Film essays

Portrayals of mental health in film.

Memento pic 2.5

We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” – Leonard Shelby

Everyone has mental health issues. For as long as we humans are an emotional, fickle and mindful species who share the same world despite each being unique in our own way, we’ll experience differing psychological reactions to that world and to each other.

Yet these differences often drive us apart. We can also be a prideful people who find it difficult to grasp why everyone else doesn’t think or act like us. How is it possible that person holds such a different opinion to myself, or this person promotes beliefs I don’t share? This is the type of thinking we can fall into almost by default, and it leads to the formation of taboos, bigotry and ultimately even bitterness toward others.

Such thinking patterns are usually reinforced by habitual circumstance. One simply does not have the time, especially if working a job to provide for one’s family or to enjoy an extravagant lifestyle, nor might one have the motivation to think differently from their social group, to then stop and consider the bigger picture; why they might think a certain way, whether or not it is wrong to deride other groups for whom such treatment may have typically just been thought of as ‘normal’ in the past. Some prefer to be told how they think, while others might prefer just not to think about it at all, letting events run their natural course.

Artists tend to be neither. You could say they like to think themselves part of the ‘enlightened’ few – as arrogant as that sounds – with which comes an inherent desire to share, attempt to change patterns of thinking and perhaps even help change the world. Artistic portrayals of worldly or personal taboos, for all the controversy they may occasionally stir, can help to lessen a harsh collective attitude towards something and challenge imbedded notions without necessarily confronting individuals at face value. They provide opportunities for reflection, though within all of that you’ll get some effective and (probably more) less effective ways of doing so. As with many things, in this case the trying is at least the most important part; a process of trial and error the most effective learning experience.

Of course throughout history many were misunderstood, even by themselves. Van Gogh and Picasso’s depression (famously reflected in the latter’s ‘blue period’ between 1901-04) was only properly appreciated and contextualised in their work long after their deaths. The message their art conveyed, the way it made others feel, unquestionably ahead of its time and, as its continuing popularity shows, transcendent. It reflected a reality not yet fully explored in the ‘real world’ itself – nor would it be for many more years to follow.

Picasso's Blue period was known for its melancholic, haunting imagery - and in turn helped blue become depression's signature colour.
Picasso’s Blue period was known for its melancholic, haunting imagery – and in turn helped blue become depression’s signature colour.

Nowadays things are quite different. Film, television and digital media have all made storytelling and multiple forms of art more accessible than ever before, while they are also more open to critique than ever before. This critique is about more than simply determining whether something has value or not, deciding whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it is about extrapolating some sort of meaning from the surroundings we’re exposed to. It is ultimately about asking why, and the most insightful among us can often see into the soul of an artist by observing the work they produce.

Granted it is sometimes true that one can read meaning into a piece of work that was not originally put there by its author, and it is obvious that the sheer accessibility of critique means the best of it can get lost in the maelstrom. But these arguments do not negate the need for it. None of us can be expected to always get things right (some just appear better at it than others). Making mistakes does not necessarily mean we were on the wrong track to begin with, while one could argue that finding meaning in a piece of work does not require its creator to have meant it. Many of the most memorable works of art mean different things to different people depending on their personal taste and background.

I can watch a film like The Babadook (2014) and consider it a masterpiece for its unique depiction of loss, grief, and the gritty realities of chronic depression. Someone else may view it as another generic horror movie and little else of note. Neither of these opinions is ‘wrong’ (though one may have been formed with more thought than the other) – they are subjective, dependent on the experiences and point of view of the individual, and it is up to the next consumer to make an informed decision on whether they will like it based on the critique provided them by various accessible sources. I don’t wish anyone to simply take my word for it, but I would like to think my word can at least help with the decision-making process.

Now, the reason I go to such lengths here to make a point about subjectivity is not only related to how we approach art; it is in fact a major factor in how we approach mental health as well. However much we split others into personality groups, categorise them introvert or extravert, male or female, the fact remains: no two people share the same mind. That may sound obvious, overly simplistic; bordering on patronising even. But for all the complicated concepts humanity has advanced in its time, this ‘simple’ idea is still too often falling through the net.

