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Free Solo

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I rather liked Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's Meru, from 2015, but I feel they've bettered themselves with their newest film.  Following climber Alex Honnold's effort to be the first to climb Yosemite's El Capitan alone and without ropes, it has the splendid photography and suspense of their first joint effort, but Free Solo adds deeper characterization and psychological insight.  I didn't want to publicly diagnose someone I've never met, so I didn't state this explicitly in my review, but I'm pretty sure Honnold is on the Asperger's spectrum, so the film is not only about his climb, but about his efforts at emotional intimacy with his girlfriend.  The two are very nicely melded, and one can't help but root for him on both counts.

This is my full review: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/2018/11/free-solo-is-a-welcome-burst-of-humanistic-uplift/

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On 11/4/2018 at 1:29 PM, Andrew said:

 I didn't want to publicly diagnose someone I've never met, so I didn't state this explicitly in my review, but I'm pretty sure Honnold is on the Asperger's spectrum...

 

The film itself says this, though I get that if that isn't a professional saying it you may not want to add a professional diagnosis. 

I confess the film made me angry in places, though I am not sure if I was angry at Alex, the filmmakers, or both. I guess the filmmakers. What he is doing could be a compulsion, and I get the mother or girlfriend not being able or willing to take that away from him, but I felt watching it like I sometimes feel watching a gruesome injury in football (Alex Smith had his leg broken twice 33 years to the day after Joe Theismann)...I don't feel any urge to condemn someone else for watching, but I have a hard time justifying it to myself for myself.

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On 11/21/2018 at 10:45 AM, kenmorefield said:

The film itself says this, though I get that if that isn't a professional saying it you may not want to add a professional diagnosis. 

I really don't think so - his mom said she was pretty sure his dad was on the spectrum, but I don't recall any possible diagnoses for Alex himself being posited.

I can appreciate your negative feelings towards this film; that's pretty much how I feel about football, where one is basically watching the development of CTE in slow motion.

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My review. There are some jaw-dropping shots in the doc, but currently I'm one of two film critics on Rotten Tomatoes who gave this a "rotten" rating.

Quote

To be blunt, Alex comes off as robotic, aloof, and narcissistic. He appears as a privileged white male college dropout who has made his personal hobby into a personal money-making business which sustains his individual pursuits. Free Solo tries to depict Alex as an inspirational story, portraying his childhood as loveless or harsh, his rough background something he had to overcome–his mom says they called him “bozo” which would make anyone feel bad about themselves. But Alex was in the International Baccalaureate program at Mira Loma High School, one of the best public high schools in Northern California. He went to (and dropped out of) UC Berkeley. Even as his mom describes his dad as possibly having Asberger syndrome (though it’s not officially diagnosed), the film doesn’t suggest that Alex is on the autistic spectrum, despite some of his unemotional social behaviors. His dad financed and supported Alex’s climbing lessons and opportunities from a very early age; there is never a suggestion of abuse, poverty, or medical problems. In short, Alex’s is a riches-to-riches story; he overcame living in the suburbs so he could choose to live out of his van.

There is little in Alex and Sanni’s relationship which seems balanced or fair; we never see him celebrating her, thanking her, inquiring as to how she feels, or showing a bit of empathy or compassion for her feelings, especially about his mortality. In a scene where they buy a house together in Las Vegas, she is measuring various rooms and spaces for future purchases while Alex stands around. She points out, half-jokingly, that he never helps her out. The film supports this observation; Alex does not seem interested in human community, apart from what it can do to support him as an individual. In an interview Tommy Caldwell says he respects Sanni and Alex’s relationship, but while Sanni appears capable and caring, I found it difficult to discern what Alex brought to the relationship, apart from being a male companion. Nevertheless, Free Solo defends and lauds him. He might be a bit quirky, but he is essentially perfect, after all. Free Solo is, quite literally, The Alex Show. This is climbing film hagiography and Alex Honnhold is our saint.

