Reading(,) Faces

At the beginning of Temple Grandin, the eponymous addresses us to say that she isn't like other people--she thinks "in pictures." If thinking in pictures does not seem especially peculiar, the movie does not hold back in demonstrating. It does so with a kind of HUD of sketched diagrams animating over real objects, and by cutting to extradiegetic images--especially photographs and television and movie clips. One point of these brash cinematic maneuvers, I suppose, is that these are diegetic for her. Maybe I should be thankful that it did not treat her mind as a transcendental that may only be hinted at. It's also not strange that a filmmaker would display such gushing admiration for someone who thinks in pictures. It's not strange, though some would eroticize the strange rather than the familiar mind--a poet, a musician, a scientist, an idiot.

While pointing toward something grander than can be represented has been avoided, nonetheless, a kind of apotheosis occurs when montage tries to show all the images that run through her consciousness. There is a horse. It turns out she identifies with and loves large hoofed animals more than any human, projecting onto them all of her troubles and comforts. When this horse dies, she asks her closest friend (who happens to be her teacher) "where did it go?" He tells her that the dead live on in our memories. She proceeds to list all of her memories of the horse, which are pictures, which flash on the screen as rapidly as she speaks.

The movie seems to regard this as a supernatural ability. A french teacher asks her testily if she understood what she claims to have read by glancing down at the textbook page for a second. Grandin Glass brings up the image of the textbook page, and she reads aloud from it. There is one of those moments when the people in the movie see what the viewer has seen this whole time. The teacher and the rest of the class are agape.

For someone with such a capacious photographic memory, however, she reports difficulty interpreting images. For such a crassly representative film, its inadvertant representation of the filmic principle is exactly the opposite.

Her upbringing is a struggle between two mothers--­her mother who wants her to be normal, and her aunt who wants her to be happy. In frustration, she reports to her aunt that girls at school "say things like 'why are you so grumpy when I'm happy?' and I say 'but I'm happy!' and they say 'well you don't look happy' and they say 'can't you see I'm faking it? can't you see I'm sad?' I don't know what they're talkin about."

"What do you look like when you're happy?"

"Like this." She shows a blank face.

In response to this crisis of face-reading, her aunt gives her a pile of photographs of her face, which they use as flash cards. Her aunt tells her what emotion is on her face in each photo, and she writes it on the photo in permanent marker.

When the french teacher solicits her understanding, she responds with comprehension; rather than say what the passage says, she just says what the passage says. When the horse dies, she recalls all the images of the horse and reports what she sees, but says nothing of the horse. When she learns to read faces, she transposes one image (the name of the emotion, written in marker) onto another (the photograph of her face). This, I gather, is what is meant by thinking in pictures. But while its material might be peculiar, its referenciality is not. Reading faces is mundane and intuitive, but it depends upon referents. Grandin's autistic outsiderness to things usually taken for granted makes the character a screen on which to explore the philosophic anxieties of these automatic, learned fluencies. Can you tell if a face is faking? What is reading besides reciting the words on the page? Where do the dead go?

Of course, she's just as much used to tie these problems up neatly, sentimentally, and messily to the degree the solutions are neat: Yes Faces Contain Emotions That Can Be Read Right Off Them, The Dead Live On In Our Minds. (As for how reading does or does not become understanding, it's never addressed again, just hangs there.)

Despite not being able to interpret the nuances of others' faces, her face is transparent enough to compile the labelled photographic index of her expressions. This kind of transparency is what Claire Danes says she relies upon. In a recent interview she's asked

"Her face--your face--changes four or five times, smiling radiantly, and then she's frowning and anxious, and then she smiles again, and then she frowns again. It's happening so quickly. It's really impressive and I wonder did you consciously do that?"

"No, there's no way that I could be conscious of that. I focus on the intention of the character and whatever thoughts and feelings she's having, and they seem to kind of naturally communicate themselves on the face."

But for thoughts and feelings to naturally communicate themselves, she has to train herself. For her role as Carrie Mathison, she says she did a lot of ressearch--she watched "manic confessionals" on youtube. Only after consuming enough of these mannerisms, overlaying images upon images, does anything become natural. Implicitly she's denying that there is any theatricality in her reproductions of mannerisms. In the same interview she tells us how at an early age she didn't take a job acting in a soap, because "I didn't want to develop bad habits." Acting that relies on conventions to communicate emotion is second-grade for her, so she takes her material from non-actors. It's true that plenty of mannerisms do not make it to television, but I know my repertoire of mannerisms includes no small share of television characters.

Of course, Danes' mannerisms are as particular to her as they are to her sources, like speaking a second langauge with an accent. After long enough watching her--or anyone--her mannerisms begin to lose their import, and I'm back to a semblance of Grandin's assembled problem of assembly: what's behind a face?

6 January 2013