Autism and Us: A Collaboration with Jaime Rebanal

Being autistic and being in love with films only seems to have brought us a greater sense of connection with the films that we watch, but it seems that there’s another sense of difficulty that gets in the way: when a film addresses its own characters as being autistic and oftentimes, it feels like a stereotyped portrait that casts ourselves in a negative light. With all the Sheldon Coopers, the Rain Mans, and Forrest Gumps that have supposedly wanted to portray a “typical” representation of the autistic spectrum, it seems that we find more compassion in yet another area, characters that we read as having autism rather than directly being a part of the spectrum.

Take a look at Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in Being There. He has lived his whole life behind bars, and only learns about the outside world based on what he sees on television. When he finally has to confront the outside for once, all he carries with him is his remote because it’s where he finds his own sense of comfort. It’s a film that I point to when it comes to defining characters that can be read as having traits much like autism because it questions how people outside his perspective see him, yet carries a sense of compassion for his own. Everyone thinks that he’s a prophet, offering his own philosophies to the political scene of the time – yet he’s only talking with gardening terms because it is all he knows. I only imagine myself to be a polarising figure among the many people I talk with and I’m paranoid about what they think of me, because much like Chance, all that I learn comes from a screen, watching movies and interacting via social media.

It isn’t just this that makes Peter Sellers’s performance resonate. It’s the fact that director Hal Ashby keeps locked into Chance’s own eyes so that everyone knows exactly what he’s making of the world around him. It isn’t just television he’s watching anymore, almost like it isn’t just a film I’m watching when I walk through the hallways of my college campus. I try my best to keep a straight face, and when I’m being pointed out to share something to say, I only utter out the layman because I know it’s what everyone understands. And it’s what I like to express when I write my own film reviews for others to read, just what I pick up from experience. But I stick to living my life as an introvert in the same way Chance does, because upon social interaction up close I feel overwhelmed to the point I even stop myself from saying what I want to, worried about embarrassment.

And how does the world see him? Some said he was a genius. Others were not so fond. But Chance doesn’t know much beyond what he sees on television in the same way I, as mentioned in the prior paragraph, don’t know much beyond the many films I watch and the way I always measure how I interact with others on social media. And how I talk with others just follows along with what I know everyone else seems to be fussed over, and I barely even have time to express myself properly. Because the “proper” me is behind this image of what everyone makes of me. And it doesn’t seem to instill a good sense in people who I wish to talk more actively with at my own campus, whether it be with other students or teachers. And once my own feeling of comfort is gone, I just feel stunted. I can only imagine it’s what Chance seems to feel, when he’s away from his television or his beloved garden, just as I would be when I can’t watch a film or have access to my phone.

A film that I consider to be defining of our generation (and one that anyone who’s met me will say I talk about way too much) is David Fincher’s The Social Network. A movie that not only succeeds as a snapshot of the development of human communication, but as a Shakespearean drama in which the protagonist is equal parts vindictive as he is empathetic. My main point at which an attachment is formed is the concept of Facebook itself; I am not a sociable man, communication is a concerted effort on my part that can cause great distress and upset. Facebook – and social media on a larger scale – has allowed me to talk with others on my terms, where I’m not struggling with words or eye contact.

In watching The Social Network, I see a lot of myself in Mark Zuckerberg, which I do not think of as a negative association. It is very much a film about obsession and defying those who are obstructing one’s pursuit of a goal. In Mark’s own head, Facebook is very much his and what he says goes, and I can honestly identify with him. When I have an idea that I like, it will become an obsession, an all-consuming flame that takes over my life for an indeterminate amount of time. And while I try not to alienate those around me, it’s not as if I don’t understand the thought process of those who do. Paranoia has plagued me for years, and is only amplified by my autism. Forming friendships is not easy, I have no natural inclination towards it. So, when I do have a friend, accepting it is not as easy as it should be.

A line from the film I particularly adore that resonates with me is Mark’s exclamation that everyone who makes a nice chair doesn’t owe money to the person who invented the chair. After hearing that, I was convinced Mark was in the right. He didn’t steal Facebook from anybody, he took an idea and “made it better”, in his own words. From there, I was sat in his position, rooting for him to succeed and finding anger in other characters not seeing his brilliance. While much of the film is fictionalised, the portrait painted through the writing of Aaron Sorkin and the performance of Jesse Eisenberg speaks to me as if I were watching my own biopic. Sometimes, I’m moved to tears just thinking about it.

