Sunday, October 01, 2006

A post-modern pet peeve

A common story device that seems to pop up in a lot of contexts is the character who is experiencing unusual phenomena that suggest either that the character has developed some kind of mental illness or that some kind of bizarre circumstance is somehow mimicing the symptoms of mental illness. In a postmodern sense, it's easy to see the attraction of this kind of plot device. The author (or director or scriptwriter or whoever) of the story can either gratify or frustrate the audience's expectations by adjusting the ratio of "craziness" to "extenuating circumstance" accordingly. Of course, it's entirely possible to screw up the formula one way or another, and one easy way of doing that is through overuse. A canonical example of overuse is the television series "Star Trek: The Next Generation", which produced episodes in which

In hindsight, one is suprised by the fact that better defensive measures haven't been adopted by a crew that is fighting off alien mind games in a sizable fraction of its recorded adventures.

Another way of bungling a story involving a character who cannot decide if he or she is insane or not is to introduce a third option that precludes the other two. The example that I have in mind is the movie "Solaris". In this case, astronauts housed in a space station in orbit around an alien planet named Solaris are visited by apparitions that appear to be real people that have been recreated from the astronauts' memories. For example, the character Chris Kelvin awakens after his first night in orbit around Solaris to find himself in bed with his wife -- here seen alive and well -- whom he had previously believed to be dead.

One question that Kelvin finds himself confronted with is whether this entity is his wife, or is simply a fantasy version of his wife reconstructed from his imperfect memories of her, or is something in-between. A second question is whether Kelvin can determine the answer to the riddle embodied by Solaris before the mental strain of dealing with these apparitions incapacitates him. Unfortunately, the evidence that the film gives for answering these questions is rendered unreliable by a third possibility: that the drugs that Kelvin takes to remain awake at a critical point have themselves damaged his ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

An even more botched example involves the introduction of a fourth explanation which renders moot the previous three options. Here, the case I have in mind is the film "The Tenant". The story involves a shy young man who moves into an apartment previously inhabited by a woman who just recently committed suicide. At first, we have the familiar dilemma when the young man realizes that he cannot decide if he is merely being paranoid or if he is the victim of a subtle murder conspiracy involving his neighbors (thus leading to the suicide of the previous tenant). The film is relatively slow-paced at first, so halfway through the movie the action accelerates when the young man suffers some kind of presumably drug-induced hallucinatory delirium. Certainly the question of conspiracy versus insanity at the beginning of the film is rendered moot when the young man rather abrubtly appears to go bonkers because of this mysterious delirium. Then, as if this wasn't enough muddying of the waters, a final plot twist establishes that all of the previous events were in fact the product of an insanity that was totally different than the audience had previously been led to believe. As Roger Ebert described it:
There is then an ironic ending that will come as a complete surprise to anyone who has missed every episode of "Night Gallery" or the CBS Mystery Theater. It turns out that -- but never mind, never mind. It's been a long time since I've heard an audience talk back to the ending of a horror film. "The Tenant" might have made a decent little 20-minute sketch for one of those British horror anthology films in which Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price pick up a little loose change. As a film by Polanski, it's unspeakably disappointing.
Obviously a big drawback to this entire line of storytelling is the tendency of 20th century citizens of Western societies to immediately adopt self-medication as a solution to their problems. Star Trek: The Next Generation escapes this problem since the main characters are getting cycled through sick bay for either examination or treatment on an episode-to-episode basis in any case. The show assigned roughly 30% of its main character cast to support personnel keeping the other 70% alive and functional, after all.


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