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Guest Episode: Autism Through Cinema

Nothing Concrete text
15 Sep 2021
60 min listen

This week, we have a special guest episode from the Autism Through Cinema podcast as they discuss everything from autistic characters on screen, how filmmakers can make film sets more inclusive to whether there’s an autistic aesthetic in cinema.

Autism Through Cinema podcasters David Hartley, Georgia Bradburn, John-James Laidlow, and Ethan Lyon take over this week's edition of Nothing Concrete sharing their unique and personal insights into a range of films that can be viewed through an autistic lens including Eraserhead, Punchdrunk Love, Keep the Change and Cat People. We’ll also hear from Professor Janet Harbord and filmmaker Steven Eastwood about the Autism Through Cinema research project at Queen Mary University. 

Autism and Cinema: An exploration of neurodiversity takes place from 16-28 September. 

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Transcript

David Hartley: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast - here to help inspire more people to discover and of the arts. In this guest-curated episode we welcome members of the Autism Through Cinema research project from the Centre for Film and Ethics at Queen Mary University of London. Autism Through Cinema is a creative and archival investigation into the relationship between autism and film via representation and aesthetic expression. It asks what happens when we look at films from an artistic point of view? And how did early film helped to shape our understanding of the condition? First up, four regular host of the Autism Through Cinema podcast reflect on the movies they've been looking at through the autistic lens. You'll hear Georgia Bradburn, Ethan Lyon, John James Laidlow and David Hartley. And be sure to check out the Autism Through Cinema podcast available on all platforms. After that, project leads Professor Janet Harbord and Dr Steven Eastwood, give an overview of the Autism Through Cinema project, the questions it asks and its ambitions for the future.

DH: OK so let's just start things off, I think, by introducing ourselves and that seems to be the regular way of starting this sort of thing. So we'll start with Georgia, please 

Georgia Bradburn: Hi I'm Georgia Bradburn, I'm an undergraduate student at Queen Mary University, I study film and I write about films on a blog called The Autistic Film Critic. And as that suggests, I am also autistic so my interest in film is largely through my own autistic perspective. 

DH: Thanks, Georgia. John-James.  

John-James Laidlow: Hi I'm John-James Laidlow, I finished my Masters in Digital Documentary at Sussex a few years ago now. I'm also autistic and I have an interest in film.

DH: Thank you John-James. And then finally, last but not least, Ethan...

Ethan Lyan: Hi, I'm Ethan Lyon, I'm a PhD student at the University of Southampton but I did my undergrad at Queen Mary back in 2014-2017. I'm also autistic - you'll notice you running theme here -  I'm interested primarily in horror films and how they reflect or analogous to the autistic experience but my interest in films with very wide-ranging and encompasses a number of different areas.

DH: Thanks, just so people know, my name is David Hartley and I'm one of the hosts on the Autism Through Film podcast. I just finished my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester where I looked at representations of autism in both literature and film, particularly in regards to science fiction and fantasy. So that's me so I am actually the lone neurotypical in the room - everybody else is autistic and is bringing their autistic perspective on this conversation and all the conversations that we've had. Just thought I'd put that out there. So we started meeting up and talking about specific films through an autistic lens about a year ago now, I think it was actually over a year ago now. And our recordings have been posted up as a podcast, as the Autism Through Cinema podcast since about early May of this year 2021. So far we've released eight episodes which cover nine films and one short film. So for the context of those listening, as of today's recording we've released episodes covering the following films - Punch Drunk Love by Paul Thomas Anderson; then we did a kind of double episode which looked at the film Good Time by the Safdie Brothers and the film Music, by Sia. Then we looked at The Rider by Chloe Zhao, then Pi by Darren Aronofsky, then the documentary The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda. Then we had our special guest Ethan, who is back with us today, and we discussed the 1942 horror-noir, Cat People. And finally to our latest episode which covers David Lynch so we're looking at in this episode at Eraserhead and his short film, The Grandmother. So what we plan to do in our discussion today is we're going to just talk about some of the common themes and ideas that we've been arriving at during these discussions. We'll sort of largely I think base our talk today on these films that have already been released but we may well end up drifting and talking about all the films and other conversations that we've had. And we'll just let the conversation flow and see where it goes.

So I'm gonna start things off quite broadly by just asking... We've been looking at films through this specific autistic lens for,yeah as I said, just over a year now. Have any of you being surprised by anything? Like have your minds changed about either autism or about film or about the representations of autism on film? Has there been anything particularly surprising or mind-changing about these discussions over the past year or so?

