Minds In Progress: Mental Illness in American Cinema
By Simon Augustine, M.Div
Moviegoers and Madmen
Men are more interested in what they see when dreaming than what they see when awake.
The movie theater is a miniature mental asylum. A temporary home made of cushioned seats (and padded, sound-proof walls) for the bereft, the dazed, the longing, the beautiful losers; men and women who need images almost as much as they need real people.
Maybe that explains why some of the most iconic and compelling characters in American cinematic history are those who embody madness in one of its many forms; like we moviegoers who watch and live vicariously through these fictional people, the characters themselves struggle with a relationship between reality and image, trying to find a fulcrum between the outside world and imagination: Randall P. McMurphy, irreverent would-be savior of "The Cuckoo’s Nest;" Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, deranged stalker/fan par excellance, "hobbling" her favorite author in Stephen King’s Misery; Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, "god’s lonely man," dangerous dreamer, epitome of urban social alienation; Dr. Hannibal Lecter, fascinating in his genius brand of cannibalistic insanity; or Sally Field as Sybil, bringing the complexity and pathos of multiple personality disorder to national consciousness. And the list goes on...
These are the rebels and sufferers of delusion who buck the system, fight against the status quo, or terrorize the neighborhood; the pin-ups of our hearts; quintessential American (anti-)heroes who dramatically attempt to change reality, either in the streets or in their minds—with consequences of chaos, societal upheaval, or a measure of personal healing. And who among us has not walked into a theatre in hopes of changing ourselves by seeing something new, by dreaming with assistance, understanding our identity through fresh images and the words of unreal people? We watch the crazy-brave on the screen to measure our lives and minds against their thoughts and deeds; and with a unique sense of self-reflexive grandeur and paranoid fondness for the power of The Image that only movies bestow on us—we the believers so skilled at a suspension of disbelief—we suspect that perhaps our heroes and villains of semi-reality are watching us too, making sure we are sufficiently moved by their efforts.
By describing three primary modes of how films portray mental illness—the dramatic, horrific, and comic—we can begin to name a Hall of Fame of the Mad, men and women littering the hallways, hospitals, and imaginary chambers of our shared American asylum with fevered brains and uncanny insights. But first, a brief detour for some philosophical considerations about the relationship between our minds and the movies...
The Mind and the Movie Screen
Think about how a film works on our minds when we enter the darkness: presented with a series of convincing and absorbing images, sounds, and performances, we are enraptured by a simulation of reality so powerful it produces genuine emotional and visceral reactions. The artificial produces something actual. The irony and paradox of the movie screen: a coordinated and intricate construction that by means of a skilled combination of elements—sets, makeup, actors, special effects—manages to affect both transportation from reality while also eliciting seemingly very real emotion, self-examination, and insight among its audience.
A group of strangers pay admittance to watch a flickering series of make-believe situations together, until moved to tears, screams, or feelings indisputably authentic in some sense. An odd set of circumstances. The "magic" of the movies, a true sorcery. But also, pardon the expression, kind of nuts, too. There they are: crying, yelling, anticipating, not because of another person immediately before them, or a direct situation, but because of a screen; something that in a fundamental sense is not really there. You might be persuaded to think these people freaking out because of mere images and sounds are suffering an unusual pathology of some kind.
From one perspective, they are sitting in an empty room, reacting to nothing at all. Like madmen.
Yet once the lights go back on and the street beckons, an audience carries an encounter with the illusory out of the realm of the unreal into the external world, to use it there in some fashion; to see a facet of reality more clearly, more empathetically, with greater intensity. They are truly changed. Maybe not so loony after all.
This strange dynamic between mind and media parallels the way a person undergoing mental illness interacts with productions of her own mind. Encountering a complex of thoughts and mental images, the mental patient has difficulty separating what is "real"—in the sense of what serves as connective tissue to the people, situations, and feelings in the context of his or her life—from what is the "sound and fury" of the mind’s tyranny: its anxiety converted to static, terror turned into white noise, a fun house of distorting mirrors, whispered lies and secret passages harbored to delay painful contours of the outside world and truths of heart. (The patient experiences false "visions:" in a figurative sense—as in neurosis; or in a literal sense, i.e. schizophrenic auditory and visual hallucinations) With psychotherapy, medicine, meditation, etc.—the patient struggles to distinguish authentic "images," i.e. conceptual structures successfully containing (importing and exporting) feeling, meaning and viable relation to surrounding situation and circumstances, from what are the more delusional, misleading, merely defensive elements on the mind’s "screen."
During treatment, patients (verbally) project defunct or destructive images holding them prisoner into the therapeutic space between themselves and a psychotherapist (or God, or a spiritual principle, or the wisdom and confrontational beauty of art or scholarship)—the space across which "transference" is conducted. Once this "mind-movie" gets "out of the head," manifested into malleable form, patient and therapist perform a psychological interrogation on these images and the stories they tell—about emotional content, relationship dynamics etc.—to reveal inappropriate or misshapen barriers lurking there.
In effect, the patient makes a psychological movie, a projection of something illusory, and puts it into the actual world, in front of the therapist, so its delusional aspects can be separated from those aspects indicating the patient’s humanity, clarity, capability of being alive, "in touch," free, and open. By deduction and inference, patients use the delusional aspects of their images to inversely distinguish what is profound and real in them; the illusory is fuel by which the confused and lost can locate their own authenticity; the soil in which the seeds of freedom and release grow. The patient’s humanity has deformed its guiding images; the same humanity can transform them. The real has, in the mind’s echo chamber, become artificial; under the grinding chains of thought and fear it has lost substance and utility, and so must be converted back to the real. That is, from cyclical mental chatter to true relationship with Self and others.
Conversely, a movie audience willfully enters realms of the illusory, a suspension of usual laws of disbelief and reason, to use images found there in order to become "more sane": to experience life more authentically and passionately. In this case, however, the difference between what is illusory and what is real is implicitly acknowledged from the outset, so moviegoers can indulge within a controlled context in the productive, upsetting, and inspiring influence of images. In effect, they are seduced by promise of a "safe-word" hallucination: get a touch of fever and recover... Mental patients, meanwhile, have a harder task: they enter the realm of images in order to learn a more necessary and penultimate distinction: i.e. simply between what is actually an image and what is not. They attempt to understand and trust what the movie audience already knows.
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