“To sleep, perchance to dream” (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
Once when I was in my teens and, which was probably before the discovery of fire, I went into my parents’ kitchen to make myself a salad. One of my favorite ingredients for salad use was green olives. I always made sure that I had olives in the refrigerator and I knew that there were three jars in there for my use. Unfortunately, when I opened the refrigerator door I was shocked to discover that there were no olives at all. It was also at that moment that I realized that I had dreamt that there were olives there the night before. Now, other than the fact that: (1) I have really boring dreams, (2) I have really “weird” boring dreams, and (3) I dare Sigmund Freud to have the gall to interpret that dream as meaning that I wanted to SLEEP WITH MY MOTHER (although she did like green olives too… Hmm!)… I am trying to raise a point which ties into this month’s post.
The point I am trying to make is that movies, TV, and the theater have always used dreams, memories/recollections, thoughts of the mind spoken, etc. as plot devices. I could have included this in my previous post for “Gimmicks” but this involves so many different ways that dreams and the like are portrayed that it deserves an entire post all by itself.
The theater has utilized this in many different ways. Playwright Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Strange Interlude (1928) used an unusual soliloquy technique to look into the different stage characters’ psychologies. This was done by having actors alternate their spoken dialogue with monologues and side comments, many in a stream-of-consciousness style which expressed their unspoken thought processes. Back then, the play was a revelation, won a Pulitzer Prize, was banned in certain parts of the country (back then if you painted your house wrong it was probably grounds for being lynched in some places), and was even adapted into a movie (with voiceovers instead of soliloquies expressing their thoughts), along with a television version, and a five record recording. Considering that the play was six hours long, theater patrons should have demanded blood transfusions as a part of the admission. Oh, as for the movie version, it is truly awful. If you haven’t started to fall asleep after reading this paragraph, I dare you to not drop off into ZZZZ-Land after seeing the movie.
Portrayals of mental illness in the arts is something that can also be creatively done by presenting false narratives through imaginary individuals as a means to show how someone with mental illness perceives a situation in a story. In the theater a prime example was for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning play “Proof” along with its 2005 film adaption. “Proof” focused on the daughter of a famous mathematical genius who was plagued by lengthy mental illness. In the beginning of the play she has discussions with her dad on mental illness and worries about her own mental state which suddenly is made apparent when it’s revealed that her father is imaginary, died a week ago, and that she was having a dream. Throughout the play and movie are flashback sequences with her father which accentuates her fears that she will ultimately have the same mental issues that her father did. Both the play and movie are excellent with Gwyneth Paltrow (even if she is a whack-job “Goop” brain in real life) giving a terrific performance.
Another example of a person with mental illness having interactions with false characters was for the Oscar winning movie, “A Beautiful Mind” (2001). The biography of Nobel Prize Laureate John Nash starred Russell Crowe as Nash who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. A number of individuals he has contact with in the movie are found to be illusionary later on when his mental illness really manifests itself. The TV series “Dexter” (2006 -2013) also utilized this technique effectively. Although the series was about a mentally disturbed (but lovable) serial killer (Michael C. Hall), at times he had regular conversations with his deceased Foster Dad (James Remar) along with his brother. He even dealt with other mentally disturbed killers who also had conversations with imaginary individuals (see Season Six). Like they say, You are never alone with schizophrenia!”
Certain types of movies were perfect for showing individuals mental state. During the nineteen fifties a number of movies were made about prisoners of war during the Korean War and how, due to their mistreatment, they were supposedly betraying their country through spouting Communist propaganda. Movies like “Prisoner-of -War” (1954), “The Rack” (1956), “The Bamboo Prison” (1954) and “Time Limit” (1957) were prime examples. Most of these movies (except maybe “Time Limit”) were cheap 1950s anti-Communist potboilers that only Joe McCarthy fans would have “wet dreams” over. However, there were a few exceptions.
One was actually a television episode called “The Fortress” on an old ABC anthology drama series called “Alcoa Premiere” (1961). It was based on the true story of Air Force Lt. Wallace Brown who, when shot down over North Korea, was captured, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement with a light constantly on in his cell as his captors tried to break him. Lloyd Bridges starred as Brown who never broke because he used his mind to focus on designing a house that he always wanted to build for his wife and children. The episode captured his mind slowly building the design of the house on the bare prison cell’s walls while he mentally blocked everything (pain, hunger, thirst, fear, etc.) completely out. Bridges is terrific in the role and the episode successfully captured how someone used their mind to overcome extreme hardships.
