One of the attractions of the Bay Area is that the definition of what’s normal and what’s aberrant differs from elsewhere in the country. Longtime local experimental filmmaker Ken Paul Rosenthal is doing his part to overturn conventional wisdom with Crooked Beauty, a forthcoming poetic documentary on mental illness. "I’m highly suspect of prior documentaries on mental health struggles that romanticize or objectify the ‘mad other’ as genius or savant, or visualize an inter-subjective view of ‘insanity’ through stylistic excess," he declares.
The film had its genesis in Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness, a magazine that an artist and writer named Ashley co-edited three years ago with Sascha DuBrul. Co-founders of the Icarus Project, the duo argued that so-called psychiatric condition such as bipolar were not diseases to be cured but "mad gifts to be cultivated."
"Ashley’s opening essay articulated my experience of the world in a manner I could not have considered or conceptualized on my own," Rosenthal recalls. "In a flash of inspiration, I envisioned my project and immediately contacted Ashley to discuss her participation. It took an entire year to gain her trust, and prove I was not a member of the mainstream media but an independent artist, a fellow traveler and an ally."
Their collaboration blends Ashley’s voice-over, describing her arduous path from psych ward to activist, with Rosenthal’s subjective and non-literal imagery. Crooked Beaty is not your standard PBS doc, obviously, with its emphasis of the experiential and artistic.
"My film positions Ashley’s testimony over urban and natural environments to suggest that madness is not only a reflection of an individual’s mental condition, but also a broad and complex field of forces and phenomena that shape our collective human experience," Rosenthal says. "Though my images are poetically lensed, often to the point of abstraction, Ashley’s gracefully articulated narrative infuses them with meaning. Hence, the outer world functions as a ‘psychological road map’ for both speaking subject and viewer alike."
Rosenthal’s non-traditional approach may not sound like the obvious choice for reaching filmgoers used to a certain breed of social-issue documentaries distinguished by spoon-fed facts, carefully crafted arguments and emotional melodrama. Well, guess again. "Thus far," he reports, "both mental health professionals and common viewers appear to have no trouble accessing the core message. And I think that’s largely because I’m making each and every image as strikingly beautiful as possible in order to reach the head through the heart."
Rosenthal, who teaches at the Academy of Art and City College, lists filmmaking itself as a crazy-making activity.
"For me, a film set is akin to a psych ward. As I was conceptualizing this film, and as I went into production, I came to realize there’s an intrinsic madness to ritualized forms of making films. The rigor of it, the intrinsic power relationships and the ideology of any film reflects the cultural and political zeitgeist at the time in which it was made."
We’ll find out when the film is finished next year. "It is my hope," Rosenthal declares, "that at the end of my film the viewer will have given birth to their own mad child and nurture it in a way that will lead to healing, wholeness and integration.
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