5. On Maren Ade’s The Forest for the Trees (2003)

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(All images that appear in this blog post are still frames, taken by the author, from the concluding scene of Maren Ade’s 2003 film The Forest for the Trees)

The Forest for the Trees is Maren Ade’s debut feature, and though it was made as a student project it overcomes any minor technical shortcomings with a richness of emotional depth that is rare even in movies assembled by much more experienced filmmakers. I have chosen to examine the closing scene here, which I find to be quite admirable for its refusal to provide absolute narrative closure as well as the way in which it evokes the momentary sense of release that tends to accompany the free-fall into psychosis.

Melanie (Eva Löbau) is a twentysomething school teacher in Germany, and despite her initial optimism in moving to a new city with a new job, her life has gradually deteriorated as the film progresses. Her disastrous, almost entirely one-sided friendship with neighbour Tina (Daniela Holtz) flames out quite spectacularly, and her inability to meet the everyday professional demands of teaching climaxes in her abruptly walking out of a class she is instructing. After finally ejecting some of the trash bags she volunteered to dispose of for Tina from her car into a dumpster (emotional baggage symbolism alert), Melanie drives off in a tear-filled fury.

The Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Crying while she Steers her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Crying in her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Adjusting her HairThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Adjusting her Hair

Gradually regaining her composure, Melanie removes her jacket and starts to relax. She observes the scenery as it drifts by and appears to relinquish control over the car.

The Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie in the Front Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Taking Off her JacketThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie in the Front Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Blurred Forest LandscapeThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Blurred Forest Landscape

It is at this point that Ade departs from any kind of strict realism, as Melanie has fully given up on driving the vehicle and climbs into the back seat, the car continuing on without her input as if by magic. Melanie’s face lights up at least momentarily, the burdens of her existence for the moment on hold.

The Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Sitting in her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Smiling in her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking into the Back of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Climbing into the Back Seat of her Car

Melanie is now firmly a passenger, no longer in the driver’s seat, and is (arguably) acting out a consideration of the film’s title, which applies to the fact that she has been so focused on controlling the smaller details of what she thinks makes for a successful existence that she has allowed her life overall to slip into a pretty serious sense of disarray. She takes a breather for perhaps the first time in the movie, simply watching the trees as they float on by her window.

The Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out the Window from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out the Window from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out the Window from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out the Window from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out the Window from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out the Window from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie in the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie in the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out the Window from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking at the Sun from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking at the Forest from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Into the Sun from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Blurred Forest SceneryThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie in the Back Seat of her Car with Eyes ClosedThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie Looking Out the Window from the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Melanie in the Back Seat of her CarThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap Trunk of Car with Green BackgroundThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap of Green Forest BlurredThe Forest for the Trees Screen Cap of Green Forest Blurred

This scene offers a great sense of relief to the viewer after all the interpersonal turmoil that has come before, but it also raises some troubling questions from a practical standpoint. Has Melanie driven her car into a ditch, and this is merely a passed-out reverie she is experiencing? Is she already dead?

I do not tend to get too hung up on these questions because I see this as a more emotionally fulfilling ending than one meant to tie up the narrative in any neat sense. The movie is a character study of Melanie, who seems to be so uncomfortable in her own skin that she feels the need to insert herself into Tina’s life in what proves to be a most unwelcome way.

I can certainly relate to this aspect of Melanie’s character, having had several friends who I have gone too far over the line with, as well as her almost complete inability to control her classroom (I was teaching third-year university students, admittedly, but many of them had the same bad attitudes as do Melanie’s much younger charges). Melanie’s crippling sense of detachment and isolation from others is something I have experienced all too often in my own life, and it is something that I think contributes greatly to an individual’s lack of mental wellness.

As terrifying as psychosis can be (and that is my interpretation of what is going on in this scene, that Melanie has in some way departed from reality as it is commonly understood by others), such a break with the real world can also be in a strange sense liberating. My life had gotten about as bad as it could get when I went fully psychotic, and I am glad it happened in the sense that I needed something that extreme to disrupt my life in order for some kind of change to occur. Melanie may be dead, yes, or at least severely injured, but it is my hope that she is able to survive and create for herself a life less beholden to obtaining approval from others, more focused instead on finding value within her own life.

References

Jackowski, J. (Producer), & Ade, M. (Director). (2003). The forest for the trees [Motion picture]. Germany: Timebandits Films.

