At 45, poet Anne Sexton committed suicide. There is no question that Sexton’s work would not be what it is without her depression, since longing for death was a major theme, but does that mean that she wouldn’t have been a poet without her illness? Or would she have been just as creative without it, choosing a different thematic infrastructure?
Poets like Denise Levertov certainly thought so: “We who are alive must make clear, as she could not, the distinction between creativity and self-destruction” (“Light up the Cave”). I didn’t know, until recently, that Levertov had responded this way, but I like her point. There is an entire mythology surrounding “the artist,” and a large part of that mythology is that artists suffer–that it is through that crucible of intense psychological pain that they engender their masterpieces.
Last week, I went to see a movie called “Frank.” Please stop reading if you haven’t seen it yet. Though it is apparently inspired by the persona of an actual artist named Chris Sievey (the persona’s name is “Frank Sidebottom”), you don’t really need to know any back story to appreciate the film. Frank wears a giant papier-mâché head all the time, even in the shower. He is a musician and his band is eccentric, though the music itself is not really as eccentric as the film makes it out to be–it’s a bit like a mashup of Jim Morrison, Radiohead , and maybe Leonard Cohen. The band members are disdainful of fame until Jon Burroughs joins up–their usual keyboardist tries to drown himself and fails but nonetheless requires a hospital stay, and Jon is the replacement. I was a bit irked at this point because the suicide attempt is half-presented as campy fun. I got more and more irritated as the film seemed to bow to the quirky/suicidal artist stereotype that seems to pervade most films, independent or otherwise, about artists. I got irritated, but I was also charmed by Frank’s ability to appreciate and elevate what would otherwise seem insignificant.
Jon is also charmed by Frank and goes on a campaign to make the band famous, posting videos on YouTube and gaining followers for the band on Twitter, but eventually all of this activity produces unfortunate results. The band disbands and Frank disappears –Jon eventually tracks him to his family home in Kansas. By this time, I’m really really really irritated that this is just another film about a genius whose art his driven him insane. But then, Jon sits down with Frank’s parents and makes a remark about how Frank’s illness is horrible but that at least it’s produced great art (paraphrasing here). And Frank’s mother says that Frank has always been musical and that his illness has done nothing but slow him down. It’s such a quiet moment, easy to overlook maybe, and possibly more should have been made of it. But it hit me hard, and perhaps it needed to sink in quietly.
This movie lulls you into the sense that it is pandering to a stereotype when it’s really just showing you to what extent you yourself have accepted that stereotype. You assume, at first, that Jon is “normal” when his need for validation is clearly, by the end of the film, a kind of sickness. The “campy fun” at the beginning of the film was only portrayed as such because you were seeing through Jon’s lens. You find that you’ve participated in Jon’s assumption that the creativity of the other band mates is a symptom of mental illness when in actuality it is an effective coping mechanism, something derived from striving to be well rather than from being ill. It is when the band appears “normal” that its members are sickest. And that is why I like this film. Like Levertov, it pulls apart the creative/ill paradigm. Frank didn’t need his illness to make art–as his song about a tuft of carpet illustrates, he could write about anything.