When filmmaker Charlie Kaufman received the Writers Guild of America West’s 2023 Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement in March, the creative genius behind Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) used the ceremony to express his dissatisfaction with the current state of the film industry.
“They’ve tricked us into thinking we can’t do it without them,” he said. “The truth is they can’t do anything of value without us.” Kaufman has made similar statements before. He believes that, aside from its obsession with profit, Hollywood has gotten into the habit of making formulaic films that sugarcoat the nihilistic cruelty of existence with disingenuous platitudes.
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In Kaufman’s most recent film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the main character lists some of these platitudes during a nervous breakdown. They include: “It’s going to get better;” “It’s never too late;” “God has a plan for you;” “Age is just a number;” “It’s always darkest before the dawn;” “Every cloud has a silver lining;” and “There’s someone for everyone.”
For a filmmaker who tries to convince you that existence is pointless, even evil, Kaufman is surprisingly popular. So popular, in fact, that his influence can be found in many indie hits, including Ari Aster’s new horror film Beau is Afraid, which film critic Jason Adams described as anxiety-inducing to the point it will have you “upping your meds the minute you leave the theater.”
Reading this made me think of Plato’s Republic. While the philosopher’s ideal state is more dystopian than utopian, there are arguments I find sensible, including that art should play a practical role in society. Just as Plato believed that soldiers should not read poems about forgiveness before a battle, so I wonder if people should entertain art that makes them feel they need antidepressants, to paraphrase the aforementioned film critic.
Depressing art can still make a positive impact on the world. Ilya Repin’s 1885 painting “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” comes to mind, as do Wilhelm Brasse’s photographs of German concentration camps. Both artists show where the darkest human impulses can lead us and inspire us to be better.
Another example is the Japanese film Drive My Car (2021) which, like the play by Anton Chekhov it adapts, implores its viewers to put up with the unavoidable pain and suffering life will throw their way, rather than surrender to it.
Not all depressing art possesses these redeeming qualities. While Kaufman’s 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, about a hypochondriac theater director hellbent on sharing his paralyzing fear of death with those around him, blew me away with its production quality, it also caused me to stay up late worrying about medical problems I didn’t have. One night, after one too many beers, I even quoted the film when I told my best friend that “everyone is disappointing, the more you know someone.”
There’s a great article on Aeon exploring why sadness features more prominently in art than happiness. It’s prefaced by Henry Wallis’s “Chatterton” (c. 1856), a painting depicting the titular Romantic poet after committing suicide at age 17 by drinking arsenic. While there is evidence that Chatterton never took his own life, the romanticization of his death led many angsty young Englishmen to emulate him.
The same happened to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the young hero shoots himself to escape a love triangle. The 1774 novel inspired so many copycat suicides that the phenomenon is referred to as the “Werther Effect,” a term that came up after the suicides of Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain.
The Werther Effect is closely connected to the myth of the tortured artist, which suggests a positive correlation between intelligence, creativity, and mental illness. A popular belief about the most famous tortured artist, Vincent van Gogh, is that his madness was the very source of his talent.
Van Gogh’s own writing paints a different picture: that he was a talented artist not because he was mentally ill, but in spite of it. Confined to an asylum after cutting his ear, painting helped him hold onto his steadily eroding sanity. “Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease,” he wrote in a letter, “what things I might have done.”
Today the majority of clinical professionals believe there is indeed a link between mental health and creativity. However, it’s not the one presented by the myth of the tortured artist. While depression does not appear to help you make or appreciate art, making art does seem to help improve symptoms of depression. It’s for this reason that art is an essential human need.