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Late night thoughts on Birdman and mental illness

After watching Birdman, I have come to the conclusion that my mental illness is not Hollywood material. My depression, my anxiety and my panic attacks are not caused by any kind of artistic existential crisis. Rather, my mental illness simply exists and it does not need a reason to be.

Unlike the Hollywoodian type of mental illness, my inner voice makes me lethargic and uninspired. I do not ponder about my reason of being nor do I feel the need to prove myself to the world. In fact, I think about not being at all, ceasing to exist in the most discrete and painless way possible.

It is scary to think that numbness can strike out of nowhere, for no particular reason. In movies, there are always actions and reactions: character A is depressed because of X. That’s the easiest way to understand another human being suffering from mental illness. But what if there is no particular reason for mental illness? What if something starts to go bad inside you and you cannot point to a cause?

Before committing suicide, Robin Williams gave an interview to The Guardian where he talked about him mental state. I always think back on this interview because I resent the ‘tortured artist’ trope: Robin Williams did not kill himself because he was a disturbed artist with too many ideas. Robin Williams killed himself because he was sick and he was in pain, and thousands of people across the world who are not artists or actors go through that every day.

What stood out for me was the following, when he is asked if his alcoholism and drug dependence are about his friend Christopher Reeves’s death.

“No,” he says quietly, “it’s more selfish than that. It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” What was he afraid of? “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.”

Of course the interviewer had to ask what he is afraid of, but this kind of fear is not palpable or definable. I do not know what I am afraid of or why my chest hurts or why I want to sit at home by myself for a few days when I am depressed. It has never been as simple as a career crossroads like Birdman’s Riggan.

Obviously, when someone kills themselves you want to ask: Why? – the possibility of someone taking their own life because of an illness is way beyond our grasp. Why? Was he disappointed with his career? Was he disturbed by one of his parts in his recent movie? Why? How could he? He was so talented! The idea that the crushing pain of mental illness comes without reason is disturbing. The idea that this pain can override everything we have achieved in our lives, everything that we are, is scary. I get that.

I enjoyed watching Birdman: it was interestingly done, the acting was incredible and I wasn’t bored. But as a sufferer of mental illness who has lived with a separate voice from my own in my head, I resent that Riggan’s issues were glamourized in the usual ‘tortured artist’ format. It felt like the subject of mental illness was avoided when it was in plain sight and isn’t that how we already treat it in everyday life?

I would like society to reach a place where depression is understood as an illness, not as a kind of crisis that can be fixed with picking the right path or impressing the right people. It is uncomfortable to stop searching for a reason why our idols or friends or family harm themselves in such a way but I am sick of the tortured artist trope. It’s repetitive and I doubt it has done much to help people who suffer from these illnesses. It means we are constantly searching for what is making us hurt, as opposed to getting treatment for something that is completely curable or in the least manageable.

Review: Sexual Chronicles of a French Family

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Shocking the public with explicit sex is the oldest trick in the book, right next to shocking with extreme violence. It’s boring and predictable.

How about we normalize sex and make it a comfortable subject for everyone instead? That is the premise of the film Sexual Chronicles of a French Family, a French film that tells the story of a mother’s quest to make sex a more comfortable, accessible subject for everyone in her family.

As Evan Rachel Wood put it, people are more comfortable watching extreme violence than sexual freedom. Sex is a taboo subject, especially in parent-teenager relationships. We could say that such discussions are too personal or awkward to have with parents, but the truth is that open conversations can avoid many sexual traumas or hang-ups.

Claire (Valérie Moes) realizes that she only ever told her kids the basic things: condoms and birth control. Otherwise, teenagers are completely blind sighted when they start their sexual life. No one expects her to teach her kids how to give oral but she wants to help them be more comfortable with their own sexuality.

The story is told from her youngest son’s point of view, as he goes on a mission to lose his virginity. He is desperate when he discovers that his father lost his virginity at 16, when he is still a virgin at 18. His father tranquillizes him and counters the typical belief that being a virgin is shameful.

