From culture

notes on maniac (2018)

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[spoilers]

retrofuturism and mental illness

Cary Fukunaga’s Maniac (2018) is a visual journey that takes us along multiple planes of expedition. Leading separate lives in the same retro-futuristic universe, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) are involved in the latter stages of a pharmaceutical trial for a drug that strives to rid the mind of trauma and disorder, yet Annie and Owen continually find themselves connected as the trial removes them further and further from their known realities. Each episode takes its audience through allegorical storylines that in their isolation begin to unify midway through the series, as they begin to coexist as a side effect of the trial and of a deeper bond between the two protagonists. The episodes, Annie and Owen and the characters they conceptualise represent some of the ways we see and try to understand mental illness and human connection.

As the series progresses, the pharmaceutical trial becomes limited as the setting to which all characters are tethered, an important backdrop but a backdrop all the same. The more realised setting and the more striking sites of exploration are the fragmented stories that are manifest during the drug experiences, the ones that somehow connect Annie and Owen on their respective ‘reflections’ and evidence the system’s refusal to keep the characters separate.

The series as a whole is (deliberately or not) an attempt at a visual display of how mental illness is complex, to say the least. Even in this futuristic universe, Maniac seems to suggest that pharmacy and psychotherapy are far from successful at navigating the intricacies of the mind. Within its sci-fi realm, including the retrofuturism in the early episodes such as the AdBuddys, Maniac moves beyond sci-fi as sci-fi for its own sake. We instead begin to simultaneously orient sci-fi alongside its exploration of mental illness, almost as if the technology within this retrofuturistic world permits and gives structure to a creative vision of mental illness, one that without this alternative universe would be rendered invisible, untracked. Maniac is just that, a vision, a vision through technology and augmented realities and versions of realities that allow characters to navigate, or at least witness, their own psyches within the regimented pharmaceutical trial as a facilitator.

What could be seen as arbitrarily futuristic, or ill-expressed when dealing with issues such as mental illness is up for speculation. Maniac is merited for its unusual and therefore alternative way of presenting mental illnesses. In this overtly fictional universe, can Maniac’s vision be held responsible for its portrayals and potential inaccuracies of mental illness if the vision itself is retro-futuristic? If, despite its warmth and familiarity, the entire universe of Maniac, outside the trial, is somewhat removed from our known reality in which these discussions are held?

The series’ potential flaw is its bundling of many ideas and philosophical takes on the mind. Maniac seems to say a lot about mental illness, encouraging important conversation from its audience. But because of the retrofuturistic setting, it is hard to dichotomise the series’ take on mental illness as nonsensical at best or offensive at worst. Regarding the universe in which it is set, it is unsurprising that Maniac was once a comic. The characters feel caricatured and therefore don’t promote much realism to the audience; nothing feels that ‘realistic’ compared to other series that try to explore mental illness. But perhaps the cartoonishness, the glorified visuals and futuristic technologies that humour the series and what we are given as reality, can actually help us to understand our own. Perhaps the retrofuturistic setting is just an alternative way to stomach these big, impenetrably difficult ideas surrounding mental illness and human connection. The series doesn’t try to compartmentalise the mind into easy, definitive disorders, in fact, it presents us with equally as complicated and abstract technology (Greta the conscious, empathetic computer) as a means to understand the minds of the subjects. In its absurdity there is some reason, Maniac is not condemning current treatments and remedies of mental illness familiar to its audience today, it is showcasing an invented, fictional system (that notably fails) as a cure.

Before the credits roll during the final episode we are given adventurous sentimentality, Annie and Owen chased out of the psychiatric ward car park by security and wardens, driving away in Annie’s father’s (Hank Azaria) truck. With their future unknown, the end rounds off the series with a sense of incompleteness which is endearing and fitting for the show’s overall messages: the trial did not work and no one is ‘fixed’, but people are (either in reality or in their own understanding of it) at least in the process. The trial, then, did achieve something. In its malfunction, creating a duality between Annie and Owen’s reflections, Annie and Owen found each other and thereby ways of coping with the real world, respectively.

