This week’s question comes from reader James Kosmatka:
What’s the most painful descent into misery you’ve seen in pop culture? One of my favorite descents is probably when you discover Patrick Bateman might not be a murderous sociopath and his whole self-image is thrown into question. I’m also a fan of a lot of the spoken word pieces of Ken Nordine, like “What Time Is It?” and any time an entire population loses it (Lord Of The Flies, lots of Stephen King, lots of Twilight Zone, like “The Shelter” or “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”).
I’m personally a fan of the kinds of madness and misery that come on quietly and appear only to those actually in the throes of the insanity. Thus, I’ve got to go with The Virgin Suicides. The Lisbon girls might seem all fun and sexy, but following the grisly suicide of their sister Cecilia, the four remaining sisters go full recluse. It’s not really clear in either Jeffrey Eugenides book or Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation whether that’s parentally mandated or not, but the resulting simultaneous suicides of the four girls is definitely something that’s of their own choosing. Even more depressing is that the Lisbon family’s entire neighborhood watched them deteriorate and no one really said anything. It’s that kind of controllable misery that really haunts me at night.
Well, I’ve never revisited this because it was just too awful to watch, so maybe this is the best descent into desolation I can think of—the end of Requiem For A Dream, where all four characters go to bed decimated by what life has offered them. Despite its terrible subject matter, Requiem is an astonishing, revealing movie about addiction and American aspirations, and the haunting music coupled with Darren Aronofsky’s staccato direction make it indelible—even if you only saw it once in high school. One character loses an arm; another ends up in a psych ward; a third ends up a delirious drug whore; a fourth, in prison. Choose your own descent into darkness—there are no happy endings in this movie.
I recently watched—and highly recommend—Room 237, a documentary about various theories (conspiracy and otherwise) surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The film is built around voiceover from various crackpots about their interpretations of Kubrick’s motives: One thinks the movie is about the Holocaust, another is convinced it’s about the genocide of Native Americans, still another thinks it’s Kubrick’s passive admission of his involvement in faking the moon landing. But still, it made me consider The Shining in more direct ways than I had before (I also hadn’t seen it in ages, and Room 237 is probably 50 percent Shining footage). Anyway, on to that descent into madness: Stephen King didn’t like the choice of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, because he thought Nicholson was already mostly mad, whereas King pictured the character as a generally good man driven crazy by alcohol and the supernatural forces of The Overlook Hotel. In Kubrick’s more chilling interpretation, Jack is already most of the way there when he arrives at The Overlook, and in fact, a lot of what he experiences—even right from the outset—might be visions of a possessed or insane man. (Seriously, right at the beginning of the movie: Why, when Jack meets his new bosses for the first time, is he casually reading Playgirl?) However long his descent is, there are few more chilling in pop culture.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood is one that, much like Josh pointed out with Jack Nicholson in The Shining, seems a bit maniacal from the word “go.” Yet it’s the slow, methodical way writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson pulls apart the protagonist that is so harrowing, and is something that’s stuck with me (along with the film’s anxiety-inducing score) since my first viewing. Even as There Will Be Blood moves toward its apex, it’s clear that Plainview has long been a hermit, but it’s when he decries his son CW—the person who served as his single vestige of humanity throughout the film—that shows just how far he’s sunk. Even when he finds a semblance of joy via a bowling pin to the head of Paul Dano, it’s the sight of a man succeeding through the destruction of another that displays just how withered Plainview is both inside and out.
I prefer when crazy people really hit their stride and go absolutely batshit, like when Ren of The Ren & Stimpy Show gets “the space madness.” While the duo is in orbit, the already volatile Ren goes from regularly berating Stimpy to fantasizing about chicken potpie as he floats through the spacecraft in a block of bathing water. He eventually eats a bar of soap under the impression that it’s an ice cream treat, his description of which is so earnest and impassioned that it’s almost believable. And that’s what the really far-gone excel at—involving you in their crazy stories. But as Ren says, “They think I’m crazy, but I know better. It is not I who am crazy, it is I who am mad.”
