Hello Madness, My Old Friend

The films Mental Notes, A Dangerous Method and Spider tackle mental illness in very different ways

by Philip Matthews

Sometimes it can seem that madness is the shared New Zealand story – shared but also secret. You only have to scratch the surface of family histories. I did some genealogy once and a copy of a death certificate came in the mail: “Died December 27, 1903, Porirua Asylum.” That was both a surprise and not one. Last year, when the writer Damien Wilkins revived his musical career with a band called the Close Readers, he wrote a song called “Lake Alice” and told the Dominion Post that “mental illness seems to be – I don’t know if it’s the Janet Frame effect – but there’s a sense in which our whole cultural life is kind of haunted by going crazy, going mad”.

In the context of the song and the history, “callous” seems to be a natural rhyme for “Alice”. And he opens up the metaphysical issue: was there ever even a lake there? As for the personal background, at the Close Readers blog Wilkins explained that “one of my older cousins and her husband were nurses there in the 1970s. Then later on, another cousin, Peter Finlay, was committed to Lake Alice.”

Again, the shared stories: it turns out that Peter Finlay, Wilkins’ cousin, is one of those interviewed about their experiences of New Zealand’s asylums in Jim Marbrook’s documentary Mental Notes. There is a very good but problematic story to be told – one day – about this part of New Zealand history, and the way that asylums with what often seemed like deceptively cheerful names (Sunnyside, Lake Alice, Cherry Farm) existed both inside and outside New Zealand society.

There were 13 mental hospitals in New Zealand in 1960; in the mid-1960s, a decade before the long, slow process of de-institutionalisation began, more than 10,000 patients were hospitalised, or slightly less than 400 people per 100,000 of the population. In some cases – Lake Alice being a famous exception – they were landmarks within city limits, occupying a conceptual space that had aspects of a hospital and aspects of a prison but was not quite either. All sorts of emotions were attached to them if you were outside: shame, grief, disgust, fear of contagion. Even without direct experience, you assumed that they were places you did not want to find yourself in – places that people sometimes did not come back from.

Mental Notes has been greeted by some critics as the film that finally pulls back the curtain on all of this history, on the “bad old days of mental health care”, as the promotional material has it. It’s not quite as full a picture as that suggests, but as a sequel and/or counterpart of sorts to the 2007 Aiotanga report, it could do some good. If it can get beyond the festival circuit – right now, it is touring in the World Cinema Showcase – and into a decent television slot, it will do even more.

The Aiotanga report appeared in 2007 after the creation of the Confidential Forum for Former In-Patients of Psychiatric Hospitals, a truth commission that heard approximately 500 stories, mainly from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Former patients made up the vast majority of those taking part, along with families of former patients and ex-staff. The stories were then boiled down into a kind of meta-narrative which you could dub the New Zealand Psychiatric Experience.

It’s easy to scan the report for alarming quotes. This, for example:

“Participants spoke of having to sleep in large dormitories with beds very close together and of a highly regimented life with days spent locked in dirty, noisy, smoke-filled dayrooms with few activities available for them and with access to dormitories locked off during the day. Others talked of poor sanitation and the presence of cockroaches and rats. Many gave an account of a lack of privacy and routines being carried out in ways that they found degrading and humiliating. The latter included the absence of doors on toilets and having to use toilets in front of staff; communal showering with patients being lined up naked and hosed down before showering; or baths with cold water already used by others. Participants also spoke of not being allowed to use their own possessions, often being required to wear communal hospital clothing, and of their property disappearing while they were in hospital. Some spoke of being required to undertake housekeeping duties such as making beds, polishing floors, or washing soiled laundry, sometimes equating such duties with punishment.”

But the surprising thing about the report is the occasional glimmer of positive experiences and memories. These are especially unexpected if you imagine that the Forum would have been self-selecting to a degree – those with grievances were more likely to apply to be heard. However, the report says, “on the positive side, many participants told the Forum of their recognition and lasting appreciation of instances of caring they received from staff members or other patients”. And, “again, the positive experiences recounted at the Forum often involved instances of good communication between staff and the patient and family, and where the patient was treated with respect”.

