Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Review Under The Influence: Mental Illness In Film

There are as many negative stereotypes about mental illness as there are films with the mentally ill in them.  Often you get the pan shot, as in Amadeus, where the slightly nuts walk amidst the completely bonkers.  People acting with no reason whatsoever.  You have the mentally ill person who is hallucinating and dangerous, about ready to strike out in violence. Your standard serial killer is seen as mentally ill.

Most mentally ill people aren't like how they are portrayed in film at all. In fact, we have a number of mentally ill people walking around with us every day.  In the United States, up to forty percent of the population has been diagnosed with some kind of mental disorder, whether mild from occasional depression to major like schizophrenia.  But most people who are diagnosed are able to function normally, have good marriages, be good parents.  Some have difficulties, but they still offer more to society than they take from it. There are some who aren't really functional, but they are still kind and hopeful, if a bit confused.  Only a very small minority of the mentally ill are violent, and they are more often violent to themselves than others.  In fact, if you are a victim of violence, you are more likely to be attacked by a "normal" person than a mentally ill one.  So watch out for those "normal" people...

Occasionally, a movie will get it right. They will talk about mental illness in a proper setting.  Actually, Lost got it right with the characters Hugo and Elizabeth. They were pretty functional people that occasionally needed to drop out. While people like that aren't common, they are out there and at least Lost didn't adopt a stereotype.

But there are two films that I highly recommend that deal with mental illness.  What makes me qualified?  Well, I'm just a pastor, but I've worked with a lot of mentally ill folks, so I'm pretty familiar with the issues.  While this doesn't make me qualified to diagnose or treat anyone, it does give me enough experience to recommend a couple movies.

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavettes 1974)

This is a film that flies under the radar, but is praised by many critics.  The acting in it is phenomenal.  Gena Rowlands possibly should receive best performance of all time for this role (as she did on the Filmspotting Forum).  She plays Mabel,  a wife and mother who is eccentric to be sure but who strives with all her might to please her hard working husband, played by Peter Falk (who also deserves awards for his performance). But the tension in the house due to her eccentric behavior, especially when guests are around, prove to be too much and her husband struggles with the decision whether she should go to an institution or not.

One of the things that struck me about the film is how realistic the details are to the mid-70's.  I could see myself as their oldest son at that very time, being put into another room while guests are there, being forced to listen to my parents argue from the other room, feeling helpless as crises happen in the house. I was transported back to my childhood in a way that no other movie has ever done.

But more importantly is how mental illness is dealt with in the film.  The question I think this film asks is: "Who is really mentally ill here?  The eccentric one or the family who can't live with different but not dangerous behavior?"  Falk hits his wife to establish boundaries, he screams at her and visitors to the house when events aren't under his control.  His mother screams and gossips about Mabel, insisting that she be institutionalized because she is not "normal".

Only the children really understand that their mother isn't a person to be forced or abused or locked away, but rather protected.  She is a fragile creature, and deserving of all the care she can get.  And her husband really strives for that at the beginning.  But it is society at large that demands that she be "normalized" and act like the pretty, obedient, oppressed wife.  This movie, while having a similar theme, is much more potent than either version of The Stepford Wives.  Because analogy can be dismissed, but this movie cannot.  The only reason Mabel isn't acceptable is because the people around her say she isn't acceptable.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

How many comedies about the mentally ill don't laugh at the expense of the mentally ill?  Lars and the Real Girl is quietly hilarious, but also deeply inspirational, and none of the humor is out of place or takes advantage of those weaker.  In fact, I don't think I have ever seen a film that is more respectful of the mentally ill than this film.

Lars, again, is eccentric.  He lives on his own, in his brother's garage.  He works for a living, but is pretty isolated. He goes to church each week, but doesn't really get on with other people.  All that changed when Bianca comes into his life.  All of a sudden, he wants to show her off, to go to gatherings, to ask advice of his sister in law.  The only problem is that Bianca is a sex doll.  Only Lars thinks she is real.