It’s not that filmmakers shouldn’t strive to create characters who are representative of ASD, but it’s somewhat egregious when the mark is missed so spectacularly. Perhaps the best approach is to simply write characters who happen to be autistic, and not make that their defining characteristic. Autism does not define us, it merely aids in shaping us. Characters who are defined by a single quality, be it autism or otherwise, are one-dimensional at best and damaging at worst. So please, do not pigeonhole us as nothing more than “autistic”, we’re people, just like you, the creative process should not affect that.

 

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The Public Perception of Film Critics is Ridiculous

Earlier this week, I found myself browsing the comments section of the link to the RottenTomatoes score of the new Baywatch movie and instantly regretted my decision. It still shocks me that despite RottenTomatoes existing since 1998, people still don’t understand how the site works. It is merely a collection of critical reviews that are then tallied into “Fresh” and “Rotten” scores, which provides an aggregate of what percentage of critics enjoyed the film. The 18% score for Baywatch did nothing but draw the ire of moviegoers, who lambasted the entire profession of film criticism. The usual barbs of film critics being “out of touch” and “only liking pretentious dramas” finally got to me, as I went on a mad tirade explaining how idiotic such assertions sounded. If the movie scores an 18%, then that means 18% of the critics that reviewed the film would recommend it (23 critics in total, in this case). So, if all film critics are such stuck up snobs, why is it that almost one fifth of them liked Baywatch? It’s almost as if they’re human beings with opinions of their own, perish the thought.

While there is just an element of failing to grasp the concept of RottenTomatoes at play here, the way in which general audiences choose to treat film critics demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of two things: 1. What purpose they serve and  2. Why they have to be as analytical as they are. First, I’d like to dispel the myth that film critics are magical gatekeepers to the fountain of film knowledge. They’re not old sages that hold some secret formula to understanding film on a level so deep that your brain will explode just thinking about it. A film critic is nothing more than another person with an opinion, an opinion that they are entitled to just like everybody else. The “Us Vs. Them” mentality that so many have towards film critics is problematic in that you’re essentially throwing an entire profession under the bus; a profession that has inspired many to look a little deeper into the films they enjoy and engage with them on a whole new level. The likes of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert weren’t elitists that dictated their opinions to the masses as if their word were gospel. They were national treasures who were beloved by millions, with a TV show that truly helped people to make a decision on what they wanted to see at the movies that week.

The hostility towards critics may very well stem from a form of bitterness. Many reviewers will have attended film school and engaged with the medium at an academic level, which will grant them with at least a slightly more informed opinion than your average film fan, like it or not. This doesn’t mean they’re better than you and it doesn’t stop you from enjoying the movies you like. Film critics can certainly enjoy a dumb blockbuster, if you don’t believe me, then look at the RottenTomatoes scores for Fast Five or Jurassic World. Most critics merely have a mentality of assessing what a film is trying to accomplish and whether or not it achieves that goal in a satisfying way. While film is completely subjective, if one has studied the language of film and is familiar with strong plot structure, writing, direction and the like, then I’m far more likely to listen to them over someone who just owns a lot of Blu-Rays.

This brings me onto the purpose a film critic serves, as apparently it’s a useless practice according to the people whose favourite films were savaged by someone that watches movies for a living. The fact of the matter is that for every one person that doesn’t listen to a film critic, there are multiple people who do. Just think about this logically, if nobody cared about what critics had to say, then the job wouldn’t exist. They provide a service to people who don’t consider themselves to be film savvy enough to research a movie for themselves. I work in a cinema and meet people every day who ask me what kind of reviews the film they’re going to see has received. The answer I give them often allows me to gauge what kind of expectations they then set for the film. In this exchange, I effectively become a middle man, offloading the product of a critical evaluation to a consumer, who is now more aware of what kind of a film they’re going to be watching. This is the kind of importance that a film critic serves.

But the most important thing to remember about how a critic’s opinion is formed is simple: It’s their job. A lot of people seem to forget that they have the freedom to see a movie and then say whatever they like about it without fear of repercussions. A film critic doesn’t have such a luxury. Their job is on the line every time they review a new release, they’re assessed by a superior just like everybody else. If a review is shoddily written or doesn’t provide an in-depth analysis, a critic surrenders themselves to the wrath of their editor. If a critic has established that a certain level of quality is to be expected from their work, then they stand to lose readers from a following that they have spent years of their life building up. These are people who have worked their way up the cutthroat world of journalism to get to where they are. They’ve most likely written for free on many occasions, or worked for peanuts as an unknown freelancer. Now, they find themselves in a position where their opinion is valued by thousands, if they screw up, they could be out of a job. If you don’t perform your job to an acceptable standard, then you know there’s a chance of being fired, a film critic is no different. Whether you agree with a review or not, insulting somebody’s craft is nothing short of plain disrespectful. They’re only trying to put food on the table, same as all of us, so please try to have a little perspective.

