Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sleepless Soliloquy

His fists clenched the now recreant blanket, its frigid facade sending merciless tingles of despair and discomfort. Cold, caliginous environ seals him off from the whole world, the voluminous blackness of which could only be surmised from this most desolate posts. As the pitiless night consumes this seemingly forsaken earth, the minutes tick. The incandescent digital lines configurated into numbers tick by, the glowing green splashing against the ponderous gulf of the dark which separates all corners of the clammy, nearly gelid bedroom. Eyes briefly closed, a terrible white flash compels them to reawaken. Troublemakers equipped with flashlights, traveling on the nearby sidewalk, busily exploiting this most dreadful of nights? A most disquieting sensation caresses the forehead; cool air, as though it were breathed from a malevolent, hovering demon, funnels downward. Eyes dart about in directionless frenzy. A finger nervously twitches. The heart begins to race.

Time stands still. Minutes drone on and on, until the barren vastness of this humble room consumes whole hours. Eyes struggle to shut, only to reopen at the slightest peculiar noise. Each aural disquisition of the little, merciless devils who run amok at the unholy witching hour attracts immediate attention. If only the ears could be closed with the effortlessness of the eyes; yet infernal imagery flashes regardless. The unknown of the grimly dismal room is less awful than the sights of the mind. Hands and arms will themselves downward under the covers. The crisp, chilled air resumes its mockery of what should be a plaintively soothing zephyr.

Neck muscles tighten; the skin contracts against the crucial bone structure. Long hair curls back against the tip of the left ear. Or is that what the spirits want him to believe? A crashing boom jars the chronological descent into paralyzing madness. The dryer has bellowed in the middle of an ominous night once more. Gasps provide a pulsating, nerve-wracking agitato to the incongruous proceedings. The window, a sliver of which is visible beyond the frighteningly insouciant white drapes, appears to become opaque, sinister fog and dew smothering it with inexorable, mephitic gleefulness.

Trapped. Retracting and tucking in the legs and feet to rest beneath the covers. The ceiling slowly, ceaselessly, drops downward. Inexhaustibly descending, its gradually increasing proximity to his torso resembling the crushing weight of the specter that taunts and menaces him with utmost jubilance. Eyes rapidly close and reopen. A clanging sound emanates from somewhere in the pivotal hallway that lay beyond the room. Eyes dart in a vain hope of seeing what lurks behind the corner of the door frame.

Resolute rejection of the tormentors and unusually brave determination to close the eyes and disregard the angagic onslaught follow. Prayer remains a most viable option: cast out the malignant sons of Belial. The enveloping spiritual darkness moved about the fallen earth like a forever voracious marauding army. These evil beasts were vulnerable. They had been too clever for their own sake in creating such an outlandish ruckus.

The once-piercing fear dissipated, quickly fading. Eyes open. Close again. Sleep beckons. It must be near.

And, just as security seemed to be at hand, and the battle over, the most horrifying, petrifying visceral, guttural growl. To the right! Just outside the wall adjacent to the bed. The ferocious, monstrous growl lay only a foot or two away from him, just outside his home. The gnawing, rumbling, snarling guttural growl tortuously shifted into the most bloodcurdling, hair-raising, and unnerving howl and roar. He jumped out of his bed and backed away. Backed into the numinous nothingness of the black blanket that was the hallway. Finding himself move about in a parallel course with the beast that lay behind the wall, moving about as it did from one section of the front porch to the next, evidently locked in deadly combat with one of its wretched rivals.

Sleep remains beyond his grasp.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Horse Boy (2009)

(The Horse Boy was one of four films screened on Poterero Avenue on the evenings of September 23rd and 24th. Reviews of the other three films will be published here soon.)

The Horse Boy is a ninety-three minute documentary by Austin, Texas-based filmmaker Michel O. Scott which unfortunately feels much longer. Its story is an intriguing one, ostensibly brimming with love and hope. The Horse Boy is produced and narrated by the film's star, Austin journalist, writer and father, Rupert Isaacson, and the tale is based on his book, “The Horse Boy: A Father's Quest to Heal His Son.” The book and now film chronicle Isaacson's journey to Mongolia with his wife and young autistic son Rowan in the effort to find shamans who, the father hopes, may heal him.