A lot is contained in these ten episodes, and perhaps the ideas it explores should have been more fleshed out across longer episodes. But there is a kind of resolution, a cyclical satisfaction when the tenth episode ends. We do not witness an obnoxiously successful riddance of mental illness like the series initially seemed to preclude to, we are instead given a story of connected strangers in a time and place which is distant yet close in subject matter to our own environment, and in that simplification, it is triumphant.

 

 

saved! (2004): satirising 00s fashion

Saved! (2004) is a criminally underrated translation of high school experience, friendship and faith and the fabric that weaves them all together. Although it is surprisingly unknown, at least in relation to the fame and popularity of some of its lead actors (Jena Malone, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit), it withholds its status as a cult classic fourteen years on for its wit and absurdity in navigating classically adolescent themes in a universe of hyperbolic Christian stereotypes.

In a similar thread to Donnie Darko (2001), Malone’s more famous role, the high school setting is in itself a site of satire and humour beyond bestowing structural integrity for the plot. In Saved!, the teachers are eccentric, the sex education classes are conservative (‘good Christians don’t get jiggy with it until they’re married’), and the assemblies are demonstratively ‘hyper-Christian’ in every caricature imaginable.

In exploring topics such as teen pregnancy, virginity, abortion, faith and homosexuality, Saved! attempts to navigate and unearth the connections between these topics, namely, through a stereotypically-radical-Christian lens rather than in their own right. And this navigation can be mapped against the fashion as worn by characters. Other than being entirely and incredibly 00s (all the way down to velour two-piece tracksuits and low rise jeans), the style reinforces its time and setting of exploration: teenagehood, specifically, through satire and an attempt to decipher what it means to stay true to one’s own faith for teenager Mary (Jena Malone).

Angel wings are paired with velour tracksuits, worn by the supposedly ‘most pious’ characters (ie, the ones who don’t fall pregnant). An Emmanuel ‘eye for an eye’ t-shirt is worn by Mary as she practices at a shooting range. An oversized Christmas jumper hides Mary’s baby bump at the mall. And what is most quintessentially 00s, the gold Christian Jewel pin that a select few girls wear to school. Not only does the pin highlight the satirical idea of exclusivity in faith, a sense of hierarchy, but it is also something you’d probably see repurposed in 2018, reading instead: Baby or Angel or Leave Me Alone.

Saved!’s satirisation of 00s fashion becomes comparable to films such as Clueless (1995) which seem to summatively embody 90s culture for middle-class teenage girls. In Saved! we see fashion captured at the moment it was taken (2004), but with a visual display of the perspective, and position of commentary, of the film itself. We are given another script, another dialogue altogether in the clothes we watch. When Mandy Moore’s character Hilary Faye shouts ‘I am filled with Christ’s love’, it is more impactful that she wears angel wings and throws a bible at Mary’s head. The fashion and visual, sartorial language relocates the film’s religious criticism to a place of humour, rendering it less offensive with its stereotypes and more witty, contemporary and fashionably genius.

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demystifying james joyce’s ulysses

James Joyce’s modernist epic follows Leopold Bloom around public and private spaces of Dublin over the course of one day; as he eats, drinks, wanders, masturbates, watches and interacts with others.

It was published in full during 1922, the same year that the poem that sought to define 20th-century anxiety (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) was also published. Eliot and Joyce express a similar sense of anxiety: the form of Ulysses and The Waste Land are examples of fragmentation, symbolising a time of literary revival, rebirth.

It celebrates its centenary in 2022, and today, the general consensus remains that Ulysses is the undisputed champion of the modernist movement and of 20th-century prose. But for a novel of such high status, its acclaim and its reputational necessity (‘it is a must-read before you die’ according to many), it is infamously avoided. Perhaps this is due to its precedence for being nonsensically experimental to the point of reader-isolation, or the disproportion of its size and subject matter (730 words to describe one day).

