Tag Archives: mental health

Color and Form

 At last, a film about the ultimate Minnelli concerns: about the spaces, physical and psychological, that humans inhabit; about the individual elements that enhance or impair our sense of self; the problems, in short, of adornment and décor.

That’s Keith Uhlich, in his really beautiful Sight & Sound article “Garlands and cobwebs: Vincente Minnelli’s ecstatic vision,” writing about Minnelli’s mental hospital melodrama The Cobweb (1955). Indeed, it’s a film more of surfaces than story, and it signposts this by being veritably obsessed with a set of drapes. Their fabric and pattern, debated across the whole of the movie, are the MacGuffins behind The Cobweb’s ornate plot, triggering all manner of love affair and power grab. This mere fact has overwhelmed many a viewer over the years, leading them to label the film instantly risible. But as Gloria Grahame says during the opening scene, in a line seized upon by critics like Uhlich and Dave Kehr, “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form, and that they make you feel good?”

As an art-for-art’s-sake sentiment, this could (and should, I think) apply to cinema at large, but it feels especially apt with Minnelli, and especially here. Drape obsession or no, The Cobweb has color, form, wildness, and bombast, which make me feel good. It never shrinks away from the lurid or tawdry, but rather embraces them as legitimate means of expression. Between its all-star cast and sprawling CinemaScope frame, you’d expect a mid-’50s soap like this to be lurching, elephantine, yet it’s actually pretty fleet. It helps, I suppose, that Richard Widmark and Gloria Grahame play the doctor and wife at its creamy center, an offbeat leading man wed to a shrill sexpot. Their troubled marriage is where, as an opening title explains, “the trouble began…” and from whence it ripples out through a network of psychiatrists, administrators, and patients.

The most disturbed of these is Steven, who’s being treated by Widmark’s Dr. McIver. He’s played by John Kerr, who’d star the following year as another sensitive youth in another Minnelli movie, Tea and Sympathy. But he’s much more agitated here as an oedipal, sometimes suicidal young artist who gets out his resentment and self-loathing through loose, color-streaked paintings of hospital life. (In reality, they’re in the signature style of David Stone Martin, credited on the film as “graphic designer.”) In Steven, Minnelli fuses the film’s ideas about mental illness and the creative act, about the latter as both liberating and dangerous in its intensity. Pacing around the colorful ‘Scope boxes that make up the Castlehouse Clinic, Steven could be the more overtly sick brother to Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause, released just a few months later.

Like Rebel, The Cobweb uses melodrama to diagnose the soul sickness of 1950s America; both films also make prominent use of staircases as psychological symbols. (All this said, it should come as no surprise that producer John Houseman even pursued James Dean to play Steven, only for him to balk at the pay.) Stairs, rooms, drapes with floral patterns… it’s as if the characters and their mise-en-scène are, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s last words, fighting a duel to the death, and one or the other has to go. As if the clinic’s furnishings had become as sick as its patients. Minnelli always had such facility for smearing beauty across the screen, for shooting sets and actors just as Steven paints the clinic, and The Cobweb isn’t shy about the duality of these images: surfaces can be beautiful, but they can also devour you and never let you go.

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Link Dump: #64

This week’s kitty is from Lev Kuleshov’s wacky Soviet comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. And if you think it’s cute, you should see its litter of kittens. It gives birth in a ten gallon hat! So cute. Now here are some links:

We have two pornographic search terms this week. The first is relatively straightforward: “big women that like sex who like animals.” The second, though (and we’ve had many searches for variations on this phrase)… “google two sex women two women love firends lesbian both lesbian gether weddnig pussy pussy is in the moives.” So, yeah.

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Happiness and drag kings

Recent blogging bursts from Ashley and myself have put me into a blogtastic kind of mood. And what better way to demonstrate that than by posting something here? However, I don’t have anything that specific in mind to talk about. Instead, I have two very, very general topics: one is a basic aspect of human life; the other is a beautiful, comparatively young art form. That’s right, sexuality and film. The interactions between the two form a huge area of study, so I want to try to zero in some especially interesting points, or maybe just ramble freely.

