Author Archives: Sarah Kurchak

Imagining A Fuller Spectrum Of Autism On TV

Julia, the autistic Muppet.

Julia, the autistic Muppet.

Autism is currently enjoying an unprecedented wave of popularity in film and television. From educational programming to tent-pole blockbusters, new stories have been breaking boundaries, warming hearts, and raising awareness around the neurodevelopmental condition, which is currently diagnosed in one in 68 children. Once relegated to glorified props in prestige Oscar-bait like Rain Man, autistic characters can now be gun-brandishing action heroes, charmingly horny teenagers, and progress-making muppets.

Still, while fictional autistics are being enthusiastically embraced by non-autistic artists and viewers alike, their reception among real-life autistic people like me has been far more ambivalent. Atypical and The Good Doctor both offer portrayals of brilliant young men on the spectrum, and both shows have their supporters among autistic critics and fans. I’m genuinely excited about Sesame Street‘s Julia, a four-year-old autistic muppet, and the positive influence that her visibility will have on the next generation. In general, though, these explicitly identified characters rarely become as popular as the other characters that we’ve claimed for ourselves.

Faced with a climate where most mainstream portrayals of autism are crafted almost entirely by non-autistic people—often seemingly for a non-autistic audience—autistic people have been forced to get creative in our search for meaningful representation. Some, like autistic authors Rachael Lucas, Helen Hoang, and Corinne Duyvis have successfully created their own characters and stories in books like The State of Grace, On the Edge of Gone, and the forthcoming The Kiss Quotient. Many more have taken to blogs and social media to offer armchair diagnoses about already existing characters, discussing why we think they might be one of us. These readings are called “autistic headcanons”—the process of specifically adding autism to our personal understanding of a character, all in the context of the story.

As an autistic writer who spends a lot of time online, I find the act of forming and discussing autistic headcanons to be a fascinating look into the way that autistic people can use pop culture to better understand ourselves and the world around us. What I find most interesting, though, is how little overlap there is between the characters that are ostensibly created in our image by others, and the characters that we choose for ourselves.

An enthusiasm for headcanons is not, as I’m sure many non-autistic people might suspect, a desire to glamorize our condition, nor a symptom of our deficient empathy or theory of mind. Whenever there’s a chasm between conventional assumptions about autism and the beliefs of self-advocates, there’s a tendency for a certain segment of the neurotypical population to blame the discrepancy on autism itself. But that argument is often easily refuted by the content of the autistic headcanon discussions themselves. Autistic people aren’t gravitating toward certain characters simply because we are looking for a very specific recreation of our own experience on the spectrum. We understand that people experience the world differently, and that each autistic individual is unique—and it’s that range of experience that we’re longing to see better represented on screen.

As prevalent as autism has become in film and TV lately, it still tends to look, sound, and behave a certain way. With the exception of Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) in The Bridge and Wendy (Dakota Fanning) in the recently released Please Stand By, these characters are almost invariably young men. With the exception of Billy (R.J. Cyler), the Blue Ranger from 2017’s Power Rangers, they’re almost exclusively white. Heterosexuality, cis-genderhood, and savantism are all disproportionately represented. Most of these characters appear to be constructed from the same checklist of common symptoms: no eye contact, a flat-affect voice, and generically awkward body language.

Cherry-pick a few posts on blogs or Tumblr accounts like “Autistic Headcanons” and “Your Faves Are Autistic,” though, and you’ll soon glimpse a much broader spectrum of identities, personalities, and experiences. Claiming Holtzmann — Kate McKinnon’s character in Ghostbusters, for example — allowed autistic fans to discuss everything from her sensory-friendly wardrobe choices to her echolalia-like speech patterns to her queerness. Analyzing the physicality of characters as diverse as Ren McCormack from the original Footloose, South Park‘s Kyle, and Disney’s Snow White brings a much broader view to the kinds of repetitive movements that autistic people employ to stim. Star Trek: Discovery‘s Michael Burnham, a human with Vulcan training, has recently struck a chord with autistic people who have emotions, but sometimes struggle to process or express them. Headcanon after headcanon, autistic people are demanding—and envisioning—more from an industry that’s increasingly profiting from our lives.

