Mad about movies
We hear a lot about mental health these days. Countless television and radio campaigns and reassuring magazine and newspaper articles explain how to maintain your equilibrium by simple emotional and physical practices. Less is said about serious mental illness. No-one was ever cured of hearing voices or experiencing delusions by chatting to friends or taking a walk in the park.
Cinema, on the other hand, has always been interested in these experiences, from its earliest days up to this year’s Lost Transmissions, the fascinating opening film of Cheltenham International Film Festival’s online edition, which stars Simon Pegg. The film, which can be seen from Monday 8 June at 18:00 and which will be followed by a Q&A with its star, tells of a Los Angeles record producer who stops taking medication for his serious mental illness with disastrous but sometimes hilarious results.
This is true to life, but it also mirrors changing fashions in psychiatry and the way it has been represented in the movies. In the 1950s and 1960s, people with what would now be a psychiatric diagnoses were presented as simple monsters (Norman Bates in Psycho) or given mysterious ailments that suited the plot purpose of a particular film. One thinks of a long line of amnesiacs, nymphomaniacs, unstable personalities, split personalties, kleptomaniacs, narcissists, paedophiles, people unable to recover from traumatic incidents, pyromaniacs… I could go on.
Regrettably, many of these silly and damaging stereotypes continue to this day. What is the problem with Joker, after all? What is going on in The Shining? Psychosis is stylish in Black Swan, but how real is it?
If we return to Lost Transmission, that is a film that accepts the medical model of mental illness: that it is a product of chemical processes in the brain that can be cured, or at least controlled, by chemical intervention. In earlier times, that model was not universally accepted. The key film here is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from 1975, which convinced a generation that psychiatric hospitals were evil places where rebellious patients (Jack Nicholson) were terrorised by evil doctors and nurses and subjected to evil practices such as ECT, Electro-Convulsive Therapy. Most people didn’t notice that Ken Kesey’s original novel was an allegory of America, not a realistic account of psychiatric care. Milos Forman dumped that baggage to create an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Since then, cinema has never been able to make up its mind: are the mentally ill rebellious people (Girl, Interrupted); do they have special gifts (A Dangerous Mind) ; or are they just self-destructive human beings who deserve our sympathy or perhaps pity (Betty Blue)? Theo, the Simon Pegg character in Lost Transmissions, is a bit of all those, which is what makes the film so interesting and, for many people, so real.