Ken Paul Rosenthal on Mental Health Advocacy Through Film
On the future of mental health
Posted April 11, 2016
The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Ken Paul Rosenthal
EM: What was the genesis of your film, Crooked Beauty?
KPR: In Winter 2005, I read an article by the artist Jacks Ashley McNamara that touched the core of my identity as a filmmaker. In her story “Anatomy of Flight,” which chronicles her transformation from being a patient of the Western psychiatric establishment to a radical mental health activist, Jacks describes how “the world seemed to hit me so much harder and fill me so much fuller than anyone else I knew. Slanted sunlight could make me dizzy with its beauty and witnessing unkindness filled me with physical pain.”
Similarly, my own experience of the world had always been one of visual osmosis; light clung to me like liquid to a dry sponge. As a child, I would frequently stare down the sun, holding my gaze until the sensation was unbearable. Whether holding my hand to hot irons, teetering on the precipice of great heights, or pricking my flesh with my X-acto blades, I felt invited to reach for places that were clearly unsafe. Was there something wrong with me, or was I in need of models and mentorship that could help me make the transition from having my sensitivities overwhelm me, to having them give me information I could use?
I immediately recognized that telling Jack’s story would help clarify my own story, as well as help illuminate the innumerable shades of mental stress that we all struggle with. I recognized parallels between the disease model of treating “mental disorders” and the industry model of mainstream filmmaking, both of which elevate power and profit over insight and integration. I imagined a film that approached mental health issues from unique thematic and visual perspectives—one that would restore authenticity to experiences that are marginalized and stigmatized in our society.
EM: What distinguishes Crooked Beauty from other mental health documentaries?
KPR: As I began to conceptualize Crooked Beauty, I found that many contemporary mental health films either referenced images of despair and self-harming, indulged stylized excess to illustrate a highly subjective view of insanity, or perpetuated the myth of the mad genius/savant. For me, these films ultimately became portraits of otherness rather than empathy. As a filmmaker with an experimental background and fresh concerns about representation, I became particularly obsessed with how we would see Jacks onscreen. The traditional mode of the featured character speaking to an off-screen interviewer felt contrived and inauthentic because it deferred to an unseen authority. So I began to think outside of representation and more about embodiment. What if I dispensed with a talking head altogether, and found symbols for the face of madness?
Where so many films function like over the counter prescriptions for escaping the world, my film returns viewers to it. Crooked Beauty employs images from natural and urban landscapes to embody difference and conflict as visual counterparts to extreme mood states. Connecting the fissures and fault lines of human nature to the unstable topography and mercurial weather patterns of the San Francisco Bay Area situates both the speaking subject and viewer in a broad and complex field of forces and phenomena that shape our collective human experience.
The outer world functions as a psychological road map upon which to explore the geography of breakdown and the regenerative power of nature. Jacks’s history inhabits familiar places—her words illustrate the images—transforming the mundane into talismans and the transitory into narrative markers. The edges and agitations where light and shadow and urban and natural spaces intersect would embody what Jacks refers to as the “fragile fire” in her mind. The grammar and syntax of cinema becomes her voice, the film becomes her body.
EM: What are your thoughts about film as a medium for addressing mental health issues?
Film can function as a touchstone and totem pole around which audiences will gather if they feel invited into an inclusive and transformative space, rather than witness a graphic depiction of someone else’s trauma. Jacks’s vision for making our own maps in response to society’s prescribed models for normalcy inspired me to cultivate a new process for finding images that authentically embody madness.
In Crooked Beauty she states, “There would be a lot less ‘mental illness’ in our society if people were given spaces to work through emotions like anger and grief instead of denying and suppressing them.” In the mid-19th century, the cramped, poorly lit structures and layouts of mental hospitals were redesigned as sanctuaries of compassion intended to facilitate the patient’s recovery and self-healing. The power of architecture to shape human behavior affected how the patients saw themselves, as well as how they were seen. Similarly, the framework of Crooked Beauty supports a new moral architecture that liberates Jacks from the confines of photographic representation and encourages the viewer to freely integrate the testimony into their own experience. Cinematic space—both onscreen and in the theater—is re-imagined as a collective site for navigating the space between brilliance and madness. I’ve presented this film in person more than 300 times over the past six years, and cherish how openly audiences have participated in mutually supportive dialogue after each screening.
EM: After Crooked Beauty, you created two additional films to complete a trilogy called, Mad Dance. What were your intentions with the trilogy?
KPR: The job of the poet is to make grief beautiful, which is not meant to glorify trauma in any way whatsoever. I simply believe that the most transformative pathway to the head is through the heart with beauty as the gateway. So my singular intention with the Mad Dance Trilogy was to produce films that were beautiful and provocative without being triggering; a challenge that really hit home when mere days before completing Crooked Beauty, I popped my cork and walked myself into a psych ward. Becoming intimately involved with Jack’s story invited my childhood traumas to the surface. I’d spent my entire life demonizing my Shadow, holding it at arm’s length, rather than recognizing it as an unruly child who acts out when it is denied attention.
At my screening presentations, I was always quoting Carl Jung, who said, “If you get rid of the pain before you answered its questions, you get rid of the self along with it.” So I finally dived in, and made the second film in the trilogy, For Shadows, in which I excavate and re-author the home movies of my formative years to unravel the tangled roots of self-harm. The third film, In Light, In!, recycles 1950’s-era social hygiene films into a visual essay about the awkward and angry junctures where our culture struggles to manage its emotional distress. My goal with each film was to transpose human experience with as much compassion as possible, so that the story can function as a touchstone for the viewer to heal. Although each film is very distinct from one another aesthetically, they collectively re-envision how we think, speak and feel about mental distress and wellness with insight, healing and hope.
EM: How would you define your role as a mental heath artist-activist?
KPR: I ardently believe that all creative expression, regardless of the medium, is fundamentally about giving the common citizen access to feelings and ideas that they would otherwise not have the space to encounter or skills to embrace. As an artist who works in the medium of film, I feel I have a responsibility to not simply create objects for people to look at and walk away from. I’m more drawn towards engendering a collective space for deep introspection and conscious dialogue. Making work that not only exists as a piece of art, but also functions as a tool for personal and societal transformation. Seeking innovative models for representing personal and political madness challenges me to continue charting new maps for wellness in these chaotic times.
EM: What is your current mental health film project?
KPR: It’s called Whisper Rapture: A Bonfire Madigan Suite
Ken Paul Rosenthal is a cinema artist and mental health activist whose work weaves personal, societal, and musical narratives on madness through natural and urban landscapes, home movies, and archival educational films. Emotionally intelligent and visually sensual, his films are ‘illuminated texts’ that touch the mind through the heart. His Mad Dance Mental Health Film Trilogy has won 17 awards and screened in 58 festivals worldwide. http://www.kenpaulrosenthal.com
More information on Crooked Beauty and the Mad Dance Mental Health Film Trilogy: http://www.maddancementalhealthfilmtrilogy.com
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here
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