In a 2015 post titled “A Headcanon Named Autism: In Defense of Finding Our Own Representation,” the anonymous blogger Feminist Aspie wrote:

I want to see a world where books and TV shows and films depict autistic people of color, LGBTQIA+ autistic people, autistic women, autistic people with other disabilities, autistic people who can pass for neurotypical and who can’t, autistic people who are verbal, non-verbal, partially verbal, autistic people with all kinds of special interests, autistic people who use special interests in their work and those who don’t, autistic people who are hypersensitive and hyposensitive and sensory-seeking, autistic people of all ages and all occupations, autistic heroes, autistic villains, autistic geeks and autistic sports captains and everything in between, with good qualities and flaws that are related to autism and those that aren’t related to autism at all—realistic, multi-dimensional autistic characters that don’t feel hollow or like the butt of a joke. And until that’s achieved, autistic media consumers everywhere will keep working our headcanon magic.

Whether or not pop culture can outgrow the need for autistic headcanons is largely dependent on what non-autistic people — the other 67 in 68 — genuinely think about us. If we are, as I’ve argued before, little more than a challenge or accessory for neurotypical artists and a prop for neurotypical audiences, then their autistic counterparts must continue to forge our own path. If the current wave of autism entertainment is just the start of a greater public hunger for more and better autism representation, then the rest of the world will have to start making more space for a wider range of autistic people on both sides of the screen. If we can expand the conversation and the vision for autistic characters when armed with little more than existing properties and Internet access, imagine what we could do with our own characters and the means with which to share them.

This story was originally published February 22, 2018 via Pacific Standard

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The Connection Between ‘Greetings From Tim Buckley’ And Thrash Metallers Anthrax

Penn Bagdley as Jeff Buckley and Frank Bello being metal

Penn Bagdley as Jeff Buckley and Frank Bello being metal

Anthrax bassist Frank Bello’s appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival is going to be a whirlwind. He’ll be flying in on Sunday morning, attending the world premiere of Greetings From Tim Buckley, his feature film debut where he plays the role of punk icon Richard Hell, and then he’s right back on the road in support of Anthrax’s latest album, Worship Music.

It’s hectic, but that’s just the way Bello likes things.

“I’m not a downtime kind of guy,” Bello tells Spinner. “I get nuts when I’m home too long.”

It’s also appropriate, given that the making of Greetings, a film about the late Jeff Buckley’s life- changing performance at a 1991 tribute show for his father Tim Buckley, was also a pretty wild and fast-paced adventure. The theatrically-trained Bello auditioned for the Richard Hell role, who also performed at that concert, on a Thursday and got the role the very next day. By the following Monday he was on set.

With no time to spare, the thrash metal pioneer set out to learn as much as possible about Hell.

“Thankfully, the internet exists,” Bello says with a laugh. “I read up on Richard Hell. I did everything I possible could.”

He also discovered that some of the film’s crew members had worked with Richard on the original concert and talked to them at length about the experience.

“I asked them about all of his personality traits, little quirks and things you wouldn’t think to ask, but I just wanted to know how he reacted to certain things, and music,” he explains. “They had a lot of great stories.”

In the midst of all of Bello’s research and filming — not to mention teaching himself to sing in French so that he could perform Tim Buckley’s “Moulin Rouge” — he had to steal away from the set to play the biggest show of Anthrax’s career: a Yankee Stadium concert with Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer as part of the Big Four tour.

Bello had a major scene to film the next morning, but the crew were willing to accommodate him. At least a little bit.

“The people from Buckley rule. They knew that I had to play Yankee Stadium, so they took pity on me. They didn’t give me a 6 a.m. call time, they gave me a 7:30 a.m. call time! That night at Yankee Stadium, though, it’s the biggest show we’ve ever done. There’s a party after and you have to go to the party, be cordial, and all of that stuff. So I’m at the Metallica party after the show and all of the bands are hanging out, everybody’s talking and all of a sudden I get a tap on my shoulder and it’s my manager telling me ‘Frank. It’s 3 a.m. You have a 7:30 set call.’ And I just looked at him with big eyes. It went that fast.”

Getting up that same morning wasn’t the best experience.

“Let’s be honest, I had a couple of beers. I wasn’t drunk, but I celebrated a little bit and then I had two hours of sleep and I went right to set.”

Bello and the Buckley crew made it all work in the end, though. There was even a cot waiting for him between takes.

Greetings From Tim Buckley isn’t the only film about tragic cult hero Jeff Buckley that’s set to come out in the next while. Another film, which features Jeff’s mom, Mary Guilbert as an executive producer, is also in the works. Unlike Greetings, which focuses on Tim Buckley’s songs, the other film, tentatively called Mystery White Boy, has exclusive rights to the use of the younger Buckley’s music and the blessing of his family.

