But have you stopped behaving strangely?
At last finding it on DVD in Europe, the other day I finally got to see Chimes at Midnight — Shakespeare’s various Falstaff scenarios put together in 1966 by Orson Welles. I almost said “heaped together,” as if further emphasis were needed on the dangers of being overweight. Obviously, we now know that all human wellbeing — for the guiltily round and guilt-makingly slender — depends on getting to the gym more often. Yet, even without help from Shakespeare/Welles’s crumbling man-mountain, some of us still hope there’s more to life than that. Admittedly, this “more” is hard to define: something to do with intellect? Our spiritual needs? Film studies, maybe??? At any rate, it’s una cosa mentale.
But whose “cosa”? Whose mind? Though Sir John famously tries to brag away the problems of aging, his implicit dread of becoming “single-witted” (accentuated more by Welles than Shakespeare) chimes with at least one fast-growing demographic. Meanwhile, despite the inexorable rise in specifically age-related dementias, good old-fashioned “madness” can set off anybody’s alarm. Call it “mental illness” if that helps; and to show how pervasive the threat has become I quote the following:
Early in the morning on 13 December 2006, police officers from the small town of Hull, Massachusetts, near Boston, arrived at the house of Michael and Carolyn Riley in response to an emergency call. Their four-year-old daughter, Rebecca, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years earlier. When the officers reached the house, they found Rebecca sprawled on the floor next to her teddy bear. She had died from an overdose of the medication cocktail prescribed by her psychiatrist, Kayoko Kifuji. At the time of her death, she was taking Seroquel, a powerful antipsychotic drug, Depakote, a no less powerful anticonvulsant and mood-stabilising drug, and Clonidine, a hypotensive drug used as a sedative.
This shocking paragraph opens an article in last October’s London Review of Books. The reviewer is Seattle-based Danish American Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen. The book under review is David Healy’s A Short History of Bipolar Disorder (Johns Hopkins, 2008). Cardiff-based Healy, if you haven’t guessed, is one of the biggest thorns in the side of the global psycho-pharmaceutical industry. Opponents might say his focus on the death of a four-year-old only adds to the well-known anxieties of new parents. Jolting as it is, however, it could be the kind of reality check we need when desperate enough to mislay our usually brilliant critical faculties and start believing in all medical “authority,” no matter how meaningless its diagnostic labels, no matter how dangerous its drug therapies. (Elsewhere, Healy and Borch-Jacobsen make it clear that the most dubiously helpful of drugs are precisely those pushed hardest while under patent: when patents run out, a new breed of chemicals for a new breed of patients must be “discovered,” or else – heaven forbid — the wonders of corporate profit might cease.)
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Anyone interested in such matters will know that the now rather venerable Thomas Szasz, though a psychiatrist himself, has for decades been the world’s leading critic of psychiatry. For those who don’t know his work, his biggest concern has always been the terrible ease with which his own profession can lock people up and throw away the key. In societies where even the most violent of alleged criminals retain their civil and human rights, these can be removed at a stroke by “doctors” — however defined — in a situation where “patients” — however defined — are deemed “sick” — again, however defined. (The assumed equivalence between “terrorism” and “mental illness” will strike more than a few of us.)
Szasz’s first and most famous book was published in the U.S. as long ago as 1961; and The Myth of Mental Illness remains a seminal text. In cultural-historical terms, it helped lead to an equally seminal film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975). In fact, what surprises me now is how long it took for this excellent movie to be made from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel. By contrast, as early as 1959 in the wiry shape of Georges Franju, French cinema had anticipated Szasz with La Tete Contre les Murs (aka The Keepers). This nakedly reveals how “welfare” of the “mad” can be a tool for social repression, for sale to anyone with enough cash. Of course, there’s a pre-20th century literary history that exploits similarly disturbing scenarios, though more typically the person being locked up tends to be female rather than male. In Franju’s mid-20th-century film, a middle-aged businessman has his own son “put away.” Why? Because the “sick” young man enjoys a motorbikes-and-free-love lifestyle and, worse still, settles his bills by stealing from papa.
Evidence on the imdb suggests that present opinion is braving this “difficult” film more serenely than usual; though whether it’s being seen as a successful piece of anti-psychiatry or not is another matter. Perhaps helping its mini resurgence is the fact that La Tete Contre les Murs is also an “art film.” Indeed, Franju’s hawk-like visual sensitivity marks all his work, and for some of us, this is reason enough to lament his relatively small output. In bare biographical terms, with this 1958 production Franju is moving from documentary shorts to feature-length movies, motivated chiefly, it would seem, by a charismatic young Polish actor, Jean Pierre Mocky, who plays the “mad” son; and, though I don’t know of any formal links, it’s hard to resist seeing “Francois” as the prototype for Jack Nicholson’s “Murphy.”
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Going further back in film history to look at “madness” and, in particular, at psychiatric “interventions,” I return to that quote from Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s review. Developed over years as a veteran of the so-called Freud Wars, the reviewer’s own position, crudely reduced, is that Freud — racing(raging?) with Faustian zeal to establish a Science of Mind — dismissed as too volkisch the fundamental role of suggestion in all human dealings.
