REVIEW / Listening to the child who couldn't grow up
Tuesday 01 February 1994
'I'm not much of a reader,' he confessed here, but he read enough to know he wanted to film Thomas Keneally's account of Oscar Schindler's audacious attempt to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. You wondered as he talked whether the clothes offer a little denial of the public role he has always cheerfully accepted, that of mass entertainer and supplier of innocence to the jaded. He is practised at the latter - seeing through wondering eyes, he said in a nice phrase, is 'the colour of ink I use in my pen' - but it must eat at him a little that his director friends Scorsese and Coppola don't have to make such defences of their art.
One of his early remarks - to the effect that Schindler's List was the result of allowing his real life to bleed over into his life in movies - was telling too, a suggestion that he recognises some hollowness at the heart of the successful movies, at the very least a need to fence that commercial genius off from what he cares about when he isn't working. Jeremy Isaacs rightly spotted the opening into this paradox when he asked the director whether he saw Schindler's List as entertainment. He categorically didn't but Isaacs didn't follow up immediately and when he returned to it later some of the life had leaked out of the question.
A matter of childish vision was at the heart of Horizon's (BBC 2) documentary about Genie, a 13 year old girl who was discovered in 1970 in Los Angeles. She had spent her entire life in one room, often chained for hours to a potty chair and beaten if she made a noise. She had effectively grown up without human contact and for psychologists and theorists she represented a unique experimental resource. Linda Garmon's film was partly about the difficulty the scientists had in deciding whether she should first of all be a patient or a specimen.
At the time there was heated debate about Chomsky's theories of an innate ability to learn language structure. If Genie could catch up, having had no experience of language for the first 13 years of her life, then that might provide evidence for his theory. If she couldn't, then it might suggest that other theories, which argued that there was a limited window of opportunity for language acquisition, were right. This was scientifically flawed from the beginning as there was no way of knowing whether Genie had been mentally retarded at birth, but it didn't stop the scientists from fighting for their piece of the action. An intellectual gold rush broke out, all centred on this beautiful but damaged girl and, like most gold rushes, not much thought was given to environmental consequences.
Even on home-movie footage you could see the attraction she exerted - a compound of pity and wonder which made you stare. She had a powerful ability to 'elicit rescue fantasies' was how one scientist acutely put it here. Fantasies were all they were. Though she learned a vocabulary and sign language, her syntax remained disrupted and when funding ceased the scientist who had fostered her for four years gave up on her. That reminded you that rescue fantasies are as much to do with praise and reward for the rescuer as they are with selfless concern for the one rescued. Nobody came out of this story very well but they all came out of it better than Genie, who regressed after passing through a string of foster homes where she was beaten and abused.
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