Although I’d read and liked the Lord Of The Rings trilogy as a teen, I’d never really considered the transformation of Smeagol into Gollum until the Peter Jackson films with Andy Serkis’ CGI-assisted performance in the role. In all three of the movies, the character functions well as both a villain and a cautionary tale for Frodo and company: This is what happens to someone who’s spent 600 years fixated on a piece of magical jewelry. But the flashback scene in the third film, The Return Of The King, shows how Smeagol’s obsession with the One Ring was ignited and helps to explain his transformation from a seemingly content river-folk Hobbit to an amphibious humanoid creature-thing with a split personality and a penchant for sibilance.
No sane person could possibly describe House Of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, as an easy read. Unusually structured, with (often misleading) footnotes that drift into endless digressions, it’s a formally adventurous novel that seems to have been designed to baffle, frustrate, and just generally fuck with anyone foolhardy enough to brave its labyrinthine construction. (I know plenty of people who have outright bailed on it mid-read; hell, it took me three earnest attempts.) But there’s at least one passage of the book that functions marvelously in isolation: The epistolary subplot, included in the appendix, unfolds as a series of letters to Johnny Truant, the protagonist, from his institutionalized mother. Starting out pleasant and conversational, the correspondences become increasingly, disturbingly irrational; rarely has an artist of any medium so convincingly (and tragically) captured a plummet into paranoid madness. While the rest of House Of Leaves may take readers weeks to flip through, this riveting novel-within-the-novel can be absorbed in one sitting—which is perhaps why Danielewski expanded it into a stand-alone work, The Whalestoe Letters.
In true David Lynch fashion, the ungluing of Twin Peaks’ Leland Palmer is initially presented as a sick, camped-up joke. As the grieving father of the show’s murdered golden child, Ray Wise provides the show with one of its broadest slapstick punchlines, hammily leaping onto Laura Palmer’s casket as it bobs in and out of the girl’s grave, a man and a town unable to let go of a favored daughter. As the central mystery of the first season and a half unfurls, it’s revealed that Twin Peaks has trouble letting go of a lot of things, and the supernatural forces that control the town have their full, Jack Torrance-like grip on Leland. Some of his erratic behavior can be chalked up to mental anguish and the pressures of smoothing over the misdeeds of his clients at the Great Northern Hotel, but by the time he gives up sobbing to one mid-century novelty song for spastically crooning another, it’s obvious there’s something a little more sinister at work beneath that newly white mop of hair. And then he gets a load of himself in the mirror during “Lonely Souls” and—again in the signature style of the show’s co-creator—the whole thing goes from baffling non sequitur to unearthly horror show in a blink and a smile.
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan disturbed me not just because of Natalie Portman’s spiral into self-destructive insanity, but because of those close-up shots of her en pointe, the deafening sound of scraping wood drowning out everything else. Most of Aronofsky’s films are about an obsession that becomes unhealthy, often leading to some type of unhinged state (Pi, Hugh Jackman’s characters in The Fountain, and presumably the upcoming Biblical epic Noah). As Sonia mentioned, Requiem For A Dream is a desolate wasteland of misery, but Black Swan had more personal filmmaking triggers for me—similar to Uma Thurman slicing Buck’s Achilles tendon in Kill Bill—that made the film a more unsettling descent into artistic madness, and one that I’ve been unable to revisit.
There’s far more of an emotional range to the music of Joy Division than many people give the band credit for. That said, Ian Curtis and company own every inch of their doom-and-gloom image on their 1980 album Closer. The first half of the album—I still think of it in terms of halves, seeing as how I cut my teeth on a vinyl copy—covers a lot of ground, from the cryogenic synth-pop of “Isolation” to the grinding noise of “Colony.” But the album’s second side is legendary for its slow, stately descent into harrowing despair, and for good reason. Starting with the ghostly whispers of “Heart And Soul” and ending with the elegant nightmare of “Decades,” Closer closes with an inward spiral of shame, self-loathing, and existential surrender. And then it just… disappears.