Below are some features of Ulysses that can help debunk the myths that keep it at arm’s length for its inaccessibility.

 

it can be navigated as a human body

Joyce describes Ulysses as ‘among other things… an epic of the human body.’ This synopsis is useful for the navigation of the novel’s structure. Joyce was aware that his novel is a difficult, experimental read so he devised what he called the Gilbert Schema to assist the reader’s experience and perspective of the text. The episodes are tracked by the time of day, their symbols, colour, and literary trope.

Many episodes also have an affiliated organ that is connected to the ways in which the episode is written, for example, Lestrygonians is written in a peristaltic form as it describes mastication and digestion. Penelope, the final episode and one I later pay closer attention to, is described as a ‘female monologue’ and its associated organ is flesh to emphasise sensuality and femininity.

 

 

its non-linearity makes it a non-commitment to read

There is a kind of plot but it is mainly mundane, and as Leopold is essentially a flâneur (a man who saunters around observing society) the plot prioritises movement and bodily experience moment to moment above remaining faithful to a beginning, middle and end.

It was first serialised in the American journal The Little Review which explains its perplexing nonlinearity. Although this does complicate and deconstruct the typical reader experience, it does mean that it can be opened to any episode without obstructing the overall effect. 

 

 

it experiments with a variety of literary forms

Most episodes are written with staccato punctuation to characterise Leopold’s perspective as his own kind of language. There is however a break from this form in the final episode, an episode that is fluid and unpunctuated as it explores an alternative perspective: Leopold’s wife, Molly. Perhaps the distinct styles speak to a kind of gender/character distinction, dichotomising ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ narratives in their style.

There is also medieval and Shakespearean tropes in the language of the Library episode (Scylla and Charybdis), an episode that self-consciously focuses on literature. Ulysses’ exploration with forms past and present means that each episode can be expected to read differently from the last and to the next, creating a disjointedness in reading the text linearly.

 

 

it has its own birthday that is celebrated every year

Bloomsday, named after Leopold Bloom, celebrates Joyce and Ulysses every year on the 16th of June (the date on which the novel is set). The celebrations started in Dublin but have expanded to cities such as London and New York as well. People dress in Edwardian costume and there is often readings of passages from Ulysses, and in Dublin, there are pub crawls around the city, including the places Leopold explores in the novel.

 

 

henri matisse made etchings for the 1935 edition

Henri Matisse provided etchings for the 1935 publication of Ulysses. As shown below, the illustrations depict a sense of fluidity and speed and the drawings themselves look as though they were done very quickly and spontaneously. They are hardly an epic, Renaissance style painting one would associate with a novel of such epic proportions and Homeric influence.

Perhaps this speaks directly to the humour of the novel itself: the absurdity of a 730 page novel spanning one day. 

The etchings are continuous lines, no breaks, much like the novel’s reluctance to leave few gaps, every second accounted for and drawn out. They forebode Joyce’s linear playfulness within Ulysses, as a faithful representation of reality, of one day.

 

 

it contains one of the most captivating monologues of 20th-century literature: molly’s monologue (Penelope)

It’s a subject of controversy that Joyce included such an intimately sensual experience of womanhood. Joyce’s own wife Nora hated it. However, its placement at the end of the novel, after 600 pages of masculinised, violent, bodily, grotesque representation from the viewpoint of Leopold, Penelope (known more commonly as Molly’s monologue) ends the novel with a sense of beauty.

It is graphic. The passage explores experiences of breastfeeding and sex and menstruation, captured in eight long unpunctuated sentences. Some say this structure is like a menstrual flow in itself, which links to the Gilbert Schema and the exercise of reading the novel as a human body.

“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another… then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

– James Joyce, Ulysses, ‘Penelope’, 1922

It is interesting to critique the ethics of this passage whilst enjoying its unmediated, stream-of-consciousness style, in a kind of multitasking exercise.

