the book to the screen. But he knew little about autism when he began the project and has discussed how making the film has given him a perspective into a world he could only have imagined. Understanding that hearing at times will create barriers in autism by garbling and mixing sounds in ways that prevent comprehension, he uses sound design to vividly recreate this experience for a young Owen.

An intimate director who works close to his subjects, Williams borrowed a shooting technique known as “the interrotron” from Errol Morris, who perfected a behind the TV screen camera apparatus that allows the interviewee to see the director’ face on a television monitor while the camera shoots the subject through the glass. This is a deceptively simple and powerful technique that disarms the speaker and has become a common tool in Morris’s brilliant documentary toolbox. Williams uses it to create big facial closeups during interview sessions which are all the easier for Owen to decode and react to. We look through the camera into the eyes of a joyful and engaged young man, inspired by the trust engendered from his relationship to the onscreen images. In one instance Owen watches us intensely from an extreme closeup, undergoing strange and exaggerated facial contortions that elevate rapidly from wonder to fear. Lips purse, his tongue wags, his eyes radiate deep concern. Then we see what he is watching – The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Quasimodo being tricked into a false friendship that turns into humiliation when he is tormented by a cruel and angry crowd.

Williams works with cinematographer Tom Bergmann to “be there” for the ordinary and the transformative moments in Owen’s life. We visit The Disney Club, Owen’s great achievement for himself and numerous other “different” children who share their love and deep knowledge of the Disney Universe. To the surprise of administrators the students not only showed up – but they brought passion and commitment. With his father’s help Owen has developed deep and mutual friendships with numerous actors from the Disney world. The film documents a visit by actors Gilbert Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman, who joyfully struggle to match the enthusiasm and acting chops of the kids around them.

Life, Animated is a film that can open doors into the minds and experiences of the autistic, the “different”, and those who care for and love them. It is a powerful introduction to how difficult and how rewarding a relationship with these often misunderstood sons, daughters, parents, and friends can be. Using well-designed animation (all of it the hand-drawn variety that Owen loves) a thoughtful and carefully constructed soundtrack, and patient storytelling, the film brings us into Owen’s world in a way that touches the heart and informs the mind.

Looking back at Lyle Lovett and Summerstage 2015

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Summertime and outdoor music – a real treat.
Here’s a link to more pictures, as they are added:  More photos by Thomas W. Campbell

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Lyle Lovett performs with his Big Band at Lincoln Center Summerstage, 2015. Photograph by Thomas W. Campbell

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Lyle Lovett performs with his Big Band at Lincoln Center Summerstage, 2015. Photograph by Thomas W. Campbell
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A member of Lyle Lovett’s Big Band plays at Lincoln Center Summerstage, 2015. Photograph by Thomas. W. Campbell

Lyle sings red for web

Lyle Lovett and his Big Band at Lincoln Center Summerstage, 2015 Photograph by Thomas W. Campbell

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Lyle Lovett and his Big Band at Lincoln Center Summerstage, 2015 Photograph by Thomas W. Campbell

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Lyle Lovett and his Big Band at Lincoln Center Summerstage, 2015 Photograph by Thomas W. Campbell

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Lyle Lovett and his Big Band at Lincoln Center Summerstage, 2015 Photograph by Thomas W. Campbell

 

Birth of the Sun – Grady Alexis and the East Village

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Grady Alexis drinks coffee in the kitchen of El Taller Latino Americano during the late 1980’s. Image by Demian Palombo.

Birth of the Sun is a short documentary video about Grady Alexis and the East Village of the 1980’s/90’s. Using interviews, art, and archival footage, the film explores the life and times of the Haitian artist who moved to New York City when he was a young teenager, lived on the street while he sold his art in Tompkins Square park, found community and shelter with other artists and outsiders, and finally died in a traffic scuffle with an off-duty policeman at the age of 26.

Grady lived on the edge, bonding with the artists and activists he met through the downtown community, developing a style based on his own experiences in New York City that also became firmly rooted in the tradition and culture of his native Haiti. Grady never had a legal address, living in squats, on the street, at El Taller as “Resident Artist”, and with friends and lovers. He was a collaborator, which brought him into touch with many people, movements, and cultures. Birth of the Sun examines these distinct sides of Grady’s life. It looks at the family that he found when he became “artist in residence” at El Taller Latino Americano, when he was involved with the artist known as “the Maroons” and his time with the artists who convened at the Mars Bar.

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Grady Alexis at an art opening at El Taller in late 1980’s. Freeze frame from video shot by Bernardo Palombo.