None of that can, or should, belittle the negative experiences of so many over such a long time. But in almost completely leaving out any positive memories or benefits of the bigger “bins” in those years – asylums such as Sunnyside, Lake Alice, Carrington and Cherry Farm were mostly phased out in the 1990s – Mental Notes risks giving us an incomplete picture and might even leave some with the idea that the system at its worst (the adolescent unit at Lake Alice) was the norm. What happens is that, over time, the memories of entire systems and institutions become tainted by the publicity that surrounds the worst examples – as has happened over the past decade with Catholic institutions.

In a way, Marbrook’s film acts as a truth forum of its own, occasionally illustrated by memory-jogging trips back to the places where it all happened. The first participant is Roy Brown, who we see driving around Tokanui Hospital in the Waikato, which closed in the late 1990s. He wants to find the exact spot – his dayroom, his courtyard – and his struggle to locate the place becomes emblematic of the difficulty of remembering completely, or remembering accurately.Frances Ruwhiu’s story stretches back further, to the 1950s. At the age of nine, she was in Ngawhatu Hospital, near Nelson. In her late teens, she was in Porirua. She is one of those who have been compensated. The film shows her meeting a psychiatrist who believed in her – a rare depiction of a positive connection. Peter Finlay – Damien Wilkins’ cousin – is introduced launching a book based on his experiences, Blue Messiah, before a crowd at St Kevin’s Arcade in Auckland.

The book launch emphasises a mood of supportiveness that runs through the film, as former patients are often filmed with supportive people (partners, the psychiatrist in Ruwhiu’s case, the film-maker himself in Brown’s case). John Tovey, a former patient turned mental health worker, talks of finding himself in “seclusion” – solitary confinement, basically – in Porirua after a manic episode. Anne Helm, now a patients’ advocate and a member of the Confidential Forum, recounts experiences that include Lake Alice and the notorious deep sleep therapy at Cherry Farm.

All five speak with insight and surprising little bitterness. Experts from the other side of the fence round it out – psychiatrist David Codyre, who remembers a 1970s visit to Lake Alice as similar to waking up in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (“the same sense of unreality”), medical historian Warwick Brunton and former nurses and medical staff. In visual terms, Marbook is helped by the poignant decay of so many of these sites. Sunnyside is gone and Carrington has been renovated and re-purposed, but in many cases, the old “bins” are slowly falling apart, still fenced in but housing no one. Weeds grow through paths, pigeons roost in ceilings, furniture and children’s drawings are scattered across abandoned wards and dayrooms. The paint is peeling on institutional doors but Marbook, Brown and Finlay are free to wander through the remains of buildings and the residue of the past, catching some of the strange and spectral essence that attracts those who document abandoned institutional buildings more thoroughly (one of the best online examples is the urban exploration site Opacity). It reinforces a view that we’re taking a trip into history, into the way things were.

All this is covered in 70 minutes, which is simply not enough time to do the full story justice. But that isn’t the flaw in Mental Notes. Nor is it that it is easy to make the bad old days look bad – note how the camera lingers on now unacceptable language like “mentally subnormal person” and “mentally simple” in old reports – or that we should try not to judge the past by the standards of the present; the flaw is that the bad old days are not necessarily over. The architecture of institutions such as Hillmorton in Christchurch – the replacement for Sunnyside – still resembles that of prisons more than hospitals. Patients are still medicated against their will. Seclusion is still practiced. ECT is still practiced. Near the end of Mental Notes, John Tovey says that “for the most difficult people, a lot of the same practices of seclusion still have to be used ­– I don’t think anyone’s happy about that”, but for the most part, Mental Notes is concerned with the past tense. In short: things were really bad, now they’re pretty good. A more complete story would be more complex.

In closing, Anne Helm reiterates the message of Te Aiotanga, which has gone unheard – “Many expressed a hope for a public acknowledgment by the Government that their experiences in psychiatric institutions had been humiliating and demeaning and had often taken a lifelong toll,” the report said. As a more visible and accessible version of the truth commission itself, Mental Notes at least puts that hope before a wider public.