If any section of Ulysses is read in isolation, I think it should be this one. Although it is the least like the other episodes, it speaks to, or attempts to speak to, a feminine vision of modernist writing that feels essential to the movement as a whole, and whether or not it fails or succeeds to articulate femininity is part of its intrigue.

 

‘high school’ films: a modern renaissance

In his MTV interview at Toronto International Film Festival 2018, Timothée Chalamet speaks to Josh Horowitz about his experiences filming Beautiful Boy (2018) and what it means to be a young actor today. It can be seen here.

He says,

“What was amazing last year was that I felt like audiences are yearning, thirsty for films that feel urgent and relevant, that they can connect with and not the same, not literally, some of the same stories done again and again and again…

I feel that urgency now. I dont know if literally or economically, if you can point to it in numbers, the film industry.. but the road maps, the studio system is not there anymore. Beautiful Boy is an Amazon film, the first film I worked on last year was a Netflix film, I think it’s kind of great that there’s a return to the mid-budget movie now.

In the 80s and 90s, and obviously through the 2000s, there was a lot of great independent films. But then I think through the late 2000s there was this kind of transition, and that’s why I’m not envious of being 22 at that time and I’m grateful to be at this age now, it’s such an interesting time in film and in TV.”

At the end of TIFF 2018, ideas that attempt to define and navigate contemporary film are expectedly in orbit. Chalamet speaks to some of these ideas, the rebirth of the mid-budget movie for example, and his gratitude for being 22 years old now as opposed to ten years ago, as another.

What is clear from the last few years of cinema is that we now face a modern renaissance that is for, and driven by, young people. For example, the sudden exponential growth of the Netflix film has propelled the rebirth of coming-of-age movies, and in particular, ‘high school’ movies, a sort-of-subgenre that has not been truly revisited and reclaimed since Mean Girls (2004) and Superbad (2007) established their cultural impact in the early to mid-2000s. Now, with films such as The Edge of Seventeen (2016) as the earliest example, and Netflix films To The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) and Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018) as the most recent, there is a kind of resurgence and redefining of what being a teenager post-2010’s entails.

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Chalamet calls this gap, this mid-2000’s-to-now epoch, a ‘transition’, implying a process or transformation rather than a death and rebirth. This transitional period was a period in which ‘high school’ films (and coming-of-age films more broadly) failed to produce the same cultural impact as their predecessors. After decades of films that spoke to entire generations, from the John Hughes 80’s filmography to 90’s classics such as Clueless (1995), there seemed, by the late 2000’s to now, to be a period of quiet. Films such as 17 Again (2009), Bandslam (2009), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and Project X (2012) are just a few examples of ‘high school’ films that have left little referential impact on film culture, or at least to the same extent as Superbad or Mean Girls.

Easy A (2010) is one example that I do think succeeds as a ‘high school’ vision with lasting cultural impact from a period of transition. But even then, Easy A self-consciously relies on tropes of the past and future: it is a love-letter to 80’s ‘high school’ movies structured by modern vlogger-style confessionals. The finale itself is the interruption of a confessional video by Todd serenading Olive with The Breakfast Club (1985) anthem ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ playing outside her window. In essence, the champions of the transitional period rely on being technologically modern or nostalgic and retrospective, or both.

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Only recently, in their current resurgence, are ‘high school’ films beginning to repossess the ability to impact their audiences and shape contemporary culture. And only now, with enough distance from the transitional period, are we able to try and understand why films between 2008-2013(ish) failed to create the same cultural phenomena and buzz that modern (2015 onwards) ‘high school’ films inspire.

Recent ‘high school’ films, such as the aforementioned Netflix group, may not possess the same referential impact as Superbad or Mean Girls, two of the most quoted and essential teenage films for their cultural gravitas, but they have indefinitely become a spectacle; an object for praise, critique and discussion. There is an alternative cultural power in how much they are discussed that compensates for whatever they lack. Maybe this power lends itself to the existence of websites like Twitter and Letterboxd that appear to have replaced Tumblr. Young people no longer spend hours making thumbnail collages and gifs to pay homage to their new favourite film. Instead, they spend their time tweeting and reviewing films in a community, thus films’ impact is greater, more dialogic and much more quantifiably traceable. Essentially, these modern ‘high school’ films are not just contemporary in subject matter and style, they are spectacles within a culture that loves to discuss, review and share film in a way that moves beyond isolated viewership.

