Monday, March 28, 2011

When Style and Substance Clasp Hands

Cable-only biopics generally strike me as landing near the nadir of television programming. Formulaic and stylistically tone-deaf, such Sunday-afternoon diversions are best experienced as background noise. But one certainly can't say that about HBO's Temple Grandin. Tracing the life of an autistic livestock-management pioneer hardly sounds like interesting viewing, but director Mick Jackson imbues the proceedings with as much excitement as any genre exercise.

Born in the 1940s when autism was thought to be a psychological phenomenon, Temple Grandin lived a largely isolated childhood. Despite frequent verbal outbursts, an inability to read others' emotions and challenges in apprehending theoretical subjects, Temple attended college and became an innovator in animal care through the support of family and friends. Sounds like a boilerplate plot, right? But what sets the film aside (in addition to knockout performances) is Jackson's cinematic style. Abstract thinking is foreign to Temple; she conceives of everything in concrete images. So when someone tells her that she has to walk through opportunity's door, viewers are pelted with scores of fast cuts of portals she has seen in the past. When she hears the term "animal husbandry" for the first time, we're granted a quick shot of a minister officiating the nuptials of a bride and a cow, followed by Temple giggling. As she gazes out across a livestock yard, arrows appear among the eddying herds, showing bovines' collective movement. When the tale offers an opportunity for visual illustration, Jackson is right there with style in spades at the ready.

Ironically, "style over substance" seems to have become the motto of two otherwise diametrically opposed types of entertainment: popular cinema and literary fiction. Both Synder's Sucker Punch and Joyce's Ulysses get so caught up in form that it overwhelms function. What Temple Grandin reminds us is that in a successful story, both clasp hands, each holding the other, refusing to relinquish its grasp. (Picture: CC 2007 by
Leo Reynolds)


Unknown said...

D'you hate Joyce, too? I could never manage him. Joyce and Faulkner, the pair of 'em. Bah, humbug.

Worst part was sitting in these English classes listening to people pretending to understand them in order to impress each other. I understood, for the most part; I just wasn't very impressed.

(I remember reading Faulkner's "The Bear," and enjoying it up until it hits the midpoint and suddenly snaps. I read a dozen pages of the stream-of-consciousness babble, growing increasingly bored, and then flipped to see how much longer it went on and when it would get back to, y'know, finishing the story.

It went for a hundred pages. All stream-of-consciousness. No more narrative at all. That was an awful sensation, looking into that maw there...)

Loren Eaton said...

Never read Faulkner, mainly due to the fact that American lit in my English department was taught by a professor who was ... difficult. And I don't me academically. Most of my education ended up being in European and British lit.

The only Joyce I picked up was Ulysses, and well, technically amazing but ultimately empty. Yes, themes about empathy are all well in good, but do we really have to turn triple Lutz after triple Lutz to get them? Match the message to the technique, please.

Anyway, yeah, not a huge fan. I've heard Dubliners is better, though.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Dubliners is actually quite good. It almost makes me like Joyce.

Loren Eaton said...

I may have to give it a try. My wife wants me to read The Good Earth first, though.