The first time I ever learned about schizophrenia was in seventh grade English class. We were doing a long-term research project and learning terms like “Works Cited” and filling up index cards with random quotes that we thought were somehow relevant to our topic. I chose to write about the Great Wall of China, which sounded really cool but turned out to be a centuries-long mire of dynasties and politics. Our teacher, however, demonstrated the research process with her paper on… wait for it… schizophrenia.
Of course, at the time, it seemed like such a scary thing, the very definition of Serious Mental Illness. I didn’t know any actual people or families of people with schizophrenia (or if I did, they didn’t tell me), so the illness itself seemed unreal. A figment of 1950s-style mental institutions. I occasionally wondered why my teacher chose that specific topic as her sample project – now I suspect she had a personal connection to it herself.
I didn’t know a lot about John Nash, except that he contributed a lot to certain kinds of math that I don’t really understand, and he also happened to be schizophrenic. (And, sadly, he died in a car crash fairly recently.) By chance, I recently spoke with a couple of the schizophrenia experts in my department for a work project, and so got the chance to learn a bit more about the illness outside of index cards. Thus, I knew just enough going into A Beautiful Mind to look carefully for any symptoms of his mental illness.
It’s curious the way psychosis is portrayed on film. Because it’s both a visual and auditory medium, it seems easy in a way to replicate at least two of our senses. And yet, when a hallucination is portrayed on film – like the ersatz humans John sees in the midst of his illness – it always seems to be done more for a surprise effect on the viewer than as a representation of what the hallucinator experiences. Is that what it’s like to hallucinate, to interact with a person exactly as if it’s a physically present being? I honestly don’t know. I’ve never taken a hallucinogenic, and I don’t know how that would compare to the experience of someone with a psychotic disorder anyway.
The film condenses quite a lot of time (and conveniently overlooks quite a bit, as well). What’s not spelled out is that Dr. Nash spent over a decade of his life hospitalized, after which he apparently decided to stop taking his medication because it interfered with his creativity. And somehow, he seemed to do okay for himself in the latter part of his life, even regaining teaching positions and contributing to the field. It’s the sort of story that raises the question: what is the connect between mental illness and creativity? Was the illness the catalyst for his unique abilities or an obstacle to him reaching his full potential? (For an interesting review of the mental illness-creativity link, check this out.)
I’m probably just exaggerating it in my own mind, but it seems like there are a lot of movies about mathematicians, a subject that I don’t think of as particularly cinematic. I’ll come right out and say it: it’s kind of boring to me. I wouldn’t be against reading about math, because you can actually take your time to process what’s happening, but just watching Russell Crowe scribble characters on a window doesn’t thrill me. In fairness, Russell Crowe doesn’t thrill me, either, and I almost managed to get through this entire post without mentioning that.
Theme: Mental Health
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: The game is flawed