It might be a good and healthy thing for us to normalize minor-league pathology. A realistic conception of human nature probably necessitates readmitting some oddities, obsessions and peccadilloes, whether we like them or not, especially after the last few decades of what some think has been an era of trigger-happy overdiagnosis of syndromes great and small. Such readmissions might give cover to genuinely consequential issues if excessively self-destructive, narcissistic, or antisocial behaviour is declared normal, but as Freud made clear in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, we're all just screwy, unpredictable and irrational enough that our shared idea of calm, reliable psychological stability is just another delusion. Normal isn't as normal as we think it is.
Being a psychologist (I assume—I'm not one) teaches you, among other things, that we're probably right to treat many psychological problems as normal human quirks. Being a culture consumer, though, teaches you that we're not happy stopping there. We also tend to put these quirks up on a plinth and celebrate them, and we'll even put a few real and problematic pathologies up there with them. We publish books like It's Ok to Be Neurotic: Using Your Neuroses to Your Advantage, we find comfort in the old link between madness and genius, and we worship crazy train-wreck public figures as they implode. In the end, it seems like the stories we tell about our problems reveal a lot about what's wrong or missing in our self-conception and our desires.
I've been thinking lately about one of my favourite examples of this: the august Hollywood tradition of the manic pixie dream girl (MPDG). After watching Kirsten Dunst's performance as a "psychotically chipper waitress in the sky" in Elizabethtown, critic Nathan Rabin wrote a review for the Onion AV Club in which he coined the term to describe "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Examples of this type abound in film, from Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby through Diane Keaton's la-di-da Annie Hall to Natalie Portman in her silly helmet in Garden State: vivacious, oddball love interests expanding the worlds of "broodingly soulful" male leads (and occasionally female ones, as the genders can, it turns out, be reversed; Wes Bentley in American Beauty is the "manic pixie dream guy" who opens Thora Birch's eyes). High on life and disrespectful of the rules, these eccentric rogues do the world their own way, dancing to their own idiosyncratic and arrhythmic pulses, flinging counterintuitive, left-field philosophies at everyone they pass. Just off the top of my head: Garden State, Amelie, Sweet November, LA Story, (500) Days of Summer, Almost Famous, the aforementioned Annie Hall (and for that matter, in a darker form, Manhattan), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, to name only a handful—film after film in which the impish object of male desire is a goofball, a womanchild, a bodhisattva, a hot mess.
Like all the stereotypes that Hollywood writers use to speak our emotional language, the MPDG type says much about our romantic ideals. We are bored by stability and predictability, so we want our lovers to spout the unexpectedly uplifting, to surprise us with the unprecedented and the deeply deep, and to be a mess of idiosyncrasies. We want our relationships to be full of spiritual awakening, and this sometimes means that our ideal lovers are essentially like children, eulogizing dead pets with stern seriousness in backyard funerals and crying with heartsickness while plastic bags float in the breeze. And we want miraculous external solutions to internal problems, especially if we are grumpy, sheltered, cerebral wallflowers, so we love the idea of a sort of venus ex machina ready to solve our problems, speak to our blood, and sweep us away all at once.
But our affection for this type says other things about us too. In the abbreviated last season of the brilliant, much missed Arrested Development, Michael Bluth develops a romantic interest in Rita, a stunning MPDG played by Charlize Theron. She wears strange hats, carries stuffed animals, muses about how much she learns from the children at her school, speaks in non-sequiturs, and hangs intently on Michael's every word. She seems lost in a stream of thought that Michael assumes is the course of an enlightened mind, a schoolteacher who has retained the joie de vivre of her own childhood through inspiration from her joyful, innocent little charges. The apparent twist is that Rita is a savvy double-agent working for the Bluths' British enemies, playing the MPDG type to lure Michael in. But the real twist is—spoiler alert—that she's just, well, developmentally arrested, functioning at the intellectual level of a child, and one of the "special" students rather than the teacher at her primary school.
One of the truly admirable things about Marc Webb's charming but middling 2009 film (500) Days of Summer (featuring Zooey Deschanel—if there is a mad city of these MPDGs somewhere, Deschanel is its mayor for life) is that it draws a conclusion similar to that of Arrested Development's five-episode arc with Rita: MPDGs seem intensely desirable and elvishly superhuman at first, but we find out before long that there's something essentially wrong with them: they're deficient, or mad, or unstable. It's a short distance from Garden State to Garden State II: from the unpredictable to the gratingly erratic, from lush philosophy to wilted platitudes, from endearing tears at sunrises to oh-no-not-more-crying. When we cross these short distances and look back, we see clearly that here, as most everywhere else, we often have no idea what's good for us.
I mentioned Diane Keaton's performance in Annie Hall earlier—a milestone in MPDG history. There are other good examples in Allen's work as well. In Manhattan, Isaac attends a fundraiser gala at the Museum of Modern Art. He joins a candid conversation about sexuality between effete artsy types, one of whom mentions that she once thought she had finally had an orgasm until her doctor told her that she'd "had the wrong kind." Surprised, Isaac says that he's never had the wrong kind, that even his "worst" orgasm was "right on the money." The man who gave us Annie Hall, whose story in some ways mirrors Summer in its conclusions (to Allen's credit), assures us that there is something fundamentally wrong with these quirky types we idealize. The MPDGs don't have problem-solving philosophies or superhuman wisdom, enlightenment and insight to offer—they're just as messed up as we are, and sometimes even more, as they try for the right kind of conversations and life philosophies and miss out on the right kind of orgasms.
It's probably best, and we would probably be happiest, to give up the idealist's hope-against-hope for the mania, the pixie, and above all the unrealistic dream. We're all a little crazy in the end, and it's not to be raised to a grand romantic ideal, like Natalie Portman in Garden State, or rendered pathological and medicated away, like Zach Braff in Garden State—it really is just the psychopathology of everyday life.
[An example that occurred to me after I'd written the above, and one I'm not sure how to work in: Even in the dark psychological morass of Fight Club, where narrator Jack is more than manic enough for all concerned, he is nearly out-manicked and certainly out-pixied by dime-store trashbag dreamgirl Marla, who manages unaccountably to seem screwed up even in such good psychopathological company. I guess the type applies, even if the film's dreams are nightmares.]