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.

http://www.trisomyfilms.com/links.html

http://www.screenjunkies.com/

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

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Talking Head Tells the Truth

Awhile back I re-watched two movies that I was initially very perplexed by. When I first watched these films I found myself at once curious and fascinated, but I ultimately didn’t know what to make of them. This time around I have new-found respect and admiration for them.  The films were   Stalker (1973) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (brilliant Russian auteur) and  True Stories (1986) directed by David Byrne (of the The Talking Heads). Guess which one I’ve decided to write about.

"I am not an alien."

“I am not an alien.”

I like The Talking Heads and I like unusual movies, but even I was unprepared for the ultra-mellow of True Stories and the ineffable affability of tour guide David Byrne (who always seems like an alien trying to pass for human). As the tagline insists, True Stories is “a completely cool, multi-purpose  movie.” This uber-light foray into the realm of film by Byrne is peculiar in a very 80′s music video kind of a way. In the tradition of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), The Who’s Tommy (1975), Oingo Boingo’s Forbidden Zone (1980), and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), True Stories is a musical featuring many familiar contemporary tunes (this time by The Talking Heads).

The fictitious town of Virgil, Texas is getting ready for their Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness and ten-gallon hat wearing David Byrne can’t help but investigate and share the town and townsfolk with the audience.

TrueStories-WifeWanted

Writer-director David Byrne escorts us through the excitement and weird drama amidst the mounting anticipation for celebration all with the utmost of nonthreatening nonchalance. As he pulls into a parking lot in his red convertible, Byrne tells the audience that what’s going on inside the building behind him “might be part of Virgil’s Celebration of Special-ness. . . or it might not be.”

Byrne introduces us to many odd characters, including the lovable bachelor Louis (John Goodman); homespun voodoo doctor Mr. Tucker (Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples); idiosyncratic but passionate town leader—who is not beyond incorporating a lobster dinner into a visual balletic illustration of how everything works—Earl Culver (Spalding Gray) and his pageant-running wife—whom he never speaks to—Kay Culver (Annie McEnroe); a compulsive liar (Jo Harvey Allen); a conspiracy-theory espousing preacher (John Ingle); and Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz) who is so rich she never has to leave her bed. The movie winds up following all these characters, but perhaps centers mostly around Louis and his quest to find a wife. Byrne wanders in and out of scenes, interacting with characters as old friends or new acquaintances, and then returns to speaking directly to the audience to prepare us for the Celebration to come.

Spalding Gray's economy lesson at dinner.

Spalding Gray’s economy lesson at dinner.

Byrne seems genuinely fascinated by these strange people and their habits as the film unfolds like some sort of peculiar musical experiment in anthropology. David Byrne claimed that most of the characters of True Stories were inspired by “true stories” in local newspapers. The movie features several songs from The Talking Heads including “Wild, Wild Life,” “Dream Operator” (one of my personal favorites from the film, sung by Annie McEnroe as a parade of unusual garments advance along a local fashion runway), “Puzzling Evidence,” “Papa Legba,” “People Like Us,” and others. The film is charming and extremely off-beat in its comedy style.

So what is the film about? Is it about the town of Virgil? Is it about the music? I think more likely it is about the people that make a town. Byrne displays a weird affection for each and everyone of these people. It’s a calming feeling to simply sit back and watch people with all their quirks and foibles live happily and peacefully without real conflict. Everyone has things on their mind, but everyone also shares the anticipation for the Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness. Amidst it all they are united by one thing. Some have labeled this film a satirical parody of American small-town life that’s really having fun at the characters’ expense. I disagree. It’s not like Christopher Guest’s playful jab at small-town America in Waiting for Guffman (1996). True Stories, to me, feels like a tribute and wistful longing for the American small-town in all its idiosyncratic splendor. David Byrne (a Scotsman or possibly space alien) is celebrating the Special-ness of the American small-town, but he’s not afraid to make it an amusing or enjoyable excursion.

"It's a wild, wild life."

“It’s a wild, wild life.”

I like what Byrne says as he drives past several average suburban homes at the edge of the town. He says, “Who can say it isn’t beautiful? Sky. . . bricks. Who do you think lives there? Four-car garage. Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction.” Some might argue that the simplistic approach comes from a place of mean-spirited irony, but I am not convinced. David Byrne makes this place a place to love. The moments where he just drives along in his red convertible with the obviously rear-projected background rolling passed are priceless, humorous, simple, and gentle. That’s the word for this movie! Gentle. It’s a quiet, funny, and gentle ride into an American small-town and we know that life will be just as fine after we leave as when we were there and before we came.

truestoriescar

True Stories is a very pleasurable cult film with much humor and warmth. It captures the attitudes of pure-hearted small-town Americans and sets it to the tempo and sentiment of many a Talking Heads tune. Fans of The Talking Heads, David Byrne, John Goodman, quirky characters, off-beat comedy, or the 80′s really ought to take the time to revisit this gentle, little film. But pay attention. Underneath much of David Byrne’s humorous deadpan narration resonates a sobering echo of tranquility; of how magical even a place as seemingly mundane as Virgil can be. To quote Bill Watterson’s cartoon creation, Calvin, “it’s a magical world, Hobbes.” I’m inclined to think David Byrne agrees.

"We're on a road to nowhere."

“We’re on a road to nowhere.”

picture references:

artoftheguillotine.com

filmfanatic.org

ytimg.com

creativebloom.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 9, 2010.