The ongoing relationship between psychiatry and American movies | Bleader

The ongoing relationship between psychiatry and American movies

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Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in Side Effects
  • Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in Side Effects
By coincidence I saw Drew Tobia's See You Next Tuesday at the Chicago Underground Film Festival (which I wrote about on Monday) a few days after catching up with Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects, another New York production on the theme of mental illness. Tobia's is by far the more compassionate film, though it's interesting that its depiction of mental illness is objective while Soderbergh's is subjective. Side Effects plays out in shallow focus with a soundtrack that reduces all but important dialogue to a general white noise. This strategy approximates one experience of living with clinical depression—feeling so trapped inside your own consciousness that every place in the outside world seems the same. Soderbergh attempted something similar in his film The Informant!, deploying broad comic elements (such as Marvin Hamlisch's jokey score) seemingly at random to depict a character who's later revealed to be in an extended manic phase of bipolar disorder. The movie made you laugh without knowing why.

These movies reflect the changing relationship between psychiatry and American cinema, a development I consider to be positive on the whole. In contrast to the old stereotype of mentally ill people as psycho killers—or, conversely the patronizing idea perpetuated by movies like You Can't Take It With You that mentally ill people are really just charming kooks—the subjects of these recent films are presented as suffering from treatable medical conditions. This approach is markedly different from earlier sympathetic portrayals in mainstream cinema, such as Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb and the James Mason vehicle The Seventh Veil, which took a simplistic Freudian stance on the issue: fix the right buried trauma, they implied, and you could fix everything.

Things started to turn in the 1990s. Studio movies like Mr. Jones, Shine, and As Good as It Gets presented bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder as problems that could be treated only after the proper diagnosis and help. Yet all three of these movies indulge in a certain wish-fulfillment fantasy similar to that of You Can't Take It With You, in which an afflicted person is able to turn himself around once he finds someone to love or a creative passion through which to express himself. However well-intentioned, these films made the treatment process seem far too easy. Closer to the truth was Lodge Kerrigan's pioneering Clean, Shaven (1993), which used unsettling, impressionistic techniques to make schizophrenia seem a near-insurmountable condition.

Kerrigan named the production company he formed to make Clean, Shaven "DSM III Films," a reference to the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and a clue to the specificity of his characterization. (It's worth noting that Soderbergh later served as an executive producer on Kerrigan's Keane, which also dealt with schizophrenia.) This pointed the way for the recent wave of movies that present mental illness as a web of interrelated symptoms that must be dealt with altogether. Silver Linings Playbook may be the most commercially successful of these, and its comic treatment of the subject represents another breakthrough. Rather than trivializing the issue, the movie presents it in familiar, intimate terms—as a common problem that our society is becoming better able to manage.

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