Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Image result for birdman

Random factoid:  the first Batman actor who portrayed the Dark Knight using a distinct voice different from his Bruce Wayne counterpart was Kevin Conroy in Batman: The Animated Series (which, incidentally, was awesome).  I only mention this because of Michael Keaton.  I’m sure I saw his version of Batman back in the day, but I don’t remember anything of it to compare his portrayal.  Some have said that this is a movie about Michael Keaton seeking to transcend his Batman-ness.

When you get past the superhero costume, though, this is actually a film about art and the value of creation.  Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is trying to escape his reputation as the hero of a series of massively popular superhero films – he’s accused of being a celebrity, not a real actor – by adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway play.  Along the way, he invests everything, from money to emotional energy, into proving he’s not a hack, in defiance of that scary voice in his head that shares a striking resemblance to his alter ego, Birdman.

For some reason, I always mix up Raymond Carver with Robert Coover, who wrote “The Babysitter,” among other fractured postmoderny stories, and so I expected something a bit different from the play.  Oops.  So I’m not familiar enough with Carver’s work to see how it might shine more light on why that particular writer’s work meant something.  Riggan credits Carver with inspiring him to be an actor, in a bit of a stretched connection.  It seems like a sort of pretentious choice, designed for the sort of Broadway audience (the “rich old white people” as Riggan’s daughter describes).  It’s like he’s reaching so desperately for something literary, something that screams ART.  But is he being indulged in his vanity project, or is there some real worth to it?

I actually watched this twice in the past few months, because I’d intended to write about it earlier this year and then didn’t, and ended up forgetting the finer details.  And I think the second viewing helped me get a better grasp on it, though I still looked up online to see what the hell I was supposed to make of the ending.  I’m interested in the way this classic technique of magical realism is brought into a sort of modern, comic book context.  In a way, it’s almost the opposite of a typical superhero movie, where we take for granted that these certain people have special powers.  In Birdman, we’re left wondering whether there really is something special about this guy.  Is Birdman a part of Riggan’s unique reality, or is he just experiencing a psychotic delusion?  What are we to make of his mental state?

I love the long swooping shots, tracking characters from room to room.  It somehow expands the scope even as so much of the film takes place within the confines of this theater.  Because it’s so difficult to manage long shots, they’re rarely used in film (and I’m pretty sure there isn’t another such film that won Best Picture, because I looked for it!).  But it works well in a movie about rehearsals and acting and theater – on stage, you’ve only got the one shot to make things go the way you want them to.  As in life:  there is no dress rehearsal, so you’ve got to make the most of it.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Hallucinations?

First Time Watching?  As long as you count it as first during 2016

Final Verdict:  Feeling relevant again

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

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It makes more sense when you read it backwards.

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

Diagnosis:  Schizophrenia

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  The game is flawed

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Can’t talk right now; there’s a moth perched on my lips. NBD.

I’m not sure what it says about me that among the nearly ninety Best Picture films, this is one of the few that I’ve watched before starting this project.  It probably wouldn’t be a proper explanation to say that I probably did so because I was, at the time, a big fan of Monk, and (stay with me for this) consequently had a habit of tracking down other roles played by the primary actors of shows I enjoyed.  Let me tell you, Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill is extremely different from Captain Stottlemeyer.

As long as you can excuse the glaringly obvious flaw in this movie’s plot that a Nancy Drew-esque academy student would be assigned to work closely with an exceptionally dangerous serial killer to capture another serial killer (what is it with serial killers being the only ones who can capture other serial killers, anyway?  Is there like some special club where they all know each other because they all subscribe to the serial killer newsletter?), it’s an enjoyable film.  Anthony Hopkins is legitimately frightening as a mastermind murderer, and I am happy to report that he reminds me not at all of any psychiatrists I know.

One of the things that puzzles/troubles me is the portrayal of Buffalo Bill as this repressed transsexual desperately seeking transformation.  Like, okay, I imagine that would be a difficult thing to go through, but not necessarily one that drives you to murder women and turn their skin into a majestic cloak and drape your bed in swastika duvets (where, indeed, does one purchase a swastika duvet?  Not that I’m shopping for one, mind you, I just wonder what the market for such a thing is.)

