“What’s wrong with me? I lose my footing, in here.” He touched his head. “When a neuro-typical looses their footing, they yell or escape to the TV, or maybe the doctor throws them on depression meds. But when I slip, I fall all the way through. I feel the ground give way and I’m gone. It’s a crack — a crack in what’s real, and beneath there I’m stuck. Then, I guess I become someone else. Mom says I still know my name, but I walk a different world. The shrink calls it DID — Dissociative Identity Disorder — with a little added autism to spice up my other personality. I suppose he’s right, but only I know how it feels to slip through the cracks. Then the monster shows up.”
Critics often praise pessimism over optimism. What if portraying the unconventional and exceptional helps create a kinder world?
Video via MOVIECLIPS Classic Trailers on YouTube.
Lars Lindstrom is twenty-seven years old, withdrawn and incommunicative. He’s only able to function because of the politeness and reserved nature of his hometown, which lies somewhere in the northern portion of the American Midwest. Whatever is going on within him, his neighbors and coworkers know it’s none of their business, so a smile and a few words suffice from day to day. As he passes between work, home and church in his tiny Toyota Tercel, he’s as frozen and cold as the snow that blankets the ground.
His status-quo is threatened when his brother, Gus, and sister-in-law, Karin, move back home and announce that they are expecting a baby. On top of that, there’s a cute girl at work named Margo who seems curiously attracted to him. All of this creates a crisis for Lars, who is desperately afraid of human interaction, especially the kind of conversation and physical contact expected from family. He moves into a room beside the detached garage and keeps his distance. Karin is wounded and worried by his rejection, and her fears are justified when Lars decides to come to dinner with a guest, a life-sized doll named Bianca. Lars purchased her on the Internet and it soon becomes painfully obvious that he believes she is a real human being.
Gus and Karin consult a psychiatrist who advises that Lars seems delusional and, due to his fragility, agrees to treat him while pretending to treat Bianca. The catch? She needs Gus and Karin to go along with his delusion. Gus, voicing the pessimistic thoughts of what we all like to call the “real” world, protests that “Everyone will laugh at him.” “And at you,” Dr. Berman answers with blunt honesty. There is no quick fix for Lars and no guarantee that he will ever snap out of it. Karin agrees to try Dr. Berman’s method, and, after a brief and futile attempt to talk some sense into his brother, Gus comes around too. As his delusion begins to affect the entire community, we see those around Lars deal with it for his sake. As we come to understand why Lars has retreated into this fantasy and confirm how childlike he truly is, we come to root for him and look forward to the day he will have the courage for a relationship.
I found Lars and the Real Girl spellbinding, and I’m one of those who prefers a dark and violent film to a disingenuous and insincere film that bills itself as “uplifting”. The unconventional nature of the story and its setting in a northern Mid-West community of Nordic descent keep it from getting overly sentimental. The cast is excellent across the board. Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider are winsome and completely believable as Karin and Gus and it is their response to Lars (Ryan Gosling) that won me over. Gosling, who received several award nominations, is phenomenal as the anti-social and childlike Lars.
Some will not allow themselves to see this movie and will miss the gentle, sweet nature of the film and its potential for changing the way we see others. Yes, Bianca is an anatomically correct sex doll, suggested by one of Lars’s coworkers who is a lonely goofball and maybe a bit of a pervert. But Lars isn’t after sex. He’s after someone he can talk to and hold who won’t cause him pain. Much like a child who plays out grown up scenes with dolls or toys, he’s playing at human interaction. It’s a much healthier response than some outsiders take in our society.
Equally fascinating are the effects of Bianca on the community and Lars’s family. Some people enjoy dressing her and styling her hair, some take her to the hospital to visit sick children, who find her a wonderful distraction from the pain and fear they are experiencing. In fact, she becomes so popular that Lars feels left out and the fantasy begins to wear thin. Karin and Gus realize things about each other and their family while explaining them to Bianca, revelations that are sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes wonderful. She gives them an excuse to talk about family matters and feelings, something that members of restrained families will understand. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Lars, inspired by Bianca, asks his brother how he knew he was a man. Gus’s answer takes a few minutes, but, after some fumbling, reveals his vulnerability and shame over his own selfishness. This in turn foreshadows Lars’s struggle with the selfishness of his fantasy world.
Miraculously, the film itself never stoops to cruelty, nor does it ever become obscene or even bawdy. Writer Nancy Oliver, also known for Six Feet Under, received an Oscar nomination. The work Oliver and director Craig Gillespie put into Lars and the Real Girl deserves accolades and attention. It isn’t easy to tackle a stereotype and make it a human story, especially when taboo is involved.
Video via Writers Guild Foundation on YouTube.
It has been said that the responses of the community are unrealistic and too positive. There are no beatings, no violence, and barely even any eye-rolling. We see a workplace in which coworkers communicate the potential of an awkward situation ahead of time and everyone does their best to avoid it. We see a tolerant Christian pastor and congregation which allow the health and well being of one lonely man to trump its traditional image. Lars and the Real Girl portrays a world in which people help each other through mental illness without taboos, cruelty and judgement, a world in which the ultimate health of an individual is more important than the momentary discomfort of a community. That’s a world worth imagining, don’t you think?
Yayoi Kusama is a visionary who inspired and contributed to the emerging avant-garde movements of pop art and minimalism in the 1950s and 60s and continues to produce unusual and provocative art at the age of 84. Her art spans a wide variety of media, including environmental installations, performance art, sculpture, painting, film and fashion design, as well as the writing of novels and poetry. The polka dot is one of her signature symbols.
…a polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement… Polka dots are a way to infinity.
Born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, Kusama was raised in the conservative household of a seedling merchant. Her mother repeatedly tried to break Kusama of her artistic aspirations, taking away her supplies and destroying her creations, beating her, and verbally abusing her. She was told that she would stop this nonsense and marry a rich man, bear his children and keep his house. To make matters unimaginably worse, her mother forced her to spy on her father’s relations with other women. Not only did this strategy not keep Kusama from making art, it created a terrible anxiousness and fear that would take its toll on the woman she became.
My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease. I create pieces even when I don’t see hallucinations, though.
In 1957, Kusama moved to New York, thinking that it would be easier to break with Japanese tradition and make a name for herself there. She worked tirelessly, painting for days at a stretch without a break, inducing hallucinations of polka dots which she incorporated into her art. Alas, even New York was unfriendly to female artists at that time and fame did not come easy. Kusama has written that she slept on a old door and rummaged through trash cans for fish heads to eat. Her friend Georgia O’Keefe tried to persuade her to move to Texas, but Kusama was determined to conquer New York. She developed a following among artists, influencing such famous men as Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, with whom she exhibited. Popular success came in the 1960s with her Happenings and Body Festivals, a series of get togethers that involved guest participants, often nude, whom she painted with polka dots. Kusama, who was unsurprisingly uncomfortable with sexuality, found herself an unlikely icon of the sexual revolution.
Unfortunately, Kusama’s work ethic was obsessive. She returned to Japan in 1973, burnt-out and in need of re-invention. She tried becoming an art dealer, but Japanese culture was far more conservative than that of New York, and she found no respect. In 1977, after having a mental breakdown, Kusama admitted herself into Seiwa Hospital, a psychiatric facility. She has resided there for the past 36 years, continuing to produce art and explore a literary career as well. Her work ethic remains impressive and her ability to channel her own difficulties into creative pursuits is nothing short of miraculous, truly making art from her own limitations and neuroses. Here at synkroniciti we love people like Yayoi Kusama.
Video via KUSAMAdocumentary on YouTube.
Kusama’s art has been exhibited all over the world, including retrospectives of her work at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and Tate Modern. In 2008 I pray with all of my love for tulips was sold for $5.1 million, the highest price ever paid for a piece made by a female artist.
When Henry Darger passed away in 1973 at the age of eighty-one, no one knew much about the reclusive man who had worked as a janitor for several hospitals in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. He seemed generally unremarkable to those who met him, although his neighbors found him odd, especially the way he talked to himself in various dialects and voices when he was alone in his apartment. Shortly before his death, his neighbors and landlords opened his small room to discover a hidden world. Darger had created over 300 paintings, some ten feet long, and many of them painted on both sides. These paintings illustrated a novel of 15,145 pages titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion and a sequel of over 10,000 pages, Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. There were also journals of supplemental materials, including hymns which had been given new lyrics for his new world, and an autobiography which told the events of Darger’s unusual life. It was all colorful and eerie, a wild combination of the innocent with the horrifying. This film, In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger by Jessica Yu, reveals the rich inner world of a true outsider in all its facets. Narrated by a young Dakota Fanning, the film is spellbinding and disturbing.
Video via accochamps on YouTube.
The youth of Henry Darger was a tumultuous one. His mother died giving birth to a baby sister who was adopted before Henry could ever meet her; his kind and loving father grew too ill to care for him and died. Attending a catholic boys home in Chicago, Henry was rebellious and made strange noises which upset classmates and teachers. These noises may have been the result of Tourette’s Syndrome, but they resulted in his institutionalization at the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. His treatment there was full of severe punishment, forced labor, and abuse. He eventually ran away from the asylum and found work as a janitor, by which he supported himself for more than fifty years.
His art reveals a simple-minded genius working through the events of a childhood that haunted him for a lifetime. Filled with self-loathing, he was nonetheless industrious and devoted, teaching himself to draw and paint, making collages and saving his money to purchase photo enlargements of figures he clipped from magazines and newspapers. These would become templates for his characters. Possessed with a natural eye, Darger is praised for his composition and the brilliant color of his watercolors. Full of daring escapes and epic battles, his art work is prized in museum collections. On the disturbing side, it is is characterized not only by the juxtaposition of beauty and violence, but by anatomic confusion likely stemming from his early abuse. Many of his paintings feature unclad transgendered girls bearing male genitalia. Whether this comes from lack of understanding, from a desire to impart some sort of masculine strength to his heroines, or from identifying them as a feminine part of himself, the effect is jarring.
Paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, Darger laid forth a child’s right “to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night’s season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart”. Even with his reduced capacity for human interaction and his mental difficulties, Darger was well-educated and idealistic in his championing of his fantasy children. A man of many contradictions, he is one of the giants of the movement known as outsider art.
Are humor and honesty effective in dealing with death and mental illness? Are we held back by propriety and clichés?
When the white coats take away Young-Goon’s grandmother, who believes she is a mouse and has been eating only radishes, Young-Goon retaliates with a suicide attempt. Young-Goon has become convinced that she is a robot and cannot eat. Her attempts to recharge herself using batteries and power cords are dangerous and less than successful. Placed in a mental institution, she makes friends with Il-Soon, a kleptomaniac schizophrenic who fears he is shrinking and will vanish into a dot one day. He knows she needs to eat, so he fabricates a device that turns rice into energy.
Park Chan-wook’s I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK wades into the issues of aging and mental illness with an impish grin which never fades. You can watch the trailer here. Young-Goon has had such a difficult time dealing with her grandmother’s dissolution that she tries to cut out her feelings, asking Il-Soon to steal her sympathy so that she may kill the doctors in white coats to avenge her granny. Being a cyborg gives her life purpose; as a robot she is designed to destroy. The scenes in which she ridiculously imagines herself a weapon, shooting bullets out her fingers and dropping shotgun shells from her mouth, are some of the most entertaining of the film. I think many people, pressed too far by life or society, have fantasized such power. It isn’t real, and it doesn’t solve anything, as Young-Goon eventually accepts. The film’s combination of violence and humor seems to be a way to talk about the rage that humans feel when they question the meaning of life. This suggests that the way to rehabilitate those who fantasize about violence is not to suppress it, but to talk through it.
Similarly, Il-Soon is afraid of not existing, of fading into a dot. At some level we all have this fear or doubt, and, for many, religion addresses this. Il-Soon finds the thing that helps him the best is to care for Young-Goon, who has even less going for her than he does. When he serves her, his life has meaning. He learns to love Young-Goon as if she were his own self.
There are some moments in the movie which are shocking and difficult, even amidst the madcap humor, but it is an honest attempt to work through existential issues without the normal cliches we use. What seems to be irreverence may actually be some sort of homage. Can we respect another’s journey even if it doesn’t resemble our own?
Adam Ant as the Blueblack Hussar in the 1980s. This image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.
Mental illness is misunderstood and hidden. What would happen if we embraced ourselves and one another for who we are?
Adam Ant, born Stuart Goddard in Marylebone, England, burst on the scene in 1980 as the flamboyant lead singer of Adam and the Ants. His style was quirky, with a jerky delivery and a predilection for playing heroes, dandies, and pirates. Perhaps the last performer to capture the essence of the glam rock spirit of the 1970s, he was able to use the new medium of music video to his advantage. A former film and graphic design student, he storyboarded his videos and designed much of the elaborate costuming and make-up. The result was magic: Adam Ant was well beloved by legions of fans and Antmania went down in history. He scored 10 top ten hits in the UK from 1980 to 1983 and, in America, Ant was voted the sexiest man in the world by the viewers of MTV in addition to placing many hit songs on the US market.
What fans didn’t know at the time was that Stuart had already gone through serious brushes with anorexia and suicide in the late 1970s which had forced him to drop out of college and had rendered him incapacitated for three months. It was after this that he changed his name to Adam Ant and started building Adam and the Ants. By the time the world recognized Adam everything seemed to be going very well. Peforming gave him a way of expressing himself and dealing with his issues.
In the mid 1990s things would begin to fall apart. An album, Persuasion, was not released by MCA records as planned and was shelved permanently. He was stalked by a woman who poisoned his fish pond, tried to kill his dogs, and showed up at his home naked while screaming obscenities. He managed to keep working through this turbulence until he was arrested in 2002 for throwing a car alternator through a pub window and threatening people with an antique pistol. He was arrested again in 2003 and institutionalized for mental illness. The next few years would be a trial by fire as he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and began to learn to deal with it. The medication would stabilize his mental state, but often resulted in a lack of creativity or even motivation to work.
Public Domain Image via Pixabay
“In the past I’ve been a robot. It’s been an out-of-body experience. Bipolar means up and down and that’s me… Music has always been the best medication. I was on sodium valproate for seven years…. I couldn’t get to sleep and I didn’t make love for seven years. My hair fell out and I couldn’t pick up a book as I couldn’t concentrate. I didn’t write a song or pick up a guitar in that time — and piled on the weight. I might as well have been dead.”. –Adam Ant
In the last two or three years, as he and his doctors discovered the right doses of medication and he began to be more active, Adam has returned to performing. He has also created his own record label, Blueblack Hussar Records, and is working with designers to promote a new fashion label. Just last month he released his first album in 17 years, Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter. It chronicles the journey of the Hussar, the character with a white stripe across his face in his earliest albums, through hardship and punishment. This is Adam’s own journey, with snippets from his life woven into the mix. Some question whether a man of fifty-eight should be dressing like a pirate and making quirky music videos, as if that might be a part of his illness and should be hidden away. But this is his triumph: that he is able to remain true to himself, as creative and odd as he is. The honesty, bravery, and hope behind this album is inspiring. Adam Ant is finally the hero he always wanted to be.
“mental health needs a great deal of attention. It’s the final taboo and it needs to be faced and dealt with.” –Adam Ant
Videos via KoolMix32 and adamantdotnet on Youtube.