A Noisy Relationship Between Autism, Cinema, and the Arts

Dan E. Smith
Mar 10, 2020 · 10 min read
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Recently, my university supervisor asked me about the relationship I have between my autism and my interest in watching, studying, and writing about cinema — a question which I have certainly wrestled with before but never really vocalised or broadcasted; at least not in any substantial form. Given the relative immediacy with which this question was asked, I stumbled over my words and my initial explanation was unclear. All sense of composure seems eradicated, even if only seconds before it felt like I had a firm grasp of it. The words that escaped were alien, as if it were not me talking; as if I had no control over conversational direction. Subjectivity is sort of cruel, especially to someone with autism, where social anxiety and troubled social skills accelerate and collide together. As years have passed by, and as my own self-confidence has grown, I no longer slip as often as I used to. Yet still, under new or stressful situations — and sometimes not — it can return. There are several personally “embarrassing” moments to recall: when trying to explain why I loved John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) to a group of new people — what exactly I said, I can’t remember – I recall mulling over why I explained my adoration in such an awkward and potentially misleading way. In another instance, my supervisor mentioned the Fassbinder film Fear Eats the Soul (1974), another film I had never spoken to anybody about — in my excitement, I tutted and sighed as I trialled to find the right words, but all I could muster was “its got nice colours” (which, in fairness, it does). Outside of film discussions, in conversations with real-world gravity, it has been frustrating; confidence-crumbling; sometimes unintentionally funny, but always dispiriting.

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Fear Eats the Soul (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

That disconnect — the mishmash of social pressure and my struggles with verbal articulation — sums up one of the main reasons I’ve found such pleasure in writing. There is a touch of mental sobriety to writing, a controlled calmness to articulating my thoughts before I let them loose. Though I am by no means the most proficient or skilled writer, personal improvement of the craft can feel secondary — what matters most to me is that I have a communicative medium where the barriers of social pressure are somewhat more controlled, where I have the space to screw up. The errors that I do make can at least be criticised in a less spontaneous setting, where the debilitating presence of immediate social pressure – as impossible as it can be to register – doesn’t breath down my neck. No doubt I look back on stuff that I’ve written before and disagree with myself or chuckle at some gratuitously flowery or awkward prose, but at least with this I am not entrapped by phonocentrism. It is a similar experience with reading — though I am not the most indulgent reader, whenever I do read, I consistently get the sense that other writers use the medium for similar reasons.

My difficulty with reliable verbal articulation, I like to believe, has some roots both in the stigma of the irrational and in the fact that the initial creation of ‘meaning’ in the personal sense is so often an intensely abstract experience — and with autism, those neurons do not always like to connect in the ways one would assume. So often, language and objective meaning are scrapped/disregarded for a galaxy of other random connections which are interesting to me but are either objectively tenuous or amorphous in their expressions — in truth, this is often a simultaneous occurrence. However, through writing and reading the works of others, it has become clearer to me that there may be meaning after all — and though these connections are fairly “chaotic”, they feel like I am finally expressing a personal truth. Mark Fisher writes about sensing London’s post-rave malaise in between the ghostly pitter-pattered beats of Burial’s self-titled debut album, yet his web of commentary from book-to-book (I highly recommend Ghosts of My Life) and blog-to-blog extends far beyond pop culture critique. He can be talking about Japan’s Tin Drum one moment, then the fall of Jimmy Saville in the next, and then some esoteric British TV drama later on — and yet it all has a sense of connection, deeply rooted in the space between the personal and the political, always tangential but never irrelevant. It established for me that ideas have their own infinitely-rhizomatous tangents and flows, each one as important and crucial as the last. The thrill is in finally being able to form these initially nebulous strands into semi-coherent statements, releasing them onto the world, and hoping the internet does not strike me down in a blaze of keyboard fury when I make a hot take, such as First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2018) possessing some very Trumpian hang-ups which take the form of a little red cap.

As such, I would like to indulge you in one of the more tenuous emotional connections that I consistently make. Listed below are a series of still images, each with a common personal meaning:

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Top-left to right: ‘Mon Oncle’ (dir. Jacques Tati), ‘Trees Down Here’ (dir. Ben Rivers), ‘Engram’ (dir. Toshuo Matsumoto), ‘Primer’ (dir. Shane Carruths). Bottom-left to right: ‘Songs from the Second Floor’ (dir. Roy Andersson), ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ (dir. David Lynch), ‘8 1/2’ (dir. Federico Fellini), ‘Playtime’ (dir. Jacques Tati).

