John Cusack in ‘Say Anthing’/Image © Twentieth Century Fox
Editor’s Note: Anna North is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, Nautilus, and Salon; on Jezebel and BuzzFeed; and in The New York Times, where she is a staff editor. The author ofAmerica Pacifica, she lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her latest novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, is now available.
I learned the word “obsession” from a comic strip. It was one of the “soap opera” comics that featured grownups doing grownup things, like kissing and driving. Every kid knew these were the worst comics, but I sometimes read them after I finished all the good ones. One week, one of the grownup men couldn’t stop thinking about a woman. Several panels of the strip were just close-ups of her face – accessorized, if I’m remembering right, with wavy lines to represent the man’s fevered imagination. The man, the strip explained, had an “obsession.”
My mom tried to explain what this meant, but I didn’t fully understand. I thought an obsession was a highly specific disorder – a man came down with one and had to lie down or something until he stopped seeing wavy-lined lady-faces everywhere. It took me a while to learn that the experience of being obsessed is both common and various, and that, maybe because artists tend to be obsessive, obsession is a theme that pops up all the time in art.
The big challenge that art about obsession faces, of course, is that obsession is really boring. You think about the same thing all the time, and you can’t stop. Here a lady-face, there a lady-face, everywhere a lady-face. There’s a reason your friends don’t want to hear about your novel anymore.
There are a variety of solutions to this problem. One is to focus less on the object of the obsession than on what it does to the person obsessed. Your friends may not want to talk about your novel, but they probably do like talking about how annoying you are, and how you can’t seem to wear clean clothes anymore – the personal toll of single-minded focus can be more interesting than the focus itself.
Another is to underplay it. Suppressed emotion is bad for your health and your relationships, but it’s a great subject for art – read or watch “The Remains of the Day” if you want to be absolutely devastated by the things people don’t say to each other. Similarly, watching someone operate from a place of vigorously tamped-down obsession can actually be pretty fascinating, if harrowing.
A third method is just to go totally over the top. Obsessions can morph into bizarre shapes inside the obsessed person’s mind, and one way to break the monotony is just to push that bizarreness as far as it can go. Forget wavy lines – what about razor-sharp teeth and flaming eyeballs?
For a master class in obsession, you could do a lot worse than watching these five movies back to back. Some of them use the three methods I’ve laid out, but of course there are other ways to turn single-minded focus into exciting art. The advantage of taking obsession as your subject is that it’s a heightened state – the obsessed person is also really passionate about something, and passion can create drama. You can watch that process play out in the five films below. For best results, watch them over and over again.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
This is one of my favorite movies, period, but it’s also one of my favorite movies about obsession. It’s a great example of depicting said obsession’s effects on the obsessed person; watch Richard Dreyfuss manically sculpt a mountain out of mashed potatoes until his wife flees with their kids. Another great thing about this movie (spoiler alert) is that his crazy-seeming obsession turns out to be completely sane.
Everyone in “Rebecca” is kind of obsessed with the first Mrs. de Winter, but of course she’s dead. Maxim and his household keep the truth about her under wraps at the beginning of the movie – the suppression technique – but by the end, everything goes totally over the top.
Not the A. S. Byatt adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow, this is a truly insane 1981 horror movie starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani. It involves infidelity, and rage, and a bizarre root-creature that is allegedly the heroine’s lover. I don’t even know what to say about this movie; you should probably just watch it.
The 1931 James Whale version of “Frankenstein” remains the best one. The book may paint a clearer picture of Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession with creating life, but this movie still gives you a pretty good look at a fixation and its consequences. Worth it for Colin Clive’s delivery of the famous line – “It’s alive” – and of course for Boris Karloff’s sad monster, as much a victim of Frankenstein’s obsession as anybody else.
“Say Anything” (1989)
The other movies on this list are creepy, and this one is cute – or is it? I am as powerless in the face of the young John Cusack as anyone, but there’s a reason this movie makes lists of romantic comedies that are actually stalkerish. Boombox scene aside, Lloyd Dobler actually has very few interests other than Diane Court – he even admits as much. I still love this movie, but it’s definitely a story of obsession.