Before I’d seen this movie, I discovered the song “Goodbye Horses” (and since this seems to be the post for awkward personal admissions, I will confess that it was someone’s featured song on MySpace, if you can remember that being a thing).  I listened to it a lot on my first behemoth of an MP3 player, jam-packed with a vast and curious array of music and Harry Potter audiobooks that I played on shuffle.  It’s still a fantastic song.

I’ve gone this whole post and barely even mentioned the true star of the show.  It’s weird how a character so creepily, unfathomably villainous as Hannibal Lector has developed a weird sort of following.  He’s even got a TV show now, and I don’t really know the plot of it, except that I guess it’s similar to Dexter (of which I also know very little).  The final scene, where Hannibal openly plots to murder the head of his prison facility (who, okay, was kind of a douche, but if we murdered all the people who were kind-of douches in our lives, there wouldn’t be much of anyone left), is almost triumphant.

When did we grow so warped that we admire characters in fiction that in reality would horrify us?  Is it some sort of defense mechanism that helps us process the disturbing things about the world without ending up in a quivering mess of hopeless fear?

The true hero here is Clarice, a woman who succeeds in a career dominated by men, and who was initially granted access to this terrible case solely because she was to Lector’s taste – as bait.  Instead of a show called Hannibal, I would much prefer to watch Clarice.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Psychopathy

First Time Watching?  No, actually

Final Verdict:  Nice, with a glass of Chianti

Ordinary People (1980)

I’ve been trying to figure out what the title is supposed to mean.  Rich people:  they’re just like us!  Or is it Depressed people:  they’re just like us!  Somebody here is ordinary, and it sure as hell isn’t me.

If they mean the latter, though, they’re right.  One of the most basic factoids I’ve learned in my time working in the mental health field is that 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives.  That’s one person in the average family, or at least one person among a group of friends.  I doubt this is a statistic that has changed significantly throughout modern history, so what it means is that for a long time people have pretended that a pretty significant condition in human society didn’t exist.  Honestly?  Based on my social circle, as limited and homogenous as it is, I would put that number a lot higher.

Depression is ordinary, in the sense that it is not unusual at all.

If we’re doing a historical study of mental health throughout history, this might be a turning point.  Whereas just a few years earlier, we saw the Institution – the mental patient who is not even permitted to interact with regular society for their (or society’s) safety – now we see the other side of mental illness.  The kid from a respectable family who tries to kill himself.

We come into the story a year after the older brother of a teenage boy has died, and find a family unable to communicate.  They’ve grown apart, disjointed now that the glue that once kept them close has vanished.  Conrad, the brother left behind, just spent four months as an inpatient after a suicide attempt, and is now pretending he’s all better, despite a complete lack of follow-up care (probably all-too-common even today, but a bit unnerving to my mind).  Clearly, he’s still not quite back to normal, despite trying to resume his regular school activities, like swim team.  He can’t even stand in the same room with his mom.  If you’ve ever wondered how awkward a conversation with your mom could be, just compare any of yours to a few choice scenes in this film.

I really liked the psychiatrist in this film.  Rather than seeming to be a patient’s nemesis, whose only goal is set unbreakable rules for the powerless patient to follow, this shrink is an ally.  It feels more like the sort of psychiatrist that I’m familiar with, one who challenges the patient’s perspective and guides her toward new insight and progress.  Though I’ve never witnessed my boss properly in session with a patient, I could see something of him in this portrayal.  The psychiatrist here is almost like the Truth Teller or a Shakespearean holy fool or something like that, the one person who can speak honest, hard truths.

Now that I’ve made my way through a good chunk of movies from each decade, I’m starting to get a feel for the trends in different time periods.  The eighties (and late seventies, too) were definitely a time of ponderous films, kind of slow-paced and serious.  About Real Issues.  Gone were the attempts to simply replicate the bombastic stage shows with dancing ladies in days of yore.  I think in a way we’re still in this era of film-making – that, along with the blockbuster comic book movies, which takes over for the Westerns of the past.  What will come next?

