Over the past few days I’ve been on a bit of Domnhall Gleeson wave. This marathon I’ve undertaken allowed me to revisit Frank, my favourite film of 2014.
There’s numerous reasons for my love of this film. The central performances by Gleeson and Fassbender are sensational. It is of great credit to Fassbender that, in the middle of his A-List emergence, he not only returned to independent cinema but took a role where he wears a papier-mâché mask for the vast majority of the running time; Fassbender is a bankable star and it’s a gutsy move to hide him behind a cartoon face. The music, whilst intentionally awful, is suitably catchy and enjoyable. Also the cinematography is brilliant. The screen is able to the present both the wide vistas of the Texas desert and the claustrophobic intimacy of the album recording. A particular note should be focused on the ability of the cinematography to incorporate the aesthetics of social media, like twitter and tumblr, as part of the narrative on screen.
But this is not what I wanted to talk about here today. I wanted to talk about the wonderful message at the heart of the film: why do we have assume real “art” can only come from a damaged place?
In Psychedelia and Other Colours, Andrew Weatherall argues that “culturally we imbue with superior magic the work of those who bang their heads on the way through the doors of perception”. This argument is certainly compelling, as a society we are more receptive to the work of those we define as damaged in some way. That is to say, we give importance to any piece of work that seems to be coming from a place of genuine hardship. To give a real world example: The Bell Jar was critically panned on its release, but the reception became more positive after Sylvia Plath’s tragic suicide. Frank is a film that aims to cut through this cultural rhetoric.
Frank is charismatic. He is charming. But he is also very clearly suffering with mental illness. He lives in his mask and no-one in his band has ever seen his real face. But Domnhall Gleeson’s character, Jon, never really acknowledges this properly. He certainly questions the mask, frequently in fact, but he really reconciles this as the health issue that it is. To Jon the mask is a quirk, a notable personality facet that makes Frank a star persona.
Similarly Frank is very clearly a talented musician. He is very technically proficient, and is able to make intimate, honest music when prompted. But The Soronprfbs are awful. The music is nonsensical. It’s obtuse. It deliberately grates with audiences. And that’s completely okay. You get the impression that Frank and his band aren’t in this for glory or fame. It’s about therapeutic expression – this is the music they enjoy creating, and that’s good enough for them. But Jon can’t see that the band is awful. He can’t reconcile it within the context of Frank’s illness. Frank exists in a damaged place, therefore his music must be coming from this place. The songs can’t be bad, he’s a tortured genius!
At one point in the narrative Jon claims to have found his musical voice. Stating:
Despite all the hardships I have suffered here, something inside me is beginning to stir. I’ve come to realise that this is my Bluff, Kansas. That here in Vetno, I have found my abusive childhood, my mental hospital. That which pushes me to my furthest corners.
This makes the characters thought process extremely clear. He defines as Frank as a genius musician, a tortured Cobain-esque figure, because of his difficult past. Musical ability has nothing to do with his belief in his new idol – it entirely exists because Frank is mentally unstable. Yet this statement also contains an inherent arrogance. Does it not suggest that Jon believes his lack of musical talent is based around his normal healthy childhood? He can’t write songs because he was loved as a child. He has no mental illness he can fetishise into a “quirk”. Perhaps this is the core message of Frank – we like our artists to be tortured geniuses because it provides an excuse for “normal folk” to have no discernible talent.
Micheal Fassbender’s Frank is unwell, but Jon constantly romanticises his flaws. Frank clearly doesn’t have the talent Jon assigns to him. He also didn’t have the harsh past that he fetishises so clearly – he had been in an asylum yes, but Frank’s parents were a loving middle-class couple much like Jon’s. Frank as a piece of work therefore exists to question our cultural definitions of art. It places the literal fetishisation of mental illness and music on screen to re-examine the curious relationship the two seem to have. Sure Frank is a primarily fictional character (NB: Frank Sidebottom existed, but not in this form) but does he not call to real world “tortured genius artists”? Is there not a bit of Plath/Cobain/Morrissey/Thompson/etc shown within him?
Frank explores our curious desire to define those capable of producing work of real beauty as in any way broken. Ultimately, the text argues that it’s much easier to romanticise the mental illness of others, than it is to face the fact that you yourself have no real talent.