There’s a secret spot in the brain, an endorphin-rich place many humans try to enter. It is a dangerous location dividing two sides of psychological states: drive and fortitude on the sunny side and the murky, ruinous side of masochism and martyrdom. Whether you are a writer or reader or observer of films, these characters who are on a quest for the ultimate mental escape, catch us, and pull us along for the ride. They have something to share about the human condition. Will they triumph or will they fall? The pleasure/pain principle is human nature’s most fascinating oxymoron. Some live it; almost all of us are entertained by it.
I admire the performing arts. The symmetry, the composition, and the spectacular lengths artists make it look and sound effortless garners awe. What’s the price an artist will pay to be the best? The rigors of practice and the dedicated focus to be perfect requires an atypical lifestyle where time and schedule are aligned for one purpose–to exist only for art. The Black Swan is one of my favorite psychological thrillers. The stress Nina Sayers struggles with as she strives to be perfect is an example of masochism. How does she achieve perfection? She has to let go of her bodily self and transcend to that secret spot where she becomes the black swan, Odile, and is no longer Nina, the good white swan, Odette. Darren Aronofsky told a similar story–opposite societal arena–starring Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008). Both films depict the extent to which an artist will transcend to the art form they worship.
Whiplash (2014) is a tale about the sadomasochistic relationship of character Miles Teller and his mentor, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons who won the Oscar as his manipulative old-school instructor. Miles needed the task-master to push him to greatness. He couldn’t be the next Buddy Rich without the abuse. By the end of the story, the boy transcends into a man and the power struggle shifts to an exciting conclusion. The dynamic duo and the gorgeous jazz easily made Whiplash one of my favorite films of the year.
Breaking the Waves (1996) is an odd film set in Scotland starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård. Bess is Calvinist and pure of heart while Jan is an atheist oil-rigger. Her love for her husband extends to great limits most of us wouldn’t venture, for he becomes incapacitated and wants her to have sex with others and describe the details to keep their union whole. Her devout relationship with God affects her rationale, and she concedes, convinced it is God’s will to cure Jan. Bess eventually overcomes her repulsion with lovers and transcends to the special spot via sex to a symbolic state of purity by martyrdom. Visionary director Lars von Trier incorporated ten rules in his Dogme 95. The remote Scottish landscape is ancient and stimulating and perfect extension to the film. You can learn more about Lars von Trier’s technique HERE.
The threat of imminent death causes an adrenaline surge to create the complete escape. This altered state is foreign to normalcy. War puts you in that heightened state seen in films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper. How ironic that only when faced with death, do some people feel alive.
The ER nurse or doctor. The ambulance driver. The firefighter, and the police officer. Surrounded by the threat of death to others and themselves requires control and steady hands. The exposure releases the chemical surge and the instinct for survival kicks in; they are in the zone. They commit to a lifestyle that few of us could stomach. These heroes are in a voluntary, dangerous career, and they take the abuse. It’s their identity.
Similar to the skater, the dancer, and the musician, the focus to excel and perfect their sport requires one visit the sweet spot in the brain. Extreme sports, extreme results.
What about the craft of the actor? How far will an actor go to alter their state of being? There are few actors who come to mind who are willing to transform their bodies for the sake of their art, but Christian Bale probably does it better than anyone.
Extreme sleep deprivation is as close to the sweet spot as I’ve ever been. This altered state of torpidness is fascinating and dangerous. In the sweet spot, pain is not felt, the world does not hurt. Nothing can touch you. Does pain brings pleasure?