On Creativity and Psychological Scarring, Or How 'Frank' Will Fuck You Up
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On Creativity and Psychological Scarring, Or How 'Frank' Will Fuck You Up

By Rebecca Pahle | Think Pieces | August 19, 2014 | Comments ()

frank 2014.jpg

Out in New York this weekend, Frank’s garnered a lot of attention since its premiere at Sundance earlier this year for Michael Fassbender’s performance as a guy who literally wears a giant mask for 90% of the film. It’s just the sort of thing that gets people talking, and he does a great job.

But I don’t want to talk about Frank.

I want to talk about Jon.

Played by Domhnall Gleeson, Jon is the main character of the film, an office drone with dreams of musical stardom who thinks he finally might get his big break when Frank’s band loses its keyboard player and has to take him under its wing. While Frank and his compatriots are for the most part your stereotypical artistic eccentrics—Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara plays the theremin and dresses like she’s from the ’20s, Fran├žois Civil’s boho bassist Baraque speaks French all the time, and though Frank’s insistence on wearing a giant fake head is a symptom of deeper psychological issues, it certainly seems at first, to Jon and to us, that it’s an affectation adopted by a deeply artistic soul—Jon’s just… a normal guy.

He tweets out what sandwich he’s eating for lunch to his 14 followers. Once he joins the band he blogs about them and uploads clips to YouTube, not because of any intentionally Machiavellian desire to control the band’s future, but because… well, because that’s what you do. Something interesting happens to you, you post to Tumblr about it.

There’s certainly an aspect of Frank that’s a criticism of social media, of how it enables a modern and fickle definition of fame. Jon plays into that. His perception of realizing his creative potential is all tied up in being successful—to him, unlike the rest of his bandmates, writing a good song doesn’t matter if people don’t hear it. And how do you measure success? By followers, YouTube hits, and social media buzz.

And sure, as the movie goes on, Jon’s goals are revealed as being ultimately pretty harmful, and in a way he turns into the antagonist of the film, which after all is named after Frank. I won’t go into details here, because it’s spoilery, but also because it’s largely irrelevant to the part of Frank that killed my soul, which is this: All Jon wants is to be a successful songwriter. He wants validation. He wants respect from his peers. Who doesn’t? But he fails. And the reason for his failure isn’t because he doesn’t put in the hard work. It’s not because he doesn’t want it. It’s not because he doesn’t put everything he has into it. It’s because when it comes right down to it He’s just not good enough. Because sometimes you’re not.

Did anyone else just sink to the floor and start crying, or was it just me?

Frank cuts to the writhing, painful nest of insecurities at the core of anyone who has MyNovel.doc saved on their computer, convinced that it’ll be awesome when they actually finish it. When you work in a creative field, you put yourself out there in a way that you don’t with most other jobs. No one’s called my brother the computer programmer an idiot or a fascist or “oversensitive” for the way he does something at work. (If they have, he needs to tell me, because I’m the older sister and I’ll fuck their shit up.) I get that now, and that’s just from me writing articles about movies. It’s not personal in the way that all the things I want to write are.

And putting yourself out there like that is hard. Fuck, it’s psychologically debilitating. I still haven’t actually written The Big Fantasy Novel that I want to write, because I’m scared shitless that it’ll suck. Which it will! Because first drafts always do! But if I plan it, if I do research and fiddle around with character motivations instead of actually writing, I’ll feel productive, even though I know full well I’m just distracting myself. I’m wasting what time I have. And that makes me feel worse, so I do some more not-writing. The cycle continues.

At the core of it all, there’s that fear: If I do put myself out there, like Jon does, if I do everything right, I’ll still be rejected, because it turns out I’m an awful fucking writer. I don’t know if Frank screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan have similar issues, or if I’m just doing some major-league projecting. I’m guessing they do. And I sympathize with them, but at the same time I want to punch them, because did you have to make Frank so brutal for your fellow delicate creative types? Did you?

