Tag Archives: Schizophrenia

Book Review: January First by Michael Schofield

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Rating: B-/ I feel weird criticizing this book. The author has obviously been to hell and back, so pointing out his shortcomings feels a bit like kicking a puppy. January First is the alternately powerful and frustrating true story of the writer’s five-year-old daughter’s horrific struggle with childhood Schizophrenia and her subsequent diagnosis and treatment. The little girl, January, initially seems to be hugely creative and imaginative, and has a host of imaginary friends at her disposal. Later her father Michael discovers that the ‘imaginary friends’ are in fact paranoid hallucinations who, although sometimes comforting, force January to act out violently against her parents and baby brother, Bodhi. Continue reading Book Review: January First by Michael Schofield

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Movie Review: Home (2013)

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Rating: B-/ Sometimes you just need a place of your own. But functioning independently is not always the easiest thing to do, especially if you’re someone like Jack. Jack Hall (Gbenga Akinnagbe, in a nice, understated performance) is a mentally ill  adult man living in a halfway house in Brooklyn, where life can be hectic, to say the least. He longs to reconnect his adolescent son John (Judah Bellamy) but his ex, Laura (Tawny Cypress,) is afraid Jack is going to lose his mind again and drag his son down with him. Continue reading Movie Review: Home (2013)

Film Discussion: Spider (2002)

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Rating: A-/ ***Warning- This is more of a comprehensive discussion of the film Spider than a actual review. Spoilers should be expected.*** First off, I adore Ralph Fiennes. I really just love the guy. I think he’s one of the best (if not actually the best) actors of today. I just rediscovered the greatness of Cronenberg’s psychoanalytic thriller Spider, I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about why I think Spider was one of Fiennes’ best performances and one of his most daring film endeavors. I’m also going to discuss what made Spider so great and look at the layers of meaning the psychology of this film provides. Let this be my last warning; this is going to be a spoiler laden post. If you haven’t seen this film yet and want to, avoid this review like the plague. Thank you.

When we first meet Spider (Ralph Fiennes) as he gets off a train, he seems very small and vulnerable, one of society’s undisputed outcasts. Nicotine-stained fingers, raggedy old coat, stubbly, bewildered face- he looks like he wishes he cold just sink into the ground and disappear. We can also see clear as day that not all is right with him psychologically, as he continually mutters incomprehensibly to himself (turn on your subtitles!) and doesn’t seem totally cognizant of his surroundings. He’s definitely out of his element, and rightfully so- Spider has just been released from an insane asylum that he was committed to since childhood, and is being placed in the care of Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave,) a crusty old woman who owns a halfway house for the mentally disturbed.

The house could use a spruce-up and Mrs. Wilkinson could use some work on her bedside manner. She treats the patients like naughty children who constantly need to be berated and told off. Spider begins reexamining events that placed him in the care of the state by becoming an ‘observer’ of his childhood, following his boy self around the familiar streets of his youth and sitting in on conversations between people that occurred at that time, and some that didn’t. This is where the brilliance of this movie lies, for as soon as we are introduced to his parents (Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne) we are immediately placed in the shoes of an unreliable narrator. While his mum is long-suffering, beautiful, and kind, his father Bill is a philandering alcoholic and all around jerk who Spider competes with for the affections of his mother.

In a series of events that young Spider couldn’t possibly have been present for, we find that Dad is screwing a local floozy named Yvonne (also played by Miranda Richardson) and that they kill Spider’s saintly mother when she catches them making it in the garden shed. These scenes, and the subsequent scenes where Yvonne takes Mrs. Cleg’s place as Spider’s new ‘mother,’ are ludicrously over-the-top and almost cartoonish in nature. Juxtaposed with the hyperrealistic scenes where Spider himself is present, these parts seem to make no sense unless you take them at face value- that Spider is making them up. That they came out of the mind of a naive, inexperienced, and mentally ill man who has spent most of his life in an institution.