 

Theme:  Mental health

Diagnosis:  Suicide attempt

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Shrinks: they’re just like us!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

I would be remiss if I didn’t begin this review by apologizing to my friend Alice, who may or may not be reading this.  Years ago, she lent me a copy of the book on which this film is based (conveniently also titled One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  By this point, it technically counts as stolen, because I still have it, and worst of all, I’ve never even read it.  I tried, once, and there’s probably still a bookmark in between pages 2 and 3, which is approximately where I left off.

All of this is to say that I wasn’t familiar with the storyline, except that it took place in a mental institution in the time period when you really would not have wanted to be sent anywhere for psychiatric care.  I believe the book is based in part on Ken Kesey’s experience working in such an institution.  And this is just the sort of movie that, even though I’d never seen it, inspired all the horror stories and common (mis?)conceptions about what it was like to be “mentally ill.”  The basic idea is that to be mentally ill is to be dangerous, unpredictable, usually violent, and condemned to live out a half-life in a locked ward, following every instruction given to you by an all-commanding omnipotent staff.

Oh, and as omnipresent that staff is during the day, apparently all the nursing staff and attendings check out at closing time.  There’s a pretty significant chunk of the movie that relies on accepting the premise that at night, all of these unsafe people on a locked ward are placed under the exclusive care of a glorified janitor.  Say what?

Recently, I read Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth, which is about the homeless bohemian character who captured the attention of New Yorkers after a profile in the New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell.  I love Joseph Mitchell, particularly his final piece on Joe Gould, called “Joe Gould’s Secret.”  It’s an all-around sad story, and Lepore’s book offers perhaps the saddest perspective of all:  it really sucks to have lived with mental illness in the 1950s/60s.  She surmises that Gould spent his last days in a state mental institution, where he likely received a lobotomy to treat his violent outbursts or his alcoholism – or just because that was considered to be cutting-edge treatment at the time.  Spoiler alert:  it doesn’t end well.

Not having read the book, there are a few things that I don’t entirely understand about this movie.  First and foremost, why is Jack Nicholson there?  We’re given the sense that he’s faking it to get out of prison, though I can’t imagine why anyone would believe that one institution was better than the other.  I gather that the book is narrated by the Chief (and the fact that he’s not the POV character in the film apparently caused great consternation to Kesey).  I guess the idea that they’re faking it for whatever reason is supposed to make the ending all the more tragic, which sort of makes me wonder why.

I’ve only seen a couple of things Jack Nicholson has done now (probably all of them as part of this project), and my main thought is, “Oh, I wonder what Jack Nicholson is going to do in this movie.”  He’s one of those actors who doesn’t really embody a role so much as dominate a film with his presence.  I guess it’s fine if you like Jack Nicholson, but it’s harder to immerse yourself in a story when Jack Nicholson just pops up everywhere and reminds you that you’re watching Jack Nicholson.

 

I’d like to conclude with a few random observations.  First, thanks to Quantum Leap (again), I knew pretty much what to expect from this movie (doctors + electroshock = bad news).  Lastly, young Christopher Lloyd is kinda 1.21 giga-hottt.

 

Theme:  Mental health

Diagnosis:  Fake crazy?

First Time Watching?  Yeppers

Final Verdict:  A goddamn marvel of modern science

 

The Apartment (1960)

As I alluded to in a previous post, I’d intended to pair this up with It Happened One Night because I assumed this was a romantic comedy.  I mean, it essentially is, but there’s also this little side plot that makes up half the movie that revolves around something a little darker.

If this movie came out today, it would be the sort of thing that Judd Apatow would make, and somehow I think it would contain far more semen jokes and far less subtlety.  (Not saying there’s anything wrong with him, just that modern comedies are of a completely different ilk.)

As it is, though, I’m a little surprised at the plot of this movie.  It’s like Mad Men on steroids.  A lower-level office worker who happens to have a really desirable apartment a couple blocks from Central Park (somehow I don’t think any of my friends in New York live in a similar setup) and rents it out by the hour to his superiors as a way to move up in the company.  That’s right – he makes his apartment available for his bosses’ sexual dalliances in exchange for a promotion.  If you’re thinking gross then you have the right idea.