Don’t see this movie. Or do, because it’s really good. But don’t, because you will hate yourself afterwards.

You can find Rebecca on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • JenVegas

    Once again I am just grateful to be amongst like-minded individuals in this crazy internet world. Sigh. That is all.

  • Miss Kate

    I remember the first time I saw Amadeus (25 years ago or so). I was in art school, and Salieri's realization that he is "a mediocrity" upon meeting someone with real talent terrified me. As a designer, it still scares the shit out of me. You never lose the fear that you're just not good enough.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Ah, yes. That is an utterly heartbreaking moment - the genius of that play.

    sidebar: I'm currently working on a production of a Salieri opera, and we just got our first review. Positive for the production and for poor, semi-forgotten Salieri. (fingers crossed for the NY Times review later this week, as that reviewer came last night!)


  • Miss Kate

    good luck!

  • Equinox

    I remember going to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with an aspiring screenwriter friend of mine.
    Leaving the theatre I was elated by the experience of something so fresh, new and interesting. I couldn't stop babbling about how in love with that movie I was. She was quiet. Finally she simply said, 'That was a depressing experience.' When I asked why she replied that she knew, without doubt, that she could write for a thousand years and never write anything that good. I guess that was a harsh realization, to have genius put your own megre talent in perspective for you.

  • barcia

    I'm guessing that Stephanie Meyers loses no sleep over this kind of stuff and she's worth upwards of $100 million for her "writing." Tell me again why I need talent?

  • Vi

    Actually Rebecca, your brother might be a great person to talk to. There's something among computer engineers called the 'impostor syndrome' that gives them the same sort of anxiety that creatives also get. It comes with being around working on things that are constantly peer reviewed and questioned. It's the feeling that you don't belong 'there', that you're not good enough, you'll never know enough, and you have no idea why anyone would ever pay you that much money and that maybe you don't actually know anything at all.

  • cinekat

    I have imposter syndrome whenever someone treats me as a grown-up. And I'm 41.

  • Stina

    Yup, impostor syndrome is present in a lot of disciplines. I have a PhD in medical science and I'm still pretty sure I've just managed to pull the collective wool over everyone's eyes to get where I am.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I've written two plays, and seeing them performed in front of me - and an audience - for the first time was utterly terrifying. And I wasn't laboring under the impression that they were brilliant, but please, please don't let them be garbage. Let people be engaged, let people laugh. (fortunately, they did, some nights more so than others of course). Writing those plays was more terrifying than any acting, directing or singing I've done - not entirely sure why, except that perhaps it was a struggle mostly on my own to get them done.

    I guess I'd find the concept of not being good enough to succeed tragic if it was a be all end all. I mean, yes, I know people who are heartbroken in that way. Perhaps I've mitigated my desire for success, for perfection too much - telling myself too much in advance that it's not possible, so be happy with what you do.

    I think I've rambled around my point. I'll think more on this and come back tonight...while I'm working backstage, listening to up & coming opera singers. Who sure have to go through a lot of training and still must gird themselves to be told on a regular basis that they just aren't quite good enough.

  • Naye

    Now THATS terrifying. Not just trying out your passion and failing, but spending years and years and time and money perfecting your craft only to be just not good enough.

    I, however, do not engage in just assuming failure. Ive gotten to the point where I accept that failure is a part of life. My biggest journey is one of discovering self and if self sucked at something she loved, well she dusted her ass off and found something else to love. I've decided that I prefer the character that comes from trying and failing than never trying at all. It doesnt mean Im not scared shitless, but it does give me balls of steel lol

  • Sara_Tonin00

    It's true. It's not that you can't do something else with the umpteen foreign languages and musical styles you've learned, plus piano, etc. It's just that it's not your foremost passion. Or maybe you're lucky, and it does become your passion. But a memory I have as a teenager is my mom playing this song for me:


    I've never been certain if it was about not taking critics seriously, or something else, or just a song that touched her. But Harry Chapin can break a heart like no one else.