The sexual relationships are dynamic: there is the sexually frustrated and pressured teenager, the passionate encounters of a young couple in love and the adventures of the bisexual older brother. The best thing about it is that there is no slut-shaming, regret or fake, quick orgasm scenes. There’s no myth of the obligation of orgasms for a healthy, good sexual relationship.

When the bisexual son experiments with threesomes with two of his university friends, a girl and a boy, there was no shame. It was normal, it was just sex. And in the end the intent of the movie is clear when Claire says there’s no need for the label bisexual, everyone is simply sexual.

Review & Interview: Taking a Chance on God

McNeill and his partner Charlie
McNeill and his partner Charlie

John McNeill was born in Buffalo, New York, and grew up to be a soldier who fought in World War II. He was captured by the Nazis but survived and came back to America to follow his call to priesthood. It seemed he would have a tranquil, quiet life of devotion to God – but his sexual orientation and a craving for justice and equality turned him into an activist, a pioneer and a Vatican pariah.

The documentary Taking a Chance on God tells McNeill’s life story, revealing the source of the Jesuit’s persistence and strength to fight for acceptance and peace. The film’s co-producer and co-editor Ilene Cutler has been following screenings all over the world and I caught up with her at the 21st Mix Festival of Culture of Diversity in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

After watching the movie Cutler took questions from the audience. One man stood up and thanked her and John McNeill for the film. Teary-eyed, he told Ilene and the audience that like McNeill he had been expelled from his own church because of his sexuality. His boyfriend held his hand and asked if he was OK in a caring whisper.

It was a great moment for everyone, especially for Cutler. The project had been 10 years in the making and it seems this kind of reaction to the documentary is common.

“We get a strong response from many people who laugh hard and cry hard. And it’s very satisfying to me as a filmmaker to have humour and heart in a very important message about love and acceptance,” she said.

Although the film mostly focuses on McNeill’s battle to be accepted in a religious environment it also tells the story of a man who is more than his sexuality. He is a war veteran who was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, he is a scholar and a therapist, and his activism started during the Vietnam war. As a war veteran and a priest, his voice was strong and he relished spreading a message of non-violence.

John McNeill, Dignity NY Contingent, LGBT Pride Parade
John McNeill, Dignity NY Contingent, LGBT Pride Parade

So when the gay community rioted in Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village, because of a police raid, McNeill decided to be open with himself and the community by becoming a voice in the LGBT rights movement.

In 1976 he published the ground-breaking study The Church and the Homosexual that defied the teaching methods of the Catholic Church on homosexuality. In response to the public uproar McNeill went on the Today Show and came out as a gay man to millions of people across America.

The Vatican told McNeill to shut up and not mention sexuality anymore.

But McNeill couldn’t stay quiet about something that affected him and so many others so intrinsically. To this day he makes himself accessible to people who need his help – Cutler even offered his email to people who wanted to talk to him

“He is very accessible. He wants to help anyone that he can still. He is 88 years old but still very sharp, very with it and very much involved.”

Because of this persistent involvement despite his age, Cutler and director Brendan Fay felt it was important to finish the movie before McNeill passed.

“He does ministry in Florida, he was able to see the movie in his home in Ft Lauderdale, in Miami, in New York, he was able to travel which is not so easy for him because of health problems. And this was far but he did go to Rome for the very first screening in Europe.

“And there he was, in the home of the pope, with a large Italian audience, crying and hugging and laughing and loving the film. For Brendan and I who worked very hard on making the film finished while he was still with us this was an incredible feeling of accomplishment that he got to be there to see this.”

On April 14th 1987 John’s superiors came to his apartment in New York City and expelled him from the Catholic Church by reading out a ‘Decree of Expulsion’ that had come directly from the Vatican.

In the film McNeill talks of that day with tears and hurt in his eyes, but there is no bitterness.  Despite the expulsion McNeill continued his ministry, forging a life in God and LGBT activism at the same time.

