Full of Loonies


Once, when Fiona was suffering from severe clinical depression, she tried to gain admission to a psychiatric hospital, but the doctors didn’t want to admit her. They said it wouldn’t be the best place for her. When she reported this and I asked her what reason had been given, she replied, “Full of loonies,” and it was the closest thing to a smile she had managed in some time.

Most psychiatric hospitals are somewhat grim places, though no grimmer than any other kind I guess. And you probably have a better chance of recovery in a psych hospital. The problem with them is the kind of people they tend to attract, which is to say the insane. If you are feeling frail and vulnerable, other frail and vulnerable people are probably not the best company, especially if they are running about shouting about it. The other problem is the staff, some of whom are brilliant but the non-brilliant ones, the ones with compassion fatigue or a sadistic approach to the wielding of power, may easily undo all the good done by the well-meaning ones.

Have you seen Nicolas Philibert’s documentary EVERY LITTLE THING? The French asylum seen in that is about as idyllic as you could ever get, and the film has probably done a lot of good just by making people realize that the mental hospital is not a place of gothic terror. But it’s usually pretty depressing.

(Philibert was at first reluctant to make the film, telling the inmates that he was afraid of exploiting them. “We won’t let you,” they said. “We’re mad, not stupid.”)

What got me onto the subject was reading on Wikipedia in the list of rediscovered films that TARZAN AND THE GOLDEN LION (1927) was rediscovered in a French asylum in the 1990s. HIS BUSY HOUR (1926), from the same director, James Pierce, was rediscovered the same way, although I don’t know for sure if it was the same asylum or a different one. It’d be kind of weird if it were a different one. Did Pierce donate all his films to this place? Or bring them with him when he checked in?

Anyway, it reminded me that Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC was likewise found in a mental hospital in Oslo. Not a film I would show to someone with a shaky grasp on reality. It’s practically a schizophrenic’s charter. And quite distressing.

It got me wondering about what kind of movie shows they would have in the psych wards. They must have a rare old time. Tarzan, Joan of Arc, who knows what else? Would a systematic trawl of the world’s institutes for the very, very nervous throw up more discoveries? Are Brazilian paranoiacs even now enjoying the complete cutting copy of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS? Is LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT entertaining the bewildered of Barcelona, or THE DRAG NET the depressives of Dusseldorf?

Actually, Fiona spent some time on the ward, so bad did her condition get, and we watched a film there, or anyhow a TV show, one we’d written. The tape arrived from the producer at this delicate time. Fiona’s plan, before falling ill, had been to have a big party and watch it with friends. I’d advised against that, because if it turned out to be bad we’d probably want a bit of time in private. In the end, Fiona’s version of th big party was persuading a bipolar patient to sit down and watch with us, but the poor thing physically couldn’t stay sat down for half an hour at a time.

The show was a horror comedy, again probably not the most therapeutic viewing. It certainly wasn’t therapeutic for us, since the director had rewritten it and then done an utterly incompetent job of filming it. It gives you a new respect for the auteur theory, because that was not a bad script to begin with. And that is why I will throw something at that director if I ever see him again.

8 Responses to “Full of Loonies”

  1. Victoria Evans Says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHe9pWSUIjg Just thought you might find this talk interesting if you haven’t seen it already – (I mean it’s pretty dry, but intriguing in it’s subject matter – mental illness in visual culture)

  2. Thanks!

    Victoria Evans was exec producer on Cry for Bobo, which I directed. She was a very sympathetic collaborator, as was the producer of the piece referred to above. The post illustrates how directors are much more dangerous than producers to any creative undertaking…

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS always prompts me to wonder what movies (if any) were shown to chain gangs in the Jim Crow South.

  4. Well, in the movie it’s clearly an informal arrangement with the local church — certainly within the bounds of the conceivable.

    Sturges wanted to use a Chaplin film and couldn’t get the rights — I think something genuinely funny would have helped the idea, which is clear but kind of schematic with that Pluto cartoon and the hysterical convicts laughing for their lives.

  5. Speaking of Dreyer and depression, he had an episode of it himself during the making of Vampyr. In point of fact he has said he doesn’t recall making the film at all.

  6. It’s quite a depressive film in a way, except it’s so beautiful it becomes exciting. But there’s an air of death-in-life which is quite true to the illness. Recall of events during depression is often poor: to return to Sturges, as the sawbones says in The Great Moment, “Pain has no memory.”

  7. Colin M Says:

    I was in the nut house for a week once and people largely remained in their own worlds, with the exception of a viewing of Film Barry Norman one night and a feature on the rerelease of The Sound Of Music, where the whole room erupted at the Lonely Goat Herd scene. The need to yodel prevailed over all medication.

  8. It always does.

    Not for nothing is Gregory La Cava’s psych ward drama of the 30s entitled Private Worlds.

    “They’re all in themselves and by themselves,” or words to that effect — the heroine of Val Lewton’s Bedlam.

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