Grady’s life was also on the street during a time when violent crime was at a peak and police-community relations were strained and tenuous. That is where his life ultimately ended. On the evening of May 6, 1991, Grady Alexis and two others were confronted by two men, one an off-duty policeman, at 8th street and Fifth Avenue. Grady died hours later from the eruption of violence that ensued. His untimely death on the evening of May 6, 1991, was swift and had a lasting impact on those who knew him. When he died El Taller seemed to collapse beneath the tragic weight of the event. The Maroons had already broken up, although Thom Corn and Grady had continued to collaborate. The film is about the many people who still remember their friendship with Grady.

The filmmakers use many narrative and stylistic techniques to examine the life and death of Grady Alexis and his lasting impact. Working from a photograph of his long-lost mural “the Birth of the Sun”, people who knew Grady, and artists from El Taller have gathered to recreate the mural. The completion of the mural, which is documented in the film, culminates in the celebration of Grady’s life – a gathering of people from past and present at the first retrospective of Grady’s painting and sculpture. The filmmakers sorted through hundreds of hours of archival material that spans the entire duration of El Taller’s rich history to find the small bit of video documentation that exists of his life. Birth of the Sun is in many ways an investigation. The filmmakers are interviewing numerous people who knew Grady and were active in the arts and political culture of the time, attempting to put his life – and death – into a broader social context. The film uses subtle and artistic re-enactments to explore the relationships that defined Grady’s life and death. The filmmakers also documenting much of Grady’s surviving artwork – paintings, sculptures, masks, murals, and installations. The film has a rich and completely original soundtrack that reflects the many musicians who knew Grady.

Birth of the Sun uses an artist's rendition to represent the events of May 6, 1991. Richard Pliego was the artist.

Birth of the Sun uses an artist’s rendition to represent the events of May 6, 1991. Richard Pliego was the artist.

Although Grady’s life ended almost 25 years ago, his death was part of a turning point in the city’s cultural and social landscape. Birth of the Sun, which was produced in 2008, is about that time and will shed light on the life of Grady Alexis and this unique moment in the life of New York City.

Screening in Houston, Texas

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It would be great to have films in so many festivals that one would have to pick and choose which ones to attend. Not the case so far, but it was wonderful to have my short Rooftop Serenade selected for the Extremely Shorts Film Festival in Houston, Texas. Aurora Pictures is a great and dedicated group of film makers/producers/exhibitors/ enthusiasts who are doing important work to keep the spirit of film art alive. The breadth of quality filmmaking that made up the screenings, all selected by guest curator Jolene Pinder of the New Orleans Film Festival, was remarkable. Stop-motion and 2D animation, poetry, slices of real life, quirky, sad and funny narratives, funny twists, good music, social critique – 80 minutes of unconventional and totally satisfying film viewing.

And it was a smart and appreciative audience – after each evening’s screening Mary Magsamen, the creative director of Aurora, invited the filmmakers in attendance up to ask questions, joined by Ms. Pinder. It was fun to be part of this young, select group and to answer questions during the Q and A and afterwards (there was a lot of interest in the fact that my film was shot and cut on 16mm film).

And Houston was fun to explore – everyone drives but the mass transit is civilized, runs on time, and affordable. Excellent museums (the Menil Museum and the Rothko Chapel are next to each other and not to be missed), good food, and a bridge in the middle of the city where thousands of bats sleep and emerge from every dawn.

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After Screening gathering at Aurora Picture Show. Beer, Pizza, good film talk.

Beer Bottle House

This is a Houston house made from beer bottles, cans, and lids. It has Quasi-landmarked status.

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Judge Jolene Pinder and Creative Director Mary Magsamen introduce the festival.

BarBQue

Just down the road from the Aurora Picture show is Good Co. BBQ!

Film Stills for Rooftop Serenade

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I was looking through a box of old photographs and came across some production stills from the 2002 Rooftop Serenade shoot that were taken on film. It was a really hot and bright day that was full of visual contrast. The photographs were taken by Holly Leavy.

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Misenus – Trumpeter of the Trojans

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Misenus is the fourth video production, produced in 1991. It followed Giving Maury the Treatment (1989), The Perfect Girl (1990) and No Parking Any Time (1990).  J. Henry Fair was a partner in the first three and an inspiration in the last one.

Misenus stars Neal Keating. His music is also featured. Michael Benson contributed a strong Nagel (inspired by late night horror films of the early 20th century). And Billy Lee was an imposing Mr. Lowery.

Shot in wonderfully primitive Video 8 and reanimated in After Effects.
The password is:   trojan hero