But now the Vatican’s approach to sexuality this may be changing and Cutler tells me McNeill is excited about Pope Francis’s recent statements about the LGBT community.

“He keeps saying to me – can we… we need to talk to Pope Francis! And I do feel like he just needs to meet him and maybe there could be this radical change. He’s already so excited about what the pope has said – ‘Who am I to judge?’ you know? Just that one statement was such a big moment for John and for everyone. So he’s so hopeful that at the end of his life we can be on this precipice – is that too big of a word, precipice? – like on a mountain of possibility on the other side for change.”

His partner of 48 years Charles Chiarelli is a constant source of comfort and love for McNeill. It seems obvious to the Jesuit that the love between them cannot possibly be “an objective disorder” and “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” like his colleague Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in response to The Church and the Homosexual.

Cutler says the next step is to make the documentary more accessible for people who are more close minded.

“I think it’s so important. Every time I see the film with different audiences they say ‘Oh I wish my mother could see this or my father could see this’, so we are very hopeful that we can get it on television, public television where many more people can see it.

“If we could show it on television or other places that your average person – not just gay or gay allies – could see it I feel like it can have a big impact.”

Ilene Cutler and I
Ilene Cutler and I

Silver Linings Playbook – Review

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Before agreeing to shoot Silver Linings Playbook, Robert De Niro asked to meet director David O. Russell’s son. The script had impressed him, but he needed to be face to face with the person that would directly affect Russell’s direction. The movie is about mental health, and Russell’s son has bipolar disorder.

After meeting with him, De Niro told his agent to make it happen.

Surprisingly, Silver Linings Playbook has impressed other people too – it snatched up eight Oscar nominations without any grandiose special effects (Why, hello, Life of Pi) and overwhelming patriotic appeal that somehow softens American hearts. (I’m looking at you, Lincoln). The adapted story from the original novel by Matthew Quick has a simple and straightforward plot, where the ending is entirely predictable.

What makes it a really good movie is how goddamn human it is. Pat (Bradley Cooper) has been newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and just came out of an 8 months stint in a mental institution after almost killing his wife’s middle aged lover. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is a depressed widow who used sex as a way to cope with her grief. They are both lost not only in the real world (both of them live with their parents and have no job as a consequence of their mental illnesses) but also in their minds.

Mental illness is not something that is talked about routinely. A bitter example of this is the dinner scene where Pat and Tiffany meet for the first time and bond over which medications they have been taking and how it feels to be on them. The rest of the people on the table fall silent, awkwardly and uncomfortably trying to change the subject. If mental illness was considered as normal and acceptable as physical illnesses, the meds would be easier to talk about.

But Tiffany, who has been dealing with her depression for a little bit longer than Pat has been struggling with his bipolar disorder, has absolutely no shame in her disease and the things she did because of it. Sleeping with everyone in her office resulted in her being fired, but still she likes every bit of herself, even the bad bits. It comes down to the fact that she became a tough woman, she got stronger and found a passion in dancing because of her disease. And despite her chronic bad attitude towards everyone, she loves herself . Can Pat say the same of himself? Can anyone who ever had a mental illness say that?

The illusion that lies within us all is the idea that we have control over all of our feelings and actions. If one feels sad, they should be able to just snap out of it, get over it. Our brains can be controlled and shaped by us, our thoughts can be sheltered from the obsessive, if only we are strong enough to do it. If only we try hard enough.

That’s not real. Tiffany is constantly judged for her nymphomaniac behaviour, but the truth is she was trying to feel okay and less lonely. She had no real control over her emotions and actions. And neither did Pat when he accidentally elbowed his mother in the face in an explosion where he was imagining his wedding song playing over and over again inside his head.

SILVER

Judgement even happens between Tiffany and Pat. Who is craziest? Who did more awful things? Who ruined their own life the most?

It doesn’t matter because at that moment their minds and actions were uncontrollable. And they can hate themselves for it, like Pat does, or simply admit to their mistake and learn from them, like Tiffany.