 

Enough time has passed that there is now a clear distinction between the pre-transition and the post-transition epochs. Despite their distinctions, however, modern additions (2015 onwards) to the high school canon do to some extent feel inspired by some, if not many, of the same tropes of their predecessors. Perhaps this is because many of the creatives who grew up watching the 90’s and 2000’s high school films are now making high school movies themselves. From watching and growing up alongside a vision of 90’s and 2000’s high school, they have perhaps inherited the exercise of translating their own high school experiences into film, in a kind of generational inevitability, a rite of passage.

Mid90s (2018), written by Jonah Hill, premiered at this year’s TIFF and established itself as a film of critical acclaim. Jonah Hill is a fitting example of the kind of individual involved in the catalysation of the modern renaissance of coming-of-age cinema. From starring in Superbad in 2007, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg who began writing the script when they themselves were only 13, to now having written his own coming-of-age film that centres around skate culture in LA. There is a kind of pass-over, of the cultural tools by which to create a film, that allows such a personal yet inspired, individual yet relatable take on teenagehood.

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If we can predict anything for the next few years, it is that the modern renaissance will continue and more ‘high school’ films will be in circulation. Now, for perhaps the first time, there are more voices, from all angles, in range. Because of platforms like Twitter and Letterboxd, there are spaces in which viewer and filmmaker are in symbiosis. With the creation and discussion of ‘high school’ films, we are aided by hindsight, of the transitional period, combined with the means to share our responses with entire online communities. We are able to participate in a discourse that we now know is in itself necessary to propel films into lasting cultural resonance.

john berger and susan sontag on story-telling

In their 1983 Talk to Me (which can be seen here), artist and art critic John Berger and writer, philosopher, essayist and filmmaker Susan Sontag deliberate each other’s, and articulate their own, versions and definitions of the art of story-telling.

Sontag claims that at the ‘very centre of the whole enterprise of story-telling there is the fact that story-telling is an activity that faces in two directions’: truth, on one hand, invention on the other. Berger posits that the story ‘sits somewhere between fiction and truth’ but must, for him, begin as truth.

Berger believes that story-telling is fundamentally a merging of subjectivities, specifically, three subjectivities (of the story-teller, the protagonists, and the reader) in necessary connection and relation to each other.

Sontag disagrees. She claims that, as a writer, she cannot feel the subjectivity of the reader. Perhaps this lends itself to the fact that she believes that there is a distinction between hearing a story and reading one, critiquing the foundation upon which Berger’s story-telling tradition relies.

Berger posits an oral experience in which subjectivity originates and exists, using the analogy of a child listening to a story and experiencing a cooperative subjectivity of being both teller, listener, and participant of the story. Sontag believes that there is a distinction between listener and reader, between literary and oral, modern and primal traditions. Sontag elaborates on her disagreement with Berger’s subjectivities by suggesting that once people began to write stories down, moving beyond oral transmission, they began to write ‘different kinds of stories’ altogether, that there was a ‘radical break with the oral tradition’, that the art of writing is not just an ‘addition of art’ but an ‘expansion’. Writing allows more for the story-teller. To write down is to expand and modify what can be said due to the resources of print. It’s far richer to ‘read with the eyes as opposed to hear with the ears’, she says.

Berger believes that regardless of whether a story is heard or read, the reader makes constant jumps. Like a film or montage, there is a constant process of editing in the art of storytelling. Subjects change from sentence to sentence and we, as reader or listener, are constantly relocated. We are continuously carried elsewhere as the story unfolds. And this exercise from the writer depends on how they believe the reader or listener will react. They make constant assumptions and these assumptions are eventually taken for granted, and a kind of complicity is born between listener and speaker, reader and writer.

