Mar 28

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”: Depression, In Fact

Sometimes I just think depression’s one way of coping with the world. Like, some people get drunk, some people do drugs, some people get depressed. Because there’s so much stuff out there that you have to do something to deal with it. Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story

In 2013 author Ned Vizzini died by suicide. He was 32 when he jumped off his parents’ roof in Brooklyn. He left behind a wife and young child.

One of his books, the 2004 sci-fi Be More Chill, has now become a Broadway musical, which has put the deceased author back in the news.

Vizzini had also written the bestselling Young Adult novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2006), based on his prior experience of checking himself into a psychiatric hospital after calling a suicide hotline. The catalyst: he’d had a dream about jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge.

Athough his real-life five-day inpatient stint was helpful, Vizzini publicly admitted he continually had to work to manage his depression. In other words, the various forms of therapy he received over the years were not curative as much as guiding and supportive. A realistic way, actually, of viewing depression recovery.

In 2010 a film based on the book was released in theaters.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Book

Tanya Lee Stone, New York Times, at the time of publication: “Laughter is one way to cope with pressure, and that’s what Ned Vizzini’s insightful and utterly authentic new novel is all about — the insidious kind of pressure teenagers face in a success-oriented society that values product over process, scores over scholarship and extracurriculars over extra innings.”

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Film

The film It’s Kind of a Funny Story received so-so reviews from the critics. A.O. Scott, New York Times:The best I can say is that it’s kind of a good movie.” Viewers, on the other hand, have given it somewhat better marks overall.

From Scott’s synopsis:

Temperamentally disinclined to be melodramatic, Craig [Keir Gilchrist] is bothered by some of the usual stresses of modern adolescence. His selective public high school is a hothouse of academic pressure. He is obsessed with Nia (Zoë Kravitz), the girlfriend of his best pal, Aaron (Thomas Mann). And Craig’s well-meaning parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, with Dana De Vestern in tow as a funny-cute little sister) are not quite able to give him the support and sympathy he needs.

16-year-old Craig gets checked in to Argeron, the hospital. “Now Craig realizes,” notes “cinema therapist” Birgit Wolz, “that this is not as simple as chilling out for a while. He believes that he made a mistake when he discovers that checking in is much easier than checking out. To make matters worse, the youth psychiatric ward is undergoing renovations, and he is forced to stay in the adult unit with patients who are more seriously disturbed.”

Available now on DVD and elsewhere, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is previewed in the following trailer. Note that Zach Galifianakis was cast as a fellow inpatient. “As Bobby, the psych ward’s resident depressive-philosopher, Galifianakis works his character’s insights and neuroses like worry beads — effortlessly, unceasingly and to marvelous effect” (Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times).

Additionally, there’s the bonus of Viola Davis as Dr. Minerva, a caring psychiatrist.

Oct 18

“A Star Is Born”: Why You Might Feel Triggered

What does remake-of-a-remake-of-a-remake A Star Is Born, with Lady Gaga (Ally) and Bradley Cooper (Jackson), depict that some viewers may find troubling? Ahead are possible triggers and spoilers from review excerpts.

The Coupling

Britt Hayes, ScreenCrush: “…a perfect reflection of institutionalized misogyny; it is a movie that is very much of our time, but we are living in a time that demands so much more — at the very least, criticism of a world in which the best a woman like Ally can hope for is marrying into fame with an alcoholic because he’s the only person who ever admired her nose.”

Misogyny and Boundaries

Headline by Aja Romano, Vox, is A Star Is Born has a problem with consent”:

Throughout the film, Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, says no, and her ‘no’ is always converted into a ‘yes’ by men. This happens again and again, from every man around her: her father and his friends…

Narratives where a woman’s no always means yes directly contribute to rape culture. Sexual harassment and assault occur in part because men are taught to view women as saying no when they mean yes, and to wear women down through repeated asking until their no changes into a yes.

