Feb 28

“Mad to Be Normal”: R.D. Laing, Psychiatrist

David Tennant stars as R.D. Laing (1927-1989) in Robert Mullan‘s new film Mad to be Normal, now on DVD, which places much of its focus on Laing’s work between 1965-70 at Kingsley Hall (London), his residential facility for those diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Laing was both a psychiatrist and an author who, though not to his own liking, became viewed as leader of an “anti-psychiatry” movement. One of his controversial theories was that schizophrenia sprang from environmental dysfunction, often within the family—as in “a hopeless ‘heads-I-win, tails-you-lose’ emotional situation…Finding such a situation intolerable, a boy or girl escapes this unbearable pain through schizophrenia” (New York Times).

Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter) states that Laing “was something like a Scottish Timothy Leary, a Swinging Sixties counterculture icon who attracted a cult following among the young, shared a stage with The Grateful Dead and dropped LSD with Sean Connery….A radical opponent of prison-like asylums and anti-psychotic drugs, the Glasgow-born guru challenged the medical establishment while enjoying a hedonistic rock-star lifestyle, partying with famous fans including The Beatles.”

Interestingly, in the book R.D. Laing: A Life his son Adrian described the fact that “despite his astonishing empathy with the disturbed, Laing failed to address his own family problems…” (publisher’s blurb).

Watch the trailer for Mad to Be Normal:

Diagnosed herself with schizophrenia, Stephanie Allan has written a review for The Psychologist. An excerpt:

The impact of Laing’s work that resonates most heavily today is that madness is an understandable response to ‘unlivable situations’; he would even describe extreme mental states as a ‘voyage of self-discovery’. However, these passionate beliefs aren’t demonstrated in any of the Kingsley Hall characters, and I found their portrayal lacking…

Film critic Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, is a bit more complimentary, on the other hand: “…Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon are excellent as his patients: old men who in a later era might be overlooked as care-in-the-community homeless.”

Untrue elements include the existence of Elisabeth Moss as “Laing’s (composite-fictional) partner Angie,” according to Bradshaw, as well as the following, as detailed by Hollywood Reporter:

The real-life death of Laing’s daughter Susan (Alexandra Finnie) from leukemia is brought forward by a decade, a clumsy chronological contrivance of questionable taste. A prickly meeting between Laing and his starchy battle-axe mother also feels like a jarringly artificial bid to stoke up Freudian psychodrama.

Among the fictionalized regulars at Kingsley Hall are Jim (Byrne), a volatile Anglo-Irish depressive who jealously guards his connection to Laing, and Sidney (Gambon), an elderly lost soul who agrees to take LSD to help resolve the lingering trauma of his parents’ death in a grisly murder-suicide. Strangely, Mullan overlooks some of the community’s most famous real alumni, including Mary Barnes, a schizophrenic who became a celebrated painter. Mad to Be Normal also suggests Kingsley Hall was forced to close in 1970 in response to thuggishly hostile locals and self-serving establishment doctors. The real chain of events was inevitably more complex, and involved two patients jumping from the roof.

Dalton’s conclusion, in part:

Almost three decades after his death, the value of Laing’s contributions to psychiatry remain contentious, particularly as he embraced more esoteric New Age methods in later life, declined into alcoholism and lost his license to practice. Mullan’s take-home message is not wholly uncritical but obviously partisan, concluding with the simplistic claim that Laing’s ideas ‘live on.’

Apr 21

“The Handmaid’s Tale”: Horror Still Relevant

Margaret Atwood is often credited with the quote “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” But killing, in The Handmaid’s Tale, is indirect. Unlike in any number of other gender dystopias, most men don’t oppress women because they hate or fear them, but because they can’t empathize enough to love them when it becomes inconvenient. Adi Robertson, The Verge

Starting next Wednesday, April 26th, Hulu will offer the hotly anticipated and still relevant The Handmaid’s Tale, a 10-episode TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood‘s 1986 dystopian novel, which was also made into a movie released in 1990.

I. The Book The Handmaid’s Tale

In her review Mary McCarthy, New York Times, noted the following imaginary setting:

A standoff will have been achieved vis-a-vis the Russians, and our own country will be ruled by right-wingers and religious fundamentalists, with males restored to the traditional role of warriors and us females to our ‘place’ – which, however, will have undergone subdivision into separate sectors, of wives, breeders, servants and so forth, each clothed in the appropriate uniform.

II. The Movie The Handmaid’s Tale

While the themes were appreciated, critical reviews of the film were not so great. A small sampling:

Janet Maslin, New York Times: “…’The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a shrewd if preposterous cautionary tale that strikes a wide range of resonant chords.”