    Trying and failing, yes. But man, does the failing sting. And I don't assume failure per se; I just don't assume brilliance from myself. I'm hoping to get to the point where I do the work often enough that "good enough" ceases to be what I settle for. For right now, I'm in the "do it and get it out there." Additional follow up and seeing things through more completely is the next step.

  • Naye

    I get that kind of anxiety just posting on here with all you witty verbose types, sheeesh. Took me a long time to learn to just do it now, and worry about the suckage later. So I probably won't see this movie. It'll undo everything. That and Fassbender wears a fake head. I dont need that in my life.

  • I know what you mean. Shit. Even writing my little blog that doesn't get seen by more than 20 people feels daunting. And most of that stuff is disposable, momentary or unimportant. I can't imagine what it's like to write a novel and put it out there for others to tear apart.

    The simple fact is you are going to suck at the start. Because everyone sucks at the start. It's why bands prefer to start out covering famous songs -- everyone likes them and the risk is limited. It's why actors take years before they're "discovered". For every Mozart, there's 10,000 musicians who have to work hard at it. And most of them never amount to anything equaling a modern composer.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    Hiring Michael Fassbender to play a character whose face is always obstructed by a mask is like getting James Earl Jones to play a mute. It's such an intriguing concept that I'm sold on the gimmick already.

    And I'm a sucker for films that have the gall to tackle the qualms of working in a field solely fueled by creativity, and all the apprehension that comes from making yourself vulnerable to all sorts of criticisms, as if you're an exposed nerve for the world to poke. And the scary notion that all your talent is meaningless without good timing, like in Inside Llewyn Davis.

    I have a feeling this film is going to wreck me even more than Calvary.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Oh boy did Calvary wreck me.

  • Wigamer

    I love Inside Llewyn Davis so much, for that very reason.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    That is the terrifying thing about passions like that, though. No matter how much you love them, no matter how much they are a part of you and your life, no matter how much effort you put in, there's an element of talent that can't be trained or bought or borrowed and if you don't have it you don't have it. You may even have the very special hell of knowing someone who HAS that talent, and their shining example will make your own failures even clearer. Publishing a book (even a little self-published on Amazon non-fiction book) was one of the most terrifying things I ever did. I wouldn't take it back, but I won't pretend like it was easy. Writing was easy. Letting other people read it kept me up at nights.

  • BootlegGinger

    (sorry if this is unrelated) Part of me wonders if some part of this is why some people get so angry when they see others go into creative fields rather than the non-creative ones, and even why sometimes the critical reactions to people's work is sometimes so reflexively nasty.
    I think there's a part of everyone that wants to create and be successful doing what they love, but most have quietly folded up that dream and put it away, even forgetting about it. Sometimes it's because of economic realities, realizing that you don't really love it enough, or just plain giving up, because you realize you actually aren't good enough. I think the third reason can make people reflexively and defensively angry when they see someone who continues on. I'm not talking about legitimate criticism, more the knee-jerk, internet troll version. The type who are really saying, "fuck you, why do you think you can do this? get a real job like the rest of us and give up you're silly little dream," but with far more creative usage of the English language. When people react so vehemently and trash something someone else has created, I've found it's so often because they know they can't do it themselves. They are angry at you for daring to create something, because they can't.

    But this is all quite selfish, because I have no talent, so if you creative types don't make stuff we're fucked.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    Probably. I think it's easy when you're young to get very romantic visions of creative careers, and since anyone can pick up an instrument or start writing "poetry" or sing in the shower, it creates this idea that all you really need is a little bit of work and some luck. When it becomes clear that's not the case, some people shrug and move on, and some people get very bitter.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    The worst - the WORST - was when I realized that singing was essentially a sport. I was pissed. I thought I just got to be natural and emotional, but noooo....it requires daily exercise and discipline and sacrifice and....that's why I'm not a professional singer.

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