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Yvonne (despite being played by the same actress who played the mother) is slutty, coarse, and rendered with make-up and costume design to be actually fairly unattractive. The infinitely well-meaning Mrs. Cleg is superior in every way to this common street whore; of this Spider is convinced. So he sets out to murder Yvonne by turning the gas stove on as she sleeps, only to find he has murdered his mother and ‘Yvonne’ as he knows her never existed. Yes, maybe he was jokingly flashed by a woman similar to his incarnation of Yvonne (in fact, ‘Flashing Yvonne’ is played a by a whole different actress than Richardson, Allison Egan) and his mind did the rest of the work. Building upon this event he created the ultimate harlot, the woman who would stand by as his dad killed his mom and insist he call her ‘mother.’

So what do I think? I think Spider’s oh-so-virtuous mother became alcoholic and bitter, creating ‘Yvonne’ in his mind and causing him to believe that his dad murdered his mom and replaced her with an uncaring, promiscuous duplicate. Spider obviously has the hots for his mom on some subconscious level, brushing her hair and watching her put on make-up adoringly and eyeing her as she tries on a slinky nightgown. She became boozy and hard due to her marital problems with her husband and his love of going to the Dog and Beggar and drinking. Someone had to be blamed, and the issue had to be put in more black-and-white terms so Spider could understand it.

There’s only one thing about this movie that confuses me, and that’s the scene where Spider’s in a restaurant looking at a picture of a green Yorkshire field. Suddenly he’s standing in a field identical to the one in the picture,  hanging out with a couple of old men who don’t particularly seem to have their mental faculties. I think that he met the men at the asylum (I believe one of these guys was the one wielding a piece of broken glass in the flashback.) He imagined them in a grassy field and used some of the dialogue he had heard from them in the scenario. I’m also very curious whether Spider realized what he had done to his mother (he does refrain from braining Mrs. Wilkinson, who he imagines as Yvonne, with a hammer) or whether the big reveal was just a tip-off to the audience and Spider is as lost as ever.

I don’t think it should be surprising to you that Ralph Fiennes is incredible in this movie. He shows a gift for portraying debilitating mental illness with a nuanced sleight of hand that is not generally present in these kinds of performances. So that’s it. I’ve explained why I think Spider is one of the more complex psychological thrillers I’ve seen in my life, and I’ve offered some explanation to the meaning of the events presented in this movie. Liked this discussion? Have any thoughts? Want me to write another like it? Stop by and tell me in the comments!

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Clean, Shaven (1993)

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Writer/director Lodge Kerrigan’s Schizophrenic protagonist, Peter Winters (Peter Greene,) doesn’t say an intelligible word for the first fifteen minutes or so of “Clean, Shaven.” He seems to be in a perpetual state of great agitation, guided by voices in his head and his own determination to find his young daughter, Nicole (Jennifer McDonald.) It is clear he is in no position to care for a child, but in a sick, sad way, we want to invest in him, even as we suspect him of unspeakable atrocities.

“Clean, Shaven” is not a pretty movie. It portrays the hellscape of a psychotic break in an immediate, confrontative way that has rarely been touched upon in the world of film. Peter has a psychological obsession with removing his body hair. He cuts himself to the quick, nicks his scalp with bloody results, and at one point peels his own fingernail off before the appalled viewer.

All this is shown in agonizing close-up, as Peter embarks on a tormented journey to find his daughter, who his mother (Megan Owen) put up for adoption years before. Peter’s auditory hallucinations are brought to life in the form of jarring sound mixing. There’s nary a relaxing or cathartic  moment in “Clean, Shaven,” so determined is it to capture daily life from a madman’s perspective. In harsh contrast to a movie where every element of character and backstory is offered up under no uncertain terms, “Clean, Shaven” leaves nearly everything to subtext and the shadowy recesses of the imagination.

We see the events much in the distorted, kaleidoscopic way Peter would see them, without context or explanation. Meanwhile a less-than-savory detective (Robert Albert) is on Peter’s trail, and the manhunt leads to a ugly confrontation where no one will emerge unscathed.

“Clean, Shaven” is supposed to be an extremely accurate clinical depiction of a person suffering from a psychotic disorder. I wouldn’t know. I’m fortunate enough to not have faced a Schizophrenia diagnosis in myself or a loved one, though anxiety disorders are all too well known for me. For viewers who get subversive pleasure from watching the dark side of the human mind offered up on film, “Clean, Shaven” may prove to be a rare delight.