The humor comes from the discomfort of the situations and the struggle of the community to deal with it.  But it is also the inspiration.  For it shows how without much outside interference (except for support), Lars was able to work out his social issues on his own, in a way he himself can understand.  His brother is tempted to control the situation, to force sanity upon Lars, but the rest of the community supports Lars, treating Bianca as Lars treats her, with respect.

I have worked with a number of mentally ill who are treated as crazy for small issues.  I saw a judge institutionalize someone because he threatened his parents on the phone and jaywalked across a busy street.  In any other court, he'd have a restraining order put on him.  I know a man who thinks it is a Biblical practice to street preach in the nude.  Every time he does that he gets six months in an institution, while if he was treated for the crime (for which he has a rational explanation for), he'd get overnight in jail.

On the other hand, I know another man who, when he doesn't take his medication, he refuses to eat for months (I know for a fact that at one point he didn't eat for two months and he didn't drink water for six days). He needs extra care and he is currently getting it.  But he also has the freedom to live his life as he sees fit in other ways.

I know many people who are barely function and very eccentric.  Why should we make them like the rest of us?  If they are a real danger to themselves or to others, then, yes, certainly, they need to be cared for.  But otherwise, why not live and let live?  Let some be strange and the rest of us can learn to live with the difference as a lesson of love and tolerance.

Frankly, we need to learn the lesson of not judging more than they need to learn the lesson of normalcy. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Heroes: Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia

In the ancient world, one of the most popular forms of literature was hero-stories.  Heracles was the greatest of these tales, but Theseus and Perseus were marvelous culminating in the epic of Odysseus.  The love of hero-stories has never abated.  One thing about us epic-loving, Hollywood-style film goers: we love our heroes.  We like them to be gruff, manly and ready to face down any and all dangers.  We love our heroines, too, they’re fine in their feminine, maternal manner (Ripley, Erin Brockovich), but heroes can get the heart pounding and ready to do battle in whatever realm we do battle in.  Indiana Jones, James Bond, Robin Hood.  Some actors are just destined to play heroes: Denzel Washington , John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Charlton Heston.  To watch them is inspiring and their exploits are powerful.

There is a form of epic which focuses on a single hero and really tells the story through their eyes.  This give us the opportunity and the story develops as we see the action from their persepective.  They are a kind of a bio pic, except often the hero is fictional (not that most bio pics aren’t fictional).  Frankly, the Ten Commandments is one of these stories, as well as Braveheart  and Rocky.  One of the great examples of a recent version of this story is Gladiator, the fictional story of Maximus, a general whose only desire was to go home to his wife and family.  Unfortunately, through political intrigue and the mechanizations of an evil Roman prince, he ended up without his family or farm, enslaved and forced to fight.

One of the great aspects of the film is the complexity of Maximus’ character.  His motivation shifts from scene to scene, even as our motivations for what we do changes in slightly different circumstances.  He isn’t bent on revenge throughout the entire film, neither is he some sad sack who just does whatever comes his way (of course, if that was the case, he’d make a pretty poor hero).  Even as a slave, he bends the circumstances around him.  And in the end, he turns the whole empire upside down.  

It is a marvelous performance by Russell Crowe, but even greater is the direction by Ridley Scott.  One of the most telling transformations is the brightness of Spain, even in the midst of overwhelming sorrow, to the darkness of Rome, despite the grandeur of a victor’s parade.   The way the story was told was perfect.  I watched the extended cut and while there could have been some trimming, there isn’t a scene that isn’t necessary, that doesn’t forward the story.  And while the conclusion might be inevitable, we believe that it was in serious danger.  A powerful film and worthy of honor.
Are you not entertained? 

One of the most powerful aspects of the film for me was the bloody entertainment that was demanded.  The people wanted blood, wanted death and the master of the gladiators (masterfully played by Oliver Reed) gave it to them. But isn't this the position of Ridley Scott as well?  Isn't he just granting his audience what they wanted, even though it is a bloody, horrific show?  Yet, the film implies, to woo the populace with blood is akin to democracy, the hidden secret of power.  Whether warriors or gladiators or heroes of any sort, this is the stuff of power, the building blocks of nations. Ultimately, a nation is a shared narrative of heroism that a large group of people all sense that they participated in.  

