My madness has a name (schizoaffective bipolar type).
about one in two hundred people get the disorder in their lifetime.
It is my most common bedfellow. I have dealt with mental illness since I was 13. I am highly functioning and in a very good place in terms of my mental health. As an writer I feel a responsibility to how I portray illnesses in my work. I have been paying close attention to how madness (both in terms of anger and mental illness) is portrayed on film especially when it comes to women. Boy, is it bleak.
When I see forms of mental illness on the screen an anger boils inside of me. There is both a fetishization and dismissal of madness in our culture. Look at the memoir of Elizabeth Wurtzel and Sylvia Plath. Their madness can be commodified, a symptom of their beauty, society, ill mothers and homes. The narratives of madness have been in place for a long time and cinema continues to play into it. This doesn’t just exist on the screen look at the mutated star images of women like Marilyn Monroe, defined and reduced to her addictions.
Madness has been on my mind quite a bit .
Especially since watching Silver Linings Playbook.
When I first saw the film I was left feeling it depicted the disorders of the leads with aplomb and had a sort of energy I found thrilling.
In the beginning of the film Bradley Cooper hits some wonderful notes of being bipolar. The dramatic shifts in mood. The bubbling desire of mania. The anger at it all. Damn, I know that so well. I felt how the actors rose to the occasion was wonderful. Getting under the skin of madness, knowing its black waters the whole nine. It is easy to get swept up in this film. It has a sort of ragged charm that is endearing. It is the first time Robert De Niro has really acted in what feels like eons. It feels fresh and funny and hopeful.
A few days later my opinion changed swiftly.
This is due to the ending. The last half of the film felt like it was meant for another movie. Some Capraesque love story where dreams really do come true and all that bullshit. But the more I tugged with the ending, the more the rest of the film unravelled. Madness is never so neat but film seeks to make it that way.
Like many films that straddle the line between mainstream and independent cinema (a line that is kind of blurring in terms of differentiating content) it wants the zest and supposed pathos that supposedly comes with being independent, with the neatness of mainstream cinema. A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with one of my former teachers about the obligations (if any) that filmmakers have. The conversation was more hinged on Zero Dark Thirty but, it applies here albeit in a different direction. Do the filmmakers and artists associated with this film have an obligation in how they portray mental illness? There are only three occasions when I demand realism from filmmakers when it comes to portraying women, people of color and mental illness. Otherwise, I fall into the Jean Pierre Melville camp of cinema:
I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.
Another, major problem with the film is the casting of Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence has a natural charisma and talent while impressive isn’t always perfect. There were certain line readings that felt amateur and too emotionally on the nose. Lawrence is simply too young for the role. Bradley Cooper is 37 and looks it. While we’re supposed to believe the 21-year-old Lawrence is a widow. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me about her being the right casting for this role. It is a sad fucking day when I side with Harvey Weinstein who thought Lawrence was too young for the role.
Furthermore, when you strip the film of its ragtag, wild nature of the first half or so it can feel like a fucked up older dude gets the manic pixie sexual dynamo he needed to grow up. Not exactly a very forward thinking or dynamic narrative when you think of it in that manner, eh? Especially within the larger context of madwomen in cinema. Their madness almost always tied up within their body and feminized. So, I wasn’t surprised that Lawrence’s character at times seemed utterly defined by her sexuality. She was fucked up because fucking became a salve for her wounds.
As the film dominates award season and I listen to Jennifer Lawrence’s various acceptance speeches which recall the fact that David O. Russell’s son deals with bipolar disorder, I wonder if Russell was just trying to create a hopeful, neat ending he wishes for his son. Maybe. That doesn’t excuse the film.
Madness is not pretty or easy or always packaged in the life of some beautiful white person with a well-intentioned support system. I am not saying there shouldn’t be happiness or hope in a film dealing with mental illness. I am the living embodiment of the fact that things can and will get better. That you can not only survive but thrive. But, Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t show the uglier parts of recovery instead choosing to gloss over the dangers that come with living with mental illness. That’s not only bullshit it makes for bad storytelling.
The filmmakers created a world that was at first messy with an intriguing raw energy that dovetailed into a simplistic narrative where everything works out. It strangely reminded me of my teenaged self and how I related to my peers…swinging wildly through emotions, trying to figure out who the fuck I was and whenever I would reveal my struggle with mental illness I would then grow breathless from apologizing for being the person that attracted these friends in the first place.
End Note: Madness in Film is a series I am eager to continue expect pieces on The Three Faces of Eve, Gaslight (1944 version) and an overview of how Bette Davis portrayed anger and insanity throughout her career.