Ally’s Mental Health

Aja Romano, Vox“Despite the number of lines given to its female star, no version of A Star Is Born has ever cared about her psychological makeup, pivoted around her decisions, or given her much agency over her own career.”

Jackson’s Addiction and Emotional Abuse

Robyn Bahr, Vice: “…It’s truly one of the best cinematic examples of an emotionally abusive relationship I’ve ever seen. And much like real life, it’s hard to detect when toxic behavior crosses the line into systematic emotional abuse.”

Jackson’s Mental Health

Elizabeth Cassidy, The Mighty: “While Jack goes to rehab, which happens in other renditions as well, we could expect Jack to seek more mental health treatment than would have been available in the ’30s, ’50s or ’70s.”

Aja Romano, Vox: “When he ultimately realizes his disgrace is hurting Ally’s career, he decides to die rather than continue hindering her rise. It’s framed as a tragic, noble sacrifice — but while it’s absolutely a tragedy, it’s anything but noble, because it’s brought about in part by his inability to see Ally and her career as existing apart from him.”

Britt HayesScreenCrush: “While the impetus for his relapse (Ally’s producer makes a couple cruel comments) seems flimsy, the actual relapse and subsequent suicide are deeply upsetting — and borderline triggering for anyone who’s lost a loved one to addiction.”

Concluding Thoughts

Li Lai, Mediaversity Reviews:

By all means, go and enjoy A Star is Born. Cooper and Gaga bare their souls in this film, and that level of vulnerability is brave and laudable. But know that its 1937 story goes wholly unchallenged and can be discomfiting to watch in certain scenes, especially given these current times where, much like Ally, women continue to be controlled by broken men with too much power in their hands.

Robyn Bahr, Vice: “Jackson Maine is a tragic character because of the childhood neglect he suffered and the heartbreaking choice he makes at the end of the film. But his inner demons don’t absolve him from inflicting devastating control over the woman who loves him and, hopefully, viewers see that message loud and clear.”

Aja Romano, Vox:

A Star Is Born keeps being remade because Hollywood is besotted with the mechanics of stardom, refracted here through a lens of male power and female submissiveness. It’s deeply frustrating that this story has reappeared, with all its problems, at a moment when we’re taking a hard look at the very kinds of power imbalances and consent issues within the industry that this film reifies, and even romanticizes. Maybe by the time the next remake comes along in another 20 years or so, we’ll have finally figured out that it’s really just a bad romance.

Jun 05

“First Reformed”: Body/Mind/Soul Collisions

A 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, Paul Schrader‘s First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke, playing a former chaplain named Toller, who’s grieving the death of his son. An encounter with a radical environmental activist, Michael, leads to doubts about the meaning of his life. Although Michael is later lost to suicide, his wife (Amanda Seyfriend) and Toller connect.

Alex Arabian, Film Inquiry: “Toller puts on a brave front, but still suffers from his son’s death, so he drinks heavily. However, this is ill-advised, as he suffers from some form of advanced cancer. He decides to write longhand in a diary for a year.”

More about Toller’s character from director Schrader himself: “This guy has a sickness that Kierkegaard called a sickness unto death — a lack of hope, despair, angst. This sickness has manifestations. The cloth of the clergy is one, the diary is another, the alcohol is another, and finally the environment is a manifestation of his soul sickness. So he grafts this cause onto himself — in fact, picks it up as a kind of virus from another person. But if it weren’t the environment, it would be something else.”

About Toller’s emerging “environmentalist obsessions” Greg Cwik (Slant) notes, “It’s as if the dead man has been reborn within Toller, as if Toller has found a new, invigorated faith, a fervid and politicized one. Suicide is, for strict Augustine Christians, a sin, unforgivable as the dead cannot confess, unless one is labeled a martyr, like Samson. Yet Toller begins to see in death the possibility for new life.”

