Movie notes: An Angel at My Table

Catching up on a few movies. I should say that I'm calling these "movie notes" rather than "reviews," because they are essentially something like reading notes, taking note of interesting aspects of a movie I could imagine wanting to write about at some point. (Though inevitably I'll hit some movies I have no intention of ever writing about, and hopefully with those the notes can be brief.) I'm no film scholar or visual studies person, so I won't be focusing on the work that is done by the angles of shots, closeups vs. distance in camera work, etc. Rather, I'm more likely to focus on themes that tie in with my interests, which are sometimes writing interests but may be separate. (I've never written about the "man with no name" trope or postapocalypse, but both of these are longstanding cinematic interests.)

This movie is a biopic / film version of the autobiography of Janet Frame, a New Zealand poet and fiction writer whose work I haven't read. I wanted to watch this movie because of the exploration of themes of mental health (etc.) and writing. I think I added it to my list of movies to watch when I was watching movies about writers' block, but this movie doesn't fit at all - save for a summer love affair, Frame never seems to let anything block her writing. (Writers' block movies are also 80-90% focused on male protagonists, which is an interesting note for another post.)

The movie itself is beautifully filmed, but kind of workmanlike in its realism - rather striking given Frame's writing style, which is characterized as more along the lines of magical realism. Of course, it might be an accurate rendition of the autobiography, but I would've liked Frame's voice to come through a little more; I suspect I might like her writing more than I liked the movie. It was pretty good, but biopics are often not my thing.

There's a lot that's interesting about her life and this portrayal of it. The attitude towards mental health stands out, as Frame is subjected to more than eight years of hospitalization and electroshock therapy only to be told, years later, by another psychiatrist in Britain, that she had never suffered from schizophrenia. The movie (and apparently, according to reviews, the autobiography) remain ambivalent about whether Frame did in fact suffer from a mental health condition. She is not very well served by the mental health establishment, until a British psychiatrist tells her, if you don't feel like seeing people, stay home, or something of the sort.

Frame is painfully shy and sometimes has something like social anxiety attacks. Of course the movie doesn't present a diagnostic framework, but this seems to be closer to her real emotional issue than what we would now call schizophrenia. It's interesting to think about whether this movie fits into an antipsychiatry narrative. It seems pretty clear that the mental health establishment misdiagnoses, pathologizes, and institutionalizes her, only to later chalk it up to a big mistake which reverses the either / or: you were never schizophrenic, so you're normal. The starkness of that either / or is a good example of the kind of mid-century notions of normalcy vs. pathology (in the working classes and subordinate social groups) which I'm arguing in the diss. changes dramatically after the 1970s. Today, someone in her position would be run through an almost Scholastic litany of diagnostic possibilities: if it's not schizophrenia, is it bipolar? Social anxiety disorder? One review I read speculatively "diagnosed" her as being on the autism spectrum. Etc. But in the 1940s and 50s, especially for someone of a working-class or subordinate background, it's more: not schizophrenic? Must be normal!

She is subjected (uselessly, it seems) to electroshock therapy, and is nearly given a procedure something like a lobotomy, until a book of her short stories wins a national prize and she is barely saved. In other hands, this story might have become an antipsychiatry broadside. Instead, she's just happy to have escaped the knife, and she eventually escapes the institution and in fact receives some support, initially informal and later formal, to write.

The portrayal of her family life is quite well done I think, showing some dysfunction in her family while also showing lots of loving and beautiful moments. Clear autobiography here; in the hands of someone else, it's hard to imagine a story about a woman from a poor / working-class family growing up to have mental health issues that isn't deeply pathologizing. The movie is pretty interesting around gender, class, and mental health. And here (more around gender and class than mental health) I was reminded of women in my family who grew up in rural, poor / working-class families as intellectuals: being thought of as not quite a proper lady for being so interested in books, etc. (I'm sure that construction is broader than rural Anglophone working-class / farm areas, but there was a specific resonance e.g. to stories my mom tells about growing up that I'm not quite sure I'm naming.)

*SPOILER ALERT* of a sort - spoiling the middle part of the movie, I guess, but it's not a movie that is driven by plot reveals. Frame sees herself as desexualized compared to her peers and sisters, who are chasing boys, having sex, etc. Sex is an object of much curiosity but no practice, until she has a summer fling with a history professor (and terrible self-professed "poet") from the US while in Spain, after being discovered in New Zealand. The relationship means more to her than to him, and, though the details of this are a bit vague, it seems that he gets her pregnant and she miscarries.

Small thing I was struck by: after coming back from Spain, she is received in New Zealand as something of a celebrity; photographers seek her out from the newspaper. Is this a feature of 1960s literary culture, that people still cared about writers in a way they don't now? Or a feature of small-nation pride, to seek out its native daughter who has done something kind of obscure and impressive? Or both?
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This is so weird. I believe I've seen this movie, although years and years ago. Is it that old that that is possible?
Entirely possible - 1990. I suppose I should say that somewhere, if I'm going to be reviewing old movies like they came out last week...