 

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Yesterday FREE SOLO became the fourth documentary of the year to gross $10 million or more (joining RBG - THREE PERFECT STRANGERS - and WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR) making 2018 the first year to have 4 documentaries take in $10 million or more. The biggest surprise is that this was a year that saw both Michael Moore and Dinesh D’Souza release docs that ended up tanking with their respective audiences. 

https://variety.com/2018/film/news/free-solo-10-million-box-office-documentary-hot-streak-1203067397/

 

 

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Even more interesting, I think, is that on the two previous occasions that *three* documentaries grossed $10 million in one year, the three films consisted of (1) a political essay a la Moore/D'Souza, (2) a nature documentary and (3) a pop-star portrait -- but *none* of the four films that grossed $10 million this year fit those profiles.

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Anyone have any thoughts on Free Solo in comparison to First Man? I saw them on back-to-back nights and couldn't help but see similarities in how Alex Honnold and Neil Armstrong are both portrayed as emotionally-distant, almost delusional figures that are nevertheless capable of extreme greatness, perhaps in part because of their disconnection from family and the world.

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20 minutes ago, Aren Bergstrom said:

Anyone have any thoughts on Free Solo in comparison to First Man? I saw them on back-to-back nights and couldn't help but see similarities in how Alex Honnold and Neil Armstrong are both portrayed as emotionally-distant, almost delusional figures that are nevertheless capable of extreme greatness, perhaps in part because of their disconnection from family and the world.

Aren, my first response was to want to carve out a space between "extreme greatness" and great accomplishments. I'm ambivalent about Alex's accomplishment (see above), so I have a hard time thinking of him as having achieved greatness. What he did was remarkable, and I guess I can get behind the notion that part of the reason he was able to do it was his diconnection. But was it worth doing? 

One could make an argument, though it is still a bit removed, that the moon landing evidenced greatness because the risks and sacrifices were in service of something greater than personal satisfaction or glory. 

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3 hours ago, Aren Bergstrom said:

Anyone have any thoughts on Free Solo in comparison to First Man? I saw them on back-to-back nights and couldn't help but see similarities in how Alex Honnold and Neil Armstrong are both portrayed as emotionally-distant, almost delusional figures that are nevertheless capable of extreme greatness, perhaps in part because of their disconnection from family and the world.

First Man >>>>>>>>> Free Solo. Regarding the "disconnection from family and the world" theme, Alex Honnold appears to genuinely not care about himself or other people, even if those people die--his only scene of semi-strong emotion is at fulfilling his own achievement. Whereas Neil Armstrong clearly does care immensely about people's deaths, especially (spoiler) his daughter's, as evidenced by his moment at the crater. Even if Armstrong is unable to show or express his feelings well, he does feel. Alex's brain literally doesn't feel, at least not the extreme fears or emotional highs one usually feels. What's problematic for me is that Free Solo seems to either downplay this lack of feelings, or even celebrates it as a strength--that being stoic and unfeeling is just a quirk, and it helps Alex be a better climber, so it's all good. First Man, on the other hand, portrays Armstrong's inability to emote as tragic and an arena where he is seeking to grow, if ever so slowly (I think the final shot between husband and wife is indicative of this desire).

Also, Justin Hurwitz's soundtrack for First Man is stellar (pun intended), while "Gravity," Tim McGraw's end credits song for Free Solo is quite cheesy. I had a Twitter conversation with SDG and Christian after I published my mixed review of Free Solo, as they pushed back on my interpretation that Free Solo depicts Alex's story as an "overcoming obstacles in life" narrative, as if Alex had a tough background. Yet I think McGraw's song hammers this narrative theme home, and is evidence that the film aims to portray Alex as a heroic story of overcoming the obstacle of...well...college and caring about his girlfriend's feelings? Lyrics below for verse 1:

Quote

Look what you have overcome to get here
Look at the distance you've run
The doubts that you’ve pushed down
Fear that you've drowned out
When they said that it couldn't be done

 

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Thanks for the responses, Ken and Joel. I understand the hesitation towards Free Solo's depiction of Alex, but I don't really want to re-litigate whether it's a good movie or not. Suffice it to say, I think it's an exceptional work of cinematography, at least, and I think the film does dig into the prickly aspect of its own culpability in Alex's careless, and even cruel, behaviour. Like another very well made documentary this year, When Lambs Become Lions, by Jon Kasbe, the film be used in a case study of documentarians overstepping their bounds with regards to their ethical responsibility. But that's a whole other conversation.