The medication they are both on is a bonding point because they say it makes them feel out of focus, foggy, weird. I have heard this being said in many instances where the mentally ill person is in some kind of police interrogation. Though this sounds like a ridiculous excuse to not treat yourself when you are sick, it must not be forgotten that the very part of us that makes decisions is what is being afflicted by the disease. Medication for mental illness can indeed make one feel odd, different – and this can be scary for someone who is already out of control. Not taking the meds is something in the outside world they can control. Though eventually Pat gives in (at the end of the day, medication is the answer for him) it’s a difficult step for him – and I imagine most people who struggle with their minds feel the same.

De Niro’s part as Pat’s father is revealing for those who have people close to them afflicted by mental illness. He tries his best to bond with Pat, to give him some of his old life’s routine, but Pat is still in his head trying to find a silver lining in the wrong places. When eventually his father gets through to him, it’s evident that Pat was completely aloof to all his efforts but not on purpose, he simply could not process all that was being done for him. And once Tiffany was able to reach him as one of the only people who seem to understand what he is going through, it was easier for him to get out of his head and finally enter the real world.

Silver Linings Playbook is an honest and sometimes even funny discourse about mental illness, and how overcoming it is a difficult but beautiful journey. Not only that, it is a story about overcoming other people’s flaws as well as your own, reserving judgement when it comes to other people’s problems and moving on from heartbreak.

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Photo found at The Louisville Cardinal, courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Inception

“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.” – Dom Cobb

This movie has been praised to death since it opened seven weeks ago, and I could not wait to see it. When I attempted to watch it the first time, I got to the movies an hour before it started and it was completely sold out. And when I say completely sold out I mean completely sold out; all the showings of Inception were sold out, even the ones that were 6 or 7 hours later.

When I finally managed to watch it, in its full glory, I must admit I became utterly obsessed. If you follow me on Tumblr or Twitter you might have realized that.

This movie is too much to watch only once. I have seen it three times. Why? Because of its complexity and it’s many layers. It’s not only the dream layers (four of them plus the very dangerous limbo) but the motivations and guilt that lie in Dom Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) mind, behind the whole operation of Inception, make the movie all the more meaningful. What are our dreams? Are they what we wish for or what our subconcious wishes for? Is that the same thing? Is it important to dream? To use your mind completely, perceiving and creating a world inside your head – is it not a kind of art?

Christopher Nolan is able to construct dreams; he is a filmmaker. When we watch a film, we use the same part of our brain we use to dream; we turn off our real world, understanding the film or the dream as our reality. This is the magic of cinema, and Nolan has helped us see how amazing it is.

I might be very critical, but I think Hollywood had failed, this year, to produce an amazing movie, until now. Which is quite sad considering the amount of money invested in the film industry. Nolan, however, seems to be Hollywood’s saviour. There is not one of his films I did not love (check out his IMDb page) and they are all, most importantly, films that only give their all when  you watch it in the cinema which is, let’s face it, the kind of films Hollywood need at the moment. Films that are not downloadable.

What I though was a shame, however, was that I did not get to know much about the other characters – but I have to say this would probably have ruined the whole movie. Cobb has enough mental fuck-ups for the audience to deal with.

Nolan, besides writing one of the greatest scripts ever, managed to hire the best cast in the whole world. Ellen Page, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon Levitt (who has reportedly become the new teenage heartthrob), Tom Hardy, Leonardo Di Caprio… and the list goes on.

I love all performances in this movie – on of my favorite, of course, Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who is witty and incredibly charming, and somehow manages to drop people without gravity (you who hasn’t watched it – work that one out).

However, no one’s performance tops Leonardo DiCaprio. I must admit that for a while – in between Titanic and Catch Me If You Can – I did not think much of mr. DiCaprio. If fact I don’t particularly like Titanic at all, and I find his performance quite mediocre. But this is an actor who has given himself time and space to grow, and choose good parts that would allow him to do this. Inception is his break, and it would honestly surprise me if he does not get a Oscar nomination out of it.

