“People want to see representations of themselves,” said New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis in an interview a few years ago, reflecting on what inspires casual viewers to go to the movies. This is hardly a controversial opinion. I’ve encountered more than enough anecdotal evidence to support that claim, and I’m sure you have too. Even when it comes to period pieces or fantasies set in imaginary worlds, viewers will speak favorably of a movie if they can relate to the characters and the general worldview. (This would explain why almost any period piece says as much about the era in which it’s made as it does about the era it depicts—filmmakers working in the genre tend to address outmoded attitudes through the lens of contemporary ones so that the audience might still relate to the material.)
I wonder if audiences have always wanted to identify with the movies they see or whether this attitude arose with the popularity of television. The average person watches TV far more often than they go to the movies, and everyone typically watches TV in spaces more intimate than movie theaters. And since the people we see on TV tend to be smaller than us, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to submit to our way of seeing things.
I used to think I was immune from this mentality. I have bipolar disorder, I’d say—why would I want anyone else to share that perspective? I wasn’t diagnosed with the condition until I was in my early 20s, and I suspect I was drawn to movies as a kid in large part because they allowed me to experience perspectives other than my own. I didn’t see any characters with bipolar disorder in the movies I saw as a kid. Had I been aware of any, I’m not sure if I would have wanted to see them. Before I agreed to treatment, I never liked confronting the possibility that something might be wrong with my mind. (This is rather common among people with mental illnesses.) I likely would have balked at a movie if it identified a character as ill if he acted like me.
Would I have enjoyed Signe Baumane’s Rocks in My Pockets (of which I wrote favorably in this week’s Reader) if it came out when I was a teenager? I can’t say for certain, since I don’t know if a first-person account of bipolar disorder would have been released to general audiences 15 or 20 years ago. Our society’s understanding of mental illnesses has advanced so much since then—not only has medical science developed more effective ways of treating these illnesses, but we seem to be growing more comfortable discussing them in public. (The response to Robin Williams’s recent suicide reflects this positive development, as numerous publications have run pieces on the nature of clinical depression alongside their obituaries.) Baumane’s autobiographical cartoon about her family history of bipolar disorder presents the illness as a treatable medical condition, identifying common traits among various relatives afflicted with the disorder and showing how those afflicted can regain control over their lives through therapy, medication, and/or a support system of family and friends. The movie’s gentle, sympathetic tone seems intended less for viewers who are unfamiliar with Baumane’s condition than for those who can relate but are resistant to admit that they do. Its message to the latter group seems to be: “See, the other people in the theater can accept these characters for whom they are. It’s OK to identify with them.”