Bello is aware of the controversy surrounding the two films, but he stands by Greetings, both as a member of the cast and as a Buckley fan.

“This is a great story,” he says. “If I wasn’t in the film, I would want to see it. I’m a Jeff Buckley fan and I want to see the journey he took and, let’s face it, this really did start him off in his career.

“I don’t know what their story is [Mystery White Boy]. I know it has a lot of his songs in it. But this is a different kind of story. It gets you to where he started his career and that’s really interesting.”

Perhaps most importantly to the musician, though, Greetings From Tim Buckley cast a Jeff Buckley who could pull off the musical side of the role in Penn Badgley. The actor, best known as Dan “Lonely Boy” Humphrey on Gossip Girl inspired some raised eyebrows and doubt when he landed the role, but Bello wants to everyone to know that Badgley is for real.

“Penn kicked ass. I was so proud of him, man,” he enthuses. “This kid can sing. So I think that people will see that he’s actually got the chops, and this is from a music guy saying this.”

This interview was originally published September 12, 2012 via AOL Spinner

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Peaches Does Herself: Wants ‘Rocky Horror’ Cult Fame for TIFF Film

Peaches Does Herself

Peaches Does Herself

Long before Toronto’s Merrill Nisker stumbled into a career as the electro art provocateur Peaches, she had every intention of becoming a theatre director, at least until reality set in.

“I quickly figured out that I didn’t want to work with actors or all of these factors I thought would give me a heart attack by the time I was 30,” she tells Spinner.

Still, when Hebbel Hau Theater in her adopted home of Berlin asked her to do a production, Peaches was thrilled to have a chance to go back to her artistic roots. Assembling over 20 songs from her four albums, the foul-mouthed and sharp-tongued singer crafted a retrospective “anti-jukebox” musical loosely based on her life called Peaches Does Herself. She also filmed the show, which ran at the Hebel in October of last year, because she wanted to document it in some way.

Ten performances’ worth of footage, 1,500 edits and just under a year later, the film version of Peaches Does Herself is making its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The movie, as described on Peaches’ official site (we’d try to paraphrase, but there’s no sense in messing with perfection) “tells the story of a young woman who, inspired by a 65-year-old stripper, begins to make sexually forthright music. Her popularity grows and she becomes what her fans expect her to be: transsexual. She falls in love with a beautiful she-male, but gets her heart broken and then ventures on a path of self-discovery.”

The elaborate dix and tit-shaking spectacle is written and directed by Peaches, who also stars in the film as herself. Her supporting cast includes Naked Cowgirl Sandy Kane as the 65-year- old stripper in question, transgendered porn star Danni Daniels, electronica artist Mignon and a dance troupe known as The Fatherfucker Dancers. The flick’s set designs and props feature, among other things, various labia representations, laser harps and a gruesome exploded phallus that’s becoming notorious for its ability to make audiences squirm.

“It should be uncomfortable, like ‘Is this a joke?’ This has actually turned really gory, but it’s actually really weird-looking,” says Peaches. “It was actually done by Babes in Horny, a company that makes dildos and they made me two exploding penises.”

There’s also a pair of exploding breasts in the film, but Peaches is less impressed with how they come across.

“I must say the dick was much better than the boobs.”

A replacement pair of blasting boobs was eventually crafted for the stage, but logistics prevented them from getting their big movie break.

“One unfortunate thing is that we did have new boobs — new exploding boobs that were way better — but we had to use the shots of the old ones and actually we had to reshoot one scene where I had to put on the old costume for the closeups and stuff.”

The new, improved and more Cronenergian boobs are now in storage in Berlin, thwarting any temptation she might have had to wear them on the red carpet for the film’s premiere.

If things go well with Peaches Does Herself the artist says that she’d be interested in revisiting it as a theatrical production, but it would have to have the right funds behind it.

“I’m waiting for a mega-producer to give me money, and then I’m there. Let’s see… who should give me the money? Maybe if we say someone’s name, they’ll set us up,” she says with a mischievous grin. “I want money from… I want money from Snoop Dogg.”

“Snoop Lion,” a member of the documentary crew that’s currently following Peaches around corrects her. It’s one of the many projects she currently has on the go, including a new single (“BURST!”, which comes out next month), DJ gigs and her continuing efforts to support Pussy Riot.

“Snoop Lion? He’s not Snoop Dogg anymore?” she asks.

“He’s a reggae artist,” it’s explained.

Peaches shakes her head, unimpressed.

“Then I don’t want him. Forget it,” she says dismissively. “But really, in a real world, it should be Tina Fey.”