EL: So as somebody who came to the podcast fairly late, I was interested to go back to some of the choices for reference. I wasn't able, dear viewer or dear listener, to go back to all of the podcast but I went back to some of the ones where I'd seen the film, or was aware of the film a little bit more. So in particular The Gleaners and I and Pi. With Pi, there was a sense of me going back and going 'Oh yes, no this is why I loved that film so much'. Because I am a very big fan of Pi and I think it's Georgia who says it in the episode quite astutely talks about autistic aesthetic in his close-ups. The grainy black and white. The aggressive editing. And it didn't surprise me how much when I saw that film when I was 20 and didn't know I was autistic, just went 'Oh yeah this makes just a lot of sense to me'. And it still is my favorite Aronofsky. With The Gleaners it was a little bit more interesting because I'd seen that film but never considered it from an autistic perspective. And that conversation around that special interests and the sort of narratives that follow with a meandering spread in the same way that an autistic thought might take many different branches was very very interesting. And so in those terms, those were new moments to me in as much as, shall we say it gave a voice to impulses I'd felt when I'd seen them, but couldn't articulate. For reference a lot of my work involves the watching a lot of older cinema, from the 30s to the 60s, so to see it in newer films was, not shocking per se, but certainly pleasant. It felt a little bit sort of like at at being welcomed into the fold so to speak.

JJL: I think, related to that, I think just seeing how many relatable, not depictions of autism but sort of an autistic sensibility or aesthetic, we can find in films that the on specifically about autistic characters or aren't really even by, as far as we know, autistic filmmakers. It seems like there's a sense of not quite fitting, of alternative ways of thinking and moving within the world that we've seen in quite a lot of films that we've discussed now that aren't specifically about autism. Also I was quite surprised when we discussed David Lynch's film Eraserhead. I hadn't seen any David Lynch before. I'd tried Twin Peaks twice and it was just too slow for me and I didn't really get it. But then I was really grateful that Georgia suggested we watch Eraserhead because I feel like I finally understood what it was about and it kind of made sense to me. So that was a surprise to me. 

GB: I mean yeah I think the thing that I like about film so much is it essentially, sort of holds a mirror to the world that we live in and reinterprets it. And the interesting thing about the films that we've been talking about is the way that even if they are not related to autism in the subject matter or in their themes, it really does reveal something about its own production or its own ideas of what is to be neurotypical. What it is to not be neurotypical. And as autistic people,obviously, it's a lot easier for us to, you know, see these things and understand where they come from and what is sort of informed by this neurotypical sensibility. And you mentioned David Lynch, John-James, and I mean David Lynch is one of the reasons I got into film. And whilst he is not an autistic filmmaker, or not openly autistic, I don't think he is at all, I think there's something about his films that reveal an autistic sensibility that I can personally relate to that other people might not be able to. But there's something about the aesthetic of the films and the way that the ideas are informed, by a sort of a difference in our processing the world and processing senses and things like that. I really connected with it. And through these episodes I've been able to expand that to a lot of other films I honestly never would have thought would have had... would have linked to that. I mean I'm really happy that Ethan brought along Cat People, because I'd never seen it before. And I first watched it and I was quite confused I wasn't really sure what to make of it but having had the discussion on the podcast, you know, so many things came to light and it's quite strange to think that even back in the day, in the 40s and 50s, these ideas were coming to fruition through film. Without you know being necessarily autistic in their nature but we as autistic people can watch them and get that meaning from it. And in some cases kind of get some catharsis from as well. So yeah, it has been one of the most interesting things I've gotten out of these discussions and I really value.

EL: I think it's really interesting - firstly, thank you for saying you enjoyed Cat People, that was a lovely episode - it's interesting you mention Lynch, I will have to listen to the podcast because Eraserhead is one of my favorite films. Again it was one of my first introductions into film, Eraserhead. And being nauseated at the prospect of it. But then I watched it and was blown away. I think for the record, I will go on the record as saying I think Lynch is, at the very least, neurodiverse, possibly autistic, from a number of the interviews I've seen with him, from the documentary, The Art Life, just from a general perspective. And for me understanding him as autistic makes his work perhaps less impenetrable, for me, it provides a road map into his films and into his very unique psyche, which I find extremely useful. However, that does provide a really interesting question which is the dangers all over analyzing and assigning labels and names to people that perhaps are not justified or are not fair. For some reason it brought to mind, you guys obviously watched The Rider, which has individuals playing characters with their same name and the lead's sister is autistic. I'm not sure whether the actress was autistic? I didn't do enough research into that... Oh she was? Oh splendid. Right, now I really need to see that film. And so there are lots of questions in there I suppose about the nature of the connection, do we impose certain orders on things to make a connection? That that makes films more appreciated, or more palatable, more understandable to us. I say this as someone whose thesis is effectively just that! But yeah, that sort of sparks from what you were just saying, Georgia.

