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Seen and Not Seen
Confessions of a Movie Autist
By Jasun Horsley
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Jasun Horsley
All rights reserved.
The Deconstruction Artist
Introduction: Autist or Auteur, That Is the Question
"Of course, the toxic bullshit of incessant advertising and show biz for nearly a century has stripped us of cognitive abilities for dealing with reality that used to be part of the normal equipment of adulthood — for instance, knowing the difference between wishing for stuff and making stuff happen. We bamboozled ourselves with too much magic."
— James Kunstler
It's ten days before Christmas, 2013. I have just returned from an island retreat (my sixth in two years) in Finland with "enlightenment coach" Dave Oshana. The effect of attending these retreats has been one of accumulative decrease: each time there's less of "me" to comment, or even have an opinion, about the experience. The less of an "I" there is to tell, the less of a story.
Since I was an adolescent, my story included becoming a "film artist" or auteur. Ergo, my story is the story of a disappearing artist, unraveling the layers of his fake identity, stitched together out of a movie love that didn't just border on autism but dove all the way in there. Through movies I was searching a realm of existence beyond the hell of "I," a way to disappear and still somehow be there. Enlightenment.
What happened when I got back to my "life" after the sixth island retreat? A minor incident — I found out my wife had taken up smoking again due to the stress of a new job. In the context of Life Itself the incident was minor. But in the context of my story, it was a major trigger which catapulted me right back into the depressed frustration of an old, undying narrative. This is my life, damn it, and it's exactly why I go on spiritual retreats: to slowly and diligently take out the garbage, until all that's left is the empty space of being. A blank movie screen.
The only possible excuse for including any of this at the start of a book about "movies," besides that it's what's happening (or was when I first wrote this introduction), is this. My desire to escape the confines of identity by training with an enlightenment coach, etc., is a dead match for why I am drawn to movies. Movies take me out of myself and bring my life-story to a temporary halt. They stop my world.
Movie-watching is a curious addiction, because what movies provide (like heroin?) is a desire-free state. Of course the movie in question, like heroin, has to be a good movie, uncut with talcum powder or milk sugar; otherwise desire will rapidly creep back in, even if it's only the desire to watch a different movie.
Freedom from desire is freedom from fear. Freedom from identity is what movies provide, for an all-too-brief spell. But since they don't make it better in the long run (they don't help me to clear out the junk of my past), they probably only make it worse; a bit like my wife's smoking.
On the last retreat Dave Oshana said something about how people who are addicted to movies are afraid of living.
Well OK Dave; but answer me this: who isn't afraid of living?
* * *
I wonder if that comment could, and should, be extended to people who are addicted to making movies? What drives them? Maybe becoming an auteur is a step closer to having total control over living. To not only be able to choose the fantasy worlds which we escape into, but to create them and then lure others into them? Like becoming the Wizard of Oz. (There are sinister implications in this which will become explicit by the end.)
For the twelve days leading up to Christmas I have decided to stop watching movies. It's a way to gauge the dimensions of my addiction, a bit like someone who fears he may be an alcoholic deciding to go a full day without a drink. Just to see, you know, how hard can it be? How afraid of living am I really?
* * *
I am only halfway through this "book." I put it in quotes because, until it's finished and published, it's not really a book, any more than a fetus in a womb is a baby. I already have an offer of a contract, but it's a small publisher and I'm not sure it's really good enough. I want to reach a wide audience, to be reviewed by the major periodicals, to end up in the film section of major bookstores everywhere, to be read, praised, and adored. Of course I do — why wouldn't I? It would make living so much less scary if life turned into a movie. Or so I imagine, in the movie of my mind.
* * *
Francois Truffaut said: "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema." In full sympathy with this decree, I demand that a book express the joy and the agony of its own writing. It should describe the transformative journey undertaken by its author in order to write it. If the act of writing doesn't involve some sort of transformation for the author, why bother? It will never amount to much for the reader.
I'm currently embarked on such a journey with this book about how movies shaped my perceptions of life, the world, and myself. This is my attempt to separate movies from memory (and from identity), and enter more fully into life. Enlightenment comes only when the last of our delusions is over and done. A bold claim. I am writing about movies as part of my deconstruction process — my daily decrease — in the hope, impossibly vain, of an artist who disappears into his art. Which is not quite the same as disappearing up my own —. Never mind, you get the picture. What's the opposite of enlightenment, anyway?
