Carlton M Davis

The Bipolar Coaster

“OF TWO MINDS” premiered at the Cleveland Film Festival

Can someone who appears in a documentary film write a review of it?

Posted Apr 24, 2012

Film Still of Carl Davis Drawing

I was overwhelmed with emotion by the film. It is one thing to write about yourself as I have in my book, Bipolar Bare. It is a very different and visceral experience to see yourself on film. A photographic image records the real. I saw myself in my madness and recovery. The effects of bipolar disorder are written on my face. Unlike writing nothing is left to the imagination. In one disturbing image my pallid and somewhat bloated face captured me at my most addicted and sick state. My first view of the film left me depressed. I have bipolar disorder and it won’t go away. I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing to allow myself to be featured in this documentary.

Doug and Lisa discovered me at a NAMI event where I was promoting my book. For almost four years Doug and Lisa followed the others and me around, filming us in various locales. They collected old photographs of us and interviewed those close to us. They edited all this material into a powerful and evocative portrait of each person that is supported by the remarks of others with the illness, psychiatrists, a vignette about the suicide of a young woman in Michigan, and the pain that event has caused for her mother and sister, and a wonderful sidelight of Psycho Donuts in Campbell, California, where the waitress addresses the criticism of the store by mental health advocates by saying a very witty remark. I was one of those who protested against Psycho Donuts. I wrote a blog trashing the shop; maybe I was being a bit too serious. Bipolar Disorder is a serious illness, yet Doug and Lisa have created a film that explains the condition without psychiatric bias, one that reveals the spectrum of Bipolar Disorder.

I could not see this after I first saw the film. I had to wait for the shock to wear off. When I saw the film “OF TWO MINDS” two more times in Cleveland I could grasp how the film shed light on the condition that is very insightful and poetic without being a psychological dissection of the illness. The audience gets to see four people with mania and depression as humans not as patients. This is the film’s great strength. It is about four people coping with the illness. It is not about how horrible the illness is, what people with the illness should do, or how society should treat the illness. Doug and Lisa have created a portrait of the condition as it is lived by people who still function in the world. The portraits of the featured four show how different each person responds to their illness and how they have developed strategies for living a full life. The film establishes a nuanced array of scenes that reveal each character in the context of family, friends and lovers.

The film, which goes back and forth between the four-featured people, starts with Cheri, a Los Angeles makeup artist, dancing by herself in a state of what she calls mania. She is in constant motion, swaying her arms and hips rhythmically. The unending movement captures Cheri’s transient soul. We are introduced to her boyfriend Petey, a musician and artist. He is intrigued by Cheri’s moods, then later finds out he too has the condition. Petey’s and Cheri’s struggle is followed throughout the film. Cheri and Petey represent young people.

I get introduced next in the film with the image of a wire screen from a freeway bridge. This mesh separating the audience from a reality beyond becomes the marker for my story. Each person in the film has a marker. For Cheri it is walking. For me it is the transparent screen. My story begins with me recounting the events of my childhood as old photographs show my mother and me, my father and stepmother and me, and me as a college student. Seeing these old photos enlarged on the screen was very unsettling. My whole life gets laid out in photographs from youth, my checkered career, to my present advanced age. I talk about my own suicide attempt, and my erratic behavior. By my wayward career and Cheri’s constant moves, two symptoms of the disorder are powerfully illustrated. I am the old person in the film.

We are then introduced to Liz, who tells the story that set off her bipolar behavior, and caused a later self-admittance to a mental hospital in Texas. In a haunting image of a patient standing alone in a hospital corridor, Liz recounts her history of hospitalizations. Liz’s story is revealed in relationship to her parents and specifically to her mother, an archetypal Jewish mom. Liz’s marker is her family. Liz reads from a suicide letter in one of the many comic moments in this film. The film’s interplay between comic and tragic situations underscores the film’s complex composition. Liz is the middle-aged person in the film

The story of these people and me is woven into a full dimensional portrait of the illness from multiple segments about each person. I mention a few of the many engaging scenes. In one delightful short sequence we see Cheri drinking a vile looking brown Chinese herbal drink; then with a wry smile she wipes her pursed lips as if savoring the liquid. Cheri is a woman with plunk. In one very visual sequence, which reminded me of Magritte, Petey is moving through a doorway with the artwork of a 1500 razor blade-outlined man on the wall next to the passageway. Petey is a man of mystery. In one memorable sequence Liz’s mother asks Liz, who says she is ninety percent gay, how marginalized she wants to make herself. She understood Liz’s bipolar nature because she is bipolar herself. Mom sums up her support for her daughter with a very humorous remark. ” Liz laughs. She has a sense of humor about herself. She is someone you can love. The filmmakers skillfully recorded scenes that speak eloquently of each person’s individuality. The film is a visual tour-de-force capturing images that are like narrative paintings.

To my great pleasure, I was shown as an artist. An image of my Diaphane #1 flashed on the screen. This see-through sculpture related to the screen of the freeway bridge. It simultaneously spoke to the transparency of reality and the two-sided nature of all things. I was revealed as a formerly crazy cross-dresser with two selves. I talk about how I reached a bottom and was going to throw myself off a freeway bridge. The wire fence of the freeway bridge appeared again with vehicles zooming past below. The film in its dialogue, strong visual images, and interrelationship of characters creates a dramatic tension.

“OF TWO MINDS” is a full spectrum film full of humor, moments of exquisite pain, and rare insight. Doug and Lisa have created a film that humanizes a serious illness in a way that is visually rich, dialogue intense, and full of metaphors. There is one scene at the very end of the film that highlights the essense of this wonderful film. You will have to see it to understand. The filmmakers have captured in a new way the nature, both good and bad, of Bipolar Disorder. Having overcome my initial shock I can say, I am very pleased to be a part of this documentary. I believe it will be meaningful and DE stigmatizing for all people. “OF TWO MINDS is an important film.

The film will be shown at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 28th, The Los Angeles Union Film Festival on April 29th, and the New York Union Film Festival May 14th, 2012. Later this year DVD's of the film will become available. Look for it on the web at: 

Carl Davis