4. On David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

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This is the link to a YouTube video, also embedded above, of the final scene from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). In it, Max Renn (James Woods) speaks with the televised image of Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry of Blondie fame), who implores him to finally “go all the way…to the next phase” in what will be “a total transformation”, over to what she calls “the new flesh”. To get there, he must do away with the old in what would look pretty much unambiguously like a suicide if reality itself had not already become so distorted by this point in the film. Max appears to be hallucinating quite severely, most plainly signalled here by the appearance of the exact same television set from his apartment in the hold of a derelict ship as well as the flesh gun that may or may not really be adorning his arm.

This scene is not a million miles away from the endings of In the Mouth of Madness and The Forest for the Trees discussed in my other posts, in that Max’s tenuous hold on reality gives way here in a pretty thoroughgoing manner. Max is, like John Trent and Melanie Pröschle from Madness and Trees respectively, pretty much at the end of his rope here, in a way which leads him to what is most likely just a suicide. We see enough evidence in the rest of the film that he may be journeying on to some new realm in the video arena, but we also know that he has been hallucinating pretty hard, whether as the result of brain tumours or whatever else. This applies as well to the way in which Major Collins’ decision to kill himself in Body Snatchers could be construed as the expression of some kind of mass paranoia, though I think that Videodrome does a better job of leaving multiple interpretations open on this particular front.

The film carefully builds up a reasonably convincing narrative of espionage and counter-espionage to suggest that the events depicted might actually be happening, but we never know this for sure, not really, and that is what makes it such a useful tool for sharing with others who may lack first-hand experience of what it feels like to be psychotic. The perception that there is some kind of a conspiracy against the psychotic individual was certainly the way my experience of the disorder panned out, to the point that I was pretty actively suicidal for longer than I would like to admit. Like Max, I even ended up by Toronto’s waterfront (the film makes no effort to disguise the identity of the city it was shot in), though thankfully my story has a happier ending, in that I was fished from the water shortly after my attempt to kill myself.

I know that not everyone is this lucky, and I am particularly glad that I did not do anything, as Max does, to physically injure anyone else during my psychosis. This film is not the best example of a positive portrayal of mental illness, but I think it is important to consider the ease with which conditions like psychosis can, gone unchecked, result in harm to oneself or others. When you are as desperate as Max is throughout Videodrome or I was during my psychotic episode, relief of any kind is the number one priority. This lead me to some places I now regret, including the floor of a hospital bathroom with a bag around my head and a belt around my neck, but at the time I truly could not see any other way out. These may be unpleasant conversations to have, but the more openly mental illness can be discussed in everyday environments the less likely individuals are to reach these kinds of extremes, it seems to me.

References

Héroux, C., David, P., & Solnicki, V. (Producers), & Cronenberg, D. (Director).     (1983). Videodrome [Motion picture]. Canada: Universal Pictures.

Sabet, S. (2016, February 2). Videodrome: Long live the new flesh. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wS9R-eC_D44&app=desktop

3. On John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

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This YouTube video, also embedded above, shows the concluding moments from John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994). The clip shows John Trent (Sam Neill) exiting the mental institution which he occupies during the film’s framing sequences following some kind of apocalypse. He appears to be one of the few survivors of an outbreak of mass violence, and these recent events would seem to bear out the fears he had leading up to his institutionalization. He ends up at a movie theatre showing a film-within-the-film, also called In the Mouth of Madness, which replays snatches of scenes we have already seen played out in full. Realizing that he has either just been a character in someone else’s story all along, or that reality has simply broken down to the point where he can no longer tell the difference, Trent reacts to the screening with bitter laughter and a level of hysteria entirely appropriate to the sort of mind-meld he has just gone through.

Yet there is a kind of relief here as well, in that all of Trent’s worst fears have been realized. In the elliptical flashes of scenes played back here from earlier in the film, Trent is made to face what kind of reality he is in fact inhabiting, not to mention question once again his own sanity. I found myself in quite a similar situation during the onset of my psychosis, in which a screening of Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) became something that much more closely resembles Trent’s private viewing here than a studio comedy about a cappella singing competitions. I went to the bathroom for what felt like a short period of time during the middle of the film, and when I returned it was over. This scene from In the Mouth of Madness conveys in an extremely effective way the kind of distortions of time and space that seem to accompany psychosis (and which certainly accompanied mine).