Anyway, what I was throwing out there is that I found both films zeroing in on these men's emotional disconnection and linking that to their extreme feats, as if the accomplishment of what they did couldn't have happened if they weren't divorced from the world around them. I don't think this is an aberration within humans or a misreading of why some people do extraordinary things (I'll leave out the term "great" here, as I agree, there are debatable aspects about whether Alex's climb is actually great), because when you meet people who do rock climbing or climb Mt. Everest or become astronauts, or any other extreme vocations, these people often have an emotional disconnection that's almost essential for them sacrificing their personal lives and relationships in service of whatever it is they do. You even get this is less extreme versions with athletes or anyone who is exceptional at their job and places it above all other things. It brings them success, but at the sacrifice of stability and emotional connection. What I think makes First Man so interesting is how it doesn't automatically show this sacrifice to be a good thing, even if it clearly shows the Moon landing as a great feat. I agree that Neil wants to grow in this aspect, but I also think his detachment is clearly an advantage as it makes him dedicated to the program and able to withstand the rigours of its training in ways some other individuals aren't.

BTW, I agree that the Tim McGraw song isn't good. But I also don't think you can read the lyrics as a completely valid summation of what Alex has accomplished. I'm sure much of the reason the song is there is that they simply wanted to have a famous musician do a song for their film with the hope that it'd qualify for the category at the Oscars and garner some more attention to the film, so I don't want to assume they vetted the message the song was delivering line for line.

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12 hours ago, Aren Bergstrom said:

But I also don't think you can read the lyrics as a completely valid summation of what Alex has accomplished. I'm sure much of the reason the song is there is that they simply wanted to have a famous musician do a song for their film with the hope that it'd qualify for the category at the Oscars and garner some more attention to the film, so I don't want to assume they vetted the message the song was delivering line for line.

I find this to be an interesting approach to interpreting cinema. Why shouldn't we include lyrics to songs--especially songs specifically requested by the filmmakers to be included in the film--as part of our hermeneutic? Are we able to ignore or dismiss non-diegetic content which is clearly within a film based on assumed behind-the-scenes reasons or motives? Can I include some songs or lyrics in my reading, but not others? Aren, if your interpretation is correct--that the filmmakers put this song in the film in order to get awards attention (which didn't happen, as the song didn't make the Oscars short list)--it honestly makes my mixed-feelings of Free Solo lean even more towards the negative. I do get the sense that they're pushing hard in marketing this film--here in the UK, I received *two* physical screeners and one emailed link for it. I've also received more negative backlash for my "rotten" RT review of Free Solo than anything else I've ever written, as if I'm another obstacle to Alex's reigning perfection.

Beyond this, the comparison is prompting me to think of other "lack of emotions directly helps in achieving big accomplishments" stories in film, and I can't recall any others off the top of my head.

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On 12/20/2018 at 5:09 AM, Joel Mayward said:

 Beyond this, the comparison is prompting me to think of other "lack of emotions directly helps in achieving big accomplishments" stories in film, and I can't recall any others off the top of my head.

 

I think "lack of emotions" is getting conflated here with two other related but distinct ideas: control of emotions and lack of emotional engagement. I don't think Armstrong is supposed to lack emotions, but he does sublimate them. Distancing oneself from those to whom one might have attachments is a bit more thematically common.

I guess one example that came to mind is the sadly undervalued Rounders. The main character is successful when he is able to detach himself from his friend and girlfriend, but even at the end, emotions come back in. (He allows himself to be goaded into rerisking his big when even when he knows that's not the smart play.

It is perhaps not surprising that I also considered Chazelle's two other movies: La La Land and Whiplash. The former does seem to postulate that detachment from others and focusing on accomplishments is the way to go. The latter also features a guy detaching from other emotional investments (girlfriend/family), though whether he is without emotions or controls them emotions is suspect. Perhaps Rounders and Whiplash could also be read as initially suggesting that suppression of emotions is good but moving off that as they move towards resolution.

Maybe A Man for All Seasons?

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8 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

I think "lack of emotions" is getting conflated here with two other related but distinct ideas: control of emotions and lack of emotional engagement. I don't think Armstrong is supposed to lack emotions, but he does sublimate them. Distancing oneself from those to whom one might have attachments is a bit more thematically common.

