STUDIO: HBO Home Video
RUNNING TIME: 103 Minutes
- The Making of Temple Grandin
- Commentary by Dr. Temple Grandin, director Mick Jackson and writer Christopher Monger
“My name is Temple Grandin. I’m not like other people.”
Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Catherine O’Hara. Written by Christopher Monger. Directed by Mick Jackson.
HBO Films presents the story of Dr. Temple Grandin. Grandin is responsible for creating more humane methods of slaughtering cattle (PETA’s head just exploded at the mere thought of this paradox) among other things. She’s also autistic. Temple Grandin takes you into her mind, deftly drawing you into how she sees the world, and winning a buttload of Emmy awards.
Claire Danes: Now with the power of distorted blur.
Temple Grandin is excellent. I had previously thought of the film as mostly a joke, if only for filmmaker Rian Johnson’s photo study of the Temple Grandin marketing. On the marketing Claire Danes looks as if she’s playing by the rulebook of Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Radio: I don’t know if he wants me to empathize with him or reach through the screen and pet him. It being a biopic I didn’t expect much except for the standard structure presented by some melodramatic actors. Luckily I was very wrong.
While it is a fairly standard biopic (It hits all of the major points) it elevates itself from what could have been rote material by creating not only a film but a gateway to understand the perceptions of someone living with high-functioning autism. Much of the credit of creating such a gateway is due to Dr. Grandin herself. In her years as an autism advocate she has done an excellent job of describing the world of autistic persons to those without. The other credit is due to writer Christopher Monger and director Mick Jackson who take Grandin’s experiences and weave it into powerful imagery that invites us to understand Grandin’s perception and understanding. This powerful world building begins within the film’s first moments as Claire Danes looks directly into the camera to declare, “My name is Temple Grandin. I’m not like other people. I think in pictures and I connect them.” The film then launches into a powerfully visual credits sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the picture. (I’ll also use this moment to say that Alex Wurman’s score – featured heavily in the credits sequence – is quite good and also aids in building a nice sense of environment and ambiance.)
Was she worried? Of course she was worried. Was she going to turn around and check? “No,” Catherine said to herself. “I’m not turning around to check. I’m heading south to the American border.” Though she had ran over what was left of Dave Thomas’ career she refused to turn around and check its pulse. “I just have to move forward,” she said. “And call Christopher Guest.” It died without regaining consciousness.
The film continues to build its world through clever visualizations that show us the unique way in which Grandin sees and interprets the world. Spatial dimensions are literally drawn on the frame and brief moments are broken down into their minute details. (Dr. Grandin explains that her autism allows her to see details where the rest miss them all) The film also calls upon a rich sound palette to portray Grandin’s “sensory perception.” The sound design reveals how horrifying the sounds around us can be without context. The film also plays with subtle changes in sound to reflect Grandin’s mental state. In the first moments upon arriving at an aunt’s home, the film revels in the overlapping sounds helping us to hear as Grandin hears: The slow, dull chopping of the ceiling fan, the ticking of the clock, the drone of electrical appliances, all of the white noise we block out is brought to the forefront. In an effective sequence as Grandin suffers a panic attack these sounds are amplified and intensified – the ceiling fan’s dull chopping becomes a terrifying metallic grating – and bringing us into her mind perfectly.
It is through this sense of understanding that the film transcends its genre and avoids becoming a mediocre run-of-the-mill biopic. The film is definitely sentimental and emotional, but because we understand Grandin so well all of the sentimentality and emotion is earned. The film feels its “Biopic-iest” during its brief flashback sequences at Grandin’s boarding school. It’s a montage-heavy sequence, but other than this the film avoids feeling too standard. It handles most things with restraint and control, so even when it hits the normal biopic milestones (for example: The death of the mentor) it doesn’t feel cliché. And even though it sets it up to be used, Temple Grandin avoids Biopic Rule #23: If at any point during the film a supporting character films the protagonist (usually with Super8 film, but 16mm, videotape and even Polaroids can be included within rule 23) then during the end credits the actual footage (Super8, 16mm, videotape or Polaroid) will be shown. There is a Super8 sequence filmed during the Boarding School Montage but never called back. That’s as biopic-y the film gets.
No other image has so succinctly captured my feelings for David Strathairn.
This restraint works wonders for the film. As was said, it earns every emotional moment that it presents. Some of the strongest emotional moments in the film aren’t emotional at all, but rather deal with Grandin’s lack of emotional understanding. There’s an exchange between Grandin and her Aunt Ann (Catherine O’Hara) where they look at photographs of Temple’s faces and work on identifying which emotions they signify. Another scene finds Grandin with her mother, Eustacia (Julia Ormond) after a party. “You know how people tell each other things with their eyes?” Esutacia says, “This is me telling you that I love you and respect you.” To which Temple replies, “I will never learn how to do that.” In any other film this type of exchange could be seen as overwhelmingly schmaltzy, but Temple Grandin’s restraint makes it a moving moment. It’s emotional because we understand Temple’s lack of understanding of emotion thanks to the fine filmmaking on display. When a film makes a moving moment out of a character singing You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel, or through the befriending of a blind girl without making it overbearing, you know this is something special.
