The Real Image

For someone with schizoaffective disorder, blockbuster films can be far too realistic.

The action/thriller/sci-fi movie Lucy debuted in San Francisco on a Thursday in July. Luc Besson’s film is based on the premise that Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson, is unexpectedly bestowed the ability to use up to one hundred percent of her brainpower; this ability gives her superpowers, and ultimately, wisdom with which to direct humankind. At its opening, Lucy had already received praise from the likes of Rotten Tomatoes and the A/V Club, though I told my husband Chris that I wanted to see the film even if it was a critical flop—for months I’d been making open-mouthed faces at him when the trailer appeared, punching him in the arm as Lucy dispatched of thugs with a flick of the wrist, or when Lucy walked through an airport, her hair morphing onscreen from blonde to black. We bought tickets for a Friday showing.

Four of us saw Lucy at the Metreon that day: Chris and I had also invited our friends Dennis and Erik, who excused themselves from work to come. I’d learned a month earlier that Erik’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia for over a decade. I didn’t know Erik well—he showed up occasionally at my house to play Dungeons & Dragons, and I recognized him as the heavily tattooed, and highly stoned, guy we’d met at a barbecue the year prior. He was the first person I’d met whose diagnosis resembles my own of schizoaffective disorder, a condition in which symptoms of schizophrenia mix with those of a mood disorder. Still, Erik and I had never spoken one-on-one about our diagnoses, or about our experiences with psychosis, and he wasn’t exactly my friend, but an acquaintance on the periphery.

I don’t know when Lucy became a problem for me. Dennis’s since told me that during an early scene in which the drug-filled bags in Lucy’s abdomen burst, and she begins to violently experience the transformation from ordinary twenty-something to superhuman entity, he almost reached over to ask if I was okay; Dennis, who’s someone I consider a brother, tends to have his fingers on the pulse of my mental illness more attentively than anyone else. I do know that at some midway point in the 90-minute film, I pulled out my emergency medication, intended for oncoming psychosis, and gulped it down with Chris’s Cherry Coke. I considered leaving, but wanted to see what would happen to Lucy, whose fate was becoming increasingly uncertain. I’d taken the dose because I felt myself slipping. I sensed myself hurtling into the reality of the film, and leaving my own behind; I could feel my brain twitching with the belief that I, too, was gaining access to more of my brain than ordinary mortals could, and that if I tried, I could destroy objects with the power of my mind. When Lucy ended, I stood and shoved past the other three in the darkness.

Erik and I were the first of our group to emerge. I said to him, trying to keep my voice light, “Are you having as much trouble as I am right now?”

He answered, “Well, I do know that I’m using 20% of my brain right now.”

In the film, access to 20% of one’s brain enables echolocation.

• • •

During a psychotic episode the winter before, Chris and I had watched Dr. Who together. By the time the episode ended, I was lost.

“Is it happening somewhere else?” I asked. “Did that just happen in another place?”

He explained the concept of television to me. The show had actors in it who also appeared in other TV shows and films. The actors had lives that had nothing to do with what happened in the TV shows and films. The actors lived in reality, which was different from the unreality of the TV shows and films. The TV shows and films were scripted by human beings, who also lived in reality, and who wrote stories. Those human beings were writers, like myself. I remained distressed until we put on MasterChef, a reality cooking show that more closely resembled the world that I was supposed to believe in.

But that happened when I was ill, during an episode of active psychosis. We intuitively knew, for example, not to watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which was in theaters at the time—and which I’d been excited about seeing—because the theatrical experience would be too immersive for my addled brain to handle. Faced with an enormous screen, and wrapped in a cocoon of Dolby Surround Sound, we understood that I’d likely become agitated. I’d believe in the Hunger Games. I’d worry about whatever District I believed myself to be in; I’d wonder whether I have the mental and physical agility to emerge as Victor. We’d decided to watch Lucy believing that I could withstand the force of its alternate reality.

Movies, to differing degrees, are made to enforce the stories they tell, and we applaud when such power is wielded efficiently. An Oscar-winning drama makes us cry, and earns our admiration, because we believe to some degree in what happens onscreen. If the story is absorbing and the director skilled, we allow ourselves to believe that the actor truly is abandoning his soul mate in a cave, and we accordingly ache if that actor is deft enough to make us believe in his pain. Even tear-jerkers can be considered efficient, if only because their melodrama cuts straight to our softest places, and gives us the pleasure of plugging into our own capacity for empathy; as Leslie Jamison writes of such cinematic shenanigans in her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” “A terrible TV movie about addiction can still make someone feel for the addict—no matter how… shameful the puppetry of heart strings.”

