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#263. Savant

Everyone observes the world in their own, special way. It has been theorized that babies observe more things than we are aware of, mainly because they haven’t been able to determine what is noise and filter it out yet. Other theories say that our minds are processing an enormous amount of observations on a subconscious level that we just can’t access. Either way, our brains eventually learn to tune out everything around us so that we can function without being overwhelmed by data. That is, unless someone has savant syndrome. While certain aspects of this mental disability give it a negative connotation, the fact still remains that savants have super-human abilities. Whether it’s being skilled at mental calculations or having an incredible musical talent, savants see the world a little differently than we do. This week’s two films highlight savants.

Rain ManRain Man
Year: 1988
Rating: R
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

Often, savants are also diagnosed as having autism. Somehow, the deficiencies in one area of the brain are made up for in an exceedance in another area. Scientists are unsure why this happens, but the mental disability seems to be a prerequisite to having savant-like abilities. Some versions of autism require a structured schedule for the autistic person to function within. Things we may take for granted, like flying for example, are incredible ordeals for certain, autistic individuals. Perhaps due to the inconvenience that autism can have for the caretakers of autistic people, the savant abilities of said individuals may never have the chance to be revealed to the caretakers. Hopefully, if the caretakers do find out about the savant abilities of their ward, they don’t try to take advantage of them, but rather recognize the talent for what it is.

Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) spends his time in a mental institution abiding by his stringent routine of watching The People’s Court and going to bed by 11:00 pm. He has been living in this institution for a long time, ever since an incident that placed his younger brother in danger. One day, he learns that his father has died and, as a result, the mental institution is receiving his inheritance. This is the same day that he is visited by his brother, Charlie (Tom Cruise), who was unaware of Raymond’s existence until recently. Charlie realizes that Raymond has an excellent recall ability and tries to exploit this mental math in Las Vegas as he also tries to exploit Raymond into getting him their father’s inheritance. As they travel across the country (but not by plane, due to Raymond’s fear), they grow closer. Finally, Raymond returns home to the mental institution, with Charlie coming to visit soon.

ShineShine
Year: 1996
Rating: PG-13
Length: 105 minutes / 1.75 hours

One of the other methods of obtaining a savant status, albeit a very low 10%, is to acquire it after a severe neurological event. These are often found in the trope of an individual being struck on the head, only to find that they are now an expert in mathematics or music. Could it be that the acquired savant syndrome is because the brain is forced to only focus on one thing and to do it extremely well? Regardless of the reason behind the change, the acquired savant will often be misunderstood for their talents, mainly because people who encounter them have no understanding of their skills and talents before the accident that made them into a savant. Perhaps a focused brain merely highlights the inherent talents in the individual, when seen at a contrast to the less-than-exemplary functioning in normal society.

David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush) was pushed as a child to excel in piano playing by his teacher and father Peter Helfgott (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Because of Peter’s obsession with winning, David is successful and wins many competitions with his skills. However, after he was pulled away from Peter’s tutelage by a local music instructor, David finds that his father no longer approves of his life decisions. In order to impress his father, David works tirelessly at perfecting Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto, an extremely difficult piece of music that causes him to suffer a mental breakdown during its performance. During his long road to recovery, people are surprised to find that he is still adept at playing the piano. Even though a few individuals find it too difficult to deal with him, he does eventually find those who help him live his life and continue to play his music.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 special savants

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