(Originally written August 11, 2006)
David Cronenberg is psychic. That has to be why he wrote about the collision of television and real-life schadenfreude twenty years before the reality TV craze. And, frankly, I think he was saying something about Autism Speaks and their notorious Autism Every Day video, too.
Videodrome stars James Woods as a fellow named Max Renn who owns a cable TV station. Max “strive[s] for art in reverse,” as John Waters would say; Channel 83 is the premiere showcase for pornography and violence. But he needs a new show, and softcore Japanese erotica isn’t cutting it.
While scanning the airwaves for a show he can pirate (ahem, borrow), he finds the simplest, most powerful program he’s ever seen: a woman stands in front of a wall while a man whips her–again and again and again.
“What’s this show called, anyway?” he asks.
“Videodrome,” replies his assistant.
To Max, the name means “video circus” or “video arena.” But it makes me think of prodrome– a sickness in waiting. It turns out that the Videodrome signal causes brain tumors. Soon, Max wants Videodrome like he’s wanted nothing before. He has wild sex with the girl he met on a talk show, has visions of his TV pulsing like a living thing, and develops a VCR slot in his stomach. Then he pulls a handgun out of it and….things don’t end well.
Along the way he meets Dr. Brian O’Blivion, who feels that reality is purest on a screen. “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye,” he says. All filmmakers must believe Dr. O’Blivion’s words in some way: films are made to affect people—to influence (or change) their perspectives.
Like all films, Autism Every Day is only as real as its creators make it. Everyone involved exudes misery and despair—and does so purposely. The message is, clearly, that autism is a horrible thing and should be eradicated at all costs…and won’t I give money to the cause?
Autism Every Day harnesses an attitude of devastation (yes, it’s an attitude) that’s just as poisonous as Videodrome’s carcinogenic signal. The filmmakers aren’t the first to use it, but they prune and shape it so that feeling “devastated” about having an autistic child becomes not only normal, but right. This attitude encourages parents to think of their situations as hopeless and their children as burdens. And this attitude kills.
Living with Fragile X is another online video. It also shows parents talking about their disabled children and, like Autism Every Day, is roughly 13 minutes long. Yet, its message is not “Woe are us! Our kids are fraggles!” It’s more like: “Although we each feel differently about different issues, we all want to help you understand our kids better.” I don’t agree with everything everyone says in the video—having children is not “roll[ing] the dice” and having a non-disabled child isn’t “[getting] lucky”—but the video shows a wide variety of perspectives.
We know exactly which gene causes fragile X, and it’s possible that we learn to turn that gene on. “I think [his] spirit is there whether he’s got a brain that functions properly or not,” says one mother. A father says, “I’m not sure that people with disabilities need to be fixed.”
Why is this video so different from Autism Every Day? Is it because fragile X syndrome is so different from autism? (Considering that 25-33% of people with fragile X meet the criteria for autistic disorder and that most of the rest have “autistic features,” I doubt it). It has more to do with the purposes—and participants—of both films:
- Living with Fragile X was not produced to make gobs of money. It encourages donations so that its creators can finish the film, but I doubt it’s meant to be shown at a big fundraising gala.
- Instead, Living with Fragile X sets out to educate people about fragile X syndrome, so that, as the narrator says, “viewers may question their own perceptions of people who are different from the majority."
- While the interviewees in Autism Every Day are all parents of young autistic children (the oldest autistic shown is eight years old), the parents in Living with Fragile X have kids of all ages—six-year-olds, teenagers, adults. Someone who’s raised their son for decades are going to have different feelings than people whose three-year-old has just been diagnosed.
Both of these films claim to present the “truth” about raising a disabled child. But truth in film is always in the background of the actions on a screen. It is constructed, shaved, edited to make viewers feel and think in certain ways. Truth is in the eye of the beholder—the retina of the mind’s eye.