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Depression: My Own Personal Babadook

In 2014, Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut, The Babadook, made a significant impact on the horror genre. Garnering acclaim for its unique blend of a genuinely terrifying atmosphere and psychology, the film would go on to be one of the best-reviewed films of the year. The story of a widowed mother slowly losing her sanity to the monstrous title character and being haunted by visions of murdering her son is as much moving as it is horrific. The debate that has raged on about the film since its release has been around one question: Is The Babadook actually real? Within the context of the film’s narrative, there’s a deliberate ambiguity as to whether the family are truly being antagonised by a malevolent force, or if it’s all just a violent manifestation of the protagonist’s grief.

My answer to that question is a simple one, and that is of course The Babadook is real. I’m not talking about the monster itself, but the entire concept. The Babadook is more than a silver screen bad guy, he’s a very real entity that exists for the characters in the film and for all of us in real life. We are all haunted by Mr. Babadook, some of us a lot more than others. At the age of 16, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and admitted into a secure psychiatric unit, where I would live for two months. Five years later and it’s not gotten any easier. I’m ashamed of my depression, I don’t harp on about it on my Facebook and I don’t get into “Well, I’ve attempted suicide this many times” contests with people. Depression is something that I despise, and this is really the first time I’ve ever truly talked about it on a public forum.

Much like The Babadook, depression is an all-enveloping creature with no remorse or pity, it gets to you in the night, crawls along your ceiling and makes you fear for your life. The constant state of fear that I live in means I am almost always fatigued and possess little interest in actually connecting with other people. I don’t have any vices to use as a portal for briefly escaping this nightmare. I’ve never drank, smoked or done drugs, and I don’t believe that casual sex would be a healthy (or even obtainable) option for someone as emotionally unstable as myself. I have zero romantic fulfilment in my life, I can’t stand my job, and I manage to convince myself everyday that all of my friends actually hate me. It’s not a nice way to live, knowing that I am very much the victim in a horror movie in which I am the lead.

This mindset always leads back down the same path, and that is that suicide is the only option. Now, before you call the police and have them sent to my house, this is not a cry for help or a farewell message. I am not suicidal, because I have the awareness to recognise that the negativity in my brain stems from a genuine medical condition, to which killing myself is not a solution. The mother in The Babadook realises this in the film’s incredible finale, in which she tames the beast and traps it in the basement. This metaphor of allowing your feelings to live with you and keep them at bay is a universal truth. You can’t get rid of your demons, it isn’t possible, the effects of trauma will be with you forever. The fact that I know my life may not end via natural causes is not dramatic, it’s a factual statement. At this point, I’m almost certain that I will be the one to take my own life one day, which isn’t something I say lightly. It’s nothing more that a statistical probability, I do not need or want the pity of others.

The only joy I can squeeze out of life these days is through writing, and it’s something I’ve devoted the majority of my time to in the past year. After being unable to cope with the stress of university and dropping out of my undergraduate course, pursuing my dreams of composing words for a living was the only option. In truth, I have to either make it or break it, because I want to do the thing I love full-time, not lie in bed every morning trying to muster the strength to drag myself into my dead end job. Every shower, brushing of teeth and conversation I have throughout the day takes more effort than it should. In university, I went a whole six months without brushing my teeth because I resented everything around me. The walls of my student accommodation were closing in with me inside, The Babadook was there and chipping away at my ability to cope.

Trying to make sense of the world of content creation is an infinite source of stress, but one that is far more manageable than studying a course that did nothing to nurture my spirits, where I didn’t like a good 80% of the people I spent the day with. The seemingly never ending search to make a decent level of income off of the written word is a quest that I will always have hope of completing. And that’s the real crux of any horror movie, that there is always a sense of hope. The Babadook ends on a surprisingly heartwarming note in which the mother and her child have a happy life, with The Babadook living below, needing just enough attention to be acknowledged without being granted the power of full control. The idea that I can control my depression is one that I firmly believe most days, and when I don’t have that belief, I know that it will pass eventually. I should never pretend that my illness doesn’t exist, as that is where it draws its power from. To paraphrase Mr. Babadook himself, the more I deny him, the stronger he gets.