The genesis of the trip was the son's usually dyspeptic demeanor, punctuated by seemingly endless tantrums, one day becoming singularly serene whenever he rode a neighbor's horse named Betsy. Whenever the child rode atop Betsy, he seemed remarkably peaceful. Isaacson considered this and coupled his own experience with the Bushmen of Africa, related in his 2004 book, “The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert.” Isaacson's research pointed to the Mongolians as having the longest history of using horses, so he coupled the knowledge he gained from his sojourn to see the Bushmen with the Mongolian shamans who, like the Bushmen, spiritually healed those addled by disease. Isaacson convinced his comparatively skeptical wife to take the journey to Mongolia to see the shamans based on these points. The documentary unfortunately does not address why this seemingly radical alternative to the western medication the Isaacsons use on a daily basis must be taken. The correlation between the African Bushmen and the Mongolian shamans remains tenuous. Could, for instance, the child have been escorted to an American Indian tribal medicine man closer to the Isaacsons' home of Austin? Rowan's reaction to the horse, which spurred Isaacson to take this action, may be explainable as simply a child's innate affection for the animal, and for something new. If Rowan's reaction is indeed quite significant, it would be helpful for the documentary to more greatly illuminate, on autism in general and Rowan's case in particular.

The film makes no clear comparisons between Rowan and other autistic children. Autism itself is very briefly covered, with gradations momentarily discussed, but Rowan's case is never directly scientifically scrutinized in relation to other cases of autism. The Horse Boy uses a multi-person panel of apparent experts in the field of autism including Austin psychotherapist Dale Rudin to expound various thoughts and postulations concerning the disease. The soundbites from the rotating doctors often contradict one another. The specifics of autism as a disease, even in relation to Rowan himself, are left frustratingly muddled. This is not entirely unreasonable unto itself yet the myriad comments are often vague or cliché-ridden. Those with a genuine interest in autism, such as beleaguered parents with autistic children of their own, will probably be rather disappointed by The Horse Boy's regrettably shallow pseudo-intellectualism.

The Horse Boy, as a documentary, sadly lacks much in the way of documentation—aside from the trip the Isaacsons take, it documents little. Evidence, examples, basic factual support are all conspicuously missing. This damages the cinematic missive; while it is obvious Rowan has been diagnosed as autistic, what does this truly entail? The lack of answers leaves The Horse Boy appearing woefully incondite at times. The film, through the patriarchal Isaacson, does relate that Rowan suffers from interminable and inconsolable tantrums, an inability to relate to or play with other children, and severe bowel incontinence. (The documentary pushes the audience's patience and embarrassment with at least one too many sequence detailing the latter symptom.) One overwhelming problem with the film, however, is that Rowan's autism is displayed in disparate contexts. In one scene, Isaacson expresses wonderment and happiness when his son throws a tantrum apparently because he was being separated from the shamans. Isaacson notes that this is a good sign; he believed his son would probably throw a tantrum when he was placed near the shamans. Does this comport with average autistic children? Are their symptoms chiefly brought about by emotional reactions?

This gleeful shedding of concrete, rational science as part of the potential equation extends to the Isaacsons readily accepting the shamans' belief, upon examining the family, that a “dark spirit” entered the womb of Isaacson's wife, Kristin Neff. Neff, with an earned Ph.D. in Human Development from Berkeley, rarely receives the focus of The Horse Boy; the picture either occludes or limits all other voices but Isaacson's own. Neff does briefly relate that her deceased, mentally unstable grandmother, the “dark spirit” of whom the shamans speak, suffered from manic depression and this “spirit”/genetic history has directly led to her son's autism. Rowan's parents subject themselves to ritualistic whippings by the shamans, compelled to not scream lest the ceremony be for naught. While the shamans' rituals are displayed visually for the film, the reasoning behind them are left vague. Likewise, Isaacson endeavors to lunge at various other possibilities of healing, including recuperative springs and visiting the “Reindeer People” of Mongolia. Isaacson's open faith may or may not be laudatory, but these developments in the documentary's narrative make the picture rather arduous with only the vistas of beautiful, wondrously open and commodious Mongolian terrain providing steady relief.

Almost humorously, or simply embarrassingly, Isaacson is depicted as hopelessly naïve in his own inexperienced impression of Mongolia, and especially of the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, a desolate, chalky city packed with impoverished slums. After landing in the benighted city, Isaacson confesses that this reality is not what he was remotely expecting in his apparent fantasy of Mongolia. In one of the rare piercing comments made by Neff, she confirms this. The Horse Boy, as composed by filmmaker Scott, seems to relish the thoroughly “open-minded” Isaacson's lack of basic prudence—partly as romanticization, but perhaps more calculatedly as celebrating the prime mover of the “plot”—at the expense of greater insights into the more intriguing subject matter that is largely unexplored. While personalizing the film is necessary when dealing with such inherently intimate subject matter, the film never quite becomes more than validation for Isaacson. Consequently, best intentions notwithstanding, it never presents itself with the compelling, involving urgency that best suits the cinema.