Film’s progression as a technology, then, compounds whatever realism does exist. Sitting and watching a projected film with rattling reels sounding in the background, or with an accompanying organist pounding away, is a different cinematic experience than that of enormous IMAX screens (IMAX’s tagline, accordingly, is “IMAX Is Believing”). During an opening scene in Lucy that features the prehistoric Lucy, I marveled at how agile CGI animation had become since The Matrix—a reality-buster that I saw at its release, and which I don’t dare to watch now—not to mention the groundbreaking Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park. But I wondered over the next twenty years, as CGI became increasingly prevalent, whether we’d look back at movies such as The Mummy, or War of the Worlds, and laugh at how easily audiences had been suckered by a technology still finding its legs. It’s possible to find an online list of the “10 Most Unconvincing CGI Characters in Movie History” as easily as the “25 Greatest CGI Movie Moments of All Time.” Prehistoric Lucy mutters, makes faces, and blends into an environment made up of elements that may or may not be constructed: a real or false river, a true or invented sky. I can’t tell the difference.

The next morning, over breakfast, I asked Chris if we could talk about Lucy. If we could figure out what triggered my reality to falter, I said, I’d know what films to stay away from.

“Well,” Chris said, “Lucy would sound crazy under ordinary circumstances, because of the things she claims she can do. The trouble for you might be that she can actually do them.” In other words, Lucy insists that my reality isn’t true reality, and goes forth to embellish, with vivid cinematic tricks, its definition of what true reality is.

There are certain qualifications that a film or television show must meet in order to cause this slippage of reality. As with the example of CGI, or with the skill of an actor, the fictional scenario presented must be “real” enough to adequately fool my senses. A Claymation fantasy film, for example, won’t cause an equivalent level of existential angst as would a big-budget, computer-generated extravaganza, because the more aesthetically complete the fiction is, the more difficult it is for me to extricate myself from it.

And yet it’s not simply aesthetics that trigger my confusion, either: As in the case of Lucy, the film or show must also challenge reality in an anxiety-producing way for the wall to dissolve. Anxiety and delusion are tightly linked in more clear-cut examples of schizophrenic psychosis. Paranoid schizophrenia is based on the prevalence of beliefs such as delusions of sin and guilt, which may cause one to believe that they’ve somehow performed mass murder, or are responsible for similar atrocities without having meant to cause them; persecutory delusions, on the other hand, cause individuals to believe they’re under threat by, say, the CIA. I panicked at Lucy not because Lucy could change her hairstyle at will, but because I was afraid that if I wasn’t careful, I could, like Lucy, slaughter those around me with the power of my mind. In “dangerous” fictions I, the viewer, am either made out to be a possible agent of harm or a possible subject of attack. With Lucy, I could have caused people to explode with a quick neural convulsion; with Catching Fire, I might have been surrounded by possible enemies on a rotating, Gamekeeper-operated island.

What about MasterChef, the reality show to which I retreated in order to feel safe again? I’m no expert when it comes to what happens behind the scenes of such programs, but I imagine that there are plenty of edits made to the thousands of hours of footage shot. One could say that MasterChef, in its manipulation of emotion and plot, is no more real than Lucy is. A dramatic cooking show, however, doesn’t aggressively challenge what I want to understand as reality. Whether or not so-and-so failed to check the mandolin before his bloody slicing accident has nothing to do with the trust I have in how reality operates offscreen in the world around me.

I did see Catching Fire in a theater. I’d secretly booked tickets for Chris and me to see a 7pm showing, which gestured at two miracles—I was no longer psychotic, and I was feeling physically well enough to venture out after dark. We sat in the Japantown Kabuki’s plush seats and watched Katniss fight for her life. I was able to engage with the story without being in the story; when the lights came up, I reached for Chris’s hand as though we were any other couple. As we walked in the cold toward the parking garage, he mentioned the film’s trackerjacker scene. On her side, Katniss is swarmed by genetically modified creatures that mimic the sound of her sister being tortured. She screams, agitated and panicking, as Peeta tries to tell her that it’s not real, but the force field keeps them apart, and she can’t hear him explain.