A writer sits down at their typewriter with horn-rimmed eyeglasses sliding down their nose, a cigarette behind their right ear and a tumbler of Scotch within arm’s length. They type a few words, typical nonsense (e.g. “John sat and waited for inspiration to strike through the respectively red and gray shadows of anxiety and misery”), grab at the offending sheet of paper, frantically scrunch it and throw it away. After a few rounds and a few deletions (maybe too many sips, ahem, gulps from the glass), the words finally form and take to the page. Also sitting near a surface, but not at a desk particularly, a musician rap-a-tap-taps their fingertips. Staring at the mark on the wall or out into the great abyss of unspecific space, they continue to bang their head against the metaphorical creative wall (or in some cases, the aforementioned actual wall that they have already been staring at for hours on end) until something finally escapes their mind’s ear and they run to capture that fleeting moment of inspiration. Maddening… For those involved and those witnessing. It’s all a part of that ever-idolized, ever-romanticized creative process. Flighty, bizarre, irascible. The fickleness of inspiration, that mistress most foul and beguiling.
Typical of any celebration of creativity, this year’s Sundance Film Festival features more than a few egotists and instants of near-sickening self-reference, and we’re not talking about the party socialites who have yet to sit for a screening. Rather than building up the off-shoot romantic mythos surrounding art-related madness, two films (Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank) actually take a stance to debunk this notion (and in turn, they leave all of we slightly creative nutters in the lurch for redeeming qualities). Both films involve fledglings following their idols in pursuit of their own higher, over-glorified creative dreams. Incorporating third-person and first-person narratives by way of voice-over (one with an outside authorly tone, the other through personal social media updates), both show the inner and outer madness of the creative process, as perpetrator and bystander.
In Listen Up Philip, we see the worlds of authorship and academia through the perpetually pessimistic and exasperated, bushy-eyebrowed viewpoint of Philip (Jason Schwartzman), an author on the cusp of the publication of his second novel. At 32, Philip lives in New York City with his years-long photographer girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), basking in the glow of his first novel’s success. Cocksure and obstinate, Philip backs out of any publicity for his latest book and barely gets through a “35 Under 35” photoshoot without pissing people off (e.g. refusing to pose with a prop book while citing Tolkien as precedent). Showing a brief glimmer of humility, Philip leaps at the chance to meet his writing idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a Norman Mailer meets J.D. Salinger-type figure (a.k.a. an arrogant, isolated, misogynist monster of steeping literary reputation). Upon meeting, Zimmerman tells Philip that he has talent, comparing him to a younger version of himself, only less successful, and spurls off bits of blunt “sage” advice, including that Philip should buy a house outside of the city specifically for writing. Rather than his usual snap retort, Philip responds by saying plainly that a country home was beyond his means. In return– and also uncharacteristically– Zimmerman offers for Philip to stay at his place in the Hamptons, to revitalize both of their creative energies.
Meant to be a brief getaway, Philip ends up staying at Zimmerman’s for the good part of the summer, to the chagrin of his regularly disregarded girlfriend. While living there (with the man himself popping in from time to time) and through later visits, Philip peels away at Zimmerman’s authorial enigma, witnessing an uglier side of him in his interactions with those around him. Upon arrival, Philip encounters Melanie, who Zimmerman had passingly mentioned looked after the place. To his slight shock, Philip ascertains that Melanie is actually Zimmerman’s daughter and she isn’t so keen on Philip being there, also recognizing a younger version of her father in him. Trying to glean more about Zimmerman, Philip asks Melanie about her thoughts of the house and whether she had fond memories there. In a jolt, she shuts him down and explains that this Hamptons house was where he brought women to cheat on her mother. Once Zimmerman arrives, it’s made very clear that he and Melanie have a dysfunctional relationship. He sees Melanie as a reminder of one of his many failed relationships, viewing her mother as a leech who would have sucked him dry if she had had half the chance. In turn, Melanie naturally resents the shabby treatment of herself and her mother, and being her father’s daughter, lets him know, which only strains the relationship further. Later on when Philip passingly mentions his girlfriend, Melanie nearly pleads with Philip not to end up like her father, stating that it’s terrible when you’re treated by someone in a way that makes you know exactly how meaningless you are to them.
Later on, after Philip assumes a position teaching creative writing (at Zimmerman’s instigation), Zimmerman calls Philip to the house late at night. Upon arrival after a long drive from upstate New York), he discovers that Zimmerman merely wanted some young blood to help entertain a few ladies he and Norman Lear brought back after a night of depressingly age-appropriate line-dancing. Philip goes along with it, attempting to chat with the women, though Zimmerman isn’t too happy. Rather than recognizing his vulnerability as an old man in the dating pool, Zimmerman turns to Philip as an outlet for his frustration, cuttingly remarking that Philip wasn’t getting anywhere with the women and that when he was Philip’s age, in his prime, it would having taken a mere moment to get one of them in the sack. The evening is cut short when Melanie comes down to complain about the noise and Zimmerman calls the whole shindig off, blaming her and forcing everybody to leave. Even after witnessing Zimmerman’s callous behavior and resulting nearly pathetic loneliness, Philip continues to doggedly follow in his footsteps, juggling two girlfriends (the second being a fellow professor at his college) and treating both new acquaintances and old friends with the same biting, bordering on affected, disdain.