The USDA’s attempt to cash in on the success of Mad Men with their new ads entitled Mad Cows were deemed by most to be a failure. Not only was the title off-putting, but no one wanted to see philandering cows drinking themselves to excess.
As well as Temple’s own words and the fine filmmaking on display there is also a very talented cast. The cast exercises the same restraint as the writer and director. Claire Danes is understanding and full of tenderness as the titular character. She offers something more than an imitation: It’s an embodiment filled with nuance and control. She acts with the appropriate levels of emotion for someone who is unfamiliar with them. She has fantastic chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially a strong Catherine O’Hara. O’Hara is powerful in a small dramatic turn as Grandin’s influential Aunt Ann. O’Hara is known for her comedic abilities (And well she should be) but she’s an incredibly talented dramatic actress. (I, for one, still believe she and Eugene Levy should have received Oscar nominations for their work in A Mighty Wind) David Strathairn does much with the little he’s given as Grandin’s high school mentor. Julia Ormond is excellent as Grandin’s long-suffering mother. At what could be classified as the film’s emotional climax Temple Grandin addresses a crowd of parents of autistic children. As she explains her experiences with her autism, the camera wisely stays on Ormond’s face. (Restraint! Another film would focus on Temple while music swells in the background) As she hears her daughter describe her life, Ormond’s face plays a range of emotion that is astounding. It displays relief from finally understanding her daughter’s condition, to emotion of finally understanding her daughter’s love and beyond. It’s a powerful moment played only through the face, and carried by a wealth of emotion in her eyes. Ormond has several similarly powerful moments throughout the film, such as when a doctor tells her that she caused her daughter’s autism by her coldness. This moment, like all the others, is underplayed with restraint.
They were serious about jumping. “Suicide cult?” they thought. “No. Just enlightenment.” As they prepared themselves for the drop, they realized the rooster with its “ability to fly” was simply mocking them. His loss. He’ll never reach the Twelfth Level of Schanir-Moor.
Temple Grandin is an excellent film. It not only informs us of the accomplishments in the life of one person, but shows us how that person views the world and therefore shows us why these accomplishments are important. Its excellence is seen when Temple says, “I know there are a lot of things I can’t understand, but I still want my life to have meaning,” and we the audience happily empathize with her.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was a commercial and critical success. Children and parents both loved it. Its sequel Cloudy With a Chance of Cow Bits was not as well-received.
The artwork is the aforementioned Rian-Johnson-Attention-Capturing poster with Claire Danes that you could see at every bus stop across the nation. It contains a standard 5-minute talking-head “Making Of” featurette. The best part of The Making of Temple Grandin is seeing how Claire Danes still, how do you say, fait flotter mon bateau, or floats my boat. Seriously, she’s stunning. The best special feature (of the 2!) is the commentary with Mick Jackson, Christopher Monger and Dr. Temple Grandin herself.
Jackson and Monger are a good pair. They talk about their attempts to create a clear understanding of Grandin’s visual world, and it’s funny to hear them speak of it while at the same time seeing how well they accomplish it. But the commentary is really the Temple Grandin show. She’s fascinating to listen to, and adds so much depth to her already powerful story. She has learned how to succinctly describe her life with autism, and how to make it clear to those who would otherwise not understand. Her views on pushing autistic children are powerful, and should be listened to by any person who claims autistic children are simply lazy or unruly or just need harsher discipline.
“Hey, Tony, it’s me. Just calling to let you know I took care of that thing we talked about. Yeah, I went upstate to the dairy farm . . . Yeah, the dairy farm . . . Oh. PIG farm? Ha ha ha. Yeah . . . About that . . . Cows are carnivores, right?”
She’s also very funny. She is apparently not a fan of CGI, and she is very critical of cinematic accuracy. For example, we find she dislikes City Slickers greatly because of its inaccurate use of cattle. She’ll talk about the actual science of what we’re seeing onscreen, and also reveals interesting bits of information on the accuracy of the film itself. For example a gate that is built in the film was built off of her original designs and drawings. We also are able to hear her speak directly about her life with autism, which is captivating and moving. “I didn’t know people had all of these subtle little eye signals until I read about them in a book when I was 50 years old,” she says. “I still have trouble with rhythm of when to break into conversations.”
The final star of the commentary isn’t actually featured: Claire Danes. Listening to Dr. Grandin while watching Danes’ act only emphasizes how perfectly Danes captures Dr. Grandin within her performance. Grandin – the stickler for accuracy that she is – loves Danes in the film. She describes watching Danes’ performance as stepping into a time machine to watch herself, and hearing one while watching the other really gives that sense. Danes’ Emmy for her work is well deserved.
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The Republican Party is really trying hard to embed this “Slippery Slope” argument into our social consciousness.