The last scene of the film, when DiCaprio’s character’s personal struggle is almost at an end, should prove that he has become one of the best of Hollywood. His face carries so much emotion, so much pain and healing at the same time, so much disbelief and faith, all at the same time.

It gets me every time.

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PS: I am boycotting the Expendables because Sylverster Stalone is ignorant.
PS2: I will be travelling to Argentina for a week on Wednesday, but please feel free to give me feedback 🙂

The Lives of Chico Xavier.

Picture of the movie about Chico Xavier's life.
Picture of the movie about Chico Xavier’s life.

Chico Xavier is one of those public figures that linger in a country’s memory. His image is personal to all of Brazil, and even though it can be said he was very exposed by the media, his life could not be more of a mystery.

The movie ‘As Vidas de Chico Xavier‘ (The Lives of Chico Xavier) tells the story of his life, and tries to explain what kind of person he was. Chico was a medium, he could hear and see what no one else could and, as surprising as it sounds, people believed his skill to be legitimate.

Chico was disturbed by ghosts since he was really young; his mother, who died when he was still a young child, used to visit him to calm down his nerves when he was abused by his godmother. When he got older, he was visited by his spiritual guide Emmanuel, who went on to accompany him throughout his whole life.

From that point on Chico worked by day and wrote down books whispered by spirits by night. Emmanuel assured him that was his mission in life – along with helping those who searched for his talents.

Throughout the movie, Chico is seen writing down letters dictated by spirits who wished to carry a message to their loved ones who are still alive. His fame gradually grew – however, Chico never took any donations or money offered by those he helped. And although he wrote down and published over 400 books, he never took any of the money gained by the overwhelming sales of his publications – Chico worked to sustain himself his whole life and donated the gains of his books to charity.

The movie is a set of flashbacks of Chico’s life. It is mainly set on the night he was interviewed live in a national network, in the programme ‘Pinga Fogo’ (something along the lines of Dropping/Dripping Fire), that at the time got unprecedented viewer ratings. The whole nation was watching.

When the movie begins, the production crew is seen asking each other what they think of Chico and his claims. “I don’t believe it”, one of them says, “But there’s something there…“. Another one says, “Pfft, no, I don’t believe it.”

By the end of the interview, when Chico is writing something dictated by a spirit, the first man, clutching his hands together, watching the whole affair tensely, asks, “But you really don’t believe him…?”

There is something unexplainable about the essence of Chico Xavier. Something all people who know about him are unable to ignore… and yet it cannot quite be pointed out. Something that makes you believe, no matter what religion you believe in.

A letter, written by his hand and signed by a dead man, was used in court as a key piece of evidence to clear all charges against the accused. The dead man wrote a letter to his parents – through Chico –  explaining, amongst other things, that it was all an accident that occured when he and his friends were playing with a gun.

The letter was submitted by the dead man’s parents themselves. The father, asked if he believed in spiritism when testifying, said “No. I am an atheist. It is difficult for a parent to look at his son’s killer and ask for him to be released but – I don’t know what this phenomenon is, or how it happened – but I believe this letter was written by my son.”

“The dead man has cleared all charges against his murderer!”, announced the reporter in the movie.

Although this movie is about Chico’s life, and his dedication to spiritism, it must be said that he was a man full of love and understanding. He helped anyone who asked, and even though he was taunted and mocked for years, he managed to help more people than he probably expected. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.

Chico Xavier’s spiritual guide said he would die on the day the whole of Brazil was happy. He died at age 92, on 30th of June, 2002; the day Brazil won the World Cup for the fifth time.

This movie – although you will probably not enjoy that it is not in English – is a great way to try to understand Chico Xavier and how his personality managed to convice a whole country that ghosts exist. Definitely recommended.

Read this movie’s IMDB page.
Watch the trailer, without subtitles.
Download it by torrent, with subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

“Though nobody can go back and make a new beginning… Anyone can start over and make a new ending.”

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