For Berger, story-telling is a ‘rescue operation’, or a shelter ‘against that endless terrifying space in which we live’, or as he also calls it, the Absurd. For Sontag, story-telling ‘enlargens our imagination’ instead, and introduces us to the terrifying space, the Absurd, in which we live.

Check out the full conversation here.

navigating joan didion’s sense of nothingness and nihilism in 2018

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Joan Didion by Jerugen Teller for Celine S/S 2015. (R) Joan Didion by Julian Wasser.
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Joan Didion and her prized Stingray, Los Angeles, 1968
Photograph by Julian Wasser

“I had…a technical intention…to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all”  — Didion

Joan Didion’s beautiful and unnerving ‘Play It As It Lays’ (1970) speaks to raw and intimate dialogues of existence. 48 years on, the novel provides a map by which to navigate some existential questions of the present day. The novel follows protagonist Maria through a visual narrative of cinematic episodes in which LA, a sense of crisis and modes of emptiness are conceptualised.

In the barren landscape of the LA desert and freeways, Didion navigates isolation and empty space in abundance. In 2018, Didion’s language seems evermore profound for its exact depiction of nothingness. It is the space she describes, and her occupation within that space as a fatalistic mode of being (in which humans are essentially powerless), that speaks to a kind of pessimism in 2018. When reading ‘Play It As It Lays’, the connections to the modern day are striking, and voids the text of befitting the cliche that all novels in some sense predict or confirm a universality of human nature. Her impact feels different from Dickens’ stratified working class or Orwell’s dystopia, concepts that circulate academic discussion for their relevance today. Didion’s link to the present feels far more prevalent for its exact emptiness and nothingness. The spaces she leaves, the gaps within the structure of the text, actually somehow communicate as much about individual experience than what is said.

Didion communicates such a sense of emptiness in her work, in the episodic structure of the text and the minimal plot provided, that it becomes almost impossible to discuss. How can one discuss the lack of in a text? The emptiness? Didion raises similar questions artists today find themselves asking. How can we speak to the present day and verbalise any of this experience without relying on the tropes of a movement? The early Romantics didn’t call themselves Romantics at the time. What are we and how and when do we find out?

Didion’s text, published in 1970, speaks clearly to some social contexts. The freeways and the coca-colas as examples of modernity and consumerism that provide her relief and Maria’s abortion speaks to ideas of feminism and autonomy. What is said then, definitely does speak to her contemporary environment. But more interestingly, Didion plays with empty space to speak to themes of nihilism and fatalism, ideas that seem relevant today in the process of creating art. Perhaps within these spaces, we, as a modern audience, fill the gaps as we read. And perhaps that is the crux of Didion’s novel, its inclusion and reliance on the empty spaces to be read and navigated with as much detail as the prose. In the process of navigating her own experience of 1970, Didion finds the technical inclusion of emptiness as vital as the narrative, and perhaps this speaks directly to the sense of immobility found within existing in the present. In 2018, we can adopt this navigation of emptiness and space to find ways to cope with our own contemporary environment. Looking at spaces in literature, such as Didion’s elliptical novel, we find ourselves seeing from an altogether different viewpoint. A viewpoint that is familiar. A sense of emptiness and existential dread in how to move forward in the present day, in a culture of climate change and crises and identity politics.

Notably, the spaces in Didion’s novel importantly draw an even bigger focus on what is said. By leaving spaces and structuring the text so episodically, the episodes themselves are emboldened and the protagonist’s experience and the experience of the reader are enlivened. Nicholas Rombes writes that the novel is ‘so full of excess truth that it shoots across the page more as a prophecy than a novel’.

Accepting the spaces then, the sense of emptiness and nothingness they manufacture provides the first step in coping with the present, and then allowing this space to frame what is said becomes the second. Didion demonstrates a way to overcome a sense of nothingness within the present: in the very acceptance of it.