That's a good distinction, and much more nuanced than what I said. There's a difference between emotional control and emotional absence or suppression, between controlling one's feelings and unfeeling or uncaring. And your mention Chazelle's previous films are exactly the kind of examples I was trying to think of, Whiplash in particular. In fact, I think Whiplash would be a better comparison film for Free Solo, with Whiplash as the better version of the story. Which reminds me of another thread.....

And fwiw, I'm a Rounders fan. :) 

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On 12/20/2018 at 4:09 AM, Joel Mayward said:

I find this to be an interesting approach to interpreting cinema. Why shouldn't we include lyrics to songs--especially songs specifically requested by the filmmakers to be included in the film--as part of our hermeneutic? Are we able to ignore or dismiss non-diegetic content which is clearly within a film based on assumed behind-the-scenes reasons or motives? Can I include some songs or lyrics in my reading, but not others? Aren, if your interpretation is correct--that the filmmakers put this song in the film in order to get awards attention (which didn't happen, as the song didn't make the Oscars short list)--it honestly makes my mixed-feelings of Free Solo lean even more towards the negative. I do get the sense that they're pushing hard in marketing this film--here in the UK, I received *two* physical screeners and one emailed link for it. I've also received more negative backlash for my "rotten" RT review of Free Solo than anything else I've ever written, as if I'm another obstacle to Alex's reigning perfection.

I don't think you can't factor that into your interpretation (I overstated things in my initial post), but I just wouldn't give it the same weight as other things that came earlier in the film. The fact that the song comes in the end credits makes me automatically take it as less essential to the film's message than everything that came before, especially considering that the vast majority of audiences do not stay for the credits, and thus, would not actually listen intently to the film's lyrics and try to weigh their meaning against what they'd seen. It's not a matter of whether it's valid (most everything that is present in a film is valid for criticism, and a lot of stuff that is implied or extra-textual as well, for that matter), but just the weight that's applied to it. Thus, I can understand that you see the lyrics as a final validation of what you've come to interpret the film's message as being. It hits the nail on the head on its wrongheaded approach to Alex's climb (I'm summarizing some of your thoughts, so I hope I'm not mischaracterizing them), in your estimation. But for me, I wasn't struck by the film being overly uncritical of Alex's emotional detachment, so the song didn't sway me one way or the other. I didn't even pay it much attention as I don't like Tim McGraw and I find the closing song of documentaries as kind of a lame cliche.

I actually think that the filmmakers behind Free Solo are marketing it very aggressively, and it's totally valid to take a cynical approach to how they formulated aspects of the film to get Oscar buzz and make money. The fact that the film is a bonafide hit for a documentary (around $10 million and counting) and a likely Oscar nominee for Best Documentary shows that aspects of their approach has worked, too. Although the song being left off the Oscar shortlist is clearly a case of the song not working the way they wanted it to. Or perhaps they're simply fans of McGraw and so they're happy to have his song on their work.

18 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

It is perhaps not surprising that I also considered Chazelle's two other movies: La La Land and Whiplash. The former does seem to postulate that detachment from others and focusing on accomplishments is the way to go. The latter also features a guy detaching from other emotional investments (girlfriend/family), though whether he is without emotions or controls them emotions is suspect. Perhaps Rounders and Whiplash could also be read as initially suggesting that suppression of emotions is good but moving off that as they move towards resolution.

Yup, Chazelle's other films are the other main examples I'm thinking of, since he's really making this a theme in his work. Personal sacrifice in order to achieve some other form of "greatness," where that means jazz drumming, becoming an actress/pianist, or landing on the Moon.

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I had an interesting, even fruitful (!) Twitter exchange with someone who called me a dipshit for my "infamous" review of Free Solo, where he said I missed the fact that Alex is dealing with Asperger's syndrome. I pointed out that the film seems to take pains to show that he's *not* autistic, AS, etc., and that my view of the film would be remarkably different had the film shown or said this. My dialogue partner, who identified as having Asperger's, said this:

Quote

when you understand ASD, and the very intentional things the film makers focused on in their relationship and within alex and the way he relates to this dangerous destructive obsession and this troubled seemingly doomed relationship, its basically the entire B-plot of the film.