But the greatest cinema hero, in my estimation, was the focus of David Lean’s epic of 1962: Lawrence of Arabia.  The debate over the “true” Lawrence is due partly to the power and majesty of this film which depicts Lawrence as a charismatic genius, tortured megalomaniac, brilliant madman and physically impervious warrior, who died in a motorcycle wreck near his home in England.  The film not only depicts Lawrence as changing but as contradictory and impulsive. 

Most heroes, like Maximus, are solid, powerful, a brick wall. O’Toole’s Lawrence, however, is sometimes  doubtful and broken.  His greatest later deeds would not have occurred were he not coerced by those around him.  Lawrence of Arabia’s approach seems more realistic.  A hero is not a hero on his own, but must have support and help to be that hero.  And once that support falters, so does the hero.

Peter O’Toole of course deserves acclaim, but so do his co-stars Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins, who try to piece together Lawrence even while they try to manipulate him to their causes.   The great mystery of the film is who Lawrence was, what made him tick.  It seems that the answers the film gave was adventure and glory.

But I think a significant aspect of the film is the un-ending self-confidence of the man.  That no matter how many obstacles or failures Lawrence faced, his achievements occurred because he knew that they could be done by no one else but himself.   That no one else would even think of them because they were too outlandish to even consider.  Only a man who knew he could not fail would succeed in such accomplishments.

One of the last lines in the film give us wisdom about heroes and what they can actually accomplish: “Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men. Mistrust and caution. It must be so.”  Heroes are powerful, but heroes cannot build community of normal people, because, frankly they are not normal and do not know how to be normal.  Heroes do great things and accomplish much.  But when it is time for small things, heroes are not welcome.  In the end, heroes must fail.  Their accomplishments must rot.  Were it not for these heroes, the more solid, quieter accomplishments could not have occurred.  But they must step aside.

For this reason, in both of these films, the hero must do what they must do and then step aside.  Even like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  In order to accomplish a greater, more peaceful West, John Wayne must do his accomplishments and step aside for Jimmy Stewart to be the statesman.   A true hero knows when to change the world, but also when to ride into the sunset. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Little Bit of Vengeance Never Hurt Anyone

In the summaries of some films, some minor spoilers are there, but none that would ruin the film being discussed. 

Vengeance films are the most disturbing films I've ever seen, and they are more common now than ever.  Perhaps this is simply a trend, but I suspect that the focus on vengeance is a result of the fear of enemies that is running rampant in many societies today.

It is interesting that movies often reflect our fears, and our fears reflect or become our reality.  In Japan, the atom bomb destroying their cities caused a huge fear of nuclear disaster, thus the many monster movies.  Now Japan again must face their fears as radiation from a disaster spread over their whole nation.  Even so, the United States and South Korea have these vengeance films, more now than ever, and even so, their nations are being threatened by grave enemies, which spreads fear and increases the need for some kind of consummation.

The most disturbing vengeance films come from South Korea right now.  It is difficult to say which film is more disturbing: Oldboy or I Saw the Devil.  Oldboy is about a man who lost a decade and a half of his life and he vows to take revenge on the person who paid for this crime.  It is more disturbing to find that it was originally done as revenge against a childhood incident.  The end of all this vengeance is madness. I Saw the Devil is certainly more graphic, so much so that I'd be tempted to call it "torture porn". Devil tries to show that to make a murderer feel the victim's family's grief and loss is difficult, if not impossible, and can only happen by becoming a monster worse than the one you are taking vengeance out on.

Both of these films are disturbing, however, not just because of their violence, but because of the attractive nature of the violence.  In Oldboy, much of the violence is not dissimilar to an intense martial arts film, so it specifically draws in those attracted by such images.  I Saw The Devil would draw more of the horror crowd with its intense graphic violence.  Even though both films want to communicate the drawbacks of violence, the very nature of the films themselves cause that message to not be heard.  Both films develop a blood lust in the audience and the film isn't over until that blood lust or desire for full vengeance is fulfilled.  Once the bloody justice is achieved, then the film ends.  No matter what side moral is communicated, it is lost by the end of the film.