In related news, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method opens with a vision more terrifying or unsettling – but also borderline comic ­– than anything seen in Mental Notes: Kiera Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, a “hysteric” (diagnostic term) who is being brought by carriage in 1904 to a Swiss asylum, where her treatment will be supervised by Carl Jung. For Knightley, the acting is all in the chin, which juts out alarmingly as she grimaces in pain and screams. The effect is lycanthropic.

A Dangerous Method has had a long history. A non-fiction book became a screenplay written by Chris Hampton in the late 90s for Julia Roberts before Hampton switched it into a play (The Talking Cure) and then back into a screenplay. In the fact-based plot, Spielrein is treated by Jung (Michael Fassbender), only to fall in love with him. She also trains as a psychoanalyst. In the meantime, Jung is breaking away from his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).

Surprisingly, for a film about the then experimental art of psychoanalysis and Jung’s growing, pre-breakdown interest in the occult, the visual style and dramatic approach is almost entirely buttoned-down and prosaic: a filmed play on a series of sound stages. As Sight and Sound critic Kim Newman noted, the Knightley chin joins the long list of rogue body parts with psychotic agendas in Cronenberg films over 20 years from Shivers to Crash, but otherwise, the film is nowhere near psychotic enough and devoid of the irrational eruptions Cronenberg’s work normally contains. It’s all strangely impersonal.

You might sense that this project was a stop-gap for Cronenberg, whose next film has already been trailered – an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson as a young New York “multi-billionaire” within a scenario that drew on the anti-globalisation protests but somehow anticipated Occupy Wall Street (the long history of DeLillo prescience is a whole other story). One side effect of A Dangerous Method is that it means we’re surely unlikely to ever get a film of D. M. Thomas’ Freud novel The White Hotel, which has long been considered a cursed or just simply unfilmable project – a Vanity Fair story from 2009 said that the names loosely attached or at least interested over the years include Barbra Streisand, David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Emir Kusturica, Pedro Almodovar and, yes, Cronenberg.

Actually, that list makes me think I’d rather see a version of A Dangerous Method directed by Lynch or Almodovar – or especially, Guy Maddin. But the film also sent me back a decade, to Cronenberg’s masterpiece Spider. This one derived from the gothic age of mental asylums, with writer Patrick McGrath presumably drawing some of it from moments he witnessed when his father was medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital. Ralph Fiennes as Dennis “Spider” Cleg is a patient released back into the community after years locked up. The Fiennes performance is astonishing in its minimalism: there is no life in his eyes, he barely smiles, there is almost no clear speech. So much of him has been switched off.

Unlike, say, A Beautiful Mind or The Insatiable Moon – the latter a risible and largely unseen New Zealand entry – Spider does not treat the schizophrenic as gifted, prophetic or a holy fool. There is a constant sense of the tragic, of deep aloneness. Cleg’s halfway house is across the canal from the gasworks, which loom like a threat or a blockage in his memory. Time slips, and the present and the past become indistinguishable. The story is a tragedy driven by delusional thinking.

On the commentary track of the Spider DVD, Cronenberg acknowledges the “many Freudian resonances” in the McGrath story, but stresses that his is not a clinical approach – it’s a philosophical study rather than a medical one. If the current thinking is that schizophrenia and other mental disorders are biological in origin, then Spider is a flashback to earlier thinking, which is more romantic and less medical – as Cronenberg says, schizophrenia is never mentioned, but instead we see “the human condition when it is pushed to an extreme”.

The astonishing lead performance aside, the most impressive thing about Spider is the way that Cronenberg approaches its discrete world, a working-class East End of the post-war years, largely sourced from films and photos. It is hard to know whether the film really does have a heightened, almost dreamlike sense of Englishness or whether you are – to use the correct term – projecting it. But elements like gasworks and allotments were previously unknown to Cronenberg, and he has the perspective of an anthropologist. Among the new things he encountered was English “pub hostility” – an anger that seemed to be out of all proportion. Maybe the point is that Cronenberg found a way into the manners and mores of that East End pub world, but turn of the century Vienna kept shutting him out.

Footnote : The World Cinema Showcase screenings of Mental Notes continue in Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch until May 7
A Dangerous Method opens in New Zealand cinemas on April 26.