So, I’m watching, “Silver Linings Playbook” (as in, right now–I paused it to come write this) and I wanted to mention the scene that resonated with me while it was still fresh in my mind. Bradley Cooper’s character is (finally) seen taking his meds (Seroquel and Gabapentin, I think, but don’t quote me on it) and in the very next moment, we see him (finally) replacing a window that he smashed days earlier. I’ll return to that scene in a moment, but first, let me digress into the parts of the film that resonate less:
The character in the movie is bipolar, and like most depictions thereof, it’s a little off when compared to my personal experiences… which are not mine, per se; as far as I know, I’m just a garden-variety, chronically depressed person; but I have bipolar family members, and the protagonists of most movies exploring the condition seem slightly… ah, what’s the word… not exaggerated–that’s the very key to sometimes realizing when a person is bipolar, or noticing that a person you know to be bipolar has come off their meds–I mean, it *is* pretty common for unmedicated bipolar disorder to manifest as exaggerated mannerisms and speech patterns… so it’s not fair for me to say the depictions seem over-exaggerated (they really don’t–I’ve seen my dad lose his shit over something as stupid as whether or not the mayonnaise jar was closed properly, and by “lose his shit” I mean become physically violent and exceptionally, loudly enraged) and I really can’t put my finger on what it is that seems off about Mr Cooper’s portrayal, except to say, it just doesn’t hit me right.
Maybe it’s the lack of actual joy when he’s meant to be manic; I’ve seen folks (most often, my dad, again) go from the happiest person you ever saw, to a screaming pillar of rage, in about 3 seconds flat (which I’ve been led to believe is pretty standard/one of the standard ways a manic episode can play out) but that’s the difference–even when my dad gets happy-that-becomes-angry, or happy-with-an-undertone-of-anger, his delight seems genuine. Everyone watching him may realize he’s about to flip like a Olympic gymnast, and start screaming obscenities and slamming doors in the place of playful banter and enthusiastic endorsement (of whatever he’s endorsing), but *he* doesn’t realize it. Is that the key? Getting the actor to somehow forget that, 3 sentences into his ecstatic speech about whatever’s on his mind, he’s going to about-face and start ranting about what’s wrong with society? I don’t know how you would even do that… but I do know that self-awareness of the way the monologue is about to shift, does not look anything like manic episodes *I* have personally witnessed.
And can I just say, I feel like a dick for using all this clinical speech. I have exactly 2 semesters of psych classes under my belt, some years spent in therapy, knowledge of a few folks who are confirmed bipolar (mostly relatives) and I sometimes watch movies and read books. That’s it. Those are my credentials. I haven’t actually earned the right to talk about an entire group of people, like, with any kind of authority. This is just me, sharing my (subjective, no doubt very biased) observations… but for the pittance that it’s worth, I’m not all that keen on “manic” rants that seem purely angry, or constructed to become angry, because in my very limited experience, manic folks usually *do* start out happy. I mean, it’s a crazy, OTT, “calm yourself down and take a chill pill quite literally” style of happiness, but it still seems happy. And as a huge fan of movies, I’m always watching for, and always love it, when writers/actors/directors get the hard stuff right…
…which is the scene where newly-medicated fella finally fixes that window. There was nothing in the world (not his parents’ embarrassment, not his own repressed shame, not a basic sense of appropriate behaviour) that could make him fix the window that he smashed in a fit of rage. The window was unimportant. The book he had just read DESERVED to be thrown out of the window, and the window was just collateral damage, and he was not apologizing for it. (All done very well, by the way. I bought it, completely.) And then, he takes his meds, and like a switch being thrown, there he is, fixing the window, as meek and mild as the Baby Jesus (I know, I know, Mary’s meant to be the meek-and-mild one, but just let me have it, it sounds cute). And this is what resonated with me–both the fact that he changed so rapidly and so thoroughly, with the medication, and also the fact that, as bummed out as he was to be taking it, objectively, he was being more useful on the meds than he had been off.
I think that says everything about why those of us who are on anti-depressants or anti-psychotics (or any kind of mental health drug for the long haul) actually *stay* on the meds. We may hate the way they make us feel without even being able to articulate how that is; we may hate the lack of enthusiasm (for anything) that comes with certain medications; we may resent the sexual side effects, the fuzzy-around-the-edges feeling of trying to think through a chemical haze, the increased appetite plus decreased concern about weight gain, and a hundred other things; but in the end, we can’t argue with a substance that, like magic, like a modern-day miracle, transforms us into people who can suddenly remember why you don’t get to smash a window to smithereens and just leave it there. Yes, we may be more prone to repeating our observations; yes, we may be a little less sharp generally; yes, our colours may seem a little faded, especially to ourselves; but all the creativity and originality, all the quick-thinking and clarity, all the shiny you-ness of your best self, doesn’t seem to matter when you’re weighing your idealized notions of that self against the prospect of being able to even entertain concepts like “morality” and “personal space” and “property law”.
And watching this movie, I see all of that realization happening, right there on Bradley Cooper’s face, as he eyes up a nice new window and (wearily, resignedly, with a resentment whose claws have been clipped) slides it into place and hopes it fits; just like the imperfect fragments of his life. We see it, film-makers. We get the metaphor. Using a window to make your point is an especially nice (if obvious) touch.
And even if, by the end of the film, he’s come off the meds and made his (thus far, failed and ridiculous) attempts at positive thinking and healing-through-exercise work, well, I will still have the scene that makes the movie worth watching. For me, this film isn’t going to get any better (or worse) than the sight of his face in that moment when he realizes that, yes, he can fix the “window”… but only if he uses the tools provided.