gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling
a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone
would fall back of its own weight. They had thought
with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment
than futile and hopeless labour. Albert Camus,
The Myth of Sisyphus
Life can often seem absurd. Meaningless,
even. The rituals and routines that define our existence can become
almost too much to bear, as we ramble on from one day to the next.
What's the point of it all, we ask ourselves, struggling to make
sense of life, the world, and everything. Before directing Manic,
the sober new film about life in a juvenile mental hospital, Jordan
Melamed wrestled with this existentialist conflict
"I was in the pit,"
he recalls of his days as a commodities trader, buying and selling
on the crowded floors of Chicago's cutthroat Stock Exchange. "The
animalism of the trading world is remarkably similar to that of
the film business. However, it's in your face in the pits, and
more hidden in the movie industry."
Currently, Melamed is facing
a different type of absurdity. Cooped up in a Seattle hotel room,
he's fielding a frantic, nonstop barrage of press questions. It's
the filmmaking equivalent to ol' Sisyphus and his eternal rock-pushing
routine, but Melamed has chosen to enjoy the redundant rhythms
that come with publicizing his movie. His young star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt,
is also along for the ride. "I haven't been in Seattle for
five years," the actor announces, glad to be in the stomping
grounds once frequented by Nirvana, his favorite band. "I
went to Pike Street Market yesterday."
In Manic, Gordon-Levitt
plays Lyle, a volatile adolescent whose schoolyard fighting lands
him behind the locked fences of Northwoods Mental Institution.
While receiving therapy for anger management issues, Lyle joins
a sullen stew of troubled teens. Tracey (Zooey Deschanel, the
older sister from "Almost Famous") is a fair-skinned
ghost of a girl tormented by unfriendly nocturnal visions, while
Sara (Sara Rivas, "Crash") dresses in Goth garb and
oozes rebellion. Michael (Eldon Henson, The Mighty) is a doughy,
blonde bully who invites violence with each crass insult he hurls,
and Chad (Michael Bacall, who also co-wrote Manic's gutsy
screenplay) is a melodramatic manic-depressive with an artist's
sensitive heart. Meanwhile, there's tentative, frail Kenny (Cody
Lightning), whose near-comatose flatness is borne of an abusive
past too horrible to speak of.
This nest of broken kids is nurtured
by Dave (Don Cheadle), a Northwoods psychiatrist who facilitates
grueling group therapy sessions in an effort to prepare his patients
for community living. And while Dave has a life on the outside,
Cheadle plays this pressured mental health professional as a man
with his own boulder to push. Looking into the dead eyes of Northwoods'
young residents, many of whom have endured abuse, neglect, and
psychosis, Dave wrestles with his own vision of the world's absurdity.
"Life is a struggle,"
Dave asks his group with harsh, point-blank bluntness. "Can
you handle it?" Cheadle's shrink poses the question as a
dare, challenging his group to grasp at what makes life meaningful
and run with it.
The same challenge to find truth
and meaning from life is what led Melamed to abandon trading and
pick up a camera. Before graduating from the American Film Institute
in 1997, Melamed used the school as a vehicle for directing A
Corner in Gold. "It tells the story of a commodities
trader who is literally trying to corner the gold market,"
Melamed explains. "He learns the hard way that sometimes
it's not possible to follow in a father's footsteps, as he is
trying to do."
The short film won Melamed a
student Emmy at AFI, and it was aired on numerous cable stations
before attracting the attention of studio talent scouts. When
asked if the tale is autobiographical, the director chuckles.
"Well, let me just say this. I think that in making a film,
you have to identify very strongly with its characters in order
to make it feel alive."
Melamed's fierce connection to
characters is what attracted him to Manic's original script,
penned by Blayne Weaver and Michael Bacall. A child actor who
had appeared in Free Willy, This Boys Life, and the A-Team
television series, Bacall's second screenplay (his first was for
the film Bookies) conveyed an emotional truth that resonated
with Melamed. After the two talents met in 1998, they immediately
noted the story's parallels with Albert Camus' essay, The Myth
"All of the characters in
Manic are trying to decide whether life is just this pointless
charade - pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it rollback
down - or is there meaning in it all?"
Manic shuns the high-gloss
artificiality of big studio productions, preferring a gritty,
jittery vision borne of handheld, digital camerawork. When Cheadle
throws questions to his audience of patients, and they rattle
back answers, the viewer feels immersed, as if also participating
in this intimate psychotherapy group. "With this type of
material," explains Melamed, "you've got to tell the
story in a way that is organic. To capture spontaneous performances,
it's essential to use small cameras as you would with digital."
