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Humanities Film Series: Mozart and the Whale

Throughout the year, the Humanities Film series has been showing films and inviting guest speakers to express the theme of “Reframing.” Their hope is to “investigate concepts, labels and categories, that frame our experience.” Their goal is also to “challenge established conventions, accepted wisdom, and preconceived notions” of today’s society. The series has so far spoke of things like “Reframing Justice,” Reframing Good and Evil,” and “Reframing” different aspects of autism. Last week’s film was another installment of “Reframing Autism” and was shown on March 18 at 7:00 p.m. in McComsey’s Myers Auditorium. This film was presented by Thomas Newville of the Special Education department. The movie titled “Mozart and the Whale,” released in 2005 and directed by Peter Naess, is a story about an individual named Donald Morton played by actor Josh Hartnett. Morton is an adult man struggling with the frustrations of Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is a high functioning form of autism named after its discoverer, Austrian physician, Hans Asperger. This disorder is called an autism spectrum disorder which means individuals show a broad spectrum of symptoms. AS sufferers tend to like patterns and routine. It can also make social interaction painful and embarrassing and individuals are limited to stereotyped interests and activities. AS differs from other spectrum autistic disorders because of its preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. Despite this, however, there is an argument as to whether it is distinct from High Functioning Autism (HFA) because how often it occurs is not established.

“Mozart and the Whale” is fictional but based on the true story of Jerry and Mary Newport. Jerry and Mary were both individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome who were married, divorced, and went through depression and suicidal tendencies. Later, after finding themselves and realizing their love for each other they reunited and married again.

“Mozart and the Whale” tells the story of Morton’s struggle with Asperger’s, the hurt of falling in love, and the lessons learned along the way. The movie begins with Morton employed as a taxi driver and the audience is introduced to his obsession with his pet bird and his obsession and knack with numbers and math. Soon, Morton becomes so distracted by the numbers on the radio that he crashes into a flower delivery truck and loses his job. In the movie, Morton runs an autism support group for other adults with autism. Through this, he meets a young woman, Isabelle Sorentson (played by Radha Mitchell) who also has Asberger’s. Throughout the rest of the film Morton and Sorentson learn about each other and their autism through falling in love, and later finding that their emotional dysfunctions threaten to sabotage their relationship.

The movie shows not only the endless struggles of autism but the good, and at times, comical parts of autism. Dr. Neuville emphasized before the film began that in films, characters with disabilities are portrayed as menaces or wind up dead.

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He also explained that understanding disabilities through film allows people to understand how individuals with these disabilities function socially. As opposed to how people with disorders are normally portrayed in films, in “Mozart and the Whale” the characters are lovable, intriguing and even relatable.

In my opinion, this movie was unexpected. There were parts that made me want to cry, parts that made me laugh out loud, and parts that made me feel as if I were on the edge of my seat in concern for Morton and Sorentson. This film may have been one that was meant to demonstrate the struggles of autism, but it also touched my heart as a complicated love story between two people whose lives were turned upside-down by one another.

“Reframing Autism” Humanities Film series will end April 20 with a panel and a speaker, telling the story of her struggles and blessings with two autistic children.