See the trailer below:

Selected Reviews

Eric Kohn, Indiewire: “As a priest who may or may not be losing his mind, Hawke provides a compelling anchor for Schrader’s surprisingly effective religious-themed film.”

Justin Chang, NPR: “First Reformed is a stunner, a spiritually probing work of art with the soul of a thriller, realized with a level of formal control and fierce moral anger that we seldom see in American movies.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Time:

Part of the movie’s understated triumph lies in its casting: Hawke is an actor who clearly cares, and worries, a lot–the tree of life is practically etched into his forehead. As the hyperconscientious Toller, he conveys both the selfishness and the true anguish of people who just can’t let go of their own pain. But he also offers a shred of hope in the idea that in the end, caring too much might be just the thing that saves us.

May 18

“Imagine Me Gone”: Mental Illness In the Family

Adam Haslett‘s new novel Imagine Me Gone echoes a main theme from his highly acclaimed 2002 debut, You Are Not a Stranger Here: mental illness and its effects on loved ones.

As Haslett tells Scott Simon, NPR, there’s personal background to go with this: “…I’m no stranger to mental illness. You know, my father committed suicide when I was 14. My brother indeed suffered from anxiety. And I’ve been no stranger to those states myself, luckily, for some unknown reason, not in the same severity of my father or brother.”

Kirkus Reviews introduces Imagine Me Gone: “This touching chronicle of love and pain traces half a century in a family of five, from the parents’ engagement in 1963 through a father’s and son’s psychological torments and a final crisis…Each chapter is told by one of the family’s five voices, shifting the point of view on shared troubles, showing how they grow away from one another without losing touch.”

More info from Heller McAlpin, NPR, about the five family members:

…a British-American couple, John and Margaret, and their three grown children. We learn early that Margaret chose to proceed with her marriage to John even after unexpectedly learning about his history of severe depression during their engagement. We also learn that their eldest son, Michael, manifested a ‘ceaseless brain’ and obsession with the plight of slaves even as a child, while their daughter Celia began showing mature coping skills at an early age. Celia recalls the time her father cut the engine and played dead on a small boat in Maine, testing her and her younger brother Alec with the challenge, ‘Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?’ Celia kept her cool and reassured her panicked brother to regard it ‘like a safety drill at school.’

Celia becomes a social worker, Alec “a bossily opinionated gay man” (WSJ), but in the center of family turmoil is Michael. The following is an oft-cited quote from the book about Michael’s high anxiety, for which many different medications are tried:

What do you fear when you fear everything? Time passing and not passing. Death and life. I could say my lungs never filled with enough air no matter how many puffs of my inhaler I took or that my thoughts moved too quickly to complete, severed by perpetual vigilance. But even to say this would abet the lie that terror can be described when anyone who’s ever known it knows that it has no components but is instead everywhere inside you all the time until you can recognize yourself only by the tensions that string one minute to the next. And yet I keep lying by describing because how else can I avoid this second and the one after it? This being in the condition itself, the relentless need to escape a moment that never ends.

Jessica Winter, BookForum: “…Michael is…a figure at once half-deranged and brilliant, stymied and restless, utterly self-absorbed and yet pseudo-empathetic to the point of pathology…Imagine Me Gone confronts the moment when the motion finally stops, when the mind’s wheels spin and squeal against the skull until a person breaks apart, his family looking on helplessly, haunting him and haunted by him.”

Despite the seriousness of Haslett’s material, apparently there’s also no shortage of humor.

Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle: “Haslett hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing just how anguishing and time-consuming psychiatric disorders can be, not only for the afflicted but also for the flailing loved ones trying their damnedest-and failing-to find a suitable fix…”

Oct 06

“Rocks in My Pockets”: Mental Illness in One Family

Rocks in My Pockets is a film about depression that involves humor.  It’s also, per the taglineA crazy quest for sanity.