* * *
It's possible I wouldn't have ever started this book if it weren't for Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist. Before I was halfway through Lethem's book, I was inspired to write the essay that became the first chapter of this "book." "Self-Engineered Autism" is ostensibly about the many surprising correspondences between Lethem's personal history and my own. In the process of writing the essay, however, I made a surprising discovery that became the central exploration of this book: how have I used movies to create a social identity, and how have I become a prisoner to that "image-inary" self? How??
All roads lead to enlightenment, or to the opposite thereof. Movies fulfill more or less the same function attributed to myths. They are blueprints for the soul's journey, "user's manuals" for the world of incarnation. With this in mind I decided to recycle my old writings from The Blood Poets into a new, briefer and punchier format. I wanted to focus on the ways movies matched and mapped my own psychological patterns. As soon as I began to delve into the material, however, I found more than I'd bargained for.
In writing about my favorite movies at the age of thirty, I had disclosed all kinds of unconscious information about myself without realizing it. Analyzing the movies I'd escaped into as a teenager and young adult meant exploring my own unconscious reasons for doing so, but indirectly, surreptitiously. If I'd become conscious of what I was uncovering, the books might never have got finished. Fifteen years later, in 2013 and 2014, it felt safe to look more closely at what I'd been doing. The Blood Poets was only superficially about movies and cultural studies. Underneath, it was an unintentional autobiography.
This is true of everything anyone writes, ever.
The current work, un-book or not-yet-book, is an attempt to finish what I started with Blood Poets. It's a probably foolhardy and certainly compulsive attempt to do consciously what I was doing unconsciously fifteen years ago. There's a risk I'll see things I'm not ready to see, panic, and abandon the book. Probably more likely, I will unconsciously subvert my nobler intentions and skirt around the edges of the unbelievable truth without diving all the way in there. In either case the result will be the same. At best I will give up the project in despair and you will never read these words; at worst I will fool myself into thinking I found gold without ever digging all the way through the dirt, to the bedrock. In which case, what you are holding is fool's gold.
If so, don't worry, you will soon know it. Maybe you already know it. My advice if this should turn out to be the case is to put this book down and forget you ever saw it! Don't be a fool! The only reason to read a book is to discover something about the agony or the joy of living, writing, and reading, and be transformed.
Transformation is the only real currency. Don't settle for anything less.
* * *
So now you've been warned, why "movie autist"?
I was forty when I met my wife. She considers herself autistic, and early on she suggested that I might be too. I looked into Asperger's syndrome and found I agreed with the "diagnosis." Not only did it fit my current personality and nature but I found plenty of evidence for autism in my childhood behavior. I was a solitary child to a notable degree. I remember hardly anything from my first seven or so years, but I do know people often referred to how I would go off and be by myself all the time, and that I was seen as an unusually serious child who rarely smiled or laughed. I disliked being touched, or at least kissed, and it was a running joke how I would put my head down whenever anyone threatened to kiss me, offering them only the top of my head.
I was precociously intelligent, like one of the "little professors" described by Hans Asperger when he first described autism in children in the 40s. I even wanted to be an inventor, or "mad scientist," when I grew up. I had night terrors which included bizarre, indescribable sensory perceptions. (One of the primary causes for autistic behavior is unusual perception.) I suffered from what's now called "depersonalization": the feeling that I was unreal or trapped in a dream world/state (or movie?). A lack of a clear sense of self is typical of the autistic experience.
I immersed myself in fantasy worlds such as reading comic books and drawing. I was extremely fussy about what I would eat. As a pre- adolescent I fantasized about being a robot with an on/off switch, as a way to deal with my insomnia. I was a compulsive nose-picker, and remain so to this day. While nose-picking isn't considered an autistic characteristic per se, "stimming" is. I now think that nose- picking was (and is) a form of stimming for me, a way to feel more connected to my body. I was a day-dreamer. I lacked body awareness, and I had occasional shocking experiences of cognitive dissonance while looking at my body, as if looking down the wrong end of a telescope.
That pretty much covers the question of "why autist." So what about "movies"?
There's a curious correspondence between the word autist and the French word auteur, which means "author" (at your service) and was adopted by French and then US and British film critics in the 60s to describe a particular kind of filmmaker whose signature or "stamp" was clearly recognizable in his work.
The simplest definition of autism is self-immersion. As a child I had a huge collection of stuffed toys; all of them had names and super powers, or "special abilities," and I would enact endlessly elaborate scenarios for them, like a film auteur working with his actors. I even made my own stuffed animals, and repaired any of my furry friends whenever they began to fall apart.