Even if the dangers of emulating Faust haven’t all suddenly disappeared, in the so-called free world at least, anyone with regular access to a computer can now develop open and independent views on any aspect of human culture he or she chooses to investigate. In this climate, consensual views on the History of Mind, for example, are currently – and very justifiably, I think — reinstating Franz Anton Mesmer as an important contributor to our understanding of human suggestibility. For many in Freud’s generation, though, Mesmer was a murky figure precisely because — as a typical Enlightenment intellectual — he avidly sought out folk traditions, seeing them not just as “valid” or “worthy” but as refreshing sources of scientific knowledge and artistic inspiration.
In our own Internet-enlightened era, film students with a special interest in mental health issues (and a not-quite-total aversion to lists) often turn first to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, made just after the end of World War I by Robert Wiene. As it happens, film lovers from modern Poland are particularly aware of Wiene’s Polish roots and understandably proud of his important role in early European cinema. Whatever our backgrounds, though, Caligari offers a dramatic mix of early 20th-century “psychiatric science” with older ideas about hypnosis, here referred to as “somnambulism.” The latter folksy idea can be traced as far back as ancient Egyptian papyri; and while mere antiquity can hardly guarantee the reliability of such ideas, the fact that we can play around with them to create scary entertainments doesn’t, by itself, detract from their continued relevance, particularly when it comes to understanding those most curious of creatures — ourselves. In fact, the “science” on display in Caligari now looks distinctly juddery, and the part played by “mere” suggestion looks more interesting than ever.
In such an artistically resonant piece, with its brilliant sets — all jagged edges and crazily tilted cubist angles — we might be tempted to see the filmmakers as ultra-modern in every way, obviously capable of seeing beyond the high Freudianism of the time. But Wiene’s famous trick ending is simply that: a trick, albeit one that plays very effectively on our fear of madness. The mad-looking showman/hypnotist and his ghoulish sidekick, Cesare, The Somnambulist, are – as things turn out — paranoid delusions of our friendly narrator, Francis, whose youthful good looks have prevented us from guessing that, yes, we’ve just been suckered by someone so mentally ill as to require hospitalisation. Finally, then, we see that “Caligari” is, in fact, a mild-mannered, entirely trustworthy asylum director, who, on discovering the sensationalist literature Francis has been reading, suddenly understands his patient’s “mania”: “He thinks I am that mystic, Caligari! I now know how to cure him!” It’s surely raining on no one’s parade to point out that original audiences were expected to take this “analysis” completely seriously, and, difficult as it might be to suppress such a reading, no postmodern irony is intended.
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Still thinking of little Rebecca Riley’s appalling fate, I don’t know of a feature film that tells such a story. In terms of child psychology, however, I’m reminded of a couple of movies from the late 1940s: The Boy with Green Hair and Germany Year Zero. The first, from Joseph Losey, was released in the States in November, 1948. Roberto Rossellini’s film emerged in Italy only a month later. Given the force of the historic moment, it’s not hard to see how two great directors, albeit in highly differentiated ways, came simultaneously to focus on the impact of war on the minds of children. The American film — despite Losey’s later associations with Europe — in ways both positive and negative, does feel very American to me. On the downside, there’s quite a lot of sentimental Oirishness via the boys’s grandfather (Pat O’Brien), which, frankly, one must overlook in order to see how much good stuff still survives.
For a start (quite literally, coming very early in the picture), there’s a cameo from Robert Ryan as a child psychologist; and this alone — as they used to say in pre-DVD days — is worth the price of admission. Okay, I’m an enormous fan of this actor; all the same I couldn’t have guessed that a talent so often deployed in the cause of mean-heartedness could also “do” such effortless, child-centred grace. It’s an act that has to work because this is the only way we’re going to hear Peter’s story. With Ryan’s “Dr Evans” we meet Dean Stockwell’s Peter not as green-haired but shaven-headed and shorn of words, too – or so it seems.
But as Peter’s story unfolds, we’re often brought by the filmmakers to see the point of what could just have been a hopelessly unconvincing metaphor. What does the green hair stand for? Rather drily told, it’s about a child’s experience of social ostracism caused by his own inner turmoil when he discovers he’s become a “war orphan.” The shearing of the hair was eventually forced on him by his “carers,” who didn’t want him to go on suffering for being different. Or maybe they were thinking about their own embarrassments? Meanwhile, on a modern scale of boycottable personality traits, Peter’s displays of emotion would hardly register; however, his social and emotional problems are made real enough in this film, so that, by the end, we too begin sniffing defiantly at our non-green-haired tormentors. In I-am-Spartacus empathy, we might even expect our own hair to grow back green, just as Peter does, which would, of course, be entirely weird on our part. The serious point is that the film’s writers didn’t duck this one: big emotional problems can be overcome; but there are some indelible legacies of past trauma, and we can live with these, too.
The psychological realism of Germany Year Zero might also take us by surprise; this time, though, the message is much more shocking and, indeed, entirely tragic: a young boy lives a hand-to-mouth existence amid the recently cleared rubble of postwar Berlin. Since everyone else is doing the same, his sense of despair and isolation is not at all clear-cut. Yet, rather lulled than alerted by all the social deprivation, at the last moment we find we’ve actually been watching the story of a child suicide, a story made more emotionally stunning by the fact that it isn’t signalled.