For what it’s worth, Peter Greene gives an unforgettable turn as the deeply disturbed Peter Winters. He slips so imperceptibly into the skin of someone suffering form a severe mental illness that he could just as well be a loon on the street, not an actor getting paid to portray the terrifying illnesses that can beset the mind. Every tic, every twitch, every seemingly misplaced whisper and mutter seems so real you could be watching a documentary about mental illness rather than a piece of fiction.

The ending leaves the viewer to puzzle out what it all meant, rather than offering easy explanations. The best way to describe the film altogether would be harrowing, but also sometimes tedious. It is hard to truly care about the characters in a movie when next to nothing is revealed about them. Take Peter’s mother, Gladys. She seems distant, even cold, and her only act of maternal concern is bullying her son into eating a sandwich she has fixed when he comes by looking for his daughter.

But was she a devoted mother at one time, before psychosis took her son from her? Does she love him, even now? There’s a distinct lack of heartfelt monologues, emotive testaments to  the character’s relationships. “Clean, Shaven” is as uncomfortably clinical as an instructional film on Schizophrenia. Lodge Kerrigan provides a lean, mean, ice-cold critique on what being psychotic might feel like; like Michael Haneke, he doesn’t exactly endear his characters to us; unlike Haneke, he doesn’t revile them either.

They are what they are, and Kerrigan doesn’t sentimentalize them or make them appear to be any more or less than than that. They’re there, and they’re hurting. Anything else that might be gleaned from their personality is strictly subtext.

“Clean, Shaven” is worth watching at least once by film fans, for it’s unflinching realism and sharp observation. It’s not for everyone; to say it is not a popcorn flick would be putting it mildly. There’s no easy answers, it fearlessly plumbs the depths of the lead’s insanity. The premise will ensnare you, but it is Greene who will haunt you for days with his wracking portrayal of psychological torment.

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Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

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Despite the huge Dennis Lehane kick I’ve been on lately, I was unsure about reading his 2003 novel ‘Shutter Island’ because I wasn’t a big fan of the Leo DiCaprio film. While I still highly question the realism of the twist ending, I’m as utterly in love with Lehane’s writing as ever, and this is a slightly different offering from him, an entertaining riff on Gothic mid-20th century pulp fiction that pulsates barely contained malice. I just wish I hadn’t watched the movie first, since nothing was as big a surprise to me as one might hope for.

Teddy Daniels, an emotionally traumatized, serious U.S. Marshall and veteran of the second World War grieving the loss of his wife Dolores in an apartment fire a few years prior, arrives at Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane searching for an escaped patient, Rachel Solando. Solando was incarcerated for the fillicide of her three children and has seemingly vanished into thin air, leaving nothing but a few puzzling hand-written codes in her wake. Teddy comes onto Shutter Island, the foreboding location of Ashcliffe Hospital by ferry with his good-humored partner, Chuck Aule.

A place that houses only society’s most dangerous and volatile inmates, eerie hints of ongoing human experimentation, a doozy of a hurricane heading their way and threatening to total the control panel and release the crazies from their cells- what could go wrong? Poor Teddy is continually haunted by visions and nightmares of the most macabre variety, spooky reminders of the wife he lost and the uncertainty surrounding her death, He’s not well… and things are going to get a whole lot worse…

Teddy is a tough cookie, but the island begins to not-so-slowly get under his skin, and soon the bereaved paranoiac begins to believe that everyone, and everything, is out to get him. There’s a ton of historical context to this novel, from flashbacks of World War II concentration camps, to Cold War-era anxiety, to the ongoing stigmatization of mental illness. However, none of these things are pedantically pushed upon the reader and the novel as a whole is a fast-paced, exhilarating read.

The setting is fascinating (especially for a self-proclaimed fan of the macabre and Gothic like me) and the characters are easy to picture in one’s head with Lehane’s adept descriptive passages. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this book horror- more of a dark psychological thriller with tons of sinister build-up and uncertainty going on, as well as some extremely strange dream sequences that unsettlingly (but accurately) portray Teddy’s troubled psyche. There’s a very important message beneath all this weirdness, a commentary on the horrors that spring up from denying escalating mental illness in a loved one, an all-too-common occurrence in the recent past.