GB: Yeah I'm going back to the Punch Drunk Love episode which is the first episode that came out, where we talked about is it ethical to watch a film about a character who isn't explicitly autistic and to assign that label to them. I think we concluded with, you know, there are things you can relate to but actually it is the aesthetic of the film and the way that the film is made that gives it that feel. But at the same time you know Adam Sandler's performance is very kind of quite explicitly autistic in a way. And also raises the question of should filmmakers have a duty to specify, you know, what these, who these characters are and if they are autistic or not. Or rather, as in Punch Drunk Love or Good Time, just not even provide a label and just you know, go for the blanket disability or social awkwardness onto the character. Which is problematic in quite a lot of ways but it's interesting because at the same time, you know, once you start to put labels on characters, you start to go into ideas about representation and truthful representation. What this means for the community. So there are a lot of different ways to and the podcast has definitely made me think about that a lot more. Just to someone who usually looks at films more for an autistic feel than autistic characters. Because representation is such a... it's such a tricky thing and it's sometimes very difficult to hit the nail on the head. And I mean 'Keep The Change' which is a film which is showing at the Barbican programme, which we have recorded an episode on, I think the great thing about that film is that it, I mean, all the characters ar autistic and played by autistic actors. So those issues aren't there and it's really about autistic people being free to ascend to these levels of performance without having to perform their own neurodivergence as neurotypical actors would be doing in these films. The obvious example is Sia, Sia's Music and Rain Man and all these things. The great thing about Keep the Change is it's a very authentic portrayal of autism because it is real autistic people on screen. So it was very refreshing in that sense. 

DH: Next question I wanted to ask was about this issue of you know non-autistic actors playing autistic or slash autistic coded characters. And one of the interesting moments for me was when we were talking about the film Good Time, which we sort of discussed M. next to Sia's Music in the same episode. One of the things that came up in Good Time was that there's a character in Good Time who is yeah he's not labeled as autistic but certainly kind of has a... is potentially autistic or has some sort of neurodivergence and certainly some sort of learning disorder. And that character is played by Benny Safdie, one of the directors, and there was a question in there about you know, and I found it a quite surprising question, is it ethical... are there some films where it would be unethical to cast an autistic person especially an autistic person who perhaps also has learning difficulties, in the film like Good Time where they're expected to run around a lot and there's a lot of noise, there's a lot of chaos and there's a lot of action. You've Robert Pattinson screaming in your face and all this sort of thing. And I suddenly thought yeah actually there is, there's layers to this. There's a question... it's not quite as simple as saying every autistic character needs an autistic character because actually, you've got to think sometimes a little bit about the care around if an individual is being looked after properly. And they did, I think, in Good Time, the Safdie Brothers did consider casting an autistic character in that role and decided against it in the end. And I sort of thought, maybe that's fair, in a sense. So perhaps it depends upon the context. 

EL: I'll just briefly agree with you there because I was thinking about this last night. Being on a film set in itself, and I directed a couple of short films for my undergrad, it's hard. You've got bright lights, you've got people crowding around you, it's hot, it's cramped... I worked on a short film recently and it was all these things. It was two days, it was tremendous fun but could I imagine doing that for like take-on-take, hour after hour? No. I think at some point I would lose my mind and just run off the set screaming. So in some respects well I think something like, I think Georgia mentioned Keep the Change is a lot more... From what I saw from the trailer, it looked like a fun film. It's sort of a light romcom, sort of sweet, a little bit fluffy but in the best way possible. Something like Good Time or a more intense horror film would probably be extremely stressful for autistic actors. You could possibly make it but it would take a lot of time, effort, and money. And sometimes I wonder whether producers would be willing to put out for that but that's a different matter. 

JJL: Yeah I think there's a balance to be had because I mean obviously, the ideal would be that autistic actors would play autistic characters, in terms of representation and authenticity, but we discussed at Disney short called Lupe, at one point I think, an animated film about a young autistic girl. And the actress, the voice actor is autistic. But she didn't, she couldn't really record in the studio is was too stressful for her so they went out and they recorded at home. So that is an example of adapting the production and including her. But obviously that Disney short is very different to Good Time. And I guess it does come down to money and time. I mean in an ideal world would be able to accommodate everyone, every autistic actor. But we don't live in an ideal world and I guess it touches on larger issues as well about ideas of disability and whether the social model accounts for everything. I mean even if we made the world as accessible as possible, which isn't really possible to make the world accessible to everyone because people have conflicting access needs... But even if we did that, people, myself included, would still struggle with issues. 

