Syndrome Be Damned

Director Duane Graves put together a pleasant little film portrait of his close friend in 1999. This documentary does not boast a large budget, sleek editing, beautiful high definition photography, or even a hard-hitting political message. It merely presents his friend, Rene Moreno, as a focal point for our attention. Duane Graves is simply an amateur filmmaker who recognized an interesting subject when he saw it, and Rene Moreno, in addition to being a fascinating microcosm for the Down Syndrome community, is just a natural-born entertainer. This is Up Syndrome (2000).

There exists a mythical bond between Duane and Rene. They met when they were both younger. Duane’s mother told him that Rene had Down Syndrome, which baffled the young Duane because Rene didn’t seem down at all, he seemed happy. This is a fine beginning as it reveals the innocence that can destroy preconceptions about Down Syndrome. Duane got a camera as a present and together with Rene, made several horror home movies and their friendship grew. The documentary picks up again with Rene at age 23 in the summer following his graduation. Rene Moreno is a resident of San Antonio, Texas, a die-hard Spurs fan, and employee of the local grocery store. And Rene can really tell a story.

The film does not have a plot, but rather it presents a collection of mini-scenes and moments. Rene tells the camera important things about himself and shows us the things that matter to him. We become attached to this unpretentious, charismatic individual and we come to realize that we enjoy listening to him and spending time with him. He eagerly awaits the arrival of his sister’s baby so he can be an uncle. He humorously impersonates the kids from his class at school. He shoots off fireworks on the Fourth of July. He demonstrates some pretty slick bowling moves as well as karate punches on an unassuming reclining chair. He strums guitar and sings. He recounts the funeral after his grandfather died. He informs us that his girlfriend has broken up with him. He is saddened when he loses his job and cannot find another one. He prays over lottery tickets and asks God for a job. And he longingly stares into the darkened windows of his old school building and reflects on all the teachers in his yearbook he misses.

Rene Moreno’s desire for independence and to help and have belonging is an important one. He does not want his mother to think of him as a baby forever. Rene wants to grow up. This dilemma is a significant issue because sometimes society appears unwilling or unsure of how to help integrate people with learning disabilities into the working world. Are Rene’s ambitions too big? What are people like Rene supposed to do after their school career comes to a close? Sadly, many people with Down Syndrome and other problems are left in limbo and this is something that is given a very personal, human face in Up Syndrome. Rene Moreno demonstrates humor, imagination, affection, innocence, pride, and joyfulness, but there is an important social issue beneath the surface.

When I worked with children with special needs I recognized the problem that Up Syndrome pointed out. In a school environment everyone is encouraged to learn and interact and play and develop, with some kids’ curriculums even tailor made just for them based on their abilities. The school is safe and full of growing, but what happens next? Duane’s documentary is a fascinatingly intimate one-on-one with Rene Moreno, but he is mostly left to his own devices as his schooling is done and he attempts to acclimate to life outside. After a much enjoyed class reunion where Rene gets to see many of his old friends back in school and dance with everybody, we wonder what adjustments all of these other young people are having to make too. There is not enough support and encouragement beyond the school system to help people like Rene become happy contributors to society and culture. Don’t think they can contribute to society or culture? Then consider celebrated artist Judith Scott, she was deaf and had Down Syndrome and her story can be seen in the 2006 documentary, Outsider: The Life and Art of Judith Scott. Scott’s incredible sculptures are compelling and very evocative and representative of the separation and longing she felt for her fraternal twin sister. Scott’s work provides a unique insight as to what the world looks like from a completely foreign perspective. People with Down Syndrome are valuable and important too. Duane Graves certainly believes that, and Rene certainly is a ball of life to contend with. Sadly, according a 2008 UK News article, research states that “92 percent of women who receive an antenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome decide to terminate the pregnancy. This proportion has not changed since 1989.”

Perhaps there is a fear. Perhaps we do not know what to do with these people. Rene Moreno might be limited in some ways, but aren’t we all? Tough issues, but the film remains as optimistic as its subject. When the film takes the time to show Rene discussing his understanding of death and considers his own death in the future, and then goes on to show him reveling in playing cop in a parked car in the garage and using his hand as a gun (complete with exciting sound effect track!), we, the viewer, get the full spectrum of human emotion. Rene Moreno is a dynamic ball of entertainment and his comfortableness with his friend Duane Graves as director allows us to get closer to his soul than we might have been able to with someone else at the helm.

