As part of the University’s Co-Curricular program, Student Services hosted a Contemporary Issues Film last Monday, during two showings of “Mozart and the Whale.” The film is a 2005 fiction film inspired by the meeting of two Asperger’s patients, Jerry Newport and Mary Meinel (now Mary Newport). Though originally intended to be directed by Steven Spielberg (with Robin Williams portraying Jerry Newport), time constraints on other projects regrettably pulled him away from the film. Peter Naess took up the task, casting Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell as the two Asperger’s patients, Donald Morton and Isabelle (Izzy) Sorenson.
Asperger’s syndrome is an autism disorder that, rather than affecting language and cognitive development, hinders social interaction and behavioral patterns. Also contrasting typical symptoms of autism, Asperger’s patients are socially active, but odd. Most forms of autism cause the person to be very quiet and withdrawn in social scenes – Asperger’s actually does just the opposite, provoking random bursts and speeches which may come across as awkward. Paired with a slight disability to misjudge reactions, they may also be interpreted as rude and insensitive, and have difficulty describing their emotions.
Like in other forms of autism, there is a set of symptoms that relate to physical and behavioral patterns. Oftentimes auditory and visual perceptive abilities are dramatically higher in Asperger’s patients. This may be why many people with Asperger’s are savants, or intellectual geniuses, in some field of math, history, or the performing arts. Finally, people with Asperger’s often have repetitive motor behaviors, such as twisting the hands or other body movements are not uncommon.
Each of the characters show different traits of Asperger’s. Donald is a mathematical savant, picking out “good numbers” and relating them to others terms. He uses this to calm down, analyzing numbers on license plates in the parking lot of his building.
Unusually quiet for someone with Asperger’s, prior to meeting Izzy, Donald talks with his six birds and randomly converses with the passengers in his taxicab. As the founder of an autistic social group, he does show leadership qualities, but feels overcome by the stunningly outgoing Izzy, and lapses into nervous movements, wringing his hands and pacing back and forth.
Isabelle contrasts Donald, being loud, outspoken, and blunt. She represents her wild nature through her mismatched, quirky clothing, and artistic talent. Donald actually describes her likeness to her Halloween costume’s persona (Mozart) as a combination of “anger, passion, and transcendence.” Izzy tends to be the instigator of many of the complications in the relationship between her and Donald, and also consults her pet animals for comfort.
Due to the social hindrances that come to be known as a trademark of Asperger’s, Donald and Izzy don’t exactly have the typical romance. They are shown going through ups and downs in their relationship, experiencing more different difficulties than most couples their ages. Don and Izzy also have shared characteristics of Asperger’s. Both characters enjoy surrounding themselves with animals (which provide social comfort) and take metaphorical phrases literally. An example of this is evident when Izzy asks Don “I don’t know where you and I (meaning their relationship) should go”, and he replies, “Well, we could go to the amusement park.”
Directing a film inspired by any sort of ailment is a delicate task. Naess provided a balance between creating a romantic comedy and an educational documentary by keeping elements of Asperger’s consistently visible throughout the film without putting any blunt focus on it as an ailment. In doing so, he does a brilliant job at portraying Asperger’s through a perspective many people cannot understand or comfortably relate to. The audience is able to learn about the syndrome while following Donald and Izzy’s complicated relationship in this hesitantly witty love story.
Tara Tanzos is a second-year student majoring in English. She can be reached at TT649875@wcupa.edu.