Monday, October 11, 2010

It's Kind of a Funny Story - Defending the Spirit of Play

Craig, the 16 year old protagonist of the film It's Kind of a Funny Story, commits himself to the local psychiatric hospital as the only alternative to jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, whereupon he meets the usual head-case suspects. In one corner of his floor is the schizophrenic. Over there is the delusional paranoid. There is a depression wing populated mostly by teenagers. Muqtada is a catatonic Egyptian and Solomon is a Hasidic Jew who ingested 100 too many LSD tablets. I'll let you guess where that story line is headed. They are all harmless, lovable nuts - despite the fact that a couple of them have tried to kill themselves. The patients, outside of an occasional outburst, are not crushed by unbearable suffering. Genuine mental pain is not the stuff of comedy. They mostly go about their quirky merry way.

The film is therefore not unlike the 1975 film adaptation of Ken Kesey's book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The big difference in this current look inside the "nuthouse," is the absence of a Nurse Ratched, the Cuckoo's Nest embodiment of malevolent bureaucratic control who R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) ends up strangling. Dr. Minerva, the psychiatrist who "treats" Craig, oozes wisdom and concern. During therapeutic sessions she sounds like the psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the so-called humanistic school of psychotherapy, a post-Freudian branch which placed "unconditional positive regard" at the center of the therapeutic "encounter." "It's not surprising that you are disappointed about that Craig. I would be too." Humanist oriented psychologists generally provide herbal tea during their sessions.

It's Kind of a Funny Story is cute and pretty much devoid of political content - unless you see the whole therapeutic apparatus itself as having political implications. Many names come to mind who have taken this position: Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic), Russell Jacoby (Social Amnesia), Barbara Ehrenreich (Bright-Sided), and the most incisive critic of the ethos of therapeutic bureaucracy, Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism, Revolt of the Elites and The True and Only Heaven).

Early in the film Craig's parents come to visit him only to discover that he has had second thoughts about admitting himself to the hospital and wants to return to school. Craig's mother responds by telling him that "They (the psychiatrists) are professionals who can help in ways that we can't." Perhaps the filmmakers were making an ironic point or merely suggesting that the family is the place where you first learn that you will not get what you want. At any rate, I thought of Lasch when I heard the line.

In his later writings - he died in 1994 - Lasch railed against what he called the "reign of specialized expertise" that he asserted grew out of the particular trajectory of modern capitalism. For Lasch, a centralized therapeutic culture embodied in the growing "helping professions," undermined democratic hopes by making citizens "clients" of state sanctioned "intervention" into our private and family lives. Workers were turned into mere consumers of the products of their labor by uniting sophisticated advertising techniques with modern technology. These insidious trends, Lasch argued, produced unhealthy dependency relationships and civic passivity. Moreover, in a society dominated by the belief that a person's social or class position is exclusively a result of their own abilities, the fight for social change is abandoned in favor of "self-realization." Class politics is internalized.

As Lasch pointed out in The Culture of Narcissism, one of the primary counterweights to an increasingly controlled and rationalized world is play. In play, we engage in arbitrary inventions, risk and chance - all of the dynamics that have been expunged from our routinized work environments. It's not a coincidence that when Craig and Bobby, his older mental hospital mentor, want to escape their confinement they head for the same place that McMurphy and the Chief went for respite in Cuckoo's Nest - the basketball court. Without play, the poet Richard Hugo wrote, people face too often and too immediately their impending doom.

According to Andrew Solomon, whose book The Noonday Demon is about his own struggle with depression, the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, the ability to let productive life instincts elaborate themselves. By the end of the film Craig begins to elaborate a different future, his survival becoming its own kind of sanity.

The particular vision he outlines for himself would have made Christopher Lasch smile. He develops a craft - painting (hard work). He embraces the support of his family and friends (loyalty). He volunteers at the hospital he has just been released from (community). He jettisons his grandiose fantasies and immerses himself in the prosaic pleasures of everyday life (personal clarity).

One of the last scenes in the movie has Craig skipping down the sidewalk alive to his own playful desire. There is no overriding architecture to Craig's social life - the kind that might be discovered or invented in a dynamic political movement - but he has made "progress," another idea that Lasch was deeply suspicious of.

As I mentioned, Craig is only 16. I say give him time. Our society just might catch up with him. How's that for hope?

Further Reading:

Christopher Bollas - Being A Character - Psychoanalysis and Self Experience
Adam Phillips - Going Sane - Maps of Happiness
Jefferson Cowie - Stayin' Alive - The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

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