Sully's Movie Essays

The most extraordinary ordinary man:

A view of A Beautiful Mind

I originally purchased the tape "A Beautiful Mind" only because part of it was filmed in studios in Bayonne. I did not realize until half way through the film just how personal it was for me - and how deeply emotional I would feel by the film's end, not only because of the intended reaction the filmmaker shaped, but because how the film delved into my own personal history.

Without giving away too many secrets, the film is about a mathematical genius who suffers from schizophrenia and his struggle to overcome its effects.

Few films I have seen in my life so accurately portrayed the internal conflict a soul suffers especially in determining what is real and not real. And few films brought back a life long battle to understand my mother's madness as this film did.

Where the hero of this film saw fictional characters, my mother heard fictional voices - and listened to them throughout my upbringing to the day she died a few years ago.

Few who are not schizophrenic can truly understand all that a person goes through, but those of use who spent a life time mingled in the turbulent waters treaded by someone we love learn to recognize the patterns of behavior as I did as this film unfolded. I knew the writers and director had paid close attention to the subject and managed to capture on film an element of non-reality I had experienced with my mother.

The film conveys one of the central issues in this kind of madness by leaving us the viewers to suffer through the doubt and torment along with the character, refusing to give us concrete evidence until relatively late in the film as to whether or not the main character is crazy.

We hang on the edge for a good part of the flick, no knowing if the character is made or whether his paranoid tale is valid - and secretly we cheer him on in the hopes he is not mad.

My mother was less forthcoming about her delusions, keeping them secret from the rest of the world so that I spent most of my life attempting to work out the code of her existence, struggling to survive her paranoia, dragged behind her when her ghosts gave chase and we suddenly fled across the state or the nation to places she believed her ghosts would not find us.

As with the main character in the movie, my mother felt persecuted and perpetually sought to protect me from unknown forces she closely associated with voices only she could hear.

As with the main character of the film, my mother's voices (his imaginary friends) would not go away, always whispering to her with implied threats and like the character in the film, my mother was seduced back into her mad ways, even giving up her medicine because her voices told her they were no good. She might have spent the rest of her life in an institution had not modern science come up with an injection she could take once a month that dampened the influence of her voices. Yet as with the main character's imaginary friends, the voices remained even when she was drugged, waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and take over her life again.

Unfortunately, my mother lacked the strong will that the main character in "A Beautiful Mind" had. She could not overcome her demons. She fell back again and again, where as the main character chose to no longer talk to his.

As a film, two factors feed into making "A Beautiful Mind" work: the absolute normalcy of the opening scenes and the mystery structure the film used to help blur the line between what is real and what is not.

We are lulled into his delusions right from the moment the film opens during the first day at Princeton University - a moment that even in a college with less brilliant students baffles and confuses people, and becomes a breeding ground for loneliness and disassociation. We do not consider the main character abnormal partly because the change from old life to new is always disoriented - people leave family and old friends behind and must start life over by meeting new people and making new friends. And this is more of a chore for people as shy as the main character is. So in viewing him in this context, we see little wrong with his behavior.

The fact that this is Princeton and his is considered brilliant only widens our scope of acceptability. These are some of the best and brightest minds of their generation and therefore we expect them to act - well - a little off. The character Nash has also crossed cultural lines traveling to the Ivory Tower world of the Ivy League from a southern college traveling into a whole new culture without even a passport.

We are relieved not suspicious when Nash makes friends with a more or less normal student, beginning a remarkable dance with the edge of reality. We cannot yet suspect that only Nash sees or interacts with this student, although there are critical clues such as when the character arrives at Nash's room where even Nash is surprised at the fact that he has a room mate. He thought he was to live alone. Later, when the doctors checked, they discovered Nash had no room mate and in fact did live alone.

Tossing the desk out his room's window - if that indeed transpired at all - hardly fit with the character of the college. Nash's new friend, in fact, seemed a little too normal for that setting, more subtly suited to a more conventional college where pranks of that kind were more common. Other gentle clues pepper the film's landscape, too subtle to catch on first glimpse, but evidence that we can later use to show his madness when we return for a reviewing later.

As pointed out previously, Nash's genius masks his madness for us. Like many brilliant students, he wants "an original idea," and is apparently dissatisfied with adopting more the more conventional thesis his fellow students adopt. And because he achieves this, we as viewers are again lulled into accepting his other eccentricities. This aspect later works against our believing him as a genius at all when - after he has been treated for his madness - one of his former fellow students looks over a pad of computations Nash has been struggling with only to find it gibberish and as much an illusion we think as the work he had committed himself to when we believed he was a spy.

When we finally decide he is mad, we begin to suspect and disbelieve all the events the film had portrayed previous, believing every aspect to be an aspect of his madness, not the genius to which he lay claim.

In this aspect lay the film's brilliance, maintain a tension of doubt long enough for us to question all that is real. Our sympathies are almost constantly aligned with Nash as hero -- so that we willingly walk down the deceptive path of madness with him, not once, but twice. Even after we are alerted to his condition, when we know that he could possibly be mad and we watch him hauled off to an insane asylum, we doubt the charges, seeing them as part of the conspiracy against him, believing that he has become the target of a dire and evil plot. So that when his imaginary friends reappear we - at least for a time - believe our hero is vindicated.

The film's ability to smear the line at which we step from firm reality to the paranoid world of Nash's mind makes the whole illusion work. Even in review, I struggled to find the exact moment when Nash stepped over into the fantasy world - or rather find anything more than clues to what was illusion. The film treats it all as one seamless reality, never really tipping its hand. This may be why it succeeds so well. We never get a wink or a nod. We just get the story and later, we reevaluate the earlier information by what we learn later in the film. So in film reality, we as viewers trusted all we heard and saw in the same way Nash did and distrusted those who challenged it. We are reluctantly dragged out of Nash's head when we come upon more reliable information that tells us he is nuts, and we would be nuts, too, if we continued to support his delusion.

Then, the film brings out its most potent charge, unveiling the central irony of Nash's life story. This man who had held out at college so as to do something extraordinary struggled in a daily fight to cling to a normal life, forcing his ghosts into the background, forcing himself through daily routines his earlier self would have distained. Students mock him. Teachers pity him. His wife struggles to maintain her love for him. But his persistence to win a place in the world of the normal wins over all the others, especially the audience.

If that is not enough, we are then told that Nash had indeed done something more, as if surviving madness was not in itself an accomplishment of a life time. He had in fact done something else that was extraordinary and that he world was to recognize him for it by award him - now the most extraordinary ordinary man with the Nobel Prize in economics.

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