Towards the end of the film Rene becomes an uncle and shares a precious moment holding the new baby. The tenderness is magical. After all the small moments and big moments that we have shared with Rene Moreno it is time to say goodbye. We have gotten a glimpse into Rene’s world. What defines a human being’s worth? Just the limits of his intellect? Certainly not. I smiled and laughed along with Rene and Duane as they joked around with each other and I thought about some of Rene’s faith and philosophical advice. As the curtain closes on this charming little movie, Rene takes a moment to tell us, “No drinking and no smoking.” So what is there to be down about? I’d say Duane Graves’ life has been brought up from his friendship with Rene.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 13, 2011

Zorba and the World Zorbas With You

“Life. Lust. Love. Zorba.”

I first remember seeing Anthony Quinn in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952), then in J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), and as a bit role villain in the Hope/Crosby flick, Road to Morocco (1942, and my personal favorite of the Road series). Renowned for his scene-stealing exuberance—and what many would dub “overacting”—Quinn made a living out of being larger than life. Appearing in such films as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956), and Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) to name only a few, the Mexican-born actor, Anthony Quinn, was a performer to be reckoned with.

Haulin' ass.

Haulin’ ass.

Although I find all of his performances fun and exciting, I have chosen to highlight one of my favorites. Mihalis Kakogiannis’ 1964 character study, Zorba the Greek (aka Alexis Zorba), is a bewitching cinematic experience. Based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (who also wrote the amazing Last Temptation of Christ), Zorba the Greek is at once enigmatic and spellbinding. It is also the starring role of Zorba that Anthony Quinn was born to play.

A slightly uptight British bookworm, Basil (Alan Bates from Women in Love and Gosford Park), discovers he has an inheritance on the island of Crete. On the boat to Crete he meets the middle-aged ball of energy, Alexis Zorba (Quinn). Zorba has a zest for life that is so potent and boisterous that Basil feels they have nothing in common, but he takes him on as friend and assistant. Their unlikely friendship (despite frequent ideological differences) proves quite hardy throughout the trials and heartbreaks they face together.

The old world ways.

The old world ways.

The inhabitants of the backwater Greek town where Basil now lives are quite peculiar and occasionally quite bloodthirsty, but Zorba holds Basil’s hand and guides him through the troubles of life and shows him that wherever there is sorrow, there is room for rejoicing. Eventually Basil breaks out of his shell, but as Zorba will teach him, living life to the fullest has its price too. The message Zorba is trying to convey is not one of lifestyle, but one of attitude. Zorba’s cracked wisdom and childish optimism prove quite infectious to not only the characters within the film world, but to moviegoers as well.

Perhaps what struck me most of all when I first saw this movie was the characterization of the village. It is at once warm and welcoming, but there is an undercurrent of suspicion and a history of closed-mindedness (Zorba is somewhat excluded from this circle). Old ladies wait at the bedside of a dying woman like vultures ready to snatch her belongings as soon as she kicks the bucket. There are village customs that seem charming and then some that are barbaric. Sometimes, the way the village conceals some of its feelings and cruelly manifests others reminded me of a Greek Bad Day at Black Rock.

Joy!

Joy!

Zorba is as much an oddball to the townsfolk as he is to Basil. His cavalier attitudes represent the purest innocence the little Greek village has to offer. While many are beaten by tragedy and suffering, Zorba takes his sorrows and dances with them. He’s not a perfect character either. He has many faults, but that is one more reason we love him and why Basil is reluctant to see him as an equal.

Composer Mikis Theodorakis—the brilliant composer for two other great films; Costa Gravas’ Z (1969) and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973)—weaves a truly hypnotic score and Oscars deservingly went to Walter Lassally and Vassilis Photopoulis for gorgeous cinematography and art direction. Russian actress Lila Kedrova also received an Oscar for her supporting role as an eccentric French woman trying to retain her youth and dignity in the xenophobic Greek town. Zorba the Greek was also nominated for best screenplay, best director, best picture, and Anthony Quinn was nominated for best actor (but lost to Rex Harrison in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady). Alan Bates plays a good stoic more concerned with keeping up appearances and remaining a spectator on the world rather than a participant. Irene Papas (Z, The Guns of Navarone) gives a tremendous performance in a silent supporting role as the ill-fated object of everyone’s desires. In many ways Zorba the Greek is similar to E. M. Forster’s novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, which juxtaposes uptight British pretensions against wilder more passionate and spontaneous lifestyles of a small Italian village.

When a man is full, what can he do but burst?

When a man is full, what can he do but burst?

In short, Zorba the Greek is a masterpiece. A brilliant and ageless tale with some very fine performances, a great look, and a truly inspiring outlook on life. For fans of the great Anthony Quinn (and dare I say, movies in general) this is a must-see. I hope you check it out and experience the joy that is Alexis Zorba.

Review of Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents (1960), starring Anthony Quinn as an Inuit.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 10, 1009.