Lizzie Gottlieb’s alpha–New York parents—Knopf and New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb and actress Maria Tucci—didn’t inspire her to make a documentary about her family. It was her “amazing, mysterious, weird brother” Nicky, who just after she began filming eight years ago was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (the high-functioning form of autism). Gottlieb talked to Boris Kachka about her film, Today’s Man, which airs this week on PBS.
So why did it take you so long to finish Today’s Man? Were you waiting for a resolution?
Yes, of course, both my personal hope and my hope as a filmmaker was that it would all end up with him married and in a fabulous apartment, and working. But to me the point for these people is that there isn’t a moment of happy ending. There isn’t for anybody, I think, but especially in this situation.
But people are now assigning Asperger’s to everyone from Einstein to Bill Gates.
We always felt, “Oh, maybe he’ll be some genius.” Bill Gates is such a cliché, but who knows what will happen? In a way, the last few years have been about making more realistic expectations. Nicky can tell you any air date of any episode of Ally McBeal or Sesame Street or 90210. This is impressive, but completely useless. There’s something charming and interesting about it when they’re children, and then they become adults and it’s—I don’t know if “creepy” is the right word—but it’s not worth very much.
Given your bookish family, do you believe that Asperger’s is just an extreme form of genetic nerdiness?
My father has a collection of Billboard magazines that he’s been charting my entire life, making index cards filled out with very interesting numbers that chart what songs become top songs. He says it’s too complicated to explain to me. He doesn’t have those other things that make it Asperger’s syndrome, but he’s on the continuum.