Sunday, February 13, 2011

Snake Pit: Madness in the Movies

Poor Mrs. Cunningham. The doctor tells her "Don't be afraid, we just want to talk to you." Would you really want to talk to Dr. Kik? I'm not sure I would.

In the 1948 movie "Snake Pit" Olivia de Havilland plays the role of Virginia Stewart Cunningham. Mrs. Cunningham has gone mad and is hospitalized at Juniper Hill State Hospital. What do we learn about madness from this movie? What does the "Snake Pit" show us about madness in 1948? One interesting way to interact with a movie or text is to watch it while asking a single question framed as such: "Mad people are people who ..." 

This basic structure can be used to look at  lots of different questions. For example, what does a particular advertisement for a car company tell you about people who drive that car? In a recent car commercial I watched there were a few key images: children in the back seat, parents singing to classic 80s music, children being embarrassed, children in the backseat watching a DVD quietly, and children in another car not being able to watch TV.

Plug this into the basic structure: People who drive this car have children; people who drive this car sing 80s music; people who drive this car are embarrassing to their children; people who drive this car are better than people who don't; etc. What are you really buying here--a car or a tool to feel better than the people who don't have what you have?

Back to the movie.

3:43 "You heard me ladies, fall in. No talking." Mad people are people who need to follow rules.

4:43 "No talking ladies." Mad people are people who need to follow the rules.

4:56 "Why do we have to keep in line? I don't like regimentation." Mad people are people who need regimentation. Mad people are people who don't know what they need.

5:21 "They treat you like criminals." Mad people are people who are criminals. Mad people are people who are treated like criminals.

Part three might be traumatic for some. Watch at your own peril: it depicts a scene of electro-convulsive shock therapy from 1948.

0:05 If I say I demand a lawyer they'll have to do something. It's in the constitution." Mad people are people who have demands. Mad people are people who don't have rights afforded by the constitution. Mad people are people whose demands are ignored

This next clip offers a harrowing depiction of what might be seen as a hallucination starting at 6:17.

6:35 "Come on. Stop it. Get in there before I..." Mad people are people who are ignored. 

6:52 "Come on, cut it out. No one is going to hurt you." Mad people are people who are not to be taken seriously. 

This final clip offers us the view--and line--that gave us the title of the movie.

9:21"It was strange. Here I was among all those people and at the same time I felt like I was looking at them from someplace far away. The whole place seemed to  me like a deep hole and the people down in it like strange animals, like snakes." Mad people are people who are different. Mad people are people who are in a hole. Mad people are people who are strange animals, like snakes.

Not a pretty picture, eh? What images of madness have you seen and accepted as true? Over the years of our lives each of us accumulate schema--patterns of understanding--for madness and mental illness that create our understanding of the phenomena. What are your's? Have you questioned them?

Can you look beyond your schema and see something larger?

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