Fantasy worlds and childrens toys help these men process real world trauma.
“I think I’ll be a clown when I get grown,” said Dill. Jem and I stopped in our tracks. “Yes sir, a clown,” he said. “There ain’t one thing in this world I can do about folks except laugh, so I’m gonna join the circus and laugh my head off.” “You got it backwards, Dill,” said Jem. “Clowns are sad, it’s folks that laugh at them.” “Well I’m gonna be a new kind of clown. I’m gonna stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks.” – To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)
Is there anything more central to comedic storytelling than the sad clown? Originating with the ancient Greeks, associated with Dionysus, god of wine, theatre, insanity and freedom, the masks of comedy and tragedy are immediately reminiscent of theatre and performance, echoing the turmoil of both. So who else could play characters suffering the turmoil of mental health problems than a comedian? A literal sad clown, taking the brave step to remove the mask and perhaps allow some of their own traumas to seep into the screen.
We all know only too well now that Robin Williams struggled with his mental health, depression and anxiety, exacerbated by dementia and other physical health problems in later life, leading to his tragic death in 2014. It is hard as someone who grew up watching Jumanji, Hook and Aladdin (1992), and then found him again as a teen in Good Morning Vietnam, Patch Adams, The Fisher King and What Dreams May Come, to watch his work now, knowing that the absolute light he brought to the world is gone. It is harder still to write about them. No-one could have played the characters he did, in the way he did, and the universe is a darker place without him.
Unfortunately he is not alone, a great number of comic actors have struggled with various mental health problems and Williams is not the only one to lose his life prematurely to ill health, drugs or alcohol (often symptoms are as much as an illness in themselves). While both of the films discussed below, The Fisher King (which stars Williams) and Welcome to Marwen, use comic actors to address mental health, the star of the more recent release, Steve Carell, hasn’t openly spoken about any struggles he has had personally. But as a comic actor it can’t be something he is unfamiliar with, as comedy and tragedy always sit so close together.
Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King is a multi-layered examination of the way lives can interact and influence each other, a butterfly effect of simple throwaway comments taking multiple lives and creating far reaching consequences for many.
Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is living a life of excess. He feels untouchable and powerful. His work as a radio host allows and encourages him to be rude to people, to push their buttons and revel in his own narcissism. A regular caller, Edwin (Christian Clemenson) is pushed by Jack’s comments to carry out a mass shooting on an innocent group of people in a bar, simply because he doesn’t fit in with them. Jack doesn’t realise the power of his comments, and in one moment his entire life is brought crashing down around him. He loses his job, his position, his money, his girlfriend, his apartment and develops his own brand of narcissistic depression.
When he reaches rock bottom, a boy gives him a wooden Pinocchio toy. This wooden boy follows him through the story, and he immediately asks “Anyone here named Jiminy?” as he takes the first step in his own journey to finding a conscience and becoming a “real boy”. Just as he is about to jump into the river, the wooden toy taped alongside a block of concrete on his legs, he is attacked by a group of angry youths before Parry (Robin Williams) arrives, saving him from both the youths and from jumping. Parry pulls Jack into his world, and after a night of chaos, Jack learns how they were already linked.
A similar catalyst changes the life of Mark Hogencamp (Steve Carell) in Welcome to Marwen. An artist and an alcoholic, he outs himself as a cross-dresser in a bar, which results in him being severely beaten. After a long recovery he is left unable to draw due to the shakes in his hands, with no memories of who he was and with no reliance on alcohol. While The Fisher King focuses on the coincidences that cause crossovers in life, Welcome To Marwen has Mark pulling people towards him, albeit passively, by fashioning doll characters of the women in his life. He uses these dolls to try and find out who he is again, a sort of coping mechanism turned thought experiment. Putting his avatar through hypothetical situations and seeing what comes out.
Although there is an innocence to these actions it makes people uncomfortable. When he lost his memory a lot of the methods he had for forming relationships were lost as well – he is emotionally immature and has little idea of how to develop healthy relationships. The men around him seem impatient and not particularly tolerant, while the women are sympathetic, seeing him as a harmless oddity. It’s interesting to note that this gender split is exaggerated from the real world, the real Mark Hogencamp is supported in his life by both men and women (as seen in the documentary Marwencol).
Arthurian legend positions the historical “Fisher King” as a wounded King, the last remaining crusader looking for the Grail. Parry was a successful professional, an academic and lecturer named Henry Sagan, when his wife was murdered in the shooting triggered by Jack’s words. This caused a psychotic break, where Parry’s memories were buried and distorted and he adopted the persona of one of the characters that featured in his lectures. Taking on the grail quest as a coping mechanism and a cover for his internal turmoil. He is tormented by The Red Knight, a large man on a horse surrounded by horns and flames, a distorted manifestation of the memories he has of his wife at the moment of her death. He swings between mania, as he gets closer to finding the grail, and psychosis, as The Red Knight stops him in his tracks.
