Dave's Progress. Chapter 37: Mediocrities of the World, I Absolve You.

Just a couple of blogs ago I mentioned an article that appeared in The Guardian, which directly opposed an article written for the Time to Change campaign about film representations of mental ill health. The article suggested that far from giving negative representations of mental illness, the movies rather portray what could be called "positive" stereotypes, in that they are misrepresentative, but in a "positive" way, depictions ranging from the heroic (Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") to the endearing (Geoffrey Rush in "Shine") to the tortured genius ("The Devil and Daniel Johnston", "A Beautiful Mind"). While, as I said in my blog, I cannot agree that overall the movies present positive depictions of mental illness, it cannot be denied that some such representations exist. And, of all the "positive" stereotypes that exist, the "tortured genius" would appear to be one of the most pervasive. You can perhaps trace this one all the way back to Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh in "Lust for Life".
So, there I was sitting down to watch a copy of "State of Play" starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck (a good movie, by the way) and as I flicked through the previews of "coming attractions" I found a movie which absolutely fitted into the "tortured genius" genre. Called "The Soloist", it stars Robert Downey Jnr. and Jamie Foxx, Foxx playing what appeared to be a homeless man with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The only thing is is that Foxx's character also happens to be a musical genius, playing the cello like an angel. The Downey Jnr. character is, perhaps fittingly, a journalist, and when he finds out that the boy can play, he decides to "tell his story", perhaps one of the few instances that a "positive" story of true talent and achievement would get into the press. The only thing is, and this is what irks me about the "tortured genius" stereotype, is that it somehow suggests that Foxx's character is only worth saving because of his hidden talent. He is not worth it simply because he is a human being and just deserves better, but rather only because he has this latent genius. So as Downey Jnr. goes on his mission to save this beautiful, but tortured soul (and the film is supposedly based on a true story) does he do it because he likes the guy in any way, or simply because he wants to save something truly precious, his playing? I suppose it would go back to an old conundrum I first heard in a Woody Allen film. If a building, containing the only copy of Shakespeare's entire works and twenty people were burning to the ground, would you save the work or the people, given the proviso that you were not allowed to save both?
But, where does the "tortured genius" stereotype leave the rest of us, who perhaps cannot be brilliant cellists, painters or pianists. The answer is, perhaps, with the rest of the negative stereotypes. Indeed, to my mind, the "tortured genius" stereotype, with its continual emphasis on talent rather than the person behind it, is just as pernicious as the completely dysfunctional, dribbling, zombie-walking stereotype, or the mad axe murderer/ "psychotic" killer stereotype. All detract from and misshape the truth of mental ill health. So, far from being pleased with such portrayals, as The Guardian article suggested we all should be, I am somewhat vexed and frustrated by them.
Indeed, one is sometimes concerned about the veracity of such stories. Years of serious mental ill health can affect one's cognitive abilities, and when David Helfgott (the subject of the film "Shine") came to England on a piano playing tour, the poor guy didn't appear to be half as talented as the film had made out. In the movie his "lost years" of mental illness were portrayed as a great tragedy, again because of the talent he had shown as a young piano player. Unfortunately for David, who was said to have suffered from schizo-affective disorder, his playing seemed to have deteriorated to such an extent that one critic remarked something like, "I don't know what this is, but it isn't piano playing". Indeed, in an interview with Melvyn Bragg on "The South Bank Show" it appeared that poor old Dave could hardly hold a conversation, let alone bash out Rachmaninov's Third. Later, then, there were rumours that he had just been exploited from day one by his unfeeling and mercenary wife. So, when the truth of these situations is really told, perhaps it isn't as pretty as it first seemed and doesn't quite fit into a conventional narrative.
So, instead of perhaps creating this divide in mental ill health, between the worthy genius and the unworthy average mentally ill person, perhaps we should instead take note of the ending of another film about genius, "Amadeus". At the end of this film the composer Salieri, after plotting the death of Mozart, finds himself, fittingly, in a lunatic asylum, and as he passes each inmate, he raises his hands, forms the sign of the cross, and states, "mediocrities of the world, I absolve you."
I think I would say something like the same.
That's all for now from your normal, average, paranoid and delusional man.


dcrelief said…
Dear David,

I found myself moved to tears while reading. From the serious and sad, to the humour, your post kept my attention...completely.

Having seen most of the films you discussed, I too am concerned about 'public promotion' of what 'makes money or news'. This versus the chance for better health and better living experiences. My own are a testimony to 'what' can go wrong.

I look forward to your next chapter.

In peace, Dixie
David said…
Dear dc,
Thanks for your warm comment. Believe me, it wasn't my intention to make you cry, but I have to say that I'm glad that my blogs can illicit such an emotional response.
Glad also that you share concerns about what "makes money or news", which would often seem to leave the rest of us behind.
So thanks once again for your continued interest. And please don't cry!
Yours with Very Best Wishes,

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