‘Shutter Island’ isn’t perfect, and it isn’t as riveting as some of Lehane’s work. As I stated at the beginning, the end twist seems so improbable that it almost ruined the movie for me. I would go so far as to say it doesn’t really make sense under close scrutiny. Dennis Lehane’s dialogue can be a bit unrealistic at times (while being utterly plausible at others,) especially when he tries to hard to make a particular point, and Teddy’s conversation with the bile-spitting, expletive-screaming warden is one such instance where a little bit of editing and subtle toning-down of the subject matter could have done wonders.

Of the three Lehane novels I’ve read (“Gone, Baby, Gone,” “Mystic River,” and this book, “Shutter Island,”) I recommend you read the one you haven’t seen the movie for first. I was kind of bummed to already see the twist for this and “Mystic River” coming, while “Gone, Baby, Gone”  was a riveting experience unmarred by already seeing the characters and the situations pictured in my head by the movie. I don’t think this is a very believable book when you examine it under a microscope (the other two are much more plausible in terms of plot,) but it’s just as exciting and entertaining as the others, plus there’s the Gothic backdrop that offers some dark spookiness to to the author’s repertoire.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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If you are among the multitude of viewers who have seen Milo Forman’s 1975 film adaptation of this novel, you probably know how this story of a fun-loving rebel who bucks the system and butts heads with the tyrannical Nurse Ratched plays out. Upon reading the Ken Kesey novel, however, one comes upon deeper dimensions within the original source material; namely, the added perspective of Chief Bromden, the physically imposing, profoundly introspective, and perpetually silent American Indian.

For those who haven’t read this book or seen the movie, an overview- Bromden is a Schizophrenic inmate in a section of a mental institution lorded over by power junkie Nurse Ratched, who rules with an iron fist. Ratched controls the ward with quiet fear-mongering, politely menacing intimidation, and calm, calculated mind games. Her rule is much like that of a totalitarian state, a metaphor the novel seems all too aware of- everything is for the wretched men’s own good, of course and initially reasonable-sounding requests wheedle and nettle at the patient’s sanity while Ratched invariably comes out on top.

Hulking half-Indian Bromden knows all about Ratched’s power plays; he’s been there longer than almost anyone. He’s seen patients come and go, have their brains fried to a crisp during extended bouts of electroshock therapy or be rendered obsolete vegetables through sadistic and unnecessary lobotomies. But Bromden, who has been playing the role of a deaf-mute for years, and thus learning the darkest secrets of the clueless patients and staff, who are none the wiser, never counted on Randle P. McMurphy.

McMurphy, an amusing ne’er-do-well, a redheaded rapscallion who takes the ward by storm, is exactly what the institution needs to bring up their spirits and make them question their docile obedience of Nurse Ratched. A hellraiser from square one, he fights Nurse Ratched’s authority every chance he can get, and although at first his mad scramble at rebellion seems arbitrary to the meek patients, his free spirited independence is infectious, and begins to creep over the whole ward.

Chief Bromden seems more like a lawn decoration of a character in the movie, lingering in the background while Jack Nicholson  as McMurphy (suitably mischievous, but definitely not redheaded) takes the center stage. In the book, he is a fascinating and vital protagonist. I’ve always liked characters that were introspective and quiet, considered to be fools and reacting mildly to the insanity around them. Bromden is always thinking, always assessing. The joy of his character is that we get to see into this silent man’s thoughts. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ deals with a multitude of themes, including the fascism, gender roles, racism, industrialization, and the woes of a life half lived, ruled by sterility and quiet timidity.

Chief Bromden is Schizophrenic, so he often seems like a bit of an unreliable narrator, prone to sporadically ranting about thick waves of fog rolling over the ward, things shrinking and growing before his eyes, and the inexhaustible evils of the ‘combine,’ or society as a well-oiled, malevolent machine. Other times he seems sharp, bright-eyed, and impossibly wise. The supporting residents of the mental faciity presented in this novel are unique and arresting without seeming improbably quirky or kitschy, always a concern in books dealing with extreme mental illness.

