Interview with Author Alec Frazier About Movies and Veni! Vidi! Autism!
Alec Frazier is a disability advocate and a movie fan and his new book, Veni! Vidi! Autism! is an exceptionally engaging collection of essays about both. I am very grateful to him for taking time to answer my questions about the book and his work on behalf of people with disabilities.
As I looked at your table of contents, of course the first chapter I turned to was called “Truly the Worst Film I Have Ever Seen.” Tell me what that film is, why it is the worst, and, if you could have given them advice about how to make it better, what you would have told them. Was there anything in the movie that wasn’t terrible?
The film was an MTV production starring Andy Samberg called “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”. It is a mockumentary based on these various documentaries following musical talents of their journeys of creativity. Andy Samberg’s character is the popstar in question, and his comedy troupe serves as the writers. I would say that the film is in bad taste, but there seems to be absolutely no taste in the film. It is horrifying and humiliating to watch. I am quite ashamed that they would think of putting it on screen. How do we make it better? Well, we can turn it into actual satire of modern-day pop musicians and our fixation with them. I seem to recall other mockumentaries like “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind” which seem to do that quite well. There is even a very entertaining humorous documentary on Tammy Faye Bakker called “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” which could have been used as a more realistic template. From another angle, Penn and Teller used to have a show called “Bullshit” where they satirized idiotic concepts by interviewing those involved in them and catching them in their stupidity. All of these ways of making documentaries or mockumentaries would be preferable to the absolutely tasteless drivel that we got instead. There are a few acting talents in the film that had the potential to be good but suffered from tremendously poor writing or their own lack of interest. In my opinion, the film is utterly unredeemable.
I was very touched by your essay about the Power Rangers. Why did you like them as a kid and what did it mean to you to have an autistic character in the recent film? What did you think about the portrayal of autism in the film?
To be honest, I am not even sure why I liked Power Rangers so much as a kid, other than liking the action and explosions! I stopped watching after a few years, but I grew up with the original cast. I am very thrilled with the new movie, because it is not just adventure, but there is plot development and character evolution as well. I have been around pop culture long enough to know about and critique disability portrayal. After all, a great amount of my book deals with it! I was already at the point where I knew of autistic characters in pop culture; my chapters on Tim Urich, the first autistic superhero from Marvel comics, deal with this major revelation to myself and my desire to share it with others. However, I had not seen a realistic autistic hero or more importantly, a superhero, portrayed in film until I saw Billy in the new Power Rangers film. In many ways, it was like watching myself! Billy displays many behaviors that I have had myself, even his counting of colored pencils, which I used to do in high school. Most importantly, it shows Billy with a group of friends from among his peers. It took me many years to develop friends amongst my peers.
Is there a movie or television show that you think portrays autism accurately?
Aside from Power Rangers, there are a few others. Alan Turing, the World War II code breaker who invented the computer, was homosexual but he was also autistic. The film “The Imitation Game” does not mention the latter but portrays it quite well. “Loving Vincent” is a wonderful film about Vincent van Gogh as told by those who cared for him most. It is also most noteworthy for being the first-ever completely oil painted film. When you listen to the accounts of van Gogh’s friends and family, it is quite clear that he has autism. As I mention in my Without Fear essay, autism doesn’t need to be mentioned in order to be present in a narrative. Of course, people were not aware of autism until the late 1940s, so of course it shouldn’t be mentioned in most historical narratives. As for television, Sylvia Tilly in Star Trek: Discovery often comes across as quite autistic, but that has not been officially revealed…as of yet. Forgive me, but I have yet to watch The Good Doctor, which is about an autistic young man who becomes a physician. I have watched the television series Westworld, and the characters of Dr. Ford and Bernard come across as quite autistic. Forgive me for spoiling the show, but Bernard is actually a robotic host who was patterned after Dr. Ford’s deceased business partner, Arnold. It would make sense if Arnold also had autism. In the case of Dr. Ford, the portrayal is only natural, as he is played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is autistic himself, and was diagnosed as such at age 70. One of the best portrayals of autism so far in pop culture has been the character of Tim Urich in the Daredevil comics I cover this portrayal heavily in my book and have talked to some major players at Marvel about it. They brought up my talking points about autism, disability, and comics at their annual planning meeting this year.
What do you wish people understood about autism?
