Tag Archives: Films

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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Digging Into Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, the latest edition of the Ip Man martial arts movie series, was released in April.

Sarah broke down what people needed to know about the star-studded movies in a blog post for Asian World Of Martial Arts.

To read about it go here.

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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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Jackie Chan Police Story Films Getting Criterion Editions

Police Story

Martial arts actor Jackie Chan’s marquee films Police Story and Police Story 2 are getting Criterion edition re-releases.

Sarah wrote about the films and their impact for Asian World Of Martial Arts.

To read the piece go here.

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Diarrhea, Toxic Masculinity, The Magnificent Seven And Robert Vaughn

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven

One of Sarah’s all-time favourite random facts is that everyone had diarrhea on the set of the classic 1960 western The Magnificent Seven.

Recently Sarah expanded on this runny bit of info in a sprawling essay for Medium that tackled the trots, toxic masculinity and one of her all-time favourite actors, Robert Vaughn.

If it sounds like a lot to take in, well, it is.

To read the full story go here.

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TIFF 2018: First Man Is A Simple, Effective Look At Apollo 11

First Man

First Man

In First Man actor/musician/meme Ryan Gosling takes on the role of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

When Sarah saw the film at TIFF this year she appreciated the simple physical storytelling of the film.

To find out why head over to Consequence Of Sound by clicking here.

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TIFF 2018: Halloween Reboot Is Kinda Fan Fiction (With Bonus Podcast)

Halloween

Halloween

The rebooted Halloween horror franchise is a really big deal in some (bloodthirsty) circles, so Sarah was assigned to cover the film when it showcased at TIFF this fall.

Her opinion: It’s kinda fan fiction-y, but it works.

To read her whole review head over to Consequence Of Sound by clicking here.

If that’s not enough Michael Myers content, Sarah also appeared on Consequence’s themed-Halloweenies podcast to discuss the film. You can listen to that here:

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