We want others to conform to our idea of how things should be done, and the most charismatic have often succeeded at bringing other people round to their own way of thinking while the rest essentially complain that it wasn’t them who were able to do the same. ‘Our way is right, yours is wrong’. This black and white picture is what continues to drive traditional thinking patterns in a postmodern culture, as the basic argument for it (and we could debate whether it’s a valid one) is that without such a structure we would lose our ability to decipher the difference between the two.

Mental health, rather like the artist among the conformists and anarchists, falls into neither category (black or white, good or bad), and this is where the challenge seems to lie for most people. As I said at the beginning, we all have it. We all occasionally struggle with it – from the disappointment of having to get out of bed on a Monday morning, to grief over the death of a loved one – though some considerably more often and more intensely than others.

So I think now I must at least get to my overall point, before I begin to lose you in an abundance of barely relatable context. But you should know I would not have led you down this path had I not first held some idea of our destination.

Certain movements in cinema history have their roots in mental illness – Expressionism, for example, owes a significant debt to surrealist paintings and, in particular, the work of Van Gogh. Part of me wonders whether my affection for old German Expressionist films have quite a bit to do with this; their distorted, atmospheric imagery at the time induced a curious, evocative unease not unlike how one may view the world through depressive eyes.

But those films, rather like Van Gogh himself, do not seem to have intended this connection I now make. Van Gogh’s art was a reflection of self – the part of himself he did not fully understand. A compulsion to explore what was on the surface unseen, was what subsequently drove his desire to create. Had he set out with the intention of forming the legacy he ended up with, I daresay it would not have felt half as organic or genuine, and it certainly would have happened differently. History’s greatest artists are regarded in hindsight for their tragic sense of not quite knowing what they had, but conversely it was this ‘not knowing’ that paved the way for the rest of us to understand a little bit better.

German Expressionism may therefore have succeeded in capturing the unspoken essence of a condition, but the actual content of some of their films shows they did not fully understand it either. Indeed, one could argue they did more harm than good for the public perception of mental health.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), for example, featured a final twist calling into question the sanity of the film’s narrator, showing him to be a patient of a mental asylum at which Dr Caligari is the director. This narrator, Francis, who had previously told us the story of Caligari – portraying him as a shady, controlling character who himself eventually ended up in the same asylum – is placed in a strait jacket amidst the screams commonly associated with such an environment.

While I have no problem with the film or its twist (it did, after all, appear on my Top 25 list, and should be taken within the context of its time), this did reflect what was a relatively normal perception in society back then – that those with some form of mental illness were not to be trusted and somehow feared; best put in a strait jacket and confined within a cell to protect the rest of us from harm. This perception covered not only the most extreme forms (in which case a person may indeed become a danger to others and require some kind of confinement), but also the lesser ones. To even suggest or show that you weren’t entirely ‘sane’ brought with it this stark imagery, and such broad labelling became a fear that is secretly harboured by many to this day.

Its imagery may have captured a spirit of unease, but mental illness was ultimately nothing more than a caricature used to advance the plot in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Its imagery may have captured a spirit of unease, but mental illness was ultimately nothing more than a caricature used to advance the plot in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

This film was also one of the first cinematic examples that utilised mental health issues (albeit rather extreme forms of them) as a potent narrative tool. This has continued consistently throughout film history, and you can probably name at least a couple yourself without my input. While one could argue this has been helpful in raising awareness of certain conditions, more often than not I think they are exaggerated (and to an extent, romanticised) for dramatic effect. Though I would not necessarily claim that’s a negative thing.

My favourite film for portraying the issues of which we now speak is 2001’s Donnie Darko. This movie bears many other qualities besides this aspect and, in a way, that’s precisely its strength. It doesn’t take mental illness and use it purely as its main narrative device or concluding twist; instead mental health is shown as a thing that just ‘is’ a natural part of central character Donnie.

