May 08

“No One Cares About Crazy People”: As True As Ever

[Ron] Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.” Kirkus Reviews, about No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America (2017)

No One Cares About Crazy People was written before all the recent outrageous attempts to decimate the Affordable Care Act. Just imagine the additional things author Ron Powers could say now.

Powers writes about his two sons afflicted with schizophrenia. “For his son Kevin, that struggle ended in suicide, and the heartbreak of that experience (among others) permeates every impersonal date and statistic in the book with sorrow and rage” (Shelf Awareness). Son Dean is still in treatment.

As told to Terry Gross (NPR), “There is no greater…feeling of helplessness than to watch two beloved sons deteriorate before [your] eyes, not knowing what to do to bring them back.”

A brief explanation for the title as well as a book synopsis, per Publishers Weekly:

This resounding rebuke to scornful attitudes toward the mentally ill takes its title from a notably insensitive 2010 email exchange between high-level staffers of Scott Walker during his run for Wisconsin governor. Using that moment as a touchstone of indifference, Powers…weaves a dual tale of the personal and the political. In one thread, he traces the history of public efforts to ameliorate (or, more often, hide) the plight of those living with mental illness, from London’s infamous Bedlam in the 18th and 19th centuries, where wealthy visitors were charged admission to gawk at the inmates, to America’s present-day prison-industrial complex. In the other, he tells his own family’s heartrending story of grappling with disease…

Although drug therapy can be helpful, Powers believes, “(h)e recognizes that ‘Big Pharma’ has made money distributing drugs of questionable usefulness” (Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch).

A couple things Powers deems pointedly not helpful:

  • Deinstitutionalization: Many inpatient facilities closed in the 1960’s in favor of caring for patients in community mental health centers. If well-meaning, it also failed many who wound up in prisons.
  • Anosognosia (“The false conviction within a person that nothing is wrong with his mind”) is ignored by laws that prevent involuntary commitment to mental health facilities.

If indeed “no one cares about crazy people,” Powers means people other than their loved ones, of course. From Shelf Awareness: “For the families of the mentally ill…caring about ‘crazy people’ is a necessity. In roughly alternating chapters, Powers allows us to watch his sons grow up, dealing with the challenges of incipient schizophrenia as well as tragic events that shape their young minds. All the while, Powers movingly relates the joys of raising creatively gifted children.”

The critique by Ron Suskind, New York Times, offers a fitting conclusion for this post:

No doubt if everyone were to read this book, the world would change. But its clumsy title…is painfully correct. The mentally ill are still viewed with fear or suspicion, as broken, as damaged goods or objects of pity. Still, Powers will surely help to correct that perspective; it’s impossible to read his book without being overcome by empathy for his family, respect for his two beleaguered boys and, by the end, faith in the resilience of the human heart.

Sep 26

“Indignation”: College Guy Meets Troubled Gal

James Schamus‘s new Indignation is a film adaptation of author Philip Roth’s 2008 novel. And David Edelstein‘s review title, “Indignation Is the Best Philip Roth Film Adaptation By a Mile,” is a sentiment echoed in various ways by other critics as well.

The plot summary on Rotten Tomatoes:

Indignation takes place in 1951, as Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, travels on scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, thus exempting him from being drafted into the Korean War. But once there, Marcus’s growing infatuation with his beautiful classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and his clashes with the college’s imposing Dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), put his and his family’s best laid plans to the ultimate test.

Some family background, per David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:

Back in Newark, funerals for local boys are fueling the spiraling anxieties of Marcus’ father, Max (Danny Burstein). ‘The tiniest mistake can have consequences,’ he says, fearing that his straight-A student son will be led astray in pool halls and gambling dens. Max’s paranoia is scaring his levelheaded wife Esther (Linda Emond) and pushing Marcus away.

Sexually inexperienced, Marcus is at first conflicted about his attraction to the more open and emotionally fragile Olivia. Stephen Holden, New York Times:

After a separation, they warily reconnect, and Olivia, who has scars on her wrist, confesses to Marcus that she had a breakdown and attempted suicide. In Ms. Gadon’s sensitive performance, you can feel the vulnerability just beneath the surface of her apparent poise. Marcus isn’t worldly enough to understand fully the implications of her instability. But when Esther visits and meets Olivia, she immediately notices and pleads with her son to discontinue the relationship.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “Very much a character-driven film, ‘Indignation’ focuses on its young protagonists as they movingly attempt to determine who they are both as individuals and as a possible couple.”