GB: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. It's quite difficult sometimes to maintain the balance of everyone's sort of needs and there's always the question of.. you know, if you can't... If a set is too stressful or if a role is too demanding for an actor with specific access needs, what would be wrong with you know changing and altering these conditions so that they would suit the actor or whoever is working on set. When I was working on a short film a few weeks ago, and it was quite a small production, but one of my main things I really wanted to push was access on set. And whilst I was the only neurodiverse person there, it was really important to me that people would be able to communicate their needs, or be able to say look I need to stop or I need to go. Because I think there's a really toxic idea in the film industry and in film culture that, you know, you need to kind of power on and ignore all the sort of needs because you need to... the most important thing is the film itself. And so people's mental health or people's disabilities are just sort of ignored for the greater product. And I think people have started to run with that, this is just a byproduct of the industry or a byproduct of film, when it really does not have to be. And having known about and worked on sets that really do include people, I know for a fact that it is possible. It's just that I think a lot of people are unwilling to recognize the fact that people, you know, do have needs and do have the right to ask for help. And it really is all about communication, because like you say John James, everyone's access are different. For example, me on set, I do thrive on set and I do like working those hours where Ethan, I know you said find it a nightmare! But it's the sort of thing that I really enjoy. So people are always going to have really different experiences and different needs and that's why it's so important to listen to people and not allocate people their support based on their label or how they identify themselves. It's really important to communicate with actors and I think potentially with the Safdie Brothers, I think we had this conversation, they've really communicated and done what they could with potential are autistic actors. It makes sense that they would put them through that stress but with a film like Music. So, Sia cast Maddie Ziegler who's sort of her muse, who she's used a lot of projects, and there doesn't really seem to be any attempt to reach out and make it accessible. And as a film, it's quite light and fluffy and it doesn't, well, in its tone, it isn't in its reception. It doesn't seem like a production that would be particularly harsh on a neurodivergent person. And what the result was, was a sort of crude offensive caricature of autistic mannerisms and stimming and things like that. Which obviously did not go down well with anyone. So yeah I think it has to be a nuanced conversation and it needs to be balanced but I think the key is communication with autistic people and allowing autistic people to be part of the conversation. Because otherwise you make assumptions based on previous assumptions and no one really gets a say.

DH: Yeah absolutely and it is worth saying it you know that we don't want this to be an excuse taken on by various producers of films saying, 'Oh film sets are too difficult for autistic actors so we won't hire autistic actors..' No, that's not what we're saying at all. As you say Georgia, it is about thinking about the culture of the production of films and the wider culture of that. Yeah, I think it's a really good point about the expectations that the industry has on everyone to just work to the bone anyway. And that's kind of unfair for everyone, regardless of your neurotype, I suppose. We don't want producers going, I listened to that episode of that podcast they say you don't need to cast autistic actors. That's absolutely not what we're saying. We're saying we definitely need autistic actors out there. And I think the more we progress the more we're going to find.. I think we'll find more and more actors coming out as autistic. 

DH: Quite a lot of the films that we've looked at over the past year or so have featured these kinds of outsiders I suppose. So there's the alien in Under the Skin, there's the mathematician Max in Pi, Henry in Eraserhead is effectively an outsider, Irena in Cat People, and some of the various people that Agnes Varda meets in her documentary The Gleaners and I. So one of the things... I've been thinking about this a little bit because I sometimes worry about suggesting that autistic people are 'outsiders' because it sort of feels like quite a dehumanizing thing to say in some ways. But then again these films have helped us to explore the outsider's perspective and how that perspective can bring insight and new knowledge and joy and new, interesting things. So I don't know, I wondered what you guys think about this, about the outsider and the outsider's perspective? 

JJL: I mean, honestly I'm quite comfortable being an outsider. I always like... but I do understand what you're saying. I think the reason these people are outsiders is not because they cannot exist in society, and socially, it's not because there's something you know, wrong with them, that they have to exist outside of society. It's because the way the world is set up at the moment we won't accept these people into our society and we won't accept what they have to say, because it might make people uncomfortable, or it might make people... it might expose truths that people just don't want to look at. So, you mentioned The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda, and I was thinking about that guy in the film that she meets that... he always wears rubber boots and he walks around the town and getting all of his food from bins. Sort of big industrial bins that you know the food hasn't expired. He points out the ridiculousness of how much we're destroying the planet and how much waste food we're throwing away. There are quite a few people doing that in that film, it's what it's about really. And I guess if that person and if that truth was brought into the fold, it would destabilise a lot of the facade that people used to just get by. The outsider, I don't think it's an issue with the outsider, it's more of an issue with the people that feel uncomfortable.