First, last night I watched a movie mostly about sex, Todd Solondz’s Happiness. I watched his earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse last year, and I definitely think it’s good preparation for the pitch-black comedy and fetid suburban lives that populate Happiness. If Dollhouse‘s Dawn Wiener was tortured by her peers and family, what about Happiness‘s ironically named Joy, who faces tribulations from scene 1 (Jon Lovitz tells her she’s shit) through an obscene phone call that raises her hopes, a fling with a manipulative Russian cabbie, and an ending that sees her lonely and desperate all over again?

Solondz’s characters really do go through hell, suggesting that the only thing worse than Sartre’s “other people” might just be “no other people.” Because it’s a movie about the bad, often pathetic behaviors we engage in for companionship – unless, like Ben Gazzara’s hollow patriarch, aloneness is what we really crave in the first place. One man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds solace in his violently pornographic fantasies about his neighbor, but is unable to unload his emotional baggage because his therapist (Dylan Baker) is too self-absorbed, and too busy struggling with his own obsessive pedophilia.

All these interlocking tales of misery and self-defeating spirals add up to a general impression that no one is normal: everyone, whether sexually or emotionally, nurses little fractures and deviations, right down to the apparently “happy” housewife Trish, whose husband is the pedophile. It may be an unremittingly bleak film that holds out little hope for human relationships, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable both in its abrasively comic moments and its willingness to carry out its grim premise. So I recommend this complex, depressing, very NC-17 film if only for the lesson that everyone is at least a little fucked up.

Dan Clowes illustrating Solondz's wretched ensemble: an artistic match made in heaven.

And so, in this little discussion of sex in film, I’d love to briefly single out one particularly resonant character: Kristina (Camryn Manheim), one of the neighbors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s lonely sex maniac. Contrasted with the beautiful, successful Helen across the hall, Kristina is overweight, sex-phobic, and slightly unhinged (shades of Repulsion?). Often this kind of depressed, spinsterish character could devolve into stereotype, but the character’s behaviors and Manheim’s performance avert this powerfully, for as she grows closer to Hoffman, her revelations get weirder and weirder while both drawing in viewer sympathy and failing to turn Hoffman away. The most effective part might be that despite her numerous sexual hang-ups, she’s by far not the most disturbed character in the movie. So she comes across not as one extreme case but instead as one abnormal person in a world filled with them.

While considering sexuality in film (a topic for which Happiness is indeed well-suited), let me jump somewhat to another area that endlessly fascinates me: the transvestite in film. I commented briefly and superficially on this last summer (mostly with regard to Cary Grant), but now after reading a chunk of Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests, I’d like to re-examine it. As part of a class on Pre-Code film, I’m about to start a research project on Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933) – a film in which cross-dressing plays a prominent role.

[Mamoulian is a director who doesn’t get enough credit, considering the series of unique, beautiful films he made including Applause, a musical burlesque melodrama with dazzlingly fluid urban photography; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, probably the best filmed version of the Stevenson story, complete with an outrageously slutty Miriam Hopkins; and Love Me Tonight, a Chevalier musical in which class, gender, and logic go topsy-turvy.]

In general, female-to-male cross-dressing doesn’t get the kind of attention (or cause the same titillation) as male-to-female, and this intrigues me. Maybe it’s because when a woman assumes male dress, she’s elevating herself in terms of power and status, while a man in a dress is seen as lowering himself, rendering himself impotent and ridiculous? Look at the presentation of Roscoe in Freaks: a stuttering, effeminate parody of a patriarch, first shown dressed as a “Roman lady” alongisde the virile, all-man Hercules. According to society, dresses on men are undignified, evoking giggles and catcalls, while a woman in a suit and tie is a solemn event. Who laughs when Marlene goes in drag and kisses a woman in Morocco? Erotic, of course (it’s Josef von Sternberg, for chrissake!), but funny? Not really.

I haven’t thought too much about this particular line of reasoning, but maybe comedy is only created when the cross-dresser has to struggle to maintain the illusion. And while Garbo and Dietrich are both comfortable and confident occupying this hermaphroditic middle ground – Garbo, of course, is a defiant queen, and Dietrich is performing in a self-conscious nightclub act – maybe another great example, Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, is both not as talented or assured in her double performance, and also has more to lose should her masquerade be uncovered.

