"Canvas"(2006) is a film written and directed by Joseph Greco starring Marcia Gay Harden as Mary, a wife and mother who suffers from schizophrenia. The character is based on his own mother and the story is a re-creation of several months of his boyhood that he spent mostly with his father and at school. Before she goes into the hospital, there are set-up scenes where she acts out in front of her family, the neighbors and the police which ultimately leads her into the hospital. The reason the film is called "Canvas" is that the mother is a part time painter.
"Canvas" is a "nice" film, a family film that is more about a father and son's reaction to having their lives disrupted than about the interior life of a schizophrenia sufferer. Visually it is pleasing as it is set in Miami near the ocean and the acting is good; it is the writing that leans towards the conventional. By the time we see the small family, Mary has been diagnosed with schizophrenia for about 18 months and is only intermittently taking the medication. Even when she does agree to take the medication later on in the hospital, she continues to hear voices and to act out during visits with her husband and son. She paints when she's at home and she paints in the hospital saying that the voices go away when she does. Considering it is early in her psychosis, at a time when the illness tends to be acute for many people, she paints pleasing "normal" paintings, portraits of her son and of the beach, that don't give even a glimpse into the turmoil in her mind. Other than that she seems more eccentric than deeply insane, despite the scenes of acting out.
From what I can remember of the acute stage of my own illness, I was deeply withdrawn from people. I had great trouble concentrating when people did talk to me because the voices were so intense in my mind. I couldn't watch TV or read or paint, though I did still do some journal writing. When I was alone I talked aloud to my voices and to the people I believed had bugged my house and car, the people who followed me whenever I left the house and drove by my house regularly, sometimes beeping their horns to let me know. Mary, in contrast, almost always makes eye contact, she paints, she cooks and from the state of their house, it looks as if she cleans too. Yes, she appears to hear voices and is somewhat paranoid, but there is little indication of a deep disconnect with her surroundings, no extended monologues, talking to space, no disappearing for hours in the car, no obvious lack of self-grooming, no growing mess in the living space, no deep earnest confessions to family members of a conspiracy, no delusions of grandeur and no staying up in a manic state till the break of dawn, repeatedly.
When I got sick, I was alone. Months later in desperation I called my parents in Florida and told them I was hearing voices that were telling me I was evil, then I went to a local hospital and had to convince them that I was in enough pain to warrant being checked into their psych ward. My father arrived the next day and got me out, but only after I got the diagnosis of schizophrenia and a prescription for Prozac and Zyprexa. My parents lives were disrupted for two months. The first month my father stayed with me and the second month my mother stayed with me; my brother was living in another state. Mostly my family didn't have to deal with seeing me out of my mind, but Mr. Greco, the director of "Canvas", must have seen his mother day after day in all kinds of states. Obviously, the experience affected him or he would have never written the screenplay or directed the film. It is unfortunate that he wasn't able to go more deeply into the experience. Being alone and suffering from schizophrenia is hard enough, I can't imagine what it would have been like to be both a mother and a wife at the same time. In the film I get the point that the father and son were upset by it, but there is no real going inside their minds either, it all too much on the surface.
I know it is a challenge to try and visually describe severe mental illness precisely because it is so much on the inside of an individual. I'm also aware that making a film like this is a business venture and that the director probably had to please other people with his treatment of the story, but the film could have been much better. The actors, Marcia Gay Harden and Joe Pantoliano, who played the mother and father, are good actors and could have been pushed further into their roles. The son, played by Devon Gearhart, is a cute and likable actor, but cute and likable is not what's called for here. The subtle bond between mother and son, and the mother's break with reality and with her son, is not realized, except in a conventional way. Obviously, I am not a big fan of the conventional and safe, especially when it comes to depictions of mental illness because mental illness itself is not conventional and safe. Mental illness is challenging to experience and to describe. Still, this film could be a stepping stone in the right direction. It does portray the mother as a sensitive and suffering individual and not some deranged monster, and so it puts a human face on a complicated illness. I guess what I'm looking for is an insider's view of mental illness, or at least a close consultation between a "sane" writer and director and someone who has survived mental illness and is in recovery from it. "Canvas" is not a bad film, it's just not a great film either. You can judge for yourself by watching it for free on Hulu (with commercials) here.
A Recovery Blog
This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.