The movie’s 15-minute “grueling centerpiece,” according to Edelstein (Vulture) (and others), is the one “in which Marcus is summoned to meet Dean Caudwell [Tracy Letts] and finds himself literally — and, folks, I’m not misusing that word — fighting to hold his insides together…Caudwell is the embodiment of right-wing, Christian authority and its penchant for hypocrisy (the charge against Marcus is a refusal to compromise), and Marcus’s attempts to assert religious and philosophical independence only tighten his own noose. Caudwell leaves Marcus in ruins while barely raising his voice.”

You can see the trailer below:

Selected Reviews

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “’Indignation’ might be dismissed as a small, exquisite period piece, but it is so precisely rendered that it gets deeply under your skin. There are a lot of words, and every one counts. You feel the social pressures bearing down on characters who, in accordance with the reticence of the times, tend to withhold their emotions and suffer in silence.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “…(T)he story and treatment keep inviting us to circle back to it and wonder what the characters might have done here or should have done there. Like the best wines and the best films, there’s a complexity to the finish, so that it reverberates with meanings beyond the obvious. ‘Indignation’ has the disconcerting quality of truth and is an altogether adult piece of work.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “The beauty of ‘Indignation’ can be found in how it builds, growing from a garden-variety coming-of-age story into a poetic, even prayerful, meditation on the pitiless vagaries of character and regret. Thoughtful and reserved, perhaps even to a fault, ‘Indignation’ winds up packing a wallop far greater than its modest parts might suggest.”

Jun 05

“Love and Mercy”: Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s Struggles

Many of us who grew up with the Beach Boys charting hit after hit were also aware that Brian Wilson at some point had been diagnosed with severe mental illness and that he’d become the patient of a therapist of questionable ability and intentions. Love and Mercy, called by Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, “the best musical biopic in decades,” examines this aspect of Wilson’s life.

The plot according to IMDB: “In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.”

Love and Mercy’s Structure

Andrew Barker, Variety:

Alternating back and forth in time, [director Bill] Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner eschew a long-winded biographical approach in favor of two temporally specific parallel narratives. In one, roughly covering the period from 1965-68, [Paul] Dano plays Wilson as he resigns from touring, masterminds one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest masterpieces, and finds his grip on reality slowly loosening. In the second, set in the 1980s, [John] Cusack shows us Wilson as a broken, confused man under the pharmacological and legal thrall of manipulative therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), finding unlikely love with a Cadillac dealer named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who will later become his second wife.

You can watch the trailer here:

Some Psychological Background

Although Wilson was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic by Landy, in later years he was diagnosed elsewhere with bipolar schizoaffective disorder.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune:

In reductive psychological terms, Wilson endured a terrible, abusive father (Bill Camp), who became the boys’ manager. Wilson then swapped him out for Landy, a manipulator of a different stripe. ‘Love & Mercy’ puts the two father figures out there because the facts of Wilson’s life support it. The man who wrote the melody for the neediest pop classic ever, ‘God Only Knows,’ clearly knew pain and emotional desolation and knew how to seduce millions with the sound.

Dano’s Wilson

Henry Barnes, The Guardian: “The songs in his head are coalescing into ‘Pet Sounds’. The voices in his head are only starting to get in the way…Bored of writing about ‘sun and summer and summer and sun’, he stays in California, dabbling with LSD, coveting ‘ego-death’, preparing an album that will change pop music forever.”

Cusack’s Wilson

Andrew Barker, Variety: “…Cusack’s fortysomething Brian dodders around his beachfront mansion under the ever-watchful eye of Landy and his ‘bodyguards,’ who have ordered Wilson to cut all contact with his family and even micromanage his diet. Heavily medicated to treat what Landy had diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, Wilson’s speech has been rendered into a series of seeming non sequiturs, yet Melinda seems to immediately understand him, recognizing a gentle soul desperate for connection, who retains a certain childlike trust despite years of exploitation.”

Giamatti’s Therapist Landy

Eric Kohn, Indiewire: “A delusional character himself, the domineering Landy could provide the focus of an entire movie in his own right, but Pohlad smartly keeps the story focused on Wilson’s talent and the way it confuses those around him.”