The Swedish Sphinx: a riddle of personality and gender identityMarlene, the consummate performer of alternate identities

While Garbo and Dietrich are both fully in control of their respective male impersonations, Hepburn’s Sylvia/Sylvester is young, inexperienced (both at playing male, and sex in general), and has her father’s life at risk. Garbo’s Christina may guide her disguised rendezvous with John Gilbert’s Spanish envoy, but Sylvia is prey to the desires encircling her, whether from her stepmother (taking her for a boy) or a roguish Cary Grant (confused by his attraction to her unseen femininity). Through her guise’s insecurity, these encounters result in nail-biting comedy –  will she be discovered, or will she reveal herself on her own terms?

And this is where we start to get some answers to the questions, Why study sexuality in film history? What could it possibly teach us? Examining these three texts of female-to-male transvestism from the ’30s, we see patterns regarding who can cross-dress, who can’t, and why. We wonder whether the clothes make the man, or whether a woman, in dress, suit, or neither, is still first and foremost a woman. These are questions I’m exploring right now in my WGST classes, and hopefully will be able to carry over to my work on Queen Christina. I’ve studied the Production Code and the PCA a fair amount, but I don’t know exactly what their stance on Garbo’s playful sexual antics would be, and I’m excited to find out.

So, it’s about 3 am, and I have more movies to watch (and explore gender in). But these alleys of inquiry really are endless, and I think each of them can lead to personal breakthroughs in our perception of sex, gender, and media. With so many movies out there talking about the same issues from such radically different viewpoints, there’s really no limit to the analysis you can do.

Katherine Hepburn plays the boy in Sylvia Scarlett

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Madness and rebellion

Today, I think, was a well-spent day. It should feel more satisfying, but alas, it feels strangely disappointing in a way that many days feel, and what can I do about that? Human emotions are strange things. Oh, are they ever. We sacks of meat, bone, and nerve tissue go around having feelings, and these feelings mean so much to us. They determine how we view the world – if we’re sad, the world becomes sad, and if we’re happy, well, the world laughs with us. No one is objective; no one really has an unbiased view of their environment. Hell, even though lobotomies do severe damage to higher brain functions, they still don’t take away all emotions, or anything that people will little leucotomical knowledge would tell you. I recently watched a documentary with my family about Walter Freeman, the innovator of the lobotomy, who spent years touring the U.S. giving icepick lobotomies, where he’d just stick it up someone’s tear ducts, hammer away, and BANG, problem solved. With new ones created. Psychosurgery? It has a bad rap these days, and for a reason. The documentary, based on Jack El-Hai’s book of the same name, was called The Lobotomist and is available for viewing here. I highly recommend it as examining a piece of America’s medical and social history. I should watch more documentaries. They provide easy access to a variety of subjects. In time, it’ll happen.