In the meantime, the singer is doing things the low budget way, trying to wrangle the cast of Peaches Does Herself for a Friday night performance piece at Toronto’s Drake Hotel called, appropriately enough, Peaches Does The Drake, and attempting to find family and friends who will let everyone crash with them during TIFF to save on hotel costs.

After that, it looks like PDH is primed to take on the film circuit. On the strength of the first press screening alone, Peaches has already received offers from other festivals. Beyond that, she’s hoping that the picture reaches the kind of cult status the live show was starting to cultivate in Berlin.

“I started to see people who came the second time start to dress up. If it went on longer, maybe it would have started to have that Rocky Horror kind of feel of yelling things and stuff. I think someone even threw something one night.”

In other words, does that mean that she’s hoping that her film will someday have its own callbacks and midnight screenings?

“Hell yeah!” she says smiling.

This feature originally appeared September 14, 2012 on AOL Spinner.

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BrokeNCYDE Don’t Care They’re The World’s Most Hated Band

BrokenCYDE

BrokenCYDE

BrokeNCYDE (pronounced “broke inside,” just like their feelings) might only have a few years of crunkcore under their belts, but they’ve already generated more controversy and venom than most bands will receive over their entire careers.

Offended by the band’s antics and their music’s subject matter, parents have banded together and formed groups like Mothers Against BrokeNCYDE. Unimpressed by their unique blend of crunk and screamo and lyrics like “You make my peepee hard” and “Eenie meenie minni moe/So much bitches at our shows,” critics have called them everything from “fucking horrendous” (Metal Edge) to “a near perfect snapshot of everything that’s shit about this point in the culture” (Warren Ellis).

It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the level of antipathy that Se7en (vocals), Mikl (vocals), Phat J (synths, guitars) and Antz (“fog machine and lights”) have generated in their young lives.

Limp Bizkit were the butt of plenty of jokes and criticism in the ’90s and early aughts, but their cover of “Faith” at least inspired a dose of good will or benign apathy. Insane Clown Posse and their juggalos and juggalettes are often regarded as signs of a diseased society, but at least they bring greater recognition to Faygo pop.

Even if you multiplied the level of bile hurled at those two giants of questionable culture, you would probably fall short of the sheer hatred some (like Thrash Magazine‘s Jay Thrash, who wishes that he could go back in time like Superman and crush them at birth) are starting to feel for this band.

Now it’s time for Canada to lock up its daughters and music snobs, because BrokeNCYDE are coming to town in support of their brand new album I’m Not A Fan… But The Kids Like It!

With the rest of his crew boisterously on the hunt for porn in the background, Mikl (the man behind the less screamy, more Auto-Tuned vocals) took some time away from the good fight to get on the phone with CHARTattack and talk about the band’s detractors, their fans, moms and bitches.

CHARTattack: You’ve been the subject of some pretty heinous reviews. Do you care about what the critics think at all?
Mikl: We don’t care what people say at all.

Even when they speculate that your music is actually a joke? Does that bother you?
I don’t care what people have to say. None of us do. We do this for our fans. People are entitled to their own opinion and if that’s what they want to say, then cool. We really don’t care.

Do your fans care, though?
They stick up for us, they have our backs, you know? But, you know.

So, they start flame wars on the internet in your defence?
Yeah. They always protect us.

Were you aware that the name BrokeNCYDE has made it to the Urban Dictionary?
No.

It’s being defined as a synonym for “ear rape.”
That’s cool.

Yeah? You like that?
Not really, but it’s whatevs.

Now you do have some pretty naughty lyrics, and I just have to ask you: Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?
I don’t kiss my mom. That’s kind of weird.

Even on the cheek?
Even on the cheek.

Is your mom bothered by your lyrics at all?
No, my mom supports me in everything that I do. Like, she’s on my side, you know?

Do your songs really get you a lot of chicks?
Yeah, a lot of the guys. I have a girlfriend, so… it helps all of these other losers in the band.

So, do girls really fall for lines like, “You fucking bitch, come suck my dick?”
I don’t know. We’re just saying what people say. But yeah.

This interview was originally published October 13, 2009 via Chart Communications.

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Stevie Nicks ‘In Your Dreams’: Fleetwood Mac Singer’s Doc Almost Foiled Due to Vanity

Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks

Toward the end of In Your Dreams, Stevie Nicks and Dave Stewart’s documentary about the making of their album of the same name which opened at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox last night, Stewart muses about the magic that he experienced in that year of writing and recording with the rock ‘n’ roll legend and his hopes that a piece of that comes across in the film.