In the writer/director/narrator Signe Baumane‘s own words:

‘Rocks In My Pockets’ is a story of mystery and redemption. The film is based on true events involving the women of my family, including myself, and our battles with madness. It raises questions of how much family genetics determine who we are and if it is possible to outsmart one’s own DNA. The film is packed with visual metaphors, surreal images and my twisted sense of humor. It is an animated tale full of art, women, strange daring stories, Latvian accents, history, nature, adventure and more.

More About the Women

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “…(T)hree generations of intelligent, educated women in her family struggled with depression, possible schizophrenia and suicide. Twice, neighbors found her paternal grandmother, Anna, floundering in the shallow river near her home in the Latvian forest. Despite her obvious vigor, Anna’s premature death at 50 was ascribed to a mysterious heart problem. Two of Baumane’s cousins were suicides, and Baumane herself was diagnosed as manic-depressive before she left Latvia for the United States.”

About the Title

Peter Keough, Boston Globe: “…(S)he tries to trace the depressive gene back through her family tree. She begins in Latvia in 1949, where a peasant is horrified to see her neighbor Anna, Baumane’s grandmother, standing fully clothed in a shallow river. It seems that, like Virginia Woolf, Anna was trying to drown herself. Unlike Woolf, she forgot to put rocks in her pockets to weigh herself down.”

The Trailer

The Animation and Style

Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader: “…(C)haracters morph into animals or objects, then back again, and metaphors are rendered literally. The latter device helps to convey the subjectiveness of mental illness—during one of the heroine’s depressive episodes, a balloon full of razorblades inflates inside her stomach.”

The Narration

Nicolas Rapold, New York Times: “It’s told with remorseless psychological intelligence, wicked irony and an acerbic sense of humor.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “…Baumane tends to meander in her storytelling, bouncing around in time as she visits such disparate subjects as history, suicide, education and feminism. And she employs a sing-songy, heavily accented tone of voice, regardless of the subject matter. It’s immediately off-putting and it smothers every second of the film, but eventually you grow accustomed to the narration and it becomes merely grating.”

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “Unfortunately, Baumane’s narration greatly weakens ‘Rocks in My Pockets.’ The thick Latvian accent is less a problem than her stolid delivery.”

The Mental Illness

Nick Schager, Village Voice: “With an insightfulness born from firsthand experience, Rocks in My Pockets posits depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia as conditions that, though potentially lethal, remain manageable, if only through persistent battle.”

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is not an easy film to watch: It rips the bandages — and scabs — off what are clearly festering wounds. But it serves as a striking reminder of the individuals who suffer similar pains in silence, and of the special power of animation to make the unseen visible.”

The Takeaway

Alissa Simon, Variety:

Like Baumane’s earlier shorts, the years-in-the-making ‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is fiercely feminist…Some of the images, such as that of a woman trapped under a bell jar while her husband watches from outside, perfectly epitomize marriage as experienced by Anna and her female descendants. Meanwhile, apt turns of phrase in the spoken narration (e.g., ‘My mind feels like a badly wired building’) make mental illness seem less alien.

Ella Taylor, NPR:

Baumane’s most poignant insight is that for potential suicides who really mean business, the pain grows so insufferable, or the voices in their heads so persuasive, that they see death as relief, even liberation from their suffering. One relative speaks of killing herself as an act of freedom. Baumane describes one meticulous plan to hang herself as her ‘way to success.’

That has the ring of truth — who among us has not wondered why so-and-so killed him or herself when they had so much to live for? But it’s a bitter pill to swallow for those left behind. So it comes as a huge relief to know that this endlessly imaginative artist found another way to save herself from the isolation that prompts so many suicides.

Nick Schager, Village Voice: “’Rocks in My Pockets’ offers a lot to process, both visually and emotionally. It’s an exhausting experience at just under 90 minutes, and it might have been more powerful in shorter form. The fact that it offers hope at the end—for Baumane herself and for anyone who has suffered similar torment—is an enormous relief.”