All of a sudden, I'm the co-host on a podcast! I've become embroiled and intertwined with the absolutely lovely folk over at the Autism Through Cinema project based at Queen Mary, University of London. In fact, I'm a fully fledged part of the 'team' as their one-day-a-week project administrator, handling all manner of emails, budgets, symposiums and website shenanigans, but my main focus has been getting this podcast shipped up, shaped out and splattered all over the various platforms. You can find it on all the biggies: Apple, Spotify, Google Music, Pandora (not sure what this is, actually - seems a bit sinister), Amazon, Listen Notes, and Podbean - its basically everywhere (but Podbean is the main home).
It's been a huge amount of fun. We started recording in the early days of Lockdown #1 when it was already on the cards as an idea, but then accelerated by circumstance. I was brought in after one of the project leads, Prof. Janet Harbord, came across one of my PhD conference papers and asked if I'd like to contribute. Pathologically unable to say no, I soon had a fancy mic and various vaguely-formed ideas, which is all that seems to be needed for podcasting to commence. Aside from Janet and I, there are three other regular contributors: autistic film critic, filmmaker and film student Georgia Bradburn, autistic video essayer John-James Laidlow, and neurodivergent animator Alex Widdowson. The idea is simple: we take a film every fortnight that we feel has some kind of connection to autism, watch it, then discuss it.
Right from the start, we were far beyond the obvious. No-one even mentioned Rainman - we seemed to have this unspoken pact that we had zero interest in retreading old ground and instead want to run giddy across our beloved movies we reckoned had a sprinkling of autistic resonance, or dig our claws into recent offerings that had either deliberately or accidentally brushed up against autistic themes. And there's been no shortage of films to place under discussion - everything from classic Lynch to obscure documentary, via animated Pixar shorts, contemporary crime capers, a Golden Era horror favourite, and surreal sci-fi. At the time of writing, we've got four episodes released covering: Punch-Drunk Love (loved it), Good Time (mixed bag) alongside Music (urgh, no thanks), The Rider (interesting one), and Pi (zany and kind of amazing). There are many more in the bag with the Agnes Varda classic The Gleaners and I coming next week and Under the Skin two weeks after that. This embedded player should keep updating as and when the episodes are released:
So, what are we discovering? That the question of performing autism is a complex one. In some ways, a non-autistic actor (like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love) can give a meaningful portrayal of the condition (or something like it), but it largely depends upon the cinematic context that character is placed in. The horrible depiction of the eponymous Music in the film of the same name is the counter-weight here: she is a caricatured exhibit under the thrall of the neurotypicals, where Sandler's Barry is an anxious force of frenetic heroism inside an aesthetic that aligns with him, rather than against him. Seeing a real autistic actor, like Lilly Jandreau in The Rider is infinitely more refreshing, but it raises other ethical questions: are autistic actors doomed to play autistic characters and no-one else? Are they being asked (or even forced?) to 'perform' their autism? Are film sets accessible, safe places for potentially quite vulnerable autistic people?
We're also keeping a close eye on the cinematic aesthetics of autism. How, in Pi for example, the energies of cinematography and editing can be used to relay the sensation of autistic meltdown or, as will be seen in our The Gleaners and I episode next week, how certain playful cinematic strategies can evoke autistic pleasures. And perhaps there are 'normal' ways of doing things, cinematically, that don't always suit the narratives or inclinations of the autistic. Perhaps the presence of autism can threaten and break these norms, thereby forming new ways to express old ideas. The one thing we can exuberantly say is that the cinema is clearly rich with autistic presence and pleasures. And it's all rather exciting, to say the least.
I'm not sure how long the podcast will roll on (the wider project is due to end in mid-2022), but we've got a great momentum which doesn't seem to be slowing down and a lengthy list of movies we'd like to tackle. So if this kind of thing tickles your intrigues, do head over to wherever you get your podcasts and give us a quick subscribe. And if you want to support us even further, feel free to pen us a glowing review! In the meantime, keep half a neurodivergent eye on the movies you watch. Are there ways of seeing things, but differently? Is there an autistic lens in your camera's eye?