Griff The Invisible fantasies of reality

Read this after you have seen the film and please go see it. It is very good. Below is a post that is parts review, critical exegesis of the film and reflection of its critical reception. The post has been languishing in my drafts folder for a few weeks and it was only after two of my friends Myke and Mel both wrote reviews of the film that, if I am not being to pithy, were negative.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the paratexts (of promotional posters and trailers) for GTI before I saw it. It was either GTI or Battle Los Angeles for our Friday night film fare and we ended up going to GTI because it was showing at the local Dendy and BLA was only screening at the megaplex. Frankly, I was surprised at how good GTI is. I did not expect such a subtle mediation on the issues of mental illness, social akwardness and I guess what could be called the affective pressure of ideological entrainment.

Griff (Ryan Kwanten, who you might recognise from his role in HBO’s True Blood) is an office worker by day that by night prowls the streets of Sydney (and there are various identifiable landmarks, including the old Readers Digest building in Surrey Hills that exists in the film as a perfectly pitched police headquarters) as a superhero, Griff the Invisible. It is not the same kind of film as other normal-person-as-superhero films that have been released over the last few years. The tropes belonging to this genre are used to produce a cinematic essay that engages with the awkward and embarrassing reality of mental illness and a more general displaces from the mores of social commerce. Beyond that however, is a delicate or even elegant handling of the way the protagonists resolve their place in the world. Each character is manifest with loving expresion both by the actors and the script.

I was struck by the subtle mediation of relations of care and support. For example, for most of the film the viewer is led to believe that Tim (Patrick Brammall), Griff’s older brother, is Griff’s only support in the world, where Tim helps Griff work through his superhero eccentricities. But this is not always the case. Over the course of the duration of the film it became apparent that even though Griff’s nighttime activities are more easily recogniseable as problematic and possibly the resultant of a mental illness, Tim ritualistic visits to Griff’s apartment for a beer and a chat were just as much about Tim needing support. He wasn’t making banal conversation about his romantic life because he wanted to make conversation, but because he genuinely had trouble being intimate. Tim’s rehearsal of various stories and over-reliance on phatic communication (his quirky ways of talking that have a social rather than communicative function) to produce a much desired sense of intimacy. Tim’s conversations with Griff about Tim and his relationships are the only time that Tim does not rely on these phatic mannerisms as a mostly failed way of producing intimacy.

Griff’s office job is a hellish experience for him, primarily due to an office bully Tony (Toby Schmitz). Tony is not explicitly mean, in the sense of his bullying being an attack on Griff. Rather, Griff is merely a foil to be used by Tim to represent himself in a certain way to the primarily female office staff. It is possible to speculate that Tim feels emasculated by his office sales job and therefore uses Griff as a resource for making him feel better about himself in the way he is perceived by his female colleagues. Tim carries out his relentless bullying by using blokey/matey/buddy conceits. Anyone who has experienced bullying in the workplace knows the experience of a bully being ‘friendly’.

The focus of the film revolves around the developing intimacy between Melody (Maeve Dermody) and Griff. Melody has a comparably fantastic appreciation of reality in that she believes that she can walk through walls if the atoms in her body and those in the wall are aligned appropriately. The intimacy between Griff and Melody is not explicitly sexual or even ‘romantic’ in any conventional sense. Their intimacy is formed by the connection they form with the other’s fantasies. They give each other comfort by producing a ‘space’ within which the partner can perform their fantasy. This event of intimacy is an explication or enfolding of the various ‘fantastic’ elements of the fantasy in a way that doesn’t encourage the fantasy in any simplistic fashion. The fantasy is encouraged by appreciating the difficulties or challenges that exist in the world of the fantasy. Melody’s attempts to walk through the wall can only be properly supported if the ‘wall’ remains.

I labored over the above point because the genius of GTI is not so much the superhero stuff, but the question regarding the character of ‘normal’ fantasies. Griff and Melody are used as a diagnostic tool when contrasted with the respective fantasies of two of the other characters, Tony and Tim. Both have fantasies regarding relationships with women. Tony with his activities involving a married woman, which when located in the context of his bullying, seems to relate to Tony’s fantasies about himself and his masculinity. Tim on the other hand is what we call in Australia a ‘decent bloke’, albeit utterly charmless. Tim craves something, it is not clear what, but the craving can only be satisfied through an intimate romantic relationship.

Where GTI gets very interesting is in the context of the workplace and the fantasy of the worker required to function in a workplace. Griff gets fired from his job because he “doesn’t fit in” (and a bit of B&E). If you act normal, you become normal, Griff’s boss (David Webb) suggests and this inversion of the character of reality, by questioning the necessary fantasies of reality, is the film’s strong point for me.

2 thoughts on “Griff The Invisible fantasies of reality”

  1. Glen, I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said here. My problem with the film was that it needed to be much more explicit about whether Griff and Melody were super-imaginative people trapped in a socially repressed and repressive world, or whether they were mentally ill and in need of ‘care’.

    With whom are we meant to identify? The film makes it obvious at points that Griff and Melody are just making stuff up. Are we meant to identify with the ‘real world’ symbolised by Tim, Tony, having a job and dating someone? In that case, we’d pity Griff and Melody and feel exasperated by them.

    Or do we identify with their worldview, and see them as being unfairly shoehorned into a boring conventional life? Do we aspire to follow their example and be a little more loosey-goosey in our own ideas about ‘reality’?

    At times the film inspired both feelings in me, and in various places the film seemed to want to encompass both these points of view. What made me most uneasy is that in not being explicit, it runs the risk of romanticising real-life psychosis, which is not whimsical and creative; it’s scary and disorienting for both the psychotic and those around them.

    Perhaps a useful point of comparison is Jane Campion’s Sweetie, in which the strain of indulging a child’s mental illness corrodes a family. Or Lars and the Real Girl, in which nobody ever tells Lars that he’s ‘crazy’, but the film doesn’t shrink from the social awkwardness that allowing Lars to inhabit his own world causes other people. Or even The Science of Sleep, when the entire charming film is told from Stéphane’s point of view except the final scene, in which we see him as Stéphanie does – aggressive and childish? Even Benny and Joon gives Sam a wakeup call when he realises that Joon isn’t just a ‘free spirit’ like himself, but someone who needs to be cared for, and what’s great about that film is that caring for her becomes just another expression of his love.

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