Dear Valentina, I can throw your pictures off the screen

This I swear: I will give you regular updates on my progress through Lindsay Anderson’s Making a Film: The Story of Secret People.

In this installment, imported star Valentina Cortese receives a letter at the Dorchester:

Dear Valentina Cortese, — Hoping you will forgive an Englishman not as old or as young as your lovely self according to the Mirror photograph. It would be the greatest pleasure of my life to have just a good Cup of Tea with you. My assets are the finest Sight in the World and three small pensions. If I told I have all birds and animals, Millions of Human Beings see under water like fish, whales, sharks, crocodiles and all Electric Rays from Earth to Beyond the Sun and Moon. This letter is actually written by Radio. I have sent a Ray through the wireless around the Earth, as I am the only one who causes faults at night. I should like you to answer this letter from a lonely Englishman Who has eyes like you, hands and feet as the Master you see in all your Churches… Post-script: I see more than anyone else when I go to the pictures. I can throw your pictures off the screen.

Valentina’s comment: “Yes, it’s horrible–but that’s nothing, darling.”

It might seem presumptuous to diagnose schizophrenia by mail, without medical qualifications, but I nevertheless have little hesitation in doing so. In its more florid forms the illness has so many signature characteristics, all on display here.


I used to get the occasional comment here from a Howard Hughes III, whose communiques had much of the same “energy”. And on another movie-related note, when Fiona was briefly in psychiatric hospital with severe depression, we discovered a tabloid newspaper extensively annotated in biro by a fellow patient. It was all celebrity conspiracy theories, with religious and supernatural overtones, a mess of contradictory and interpenetrating delusions. I remember one line, added to a photo of Julia Roberts: “NOT the real Julia Roberts. The real Julia was killed in 1987 for refusing to take it up the arse of the pope.” (sic)

What was fascinating was the way the whole subject of his sentence shifted from JR to the Pope without, seemingly, the author realising it. He experienced it as consistent and logical, though how he could have sustained this if he read it back, I don’t know. That, perhaps, is the strange superpower of the schizophrenic, to contain contradiction. (OK, maybe we all do a version of that.)

Fiona remarked to a staff member that she hadn’t realised the author was so floridly insane. “I’m very glad to hear you say that,” he said, “because there’s a lot of people here who think he’s perfectly normal.”

There was also the ex-flatmate who stalked two celebrated Scottish documentarists, one of whom she insisted had proposed marriage. “This was all done telepathically.” Never officially diagnosed so far as I know, she seemed perfectly healthy when last we met, I’m happy to say.

On this evidence, schizophrenia can be seen as not merely an illness but a genre, built around consistent elements endlessly recombined, and subject to fashion. Telepathy has now probably supplanted radio as the invisible influencer of choice, celebrities are still big (royalty holding their own against movie stars) and religion a near-essential component, like pistols in a western.

7 Responses to “Dear Valentina, I can throw your pictures off the screen”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I adore Valentina Cortese in “Juliet of the spirits” and “Day For Night”

  2. Jeff Gee Says:

    Just to be clear, this spectacular invitation is not from Lindsay Anderson? I’m not sure what I want the answer to be.

  3. Fiona Watson Says:

    The reason so many people thought this guy was ‘normal’ was that he wasn’t acting out or behaving unusually. He mostly kept to his room but would occasionally venture out to read (and add things to) a newspaper. I had a good relationship with the psychiatric nurse I spoke to about him. I was always glad to see him on the ward. He described me as “a very interesting woman” because we discussed my writing and movies. He was a pleasant change to the others. We actually had a Nurse Ratched! She had complete compassion fatigue. She’d simply been in the job too long and was taking it out on the patients. Horrible.

  4. Lindsay wasn’t the lonely Englishman, just *A* lonely Englishman (sometimes a Scotsman, depending on his mood).

    Cortese also made an excellent Queen of the Moon for Gilliam.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Here’sLindsay on Lindsay

    He was a very great, exquisitely subtle filmmaker(see my line notes for the Criterion Collection edition of “If…”) and a deeply melancholy gay man who kept falling in love with straight men. Gavin Lambert introduced me to him at the cast and crew screening of “My Own Private Idaho” I was just starting to tell him how much his work meant to me when Keanu Reeves came swanning by and Lindsay was off in hot pursuit.

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Cortese also gave great turns in THIEVES’ HIGHWAR and Dickinson’s Secret People.

  7. Fiona Watson Says:

    Lindsay Anderson is responsible for one of the most horrifying moments in British cinema. Mind you, he hadn’t made Britannia Hospital yet –

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