Planning ahead and being fearless: what I learned from The Grand Budapest Hotel

I wanted to tell the story of how, and why, I learned that planning is a Good Thing.
I should say, to begin with, that I’m a work in progress. I’m still quite scared of planning, which is because I’ve never really… done it very much. I live mostly in the present. If asked to plan something out in detail I would do so, but it takes a lot of work to make the plan correspond with reality. Aged 10, playing Carmageddon on the computer with my brother, I usually ignored the map and drove around the desert till I reached the fuzzy edge of the world. This is what I’m working with.
So, anyway: last summer, I fell in love with Wes Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I downloaded the soundtrack, thought about it often, recommended it to other people frequently, all that jazz. It was odd. Grand Budapest isn’t the most substantial movie in terms of storytelling, emotional message or morals. It has problems of race representation that I won’t go into here.
Really, it was the craft that hooked me in: the gorgeous set design, the camera work, the music. The film is a series of little artificial worlds where everything is detailed, sharp, clean, and done right first time. One reviewer wrote: “The jeopardy Gustave and Zero escape from over and over again is presented like a Tintin comic strip.”
I was watching a lot of films at the time. Partly, it was because I was actively figuring out how I processed the world.
I’d realised I wasn’t interested in films for dialogue, because often I couldn’t process all the dialogue in a film on first viewing. I hear it, but films provide so much sensory stimulus that the dialogue becomes another soundtrack, which blurs together into a sound akin to the trombone noises made by Charlie Brown’s teacher.
I found out I liked watching foreign language films, because with knowledge of the storyline, you were free to concentrate on the visual and aural world unfolding in front of you. Whilst watching, small details jump out at you: the wings of a butterfly, the icing on top of a cake, the colour coding, a man in the background carrying a statue. (This beautiful essay on the visual language of Pacific Rim explains more about alternative ways to process films.)
Because of my lack of attention, I frequently lose track of what’s going on; my family still teases me for getting out my phone in the cinema while we were watching Inception, which I found completely incomprehensible. But there were some films I’ve seen, like Annie Hall, which are dialogue-heavy but completely understandable. Somehow, they bypass the part of my brain that doesn’t process dialogue.
Then there’s the 1960s film Daisies – a surreal movie where two witchy beauties gasp out non sequitur lines of dialogue like spells. (“Die! Die! Die!”) Again, somehow, on first viewing Daisies went straight to a part of my brain that wordlessly… got things.
I have never had the instinct to find a logical explanation for things unfolding around me, which was maybe why I connected with Daisies so well. The film was just a series of moments blossoming outwards.
I connected with the visual storytelling of Grand Budapest. But 
I was also watching films for their craft – absorbing how they told stories and built up worlds.
In a world where many mainstream films are made quickly and look generic, it struck me as brave to spend so much time on constructing Grand Budapest. To make something so fiendishly, gloriously elaborate.
Artists like Anderson, who have the ability to plan ahead in detail and envision a completely articulated world, are astonishing to me.
In a previous post, I wrote about how growing up with ADD has affected my perceptions, how I didn’t feel left behind in class, but like I was “speeding ahead, flying from A to Z” while my classmates plodded from A to B. “Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.”
This, of course, affects how I make things, too: stories, essays, poems, cartoons. I often think in broad brush strokes and big pictures, not in terms of small details.
The problem I was fighting whilst watching Grand Budapest was, I realise now, that I felt (and feel) scared a lot of planning ahead – of thinking in extensive detail when sketching out new work. Of taking the time to create something that elaborate.
It was a two-pronged problem.
One: I was worried that if I planned too much, something bad would happen and I’d never get time to do the thing I was planning.
Two: I know how distractable I am. I figured that if I planned too much instead of doing, nothing would get done.
Living with ADD is like living with a very excitable, impulsive friend. “Oh, you’re working on that thing? Awesome. Anyway, I got tickets for Disneyland, let’s go! Now!! RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!!” And off we go.
In December I spoke to a counsellor at uni about this. She asked me, “Why don’t you prioritise your tasks?”
I replied: “Because I have a terrible fear of something bad happening, so I do as many things as I can in case I get hit by a car tomorrow.”
Long story short: on January 9th, on my first day back after Christmas, I walked into New Cross and got hit by a car.
It’s a lot less dramatic than it sounds; I fell over, got straight back up again, and got a lift home from the driver.
Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt at all. Nor did I straight away decide to change my whole life.
Instead, after the accident, I found myself making small incremental changes.
An important change happened when I realised my fear of the Bad Thing was actively stopping me from doing anything.
I then had to sit the excitable friend down, as it were, and tell them: “Wes Anderson would never have made that movie if he was jumping from A to Z all the time and worrying about the Bad Thing. Artists have to love the letters in between. Please, just assume that you have today to figure things out.”
Like I said before, ADD makes you live in the present a lot of the time. But most artists need space and time to make art. Clearing this time and space, in a world that is always demanding our time and attention, is revolutionary. Focusing on detail and craft is revolutionary.
Which is my small realisation.
Thanks, Wes Anderson.


