Tuesday 16 November 2010

Psychiatry and A Single Man By Susan Bisson

Below is an essay by Susan Bisson from the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC) at Cardiff University and relates to our sciSCREENing of A Single Man in March.

Psychiatry and the movies have grown up together. Both were in their infancy at the turn of the century and then went on to make massive advances within the following decades. Maybe this is why they have always shared a relationship which can be described as both complementary but also hostile. Both disciplines share a voyeuristic interest in appraising the body and are particularly interested when that body does not function as it should prompting a Foucauldian approach to the analysis of psychiatric discourses in film. The appraisal of human ‘exhibits’ effectively made its transition seamlessly from the pit and the gallows to the cinema screen. It is notable that the Edison Manufacturing company in 1903 made a film of the electrocution of Topsy the elephant at Coney Island’s Luna park. Topsy had charged and killed three spectators. The choice of material deemed suitable for an audience by Edison highlights the grotesque choice of subjects at the inception of cinema. Additionally August Lumiere was a scientist whose dominant medical interests were tuberculosis and cancer. Science and the screen have always been welded together via their interest in life and a preoccupation with the visual and the desire to ‘see’. The word ‘monster’ derives from the French ‘monstrere’ to show or demonstrate and has been used in medical history to denote a body that exhibits some sort of defect, whether physical or mental. It is no surprise that generically horror movies have traditionally featured psychiatric representations which have tended towards the fantastic. Horror is by no means the only genre to feature psychiatric representations, however. The variety of genres is extremely wide – from Science Fiction (Twelve Monkeys), through to romance (Mad Love) and comedy (The Dream Team). The biopic has featured over the years, including films such as Bird (The Charley Parker story) and Shine which features the life of the Australian pianist David Helfgott. Prominent films have chosen to use psychiatry specifically as their subject matter. These tend to be seminal films such as The Snake Pit and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which have had the power to influence further film representations. Notably the type of psychiatric disorder to feature is also extremely wide ranging. Substance abuse and psychosis feature in numerous films and are popular choices for screen representation. Depression does not feature as frequently although it has played a part in screen classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life. Psychiatry features in mainstream blockbuster movies such as A Beautiful Mind and also in arthouse fare such as Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey Boy. A major preoccupation amongst mental health professionals and media practitioners such as Greg Philo is the veracity of the representation and the possibility that screen representation may reflect biases and misconceptions that contribute to a continued misunderstanding of mental illness. There is a particular sensitivity towards the linking of mental illness and violence and the bias towards a portrayal of negative symptoms. It is too convenient to assume that art house representations offer greater sensitivity than the blockbuster as this is not necessarily the case. At issue is the question of whether film representation should be suborned to the notion of social responsibility. There are many more factors than accuracy that affect screen representation. These include the constant pressure for audience ratings and the demands of both economics and genre. Values of entertainment and acceptability to audience are also crucial. Narrative pace is important and is a reason why depression does not feature as much as psychosis. Essential ingredients for film include dramatic moments and resolutions which can often be at odds with the realities of mental ill health. What matters, at the end of the day, is the quest for a good story and there is an undoubted pressure to make things more shocking than they truly are. It can be hard, at times, to get audiences to engage with difficult subject matter and because film is a primarily visual medium this causes problems for certain aspects of mental health which are difficult to picture visually. Above all psychiatric material must be interesting – this discounts the everyday lives of those who suffer chronic illness in favour of the unusual or bizarre. The figure of the psychiatrist is of great use to the film maker as s/he can act as a ficelle to move the plot forward or explain it. The psychiatrist provides the perfect vehicle for exposition and character development. Traditionally psychiatrists have been used to legitimise sexual themes (particularly in the light of the Production Code) and they act as a rationalist corrective to the supernatural. They are the voice of common sense and can be repressive influences on the free spirited. Film has also mirrored changes in psychiatry itself. During the heyday of psychoanalysis there was a plethora of films which featured Freudian content (such as Hitchcock’s Spellbound). The Snakepit features insulin therapy and Suddenly Last Summer begins with a routine lobotomy. It is the under funding of this procedure and not its drastic nature which forms the early dramatic tension of this film. Not all aspects of psychiatry are featured equally in film, however. As Good As it Gets is cited as one of the few examples of a filmic representation to show psychopharmacological agents as being therapeutic, for example. The omissions from film are as interesting, in many ways, as the inclusions.

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