Which makes me want to raise the question again here, as Ken and Andrew did above: is Free Solo suggesting that Alex is autistic or AS, that he's not, or is it intentionally trying to be vague to allow our own interpretations of his actions (a formal choice which seems, to be honest, not the filmmakers' main focus)?

Also, apparently my review is infamous.

Edited by Joel Mayward

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3 hours ago, Joel Mayward said:

Which makes me want to raise the question again here, as Ken and Andrew did above: is Free Solo suggesting that Alex is autistic or AS, that he's not, or is it intentionally trying to be vague to allow our own interpretations of his actions (a formal choice which seems, to be honest, not the filmmakers' main focus)?

I think you can hardly be faulted for 'missing' something that is not made overt in the film.  But I'd say that highly suggestive signs of an Asperger's diagnosis are present, which clinicians, as well as individuals with Aspergers and their families, would pick up on: 1) a father on the spectrum, since this is a highly heritable condition; 2) his food aversions; 3) his touch aversion and particular difficulties with intimacy; and 4) probably even his climbing obsession.

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Thanks, Andrew. I noticed some of those signs too, although I'm nowhere near qualified to make any sort of diagnosis, which is why I avoided it in my review: if the film is not going to say it--and there seemed to be numerous opportunities for it to be said (or even speculated about)--then it didn't seem like an interpretation that emerged from within the film, but one placed upon it from the outside. And that's well and good; that just wasn't my experience with the film, nor is it how I interpret Alex's actions without a proper diagnosis. (Full disclosure: my mother abandoned and later divorced my father partly under the pretext that she "diagnosed" my dad as having Asperger's, which meant she could justify leaving him because he didn't meet her emotional needs. So, I'm very speculative about any non-professional and third-hand diagnosis of someone as autistic.)

I've found numerous online forums where people have speculated about Alex's personality and possibly being on the spectrum, but those, again, are still audience third-hand speculation based on film footage or interviews--they aren't a professional diagnosis, nor an admission on Alex's part. I did find this interview with Alex where the author writes: "He [Alex] admits to being 'somewhere on the autism spectrum'" but it isn't explored any further, nor is there context or tone given for the statement (Is Alex joking around? Is he totally serious? What question did the author ask that prompted this response?).

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1 hour ago, Joel Mayward said:

I pointed out that the film seems to take pains to show that he's *not* autistic, AS, etc., and that my view of the film would be remarkably different had the film shown or said this.

 

Did the film "show that he's *not* autistic" or did it simply not say directly that he was? If the former, then you might say that the film was being misleading...at least if others are right. If the latter, I think what you are trying to say is that you are taking the film (and Alex) on its/his own terms rather than presuming a diagnosis that isn't specifically stated. 

I have something I want to say about this broader subject, outside the film itself, but I figure I'll probably muck it up, so perhaps Andrew can help if I say anything too ignorant. Can people with Autism (or Asperger's, or other conditions) also be a--holes? The implication of some of the discussion around Free Solo and the seeming inference of your correspondent is that if you recognized the diagnosis (or had it confirmed), Alex should get a pass for everything he says and does in the film. There is a balance to be drawn between empathy/compassion and accountability. I'm certainly not always great at keeping that balance, but I also feel like we as a culture prefer either/or to both/and, and this desire for one or the other seems more prevalent in dealing with certain types of mental illness. We recognize some people are alcoholics yet AA advocates as part of their "treatment" accountability for actions taken, even under the influence of an addiction that those in 12-step programs claim to be "powerless" over.  We may alter our expectations or approach to dealing with kids with ADD or ADHD but does that mean we can never correct them or call them on it when they are being impatient or lazy? If someone is in a manic stage of bipolar disorder, does that mean he/she can't also be a jerk, or is every negative thing they do a direct product or byproduct of their illness? 

I recently had a taxing and unfun social interaction with three other people, one of whom was being a boor. I'll spare the details. After 2-3 hours of what should have been a fun 1 hour but was drawn out through negative behavior, we were done and packing up when there was one more interaction. Without raising my voice or getting angry, I pointed out how the person's last demand was socially unacceptable but he kept doubling down to the point where I finally said, okay, I prefer not to interact with you further at this social event. At that point, he grabbed my arm, demanded that I should not get "upset" (even though he was the one who was upset) and declared, "it's just my OCD." I thought, but didn't say, "I've met and interacted with  people with OCD before, and not all of them are a--holes." 

