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'Autism, Film & Estrangement' - article on Science Fiction Research Association


The Autism Through Cinema Podcast & co-host David Hartley

Hot on the heels of his Blade Runner article, our podcast co-host David Hartley has published another article on the relationship between autism, film and the poetics of science-fiction. Here, Hartley states he has been inspired and led by the discussions he's been having over the previous year with his fellow podcast hosts Georgia Bradburn, Alex Widdowson, John-James Laidlow, Lillian Crawford and Ethan Lyon. He says:


The analysis is largely guided by the discussions that have taken place on the Autism Through Cinema Podcast, which I have co-hosted since May 2021 alongside fellow researchers and film fans. The podcast consists of conversations between the hosts and special guests, the majority of whom identify as autistic, and each episode focuses on a single film that has in some way resonated with the autistic way-of-being. This article is guided by these discussions to reflect on how estrangement operates in films where an autistic presence has been depicted or detected.

He goes on to suggest that the films considered on the podcast might be divided into two categories: 'autism films' where 'the explicit subject of the film is autism itself, or where autism plays a significant role in the plot', and 'autistic films' where 'the films themselves are in some way autistic, or at least are suffused with an autistic sensibility or aesthetic.' Making this subtle distinction, Hartley suggests, we can begin to consider how an autistic sensibility may change our consideration of which films qualify as being 'about autism'.


Using the term 'estrangement' from the study of science-fiction, his analysis turns to two 'autistic films' and two 'autism films' to examine how the presence of estrangement helps to evoke and explore the autistic experience. For the former category, he selects David Lynch's surreal horror Eraserhead, which we covered on episode 8 of the podcast, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk-Love, the film we considered way back on episode 1. For 'autism films', Hartley looks at the road movie Please Stand By starring Dakota Fanning, and the documentary Life, Animated, one of the films featured in our Barbican 'Autism and Cinema' season.


In conclusion, Hartley suggests that films that take on an 'autistic sensibility' can often provide a greater insight into the emotional experience of autism:


In autistic films, something different happens. Here, where autism is not foregrounded as the subject or the focus, the estranging strain of aesthetic rupture moves along with the characters into estranging space, where unnerving and spectacular things can subsequently happen. These moments also move non-autistic viewers into the autistic space of estrangement and therefore have the potential to generate more meaningful bridges into insight.

To read the full article, head over to the Science Fiction Research Association website. Do you have any thoughts on this article? Feel free to leave your comment under this post to join in the conversation.

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