Another example, and probably one of the best movies ever made in the 1960s, was “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). The movie concerns Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) who is brainwashed, along with his entire platoon when they are betrayed and captured by North Korean soldiers at the beginning of the movie. After they are sent back home the entire remaining platoon members swear that he saved their lives which wins him the Congressional Medal of Honor while actually hiding the fact that he is now a sleeper assassin trained to kill on command. There are way too many things to praise in this movie but the one thing I want to mention is how the scenes of the results of brainwashing are portrayed.
All visual sequences occur during individuals (Frank Sinatra and James Edwards) having nightmares. Both individuals and their fellow platoon members are up on a stage at a garden club with old ladies asking questions of the head lady gardener also on the stage about how Shaw and the others are brainwashed. Although that is what the docile soldiers think they see, the moving camera slowly rotates away from the soldiers back to where the ladies were seated. However, now the viewer sees that the ladies are actually military leaders from assorted Communist nations and the head lady gardener is actually a male Asian brainwashing expert (Khigh Dhiegh). Director John Frankenheimer brilliantly captures the brainwashed mental perspective of the soldiers in these sequences while also showing a bit of humor in the presentation of the ladies (Caucasian for Sinatra and colored for African-American Edwards).
Other types of movies that were perfect for showing one’s dreams, memories, thoughts, etc. were those about individuals with mental illness, substance abuse, and especially S/F or Fantasy. Mental illness really became popular in the 1940s especially in Film Noir. It was also because a large number of individuals in the arts were all seeing psychologists and too often were flaunting their shrinks to each other like they were showing off some new sports car. Movies like “Spellbound” (1945), “Freud” (1962), “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (1977), and others had a field day in showing supposedly screwed up people along with their warped dreams. I could show examples for each of the above movie categories listed but instead, I just want to mention one particularly unusual movie/theater category where it was utilized.
That category was when mental illness was portrayed in a musical. A really weird example, and maybe the worst of this (and on my “Top Ten” Worst Movie List of All Time) was the movie, “Lady in the Dark” (1944) which was adapted from a hit Broadway Musical (1941) of the same name. It was also the most expensive movie that Paramount Pictures made at that time. The Broadway version had Kurt Weill doing the music, Ira Gershwin the lyrics, and Moss Hart the book and direction. Big talent! Unfortunately, it was also an even bigger misogynistic, sexist, and anti-feminist manifesto mess with enough non-subtly veiled Lesbian symbolism to sink a battleship. What the heck am I talking about? Well dear reader, let me explain.
Basically the storyline consisted of Liza Elliott (Ginger Rogers), a successful but unhappy editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine who is fearful that she may be going insane because she is so unhappy. Why is our poor Liza so unhappy? Why she has three successful men chasing her [Ray Milland, Warner Baxter, and Jon (Ramar of the Jungle) Hall] even though she just doesn’t seem too interested at times in any of them. Why she can afford to wear the most expensive man-ish fashions (which were designed by Edith Head). Hmm! Why the movie was directed by Mitchell Leisen (who was gay). Double Hmm! Why even the movie’s screenplay was an adaption of the original smash Broadway musical by playwright Moss Hart (who was also gay). Triple Hmm! Gee, why would our Lisa ever be so unhappy?
Well our Lisa then goes to a shrink aanndd after some dime store psycho-babble, a bunch of musical dream sequences with enough Technicolor distorted sets and fabrics to outfit a Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus what conclusion could ever possibly be made to satisfy our American 1940s censorship code sensibilities? Why of course she needs to dress prettier, give up her job, and be married to and bossed around by a MAN!!! Voila! Yeah, and John Wayne and Liberace would have made a great Holmes and Watson too (“Elementary, “Pilgrim!” Ya-Ha-Ha-Ha… Hey Watson, what’s with the dress?”).
However, a more recent and far better musical about mental illness was the Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway rock musical, “Next to Normal” (2009). This has not been made into a movie yet (although it Damn well should be) and if it’s ever done, let’s hope Hollywood doesn’t F%$#K it up.
The plot concerns a family with a mother, Diana, who is suffering from long term bipolar disorder which causes chaos with everyone. The musical covers additional issues such as depression, drug use, loss of loved ones, etc. in powerful and honest ways. The lyrics are wonderful and memorable. The musical also captures her hallucinations with an imaginary main character and how it continually affects her. It is unique in how her illness affects each member of her family in different ways. It is also unique in how it does not sell out to have a cheap happy ending. In other words, this is a rare musical about mental illness that really works.
Well, that about sums up this post for now. I’m sure that we would all wish that we could interpret our own dreams so we could understand ourselves better. Like the dream I once had when I was in my teens about being in a hospital bed being attended to by actress Lee Remick dressed like a nurse. Gee, I wonder what that could ever possibly signify? Hmmm!