EL: I pretty much completely agree with John James actually. I think that in some respects if these characters are outsiders, it's because the system which they live in has almost... they have chosen to become outsiders from a system that doesn't accept them for various reasons. And, I also happen to think that when John James talks about it might reveal truths that perhaps some people just don't want to listen to, I also very much agree with that. I think sometimes having to... I think humanity has perhaps a desire to simply fall back into old comfortable ways, the path of least resistance. And making allowances for the disabled is sometimes too much, it feels like too much of an effort for some people. So I certainly think that it would rather be forgotten, buried, which sounds slightly conspiratorial but at the same time, I can understand it but in the same respect it still bloody hurts, none the least. So when I do watch films where there are outsider characters, I often feel a lot more connected to them. Simply because all the times I have felt like an outsider and while that loneliness can be really quite emptying and hollowing and sad, there's also something faintly triumphant about feeling connected to a character who is going through something analogous to what I feel.

GB: Yeah a hundred percent agree on all of those things. And I also think in a way, I mean it is about characters who are outsiders, but it's also about insiders as well. And I'm thinking about... so we recorded a podcast on Sally Potter's Orlando which is my favorite film and the idea behind discussing that was the idea of someone who is an outsider who is not really connected to everything that's going on but has a very unique perspective on the events that are going on. And sometimes as a neurodiverse person, as an autistic person, I feel like I'm an insider gaining information about a world I don't always feel included in. But I can gain some unique insight and I do value that perspective. I mean like you say it is very isolating to be sort of cast out of this structure of neurotypicality that we are inevitably in. But for me, I mean, as a filmmaker it does provide me with something unique to work from, a unique perspective that, well, I say unique - there are so many autistic people out there! But something that isn't embraced by the norm perhaps as much as it could be. And so, I think the reason I resonate with films like Orlando or even the films that we've discussed like Eraserhead and Pi, you know is like you say Ethan, you see representation. And you feel aligned to that character and it's a sense of catharsis. And it feels good to be sort of recognized, maybe not directly, but as someone who is sort of aligned with an invisible audience who you can kind of share these sort of secrets about neurotypicality with. I do feel like that sometimes, I suppose it's sort of a sugar-coated` way of seeing it but it does help to counteract the loneliness sometimes of being autistic in the world that we live in.

JJL: I think near the beginning of the discussion Georgia brought up that these films might act as a mirror to us and a way of reflecting back to us certain things. I wonder if these outsider type characters reflect back on society as well. I'm thinking about Eraserhead again, and you know the dinner scene? And I guess David Lynch is being - as far as I know, I've only seen a couple of his films - it's like exposing the absurdity of normality and society and I mean that's something that I can really identify with. People just saying oh this is how we do it. And I'm like, why that's silly.  

GB: Yeah I think, this was when we were talking about Eraserhead on the podcast, Alex who is also a contributor on the podcast, brought up a Stuart Hall lecture where he mentioned the idea of 'matter out of place'. The context of that lecture is really about race studies but an interesting way to relate that to this is, for example in Eraserhead there's a lot of matter that is in places that it should not be. So there are plants sort of going inside and in Henry's room there's sort of dirt on the floor and everything is sort of growing in the wrong places. And even the phrase matter out of place is something that I definitely resonate with because it feels like there are also many rules and so many structures that sort of permeate the world that we live in. And one of my key interests especially someone who is you know a huge David Lynch fan, is the idea of sort of exposing that grittiness beneath the surface of neurotypicality, of what we show to the world. And not even just in autistic people but everyone in sort of horrors and complexities which are usually sort of hidden and we start to see things that are in places that they shouldn't be. Or shouldn't be according to the standards. I think for me that's why... that's sort of the crux of why Lynch is so important to me because it really does deconstruct these ideas of normality.

DH: All right so let's bring this back to I think to sort of films and cinematic techniques. So we talk a lot about the kind of expression of autism, sort of through kind of cinematic techniques. So can we suggest that there is such thing as an autistic film aesthetic? So to speak...

EL: I'll go so far as to say that I think there are techniques and structures that resonate more with autistic viewers but as for right concrete to static I would be wary of saying exists. In my mind if you were to ask whether autistic... if you were to want to clearly define an autistic film aesthetic, firstly part of that it would have to say it may well come from an autistic director themselves, in so much as we subscribe to the classical auteur notion that a film is the director's vision. Although even that is fraught with problems. And secondly as Georgia brought up briefly earlier, there's always a bit of a push pull between the idea of having a very unique individual perception of the world and then a great autistic perception of the world. My view on it is it's a little bit like a kaleidoscope where there are multiple different view points all existing within the same space but if you turn it enough there are enough overlapping elements to create some sort of picture. Which to my mind means that there may be autistic filmmakers who are able to create an aesthetic which they relate to and a number of autistic people relate to, but then again that also leaves open room for other autistic people to go, well no I don't connect with this for X. Y and Z.