Turing: Why Benedict Cumberbatch should stop talking about disability

(or at least read up on it. See disclaimer.)

Just before I went to see The Imitation Game, I read that Alan Turing had been retroactively diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m very wary about any Hollywood films featuring people with any disability at all, especially people who are on the Autistic spectrum. But I was willing to be convinced, and excited to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s big performance. I watched it not as a tragedy, or the story of a gay man in a homophobic world, but as the story of Alan Turing: brilliant, Autistic, gay, human.
And the film made me so happy.
I felt it was a beautiful tribute. Cumberbatch’s acting is versatile enough to capture Turing’s complex character; he gives us the sense of a brilliant mind working away beneath the facade. His performance is the focus of the film – I think it’s fantastic, possibly Oscar-worthy. And: at no point did I ever, ever doubt that he was playing an Autistic character. Actually, I forgot that he was acting at all.
But after all that, I was upset a few days later to see how Benedict Cumberbatch actually feels when he’s asked if his characters are Autistic. Rather than being delighted that so many fans identify many of his characters as being on the spectrum, (Sherlock, Turing, and even the pilot Martin Crieff in Cabin Pressure) Cumberbatch seems annoyed:

“People talk about me doing that quite a lot and that being a good thing for people who are on the spectrum, which is great. But… I’m very wary of that, because I’ve met people with those conditions. It’s a real struggle all the time. Then these people pop up in my work and they’re sort of brilliant, and they on some levels almost offer false hope for the people who are going through the reality of it.”

First off, what I don’t understand is how BC can honestly think that there is “no hope” for any Autistic people – an enormous range of people, of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Autistic people are human. There is hope for every human being, no matter how “disabled” they appear to be, or how much help they require; and assuming someone automatically has less hope because of their neurology is enormously patronising.
There’s also the assumption that Autistic people can’t be “sort of brilliant”. Not only is it nonsensical, it invalidates that Turing was retroactively diagnosed in real life, and that many other intellectually brilliant people have been diagnosed as Autistic. And who knows how many more Autistic people – brilliant or not – have been institutionalised, ignored, or even killed, just because people can’t communicate with them or it is “too much work” to look after them? It’s truly heartbreaking.
And knowing how important positive representation is, it seems so irresponsible of Cumberbatch to write off and patronise a section of his fanbase. It contributes to a culture of ignorance and bigotry, whether he’s aware of that or not.

Secondly, it’s incredible that he can hold such narrow-minded views and yet play characters on the Autistic spectrum – Sherlock, Turing – so beautifully.
Tumblr is (or was) full of posts by Autistic fans who praise his acting for its precise physicality: every tic and finger stim appears completely natural. Sherlock and Turing would be easy to present as stereotypes, but his characterisation makes them into people. His characters’ movements echo their personalities: in Sherlock his graceful leaps, spins, and almost acrobatic movements showed a character who was always ten steps ahead of everyone else. In The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch’s facial expressions, his posture, his terse delivery, the way he delivers flashes of emotion and shows his character concentrating hard on being liked by others, builds up an image of an Autistic human being at work in the real world.
It’s doubly surprising because usually, creators’ prejudices inevitably show up somewhere in their work. It’s probably a stretch to say unpleasant creators make unpleasant work (Roald Dahl was anti-Semitic and classist, but I still enjoyed Matilda as a kid), and actors are collaborative by nature, mostly speaking words that aren’t their own. But it seems bizarre that someone who holds such ableist views can provide such sensitive, nuanced portrayals of Autistic people.
Mostly, I’m disappointed. So much more could be made of this situation. Instead Cumberbatch has left people upset, saddened, and wondering whether to watch his next film. Not impressive.

(Disclaimer: I have never been diagnosed as Autistic. I consider Autistic people my disability siblings, and wanted to do them justice in this post. There is so much ableist writing about Autism in the media that I wanted to contribute positively in some way.)