I would say that Carpenter is a master of the genre I am dubbing psychosis cinema; certainly his 1988 allegory of neoliberalism They Live falls into this grouping of films quite snugly as well. His evocations of paranoia are incredibly astute, as one finds most strikingly in his belatedly acclaimed remake of The Thing (1982), whose themes of body snatching and body horror would make for a good point of comparison with the Cronenberg and Ferrara films under discussion in some of the other entries on this blog. The mise en abyme structure deployed in Madness is perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, too easily slipping into the meta realm of the postmodern in which the boundaries enclosing a given work become ever more slippery the deeper one gets, ultimately keeping the audience at something of a distance in a way the more visceral horrors of The Thing never do.

Nevertheless, the fiction-within-a-fiction, dream-within-a-dream state set forth in Madness is undeniably effective in evoking a psychotic state, where the boundaries between the real and the fictional are rarely clear. I know that all my accumulated knowledge of narrative, from Harry Potter and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Gamer (2009) and Videodrome and beyond, came into play throughout my psychotic episode in ways large as well as small, and not necessarily to the benefit of my recovery. There is nothing scarier than the feeling you are caught up in someone else’s story, a pawn to the whims of an author whose intentions you can never fully know, and it is this sense of unease and unravelling sanity that Carpenter nails so very well here. I am happy that I can now look back on the film and particularly the ending with some sense of remove, because in the darkest moments of my psychosis it certainly felt more like documentary than fiction.

References

ClayDavis90. (2016, July 27). In the mouth of madness – Ending. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AUr3BtuRUI&app=desktop

King, S. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1994). In the mouth of madness  [Motion picture]. United States: New Line Cinema.

2. On Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (1968)

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This clip, also embedded above, features Larry Karaszewski (writer, with Scott Alexander, of Ed Wood [1994], The People vs. Larry Flynt [1996], and The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story [2016]) discussing Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (1968) as part of the Trailers from Hell series. Be warned that the clip (as well as this blog entry) contains significant plot spoilers, but otherwise serves as a nice, concise appreciation of the film. Karaszewski reserves particular praise for Tuesday Weld, who plays Sue Ann Stepenek in the movie, as well as for screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., the scribe who subsequently penned The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975).

Karaszewski also makes reference to what remains star Anthony Perkins’ most famous role, as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the sequels that followed. The question of who is the real danger in Pretty Poison is a good entry point for discussion, as Perkins’ role in Psycho almost certainly sets up the audience to expect him to be the villain. Perkins’ Dennis Pitt is fresh from the mental ward for his role in a traumatic occurrence some years prior to the events of the film. He is clearly a disturbed individual, possibly schizophrenic, yet as the movie unfolds we see that it is really Weld’s Sue Ann who poses the real threat.

Pretty Poison looks ahead to the neo-noirs of the 1980s and 1990s with its small-town setting covering for some pretty dark developments; this includes an equally prescient strain relating to environmental degradation, particularly at the plant in which Perkins’ characters is employed for a time. Sue Ann ends up being a pretty archetypal femme fatale behind her wholesome blonde good looks and marching band uniform, happy to play Dennis’ delusions to her ultimate benefit where we might initially assume she is the one being taken advantage of (Perkins has a late-in-the-game monologue to his parole office reflecting on just this issue and which gives the film its title).

Is the film a counter-narrative to all those stories, like Psycho, in which mentally ill people tend to commit varying degrees of atrocities, and if so does it simply offer a countervailing narrative drenched in misogyny instead? Weld is not necessarily the typical female noir destroyer of the 1940s, at least not in appearance and overall demeanour, but is the archetype given any particularly novel depth here otherwise? I am not sure if there are any easy answers to these questions, and would love to hash this out further in the comments section.

Also, whenever the topic of Tuesday Weld comes up it is essential to provide a link to this clip (also embedded below) of one of the most disturbing father-daughter relationships ever committed to film, from George Axelrod’s 1966 classic of WTF cinema, Lord Love a Duck (which also gives you some sense of Weld’s onscreen persona outside of the confines of Pretty Poison):

References

Jordan, L. (2011, September 11). “Cashmere sweaters” – Lord love a duck. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXdUNZUP_os

Trailers from Hell. (2013, November 13). Larry Karaszewski on pretty poison. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sS2dDRSCSi8&app=desktop

Turman, L., Backlar, M., & Black, N. (Producers), & Black, N. (Director). (1968). Pretty poison [Motion picture]. United States: 20th Century Fox.

1. On Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993)

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This is the link to a clip from Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), also embedded above, in which Forest Whitaker’s Major Collins experiences a total breakdown amidst an alien invasion. Additional details about the scene are included in the analysis that follows.