He meets a girl (Gretchen) in the film who soon becomes his girlfriend, yet as they’re still just getting to know each other they have a telling conversation about her family. Gretchen explains how she, along with her mother, had to flee from her father and change names so that he couldn’t find them again. She describes him as having ’emotional problems’. “Oh really?! I have those too!” Donnie blurts out before asking, “what kind of emotional problems does your dad have?”

Her reaction is not what one might expect. She does not hear this admission and suddenly become fearful that Donnie might therefore be exactly like the man her father was. Because after all, they are different people, and having taken a little time to talk to Donnie, Gretchen can see who he really is – rather than the caricature one may have attached to him due to his condition.

In addition to characterisation, some details of the film’s plot can easily be read as representative of how mental illness works in a broad sense; what it can mean for individuals and their loved ones. For example, the timer counting down to the end of the world, given to Donnie near the start of the film by his imaginary friend Frank, seems to have deeper significance than the fantastical time-related aspect of the narrative. I found it comparable to the feeling of inevitability regarding the destructive qualities of mental illness. You can’t outrun it, you can’t hide from it, and if you try to avoid it, it will soon catch up and ‘end your world’ as you know it.

His portrayal of flawed teenager Donnie remains one of Jake Gyllenhaal's best roles.
His portrayal of flawed teenager Donnie (behind whom stands ‘Frank’ in this picture) remains one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s best roles.

Ultimately, this countdown leads to Donnie’s death, the ‘end of his world’, or rather his ‘turning back time’ in order to undo all the wrong actions he took and all the pain he had caused to others over the course of the story. Though the film was of course steeped in backstory about time travel, its resolution arguably proves more insightful than any other movie for showing how some are ultimately driven to suicide, feeling in the end that it was perhaps an inevitable outcome for them and, in a warped sense, actually beneficial to their loved ones, to whom they may feel no more than a burden due to their illness.

Donnie Darko was an alarmingly insightful film for its time, though ‘its time’ was of course only 14 years ago. How far have we come since then? I think quite far, actually. In the same way that last year’s Pride and Oscar contender The Imitation Game (in tackling the story of Alan Turing, himself branded a criminal in the aftermath of World War 2 for being homosexual despite his help with the Allied victory in the war) reflected the gradual lessening of a taboo towards homosexuality in modern society, 2015 has so far seen three films which I believe achieved something others have previously failed at. That is; tackling the issue of mental illness head on, honestly and candidly, without the need for ambiguous metaphors.

They’ve done this by not approaching the subject as if it is limited only to ‘special’ or ‘unfortunate’ people who belong comfortably out of sight, out of mind alongside the issues they struggle through. They haven’t been agonisingly patronising. Yet they’ve also reflected the existing flaws still inherent in how many of us approach the topic.

British film X+Y, released back in March, is a comedy-drama about a teenage Mathematics prodigy (Nathan) who has difficulty forming relationships and understanding people in general. When his father – the person he felt closest to – dies at a young age, even his mother finds it hard to form a connection with her son. Though they find that he has a gift for Maths, and with the help of a flawed tutor bearing his own issues, Nathan is trained up for the International Mathematical Olympiad. But along the way he encounters a Chinese girl through an exchange program and finds himself falling in love.

A not-so-typical romance helps keep the story of 'X+Y' fresh amidst potentially tough subject matter.
A not-so-typical romance helps keep the story of ‘X+Y’ fresh amidst potentially tough subject matter.

Seeing Nathan trying to make sense of his emotions through the equations he knows so well is as sweet as it is awkward at times. Crucially however, the film never lets itself get overtaken by sentiment; there is not a feel-good ‘happy ending’ per se, though it is hinted at. It is, to simplify the story, a tale of what it is like to live and cope not only with autism, but with the feeling of being told you are ‘special’ and not really understanding why. Nathan’s mother is also given equal portrayal in the film, as we appreciate her own struggles in loving a son who doesn’t always return that love or show appreciation for what she does for him. This is the reality for many carers and close family members of those who suffer from this kind of condition.