It’s hard to make a character like this sympathetic, and that’s definitely a big concern I had throughout.  Whichever way you look at it, it’s a bit skeevy, this guy who seems to have no problem with middle-aged men “entertaining” (read: boning) women in his bed.  On top of that, he’s doing it solely to get ahead in his dead-end job (and I’ve already managed to forget what industry he’s in, because he seems so bored by it).  The only leeway I can give him is that, however this questionable arrangement started, he seems to have been pressured into maintaining it by the thirsty executives he hosts.

The real story here, of course, is the budding romance between the office guy and the elevator guy.  Just as a side note:  how many jobs have we lost because people no longer need an elevator operator to get them to the 25th floor?  Spoiler alert:  the elevator girl is actually one of the flings that has been entertained at the Apartment by one of the executives, and believes that her man will abandon his wife for her.  It reminds me of a Lorrie Moore story, “How to Be an Other Woman.”  It usually doesn’t end well.

But here is C.C. the office guy, waiting to rescue her from her complicated and distressing life.  Why, he’ll even save her when she downs a bottle of his sleeping pills and tries to kill herself in his bed.  Okay, that’s nice.  Then again, the fact that he also keeps her there for a couple of days to conceal the fact that she’s just attempted suicide without getting her any other kind of help is a little strange.  Maybe not the best foundation for a solid relationship.

I think one of the things that plagued mental health care of this era was the stigma.  Perhaps someone like the elevator girl – not rich – would be seen as defective and get shunted away in a scary state institution.  So what I see as somewhat uncaring from a modern perspective might actually have been an act of great caring and consideration.  Suicidal thoughts are often fleeting, once appropriately addressed, so maybe there’s a chance these two crazy kids can make it.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Suicidal ideation

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Like a broken mirror

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Here’s where it gets real:  this is the first Best Picture that makes a genuine attempt to address the issue of alcoholism.  Even today, addiction is a tricky subject.  Despite growing evidence of the biological underpinnings of substance use disorder (the term that’s more in favor in the literature), the longstanding stigma of the disease remains.  You wouldn’t think I’d pause the film to grab a beer halfway through, but guess what?  I did.

Don Birnam (not Draper) is a writer who has a great novel somewhere inside him – autobiographical, of course, because there’s really no other kind of great novel.  Unfortunately, he spends most of his time tracking down where his next drink will come from.  There are a few scenes where Don frantically searches in his hiding spots for a concealed bottle that remind me of similar scenes on House – the clever addict secreting away a supply so he can get his fix later.  Of course, there are also a few parts that remind me of the afore-alluded-to Donald Draper, particularly in that season when he spent half of each episode on a bender.

Of course, our main man is both a writer and an alcoholic, two things that seem to go together often.  I don’t think writers are more likely to have problems with addiction than those in any other profession, but I’ve certainly noticed a kind of cultural atmosphere of drinking that surrounds writers in a way that seems more consuming than it might be for, say, an accountant.  Writers spend so much time alone that when they get together, they’re either socially anxious and need something to lubricate their interactions or something.  Or there’s the myth that booze or drugs fuel creativity.  I don’t know.

Although it’s clear that this film portrays a character that’s a little too histrionic for today’s acting tastes, I think its depiction of addiction and how it’s viewed by society is worth observing.  Don is usually helpless in the face of his alcoholism, but he certainly doesn’t lack self-awareness about how it’s affected his life.  We get a brief interlude in the middle where Don relates to his cautiously friendly bartender the plot of his as-yet-unwritten novel, about an alcoholic writer who falls in love with a girl.  Along the way, he spends an evening in the drunk ward at Bellevue, and we catch a glimpse of what kind of recovery treatment someone could expect in this era (not much).  Don’s full enough of self-loathing to push away his girlfriend and brother, the support network who relentlessly stand by him, waiting for him to reach a point where he’s willing to accept help.  The only sour note is the ending – his moment of epiphany comes all too easily, and I have trouble believing that he’s suddenly going to get better.