On 11/26/2018 at 11:18 AM, Joel Mayward said:

To be blunt, Alex comes off as robotic, aloof, and narcissistic

Is "narcissistic" a diagnosis? I ask because you state repeatedly that you don't want to diagnose, and that is admirable. By the same token, all sorts of diagnoses enter into the popular vocabulary, and some come to mean something more or less than the clinical definitions. I wonder if something like this is happening or could happen with things like Asperberger's? I would think the more pronounced the medical condition, the less likely it would be to become a general descriptor, but when we were kids growing up, we'd say things like "he's retarded" or "that's retarded" all the time. Now we know that is offensive (some find the label offensive even in a technical sense). But my point is we probably even knew as kids that there was an actual condition and not everyone whose behavior was labeled as such was being diagnosed. 

Although not a perfect solution (nor one I follow perfectly), it probably helps to separate labels of people (diagnoses) from labels of behavior. It is interesting to me that you say Alex "comes across as" rather than Alex "does things that are..." I don't mean that as a correction. Just an observation that the line between someone who does things that are robotic and a robot or someone who does things that are narcissistic and a narcissist is pretty thin. 

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41 minutes ago, kenmorefield said:

If the latter, I think what you are trying to say is that you are taking the film (and Alex) on its/his own terms rather than presuming a diagnosis that isn't specifically stated. 

I think this is getting at what I'm trying to say. If the film/filmmakers/Alex had wanted to address the question of Aspergers or autism, they could have appropriately done so at any number of points--Alex's mom's comment about Alex's dad, which you (Ken) initially thought was in reference to Alex himself, the brain scan, the questionnaires, the various interviews with climbing buddies who describe Alex as "unique" or "special". So, it raises the question for me of why the filmmakers didn't go down that path (or maybe they did, and it's been edited out!). But if they (the filmmakers) were to go down that path, or if they have their own beliefs/suspicions about Alex being on the autistic spectrum, does that not raise further ethical questions about making a film about his self-endangering behaviors? Is it ethical to make a documentary about a person on the autism spectrum engaging in dangerous hyper-obsessive activities and presenting it as laudable? Might making such a film heighten that egocentricity and/or social isolation?

I think there are important ethical questions about this anyway, and the film does nod at those a few times, although--as I point out in my review--it seems much more interested in presenting an awesome award-winning rock-climbing doc than it does in those documentary ethics queries.

52 minutes ago, kenmorefield said:

The implication of some of the discussion around Free Solo and the seeming inference of your correspondent is that if you recognized the diagnosis (or had it confirmed), Alex should get a pass for everything he says and does in the film.

That was precisely the implication in this particular instance (and has been in others)--it was suggested that I am being "dipshittish" and unsympathetic in my review because Alex is obviously autistic, and thus his behaviors are a "terrifying" struggle for him, which I've wholly dismissed. But I didn't get much of a sense from Alex that he was struggling, per se, apart from the "struggle" of solving the El Capitan climb itself.

45 minutes ago, kenmorefield said:

Is "narcissistic" a diagnosis?

Oh, good question, and one I hadn't considered. I'm using it simply as an adjective to point out Alex's egocentricity--he operates as if he is the center of the world--and not as a diagnosis of NPD. And that's a good point about "comes off as..." language versus "does things that are..." language.

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1 hour ago, kenmorefield said:

Can people with Autism (or Asperger's, or other conditions) also be a--holes?

Absolutely.  Being a bunghole is diagnosis-independent.  Though, I do find that oftimes speech or behavior that is labeled as obnoxious, rude, etc., is often a part of a person's undertreated or untreated psychopathology.  Examples:  a hypomanic or undertreated individual with ADHD who is hypertalkative, interrupts frequently, and behaves brusquely.  It is a fine line between accepting, excusing, or working with someone's manifestations of psychiatric illness.

Joel, your point about the ethical implications of filming this doc is a fascinating one that finally sank in.  What a different story it would've been, had Alex plunged to his death as he was being filmed...

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3 hours ago, Andrew said:

Absolutely.  Being a bunghole is diagnosis-independent.

I genuinely laughed out loud at this.

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