A more interesting vengeance film is Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. It mixes history around quite a bit in order to have a perfect vengeance against the Nazis, all done by the hands of Jews. It is an obvious, over-the-top, red-white-and-blue-all-America's-enemies-will-die war flick.  Except... the scene in which the Nazis are watching a film and laughing and cheering at Americans being killed by a German Ramboesque hero seems a little too close to the response Tarantino is hoping to illicit from the Americans watching the film.  In fact, Tarantino is subtly undermining such vengeance flicks by pointing out that such rejoicing in the deaths of the enemy is more a Nazi characteristic than an American right.  But if that was Tarantino's point (which I'm sure it is), it is too subtle. Almost no one, especially those who really enjoyed the vengeance aspect of the film, understood that, and if they did, they wouldn't care.  More often than not, digs against the attitude of vengeance only increase the attitude that, given the right circumstances, vengeance is one's "right", and it is the true "justice."

Some real dismantling of the vengeance idea occurs in the film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, directed by Park Chan-wook who also directed Oldboy. In this film, we can see the desire for vengeance coming from the same sorts of incidents as the first three films we discussed-- murder of one's child. However, the murderer is a real person, not just a caricature, and he isn't a "bad guy," but rather someone who is desperately trying to get his sister an operation.  He takes some bad advice and everything goes wrong.  But it only gets worse and worse for everyone involved.  In Sympathy, not only do we see the "bad guy" as someone who we must pity rather than truly being an object for vengeance, but we also see that vengeance doesn't ever end with one act.  It leads to a string of vengeful acts, each taking revenge on the criminal behavior of the former one.  As Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."  Or in this case, dead.

In pondering all these films, I re-watched the Fritz Lang classic M this morning.  There are many of the same themes: a murderer of children, a city in fear, the determination that something must be done. But here, the act of vengeance against a terrible criminal is thought out, deliberated, rather than being the act of a single individual or a mob. The murderer is played brilliantly and sympathetically by Peter Lorre.  And he is allowed to state his case: He is compelled by his inner demons to do such acts and he wishes he were not this way, but he can't help it.  In response, two sides are presented: first, that because he can't help it means he must die because he is creating chaos.  Second, that he must not die for we are all prone to do bad or even evil things, usually by our own will.  And rather than make a determination of seeing the murderer as someone who is sick or someone who is destructive, the film leaves us with the middle of the conversation.

What is better for a criminal: punishment or rehabilitation?  If punishment, why?  So they can feel what the victim or the family of the victim feels?  They can't.  They won't. Even if they feel remorse, that is a different pain than grief or anxiety.  In the end, vengeance isn't about the criminal at all-- it is a selfish act to try to overcome one's own mental state.  If we are to get past the cycle of vengeance, then we must see everyone, even criminals and murderers as human beings, people like us.  This doesn't mean that they shouldn't be separated from society, but vengeance does no good and brings no real satisfaction.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Double Life of Veronique: Review and Analysis

Two girls are born on the same day in 1968, one in Poland, the other in France. One is called Weronika and the other Veronique.  They both are raised by loving parents, both of their mothers died young and they both have good relationships with their fathers. And even though they grew up thousands of miles apart, they both had this sense that they were not alone.  That somewhere there is a counterpart to themselves.

This is the heart of the Double Life of Veronique, and yet the film is so much more than this.  Directed by Krzysztof Keislowski, the film is much like his other films.  Like all his later films, it explores metaphysical and ethical issues.  Although the subject is very down-to-earth, the cinematography is full of ethereal beauty, full of golds and greens. It is simply one of the most stunning pieces of art ever created.

Why do you play out of tune? Is it because W sang out of tune when she died?.

In addition to that physical beauty, there is the beauty of the music.  The score was composed by Zbigniew Preisner who later also composed the beautiful score for Keislowski's next film, Three Colors: Blue.  Most of the score is a single piece of music, played or sung in different ways, different tempos with different instruments.  But the haunting, spiritual nature of the piece is perfect for the mood of the whole.

I've watched it twice now and each time I am drawn in, stunned by the beauty and power of the simple story.  It is intellectually stimulating and sensual, but somehow it is the beauty of it that captures me.  I am misty-eyed at the end of the film, and I don't know why.  It moves me as no other film does, and it is a mystery how it stirs my soul at all.  In all, The Double Life is one of my favorite films of all time.

