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)