Lobotomies have always intrigued me. Look at the word itself: lobotomy. (And if you’re like me, you automatically hear the Ramones chanting it.) Basically, it comes from the Greek (I believe; take my every nugget of wisdom with a grain of salt): lobe, as in frontal lobe, plus -otomy, which means “cutting.” Like the atom? That means “uncuttable.” Which is ironic in retrospect, but dammit, they didn’t know that then! Lobotomy, taking out a part-o’-me… one of the interesting nuances I learned back when I obsessively studied Greek word origins around age 13 was the difference between “otomy” and “ectomy.” Appendectomy, hysterectomy? An -ectomy is a removal; an -otomy is a cutting.  However, I don’t know the medical details well enough to say if the lobe is entirely removed or just has its link to the rest of the brain severed. In any event, the rise (and fall) of the lobotomy is an interesting case of interactions between general public attitudes and changing medical technology. If there’s anything advertising can tell you, it’s that people crave a quick fix. Years of therapy, coupled with medication? Fuck that. Let’s go in through his eyes, hack out part of his brain, and make him safe to take home again. Psychiatric trends affect us all, dammit. Whether or not they’re willing to admit it, everyone has a mental health, just as everyone has a physical health. Worth noting: I’m fairly certain that “insanity” is a meaningless word, both medically and legally. Is someone “crazy”? Are they “insane” or “nuts”? Some people suffer from clinical depression; others are schizophrenic (although what does that mean? Another source of immense controversy which was brought to my attention by Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s My Mom Was a Schizophrenic; I definitely recommend reading it). Psychiatry is still, more or less, in its infancy. Maybe its teen years? My point is that the study of mental health, as we know it, pretty much took off only around the turn of the 20th century. There’s a lot humanity as a whole still has to figure out about how the brain works. Dear reader, take a moment to consider what a bizarre, high-tech piece of equiment you have stashed between your ears. It’s so well-designed it’s even capable of contemplating its own mechanical workings. Unfortunately, there are still some bugs to work out, so occasionally the wiring short-circuits, and sometimes we can get it fired up again, but other cases are not so lucky. Whole lotta trial and error involved, as with every human pursuit. Happiness does not come easy without the sacrifice of many, many painful and difficult lives obstructed by bad chemicals fucking up the brain, as Kurt Vonnegut would probably put it. I think he had some mental illness in his family – his mother, I believe, committed suicide like Celia Hoover in Breakfast of Champions, the novel to which I’m referring with the “bad chemicals,” and Vonnegut himself went through crippling depression at a number of points in his life. I used to have a book containing testimonies from a number of people who’d gone through Minnesota’s mental health care system. I wonder where that is now. One very scary point it reinforces is this: it can and likely even will happen to you. Your mind, so often a faithful friend who aided you in all pursuits, suddenly deciding to take a nosedive into darkness and agony – it’s a possibility built into the electrochemical framework by which you, like everyone else, function. It’s horrifying and it’s a fact.

Thinking about lobotomies also reminded me of two things I love: Ken Kesey’s novel and Milos Forman’s 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Loosely inspired by an acid trip Kesey had while working as a janitor in a mental hospital in Washington State California, the stories are about Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), the convict who gets transferred into the tyrannical Nurse Ratched’s ward because he’s convinced the prison staff that he’s crazy, though he’s just faking it, and he’s really sane… right? I am a fan of Nicholson. I can’t deny it; in fact, sometimes I randomly burst into periods where I won’t! Fuckin’! Stop! Talkin’ like Jack Nicholson! And Cuckoo’s Nest was, I think, a project that was perfect for him – McMurphy is, of course, a quintessential rebel, which fits perfectly with the image Nicholson crafted starting with his renegade lawyer in Easy Rider, his renegade pianist in Five Easy Pieces, his renegade naval officer in The Last Detail… need I go on? (Granted, in Tommy, he’s not much of a renegade, but his part in it is about 5 minutes long. As Jack says, “All hope lies with him and none with me.”)

I love the film’s environment, its supporting cast – Vincent Schiavelli, Danny DeVito being endearingly demented, Christopher Lloyd being argumentative and violent, and Brad Dourif as the sadistically-named Billy Bibbit, stutteringly sucking up to the off-beat father figure that McMurphy provides. Then there’s the Chief. Since the novel is from his (very skewed) point of view, it’s a radically different experience, but I think Forman does a great job of maybe not translating, but reconstructing important elements of the novel on screen. And McMurphy survives wholly intact. And then Louis Fletcher… she may have had other roles before and after, but she will likely be remembered solely for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Nurse Ratched, and it’s no wonder. I’d have to reread the book to verify this but I have the feeling that Fletcher is a little softer and not so overtly domineering than Kesey’s version of Ratched. But nonetheless she’s a frightening presence and is simultaneously a figurehead of executive authority and a monster of institutional malice. Cuckoo’s Nest may have swept the Academy Awards, but I still see it as a very effectively rebellious, anti-authoritarian film. Although the novel may be more in synch with the Chief’s existence as an outsider on every level, I think the film isn’t too watered-down or overly Hollywoodized. Still got that downer ending, after all, that brought me from lobotomy to Cuckoo’s Nest in the first place. Still got that pool of blood surrounding a certain beloved character’s body. My opinion on this may change in the future. But one possible explanation if this is the case? It was 1975. Recent headlines had seen the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, and the Watergate revelations. An ideal national mindset for a movie like this – and while, say, All the President’s Men may have taken the topical bull by the horns, I can at least say with certainty that I prefer Cuckoo’s Nest every time. The catch? As others have pointed out, cuckoos don’t have nests. They lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. Keep that in mind while watching the movie.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

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