 

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Why We Are Currently Living in a Golden Age of Horror Cinema

Of all the genres populating the cinematic realm, horror seems to be among the easiest to completely fumble. It’s an all too common occurrence for cheaply constructed piles of schlock comprised of jump scares and feeble acting to make bank at the box office these days. However, the vast majority of Internet boards behave as if that’s all we’ve been getting from horror these last few years, often trotting out that old chestnut of “X genre is dead because of stuff like this”. Such hyperbolic sentiment is par for the course in relation to popular culture right now, unless something is the next Citizen Kane of its ilk then it isn’t worth discussing. When a movie such as Get Out scores a 99% on RottenTomatoes (a score I feel it deserves, mind you), then many will wave their “overrated” banner because it didn’t blow them away to the point that they will go into shock if you shine a torch in their eyes.

The truth is that horror is at the strongest it’s been in years, and Get Out has kept that hot streak alive. For every Ouija, there’s a Don’t Breathe, for every Annabelle, there’s a Green Room. As far as I can tell, this spate of hugely entertaining American horror flicks started with You’re Next back in 2011. The fifth feature film from director Adam Wingard, You’re Next’s irreverent dark humour, over the top gore and familiar yet refreshing throwback approach endeared both critics and genre enthusiasts. It’s since gone on to obtain true cult status and has established Wingard as one to watch in the modern horror scene.

The stage was then set for a collection of maverick composers to release their unholy symphonies to the world, their orchestra a keen composition of violence, obscenity, wit and thought provoking parables. As consumers, we were treated to the gory workings of Fede Álvarez’s nightmarish Evil Dead re-imagining in 2013, a film nothing short of wonderful in its campy and absurd level of brutality. Looking across to Australia and we were blessed with Jennifer Kent’s wickedly tormented psychological drama, The Babadook, which would go on to become one of the most acclaimed films of 2014. Already, we have a healthy mix of old and new ideas being offered up to insatiable genre aficionados. A lust for extreme content was being filled but minus any kind of sacrifice of charm. How could horror possibly be weak with so much choice?

2015 sticks out as the most evident year of a golden age coming on thanks to the instant classic It Follows. A beguiling concoction of overly stylised visual spark and 80s motifs in terms of soundtrack and moral exploration of the dangers of unprotected casual sex, the film captured the hearts and minds of the horror community. Most of us are merely fans of the familiar, we’re easily drawn in by old school loveliness in the same vein as Carpenter or Craven. When such sentiment is thrown into a blender with all of the lovely technological innovations at the disposal of modern filmmakers, our love shall be practically offered up on a silver platter.

Are we being pandered to? Possibly. Are we getting awesome movies? Definitely. With 2016 being one of the single best years for horror films in history, and I seriously mean that. The Witch kicks everything off with a fearless display of pure atmosphere. A film crafted so that the harsh landscape is a character itself that merely houses the supernatural horrors that threaten the humble farming family that the narrative centres on. Constructed using appropriate language for the time and preferring to keep the scares to a minimum, this is a horror film for purists. One could argue that the film’s drawn out nature borders on pretentious, alienating those that wouldn’t consider themselves elitists. But the descent into hell for the characters tests the audience, creating its own mythology based on the folklore of old. To label it as a technical marvel would simply be understating its genius.

As we trek on through the year, our next stop is the straight up balls to the wall Green Room, a grimy, messy picture that is easy to fall in love with. Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the similarly acclaimed Blue Ruin features a misfit group of punk rockers fighting for their lives against a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads, who are anchored by Patrick Stewart in an Oscar-worthy turn. What would sadly become Anton Yelchin’s final feature film to be released while he was still with us, the bizarre and uber violent trappings of Saulnier’s work feel like a lived in world. This is as close to an exploitation film as you’re likely to get in the latter half of this decade.

Fede Álvarez would then return to us, providing an utterly disgusting and depraved piece which I personally adore, Don’t Breathe. The concept is deceptively simple, kids try and rob a blind guy, blind guy is basically an evil Daredevil, fun ensues. Stephen Lang guides the passable young performers through the film with an acting showcase that is in equal parts sympathetic and downright despicable. It’s pretty difficult to discuss without spoiling, so all I’ll say is that you can expect slick cinematography and a lot of clear homages to the great Sam Raimi (which makes sense, given that he is essentially making movies through Álvarez vicariously at this point).

And now we’re deep into the drudges of 2017, with the celebrity back-patting contest that is the Oscars firmly behind us, everyone can look forward to another year of horror. Just when we thought we’d be let down, a casual masterwork comes from the mind of comedy giant Jordan Peele. I don’t feel Get Out needs any more praise than it already has at this point, it’s far too fresh in our minds to really say anything else. However, the deft combination of a frightening concept, on point comic relief, racial overtones and third act thrills makes for one satisfying meal.

I don’t know about you, but I believe horror is far from dead. If anything, it’s alive, kicking, and still holds the ability to scare the shit out of us.

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