Selected Reviews of Love and Mercy

Owen Gleiberman, BBC.com: “You feel like you’re right there in the studio with Brian Wilson as he creates Pet Sounds. It’s a little like sitting next to Beethoven: the film is tender and moving, but also awe-inspiring.”

Drew McWeeny, HitFix: “In essence, we get to study Brian’s break with sanity and his eventual healing, but by keeping the focus tight on these two moments, the film becomes emotionally exhilarating. This is a dark story at times, and there is an undercurrent of sadness that is hard to shake off, but it is also a story about just how incredibly important love can be to the overall well-being of any person.”

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “…(T)he picture would be exciting even if all it offered was the vision of Paul Dano‘s Wilson guiding musicians through the creation of Pet Sounds; but as the older Wilson, John Cusack gives one of the best performances of his career, its effectiveness limited only by his lack of a physical resemblance to the songwriter.”

May 02

“Maladies”: No Apparent Cure for this Widely Panned Film

Directed and written by one-named multimedia artist Carter and starring James Franco, the film Maladies is featured here today because mental illness is a main theme. Unfortunately, it’s received terrible reviews.

The Star

Leah Greenblatt, ew.com: “If a super-pretentious tree falls in the James Franco ­forest, does it make a sound?”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “Overrated, overexposed and overindulgent, James Franco is all over the place, like cow chips in the abandoned pasture of a derelict farm.”

The Plot

Described here by Andrew Pulver, The Guardian:

Ostensibly Maladies is about four people: Franco plays James, a deeply troubled one-time TV star, now ‘retired’; his virtually mute sister Patricia (Fallon Goodson); their painter housemate Catherine (Catherine Keener) with a natty line in cross-dressing; and closet-gay neighbour (David Strathairn), who has a fairly obvious crush on James. Each character has their own ‘malady’ to contend with, but it’s James’s that is the fulcrum to the film: struggling with a novel while responding to a voice (measured, ironic), prompting and questioning him.

Guy Lodge, Variety:  “…a household of variously dysfunctional creative types squabble and bond over matters of art, psychology and the advantageous properties of pencils.”

The Setting (Which Confuses Many)

Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times: “…If the story is supposedly set in the early 1960s, why the lengthy reference to 1978’s Jonestown massacre? Just asking.”

Chris Klimek, The Dissolve: “…Maladies seems to be set in the late 1950s or early 1960s, judging by the cars, clothes, and slang. But in one lengthy scene, Catherine watches a news report about the Jonestown Massacre, which occurred in 1978.”

Inkoo KangVillage Voice: “The ’70s setting helps Carter explore his main idea — that certain diseases are deemed acceptable, while others are not. (Alan Cumming makes a brief cameo to call Catherine a ‘disgusting man-lady.’)”

How about a look at the trailer:

The Portrayal of Mental Illness

Chris KlimekThe Dissolve

Alas, it briefly impersonates a queasy comedy about the hilarity of mental illness à la What About Bob?, then morphs into winking tragedy, gussied up with a sketchpad full of storytelling devices Carter wanted to try, regardless of whether they’re suited to the story he’s telling…

Maladies dramatizes his [James’s] undiagnosed illness in small ways at first, as when he insists to Catherine that his white shirt is blue. Soon after that, James has a panic attack and starts knocking bottles off shelves in a drugstore, until Delmar saves him from arrest.

Guy Lodge, Variety: “Much of the film, with its offscreen interjections and indeterminate milieu, seems to take place in James’ own addled headspace. Even with this level of inner access, however, it’s hard for the audience to invest in a protagonist this solipsistic.”

Gary GoldsteinLos Angeles Times: “Divided into variously titled chapters (‘Feelings,’ ‘Symmetry,’ ‘I See You’), the film attempts to explore its characters’ wobbly emotional states via the art they create and, in some cases, destroy. But any real thematic heft is undercut by inane riffs on such things as pencils versus pens, the word ‘betwixt,’ Braille, dial tones and more, along with arch, intrusive narration (by Ken Scott) that may or may not be the voices in James’ screwy head.”

One Positive Element Highlighted by Some Critics

Sheila O’Malleyrogerebert.com: “It is David Strathairn, as Delmar, the trio’s lonely neighbor, who gives us the film’s strongest moment. Delmar stops by often, to borrow sugar, and do the crossword, but really because he has a doomed crush on James.”

