I'm used to seeing mental illness depicted as a metaphor for something else. Girl, Interrupted, the new Winona Ryder drama about a young woman doing time in a mental hospital in the 1960s, threw me a bit because it's not metaphorical. In some ways, I found its literal-mindedness refreshing. This isn't one of those films that tells us mentally ill people are wiser, freer, more creative or more childlike than everyone else. It remembers that there's a reason why some crazy people are locked away and treated against their will: because they pose a danger to themselves and others.
Alas, swapping metaphoric sweep for personal specifics is a devil's bargain; when you give up a larger vision, the smaller vision had better be clear. Girl, Interrupted is muddled, its point of view is clouded by upper-middle-class white privilege, and it's not quite sure what it wants to say about sanity, insanity and the treatment of the mentally ill.
The memoir and film versions of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest conveniently overlooked that fact. I realize Ken Kesey's story, one of the most famous in American popular culture, isn't supposed to be taken literally. It's a metaphor. The inmates are downtrodden citizens, the bureaucracy is The Man (even if it's represented by Nurse Ratched) and the narrative is about the compromises we make with power to get along and not be bothered (or abused). We see this model reinterpreted in prison stories like Stephen King's The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, which are about society, freedom and the Human Spirit, rather than crime and incarceration. But when metaphorical stories are granted concrete visual form, as in Milos Forman's 1975 Cuckoo's Nest, the effect is disquieting and unreal, and maybe a little dangerous. Except for Jack Nicholson's McMurphy, an incorrigible rabble-rouser with a temper, the other patients in the ward are pleasant simpletons who seem like they wouldn't harm a flea. They appear to be in the institution not because they pose a danger to themselves and others, but because nobody on the outside would take care of them. It's like they were locked away as punishment for being too eccentric and sweet?or because The Man didn't deem them pleasing.
This isn't the point, of course. But film affects us mostly on an emotional, not theoretical, level, so it's an inevitable, perhaps instinctive, misreading of Kesey's story. Even if you understand that film works differently from fiction?and that the visceral nature of film bypasses your rational mind and pushes your emotional buttons?cinema still seduces you into identifying with the heroes and hating the bad guys. Instead of thinking about the meanings of Kesey's delicate metaphoric contraption, you root for McMurphy to strangle that castrating bitch Nurse Ratched, who's keeping him down out of sheer spite. Once I figured this dynamic out, I couldn't watch Forman's movie anymore. I can't watch The Fisher King either, because the writer, Richard LaGravenese, and the director, Terry Gilliam, aren't satisfied with telling the story of a man driven mad by grief and then saved by the same guy who set the wheels of tragedy in motion. They can't resist glamorizing insanity by hinting that the mad see things more clearly than the rest of us?an interpretation that anyone who's lived in New York knows is utterly false. Unless the director is a genius, film is no good for metaphor.
Girl, Interrupted would seem ripe for metaphoric interpretation, and I wish it had gone in that direction; its small scale and specificity are a breath of fresh air, but they're not enough to make the subject matter urgent or important. It's cowritten and directed by James Mangold (Heavy, Cop Land) from the bestselling memoir by Susanna Kaysen. Kaysen's story was specific and personal, about one young woman's experience in a fairly cushy mental hospital in the late 1960s, after being diagnosed with "borderline personality disorder"?meaning vague feelings of worthlessness, manifested in alienated, paranoid and self-degrading behavior, like drug use and "promiscuity." Anybody who is suspicious of psychiatry will raise a psychic red flag over that description?and we all should raise red flags, because psychiatry offers plenty to be suspicious about. Rather than pointing the way toward good sense, psychiatric definitions have often reflected and enforced repressive notions of normalcy?that women who enjoy sex and have many sexual partners are mentally unstable and self-destructive; that homosexuality is a form of mental illness; that anybody who resists and undermines authority is some kind of menace.
The first half of Girl, Interrupted seems to be laying the groundwork for a critique of psychiatry and of the mid-century American notions that lay behind it. Eighteen-year-old Susanna (Ryder), a budding Holden Caulfield-type writer-wannabe from suburban Boston, is tricked into committing herself to a mental institution following a suicide attempt. That was just one of many sins; Susanna slept with a married professor, had other sexual partners, expressed loathing for her social circle and cooked her own goose in other ways as well. The rest of the girls in Susanna's wing include a probable lesbian, a pathological liar, a girl whose face is horribly disfigured from self-inflicted childhood burns and a compulsive loner who locks herself in her private room and eats only rotisserie chicken from her father's deli. The most exotic and exciting wingmate, Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a tough chick who escapes a couple of times a year, boasts about sex and drug experience and intimidates everybody in sight with her vicious sense of humor. She's a woman, but in most other ways she seems the classic alpha-male type?McMurphy, Ice Cube in Boyz N The Hood, Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club.
Mangold seems to be setting up a retroactive exposé of psychiatric idiocy, so I was expecting the film to build a case against mid-century sexism. I thought the point would be that Susanna and some (not all) of her fellow interrupted girls were crazy because of the unfair pressures placed on them by society to be docile, supportive, pretty and sweet, good girls, daddy's girls. They were more likely to act out?against society and themselves?because in the 1967 world outside the institution, everyone else seemed to be acting out as well.
With her close-cropped 'do, wide-eyed sensitivity and faint sarcasm, Susanna is a combination of the Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo characters in Rebel Without a Cause. She's labeled "nuts" and then "treated," but her real crime is being dissatisfied with the status quo and seeing through the hypocrisies of grownup society. The same attitudes and actions that got these girls locked away in the 60s would make them causes celebres three decades later. Outwardly, nothing Susanna or Lisa says or does seems crazy by contemporary standards; today, in fact, their independence and grit would make them desirable both to men and to society in general. (If Courtney Love or Cher was a character in Girl, Interrupted, we'd rarely see them onscreen because they'd be in solitary confinement.)