Why the ring? Is it simply a connection between the two doppleganers?     

*   *    *

Below is the analysis, which contains spoilers and discusses details of the film: 

All of this gushing praise doesn't mean that Double Life is easy to understand.  There are a lot of seemingly meaningless details, but like all Keislowski films, the details add up to a singular whole.  Of course, the puzzle is, what is that whole?

I believe that the title is a misdirection, as is the main plot of having Veronique/Weronika be doppelgangers. Of course, it is significant, but it doesn't really add much to the main point of the theme.  This theme can be found right at the first two shots of the film.   

First, we see Weronika as a small girl, being held by her mother.  Her mother is interpreting what little Weronika is seeing: an upside down Polish city.  But rather than draw her attention to the city itself, her mother tells her to "look" at the stars.  And this heaven-gaze directs all of Weronika's life, which takes up the first half hour of the film.

Weronika is pulled back and forth between joy and a kind of an illness throughout her portion of the film. She is addicted to heaven, to the spirit realm. Keislowski puts many different symbols of this spiritual, non-earthy, viewpoint throughout the film: stars, rain, seeing the world upside down, but the main basis of spirituality in this film is art: music, dancing, drawing. And the purer the art, the more it is art for its own sake, the more spiritual the art is.  And thus, the less it belongs with the earth.

The illness Weronika struggles with is, frankly, a spiritual sickness.  She is so caught up with the spirit world that her body has a hard time living.  When she sings to practice for her recital, she is so weak she can barely walk.  She becomes pale and her eyes wander.  The connection to the spirit is the greatest joy in her life, but it finally kills her when she completely surrenders herself to the music.

Why did she not die before?  Because of her connection to the flesh, to the earth.  The earthly is seen in her relationship with her boyfriend, in her helping a friend in a legal situation. And whenever see connects in those ways, she becomes grounded again and her body is able to endure.  The funniest example of this is when, after a particularly spiritual practice for her concert, she wobbles out to the street and almost collapses onto a bench.  A man in a trench coat comes by and opens his coat, exposing himself.  This "grounds" Weronika, giving her a connection to the earth once more, so she feels better and gets up. 

In the end, Weronika's commitment to the spiritual kills her, because a soul so connected to the heavens can no longer live on earth.

Veronique, although a copy of Weronika in so many ways, is, in this aspect her opposite.  In the opening scene, Veronique is also with her mother, but her mother is showing her a leaf, describing the details.  Veronique is the one who is focused on the earth, on the flesh.
Love's not enough, in itself.  Or is it? 

The first scene in which the adult Veronique is focused on, we see her having casual sex with someone she hasn't seen for a long time. This demonstrates her groundedness.  But this is happening right at the same time as Weronika's death, an Veronique feels it.  Suddenly, in the middle of the lovemaking, she grieves.  She can't stop herself from crying and it makes no sense to her. This is because she has been free to live a life completely grounded, because her counterpart was living a life in the spirit.  Both are unbalanced, both are one-sided, because they had the other who unknowingly balanced them. Veronique has remained somewhat balanced, seeking music in a class instead of the pure form (she quits personal development of her music after her greiving).   

When Weronika dies, however, Veronique is imbalanced, undirected, seeking stasis.  And she finds this balance in the form of a marionette artist, Alexandre (as a side note, W's boyfriend and V's sought lover's names both begin with "A").  Just his art communicates balance, in that his art is embodied, grounded at all times.  There is always an audience and always a human shown behind the puppet.  His art is the kind of balance Veronique now so desperately seeks.

And for the rest of the film she seeks him and he seeks her.  In the climax, her grief for the loss of Weronika threatens to overwhelm her, but Alexandre makes love to her through her grief.  He brings her back to earth.   Because, for Veronique, her grieving of her lost spirit-component threatened to undo her. But the love of another, frankly, sex itself, grounds her, gives her balance between the grief and continued living in the world.  In the final shot, Veronique is touching a tree, even as her mother showed her the leaf, guiding her to the path of embodiment

I'd love to hear any comments on my analysis.