Panic Attack (2016). 3 minutes. Written and Directed by Eileen O’Meara.
You’re driving. There is no warning. A sharp, intense pain shoots straight down your arm into your heaving chest. Your heart rate accelerates from 88 to 188 BPM in a millisecond. Your mind shifts into overdrive—flashing images of everything and everyone you’ve ever done wrong; everything you’ve failed to accomplish. You’re drowning in your own shortcomings, burning with fears of losing control, and trying to count the deluge of irrational thoughts that come into your head. But yet, you can’t even… remember… to breathe.
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear, out of proportion to a situation, that triggers a severe physical reaction to that situation. The symptoms are immediate, frightening, and challenging to control. And, in the hands of an ingenious artist like Eileen O’Meara, a short film about a panic attack is all of this with a generous jolt of unadulterated hilarity.
Following the works Agnes Escapes from the Nursing Home and the UNICEF cartoon The Right to Express Yourself, Panic Attack is the latest gem in the O’Meara film family. Her impressionist, stream-of-consciousness short is hand sketched from the point of view of a woman having such an attack. O’Meara chose animation as a medium for exploring the fluidity of the mind as it shifts, accusing photographic imagery as being more tied to “real time and space.” She made the right choice. Her drawings, or rather, doodles, show the woman, her cat, a baby—everything—transforming into each other. They are cryptic, rough, and basic, and they morph into each other much like the anxious thoughts occurring in the mind. The animations maintain a continuum that is married with anxiety-inducing whispers that range from “Did I leave the coffee on?” to “Should I have married him?” to “Will I give birth to a Satan baby?”
The film deftly blurs the lines of reality and the irrational state of mind that swiftly avalanches into questions of existential existence. The eternally evolving animation shapeshifts from the woman to her coffeepot to the fire she will cause if she left it on to the Manson-women she will share a cell with when she is convicted of arson. The sequence of simple, strong animations is accompanied by the basket case of sound effects (designed by maestro audio mixer Tim Maloney). The maddening thoughts ping pong back in forth in allegro tempo from the right and left speaker, as an underlying heartbeat—at first low and quiet—gets louder and faster as the movie nears its end. The result is a physiological arousal of the senses that forces the viewer to feel the film rather than simply watch it.
For those who suffer from panic attacks, they feel like they last an eternity. But in reality, the human body cannot sustain that heightened state for very long. O’Meara’s short is only three minutes. But Panic Attack is rooted so strongly in its realism, as well as in its playfulness, that the three minutes become the most intense moments in your day and will remain with you months after.
Panic Attack is a story born from a filmmaker’s heart rather than mind and O’Meara, as a filmmaker, and as perhaps a sufferer herself, is the quintessential compassionate soul to create such a work of moving art.