GB: I think this is a conversation that sort of crops up within you know every sort of film movement that revolves around a sort of a group. I'm thinking especially about about queer theory which sort of emerged in the eighties and nineties and there's a quote from Pratibha Parmar who says that filmmakers and critics have a tendency to create an essentially so called authentic queer gaze and I think it applies here as well. Especially because it's so important to acknowledge the fact that not everyone's experience is going to be the same. As with queerness, autism is so different for each autistic person not just because it depends on your class or your race or where you come from, and your gender,  but also like neurologically you know, one autistic person is going to be so different from the next in terms of how they experience the world. And I think to, I think there are definitely like you say Ethan, there's definitely techniques that sort of simulate elements of sensory experiences. And I think for me that's one of the great things about film because you can simulate so many feelings through sound in through visuals. But at the same time if you were to suggest you know this is an autistic film, even if it was by an autistic director - whilst that is an experience of the world, it's an authentic autistic gaze. So I think it can be it can be discussed in terms of subjective experiences especially if the director is autistic and individual autistic people. But yeah, we definitely have to be careful in applying that to genres or to films as an aesthetic.

JJL: I guess it it comes back to that quote from Steven Shaw that if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. Because I mean we are all so different and I mean so our aesthetic influences and tastes are going to be radically different dependent not just on other intersectional qualities such as race and class and gender and sexuality but just on how... what we're interested in, where we grew up, what other media we've consumed. So I'm not sure that yeah like Georgia said, one autistic, or even a unified autistic aesthetic can exist. But there definitely can be signifiers used and technique and other things that can allow us to identify with the film, I think. 

DH: I think that was exactly the answer I was expecting from that question. And I think you're right and it's interesting how thinking of films from an autistic perspective, even though we do... we have hit upon various scenes in various films particularly in Punch Drink Love, I think in particularly in Pi, where there is a, you know, you've all kind of reacted with enthusiasm about particular moments in that film, saying you know this is what it feels like to have these... to have a sensory overload or to have a situation like this. And that gets quite exciting but you're right in terms of like generalising that out to a general aesthetic doesn't feel like it works necessarily. And yet there is still something about the way in which films, these sorts of films have been constructed perhaps from the outsider's perspective... Yeah there are some techniques, there are some constructions of scenes that fit that seem to correlate really well and really meaningfully. In ways that other forms of art and forms of media don't seem to be able to quite reach to. There's something about that the totality of film I think that manages to do that. The scene in particular I'm thinking about in Punch Drunk Love is the one where there's just sort of chaos going on in the warehouse constantly and forklift trucks crashing into walls while phones are ringing and Barry - Adam Sandler's character - is trying to have a conversation with about three different people the same time and the lights are flickering... And it's like that, when we were talking about that particular scene I thought okay yeah, this is a real evocation of what it can be like for an overwhelm to take place. Yeah, go on Ethan...

EL: It's interesting you mention that about Punch Drunk Love, because I didn't listen to that episode, and I've not seen that film since I was 17? There was one scene in that film which has always stuck with me. And it's not that scene. It's earlier in the film when Barry goes to see his sisters and they spend most of the meeting just making so much fun of him, mocking him, being profoundly cruel to him and he can't respond to it because well, it's his sisters and they've always got the upper hand... And the only thing he can do is to smash that glass window and it just breaks. And it ends on the sisters sort of screaming what have you done! And I was thinking about why is that so memorable to me and I feel like that in some respects in itself is a quietly autistic scene. In as much as its inability, for me anyway, it resonated with me very strongly, especially when I was very angry as a 17 year old but not very good at addressing it for a number of reasons. That felt very relatable in the terms of it was that kind of burst of emotion. The desire to do something to verbalise or visualise your sort of level of distress. And I think that also comes to why film more than say literature or a piece of static art is powerful for the autistic experience. Because we see other people fulfilling a fantasy in some respects. They are people on screen either liberated or inhibited to do an action in a certain way that we would do. And everybody has this in some way, shape or form when we watch a film. And I think a lot of people would like to say they relate to the superhero, or they want to be James Bond, but I think in theory, this is just a wild speculation! But I think that there is something there, to watch someone like Barry do the acts that we all know would get us into terrible, terrible trouble. It's kind of liberating and exciting, kind of heart-warming as well that we feel like, yeah! You did that! Now I don't need to. 

