Frank is a 2014 film by Lenny Abrahamson starring Michael Fassbender as the titular character, an eccentric, yet earnest musician that also happens to wear a giant paper-mache head (a reference to English musician and comedian Chris Sievey and his longtime comic persona, Frank Sidebottom). The film follows Frank and his band (Soronprfbs) as they welcome a new member (Domhnall Gleason) and try to record an album at an isolated property located in Ireland. Afterwards, they attempt to play an important show at SXSW, which ultimately reveals some of the deep-rooted psychological issues that the film’s somewhat bizarre premise suggests.
Mental illness is never really the main focus of the film, but rather the antecedent and eventual falling action of the plot itself. Frank’s creativity is never questioned in this regard; though there is some assumption that the paper-mache head is what allows him to adopt the persona we observe during the first two acts of the film. The irony is that mental illness and creativity do not produce a positive corollary, but in some sense, belong to one another. Of course, we can only credit mental illness with providing the necessary conditions for an artist’s creativity to flourish; we cannot guarantee it will work for everyone. In other words, not everyone diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder will turn into Daniel Johnston (another one of the film’s influences). The same goes for a physical diagnose. The misconception is that these external factors somehow inform the artist. In reality, what these conditions have in common is that they each provide limitations, parameters that the artist may or may not be aware of. It happens all the time, the idea that an artist is merely trying to anticipate these sorts of limitations.
In this film, Jon needs to be pushed in order to unlock his creativity. The keyword is unlock. Frank, on the other hand, is completely untethered to the sort of instincts that hold Jon back. And with a history of mental illness, it’s difficult to separate the two. Obviously, creativity is a way for Frank to make sense of his surroundings and interact with others. They’re five other people in the band that respect him as an artist. So either Jon is joining a cult or he’s found exactly what he is looking for.
In the beginning, we see Jon as naïve, continuously praising the group for allowing him this opportunity. In reality, nothing was promised to him and his enthusiasm doesn’t really make much of an impression on the rest of the group. He also wants to suffer for his art, but doesn’t know where to begin. He wants so desperately to be damaged or introduced to some sort of trauma (which he perceives in the other members) that he ignores the fact that there is nothing wrong with being okay. It stifles him creatively. He keeps waiting for the experience to change him rather than change his experience. It’s the difference that many aspiring artists have trouble distinguishing between. Both Frank and Jon are looking for inspiration in their surroundings. For Frank, it’s a bizarre, childlike curiosity that informs his creative impulses. For Jon, he only manages to extract superficial, often labored details from his surroundings. In other words, Frank sees the potential in every object to have some sort of meaning that may influence his music; whereas, Jon is obsessed with manufacturing this experience. It’s like the rug with the loose thread that Frank writes an impromptu tune for after telling Jon you can write a song about anything. Frank lets the object inform his creativity rather than Jon, who merely tries to appropriate everything to fit his musical conception of what it means to be a songwriter–which is often frustrating, drab, and lacking depth.
This is where Don is able to explain the situation well. He acknowledges his limitations and warns Jon not to become obsessed with matching Frank’s ability as a musician. Maybe it’s because there’s something too intense about the experience. It’s the unknown boundary that Jon is aware of, but nowhere near finding. He may not even be capable of pushing himself toward these limits. Creativity is not something that rewards an artist merely for having good intentions. It requires pureness. Frank represents this sort of purity, the kind that then manifests itself into something we don’t understand until the very end of the film. Jon has forced Frank to confront his mental illness, effectively disallowing his creativity, since the paper-mache head provided the austerity necessary to enforce the persona Frank was most comfortable portraying. It also causes Frank to retreat into himself, as the lack of self-expression triggers his mental illness–something the film slowly acknowledges, but doesn’t overemphasize. In the end, Jon seems to finally grasp the concept of what he is lacking as an artist, which allows him to move on and restore the balance that had previously existed between Frank and the band: a creative environment as well as a creative temperament. Two things an artist should never go without, especially when the results are often more than satisfying:
–N. David Pastor