Method in its madness

Private View
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The Independent Online

Movies and madness go back a long way, which isn't entirely surprising when you consider that "seeing things" can be a central element of both.

Movies and madness go back a long way, which isn't entirely surprising when you consider that "seeing things" can be a central element of both.

In truth, there are a lot of reasons why cinema should be fascinated by madness, from intellectual fashion to simple narrative expediency. The ascendancy of Freud as an explicator of emotional turbulence generated a slew of psychological films, from the risibly exploitative to the honourably complex, and the popular understanding of analysis - that it involved a hazardous quest for a buried secret - naturally lent itself to thriller plotlines.

At a simpler level still, popular art forms have always found it more lucrative to merchandise deviations from mundane reality, and madness of the right kind - predatory and Gothic - provides perfect material. Tuck into the slipstream of a general fear and you can coast for miles with minimal expenditure of energy.

But it is the cinema of the mind that fascinates above all - the alluring possibility that film can make visible what flickers in the sealed auditorium of another person's thoughts. From The Cabinet of Dr Caligari onwards, madness has offered cinema a convenient excuse to escape from its sometimes unwilling tie to what can be photographed. In most cases, the chains are slipped with a kind of wild glee; the expressionist settings of Caligari, a world of skewed perspectives and looming architecture, treats madness - as many films do - as a kind of uncontrolled artistry, almost a style alternative to the standard-issue model of the world the sane are obliged to make do with.

In Spellbound, Hitchcock actually employed Salvador Dalí to craft a surreal landscape, scattered with portentous symbolic props. And while such moments are often crass, they can be powerful too. Hallucinations have a vividness on screen that they can achieve in no other medium, since we don't see a description of the delusion but the thing itself. When the walls bulge towards Catherine Deneuve in Polanski's Repulsion, or a typewriter transforms into a chattering insect in Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, there is a jolt of shock that objects so reliably concrete should have betrayed us.

The trouble with such scenes is that they are also special effects set-pieces. The disturbance of expectation is followed almost immediately by a kind of thrill at the sights cinema can contrive for us. Madness becomes a touristic experience for the audience, a theme-park with a set of diverting spectacles. And they implicitly suggest too that the deranged don't inhabit the same world that we do but one entirely alien, in which physical laws are suspended.

We know with complete security that these images are in quotation marks, and we are detached observers of the agony of not being able to tell where reality stops and delusion begins.

What is much harder to achieve is to represent what a mad person might feel, rather than what they might see, but that it is possible to do so is demonstrated by the opening sequence of Simon Cellan Jones's new film Some Voices. The film tells the story of a young schizophrenic emerging from treatment and attempting to substitute love for pharmaceutical treatment, and it begins with a sequence which is at once entirely conventional and subtly unnerving.

As Ray is driven home by his brother Pete, we see a point-of-view montage of London streets, moving snapshots of the variety of urban life. In a sense, this is touristic, too - but because of whose point of view it is, the scenes are all charged with potential significance. An image of a woman on the climbing wall beneath the Westway seems to offer more than incidental detail - it looks like a metaphor of Ray's own exposure, up high without a safety rope.

Later in the film, the camera will break with a conventional mid-shot of a location, to offer a sudden close-up of graffiti or a street sign - and we find ourselves automatically interrogating what we see for its connections and significance. The plight of the mad - that the world is stuffed with more meanings than it actually contains - becomes ours too.

What Cellan Jones has exploited so effectively is the fact that cinema doesn't need crazy angles or Gothic furniture to represent madness since the normality of cinematic vision - editing, framing and montage - is in fact a derangement all of its own.

After all, the cinema is a place where continuity is broken, where humble objects can suddenly take on gigantic significance, where an unseen figure really does control what we see and hear. All you need to do, then, is remind the audience that they too are in a state of delusion - at least while the film lasts.