There are many, many things that I wish people understood. I wish that people understood the great variety of people with autism. Some of us are nonspeaking, and some of us speak a lot. There are autistic conservatives and liberals, optimists and pessimists, and people of every race and gender identity. I find myself between extremes. I am not fundamentally conservative, and yet I believe in realism over hyper-politically correct culture. I consider myself an optimist, but I also temper my expectations with past and theoretical experience. Many of the more visible autistic activists are often busy waving placards and getting arrested for political change. Then again, on the other end of the spectrum, some of us stay home frequently. You will find me out and about trying to achieve political and social change by negotiating, meeting, and using diplomacy. I want people to know that autistic individuals are capable of all that I have previously mentioned, that we use a wide variety of methods for being in touch with the world around us.
On a more basic level, I want people to listen to us when making decisions about our lives. In 1505, the Polish Parliament passed constitutional legislation saying that they would have to be consulted in any decision about the public, thus taking the power away from the monarch. The bill was called Nihil novi, and included the Latin phrase, “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis”. Roughly translated, this means “Nothing about Us, without Us”. This has since become a motto for many groups and individuals in advocacy and activism. In fact, it is the URL for my website. As a rule of thumb, any individual or group of people deserves input into any decisions made about them. This includes autistic groups and individuals. Don’t get me wrong! Loving parents should be able to voice their concerns, but autistic individuals should always have power to decide our own destiny.
You seem to have a special affinity for low budget films. What is it about those films that appeals to you?
These films do not usually appeal to me any more than Hollywood films. However, for six years, I lived in Buffalo, New York, which has approximately fifty independent film studios. I was an active member of the creative culture in that town, which is absolutely booming. As such, I became very interested in independent films being made there. There were several screenings that I attended, often in support of friends of mine who made or were in the films. It was phenomenal to see such a tangible product of local arts and ingenuity. I have always been in favor of supporting local, independently made products. As such, I wanted to support these films, and I found that the best way of supporting them was by giving honest reviews on my blog and on film review sites. These reviews have since made their way to my book.
You’re a fan of the Twilight series. People seem very intensely pro and con the series. What is it that provokes such strong reactions? Which do you like better, the books or the movies?
You are right. Some people are incredibly appreciative of the Twilight Saga. In fact, I am friends with a great number of them. We hold meet ups, attend films together, and interact online quite frequently. These people, who are mostly women, are my dear friends. In fact, some of them are almost as close as family, and I have adopted one in Germany as my aunt and we have visited each other. Our strong feelings for Twilight come from the inescapable romance of the Saga, as well as the characters, plot, and feelings of empathy we have for the said characters. Twilight was never intended to be primarily about vampires. It is primarily a great romance story, with vampirism as a major plot element. Twilight fans, who are called Twilighters or Twihards, understand that. We also understand the great underlying feminism of the plot. Bella, the main character, is very determined to be with her love interest, Edward, and to become a vampire, and she gets what she wants. She even saves his life several times during the saga. Many of the facets of romance with a vampire are quite different than romance with a human, leading to a different dynamic and different actions, and Twilighters understand that.
However, a great deal of people have an irrational aversion to the series, even going so far as to insult and harass Twilighters. In fact, one time when I was quite emotionally distressed, I was told to kill myself because I like Twilight. If I may be brutally honest, in my opinion, many people, including women and people who may identify as feminists, are actually extremely afraid of the Saga because of how brazenly it depicts a powerful, self-determined female character, and because of the great, wondrous romance depicted in the Saga. Many people have an aversion to romance, especially idealized romance, because theirs can never measure up. I would even be as bold as to say that some hate the Saga because they believe that their love is inferior to that shown in Twilight. Furthermore, many people are disappointed that Twilight is not more action-oriented. Action was never the point of the Saga. Many are also disappointed that the mythology in Twilight, particularly the vampire mythology, is not consistent with a great deal of formerly established mythology. Do these people know that the modern concept of the vampire only dates back to Bram Stoker’s 1897 book Dracula? Do they know that many more established concepts of vampire mythology only date back as far as the 1922 film Nosferatu? Mythologies evolve over time, and Twilight even includes explanations for why its mythology is different. Nevertheless, the most hateful detractors of Twilight seem to be irrational and make it their goal to insult and even threaten those who do like the Saga. These threats, this hatred, this harassment and bullying will not stand. I know that my defense of the Saga is coming on strong, but we fans have been unjustly attacked over the years just for liking a good love story.
I have seen and loved the movies very much. I appreciate the casting choices and the camaraderie between the actors and the filmmakers. As for the books or the movies, I have read great portions of the books, but not the entire set of novels, because I have ADD, and my attention can’t hold that long. However, with the advent of the smart phone, I find myself pulled into the world of fanfiction, and I read that frequently. I appreciate the great many possibilities that the Saga allows, and how easy it is for fans to show their love for it by inventing new stories around it.
What is AvatarMeet? What do you like best about it? What are you hoping for in the next movie?
