Archive for Redemption

Mental Health, Redemption, and Silver Linings

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on January 10, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Silver-Linings-Playbook-1984905For those like me who have only ever known the actor Bradley Cooper from a role in some outrageous comedy (think “The Hangover”), you might be surprised to find, as I did, that Cooper can really act well. I imagine it requires certain skills to act well in over-the-top comedies too, but it’s difficult to imagine what sort of finesse and attention to character development is required when the overarching goal of the film is to push-limits and make people laugh. The recent film Silver Linings Playbook, staring Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (best known as “Katniss” from the film version of The Hunger Games), is an excellent movie. Cooper and Lawrence do something, at least in my opinion, that few actors known for a very narrow type of previous work can do — they succeed in embodying and presenting new, real, and complex characters.

For those who are not familiar with the storyline from the film or the book from which it’s based — The Silver Linings Playbook: A Novel by Matthew Quick — it centers on Pat, a former high school substitute teacher, who is released from a mental-health facility in Baltimore to move back with his parents in Philadelphia. As the story goes on, we learn the details of what led to his eight-month hospitalization. A major theme throughout, connected to this hospitalization, is Pat’s obsession with reconciling his marriage and getting back together with his wife (I won’t say more, for fear of spoiling the movie/book).

silver_linings_playbookWe learn that Pat suffers from bipolar disorder and we see him struggle with wanting not to take his medication (often during manic cycles), suffer the pain of delusion and fear, and try to make sense of a life that is, at times, very surreal and scary. Enters, then, a young woman, Tiffany. She is a recent widow and someone who has, without as clear a diagnosis (she self-descriptively says “crazy,” others also follow that lead in describing her), her own struggles with depression and other mental-health issues. For some reason, Tiffany seems able to break through Pat’s wall of distorted reality, mania, fear, and depression. That’s all I’ll say about that.

While this film does bear signs of a hollywood movie, there are some genuine moments of complexity and truthfulness that break through the story to elicit something of a reaction from the audience or reader. There is something very real about these characters, at least inasmuch as you can ascertain such reality in two hours.

The sense of reality of the characters in this story — including the slightly neurotic father (Robert De Niro) and tired, but unconditionally loving mother (Jacki Weaver) — was confirmed in my case by the reflection it evoked in me about my first year of ministry with the friars.

Nearly eight-years ago, I entered the Franciscan Order as a postulant, lived in a friary at a parish in the Bronx, and worked three days a week at a housing center the friars operated in midtown Manhattan for formerly homeless, mentally ill people. I remember being a little afraid after receiving that ministry assignment, I had very little experience with actual people with severe mental illness. What I thought I knew, I learned from TV, books, and the movies. There is also a general, if low-grade, fear that seems to haunt our contemporary society with regard to those we label “mentally ill,” which both accounts for the general stigmas associated with diagnosed women and men and the uncertainty about what to expect that afflicted me early on.

This fear of “madness” is exactly what the French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests arises to replace more ancient fears of leprosy and the like, and which ultimately leads to the widespread confinement of such diagnosed people — something the movie character Pat knows all about after his eight-month stay in Baltimore.

Although it sounds trite, what I came to realize in New York City was that those labeled “mentally ill” or “crazy” or “mad” or any of the other monikers associated with that social (or medical) status are real people too. They have histories, fears, joys, anxieties, struggles, intelligence, skills, and so on, like everybody else. Aspects of their daily experience are more difficult to negotiate in society than the “average person” (whatever that means). I formed friendships, learned from and came to really admire and appreciate many of these wonderful people. Their lives are difficult and, many times, very sad.

I saw this come through in Silver Linings Playbook in a perceptible way. You see it in the reactions of parents, in family members, in lifelong friends — they are afraid, especially early on, and don’t know what to expect from Pat. He has outbursts, can be violent, but we realize that this is something outside of his control, it is an effect of a world that only exists in his personal reality, a world that is difficult to reconcile with the world of others.

The relationship that arises, from an unlikely and initially awkward friendship between Pat and Tiffany, does so imperfectly and (in true novel/hollywood form) romantically, but it reveals that fear is not the right response, love, patience, and understanding are the only way forward.