To heighten his film's realism
even further, Melamed shot several improvised scenes not originally
included in Manic's script, giving its performances an
urgent, almost documentary edge that doesn't resemble mannered
acting. "In the finished movie," he proudly proclaims,
"you can't tell what is improvised and what is scripted.
It flows together pretty seamlessly."
Melamed admiringly cites a scene
in which Gordon-Levitt sits on a bench with Deschanel. "His
character tells a story about his mother, and how he almost hit
her. He completely improvised all of it."
Gordon-Levitt, best know for
his work on T.V.'s 3rd Rock from the Sun series as alien
Tommy Solomon, deserves kudos for such on-the-spot improvisation.
However, he's most effective in Manic when he's not engaged in
dialogue. His eyes are steely slits that warn strangers to keep
a distance, and his intense masculinity brings to mind a young
Russell Crowe. "Why are we supposed to trust you guys when
things like this happen?" his character barks at Dave after
another youth is victimized within the supposedly safe walls of
Northwoods. The world-weary vigilance and distrust reflected in
22-year-old actor's searing eyes are those associated with a much
older man, and make Lyle a tragic figure. He's disillusioned with
life even before his post-school existence has begun.
When asked if he studied actual
patients to research the role of Lyle, Gordon-Levitt sounds displeased.
"I don't like the word studied," he confirms before
a brief pause. "It makes it seem as though they are lab rats.
The most important thing that came across for me concerning kids
like Lyle, was that I could be friends with these guys. They're
not some strange, alien breed. These characters are dealing with
the same issues of love and hate that any human being does.
"When I spent time with
different people that had been in mental hospitals, we never really
spoke about the hospital, or about their rage, or childhood. We
just hung out like we would if we had met at a party, sitting
around smoking cigarettes and talking about music."
In fact, Gordon-Levitt often
kept himself at arm's length from the psychiatric information
filling the charts of such patients. "I did speak with a
psychologist, but I tried my best to ignore the clinical point
of view. I didn't read up medically on what it's like to be bipolar,
or have violent outbursts. My character wouldn't have the benefit
of that knowledge."
In addition to its clear-eyed
look at mental hospital residents as people first, and patients
second, Manic also provides a realistic glimpse at the
exhausting, emotionally draining routine of a therapist. During
one clever montage, Dave interviews each of his patients from
behind a sprawling office desk. As each teen takes a chair in
front of his, the psychiatrist asks, "What kind of progress
have you made since you've been here?" The camera cuts between
his weary-yet-hopeful face, and the indifferent answers and flat
expressions of his charges. We watch Cheadle's shrink fight off
frustration, wondering whether any of these lost souls will ever
"Therapists must have tremendous
empathy to be good at their jobs," exclaims Melamed, tipping
his hat to mental health professionals. "And just like a
filmmaker would, I'll bet that therapists get some kind of catharsis
being in group therapy themselves. They're unheralded. Society
only heralds our sports heroes."
While Manic refuses to
stereotype its subjects as being nothing more than the sum of
their diagnoses ("Just because you're diagnosed bipolar,"
confirms Melamed, "doesn't mean you also have anger issues"),
its director and star are quick to point out how their own personality
quirks parallel many mental health conditions. "I've never
had myself psychoanalyzed," says Gordon-Levitt, "but
I do know that my mind is often divided into two states. Whatever
my focus is on any given day, I can be depressed and nervous about
it and not think I'll be able to handle it, or I can feel wonderfully
confident, like I'm gonna do something pro-active about my life,
and have a much more positive outlook about things. Each day,
I have these turns. I think that everybody does."
"That's what Manic
is all about," the actor confirms. "It's not so much
about a mental institution, but about the conflicts, struggles,
and resolutions that are presented by life. These things are not
at all exclusive to a mental institution. They're just human traits."
The struggles that Gordon-Levitt
speaks of bring us back to the world of Greek mythology, and Sisyphus.
"The movie does imply hope," he confirms, "and
it does call to you not to give up and surrender to apathy in
the face of all that's wrong with the world. It shows that one
shouldn't lash out with hostility and violence, but rather, try
to buckle down and accept the pain of the struggle. Live through
it and try to grow.
"Sisyphus pushed a boulder
painfully up a mountain, only to watch it fall down. You can curse
the world, and kick the boulder, and break your toes. Or, you
can rally and sing a song to yourself while you're walking down
the mountain. Manic fits rightly around this idea, that
you can surrender and give up to the absurdity, or embrace it
and live an engaged life."