'Touched With Fire' Is Dedicated To Great Art, But Isn't Great Art
Touched With Fire has one of the most audacious dedication screens in recent years. Against a backdrop of Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night, a running crawl decrees the film has been made on behalf of the most influential artists of the past several centuries, everyone from Emily Dickinson to Pyotr Tchaikovsky to Virginia Woolf. Seeing so many of history's greatest minds side-by-side at the tail end of a Katie Holmes-fronted indie drama causes us to reflect: not on the breadth of humanity's creativity, but on how easy it is to align oneself positively with the beloved dead.
The one common element of these people? They are all examples of the link between bipolar disorder and creativity, according to psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison's 1993 book, also called Touched With Fire. The film isn't officially an adaptation of the book—the film was originally titled Mania Days, and writer-director Paul Dalio, who is himself bipolar, is the sole screenplay credit. But the two manic-depressive poets at the film's center refer to it as "the Bible," and Jamison, who is also bipolar, has a cameo advising them on the importance of medication.
Jamison's research is nuanced and fascinating, causing us to reconsider how we view both our society's tendency to medicate and the possibility that madness can be channeled into something productive. But in attempting to distill such findings into a small-scale human narrative, the film that bears her book's name reduces itself to lines like, "Think about if you would've medicated Van Gogh."
Initially it's hard to tell whether insights like these are the film's own, or whether they're simply illustrating the worldview of bipolar freestylist Marco (Luke Kirby), who goes by his poet name "Luna" because he believes he is from the Moon. We first meet Marco after he's gone off his meds, strewing books around his dark apartment and excitedly informing his father that he can live on ketchup and milk until the pending Apocalypse. Kirby's rants, twitches, and physical resemblance to a young Mark Ruffalo bring to mind last year's smart, far subtler family drama Infinitely Polar Bear, in which Ruffalo played a bipolar father with similar theories about how medication slowed him down. With no children to look after, nor much in the way of adult responsibilities, Marco can assert he isn't from this planet without prompting quite as much audience concern.
Placed in a mental ward, Marco finds an appreciative new audience for his theories. He also catches the eye of actual published poet Carla (Holmes), who accidentally admitted herself after experiencing an episode and attempting to obtain personal records about a previous breakdown she went through. Carla's backstory is murky, and her mother (a delicate Christine Lahti) doesn't reveal much, but she's attracted to Marco despite (or because of) his endless bluster. The film's best scenes find the couple sneaking around the ward at night, "triggering each other's mania" as they chart celestial bodies, scribble madly, and obsess over the gift their mutual diagnosis has brought.
Dalio's film mirrors the disorder of his protagonists. It's manic on the front end, with dipping, dodging cameras tracking the couple as they railroad their way into and out of the institution—there's a bit (just a bit) of executive-producer Spike Lee's kinetic style. And it's depressive on the long tail, as the intensity of the earlier scenes gives way to a dry melodrama about whether the two are capable of raising a child together. Even when she herself is manic, Carla is far more subdued than her partner, meaning Holmes—also a producer on the film—uses her considerable acting gifts mostly to watch someone else act wilder than she does.
The film has good intentions, straining to allow both the howls of creativity and rational pleas for treatment to ring out. But its insight on either end is unremarkable, and its use of visual metaphors is especially tacky. (If Carla, who once stared too long at the Sun, takes up a relationship with "Luna," what would an eclipse symbolize?) More significantly, neither protagonist seems like they're benefiting creatively from their mania—at least, not on the level of the artists to whom the film is dedicated and to whose genius the characters clearly aspire. The snippets of their poetry we hear endlessly repeat some variations on "fire," "Sun," and "Moon," and though Marco's brain undoubtedly works fast, his theories about the end of the world carry no spark. Finally, when he becomes a physical danger to a loved one, it pushes the audience toward a decidedly un-nuanced conclusion: Perhaps he really should just take the medication and be done with it.
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