If there’s one thing I would point out in this book that I wasn’t crazy about, it’s the portrayal of minorities and particularly women. While Chief Bromden is a strong, admirable, and likable character, Nurse Ratched’s ‘black boy’ minions are total fucking assholes who speak in jiving pigeon English. McMurphy repeatedly refers to the men as ‘coons’ and although his behavior isn’t exactly condoned, it isn’t treated as unacceptable either. He even refers to Turkel , the kindest of the ‘black boys,’ as an ‘old coon’ at one point. I know, I know, Kesey’s portrayal of bigotry is historically accurate, but it’s also discomforting for a modern person to read.

The fact that the racist language doesn’t get chided or sternly corrected by the author or any of the characters throughout the book is probably part of the reason it was banned and challenged multiple times since it’s publication. And censorship isn’t right. This book has many good qualities that overshadow it’s racially sensitive content. Many parents don’t like books that don’t spoonfeed their kids political correctness and pat moral lessons. My main issue was with the women in the book. The only remotely redeemable female characters were prostitutes for Chrissakes,come to relieve our poor stuttering Billy Bibbitt of his virginity. Ken Kesey seems to have some rather barbed things to say about women’s lib and us ladies in general beneath his story of the epic struggle between a gargantuan she-bitch and a rabble of cowed, frightened patients.

But never mind. Good writing is good writing, and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ got it. Often lyrical, sometimes beautiful, the book observes our complacency as a society as well as our habit of overlooking life’s outcasts. Powerlessness is a continuous theme- the black aides, given shitty jobs and generally crapped on by society, torment the patients, while Nurse Ratched bullies them all into quiet submission. Ironically, many of the patients are here by choice. If men would choose this hell, what awaits them in the outside world? What horrors have they escaped in their home lives, their jobs and their families? Anyone whose seen the film adaptation know that things don’t end well here. But the book is a worthy read even for those who already know the film’s story.

Enter the Dangerous Mind (2013)

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At times “Enter the Dangerous Mind” feels like an extended music video, but, for the most part, that’s okay. Just don’t expect a particularly accurate (or sensitive) portrayal of mental illness. This disturbing and somewhat exploitative psychothriller focuses solely on the most extreme and even deadly mental health crises, the James Holmes’ in a social group of mostly harmless individuals.

The story concerns a Paranoid Schizophrenic named Jim (Jake Hoffman, son of actor Dustin,) who makes… noise for a living. Well, technically jarring techno music, but I don’t want to get into semantics here. Jim develops these tunes to ‘drown out the noises in his head,’ but when he tells Wendy (Nikki Reed,) a cute social worker, that, it doesn’t seem to concern her. It should. Jim has a roommate (Thomas Dekker) who is the proverbial devil on his shoulder, urging him to get over his crippling shyness and get laid.

Jim begins a tentative relationship with Wendy, but an embarrassing bedroom incident triggers a downward spiral for the disturbed young man. As Jim becomes increasingly delusional, Wendy breaks off all ties with him, leading to horrific consequences for both of them.

The plot develops okay up til the silly ending (apparently not only do Schizophrenics kill dogs, murder people, and engage in horrific acts of self-mutilation, their disease is also as contagious as the common cold,) while actor Jake Hoffman does a good job as Jim, making his tics and affectations believable while keeping his character somewhat sympathetic despite the reprehensible things he does.

On the other hand, I didn’t like the jerky ‘hard-rock-music-video’ cinematography or the constant, grating electronica score. I don’t like electronic music; I never have, so you can imagine I found the omnipresent pulsing techno to be irksome, to say the least.

“Enter the Dangerous Mind”‘s commendable performances elevate it infinitesimally above average territory, and while the movie is not politically correct regarding the horrors of mental illness- not by a long shot- it does keep you guessing and capture your attention for it’s short duration.

It is similar in subject matter to the recent film “The Voices,” although “The Voices” is the superior film due to it’s visual verve and it’s cheeky sense of humor regarding the portrayal of extreme insanity. Both movies could easily be called “Dating a quirky, weird guy becomes a health hazard when…” Poor Wendy. like Anna Kendrick’s character in “The Voices” believes she can save her troubled beau from himself. But sometimes, girls, being nice and considerate and compassionate to a guy who is batshit crazy just doesn’t cut it anymore. Once in a while a restraining order does what all the kindness in the world can’t.

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