JJL: I think as well, that leads on to something I've been thinking about, how just clumsy language is. I'm thinking mostly about verbal, but also, you know, just trying to communicate through writing. Quite often, I just can't get my words out in the right way, or there isn't quite the... I mean, language is clumsy for all people. There are these signifiers to stop being abstract but you can't quite, you know, unless we're telepaths we can't quite communicate properly but I think cinema is so exciting because you can create such a, such a sensory life - a full evocative world. And these characters that can really express what you're thinking in depth, or express sensibilities or thoughts or, like Ethan said, fantasies, or fears. Or anything. You can express all that through another reality really that you create. Rather than just trying to, trying to use words all the time. 

GB: Yeah, one of my key interests when I'm watching film, or whenever I do write about films which is becoming less and less frequent as my university work builds, but one of my key interests is about meltdown and how films may inadvertently simulate my own personal experience of meltdown. Because for me, it's sort of the most intense experience, intense traumatic experience that I can go through. And the sort of cathartic way of using that is to translate that feeling to a visual or audible medium.  And so I constantly sort of curate a list of films or scenes from films that I personally feel reflect this for me and one that I want to talk about is in Mulholland Drive, which is again, showing at the Barbican season. And it's towards the end of the film when they're all at a dinner party and Betty is sort of looking and all these people are kind of talking about her, betraying her, plotting against her. And there's this scene where all these old people chase her down the corridor and ends with this huge kind of gunshot as she ends her life. But rather than in a scripted or narrative sense, it's more in the way it's made that I watched... when I first watched it when I was 16. And I thought, this is my experience, it's the chaos and the insecurity and the sounds and the intense colours or the intense lack of colour that really epitomises what I go through. And whilst some people will definitely find that more traumatic to watch a reminder of their own experience, I personally see it as something that really helps me. And especially that scene that you mentioned David, from Punch Drunk Love, it's another one that I always go back to because I remember watching and thinking this is my experience of being just totally overwhelmed and experience all these negative emotions at once. And so yeah, as we say, whilst we say there isn't really like a overarching autistic aesthetic, there are things that filmmakers can do, which I think is really amazing, that can really strongly reflect an experience that can't really be told in words and that's why sort of film is so powerful in that sense. Especially to autistic people because it can really translate that experience and make people understand more what it is like without having to pander to the whole 'we need to understand autistic people in order to accept them'. Because that is obviously, not a great thing. It's a way for us as autistic people to relate, not relate, but to translate our experiences into something, into art as well. 

DH: Lovely. Well thank you very much everyone. I think that's probably a nice point in which to close our conversation. Thank you very much for listening and thanks to the guests and that we'll see you all again soon.

That was Georgia Bradburn, Ethan Lyon, John-James Laidlow and David Hartley from the Autism Through Cinema podcast.  And now over to Janet and Steven as they share more about the research project. 

Janet Harbord: My first question for Stephen -  how do autism and cinema go together? What's our thinking here?

Steven Eastwood: Well, I suppose that gets us into problems with what we think the cinema is, or can be. Because I would say instinctively the cinema, in its popular form, probably doesn't go very well with autistic sensibilities. Because I think the cinema has evolved over the hundred and thirty years of its existence to assume a neurotypicality. And I think that's one of the essential kind of focuses of our project is to think, rethink the cinema, through neurodivergent perspectives and forms. So I would say that the cinema has done a disservice to autistic being in the world but I think it has the potential to embrace those differences and those different perspectives and the cinema can change through autism.

JH: Yeah I mean, I agree with that. I'm just wondering what you mean by a neurotypical version of cinema. I mean, I think that's very true and I think early cinema had far more possibilities for a kind of autistic apprehension of the world. Early cinema in fact embraced the world in quite an autistic way, a sensitivity to patterns, to sensory input, to relationships that weren't focused around people but could be around things in the natural world, creatures, non-human creatures. And all of those sorts of things have been minimised I think, through the decades of the 20th century. Sort of with that highlight of Hollywood, that focus around human drama and interiority. How do people work each other out? That's my version of neurotypicality, I suppose, in the cinema. People trying to...characters trying to work out what's going on in the head someone else. And you do that through facial expression, you know, where the audience is invited to think about what that person is...or speculate with a person's thinking. And work out what that might mean in the context of this drama. And so much of our cinema seems to be based on that. Is that what you're thinking of?

SE: Yeah that's an economy, isn't it. It's an economy of how people conduct themselves towards each other, within the screen, within the frame. And it's an economy of how we are supposed to infer meanings in reading the intentions of the people on the screen and that's how cinema I think became a commodity. And I say it assumes a neurotypicality, I don't think the cinema is neurotypical but I think it kind of assumes that kind of shorthand of understanding. And I think, absolutely right, if you look at early cinema and even pre cinema - the pre cinema forms like the zoetrope. Which is creating animation from still images, and there's a pleasure in watching repetitive movements and recurrence. And my understanding of even the early kind of Lumiere brothers kind of actualities is that people would go back and see the three, four, five times because they wanted to see more of what was in the background. Or because they wanted to look at that tree. And so that kind of interest in the whole frame and that interest in repeat viewing got taken out of the transaction and the economy of the cinema. And I think different perspectives got kind of marginalized because they didn't fit into that shorthand. 

