For obvious reasons, emotionally overwrought characters come as standard equipment in dramas of all types. After all, if everyone is entirely contented, there's no story to tell. Some stories, however, involve characters whose psychological stability simply collapses, leaving them unable to function outside of an institution. When our storyline takes us down that kind of path, we've crossed over into a qualitatively different kind of narrative.
A film that takes as its primary setting a psychiatric ward, as does the currently playing "Girl, Interrupted," disengages us from the everyday world and throws us into an alternate universe where a whole new set of coping strategies is required. At its worst, at least as portrayed in the movies, such a place can be a supremely stressful environment where nothing is permitted and yet anything can happen.
As we saw last week, many of the earlier films about psychiatric hospitals styled themselves as exposes of horrendous conditions endured by some psychiatric patients. Later films based on similar subject matter tended to approach the topic in a less narrowly focused manner. Here are some additional examples to look for on home video.
"Shock Corridor" (1963). One of the most notorious films set in a psychiatric hospital is this disturbing little low-budget masterpiece, written and directed by Samuel Fuller. Peter Breck stars as Johnny Barrett, an ambitious reporter who thinks that solving a sensational murder case will put him on the fast track to the Pulizter Prize. The killing took place in a mental hospital, so the reporter manages to get himself admitted as a patient in order to conduct his own investigation. The murder case, however, is not Fuller's chief concern. It is merely a device to motivate Barrett, a "normal" man, to want to be confined in an institution. Once he's there, Fuller sets about his real agenda, which is presenting the hospital as a microcosm of the world outside.
"Marat/Sade" (1966). The full title of the remarkable Peter Weiss play from which this film is adapted is "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed By the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade." The narrative is based on the 19th Century practice of having mental patients put on a play as part of their therapy. It became fashionable in Paris for a time to attend such performances, which led to shows staged by asylum inmates being attended by society's upper crust. The example dramatized here is a play staged by the inmates at Charenton and written by the Marquis de Sade who was himself an inmate. The play within the play consists of de Sade debating with French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat over the political merits of revolution, culminating with Marat being murdered while bathing. As the play concludes, the inmates, unable to let go of the revolutionary fervor stirred up by the play, rise up against their own oppressors. This film adaptation of "Marat/Sade" was directed by Peter Brook, who also directed the original stage production.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975). Like "Shock Corridor," Ken Kesey's novel, from which this film is adapted, uses a psychiatric hospital as a metaphor for society. The implacable, iron-fisted authoritarianism of the Establishment is personified by the imposing presence of Nurse Ratched, played in the movie by Louise Fletcher. Into this repressive environment comes Randle Patrick McMurphy, memorably incarnated by Jack Nicholson, an extroverted hell-raiser who embodies the spirit of Kesey's irreverent band of countercultural iconoclasts, the Merry Pranksters. Much of the action consists of the struggle between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy for the hearts and minds of the patients who inhabit the ward. The film received the Academy Award as Best Picture, with Oscars also going to Nicholson, Fletcher, director Milos Forman, and screenwriters Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben.I began last week by observing that we tend to think of the mentally ill as fundamentally different from the rest of us. The point of many of these films seems to be that the "insane" may actually be just like us, only more so. If so, then it seems to me that such films are performing one of art's highest functions by creating the illusion that we are vicariously experiencing an utterly alien state of being and then gradually revealing that we have been gazing in a mirror all along.