I hope that this movie has a positive impact on the social perception of mental illness, although I know it’s unreasonable to expect a popular film to have any measurable impact. There is, as a fellow friar told me weeks back in encouraging me to see this movie, a story of redemption here. A story of reconciliation, in the literal sense, of bringing together pieces of a life — of lives — broken apart. Not all stories that begin and continue in a similar way end on such a hollywood happy note, but the reality of personhood, dignity, and humanity remains the same no less in the far-too-often sad stories of everyday experiences.

Photo: Pool

Any Redemption for ‘Red Riding Hood?’

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 26, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

I should have listened. On two different train rides to NYC, separated by two weeks, I read two different reviews of the movie Red Riding Hood. The first was a New York Times arts section review on the weekend of the film’s release and, to my surprise, the review wasn’t as harsh as I anticipated it to be. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a favorable review either. Yesterday I read a review in the most recent issue of The New Yorker on yet another train ride down to NYC for a committee meeting. The second review was much harsher and, frankly, more on target.

Yet I saw the movie anyway.

Stupid me. I like to pride myself on going to movies that interest me, regardless of the critics’ takes. I don’t like to be subject to another person’s limited take on a film. I’ll be my own judge, thank you very much!

I was intrigued in part by the untested cast of actors in this film — sure, Amanda Seyfried has had some recent box office attention following her so-so performance on the HBO program Big Love (a series well-worth watching) as the eldest child in the polygamist family. But, there were no ‘big names’ of the stereotypical variety to draw my preemptive cynicism.

There was also the appeal of a contemporary take on the centuries-old legend of the wolf. “How will they spin it?” I asked myself, a question I couldn’t quite avoid. And then there was the sensually pleasing visual aspects of the film, best highlighted in the movie’s several in-theatre, television and online trailers. As a photographer, my eye is always captured by colorful sets and creative cinematography.

All of these things proved inconsequential, as the film — in large part — flopped.

The screenplay was all but abhorrent, it would have been better written by my worst undergraduate student. The acting was the most listless performance I have ever seen in an entire ensemble. No one stood out, because everyone was mediocre. The soundtrack (another favorite of mine in films) was predictable and the editing was unimaginative. And the errors in common-sensical fact are too numerous to name.

Take but one example: was the village Catholic? A mourning woman visits the house of a deceased young girl and makes the sign of the cross. The town religious leader is called “Father,” as is the invited guest-of-honor, who is addressed as “his eminence,” yet also bears the title “Father.” This second would-be priest has two children and a deceased wife (yeah, he murdered her, but ad majorem Dei gloriam). And several characters make reference to the “pope” or the “holy see” at some point in the film. What the heck is going on? Very, very bad research — some intern could have ‘googled’ these things and come up with a more coherent backstory.

This film will no doubt be grouped with M. Night Shyamalan’s (much, much better) film, The Village. There are several details and scenes in Red Riding Hood that eerily echo Shyamalan’s The Village in far inferior ways. A rural village, a monster that needs to be appeased, the sensual yet dangerous color red.  What is lacking from Red Riding Hood is the rich social commentary that is conveyed in Shyamalan’s brilliant thriller. Many were disappointed with Shyamalan’s story because it, ultimately, proved to critique society in a way that dissolved the frightening elements of fantasy in a bath of real-life fear.

The mythic return to a ‘simpler time’ reminiscent of Rousseau’s take on society implicit in The Village is replaced with a less-intellectual, mildly violent and thoroughly sexual narrative in Red Riding Hood.

I looked very hard for redemptive qualities in this film, wondering whether or not my time and money had been completed wasted. I’m not sure that I can find a corollary that satisfies my critical interests. I will say that the complexity of the original legend of the werewolf is fecund for more creative expression of the human experience and the perhaps baser fantasies of our everyday life. Unfortunately, Red Riding Hood, the film I wanted to badly to be better than I anticipated, failed miserably at delivering something even close to a laudable attempt.

How might the tale of Red Riding Hood be appropriated into a Christian narrative? Is there an evangelical undercurrent or theological truth to be unpacked in the story that continues to be told anew?

Now that is something that I could really sink my teeth into!

Photos: Warner Brothers Pictures
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