response to bruce saunders
Reprinted from "Stigma & Discrimination" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (6), p. 35
Your thoughtful comments have not alienated me. We actually ﬁlmed an alternate ending for the ﬁlm Drummer Boy: the cop grabs the protagonist and the rest is left to the imagination. This alternate ending is sitting in the vault waiting to see audience reactions. A veteran actor who reviewed the script for me used a phrase similar to yours: “You can’t have your audience live and breathe and like this kid for two hours and then kill him off.” But as John Travolta’s character in Get Shorty says: “Endings are hard.” I have wrestled with these considerations and agree with your comments. The other side of my head, however, uses another argument.
Most American ﬁlm today is an act of denial. We don’t have to worry about the sorry state of the public school system because Meryl Streep will show up and teach all the kids violin. Or another prototypical American hero (free, independent, iconoclastic) will take charge of the high school. Or save us from aliens. Or corruption. Or win the Vietnam War single-handedly. We don’t have to worry about 50 million uninsured Americans because a true ‘American Hero’ can always get a heart transplant for his kid if he shows a little initiative. Now, I enjoy being manipulated as much as anybody. But I think we are doing ourselves an ultimate disservice here.
Shine—the 1996 dramatization of the life of David Helfgott, a renowned pianist with schizophrenia, starring Geoffrey Rush in an Oscar-winning performance—is a wonderfully crafted and acted movie. I enjoyed it immensely. It was only on later reﬂection that some doubts crept into my mind. Here they are: The word schizophrenia is not used. (This hearkens back to the days when the word cancer would not be used.) The young pianist is driven ‘crazy’ by the passion of playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto—implying a last-century idea that lunacy is the product of a creative, sensitive mind in touch with God. In the ﬁlm, Helfgott’s father didn’t want to let his son go to England to study music. The father is portrayed as brutal and controlling. (An alternate explanation could be that his father was a reasonable man, and sensed that his son was not well or strong enough to go travelling on his own. Subsequent events suggest that the father was correct). Then, as portrayed in the ﬁlm, after years of wallowing in equally brutal mental hospitals, Helfgott ﬁnds a piano again, and a woman to take care of him, and lives happily ever after. If we’d only just understood his needs and his passion in the ﬁrst place!
Here is the probable truth: Helfgott is a very good student pianist. He develops schizophrenia while far from home. He is hospitalized. His illness is severe and his recovery is minimal. So for years he resides in an Australian mental hospital, which is actually very picturesque with semi-tropical grounds and is located by a beautiful river. (All Australian mental hospitals are found on rivers, by the way. They also all have pianos available for those who can play.) Times change. Now on some medication that improves his illness somewhat, Helfgott is ‘integrated into the community.’ A woman takes Helfgott on as a project and falls in love with him and marries him, providing a rare protective family environment that allows him to live and thrive. She also controls and monitors his medication regimen. Then, we come along and exploit him.
I think, with both A Beautiful Mind (about the life of famed mathematician John Nash, who has schizophrenia) and Shine, we are told Hollywood stories that subliminally suggest to the audience that it’s okay to be a weird-looking schizophrenic if you also happen to be a genius. And don’t you worry about them—if they have any kind of talent or willpower or initiative, they will pull themselves up on their own. This again is a form of societal denial. We are left entertained, even enthralled, admiring, but certainly not worried, not guilty, not feeling responsible or challenged in any way.
We, as viewers, don’t like the ending of Drummer Boy. But that’s the point. Maybe if we worked or tried a little harder, understood or paid attention a little more to the mentally ill, the ending would be different for the protagonist.
I don’t know which is right. As pure drama, the death of the protagonist (although it is not a high building and we simply see him ﬂoating away and some viewers have chosen to see this not as a death) is classic tragedy. As an affecting experience for the audience I think the death brings tears, causes the story to linger in the mind, and may inﬂuence perception and ultimately action. Whenever Drummer Boy has been shown, someone has come up to me with tears in their eyes, and talked about a brother or sister—often a brother or sister who is living in an institution or supportive housing and kept out of mind as much as possible. Viewers also tell me that after seeing the ﬁlm they understand more about mental illness in general and schizophrenia in particular. A different ending would show rescue, hope and new possibilities. Would it be as effective? The words of Willy Loman’s wife in Death of a Salesman are the ones that should ring in our ears: “Attention must be paid.”
All the best,
About the Author
Dr. Dawson is a semiretired psychiatrist and educator, and a past Chief of Psychiatry at Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital. He is an artist, owner of Gallery on the Bay in Hamilton, Ontario, a published novelist, and a filmmaker, who uses film to explore realistic portrayals of mental illness