Mental Illness: Images in American Culture

Preliminary ideas for a visual program:

1. Length: one-hour (60 minutes) or 90 minutes show? This will determine the scope and depth of our discussion.

2. Visual: I propose that we limit ourselves to visual imagery (mostly films and television, but occasionally also photographs and paintings) of mental illness.

3. Scope: Perhaps we should focus on a limited number of mental illnesses, such as paranoia and schizophrenia (God knows, it’s an enormous field)

4. Structure: I propose that we take a socio-historical approach, namely the decade perspective, beginning with the 1930s sound movies (unless we find interesting silent pictures), and then decade by decade, up to A Beautiful Mind. This historical perspective will enable us to depict patterns of continuity (in stereotyping) as well as change (in the 1960s and 1970s, for instance).

5. Cross-cultural perspective: we should draw some comparisons between American culture/film and other Western societies, such as French and Italian (Fellini), and non-Western as well. I’m thinking of Truffaut’s 1975 film, The Story of Adele H. (Victor Hugo’s daughter).

6. Issues: Gender should feature prominently, the difference between male and female portrayals in different decades.

7. Comparisons between Hollywood movies and their source materials (books, plays, stories). How the film industry as a myth and fantasy machine has idealized and romanticized various forms of mental illness, deviating and distorting significant facts in the case of biopictures. There are plenty of issues in A Beautiful Mind, including omission of Nash’s homosexuality!

8. In general, the program should challenge and contest common myths and misconceptions about mental illness, primary among which are the “correlation” between madness and genius, the notion of the suffering artist, pain as integral to creativity, etc.

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