AvatarMeet is a group of people including myself who meet up each year to celebrate James Cameron’s film Avatar. We have a thriving online community, and I have been to two of the meet ups. One year, we met up in South California and went to Lightstorm entertainment, where we were given a tour of the studio, and also got to interview the filmmakers. The next time I went, last year, 2017, we went to the theme park in Florida, where we were given a tour by the head of public relations for Disney Imagineering. While there, we also went to the Kennedy Space Center, where I had a truly moving experience. You can read more about both experiences in my book. What I like best about AvatarMeet is the wonderful group of friends all over the world who love this film universe, and the ideals that it promotes. I have met truly kindred spirits through AvatarMeet. In the future films, I hope that we continue experiencing the messages of diversity that were in the first film. In the first film, the main character had a disability. While I was at Lightstorm, I got to personally question producer Jon Landau about diversity and the messages of the film, and he assured me that these facets of storytelling would be promoted in the narrative going forward, and we have already seen results. I include my interview with Jon in my book.
Why was Love, Simon especially meaningful to you?
Love, Simon was especially meaningful to me and to millions of others because it mainstreams LGBTQ romance. It is the first mainstream teen romantic comedy about a gay person falling in love. There is absolute love for this film and endless positive feeling amongst those who have watched it. There is a Facebook page dedicated to fans of the film which has optimistic followers around the globe. Many people in the world do not yet have the freedom to love who they wish in public. This helps give them hope. In addition, watching the film with my family members and friends helps open the dialogue about my own coming out, and I have heard that hundreds of people have come out to their families while watching this film. This is truly feel-good way to start conversation about a very important topic. The motto of the film is, “Everyone Deserves a Good Love Story,” and finally it is out in the open for everyone to see.
I should mention that my family and friends have all been extremely accepting of my coming out, and I realized that I am lucky in this way. In the film, Simon has many moments with his family that remind me of moments with my own. In addition, despite initial bumps, his friends are very accepting of him, as mine have been. Heck, my friends have been known to introduce me with the following sentence: “Yeah, this is our gay, autistic friend Alec. He’s weird, and very smart! Once you get to know him, he’ll be your dear friend, too! He’ll never betray you.” Yes, someone once actually said that. Actually, multiple people have said some variation of that sentence. As an autistic person who did not have authentic friends for much of his life, I treasure my friends’ opinions of me greatly!
What is Autistic Reality? What are your priorities? What are you proudest of?
Autistic Reality is my advocacy firm. Through it, I focus on advocacy via public speaking, peer mentoring, lobbying, and other consulting services. Soon, Autistic Reality will have a podcast as well. In it, I will be interviewing people from many walks of life, including disability advocates, actors, artists, and others, about their points of view on the disability cause. In addition, we are getting set up as a publishing imprint, with the goal of getting works by authors with disabilities into the world at large, something we, the disabled population, have usually struggled with. Currently, I am working on this last point with BBDO New York, the world’s largest and most prestigious advertising agency. As part of that job, I am the managing editor of Stories About Us, which is beginning the work of publishing disabled authors, so that I may continue it afterwards. In addition to all this, I promote my book in meetings, such as with Marvel editorial, and at various pop-culture conventions. Soon, I will be giving a talk at a creative writing conference on turning disability into a creative asset. I am always looking for wonderful new opportunities to present and share disability advocacy and information.
I consider myself and my firm’s work to be quite liberal, but still relatively moderate compared to some disability rights activists. For myself, I actually prefer the term “advocate” instead of “activist”. Although I can sometimes support more radical work, I am not one of the people who tends to get arrested or make a lot of public noise for our cause. Sometimes making a spectacle of yourself can decrease your credibility with certain parties. I prefer negotiation, diplomacy, and a sharing of ideas. Even with the people I disagree with most, I try to understand them, and how they think. In this way, we can better promote the disability agenda.
On a side note, I do not believe in posting politics or much religion on Facebook. I post relevant politics on my firm’s Facebook page, or on my book’s Facebook page, but the lack of politics on my page is actually my relationships and discourse much more civil for years.
These factors help inform my firm’s priorities, by approaching disability advocacy and advocacy in general with a realistic yet optimistic eye towards what can be achieved, and how to achieve it. For example, I do not get hung up on whether people say, “disabled person” or “person with disability”. This is not a huge priority for me. Solving problems like transportation access, access to benefits, education, workforce reform, and representation in the arts are much more important to me.
What am I proudest of? I really do not like to toot my own horn very much. Every time someone tells me I have improved the conditions of their life, I feel like I am achieving my goal. Awards do not mean much to me. Making a noticeable difference does.