Adventures in Cultural Consumption:

Silver Linings Playbook

I had a revelation when watching Silver Linings Playbook: there are really quite a striking number of characters being written for film and television who have mental illness of some kind. Perhaps that's a good thing--increased representation and visibility--but it does also change the way these are written. That's because the mental illness is not "of some kind," but always slight variations on the exact same thing: people who are unable to process emotions and experiences in the normal way, and therefore are always narrating their way through them, whether out loud or in their heads. The movie is good, and hits all the clichés with at least some originality, but its flaw is that you can never not know what the Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper characters are thinking because they always say exactly what they're thinking. It's not unlike the line from the Community parody of Glee: Abed prefers singing to real life because you can "say what you feel instead of making a face." It also connects, at least in my mind, to the (Community again) send-up of 'mockumentary' formatted tv shows, which can cheat the narrative tremendously by having characters tell you exactly what's going on. This carries through many of the most notable tv characters of the last decade or so, as well: House and Dexter and Sheldon Cooper.

The point, I think, is that these people are supposed to be deeply revealing of human nature because they're prepared to think or say those things that other people don't; by needing to question every interaction, they shed light on those things the rest of us take for granted. Instead, it's lazy writing: not trusting either the actors or the material to properly convey the nature of interaction and conflict, nor trusting the audience to understand what's going on unless it is underlined seven or eight different times.

The catch here is that, oddly, though almost no regular interactions involve people who function in these ways (you have to sort of figure out what someone else is thinking because they're not just going to, like, tell you, unless you specifically ask), writing in characters whose behavior follows the mental illness path is taken as more 'real,' because there is an accepted narrative under which regular social life is a convention and thus more or less a lie, and exposing the truth under that lie is therefore 'real.' This is one of the ways in which contemporary aesthetic realism is a rejection of things that are actually real.

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