Film, OldVenue

Mental illness is film

Film is a powerful medium. It can inform, entertain, influence: what we experience on screen feeds into our opinions, whether we know it or not. Mental illness is a subject that has long been popular within cinema, however, with this delicate issue that is often stigmatised or misunderstood, it is unsurprising that its representation can cause controversy. When dealing with mental health (something that affects so many people), fictional, dramatised works have an immense power. They can alter the way that people perceive things, for better and for worse.
Take Hitchcock’s famous Psycho (1960) – even the title implies derogatory associations with those that are mentally unwell. Norman Bates, who in modern terms would be described as having multiple personality disorder, is portrayed as a terrifying freak. His psychological problems lead him to brutally murder the heroine whilst dressed (and genuinely believing himself to be) his dead mother. A condition that we now see to be an illness is viewed with little sympathy, even by modern viewers. Films like Psycho have gained a cult status, with Bates and other characters (e.g. Jack Torrance in The Shining or Alex in A Clockwork Orange) becoming classic movie psychopaths. However, the lack of attention and sympathy given to the causes of their horrific actions does little for the awareness of mental illness. Films such as these, which use mental illness for dramatic effect, can easily influence common misconceptions. Clearly, they have the motive of creating fear. However, by using characters that have mental health issues, that fear can easily be transferred from and to day to day life.
As fictional, dramatised representations, it is difficult to measure how far any film can do justice to the truth of living with mental illness. However, two films that deal more explicitly with the issue, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Girl, Interrupted (1999), can be seen to handle the matter with more sensitivity and understanding. Both are set in mental institutions in the 60s, when the understanding of mental illness was developing but still greatly stigmatised. The protagonists are on the whole relatable, and we are able to sympathise with them and their conditions. While they need help, it is not them that are the problem, but more a lack of understanding. Nonetheless, stereotypes still prevail, and even among the fictional characters there are prejudices of craziness often played out for moments of humor or pity. In being produced and sold for the consumer, it is likely that these stories (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was originally a novel and Girl, Interrupted a true memoir) have lost some of their genuineness.
In David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012) both Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) suffer from mental illnesses, with this modern take depicting their issues in a refreshing way. Being a product of a more understanding attitude towards the mentally ill, the two characters are in no way marginalised. They are likeable and strong in their own right, their conditions don’t define them. Of course, like the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Girl, Interrupted they are still merely representations, and can hardly be seen as accurate of all those that suffer with the same illnesses, but that would be impossible regardless.
In film, stereotypes are often easy to fall back on and the subject of mental illness is no exception. However, with the progression of time and greater understanding, its representation has become considerably more sympathetic.


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August 2022
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