Jack, upon discovering the part he played in putting Parry in such a perilous position, feels compelled to help him. He starts by giving him money (which Parry immediately gives to another homeless man) then by trying to find him a partner, before eventually taking on the quest for the grail himself. Jack fills the role of Percival in the grail legends, a man of noble birth who continually fails to ask the right questions that would allow The Fisher King to heal.
Using fantasy worlds as a method of healing is central to both films, alongside the torment of mythical figures in the corner of their eye. Carell’s Hogencamp is tormented by a blue haired fairy, Deja (Diane Kruger), the only one of his dolls that seems not to have a real world equivalent. In this we can see her as a manifestation of his PTSD and perhaps even his previous alcoholism, as she reminds of the green fairy associated with absinthe. Her name is a reference to memories we can’t quite grasp, and familiar moments Mark can’t pin down. If he lets her get too close, his own Red Knight attacks. Memories of his brutal attack are manifested in hallucinations that destroy the house around him.
The intolerance of Mark’s attackers is transferred to the Nazis who constantly attack his miniature town, Marwen. They are fought off by the women who surround him, showing that the real women in his life help protect him from further pain. These female dolls are highly sexualised, which make their presence in his life feel uncomfortable, and some of the images he takes of the dolls are clearly representations of relationships he wishes he could have. However, there is an earnestness to Mark that still makes him sympathetic and keeps these women around him. They accept that the root of these actions are his emotional immaturity and fragility – but how that comes across in the film is subjective of course. His own avatar is everything he wishes he could be, strong, confident (even in women’s shoes) and eternally a survivor of these Nazi attacks.
Relationships are also developed throughout The Fisher King. As Jack supports Parry in his other quest to woo Lydia (Amanda Plummer), he learns of his own dependence on a relationship he has taken for granted throughout his depression. As they follow Lydia on her daily commute, the subway dances around them, with Lydia and Parry walking to their own beat. Jack, and his reluctant partner Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), carry out an elaborate plan to bring the two together, along with a nameless cross-dressing moustachioed cabaret singer (the greatly missed Michael Jeter), who they find attempting to get himself trampled by a debutante on a horse. They help the cabaret singer, Lydia and Parry, and through all of these actions Jack is mainly focused on freeing himself from his guilt, balancing his own Karma and allowing himself to go back to his old life.
It isn’t until Jack returns to his old life again that he changes and realises he can no longer live the same way and cannot truly forgive himself until he has healed Parry. He wrestles internally with the selfishness of his new life, and triggered by the return of the cabaret singer outside the skyscraper he now works in, remembers that his work remains unfinished. Parry is catatonic after the stress and guilt of potentially finding happiness with Lydia pushes him into a breakdown. Lydia is spending as much time as possible with him, bringing bedding, pyjamas and presents in the hope he will wake up so they can be together, Parry becoming her own fairytale sleeping beauty. Jack has abandoned Anne, who supported him through all his struggles.
Jack finally realises that to free Parry, he has to complete the Fisher King’s quest. He needs to find the grail and therefore heal him. Unfortunately, in this case it means breaking and entering is required. Jack enters the castle, finds the grail, saves a man from accidental overdose (lots of rescuing in this) and delivers the grail to Parry.
Parry wakes, Lydia cries, Jack goes back to Anne, and they all live happily ever after. It’s a beautiful fairytale ending, and exactly what all the characters deserve. There is a catharsis to this, as each character had to really work to get there. Each of them has tolerated Jack, supporting and enabling him to take the steps he needs to do the right thing. By the end, Jack has become a “real boy”.
Gilliam’s unusual shooting style emphasises this slow progress towards balance and catharsis, as harsh angles, wide angle lenses and low camera positions accentuate the distorted world view of all the characters. These angles slowly evolve as the plot progresses to a more traditional method of filming, as the characters see each other at eye level and without distortion.
Similarly, in Marwen, Mark is held and supported by the women around him to make the right choices and truly embrace who he is and what he loves. As he misguidedly aims his affections at Nicol (Leslie Mann), Roberta (Merritt Wever) stands back and allows Mark to eventually realise they have chemistry with each other and perhaps could develop more of a bond.
These relationships, and the processing he carries out through his model building, allows Mark to face his attackers in court and ensure they face the sentences they deserve, restoring balance in his life, much like the Fisher King‘s Jack restores balance in his. Mark’s fantasy world allows him to project himself internally as empowered in a way he’s unable to do in the real world. It may only be inside his head, but to him it is a very real battle, and one that he has to take any steps he can to win.
This similar themes of space and time and allowing people to come to conclusions by themselves is part of what makes these films so charming but also frustrating. You want to reach into the screen and shake both Jack and Mark and tell them to make the progress we know they are capable of. But of course the time taken to get there is what makes the endings all the sweeter. Perhaps these films have something to teach us about compassion for people’s faults? They highlight support networks and family, and how those with faults or illness should be held and encouraged, not forced to push themselves out of their comfort zones to achieve what society thinks is right for them.
It feels as though, in this case, a visit to Marwen or to embark on a the quest for a grail might be what we all need, to learn who and what is important, and what we are all capable of.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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