Since I was young, I have possessed a strong abstract fascination with haunting architecture — buildings which emanate the uncanny; an uneasiness which is difficult to pin down. A regular setting in my dreams is the side-passage of a large industrial warehouse, usually on a cold grey day, and always with overgrown nettles and tall verdant bushes. That for me will always be creepier than a haunted house or a graveyard; a huge box of metal and concrete contrasted against thick green foliage. What may seem bizarre is that each of these images stir identical sentiments within me:

· Jacques Tati’s multi-story house from Mon Oncle, with its maze of winding staircases and portals — while no doubt testament to Tati’s sense of comedic visual expression — is entirely irrational, as if constructed from dream logic.

· Ben Rivers’ documentary Trees Down Here covers the same entanglements of concrete and nature, pairing the slow creep of life with the immovable bluntness of Brutalist architecture — the two in conversation.

· Toshuo Matsumoto’s Engram is perhaps the film where I have felt this uneasiness most as of late. The association of its subject to my emotional response is obvious, a Modernist building surrounded by trees and wildlife— but in twisting our perception through jarring cuts and an epileptic repetitive edit, it’s as if the horror behind the nightmare is realised: I can feel the horror in the shakes and instability. Fear is the lack of understanding, and Matsumo to knows how to conjure it out of formal manipulation. I saw this at a screening of Matsumoto’s short documentaries at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019, sat in a row of uncomfortable plastic chairs in the middle of The Leadmill’s cold re-purposed dancefloor — a climate which, no doubt, influenced things.

· Shane Carruth’s Primer is an odd one here — not so explicitly surrealist or formally confrontational, but certainly that image of vast grassland up against the blank corporate box in the back conjures a similar vein of feeling. And it is perhaps, peculiar as it is, the strongest image I retain from the film.

· Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor regularly employs these open dreary interiors, almost oppressively-miserable that disregard social realism and sublimate straight into theatrical doldrums. There is something uniquely excruciating about the sheer shallowness of the palette, about the cheek of bringing life to an otherwise dead place. There is movement there, amongst the ash.

· In fairness, this could apply to the entire series. However, the final moments of Twin Peaks: The Return stands out most for me in this context — the simple image of a colonial suburban house crushed by the contextual weight of the trauma, the inexplicable horror, and the fantastic displayed in the past 18 episodes.

· ‘s unfinished rocket ship looms above everything else. While it serves as a grand visual reminder of Guido’s own confused and undeveloped artistic and personal endeavours, for me, it works rather too well as a stand-in for the horrors of that architectural dread — a case of shapelessness, meaning in perpetual construction, and the crushing pressure for things to make sense.

· And finally back around to Tati, who’s office buildings in Playtime are a fascinatingly-absurd vision of the formulaic dullness of bureaucratic capitalism. Enough said.

On whatever level, and for whatever reason, these images return to the idea of dissonance. A creative dissonance that shapes itself as an amorphous emotion that creeps in every time I witness it — no matter how subtle, no matter how negligible. Fear of the unknown? The uncanny? That which I cannot control? Whatever name I choose to give it, I have grown to love it. I must accept that sensory chaos is fun. Yet here I must confront the oft-discussed idea of the sensory overload in autistic discourse. In my own autistic experience, the sensory overload is frequently misinterpreted; with many a neurotypical seeing it as a rejection of all sensory excess or excitement — an idea which I feel only reinforces the autistic stereotype of awkward shut-ins who lack empathy, thus Othering us as “aliens”. In my experience, the sensory overload can not be reduced down to just “too much of something going on” — rather, I see it as the multiplied stacking of moments beyond my own personal control. Allow me to illustrate — imagine you are Norville Barnes from the The Hudsucker Proxy (dir. Coen brothers, 1994) on his first day at Hudsucker Industries:

Before he’s even had the opportunity to understand what his job in the mailroom actually is, his boss is already yelling everything that can get his pay slashed, long-term employees are aggressively ordering him about, and his own clear confusion goes by unacknowledged. The insensitive workings of capitalism’s logistical underbelly manifests itself all around as a monotonous dance of grey/black/brown. This is my idea of an autistic sensory overload — but rather than the exaggerated scenario on play here, it is the same tone of personal oppression and lack of control in play within what would otherwise be ordinary circumstances for a neurotypical person. Going to a party with a friend where I don’t know anybody else, in a city I don’t know, with music I have no love for, with a hundred voices speaking and none of them to me—this is my Hudsucker mailroom. An understandably awkward situation, for sure, but with autism, the pressure is far greater — the anxiety can be debilitating, and our reactions atypical. I find it difficult to define the feeling of crippling social alienation as ‘chaotic’, precisely because it is the ‘order’ of things that I find to be foreign — alienating in its unspoken yet inflexible codes. Surrounding myself with overwhelming media, however? That is meditation, and it is in this private meditation that I can allow myself to confront the formally unusual/uncomfortable.

When I consume and write, I search for recognition not in the outwards acceptability of ordered neurotypical taste, but in the ability to confront it; to disassemble it; to question it. That is not to say that I do not appreciate order and symmetry — simply put, this is not the place to discuss it at length. The ideological aesthetics of symmetry and logic are vast and varied, but when used as an attack AGAINST asymmetry and the irrational, this forms the catalyst for creative fascism. Here, however, it is time for me to enjoy the arts that allow for the misfiring of logic — thriving on dissonance and disorder. In music, the abrasiveness of noise and the hypnosis of drone make more sense to me now than ever before. With a rather appropriate moniker, All Against Logic’s 2012–2017 begins with “This Old House Is All I Have”, a soul-inflected dance number with chasmic booms that crunch and hiss like a broken CD, but you carry on dancing regardless. Low’s ‘Always Trying to Work It Out’ from the album Double Negative thunders into a cathartic peak of sonic fuzz, crippled and distorted, as if the cold warehouses of modern online streaming services can barely contain it. Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs rides on fractured musical suggestions — jumpy patchwork samples while Earl’s hazed flows intrude like scratches on a vinyl’s surface; seemingly both out-of-place and right-at-home in both its digital and analogue existences. Then there’s Earth 2 which speaks for itself. For all of this, the same confrontational aesthetics I love can be found in some of my favourite pieces of cinema: Performance (dir. Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, 1970) / Beau Travail (dir. Claire Denis, 1999) / Zama (dir. Lucrecia Martel, 2017) / Safe (dir. Todd Haynes, 1995) / The Gleaners and I (dir. Agnes Varda, 2000) — just off the top of my head.

Contrary to what the assumptions of my autism suggest, I do not (and cannot) seek comfort in the normal because fundamentally there is not a whole lot to take true comfort in. I feel far safer and far more at home in the confines of a creative and social landscape that is open to chaos and dissonance, the abstract and the irrational. Rather than one that is so rigid; so top-down and sycophantic in the way it curates existence; and so often condescendingly neurotypical. It is one of authoritarian rationalism. Where Mark Fisher professed that ‘capitalist realism’ suggests that it has become a presumed impossibility to imagine a logical existence without capitalism, I’d likewise suggest a “neurotypical realism” — a social landscape which is perceived as being so natural and rational, so assumed as the norm, that the existence of those who question it are denied a voice; and thus we Other ourselves as freaks. I guess this extends elsewhere — as a part of why I find such dissatisfaction with such things as gender and labour (each with a degree of regretful submission). And though I will struggle to actually escape any of this, I can only hope that within my moments of privacy — as I prepare for life post-Master’s degree — I can keep on writing and continue to gorge on pop culture forever with this constant autistic dissatisfaction keeping me alive, aware, anarchistic, and angry.

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Dan E. Smith

Written by

MA Film and Film Cultures / BA Film Studies and Visual Arts grad. Editor of [MASS]: https://medium.com/massartspop / Letterboxd: https://boxd.it/1luTR/

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Dan E. Smith

Written by

MA Film and Film Cultures / BA Film Studies and Visual Arts grad. Editor of [MASS]: https://medium.com/massartspop / Letterboxd: https://boxd.it/1luTR/

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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