Mental Illness in Media Can Be Therapeutic: Angelica Jade Bastien

Posted on December 16, 2017 at 9:30 pm

I’ve written before about my admiration for writer Angelica Jade Bastien, who writes beautifully and with great passion about film and television, especially about the portrayal of black and female characters. She also writes forthrightly about her own struggles with mental illness. In two recent essays she pays tribute to portrayals of mental illness on the large and small screen that are more than authentic; they are therapeutic.

One is a classic, Bette Davis’ Now Voyager, one of my favorites as well. It was an early depiction of the struggle of Charlotte Vale, a young woman from an upper-class Boston family, who has so much anxiety over feelings of being unloved and unworthy that she has a breakdown. With the help of a sympathetic psychiatrist played with enormous patience and compassion by Claude Rains, she has one of the cinema’s great transformations, inside and out. Bastien writes:

Now, Voyager remains a timeless portrait of a woman who pulls herself back from the edge of madness to create a life she’s proud to live, with the help of both psychiatry and her own willpower. The film is buttressed by sleek, highly efficient Hollywood production and the moving performances of the cast, notably Davis and Claude Rains as Dr. Jaquith, who helps usher Charlotte into this next phase of her life. Most poignantly, Now, Voyager is a curious outlier in the pantheon of American cinema that concerns itself with women living with mental illness. Few films offer the kind of blistering hope and empathy that has made Now, Voyager endure.

Unlike the “emotional distance” in other movies about mentally ill women, whether they are treated as villains (Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” Fairuza Balk in “The Craft”) or quirky misfits, Bastien says that “Now Voyager” “centers on Charlotte’s interior life, including her mental illness, above all else, and how Davis capably brings this to life.”

She also wrote about a view of mental illness made 75 years later, Rachel Bloom’s television series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

It has an elasticity few other shows come close to, let alone pull off with such regularity, in the way it melds cutting emotional truths with audacious musical numbers that reference everything from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to 1980s hair-metal bands. But I was always left cold by it. It took until season three, which takes a gimlet-eyed approach to Rebecca’s mental-health concerns, for me to realize that my chilliness toward the series wasn’t a mark of any inauthenticity I witnessed in its narrative. In fact, it isn’t that I didn’t see much of my own journey with mental illness on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; I saw too much of myself in the overachieving, myopic Rebecca Bunch.

One of the greatest pleasures of the series is watching Rachel Bloom inhabit this character. She is at her best when she interrogates Rebecca’s mania, capturing the seductive quality of a manic episode. Its garish, bright intensity fools you into believing this is your best self as you dive headfirst into a series of self-destructive and often exhilarating behaviors. I can see myself in Rebecca’s relationship with mania, the vivacity of her daydreams, and her fraught relationship with her mother….In Rebecca’s shifting emotions, I saw my own history: the giddy elation of a new diagnosis she believes can solve everything, the buoyant mania that often follows a suicide attempt, the careful navigation that comes when you’ve tried to set fire to your own life and still have to move forward.

As is increasingly recognized, representation matters. Bloom has been frank in acknowledging her own mental health issues and her determination to present, even in a heightened, comic setting, an authentic depiction of a character for whom mental health is just one of her character attributes. That, in and of itself, can be therapeutic in educating the members of the audience who do not understand these issues and validating the experience of those who understand them only too well.

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Critics Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Angelica Jade Bastien on Michelle Pfeiffer

Posted on July 6, 2017 at 8:00 am

 is one of my favorite writers on film.  Anything she writes reflects a deep understanding of film and culture.  I especially love this tribute to Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress who does not get enough credit for her extraordinary range and technique.

Yes, she may lack the classic Hollywood pedigree of Anjelica Huston or the supreme training of Meryl Streep, but of her generation, she’s the actress with the most fascinating thematic through line. Pfeiffer won early acclaim when her career first hit its stride in the ’80s, followed by a string of hits in the ’90s and early ’00s. Though she hasn’t been much of a presence in recent years, that’s thankfully set to change with a trio of releases: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, a new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, and the HBO film Wizard of Lies, in which she plays Ruth Madoff opposite Robert De Niro.

I’m especially glad that she mentions Pfeiffer’s role in “Stardust.”

And I love her in “Frankie and Johnny,” in part because it is so much fun to see her with her “Scarface” co-star Al Pacino in completely different roles.

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Actors Critics

Mental Illness on Television

Posted on September 18, 2016 at 4:13 pm

Angelica Jade Bastién is one of my favorite critics, and her essays on film are always insightful and thought-provoking. For Vulture, she wrote about the increasingly sensitive and authentic portrayal of mental illness on television. And she calls out the still-too-frequent portrayal of mentally ill characters as serial killers, or quirky-but-wise, or even super-smart but flawed figures.

If you live with mental illness, a show like You’re the Worst is downright revelatory. During its first season, the FXX comedy introduced Edgar, a military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. In its second season, the show revealed that its lead female character, Gretchen, has clinical depression. And in its third season, which premiered last week, Gretchen actively seeks treatment and begins seeing a therapist.

In a television landscape that often misunderstands and misrepresents mental illness, You’re the Worst isn’t alone. Thanks to shows like BoJack Horseman, Lady Dynamite, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it’s now easier than ever to find moving portraits of mental illness on television — but on the whole, most shows still struggle with flawed, careless, and inaccurate depictions….By failing to offer a diagnosis, a show’s writers can cherry-pick a variety of symptoms, which ultimately creates a dishonest portrayal that hinges on plot needs. This often leads to confused characterization, or worse, an exploitative view of mental illness.

It does not have to be a serious drama to be true to the reality of mental illness. Bastién’s good examples include “You’re the Worst” and “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend.”

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Critics Disabilities and Different Abilities Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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