JH: So you're part of the researchers thinking about filmmaking fuelled by those ideas. You're working with The Neuro Collective. Can you talk a bit about your project and how you're working?

SE: That aspect of the research project is much more about co-creation and about rethinking who gets to create representations and how. And we started this conversation talking about misrepresentations and the cinema being kind of lazy and stereotypical and that's often because it doesn't consult and it doesn't include. It speaks for. And I think we're both aware of the 'nothing about us, without us' kind of politic that's a big part of the neurodiverse community. And so the process is the work with the collective, the Neurocultures Collective, seven autistic artists, to co-create a feature film and a multi-screen gallery artwork. And to bring in some of the keen interests and hyper focus, and I suppose forms that the group wants to realise that they feel the cinema hasn't necessarily explored. And you've already commented on a cinema that's more about dynamics and flow or a fascination with backgrounds or objects, which is thinking beyond the locus of the human face, and the inferential body. Or the story or the character. This kind of assumed centre of what the cinema should be.  Like, does the human subject even need to be the thing that we track through the screen. So these are some of the things we're looking at. 

But I know Janet, that you also... because our early conversations had to do with gesture and the body and how the cinema can constrain bodies and doesn't allow for certain kinds of movements. We're talking about ort of popular cinema and narrative cinema but you've been looking at the way that the film industry in its infancy worked with the scientific and medical community. And those kinds of industries came together to create what became the medical film. And I'm wondering how autism fits into what the medical film was or is? 

JH: Hmm, yeah. It's a long history. And in some ways in reading that history I'm repositioning autism back within a scientific paradigm and it makes me realise how much we view autism today through science and medicine interventions still. And so I guess my approach as a film archaeologist, is to think we can only understand the present if we go back to the past. And that the past is very much alive in the present. And so I'm thinking about the way in which looking at medical films during the course of the 20th century, that there's this origin or testing and observation comes with film comes very heavily with film at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century. So the origins of cinema, you know it it in one room there's the cinema as the black box, there's entertainment. In another room there's the white box, there's testing and a laboratory. And I'm looking for the connections between those things. And it is there in body language, I mean early actors had to be trained, and there was a lot of humour in the body that couldn't be controlled that was gesturing, gesticulating in ways that were that were comedic because they didn't make sense or they were misfiring in a certain situation. But that becomes written out of cinema increasingly when sound comes in 1927 and you know we become more focused on script. But it's there at the beginning. I guess what I'm tracing in the work that I'm doing is a history in which archaeology uncovers those secret relationships. Not only the power that's being operated on those people who were in the laboratories, in testing situations, but also in terms of cinema. But in some ways, it's sitting in cinema, the nearest neurotypical so-called audience who is the audience being addressed, I would argue, is also being trained in that environment. Being trained to watch faces, to infer, to understand human communication through quite a limited prism. We are taught to screen out things like stimming, repetitious body movements, they don't actually get to make it into film, into representation, beyond the kind of early comedies of early cinema. So yeah, I think we also need to be aware through the history of cinema and that it is not only power operating through an exclusion but as power operating in training us in quite a positive way, to only recognise certain things and to screen out other things. 

SE: Yeah, I completely agree, I think too often we can make sort of textual analysis of you know... And there's excellent work, Stuart Murray and others about stereotyping and the problems of kind of lazy representations of characters in popular culture but I think we can also think much more broadly about the way to the cinema thinks about its shot structures. Its chronologies. The way that it kind of creates compositions around the human body - as not the only possibility for the form. And I think that was what was so exciting when we ran the series of development workshops, maybe a year or two ago, it was the early part of the project, where we started to kind of think about putting the cinema under the microscope to some extent. So it's not just, you know the cinema scrutinises autism what if autism scrutinises the cinema? What do we see by looking at the cinema through that kind of lens? I really enjoyed the workshops that involved eye-tracking software which is commonly used to kind of think about autistic perspectives but actually using the software in a kind of reverse-engineered sense, to make us think about how the cinema is going guiding how we see and where we look. Because I think there's something that you know transcends binaries of neurotypical and neurodivergent in the project which is to think about how the cinema can grow. 

DH: The film season Autism and Cinema: An exploration of neurodiversity takes place in the Barbican Cinemas from 16-28 September. Find out more and book your tickets on the Barbican website. 

JH: Thanks for listening to Nothing Concrete, and this special episode for Autism Through Cinema. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. Goodbye.

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