L’Orange is an unwilling participant. He seems to shrink from the camera as though he wishes he could just disappear within himself. A common thing for artists. Perhaps art is the only way anyone can truly disappear completely. Yet, on the brink of emerging fame, it presents the great anomaly of the artist, who creates meaningful connective work despite not being seen being in his best interests. L’Orange is one such introvert with an extroverted skillset and a beautiful talent to comb through old jazz sounds and enliven them on his records like they are the puzzle pieces of a chilled-out cinematic soundtrack. His work being cinematic, of course, does mean not his life particularly is cinematic, but this central tension at the heart of The Mad Writer gives director Zachary Kashkett just enough to chew on, as L’Orange faces imminent hearing loss just as he begins to turn the corner on his career.
At the darkest moment of his life, L’Orange did what artists do: he turned to his art and lived through it when everything else stopped making sense. “At the back of all of this, there’s this kind of bravado that you can face the darkest points because not only am I weak but I’m also strong,” affirms L’Orange, beautifully encapsulating the strength typical of survivors and people who Just Get Through the Hard Stuff. It’s a good message and one that ought to be broadly taught in the informal school of life that all artists enroll in. There is a significant, gorgeous strength in picking yourself back up again.
With tumors growing inside his ears, L’Orange could have turned away at any point. Perhaps agreeing to make the documentary, although he continues to reinforce that it certainly isn’t his idea and he’s uncomfortable with it, is another way of turning to the strength of the arts.
Clocking only 69 minutes, the rarest blessing in this time of massively inflated movies, there is also a benefit to the artist not oversharing. Not yet. There is an understanding, ideally, that this production is the first possible arc of a longer story. Often artists make a big mistake and over-document their early phases. It kind of locks them into a stagnated kind of growth. It’s harder to emerge from something so locked-in as sharing your life story with everyone. It has to mean that you’re done with something and moving to another part of your story. For L’Orange, that likely means that a successful next arc for his career is just ahead.
It is also frustrating for an audience. You realize watching The Mad Writer, like the Courtney Barnette documentary last year, that the artist is interesting because they are uninterested in this. Should the audience, then, fill in the gaps of their interest and create for themselves the reasons they ought to engage with the work? That seems to be the ask of such documentaries, wherein the subject is shy of the format and has just allowed a dear friend to roll camera on them shrinking from the spotlight they’ve agreed to. What’s in it for them? What’s in it for us?
“What are you going to do until you die? You’re filling time with this terrible idea,” is the standard level of banter here, with a subject who is too defensive to admit the gravity of his situation, this threat to everything that helps him process life through his jokingly nihilistic worldview. As such, the film functions as a conversation between friends, not invaluable, but if you do not know the subject and you approach this from the outside, will it further attach you to the music? It is almost separate from the question.
The ultimate note here is that living and existing are “heroic” because you simply “don’t have to.” To look into the clouded abyss and perserve anyway, is the most incredible thing we all do each day. You can find such simple philosophy here. You can watch this moment in a musicians life, a small reflection upon his existence which if we extrapolate the meaning, is not really about tumors in the ear. It’s about why we create art. Because it’s brave to do anything and if what we do is make art, if people make documentaries instead of doing nothing, that is an act of bravery. It is existing, sure, but it’s also living with intentional empathy and creating a wider understanding for the world we live in by thinking about it aloud. I think that’s pretty good for a short documentary about a man and his ears.