Review: Reel Madness Film Festival 2003

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2003.]

Let There Be Light (USA 1946) Directed by John Huston

A Page of Madness (Japan 1926) Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa

Completely Cuckoo (USA 1988) Directed by Charles Kiselyak

“This strand of the festival focuses on the way in which film has been used to address the treatment and perception of those with mental health problems. The films, some of which were prohibited or banned, demonstrate the role of the state and the psychiatric system in labelling and controlling madness.” – quote from the festival brochure

Bringing together TV documentaries, a “making-of”, a Japanese silent film and two documentaries banned in the USA, this strand seemed to ask apposite questions, but didn’t really have a definitive idea of quite where to go after that. The Politics of Madness banner is perhaps too broad a subject. More success might have been had if they had concentrated on the idea of the mental institution itself, for example – which makes more sense, given the selection of films in the strand. That’s not such a problem, if you give comprehensive and illuminating programme information, but more than a couple of the films were let down by occasionally sketchy, rushed notes.

John Huston’s Let There Be Light was banned shortly before its original release (military police confiscated the print at the Museum of Modern Art), but the film was screened at Cannes in 1981 after a campaign led by Huston and an intervention from the White House. Despite its impressive crew (DoP Stanley Cortez shot The Magnificent Ambersons, and would go on to shoot The Night of the Hunter), it’s a pretty blunt piece of work – more a curio than a lost masterpiece.

Charged with removing the stigma which surrounds “psychoneurotics” returning from war, Huston does a pretty workmanlike job of what the festival brochure calls “propaganda”. The tentative representation of these shell-shocked WWII veterans (the voiceover calls them ‘human salvage’) stands in sharp contrast with the authoritarian clinicians treating them, and the classroom atmosphere in which their group therapy takes place.

The on-camera cures (‘arise and walk!’), the music, the actorly voiceover (by Huston’s father), and the apparent racial harmony seems absurd to our eyes, but must at the time have threatened something. James Agee called it a “fine, terrible, valuable non-fiction film”, lamenting its withdrawal by the US Army, which cited the violation of patient confidentiality as its main concern – but was probably more worried that it made the dangerous connection between war service and trauma. Others have noted that Fred Zimmermann’s The Men (1950), starring Marlon Brando in his first major role, which treated a similar situation but in fictional form, and made it past the censors.

The group that Huston films turned out, according to their treating psychiatrists, to have recovered more quickly and completely than other groups – an issue that crops up in Charles Kiselyak’s Completely Cuckoo. Essentially a ‘making-of’ documentary about Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, this film, though instructive and amusing, is basically an extended DVD extra. Kiselyak is given amazing access (though weirdly not to Nicholson). Excellent on-set footage is intercut with interviews with stars, crew, producers and patients of the facility where the film was shot. Screenwriter Bo Goldman stands out as particularly humane and unassuming, and interviews with one or two of the former patients of the facility are a testament to Dr Brooks’ intention that the film-making process act as part of their rehabilitation.

The party scene in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest recalls another controversial film about a psychiatric institution – Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies – an obvious, but nonetheless powerful choice for this strand. Wiseman’s film documents the dehumanising Bridgwater Institution for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts. Though much less obtrusive than the stagey Huston film, with its lack of commentary and unswerving gaze, this is ultimately far more polemical and affecting. The show put on by the doctors and inmates ends with one of the chief doctors manically milking the applause like a vaudeville Nixon. The film’s depiction of mental institutions was so damning it became the subject of an injunction that lasted over a quarter of a century.

The only feature film in this strand was the rarely-seen Japanese silent film A Page of Madness, which was feared lost until the director allegedly found the negative in a rice barrel in his shed. The film starts with a whirlwind montage of torrents, rain, and musical instruments, and continues into forms and patterns that seem to ask how much patterning and design influence our behaviour. Grids, boxes, bars, shadows, Noh masks, distorted POV shots and hallucinations reinforce this impression.

The film follows a sailor into an asylum where his wife is being kept after attempting to drown their son, and feels like a very early attempt at self-representation – the similarity between the skewed perspectives and the cinematic version of what is sometimes called ‘art brut’ is striking. The only problem was the modern soundtrack, which exists in a number of versions as the original was lost, and felt overblown and out of place.

Lastly came the programme of short films, many of which included the voices of those affected by mental illness. Erik Bafving’s Swedish short about his father made a particularly strong opening to the programme. The ever-reliable and inventive Jonathan Hodgson was represented by Camouflage, a sensitive and perceptive insight into a child’s experience of a parent with mental illness. Stone of Folly, by Jesse Rosensweet, used grotesquely comic animation to depict a medieval hospital, staffed by an appalling anaesthetist.

All in all, an interesting experiment in trying to get a single-issue festival into a major arts venue, and it is to be hoped that, if the festival returns next year, the line-up and programming will get stronger, and the supporting materials and programme of debates sharper and more focused.


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