While at Belfast Film Festival in April, I saw another film which did something very similar. Patrick’s Day followed a young schizophrenic man named Patrick, whose condition means he requires constant supervision. Cared for by his mother, who understandably feels over-protective of her son after being his carer for over 20 years, their lives are disrupted when Patrick meets and falls in love with a woman who herself secretly harbours suicidal tendencies. Believing her son can never possibly have a normal life of independence, his mother does all she can first to break up the relationship, and then to convince Patrick that this woman was no more than an imaginary person, projected by his overactive mind.

Irish film Patrick's Day portrayed schizophrenia in a more authentic, 'real' way than most other films.
Irish film Patrick’s Day portrayed schizophrenia in a more authentic, ‘real’ way than any other movie I’ve seen.

It sounds harsh I know, but thanks to the film’s even-handedness, we never judge Patrick’s mother too harshly. We see things from her point of view, as much as Patrick’s, and we see that her path as carer is, in some ways, just as difficult as the condition her son lives with. At the same time we fully appreciate Patrick’s condition, and the film communicates well the difficulties of trying to lead a relatively normal life with such a potentially serious illness. But in the end its message is a hopeful one that says: it is more possible than you might think.

Finally there was The Dark Horse, a New Zealand film released in the UK last month. Based on the real-life story of New Zealand chess player Genesis Potini, who suffered from bipolar disorder which disrupted his career and required frequent stays in hospital. This film picks up after one such hospital stay, and we see Potini go to stay with his brother and nephew, the latter of which is about to be unwillingly ‘inducted’ into a motorcycle gang. During the film we see Potini’s everyday domestic struggles exasperated by his fragile mental state – though ultimately we see that he is psychologically stronger than others would give him credit for – as he ends up homeless and attempts to provide direction to a group of disadvantaged teens by coaching them in chess.

You don't need an appreciation of chess to appreciate The Dark Horse... but it does add a nice extra layer to the film.
You don’t need an appreciation of chess to appreciate The Dark Horse… but it does add a nice extra layer to the film.

What I liked most about The Dark Horse was probably its juxtaposition between mental health issues and the hardcore ‘biker gang’ domestic environment in which it is predominantly set. These are two things that would not appear to mix – one does not think of large, bearded ‘hard men’ bikers or their social group as typically susceptible to such issues. But they are, just as much as the rest of us, and the film indirectly challenges you with this thought. Do we still think of mental illness as affecting only a certain ‘type’ of person?

Taking these three films as a collective, the best way I can sum up how they handle the topic of mental illness is with one word: maturity. They don’t make sweeping statements nor do they try and draw a comparison between ‘us and them’. Each individual story was treated as, first and foremost, a human one. Because of that, and due to the increasing awareness of these conditions in modern culture (itself reflected by the fact that these films have even been made in this way), audiences are crucially able to feel empathy with the characters. Certainly that signifies we’ve come a long way from the days of mental illness being confined to the asylum’s walls.

Now you may say I have been generalising in a lot of this and, aside from the specific examples I’ve given to illustrate my points, you’re right. I do so not because I buy into the use of generic labels (such as ‘mental illness’, ‘artists’, among others) as it pertains to every person who falls into the category, but partly to exemplify how easy a trap it is for the rest of us to fall into. To blame me for using generalisations in this way is to blame me for how humans communicate – indeed it is to blame me for being human in the first place.

Also understand that when I use a term such as ‘artist’ I am not, in fact, talking about any particular person or group; I am attempting to communicate the heart of what I believe that term means. Many may adopt it, or find the label unjustly attached to them without meeting this criteria. I don’t think I should be held responsible for their doing so, though I’d gladly debate them on which of our definitions might be considered more objectively accurate.

Am I obliged to be entirely original in my approach, completely authentic in my delivery, and should I just give up if I cannot yet achieve such a thing? I think my overall narrative here goes along the fault lines of an emphatic ‘no’! But that does not excuse any of us from striving for it steadfastly, in our thinking, actions and attitude.

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