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posted on 09.03.09

(This is a repost from Matrix Magazine's Anxiety issue).

One of the best pieces of advice ever given was from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don't panic! And it’s true, it's never useful to panic. Sure, everything has the potential to induce anxiety: normal social etiquettes, self-doubt, the daily news full of catastrophe and fear-mongering about the economy, war, toxins in our food -- just plain living. And nothing I do seems to affect change. But panic doesn't help. It fogs the brain. Stay calm, breathe deeply. There is hope, although it’s this that makes me even more anxious. Dare I hope, lest I be gravely disappointed once again? The emotional swing of hope and fear duelling daily has made cynics of us all. Nonetheless, one deals however one can: pharmaceutically for the mental-disorder variety of anxiety; meditatively for those inclined to sitting still; cinematically for the rest of us.

Movies have charms to soothe the anxious beast. Escapism: to lose oneself in the pleasures of narrative and forget about the world. Is cinema part of the monster spectacle that connives to keep us apathetic and narcotised (opiated!), or can it also poke, prod, and enrage us into action? Well, there's something for everyone. When it comes to the movies, anxiety as a theme is, like life, sprawling and unwieldy, encompassing everything.

There is, most often in American films it seems, anxiety as a comedic and neurotic state, such as in most Woody Allen films. It’s Allen that first comes to mind for me, as he pretty well defined the sub-genre of movies about Anxious New York Jews, which often overlaps with the sub-genre Anxious New York Writers. Any list of films about anxiety would naturally include writers as subjects, since they seem to be among the most anxious of people, or at least the ones most public about their own phobias, their psyches and their analyses. So, we have the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy Barton Fink, and the Spike Jonze-directed, Charlie Kaufman-penned, brilliantly self-referential Adaptation (not to mention Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York). I could probably think of ten great movies in this genre alone.

But, there are so many other varieties of anxiety! David Cronenberg’s unique brand of horror has an underlying element of anxiety based on fear of the body/technology and the possibility of malfunction. David Lynch explores a similar anxiety, though more existential, surreal, and ominous in nature, especially with Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. And some of the well-defined genres of Asian horror (for instance, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu – don’t even talk to me about inferior Hollywood remakes) excel in exuding a thick atmosphere of anxious and chronic dread. Then there are those films that inspire anxiety because of their realistic docu-drama aesthetic and extremely harrowing plots involving ordinary people. These can be unpleasant to the point of agony to watch, since, unlike horror films, there is not the same distancing effect that allows you to mark them as fiction. I could barely stand watching Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, for instance, which made me question why I was putting myself through torment. Was there a sense of catharsis in suffering so graphically with the characters? Was it simply gratuitous exploitative spectacle disguised as art? I can’t decide. Babel was released in 2006, with a barrage of similarly tense though more fantastical films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. The cinematic mood back then looked unbearably bleak. But even in the darkest of times, there is always humour. So who better to conclude the list of anxiety movies with than the Master of Wry Suspense? Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with its emblematic and technically brilliant zoom shot through a staircase, induces a delicious thrilling anxiety that is movie-watching pleasure at its finest. But oops, speaking of Hitchcock! Mel Brook's High Anxiety, an appropriation of over ten Hitchcock flicks including Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds, brings anxiety full circle to outright spoof, satire, slapstick. Laughter, as they say, is the best medicine, so maybe the Americans got it right there. Maybe these days, hope is back, again fighting daily with fear and anxiety. Good luck and Godspeed to each of us.

1. Deconstructing Harry (1997) – Woody Allen
2. Barton Fink (1991) – The Coen Brothers
3. Adaptation (2002) – Spike Jonze (written by Charlie Kaufman)
4. Dead Ringers (1988) – David Cronenberg
5. Lost Highway (1997) – David Lynch
6. Ringu (1998) – Hideo Nakata
7. Babel (2006) – Alejandro González Iñárritu
8. Children of Men (2006) – Alfonso Cuarón
9. Vertigo (1958) – Alfred Hitchcock
10. High Anxiety (1978) – Mel Brooks

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