Surprisingly, the intimations of critique and metaphor fade fast. Girl, Interrupted isn't about ideas of womanhood and psychiatry as a tool of the status quo; it's about a rich girl from suburban Boston who went a little crazy, suffered a bit in an institution, then willed herself to get better. It's a therapeutic narrative, about a girl who has to admit she has a problem and then ask for help. She's assisted in her journey by a head nurse (Whoopi Goldberg, doing her saintly earth-mother thing while outfitted in what appears to be an afro hat) and a sharp, patient female psychiatrist (Vanessa Redgrave, who brings a note of high style and European sophistication to this very American story). The people running the institution may be flawed, even corrupt (like Jeffrey Tambor's administrator-psychiatrist character, a schlub who is rumored to take sexual advantage of patients and sometimes snoozes during therapy sessions), but the institution itself is benevolent. It's there to help.
In one sense, Susanna's character arc is a tad troublesome. I know the source material is a memoir, but film tends to universalize every personal story, and the message of this one seems to be that you can get over mental illness if you really put your mind to it. Of course that's not what the film is saying; Susanna isn't as far gone as the other girls in the wing, which is why she can pull herself back to reality with a little effort. The female bomber crew around her suggests different outcomes for Susanna should she decide not to better her lot in life. But the fact that Susanna isn't far gone tends to trivialize the story. A metaphorical film, one that's clearly about more than its subject matter, can make do with an observer protagonist?Henry Hill in Goodfellas, the Chief in Cuckoo's Nest. But a specific, literal-minded movie needs a strong emotional center, a participant, not an observer, somebody who's hip-deep in danger, not sitting on the edge of the pool dunking her feet in the water. As is, you may find yourself asking, "If this movie is all about Susanna, and if she's not in that much trouble compared to the other girls, why is she the center of the story?" The answer is, "It's Susanna's story because the woman who wrote the novel is named Susanna, and these things happened to her."
That's fine in memoirs, where the narrator and the reader merge into one consciousness and the events seem to be unfolding in front of us, happening to us. But a film is objective, not subjective; it's about what's happening onscreen, not what's happening on the page and in your head, and it needs a strong center. Ryder is a rather bland presence, a wet-noodle observer. I preferred Jolie's long-limbed, wild-eyed McMurphy manque, who never met a pill she couldn't pocket or an administrator she couldn't bamboozle. The script punishes her for being exciting by treating her as an infatuation Susanna needs to get over?a speed bump en route to maturity and sanity.
But this Nurse Ratched storytelling attitude can't dim the flame of Jolie's charisma. She takes delight in being sexy and cruel; she tosses her body around so heedlessly and dismisses fools so offhandedly that she's electrifying. She's like a young, female Paul Newman in Hud mode, and when she's not onscreen, the film is kind of a drag. Ryder is responsible and sensible, like most commercial film heroines; Girl, Interrupted is expertly made but mush-headed and meek, like most Hollywood movies. It needed more Jolie; so does Hollywood.
Trans Directed by Julian L. Goldberger
The first half-hour of Julian Goldberger's Trans?now showing in theaters, and premiering on the Sundance Channel Fri., Jan. 14, at 9 p.m.?is a tantalizing fragment of a great and important movie. The film concerns a South Florida juvenile delinquent (newcomer Ryan Daugherty) who escapes from a juvenile facility and tries to find freedom. The film is ominously quiet, sometimes wordless. The stoic young hero's journey across the marshy vastness with his fellow escapees has an hallucinogenic clarity, like a low-budget, 16 mm cousin of Apocalypse Now or a Herzog movie.
But this is a visually sophisticated gloss on familiar escape-odyssey imagery. The real revelation is the film's first act, which is set entirely on the grounds of the juvenile prison. Goldberger shows us what the absence of freedom looks like at the end of the century: these kids aren't old enough to vote?some of them aren't old enough to drive?but they're treated like Hannibal Lecter, locked away in a compound ringed with razor-wire fences, put through boot-camp-style paces that involve much abuse, shouting and regimented motions. (If you don't turn on your heel, you're considered a troublemaker.)
Most frightening of all is the omnipresence of surveillance cameras, which constantly scan the perimeter, the hallways, the rooms. Even individual cells are outfitted with cameras in high-ceilinged corners to ensure constant intimidation. Goldberger puts surveillance screens to stunning use, fixating on the black-and-white monitors, letting us see the inmates from the blandly godlike perspective of the guards. What's insidious about this new wrinkle in incarceration is that it effectively places a high-tech, inhuman barrier between prisoners and guards (or, in this case, between children and adults). The kids don't know if they're being watched, or when, or by whom. They have literally been reduced to the status of animals?livestock in pens, monitored by machines. (The guards look in occasionally, but they don't have to; the threat of the cameras is enough to keep the children meek.)
This is what technology has wrought: a punitive system that removes human contact from the equation, and the possibility of jailers' second thoughts along with it. There is no rehabilitation going on here, only punishment and fear. It is chilling to realize that our world increasingly looks like Goldberger's juvenile facility. You can't go anywhere in New York without being watched by surveillance cameras, and you will never know who's watching; the new paradigm of security stresses the collection of evidence before wrongdoing has been committed, and the continual, implied threat of punishment. The new model for society?even our supposedly free society?is prison.