Rita Kempley, Washington Post: “…a yarn of ’80s paranoia…that by all rights ought to frighten women right out of their Hanes ultra-sheers. Alas, [director] Schlondorff’s approach is so dispassionate it fails to prick our secret terrors, much less put runs in our stockings. In a way, he has succeeded too well. Under his austere eye, this portrait of a barren, loveless tomorrow becomes icy as a corpse.”

III. The TV Series The Handmaid’s Tale

Watch the trailer below:

Featuring a highly praised performance by Elisabeth Moss, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has garnered super-strong reviews. Just a few:

Jen Chaney, Vulture:

A faithful adaptation of the book that also brings new layers to Atwood’s totalitarian, sexist world of forced surrogate motherhood, this series is meticulously paced, brutal, visually stunning, and so suspenseful from moment to moment that only at the end of each hour will you feel fully at liberty to exhale. Assuming the rest of the episodes are as strong as the first three provided for review, The Handmaid’s Tale will stand as not only the best one-hour drama Hulu has produced, but one of the best dramas of the year, period.

Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire:

This is a horror story, except the horror isn’t rooted in fantasy or gore. The human spirit is the victim here — and the word human is used deliberately there, because when we delineate genders, the resulting opportunity to ‘other’ that which is not in power is what creates the monster.

Because here is something important to understand: So many women are always a little bit scared. It’s not always the first thing on our minds, this fear, but thanks to society, especially right now, we can’t escape it. It’s not just walking alone in the dark with our keys laced through our fingers, preparing for attacks. It’s reading the news every day, crying for women who can’t get the health care they need, or discovering that their sexual harassment claims have no impact on the conglomerate which seeks to protect their on-camera talent, or any of the hundred other ways society tries to put us ‘in our place.’

Dan Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter: “Regretfully, the 30-plus-year-old work has become a story for the very time and place we’re living in; this is probably the spring’s best new show and certainly its most important.”

As Atwood herself recently told Time, her fictional view sadly strays little from reality: “The control of women and babies has been a part of every repressive regime in history.”

Nov 13

“The One I Love”: A Strange Kind of Couples Retreat

At the start of The One I Love, now available on DVD, a couple with issues goes to therapy—-and things get really weird.

The Trailer

The Plot

David Edelstein, Vulture, briefly summarizes:

In the funny-strange sci-fi psychodrama The One I Love, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play a foundering couple, Ethan and Sophie, whose attempt to recover the happiness in their marriage takes them—on the advice of a therapist played by Ted Danson—to an isolated country estate where they meet … themselves. Or, rather, each of them meets someone who looks exactly like the other but is warmer and more attentive. Is it a dream? A shared psychosis? A portal to another dimension? (The couple ruminate on all these possibilities themselves.) The more urgent question is: What do you do when your mate is clearly falling for the person you were rather than the person you are?

The Therapist

Matthew Kassel, New York Observer: “He makes them play random notes on an in-office piano—a bogus indication that their marriage is out of sync—and then recommends they get away to a rural retreat to ‘reset the reset button.'”

The Therapist-Recommended Retreat

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “The ‘retreat’ is a weekend alone in a big old house on a large property, complete with a pool and guest house. There are no other guests. There is no guru leading them through trust exercises. There is no Steve Carell in ‘Hope Springs.’ It is just Ethan and Sophie, hanging out, exploring the grounds.”

The Couple (the only characters besides the briefly portrayed shrink)

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “We’re presented with a couple that is beyond listening to each other. They no longer seem to believe in the other person’s virtue or specialness. And every positive association they have about each other is related to some past memory, when everything was new and they were both on their best behavior. So should they stay together? And if they do, what can they still expect to find?”

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “It’s not just familiarity that has bred contempt between them: Ethan was unfaithful once, and Sophie has yet to forgive him. At the same time, she has habits and walls of her own, so she’s hardly blameless for their current malaise.”

More About the Ensuing Plot and Developments

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com:

…(W)hat they open themselves to is a Hall of Mirrors, increasingly disturbing, and the secrets start to pile up again, casually at first, and then consciously and deliberately…The two actors create a very real relationship, with a sense of shared joy in one another’s company, and myriad problems threatening to derail the entire thing. We can see how bored they are with life, with themselves, and with each other. To Ethan, trying something new means ‘going horseback riding with a satchel of wine.’ Ethan and Sophie are not extraordinary characters. But the situation in which they find themselves in is.