Yesterday I attended the Cambridge premier of Roger Ross Williams’ remarkable documentary Life, Animated. The film tells the story of Owen Suskind’s jailbreak–that’s pretty much how his father Ron Suskind puts it when he describes the challenges faced by two parents of getting their son back after his diagnosis of autism.
Life, Animated compresses the arduous journey into under two hours, as we watch poignant home movies from the BD era (before the diagnosis) with the rough-and-tumble play of father and son, witness the efforts to find the right schools and counselors, learn about the transformative moment when Owen repeats a version of “It’s just your voice” from the Disney films he has been watching, and then see Owen come back to his family through the words and emotions he has learned from watching Disney films.
It’s a film that ends up animating us, rewiring our brains and rearranging our senses. And it lets us look inside the minds of others in compelling ways–suddenly we see what they see, feel what they feel as we discover how the symbolic helps us navigate reality. The genius of including an animation of Owen Suskind’s own story about sidekicks gives the film a self-reflexive quality that mirrors the documentary and meditates on it yet also has its own emotive power. Suddenly we see the links with Disney’s Peter Pan and its lost boys, Pinocchio and a father’s desire to animate a boy carved from wood, Beauty and the Beast and the transformative power of love and compassion.
In the Q and A after the film, Owen and his parents were on stage in what I can only describe as an incandescent moment. It felt as if they had all just emerged from the screen to enter real life and remind us that what happens in art can often be more real than what we experience in life. It’s what Paul Ricoeur refers to as “ontological vehemence”–that moment when what is happening in your head is larger than life and twice as natural.
“Who in the world gets to decide what is a meaningful life?” Cornelia Suskind said at one point (I’m paraphrasing), quoting her husband. We are homo significans and what we do, almost as a reflex, is construct meaning, compulsively and carefully. And sometimes we create meanings, often through art, that change us in dramatic ways. Neil Gaiman famously told us what to do when life throws us a curveball: “Make good art.” (Below an excerpt from his Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts.) Owen is doing that. His parents are doing that. Roger Ross Williams is doing that.
In some ways, Owen’s story is a story of stories. It corrals not just Disney films, but also all of the stories behind the standardized Disney versions of “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” and so on. It’s all the narratives that made the Suskinds who they are today, and that includes the myths of Prometheus and Pygmalion, figures who worked their magic by breathing life into their creations.
I recently translated Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and was struck by this passage about stories as akin to chiseled artifacts, objects that acquire their beauty through layering, and Life, Animated is a perfect example of “the layering of a variety of retellings”:
Paul Valéry tells us about perfect objects in nature, flawless pearls, full-bodied, mature wines, and truly complex creatures. He describes them as the “exquisite products of a long chain of causes that resemble each other.” The cumulative effect of such causes has temporal limits only when perfection has been attained. “Nature’s patient way of working,” Valéry continues, “was once a model for humans. Miniatures, ivory carvings crafted to the point of perfection, stones perfectly polished and engraved, lacquered objects or paintings in which thin, transparent layers are put on top of each other—all of these products of sustained effort required sacrifice and have rapidly vanished. The day and age is long gone in which time does not matter, Today people no longer work on anything that does not allow shortcuts.” Today we are witnessing the evolution of the short story, which is no longer connected to oral traditions and no longer allows for the gradual accumulation of thin, transparent sheets that capture the most accurate picture of how a perfect story emerges from the layering of a variety of retellings. * * *
And here’s the link to Neil Gaiman’s speech:
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.