Inkoo Kang, Village Voice: “Maladies pulses just once with feeling, when neighbor Delmar…a repressed homosexual in love with James, gazes upon him with tragic lust, distraught that he can never have what his heart needs..”

Some Final Words

Rex ReedNew York Observer: “In Maladies, pretentiousness reigns, substituting plot, reason and character development for pseudo-psychoanalysis.”

Gary GoldsteinLos Angeles Times: “As James asserts here about art, ‘Everything needs to be made. And it needs to be made by someone.’ Everything, that is, but this tedious cinematic exercise.”

Nov 27

“Running from Crazy”: Documentary About the Hemingway Family

I wanted to share my story as a way for others to realize no matter what and where you come from everyone has a story and some relationship to mental instability. I am a Hemingway and have struggled with depression and craziness in my family but I believe that we all share similar stories. I want others to feel supported and the stigma of mental illness to be obliterated. Mariel Hemingway, about Running From Crazy

Actress/model Mariel Hemingway addresses the Hemingway legacy in the Barbara Kopple-directed film Running from Crazy. This is a legacy that includes depression and other mental problems, substance abuse, and at least seven suicides in her immediate family, including that of famous grandfather Ernest as well as sister Margaux, the model and actress.

Mariel, the youngest sibling in her family, is now 51. Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “The title, ‘Running From Crazy,’ refers to what she feels she has been doing all her life – running from the family weaknesses, trying to be healthy and trying to help people suffering from suicidal depression.”

Margaux, who killed herself at age 41, was the next oldest sibling; Mariel shared the same career interests as her. Joan, or “Muffet,” the eldest, rounds out the trio of sisters. She’s a painter who suffers from mental illness.

The trailer sets it up:

Sebastian Doggart, The Guardian, says the moviereveals a string of tragic secrets, including a claim by Mariel that their father, Jack (Ernest’s son, who died after heart surgery in 2000), sexually abused her sisters. Their mother’s unhappiness with her marriage to Jack, heavy drinking at daily ‘wine time’ and long battle with cancer are also cited as reasons for the children’s problems. Margaux’s own alcohol and drug addiction, acquired during her time partying in Studio 54, contributed to her depression, while Muffet’s use of LSD is blamed for her psychoses.”

The sister whose story gets the most air time is Margaux, according to several reviewers. Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “…(S)he was a ‘really wild child’ who lived very high for a while without regard to the future and then tragically found she had none. Mariel, by contrast, is careful, thoughtful and vividly aware of her place in the world.”

Daphne HowlandVillage Voice, expresses disappointment, though, in the lack of depth portrayed given that Kopple had access to 54 hours of relevant footage that had been shot by Margaux.

On the outcome for Mariel related to the various family dynamics, Ian Thomson, The Telegraph, states: “A survivor, Mariel was determined to escape the ‘curse of the Hemingways’ by trying out every far-out health fad from parapsychology to integral massage to the yogas of increased awareness. These were far from exercises in pure and applied pointlessness.”

Indeed, Mariel tells Brendan McLean, NAMI, that she’s learned about “the delicate balance of body and brain function…how we eat, what we think, whether we take silence and drink pure clean water, how we exercise and focus our life has the power to transform it.” The WillingWay: Step Into the Life You Were Meant to Live is a recent book by Mariel and her partner Bobby Williams that prescribes this kind of life plan. She calls The WillingWay her “saving grace.”

More about how Mariel presents in the film per Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out: “…(S)he’s always open—crying, yoga-cizing, meditating. A certain Hollywood self-absorption is on display here, but the family’s depressing story merits Mariel’s vigilant defensiveness.”

Will you be able to find this film? Look for it at selected theaters and festivals.

MORE REVIEWS

Nicolas Rapold, New York Times: “…(T)his heart-wrenching and deceptively conventional documentary manages the tensions in its subject and in the vérité approach in a fruitful, illuminating and surprisingly moving way.”

Andrew Schenker, Slant: “…Running from Crazy offers little more than surface-level tear-wringing.”

Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times: “You end up with nothing but admiration for Mariel, who speaks at a suicide-awareness walk and in support groups, sharing her pain in the hope of shining light. ‘People can heal themselves by feeling genuine love for each other,’ says Mariel’s daughter, arms around her mother. It may not be the entire answer, but it’s a start.”