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July 26, 2005

Discussion: Strangely Tender

Elling Harvey Psychonauts

I've seen a few movies about mental illness (or something like mental illness) lately, and then not long afterwards, I played Tim Schafer's most excellent game, Psychonauts. The reason why I'm blogging about the three titles you see above together¹ is because of the touching, almost sweet, way that they treat mental illness².

Originally I put these three pieces together with Jules and Jim, a French movie about two great friends who both fall in love with the same woman, who turns out to be the very definition of a femme fatale. But that movie treats its madness frankly, without pity or sentimentality, not even really passing judgement, just relating a tale. But that didn't fit, because these other three treat mental illness and disability in such a sensitive way, so I threw it out.

Elling is an odd little Norwegian movie that presents a pair of mentally disabled men who have been furloughed from institutional life and placed in an apartment together; the film shows their gradual adjustment to life outside of an institution. Neither of them are so debilitated that they require constant supervision, but on the other hand, neither of them could probably live entirely alone either. It's a quaint little film which tenderly and honestly portrays these strange characters, and we come to laugh with them in a way that doesn't feel exploitative. When Elling narrates about his unlikely success as a poet, he speaks in tones that come off as Romantic, and it's funny and it works because he's real, up there on the screen, and not some caricature.

In a similar vein, in Harvey, Jimmy Stewart portrays Elwood P. Dowd, a gentle man with a taste for drink and an invisible six foot rabbit for a friend. I relate this to the two others here because of the treatment of Dowd, who is sympathethic even while we wonder if he's completely crazy. We find humor in the situations here precisely because we've come to like Elwood, and because we similarly find his sister compelling, in her bewildered concern for her brother.

A lot of the reason I don't find movies like Me, Myself, and Irene or Dumb and Dumber4 all that funny is because they don't take any time to develop any empathy with their characters. They aren't, in fact, portrayals of characters at all -- but portrayals which put an illness forward as character, and then play that illness for laughs. I know it works for a lot of people; it just doesn't work for me.

Which brings me, at last, to the storytelling genius that is contained in Psychonauts. In the game, various characters are mentally ill, and part of your job as Raz is to attempt to heal them. From the inside.

This wouldn't have worked for me as well as it did were it not for the fact that the characters are presented in such a compelling way -- they, like Elling or Elwood, are not merely the sum of their ailments, but are instead believable characters who are afflicted. Treating the characters and the audience in this mature way leads to better and more memorable humor, in my opinion.

The conceit underlying the game's mechanics is that many of the characters in the game are damaged people, and that we can help them in some small way, help them to overcome the worst of their ailments and attempt to enter life again. They won't come out perfect, they'll still be decidedly odd, but they'll at least be able to function. And so, it's rewarding to finish the levels, because we've come to understand the characters through their neuroses.

Take Boyd as an example. When we first meet him, it's abundantly clear that there's something quite wrong with him. He's paranoid, but he has a job to do, and he's prepared to do it to the best of his ability, even if he doesn't entirely make sense. He's the watchman at the Asylum where Raz' friends have been taken (well, where their brains are... it's complicated).

When we enter his mind, we're inside a psychosis that is both rife with humor and tinged with sadness, like most of the minds we encounter in Psychonauts. There are men in trenchcoats everywhere, performing the jobs in the world, like repairing the roads or fixing telephone wiring. Cameras pop out of mailboxes. Objects in the world move closer. Every building is alike, inside and out, but viewed through a camera that is just slightly fish-eyed. For a while, we have an understanding of just how paralyzing it must be to exist this way, to see conspiracies everywhere. At the same time, the trenchcoat characters say the most outrageous things, all in monotone, and they make you laugh -- juxtaposed against this bizarre world, you have spy-like characters saying things like "Although I smell of excrement, you should respect me, because I provide a valuable service." And the trenchcoat men who stand-in for suburban housewives speak lines which are positively subversive ("My husband may not find me attractive sexually, but he still loves my pies.").

If it weren't for the extended time spent setting up these situations so that they are compelling and consistent, the payoff simply wouldn't be there.

I don't have anything surprising to say, I guess, but just need to remark that games are no different from other storytelling media when it comes to humor. Humor in each of these experiences grows out of character, and the humor is richer because the characters are.

¹Though it is likely that Psychonauts will get another detailed entry... when I get off my duff.
²In the case of Harvey it's not mental illness, properly, but some otherworldly thing. But it amounts to the same thing, in this case, because everyone around him believes him to be well, if not insane, surely eccentric.
³As it turns out, he's not, Harvey is a Pookah. It seems clear to me that Harvey is a predecessor of the rabbit in Donnie Darko, though that film doesn't adhere to any particular myth to pin this down precisely. I should probably listen to the audiotrack on the Director's Cut, but I admit I probably won't :)
4Dumb and Dumber isn't really all that different from Elling; it's a buddy picture of a pair of misfits. I probably would have walked out of D&D in the theater, though, I found it so... unfunny. More boring, really.

Posted by Brett Douville at July 26, 2005 06:18 PM


>I should probably listen to the audiotrack on the Director's Cut...

I did. You're right.

Posted by: Stephane at July 27, 2005 12:33 PM

Many thanks for saving me an hour or two of listening to the audiotrack. I figured it absolutely had to be, especially given the Pookah-like nature of the rabbit, even though it's perversely based on that Halloween costume. It's a great movie, and probably worth seeing again.

Posted by: Brett Douville at July 27, 2005 10:23 PM

I'd go as far as to advice people NOT to listen to the commentary, since the director's explanation of the nature of the rabbit (and other phenomena) may spoil your enjoyment of the movie.
It certainly did mine.

Btw, I'll take this opportunity to say that, even if I don't usually post comments, I enjoy your blog immensely. Thanks for all the brain seeds.

Posted by: Stephane at July 28, 2005 09:36 AM

Thanks! That's really great to hear. Since I have about as many comments as I have posts, I'm never really sure if anyone's reading it, so I'm glad to have the feedback. There's probably some MovableType support for me to determine that, but I haven't gone digging to find out, there just aren't enough hours in the day.

Posted by: Brett Douville at July 28, 2005 11:38 AM

I was going to email you, but, well, there's no email address on your page.

http://www.statcounter.com/ is a pretty nifty tool Josh over at Cathode Tan (http://cathodetan.blogspot.com/ ) hipped me to. You can put an invisible counter on your main page to track visitors, visit length, and a ton more data. Though be warned. It's so easy set up and use that I've become a bit addicted to checking it a couple of times a day out of curiousity to who looks at my blog. And if people look at mine, you should have no doubt we're looking at yours too.

Posted by: Jeffool at July 30, 2005 02:00 AM