Both Philip and Zimmerman have achieved their goals (and in a very limited, prestigious field, adding to their inflamed egos), but both continue to be miserable all the while perpetuating this facade of “greatness,” that with great talent comes great irritability and a license to act entirely on impulse and instinct without considering others or the consequences. They have thrown themselves entirely to this trumped up identity of “successful author,” losing friends, loves and perspective along the way. Underneath the pomp and prestige of literary icon status, Zimmerman is a lonely, old man with little light or joy left in his life outside of riling people up and attempts at reliving his glory days, both things only ending in deeper disappointment and dissatisfaction. Behind the snark of being an up-and-coming author and occasional faculty member, Philip may write about life and judge others on their writing but he himself no longer has the compassion or understanding necessary to live a full life, let alone to actually enjoy his so-called literary status. When all is said and done, they will have bound publications to their names, but little else.
In Frank, we see the worlds of music-making and madness through the over-hopeful and over-reaching, ginger-browed viewpoint of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a wannabe musician-songwriter given the chance of a lifetime. Working an office job and living at home with his parents while struggling to hold onto his musical aspirations, Jon stumbles on a chance encounter with a visiting outsider band called The Soronprfbs which leads to a one-night gig after their keyboardist flakes out (by trying to drown himself in the nearby ocean) which in turn leads Jon to joining the band as keyboardist on their latest album, after the approval of the band’s enigmatic leader Frank (Michael Fassbender). From the start, we know there’s something extra special about Frank (loosely based on Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom onstage persona), and it’s not just because of Frank’s on-at-all-times, disproportionately large papier mache head.
Frank is the core, he is the center, he is the sun to which all around him are drawn. He is why The Soronprfbs exist, he is how the bandmates came together, he is both inspiration and leader. His talent speaks louder than any facial expressions could, even considering that we the audience know that it’s actually Fassbender’s chiseled, sharkish grin lurking underneath the cartoonish head. This is a man who can turn the most inane object into a really great song at the drop of a hat. Within seconds, he literally turns the tip of Jon’s sock into a would-be hit “Lone Standing Tuft.” Comparatively, Jon can barely string together a decent song in the eleven months spent recording the album. During that extensive time (seemingly neverending due to a combination Frank seeking the perfect sound and the other bandmates accommodating his eccentric quest), Jon remains an outsider amongst the outsiders.
Failing to create anything of worth, Jon is relegated to playing a few keys and witnessing the master and his designated team at work. Even so, he is still also subjected to Frank’s creatively-inclined whims, including the request to squawk like a “ginger bird” during one of their recording sessions. Watching both Frank’s genius and peculiarities, Jon links his own lack of talent to his normalcy and assumes that real creative greatness can only come with or after bouts of mental illness, pointedly asking fellow bandmate Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) about her time in an asylum (to which, she informed him that she had never been). Believing that Frank’s talent needs to be shared with the world, Jon continues to cover his experience with the band online through youtube videos and tweets, building a fanbase which then leads to a gig at SXSW with Jon acting as the band’s covert promoter. At first, Frank is very keen on the gig and very pleased with the idea that people like, even love, his work. But soon things go south as Frank and the band become overwhelmed with the new-found fame. Frank’s quirks become more self-destructive, including writing a cringey pop-shouty tune “Frank’s Most Likeable Song” and dressing in unappealing drag), while the other bandmates abandon the gig after a violent dispute between Jon and Clara concerning what was good for Frank and the band.
After Frank abruptly disappears following a meltdown, Jon attempts to track him down through the help of the band’s online community. Finding that Frank had returned home, to his own parents, Jon goes and meets with them. To his shock, Jon finds that Frank grew up in a normal, stable household, just like his own. Not only that, but Jon learns from Frank’s parents that Frank had always been talented, and actually that his disorder had only hindered his musical talent rather than sparking or enhancing it. Throughout the entire film, Jon tried to rationalize his lack of musical talent on the lack of madness in his life, but discovers that simply, he is just not talented and nothing about his upbringing or life experiences could change that. It would appear that actual madness would not be in the creative process, but in the pursuit of that creative process. Jon gave up his job, his nest egg and his life (what little he had of one) to follow a mentally unstable man and his crew of misfits, and for what? For a brief shining moment of fame and recognition to compensate for his actual lack of talent?
Both Frank and Jon suffer from wanting to be loved (exemplified in the end credits with Frank’s song “I Love You All”), but are separated by talent and how doggedly they pursue that want. Frank has the ability to be making album after album, but is hindered by his insecurities and need to fulfill his elusive notion of musical perfection. Jon doesn’t have enough talent to succeed at making music and is hindered by his failure to recognize that until it is too late for himself and for the band. Neither stories are glamorous, neither man achieves real fame or glory beyond being a viral blip on the ever-expanding indie music landscape.
So yes, insanity and dysfunction surround creativity and the creative process, but both Listen Up Philip and Frank dethrone the romanticism of that link. Rather than perpetuating the image of the artist busily and maddeningly working away, both films put that idea in digestible contexts and show the underlying misery of that inflated, ego-driven self. It isn’t creativity that drove these four men mad, but wanting to be loved and admired beyond their immediate means, losing their intimates and perspectives along the way for the worse.