As a side note, I kind of loved the music because it reminded me of an episode of Star Trek.  I discovered that the reason why is because the soundtrack used theremins, those electronic wooowooooo instruments that feature so prominently in science fiction.  And in other random comments, I loved that somebody described a place as chichi, using a slang word that I thought was coined much more recently than 1945.   And final observation:  best moment of the picture might have been the lounge lizard breaking into song, “Somebody stole a purse!”

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Addiction

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Delirium is a disease of the night.

You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

It’s August, which means it’s time for another theme month.  This time, I’m going to look at mental health through the decades.  I work in the mental health field – tangentially, at least – so I feel like I know just enough to make random declarations about the subject, though not necessarily enough to discuss real issues.

I’ll also mention here that I actually watched this movie months ago, and wrote this post back then with the intention of pairing it with something else that never panned out.  I do, however, think it’s worthwhile including it here because most people would consider that a group of people who are not all related living together in a house, not making any money, doing whatever random creative thing comes to mind to be crazy.  There.  I said it.

Ah, the screwball comedy.  They don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Actually, I’m not sure they make movies like this at all anymore.  Comedies?  Sure.  Romantic comedies?  Obvs.  Eccentric characters?  Well, yes.  Zany, seemingly unrelated plot points that somehow all fit together at the end?  All right, all right.  Even still, today’s comedies don’t seem remotely similar to the screwball comedies of the past (based on my limited experience).

Maybe it’s just a generational thing.  I can’t help but note that this movie came out in the midst of the Great Depression.  The plot is simple yet complicated – two people fall in love and try to reconcile their wildly different families, one made of wealthy business owners always after a deal, and the other a group of eccentrics who’ve decided to focus on their own artistic passions.  The winning message is to follow your heart instead of a dollar sign.  Easy for you to say, Grandpa.  I got rent to pay.  And student loans.

I’ve come to realize that I resist stories like this, that seem realistic on the surface but also feature characters like Mr. Poppins (which, first of all, nobody’s actually named Mr. Poppins), who abandons his job on a whim to carry out his lifelong dream of making stuffed rabbits.  Or the stately Russian ballet instructor who hangs out with all the other weird people who in turn are hanging out doing random things and somehow also make enough money to live off of.  I prefer my realism to be genuinely realistic and fully separated from my fantasy stories about time travel and magic and mutated amphibians trained in martial arts.  What good is entertainment, after all, if it can’t be neatly categorized and either exactly like life or nothing like it?

I wish YCTIWY offered more of a middle ground – their solution seems to be that you can only be happy if you reject the trappings of finance and indulge in a life of whimsical pursuits.  Art is a great, important thing, but we also need some structure.  Grandpa wonders what paying income tax does for him (not as footloose and ignorant of money as he thinks, then, eh?) while promoting the neighborhood community spirit.  And somehow, he owns a house in an extremely popular location without much explanation as to how it fell into his unemployed hands.

I remember reading the play on which this film is based back in high school, maybe 9th or 10th grade English.  I don’t recall the specifics of it – though the most important bit is pretty much in the title.  But it does bring back my sense of frustration at our exposure to theater in school.  This was one of the most modern plays we read, except perhaps The Glass Menagerie.  Most of my memories of those plays were sheer confusion.  There were references to contemporary things that I didn’t understand (who the hell were Porgy and Bess, and how is it pronounced? one might wonder when asked to read such a thing aloud).  Somehow, I got it into my head that drama ceased to exist after 1950.  Theater felt like some relic from the past that nobody did anymore.

I hope that’s not the case for kids learning about drama today.  If the only choices are Shakespeare or Kaufman and Hart, no wonder young people find it hard to relate to theater.  Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with them, but it’d be nice to see something a little more approachable.  The kids these days should be watching HamiltonI should be watching Hamilton.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Zaniness?

First Time Watching?  Maybe, but not first time reading the play.

Final Verdict:  Life is running around inside of me like a squirrel.