“I hope it brought you a little closer to Stevie’s heart,” he says in his closing narration.

The film certainly lives up to Stewart’s expectations. The result of the producer and former Eurythmics member’s almost obsessive need to film and document everything in his life, In Your Dreams takes viewers deep into the year-long creative process behind Nicks’s 2011 album — her first solo release in over a decade — and just as deep into the heart of its co-writer and co-director.

With his omnipresent camera essentially becoming part of the gang, Stewart documents almost every detail of what happened from the time that Nicks asked him to produce her new album to the assembly of her band and crew (including superstar producer Glen Ballard and her Fleetwood Mac bandmates Mick Fleetwood and Lindsey Buckingham) to the videos the crew made to accompany each song on the disc.

Obviously comfortable with her creative partner, Nicks opens up about almost everything. Her family, her early music history, her sometimes rocky history with Buckingham, and her current inspirations are all covered. She even waxes poetically on her love of the Twilight films, which were the inspiration for the song “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream).”

“I was taken with this movie because what happened to Bella absolutely happened to me,” she says about Bella’s post-Edward heartbreak in New Moon.

The result of this intimate and open atmosphere is a documentary that actually does make you feel like you’re part of the action, as cliched as that phrase may be. And, as it turns out, the film was only really the opening act for people who attended one of the two screenings and Stevie Nicks Q&As last night. In the flesh, the rock star was even more personable and charming.

Clad in one of her trademark flowing outfits, Nicks amiably sauntered on stage after the screening, settled into her seat and started regaling the sold out crowd with a story about the genesis of the In Your Dreams film, and how her own personal insecurities almost destroyed the project before it even began.

Stewart, she explained, original brought up the idea of filming the whole process when he first agreed to produce the album for her. Nicks wasn’t big on the idea, as it stood in the way of all of dreams of recording and home and dressing as a complete slob.

“That means serious hair, makeup and clothes,” she said, in mock horror.

In the end, though, it was Running Down a Dream, the 2007 Tom Petty documentary, that convinced her to give the camera a shot.

“I remember the footage from Tom Petty’s very, very long four-hour documentary, which I personally loved, every minute of it,” she said. “But there was a part on the Traveling Wilburys that was so brilliant and it really showed the five of those guys like they were in the James Gang or something. And we got to see them for a half-hour really be who they were and just looking so handsome and playing this amazing music and then, within minutes, it seemed, two of them died. And if they hadn’t have done that, what a shame that would have been.”

This got her reevaluating her own priorities.

“What a shame it would be if you, Miss Vanity, said no to this because you don’t want to spend a half an hour doing makeup and picking a uniform,” she continued. “What if we come up with something that’s really great and we don’t film it? And then how are you going to feel a year after that? You’re going to go, ‘Wow, now you really can admit to the vanity of women because you lost out on something really brilliant.’ So I said ok.”

Soon, she said, her appearance wasn’t even on her mind.

“It’s amazing how easy the process becomes because of the people involved.”

Taking questions from the crowd, Nicks indulged the audience in questions about making the classic Fleetwood Mac album Rumours (“It wasn’t a very pleasant experience,” she quipped before embarking on a more philosophical reflection on the romance and the drama behind those days), and opening up about the death of her mother.

She also talked about how the promotion of In Your Dreams really forced her to adapt to the new realities of the music business. For someone who came of age in a wildly different music industry, it hasn’t always been an easy transition.

“The music business has turned to stone,” she said. “I can’t expect anyone to help me.”

She also pointed out that record companies just don’t have enough money to invest in bands for the long term anymore, using Fleetwood Mac’s post-Rumours career as an example.

“If it had been now and we had done Rumours and had that success and then we did Tusk, the double record from Africa? Warner Brothers would have said ‘Get out and take your African tusks with you!’ It’s such a different age now.”

Nicks credits her fans and their support or allowing her to tirelessly tour and promote In Your Dreams and help her make it the modern day music business success that it is. As such, she pointedly thanked those in attendance for their part in it.

“I’m not going to worry about record sales anymore and I’m not going to worry about what people think,” she said.

“Because what really matters is what I think, because if I’m thinking good and I’m thinking happy, then what I do is going to turn around and make you feel good. So we just bounce off of each other. I throw the dreams out there and you throw them back at me. And that’s how we make this together. This is not anything that is done by one person. It happens because we’re a team. And you’re my team. You are. I mean that.”

This story was originally published April 16, 2013 on Spinner.

 

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