Tagged jonah hill

notes on maniac (2018)

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still from 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.

 

 

‘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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still from Mean Girls (2004)

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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still from Easy A

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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still from Mid90s

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.