What makes Matt “Daredevil” Murdock’s misery so painful is that it never really seems to end. My mind first went to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s “Born Again” storyline in which Matt Murdock was stripped of everything he loved, but then I also remembered the complete nervous breakdown he suffered when his secret identity was revealed in Brian Michael Bendis’ and Alex Maleev’s run. After Matt served a stint in prison and was possessed by an evil demon, things started to look up as his comic became a more colorful, fun-loving title, but even that newfound optimism was tinged with madness. Daredevil’s best friend, Foggy, thought the cheerful attitude was Matt’s way of avoiding his severe mental and emotional damage, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, Foggy was then diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma because poor Matt Murdock can never catch a break. All this sadness has resulted in some incredible stories, and the fact that Daredevil has found a way to persevere through his misery has made him one of the most inspiring superheroes.
It feels strange to have a descent-into-madness question without any H.P. Lovecraft, but then, it’s hard to pick just one of his stories; the concept is practically his entire genre. Still, while it’s not my favorite of his work, I’d think I’d go with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” as the best example, primarily because of the story’s main twist. The setup is typical: The story’s narrator, blithely unaware of the danger into which he’s plunging, decides to look into the mysterious New England town of Innsmouth, where the locals are sullen, and nobody seems all that interested in the tourist trade. As the narrator digs deeper, he discovers dark secrets about ancient gods and ancestral inter-species copulation, none of which does much for his state of mind. The real kick, however, is the discovery (and here’s a spoiler alert, just in case) that narrator himself is actually a distant relative of the town’s progenitors, meaning he too suffers from the same fishy curse that haunts them all. Tales of madness are most frightening when they cut the protagonist off from ever finding a way home, and it’s hard to imagine one more thoroughly unsettling than realizing the monsters that chase you match the reflection in the mirror.
I’ll go with the 1996 film The Trigger Effect. I admit, when it first came out, the only reason I had an interest in seeing it was because I’m a Twin Peaks fanatic and it stars Kyle MacLachlan, but it’s a captivating film that begins with a young couple named Matthew and Annie—played by MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue—dealing with a sick infant, only to have a blackout interfere with their efforts to obtain the necessary medicine to get the child back on the road to good health. When Matthew spontaneously decides to steal the medicine, it’s an action performed with good intentions, but it’s the first of many occasions where the film explores the repercussions of convincing yourself that you’re doing something for the right reasons, with the characters growing angrier and crazier the longer the lights stay off. Perhaps The Trigger Effect is ultimately more about paranoia than legitimate madness, but when the end result finds you looking into the business end of a shotgun, it’s awfully hard to tell the difference.
Eminem’s “Stan” is the high-end, self-aware version of one of those demented novelty songs like Jack Kittel’s “Psycho” and Nervous Norvus’ “Transfusion.” The song, which dates from a moment in his career when it behooved Eminem to provide some evidence that he knew what genuinely antisocial behavior sounded like—and could tell the difference between it and his own hyperbolic boasts—is delivered in the voice of an ultimate fan, who starts out a little too intense, but comes progressively more unglued as his letters to his hero go unanswered. (Lest we think that Eminem is some Hollywood phony, he comes on as himself in the epilogue to reveal that he does read Stan’s every word and is concerned about him. It’s just that he can really get behind in his correspondence.) At the end, Stan records his final moments as he aims his car at a river with his girlfriend locked in the trunk; when Slim Shady hears this, he’ll be sorry for sure. Unfortunately, Stan’s exact last words are, “Oh shit, I forgot, how am I supposed to send this shit out?” Sometimes, it would be better to not even get that last-minute moment of clarity.