Army doctor Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) has had only one previous scene with Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency sent to inspect an Alabama military base. Collins earlier expressed concern that environmental contaminants might be the cause of the many cases he has been seeing in the infirmary of people afraid to sleep, afraid that their loved ones have been replaced by impostors, seemingly deep in the grips of psychosis. The titular body snatching aliens have since launched a full-on assault of the base, and Collins is losing it. Desperately trying to reach an outside line, Collins agonizes over the fact that the operator somehow already knows his name. Guzzling coffee and amphetamines, and with what appears to be a hall of fame headache, Collins alternates between childlike delirium and desperate anger throughout the scene.

These emotions and reactions are all quite familiar to me. My first day at CAMH, I was desperate to secure any kind of legal counsel, convinced that there was a conspiracy being launched against me. I spent a great deal of time dialing the many listed numbers by the ward phone, getting in touch with no one of any consequence. It began to sink in for me that my options were well and truly limited, and that my previous actions (running away from my family, parked at a shopping mall, convinced they were trying to murder me) were going to dictate my immediate future. I had no understanding of psychosis at the time, and could not fathom that the things I had seen and heard might all be in my head. My delusions seemed absolutely real to me at the time, and like Collins I was increasingly convinced that my end, if not the whole world’s, was nigh.

Malone’s function within the scene is to try to convince Collins to come with him, to escape, but Collins knows better. He waits for the pod versions of General Platt (R. Lee Ermey) and company to arrive, opting to “give ‘em hell” without Malone, committing suicide rather than face what seem to be unbeatable odds.

This is certainly a decision I can relate to. At numerous points throughout my psychotic episode, suicide seemed like the only way out of an impossible situation. It took me longer than I would like to admit before I was willing to take medication long enough for it to work, and longer still before I felt like a real person again. Add in the racial dimension, which this scene with the black Major Collins brings out quite nicely, and I do not think I would have survived.

During my psychosis, it felt like everyone was watching me all the time, as if I were under constant surveillance I could not always see. I can only imagine what that might be like if you have always been, in a negative sense, the centre of certain people’s attention, a problem many people of colour struggle with every day. Platt speaks in this scene of establishing a single race, and the mix of white and black faces behind him, fixed in equally blank expressions, suggests a false, artificial unity Collins is unwilling to accept.

Placing to one side for the moment the metaphorical heft of the body snatcher concept, and the many, many meanings it could possibly have, let us look at the scene strictly as that of a man in the grips of mental illness. Collins is strung out on amphetamines, coffee, and who knows what else, not to mention the multiple firearms in his possession. Malone, a friendly face, tries to talk him down, without success. The authorities arrive, and through indirect intimidation leave Collins little choice (at least in his severely distressed state) but to shoot himself. Forget for a moment that the needle is a means of sedating Collins so he can be replaced by an alien pod; the menacing tone of the scene and Ermey’s eerily calm performance stealthily underscore the difficulties a black man in particular is apt to experience when in crisis.

We have been confronted all too often recently with these kinds of situations, in Toronto as elsewhere, and despite the science fiction trappings of the film it is the continued relevance of scenes like this to our contemporary reality that speaks most strongly to me here. The very real specter of racial erasure is everywhere to be seen throughout the history of the world, from Canada’s residential schools to the outright genocides of certain groups to the kind of institutional discrimination that plagues anyone not born white, male, and straight in the lottery of life. Abel Ferrara has not always been seen to be an obviously political filmmaker, but I think that scenes like this one demonstrate his dexterity when it comes to exposing the hypocrisies of the American experience. Collins takes what to him is the most principled stand he can, and the tragedy of the scene, for me, is that I can see why it would appear to him the best option.

I do not wish to draw too direct a line between the kinds of persecution one feels while psychotic with that of racialized minorities in the West, but the shared sense of hopelessness is an important commonality. From an intersectional perspective, I could see why systemic discriminations large and small almost certainly aggravate psychosis, and my sympathies go out to those who have any kind of illness compounded or caused outright by that kind of hardship. I do not pretend to speak for anyone other than myself, but I also could not pretend to ignore the racial dimensions of this scene, or indeed the whole movie. For it is another black soldier that informs protagonist Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar) at the film’s start of what is to come; resistance may be futile within the world of the film, Ferrara denies us any certainty on this point, but that does not prevent the director and his collaborators from underlining some of the real-world horrors we might actually be able to do something about.

References

Carniecouto. (2012, September 6). Body snatchers – The individual is important scene. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from Dailymotion: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xtd32o_body-snatchers-the-individual-is-important-scene_shortfilms

Solo, R. (Producer), & Ferrara, A. (Director). (1993). Body snatchers [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros.