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Final web event: mental illness in film as influenced by politics of colition

iskierka's picture

My brother is fifteen years old, and for several years, Forrest Gump was his favorite film. One of the most prominent films featuring a mentally disabled protagonist, if not the most prominent in modern Western film, my family fell in love with it because, no matter what Forrest lived through, his disability rarely managed to impede his progress. He fought in a war, became a national figure, and had a child, all while totally aware that he was not like most men his age. Better yet, he retained almost complete autonomy over his life during the entire film: he never relied on anyone else at anything more than a friend or family level, and rather than searching for ways to bypass his condition, some sort of miracle cure to restore him to a normative existence, he allows himself to live with his disability for better or for worse. However, most mental conditions are not given the same caring regard that Gump’s is, with psychopathy and schizophrenia being almost expected of horror films. Because these conditions are not physical, like cancer or a damaged limb, they are difficult to portray on screen accurately, and screenwriters sometimes fall into media-bound expectations of mental illnesses capitalizing on the unknown for drama’s sake. Anxiety disorders are some of these illnesses, with social anxiety having a rampant but unacknowledged presence in numerous films. Despite social anxiety being the most common anxiety disorder, those living with the disorder still find it difficult to continue daily life, impeded, if not by the anxiety itself, then by the misunderstanding of the illness as a resentfulness of social behavior that does not translate to film. Because of the innately communicative nature of film, the very core of anxiety disorders must be altered so that the character’s identity best suits the audience’s enjoyment; Judith Butler once stated that “I am not fully known to myself, because part of what I am is the enigmatic traces of others” (Butler 46), but when applying the workings of mental illness to identity, this theory calls into question to what extent an individual may allow others into the identity created for one’s self. Despite overall accurate depictions of social anxiety in film, these narratives often pair the character in question with a mentor-like figure, generally meant to facilitate social interaction until they reach a societally-accepted “normal” level of social interaction. These depictions often display social anxiety as purely psychological, with a Freudian reasoning for the character’s actions, thus establishing anxiety as a failure in social interaction rather than a mental disability.

Amélie is a French displaying the life of Amélie Poulain, a young woman who takes charge of her life by changing those around her. The film begins with a brief summation of her childhood before proceeding to the death of Lady Diana, or the day where Amélie believes her life has changed permanently. She discovers a box of toys hidden away in her bathroom and thus swears to return the box to the apartment’s previous occupant. In her adventure and beyond, she introduces to the audience the various frequenters of the café where she works, the abusive grocer and his amputee assistant, and a peculiar artist who locks himself away in his apartment for fear of damaging his delicate skeleton. Amélie one day acquires a book full of photobooth pictures after its owner, Nico, drops it in the street. She elaborately returns it to him without giving away her identity, and the two chase each other around Montmartre, with Nico searching for identity and Amélie slowly falling in love but too restricted by her anxiety to face him.

“She can’t relate to other people. She always was a lonely child,” Amélie says of herself in the film, reciting what others have said of her throughout her life before she begins her new business of assisting the lives of others. Her anxiety is typified by a quiet shyness and introversion, taking pleasure in the small joys often overlooked by others. In the opening sequence, the film points fingers at her parents for this mindset; having locked her away with the belief of a heart condition, Amélie was forced to provide her own entertainment using only her own imagination and the toys given to her by her parents. She had no childhood friends, no one with whom to play and pass her time, so while she learned how to think on a grand scale and create elaborate schemes, Amélie never found for herself the opportunity to relate to others, instead relying on her eccentric parents. Further, Nico, the man she quietly pursues, is shown to be just as quiet but for the opposite reason: despite having grown in a seemingly normal school environment, Nico found himself with more bullies than friends, and thus also felt a similar distance from his classmates. The film serves to emphasize that these misinteractions with children in their youth shape how they grow as adults, in particular how it affirms their anxiety and silence in that they cannot connect to other people easily.

When the artist, Raymond Dufayel, chances into her life, he opens a new figurative door for her: before, the audience understands that Amélie knows her neighbors at face value, even aware of why they act the way they do, but until the artist’s interference, she took no personal interest in their daily lives. He first appears as another simple observation made by Amélie, with finer details of his life going unnoticed; she knows him through stories of his illness and no more. When he finally reveals himself, after twenty years of self-imposed solitude, it marks a turning point in Amélie’s direction. In the literal sense, she had been searching for the owner of the toy box under an erroneous name, and Dufayel appears to correct her; in a more metaphorical sense, this is the point where Amélie begins to allow herself into the lives of others, to know them as people rather than as observations. At this point, the viewer begins to see parallels between Dufayel and Amélie: neither of them truly understand the people who pass by their windows every day, but Amélie and Dufayel still observe them to see what they can discover. At the end of the film, when Dufayel sends Amélie a video encouraging her to chase after Nico, he very openly admits that he is living vicariously through Amélie. While she willingly secludes herself, he longs for the ability to leave the apartment without risking his health, so he projects this desire through her, using his Renoir painting to understand her thoughts and then guiding her actions so that she slowly becomes more and more outgoing. Dufayel takes on this mentor-like position by slowly drawing Amélie out of her anxiety, taking advantage of her imagination and curiosity for her own betterment. Without his interference, she would not have progressed to gaining the ability to communicate with others that she achieves by the end of the film, thus highlighting this idea that the socially anxious must rely on someone else to achieve their end goals.

While being based on real-world events, The King’s Speech took some artistic measures to emphasize the casualness of the relationship with King George VI and Lionel Logue, his speech therapist. The film details George VI – or Albert, by his non-royal name – rising to the throne and dealing with his speech impediment, a result of constant teasing from his father and brother. After exhausting potential cures, his wife persuades him to visit Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist who, in the film, forgoes royal etiquette in favor of a common casualness that Albert finds inappropriate relative to his position. However, after a dare from Logue, he hears himself reciting Shakespeare without his habitual stutter, and he agrees to continue their sessions. As Albert rises to the throne, and as the onset of World War II begins, Albert keeps Logue by his side to bolster his confidence and lead him through his disability to become a great king, overcoming his stutter to achieve the royal disposition he sees in his father and brother.

Andrew Roberts highlights the creative direction taken in the film by stating, “If the supporting characters – George V, Queen Mary, Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson – come off as harsher figures than they really were, it is a small price to pay in a medium where historical accuracy has always taken second place to dramatic effect” (Roberts). This exaggeration is key in that it sets Albert’s father and brother, George V and Edward VIII as villains at the root of Albert’s stammer. After much persuasion, Logue slowly leads Albert to opening up about his childhood, where we see George V and Edward VIII often putting Albert down, diminishing his self-confidence to the point where he can hardly speak a sentence fully. This, again, causes a single line drawn from cause to effect: Albert was teased by his family, so in a self-fulfilling prophecy, he puts himself down and psychologically finds himself unable to speak without stuttering. Logue’s greatest achievement is helping Albert work past that self-doubt into believing that, despite the protests of his family, he can be a good king, and when Logue believes his job to be finished, Albert speaks without his need of his direction, clearly and without stuttering. At its root, Logue’s work was primarily psychological, eliminating this cause of self-doubt so that Albert can eliminate his anxieties by growing past the memories that led to them.

Logue’s support in turn puts him again in the position of mentor, where Albert leans against him and his support to grow as a person. Because Albert loses all hope in curing this stutter, his wife recommends meeting with Logue, who pushes Albert to his limits. Again, the film has been exaggerated from its historical context so that Logue finds a specific comfort when speaking with Albert. Speaking on the alterations in the relationship, Robert Logue, grandson of Lionel Logue, says, “Although a lot of it is not strictly accurate, for instance I don't think he ever swore in front of the king and he certainly never called him Bertie, you've got to make a film and it all comes together” (Logue). But in these additions, audiences see that by forcing Logue into a comfort he has not earned, Albert must again come to deal with an unfamiliar situation and assert himself as king. Both in real life and in fiction, Logue appears as a mentor to help Albert eliminate his stammer, but the film’s desire to emphasize the intimacy of this relationship continues to underline the idea that the socially anxious must relate to others on a personal level before they achieve their own autonomy, establishing social anxiety as a debilitating condition.

Finally, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a film adaptation of a novel about a boy entering high school and dealing with the general stress of fitting in, hindered by his anxiety, social missteps, and repressed memories of his abusive aunt. Having read the book as well, the movie makes it more apparent that Charlie is not entirely emotionally stable, with more direct references to his mental illness: when his brother visits from college for Christmas, he specifically asks Charlie how he feels, asking if he’s felt the illness returning in any capacity. The audience sees Charlie flicking in and out of emotional stability, from shyly joining his friends at a school dance, to his distress at losing his friends, to blacking out during a fight at school, culminating in a complete emotional breakdown. Like Amélie, Charlie notices small details and uses them to enhance his view of the world better than straight conversation. Carried over from the book to screen, Patrick summarizes Charlie’s character: “You see things and you understand. You’re a wallflower.” And as in The King’s Speech, there is open acknowledgment of the nonnormative nature of Charlie’s condition: rather than being cast off as shy or unsociable, there are frequent allusions to his mental health, hints at his suppressed instability, and eventually an inpatient hospitalization. Unlike either, however, he also has the most violent reaction, in the most literal sense, and has the most obvious underlying causes to his illness that only serve to worsen his anxiety.

Charlie’s stability in his anxiety is almost a perfect inverse relationship: when he is close to his friends and they openly support him, he is happy and doesn’t think much of his mental illness, but when they separate, for any number of reasons, he slowly finds himself unravelling. Charlie slowly comes out of his shell as he grows closer to Sam and Patrick until he seems to be a normatively functioning teen, hardly giving a thought to his rocky past as he embraces the company of these newfound friends. But every time they leave his, consequences are nigh disastrous. The first time, Charlie falls into a lonely seclusion, and when he sees Patrick in danger, he reacts instinctively and fights for his safety, but blacks out. The audience cannot see what has occurred, but Charlie has bloodied knuckles and his classmates give him odd, terrified stares. Patrick does not question it, but at this point in the film, Patrick shares Charlie’s depression for entirely different reasons. The second time Charlie’s friends leave him, he knows they will not return, having left for college, and he breaks down entirely. Here, Chbosky, having also written the novel, makes a drastic departure from the proceedings in the book: to put Charlie’s pain and mental breakdown into a format understood visually rather than verbally, Chbosky eliminates Charlie’s silent descent over the course of days and instead condenses into a course of several minutes, with a series of flashbacks and a frantic suicidal call to his sister. While deviating from a strict social anxiety, his downward spiral begins with an intense pain at losing someone close to him, connecting to the next closest emotion – the loss of his aunt – and drags him farther and farther down into a full panic attack until he can no longer function. These social connections are what ground him emotionally, despite his social anxiety, and because of this mental anchoring, they are again what result in Charlie being able to pursue a normative liftstyle.

Like in The King’s Speech, Charlie himself comes to terms with that which has retroactively affected his life, memories he chooses to deny that continuously hinder him in his daily life. Throughout the film, the audience is given hints in the form of flashbacks and subtle allusions to an aunt Helen, who died on Charlie’s birthday many years before. As the movie proceeds, these flashbacks slowly darken in tone: Helen crying, the implication that her death had been suicide, and finally Charlie discovering the repressed memory that his aunt had molested him. Though the narrative slowly unveils the flashbacks over the course of the film, Charlie does not remember Helen’s abuse until his mental breakdown, her breach of his trust being the final factor before his attempted suicide. In his rehabilitation, Charlie’s main worry is that he develop into the same person he saw in Helen: wholly sincere and loving, but also a potential danger to those he cares about due to his own mistrust in his mental stability. Though he represses these memories, his unease throughout the film shows a direct link to his perception of his aunt, and his belief that he had killed her because she was driving to get his birthday present when she had died. While the film exercises the notion that Charlie’s mental health could be biological and thus tied with Helen, it also stresses the impact these events had on his life, further emphasizing the idea that his anxieties stemmed from their fractured relationship and her abusive impact on his life, not from biological links.

Judith Butler theorizes that all of humanity must rely on one another because of an inherent equality, and that this serves as the basic reasoning for why, despite differences in class, race, ability, etc., people must overcome their differences to support one another. “Let’s face it,” she states when trying to demolish the ideas of ‘us’ and ‘Other.’ “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, something is missing” (Butler 23). By this logic, that which one loses due to an anxiety disorder is the ‘something missing’, thus a human cannot be complete without social interaction. It balances across films, then, that to relate a protagonist who suffers from social anxiety to an audience, said protagonist must in turn find a socially normative companion who brings them more easily in line with a pre-established social structure necessitating communication in some form or another. The cataclysmic events in these films that also trigger the protagonist’s socially anxious nature also tie in with Butler’s theory of grief politics: “If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?” (Butler 30). If these moments of emotional downfall can be seen as a ‘loss’, perhaps as a loss of a normative existence, then the impending anxiety in these films may be viewed as an awareness of the human conscious. Amélie, Albert, and Charlie all seem outwardly fearful of those around them, painfully shy and nervous in the public eye, but Amélie and Charlie share an uncanny ability to see beyond the plainly obvious and Albert asserts himself as a royal figure. Through the understanding they garner by way of their anxiety, they become wiser to the ways of human vulnerability; when introduced to the companions who slowly reintegrate them into a normative social structure, these films create protagonists who are able to better the lives of those around them through their intimate knowledge of the workings of humans. By allowing them to live outside of a social structure before reintegrating them, films present the socially anxious as a king searching only for understanding and an internal balance, highlighting the value of social interaction in a culture as well as using the internal nature of the struggle to note one’s ability to learn from one’s experiences.

Works Cited
Amélie. Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Perf. Audrey Tatou. UGC-Fox Distribution, 2001. DVD.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. Print.
The King's Speech. Dir. Tom Hooper. Perf. Colin Firth. Paramount, 2010. DVD.
Logue, Robert, and Alex Marshall. "Lionel Logue 'never Swore in Front of King George VI'" BBC News. BBC, 27 Jan. 2011. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Dir. Stephen Chbosky. Perf. Logan Lerman. Roadshow, 2012. DVD.
Roberts, Andrew. "How the King Found His Voice." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 02 Aug. 2006. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.