Sunday, March 3, 2013

And the Oscar Goes to...

Along with 40 million of our closest friends, Chuck and I watched the annual glamfest known as The Oscars. For Chuck, however, the awards show was more than a parade of gowns, speeches and bad jokes. It was also a sharp reminder of the limitations of movies, TV shows and theater for viewers with prosopagnosia.

In the old days before Chuck's face blindness, we could select a movie on a whim, simply because the story sounded compelling. Prosopagnosia has changed that. Trying to follow a complicated plot is hard work, not entertainment, for Chuck. As each character is introduced, he must quickly absorb something distinctive -- purple hair, a lisp, an eye patch, use of a wheelchair or cane -- since he can't recognize faces. When characters are introduced one at a time or in a small, diverse group -- like the eccentric family in Little Miss Sunshine -- he can differentiate them more easily. That's important, because as each new scene unfolds and the actors change costumes and sets, he must piece together their identities all over again. The faster he can do that, the more he can absorb of the story.

The challenge is greater with some movies than others. For instance, Chuck can keep up with James Bond, though he may be fuzzy on the minor characters. It's easier to follow a plot if he's read the book, like Marley & Me, which also featured a small cast -- and the lead character was a dog.  He has little difficulty identifying Meryl Streep in almost any movie, despite the fact -- or maybe because -- she lights up every scene. And biographies are favorites. Chuck thoroughly enjoyed Ray and The King's Speech -- of course, the films also featured a blind man and a monarch with a stutter, respectively. Different is better when it comes to picking a movie that someone with prosopagnosia can enjoy.

The opposite also is true. If a film begins with a rapid-fire montage -- think Saving Private Ryan or Gladiator -- it's so difficult to pick out the lead characters and learn something distinctive about them that it's an uphill battle to find them in ensuing scenes. Chuck watched both of these movies, but plot nuances were lost on him as he focused most of his energy on searching for the important characters in each scene.

While most people read reviews or talk with friends to decide whether or not to attend a given movie, we use a fairly unusual decision tree. War epic? Usually not, because a bunch of men wearing the same uniforms makes for a very difficult plot for Chuck. Ensemble cast? Not likely, unless they're strikingly different, such as the safe-cracking team of The Italian Job. Girl meets boy? Depends on how many girls and boys. Plenty of men protest about watching chick flicks -- even if they're classics like Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility -- but not for the same reason as Chuck. Musicals? Even if the plot is dense, songs can compensate. And let's face it, unless they're performing in A Chorus Line or TV's Glee, most singers and dancers are anonymous by design so Chuck doesn't have to look for them in each scene.

Of course, there are exceptions to these movie rules, and 2012 was full of them. Which brings me to the year's award-winning films. The first rule we broke was to watch Argo, which Chuck enjoyed but struggled to follow. Not surprising, considering the movie starts with hundreds of unnamed extras storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The upside: We lived through the Tehran crisis, which helped him to track the plot, even if some of the characters blended together.

Skyfall? Bond. Done.

Despite the spectacle, Chuck enjoyed Les Miserables. A musical, of course, and hard to top for the artistry of the sung performances. It helped that we'd seen the stage version and Chuck knew the general story.

Both Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty were challenging. Although the main characters jumped off the screen, others in the large ensemble casts quickly melted together. During scenes without the leads, Chuck had to guess who was talking and how that dialogue factored into the plot. Fortunately, the context of both stories -- one from the history books and the other from recent history -- and the power of both films helped him to keep up.

We haven't yet seen Life of Pi, but a boy and a tiger? Sounds like a slam dunk. It's on our list.

But for Chuck, the most watchable movie of the awards season was Silver Linings Playbook, which featured four distinct and memorable characters. Even some of the cameo roles -- Chris Tucker as Pat's sad-luck friend and Anupam Kher as his court-ordered psychiatrist -- were sufficiently different that Chuck could spot them quickly as the story unfolded.

Filmmakers don't always load their movies with idiosyncratic characters, nor should they. But for someone with prosopagnosia, watching a small film with quirky personalities is the closest it gets to true entertainment. That said, movies do have one advantage over real life: they never change. The characters don't age, develop wrinkles and sags, gain or lose weight or cut and color their hair. The films Chuck watched before his surgery in 1993, when he could still recognize and form memories of a face, live forever. He can enjoy them as much today as he did 20 years ago.

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