Madness and Art in The World of Z

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The World of Z, a four-year journey into the eccentric life of manic-depressive outside artist Zbigniew Fik, will have a limited run at The Gene Siskel Film Center this weekend. This intimate portrait combines candid cinéma vérité with 25 years of explosive home videos revealing the art, insanity and love of Z.

I highly recommend this film to docsters, poets, artists, mental health advocates and Chicagoans.

Viva Doc had hosted the critique of an earlier cut of the film with Brad Besser and Vince Clemente a few years ago. We spoke at length about the structure and the chronology of the edit and the ethics that the project carried with it. In watching the finished film, I was happy to see that they found a completely organic solution for structuring the doc by focusing on the waves of depression and mania that Zbigniew experiences throughout his life.

I see The World of Z as a Bizzaro version of Welcome to the Gift Shop. Thierry Guetta used the street art scene to promote his alterego, Mr. Brainwash, regardless of his own artistic merit or integrity. Zbigniew Fiks, on the other hand, is all integrity and little success, so his talent and unique ideas were left behind by his movement. In this way, the film uncovers a tragedy that unfolds in art regularly where the flood of the convenient and mediocre drowns out true originality.

The edit that we previewed years ago presented Z’s video work in a purer form. I’m sure that these scenes were trimmed back for the good of the story and some are used as B roll throughout the film. One piece that left an impression on me in the years since I previously watched the film comes at 1:10 into this trailer. Z mounts his camera to a board with bent nails jutting out of it and then lets the camera run while the sun’s shadows dance on the board. It’s a beautiful piece of video that stayed with me for years after the screening and I could still recall the feeling from watching it when I saw the few seconds that Besser and Clemente snuck into the final edit.

Brad and Vince met Z when they made a film about him for a documentary course at Columbia College Chicago. As the years went on, they continued visiting him and developed a deeper investment in his life story. Interacting with Z over time opened a window into his swings from mania to creativity. It’s unclear if the block of his creativity leads to his mania or if his mania leads to his blocks of creativity but the symbiotic nature of the relationship creates spirals in both positive and negative directions.

While I don’t suffer from manic depression, I can understand the frustration that comes with being stuck on an idea or not feeling creative. In the weeks before revisiting The World of Z, I was passed an article from Scientific American that makes a connection between Schizotypal behaviors and creative personalities. “The latest findings in brain imaging, creativity research and molecular biology suggest that these perceptions are not just based on a few anecdotal accounts of ‘weird’ scientists and artists.”

Two of the findings cited in this article came to mind when I saw the final edit of The World of Z. It’s complex stuff so I’ll let the experts start before chiming in.

“Cognitive disinhibition is the failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to current goals or to survival…. our brains are constantly accessing imagery and memories stored in our mental files to process and decode incoming infor­mation. Thanks to cognitive filters, most of this input never reaches conscious awareness…. It is easy to see that allowing unfiltered information into consciousness could lead to strange perceptual experiences, such as hearing voices or seeing imaginary people.

During moments of insight, cognitive filters relax momentarily and allow ideas that are on the brain’s back burners to leap forward into conscious awareness, in the same manner that bizarre thoughts surface in the mind of the psychotic individual.”

This idea of cognitive filters allowing your subconscious to communicate with your conscious by taking attention away from your own survival could either be distressing or comforting depending on how you look at it. Cognitive filters are like curators for your brain art on a good day. On a bad day, they’re probably more like a critic playing Space Invaders with your precious ideas. – SPACE INVADERS Shooting Game

“Reduced cognitive filtering could explain the tendency of highly creative people to focus intensely on the content of their inner world at the expense of social or even self-care needs. (Beethoven, for example, had difficulty tending to his own cleanliness.) When conscious awareness is overpopulated with unusual and unfiltered stimuli, it is difficult not to focus attention on that inner universe.. Among the cited similarities are the finding of alpha patterns when the brain process information from within the brain instead of from outside stimuli… This interpretation explains the tendency of creative people to focus on their inner lives, which is also a sign of schizotypal personality… This vulnerability may allow the highly creative person access to ideas and thoughts that are inaccessible to those of us with less porous mental filters.”Watching Z come in and out his manic depression made me think of alpha channels. It appears as though his cognitive filters would block his creativity and cause his internal brain activity to turn on him. His condition strains the relationships in his life as people are seduced by his poetry and unique view of the world before being pushed away by his paranoia and alcoholism. The World of Z lays out an interesting case study for questions about creativity within the brain. Z’s offered medical solutions throughout his life and the film but he prefers to live with the consequences of his condition to avoid the risk of stifling his creativity. Hopefully science’ll find a better solution for him.

One thought on “Madness and Art in The World of Z

    Starting a New Year | thecontrerasgabrielproject said:
    May 2, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    […] include: The Patio Gardeners Are Back, about a web series by Arlen Parsa and Tiffany Wilson; Madness and Art in The World of Z, Mario’s first film review about a feature doc by Brad Besser; and Diana Drinks the Kool-Aid, […]

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