Not surprisingly, I was deeply involved in the world of Winnie the Pooh. I collected Marvel comics (all of them violent) from an early age, and at around ten I began to write and draw my own stories, inventing my own superheroes and villains. I played with "action men," plastic figures similar to the kind of macho movie heroes I later heavily identified with, especially via the films of Clint Eastwood. Movies gradually replaced comics as my primary method of creating and escaping into a private fantasy world. Clint Eastwood became my role model. I collected every scrap of information and image I could find of him, tried to dress and style my hair like him, and bought a .44 Magnum replica.
Movie immersion was consolidated by an active, creative role and not just a passive one. I used my mother's typewriter to make lists of all the films I had seen in order of preference, the ones I wanted to see, and my favorite actors. I began to review every film I saw, giving them star ratings and arranging them alphabetically in a filing system. This led to the idea of making my own movies. I wrote reviews for the films I would direct, complete with future release dates, and drew thumbnail posters. I wrote scripts (most or all of them violent), and got a super-8 camera for my fifteenth or sixteenth birthday. I was a budding Martin Scorsese. Movies were rapidly becoming "my life."
If all this was my way of making the fantasy real enough to continue to escape into indefinitely, then I was the auteur of my own movie autism. I think one of the reasons I chose to write about film was that I wanted, needed, to confront an injustice in my past that I was unconscious of, and did it the only way I could: by addressing imaginary narratives. I wanted to restore some sort of order to the moral chaos I was born into.
What inspired me to write this book was realizing that the primary ideology I had adopted related to cinematic standards of excellence. Right and wrong for me are never so clearly identifiable, or so easily asserted, as they are with the question of what constitutes a good or bad film. It's one area where I can feel sure where the ground is. I developed my critical faculties around film from a crucial age, about thirteen to adulthood, the same period my adult persona was crystalizing. To this day I get upset, angry, if a film I consider worthwhile is dismissed by critics (I watched one last night, Blood Ties, a wonderful film about two brothers that was largely ignored), and equally so when a crappy or dishonest movie is hailed as a "great." It is as if unconsciously I have been trying to restore justice to the world.
* * *
In Autism and Spirituality, Olga Bogdashina offers an intriguing developmental model in relation to the idea of "movie- engineered autism." Her model has six stages and it's a bit complicated, and since I want to keep this work simple and straightforward I will try and paraphrase without destroying her subtler meanings.
The first developmental stage is between the ages of three and seven, during which the child develops imagination stimulated by stories (i.e., movies and comics). The child has authentic "spiritual perceptions" but has neither language nor cultural imagery to represent it. Imagination gets together with those perceptions and sense-impressions to create "faith images." Since culture provides stories (fantasy narratives) during this period, these narratives act like clotheshorses for the child to hang otherwise "shapeless" perceptions and imaginings onto. Hence "the child's worldview can easily be manipulated by cultural doctrines." This is also the period in which the child develops self-awareness.
Self-awareness goes hand in hand with a loss of spiritual perceptions as the child's experience is translated into cultural images, between ages seven and twelve (stage two). In the third stage, from adolescence to adulthood, we start to refer to the past as a way to understand our experience and to make plans for the future. This is the start of continuity, when the "narrative" of identity takes over our awareness. We find our identity by "aligning with a certain perspective ... without reflecting on it critically." We adopt an unconscious ideology based on the cultural images — the narrative or movie — which best match our spiritual perceptions and allow us to function socially.
Like an actor entering into a movie, we become an image, an assumed role, a false identity, created by the script of our received conditioning. It's an ironic fact that I was escaping into movies — false realities — as a way to try and feel more real, by creating a fake persona that matched the pseudo reality of culture that surrounded me. Movies exist to alert us to the fact that all human existence has been reduced to a movie: a series of frozen images from the past, playing constantly before our eyes, simulating movement, posing as life.
The difference with autistic types is that they don't adopt cultural images to the same degree or submit to an unconscious ideology, so the "mask" of the false movie identity doesn't fit them quite so well. One symptom of this is that they tend to overdo the business of cultural imitation, such as "Trekkies" who dress up as Mr. Spock, or my clumsy attempts to remold myself in the image of Eastwood. Autists don't do instinctive imitation, they imitate the act of imitation, and so they get it subtly (or dramatically) wrong.
Excerpted from Seen and Not Seen by Jasun Horsley. Copyright © 2014 Jasun Horsley. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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