Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mental Illness And The Movies

ETD ensemble member Chris Hauser writes about mental illness in the movies, and the fine grey line between dramatic licence and irresponsibility, in today's guest post.

Erasing the Distance addresses mental illness through the style of theater. As an actor within the organization, I couldn’t help but share this article about film-makers’ portrayal of the mentally ill.

The article particularly covers the film Shutter Island (heads up – there are spoilers if you link over). Reading over the piece and the comments section got me thinking: where should the line be drawn between the accurate portrayal of the mentally ill and the desire to make an entertaining product? How much responsibility does the movie-making industry, and the arts in general, owe to the public?

For instance, I get a kick out of horror movies. I also love Silence of the Lambs and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Their use of mentally ill characters is questionable at best, terribly inauthentic and demeaning at worst. I find that two main camps exist for mentally ill characters in film: they are either raving murderers or clueless saps. Occasionally you get an autistic Rain Man type, but they have to have an exceptional skill to compensate for their debilitation. Like being a mathematical wizard or music prodigy. Real life shows that most people with mental illness are not violent and are very aware of what’s going on. And not very many with autism can blow your mind with a perfect piano recitation of a Liszt sonata.

Personally, I have mixed feelings. Part of me wants to say, “Lighten up. It’s just a movie.” But another part knows that the repeated portrayal of the mentally ill as caricatures can’t be good for society. Many viewers aren’t familiar with the facts about mental disorders and the news doesn’t give much information about it that isn’t sensationalized.

But then again, movies and television are improving. The article lists a few and the comments section expands on that. One comment reminded me that comedians tackle these issues head on. Howie Mandel, Maria Bamford, and Marc Maron are but a few who are very open about their struggles and actively promote understanding while maintaining a sense of humor. Perhaps they need movie deals.

Like most everything in life, it’s a gray area. Good storytelling tends to have conflict, and mental disorders provide it. The easiest conflict to portray is violent conflict. Therefore, the mentally ill are going to get the short end of the stick. But I see improvement. There are a lot of savvy films that do justice to the issue. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the pendulum swings the other way. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to enjoy the campiness of Hellraiser despite those inauthentic asylums they throw in there. But I’ll be sure to count myself lucky to be involved with an organization like ETD that helps instill my ability to pick out what’s true from what’s not.

-Chris Hauser

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