Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
My grandparents and I arrived at the movie theater 48 minutes early. It was a matinee showing of the newish Academy Award-nominated film Silver Linings Playbook at a United Artists Theater in South Philly. The theater was a standout in a strip mall boasting “All Nite Bagels” and a smoke shop called “Holy Smokes.” My grandmother, Judy Steiker, a retired psychologist, wanted to go out after we had finished our pancake breakfast, and I had successfully talked both her and my grandfather, David Steiker, a retired pediatrician, out of seeing either Hyde Park on Hudson or Lincoln for a second time. I must have been the youngest person in the theater by a good fifty years – at one point, I coughed and three women reached into their purses to offer me a Halls.
The film – snappy and engaging and wildly unrealistic – exposed an ideological rift between my grandparents. Below is the transcript from our heated discussion, held over pineapple upside-down cake.
Abby: So, what did you think of the movie?
David: Okay. I thought the movie was done very well in terms of the acting and the producing and the directing and whatever. My objection, however, in which I think this movie is deeply flawed, is the premise that you can have somebody who has significant and serious mental problems – in which he has difficulty dealing with people, dealing with family, dealing with staying out of institutions – and all of a sudden you find that all you need is the love of a good woman and interesting work, such as dancing, and everything will be hunky dory. This is not real life experience. People who have significant mental aberration, such as presented in this picture, require long amounts of help, in terms of cognitive therapy, in terms of medications, in terms of close observation, in terms of long term care, and even under these very best of circumstances the prognosis for ultimately doing away with these serious problems is rather remote. All you can hopefully do is make an individual like this function, after a fashion, in society […] From my point of view, [the film] gives a false idea of how to deal with these problems.
A: But, on the other hand….
Judy: This is a feel-good movie. Nobody in that movie did not have significant problems, of one sort or another, and I think that … the movie was kind of a reflection on the human condition, if you will. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think it was meant to be a serious treatise on bipolar […] I think it was meant to be kind of an allegory about what happens to people when they’re able to connect with other people. I thought it was really delightful. It was funny and sad and very perceptive about people.
A: But you had no problem with the fact that it ended happily and neatly?
J: Well, it could end no other way. I mean, it was building to end that way. Yeah, I mean it was in one sense kind of tongue in cheek. I expected that to happen. I think anyone who sees it expects it to happen because we like to think that life, you know, ends happily.
A: But, you do admit that the movies manipulates the audience by providing this clean, clear-cut narrative, right?
J: Absolutely. But all movies manipulate the audience. All stories manipulate the reader. I just feel that what it did was: it was a sweet commentary on the human condition, on the fact that most of us have some problems. Well, admittedly, some people have more problems than others. But, I thought it was particularly sweet. I thought Robert DeNiro was hysterically funny […] But again, people’s intentions were good. Now, life is not always as lovely as that.
A: Do you think it’s misleading to present life as neater than it is?
J: Misleading to whom? […] Again, it’s not The Snake Pit, which was a serious movie about state hospitalization at a time when it was pretty grim and awful. I don’t think anybody will take this movie as a serious treatise. At all.
A: So, what do we think about the main message of the movie – the idea of silver linings, happy endings, Pat’s motto of “excelsior,” or …
D: It’s entertainment. And entertainment is very nice in its own way. However, to use this to make a statement about how these people […] can be helped – it’s false.
A: Well, do you think that the idea of a happy ending doesn’t exist at all in the real world?
D: I’m sure it does, on occasion. Unfortunately, not terribly often with these kids.
A: What about, not just for mental illness, but for anybody … the idea that things will kind of wrap up, that everything has a silver lining, no matter how awful?
D: This has been shown over many decades that if you want to have a successful movie, you really ought to have a happy ending. And if you don’t have a happy ending, you sort of redo the movie so that you do.
J: No, I mean, if you’re talking about real life, I do think that optimism takes people a very long way, it really does. They live longer, and they generally live happier lives. And I do think that that contributes to a happy life, no matter who you are, or how ill you are.
D: But there has to be a sense of realism.
J: I knew you were going to say that. Reality. Yeah. Again, David, I don’t know … I don’t take it as seriously – I don’t take the whole movie as seriously.
D: Would this be a better movie if the two women that he is involved with – his former wife, and his present girlfriend – both left him?
A: Do you think so?
D: Well, it would be a more honest probability.
J: I don’t think so. I don’t really think so. I think that, in a lot of respects, what has happened is that he has recognized reality about his wife, and his fixation on going back sort of slowly dissipates. So, in some ways, he’s achieved some reality. But you guys could clarify something for me – I thought I heard his girlfriend say she wrote the letter from his wife.
J: That’s what I thought.
D: She was manipulating reality.
A: What’s the value, then, of manipulating reality?
D: It has to be honest.
A: Okay. I mean, in this case, in terms of the letter, it reached a happy conclusion, it did what it had to do, and it brought two people together, even though it was technically false. And in terms of the movie, it’s uplifting, inspiring, it makes you feel good, but the drawback is that it’s not based in truth.
D: And therefore dishonest.
J: I don’t really feel like this is so dishonest. What she was doing in writing that letter was trying to both be kind and let him down gently.
A: So is that kind of what art does? Lets us down gently?
J: Sometimes. I mean, she actually – that letter really brought reality into the room, in the sense that she wasn’t rushing to come back, which was reality, because she really wasn’t rushing to come back. And I think there had been such a breach of trust on both parts – between him and his wife – that it was highly unlikely that they would ever bridge that.
A: Let’s talk about an instance in the movie when art completely lets down the protagonist. At one point, he’s reading A Farewell to Arms and it doesn’t end happily – and he throws the book out the window. That seems to show that he can’t handle reality, and he can’t handle stories that don’t show the silver lining.
D: But he has to handle reality because that’s all there is.
A: And yet, the movie seems to negate that conclusion.
D: Except you have to be honest with your audience. And try to indicate to your audience that this person that has significant mental aberration can be happier if he has good things happen to him and has a woman who loves him well – is a probability that is very small
J: Better a small probability than not. My feeling is: better play the odds for that – than what? Be hopeless?
D: No, give him some realistic help.
J: My sense is people have to have that kind of hope. He also frames his illness in the whole idea of excelsior and silver linings – he was framing his illness to give him some opportunity for hope.
A: You didn’t find that delusional?
J: No, I didn’t, I really didn’t. That’s not a delusion. He had delusions, about his wife and whatever, but in some sense he was attempting to find an answer that would give him hope.
A: Even if it wasn’t strictly true. In that case, which story is more valuable – the Hemmingway tale of woe or the uplifting Hollywood drama?
J: Both … remember [the musical] Next to Normal? Well, there was a case of bipolar with all of its awful ramifications. And yet, the woman in the play was trying desperately to find a way, at the end. It meant separation from her husband … she felt it would give her some distance so she could deal with the demons. And we came out of that play pretty shook up. It was harrowing. Remember, David? It was harrowing. But it left you, also, with the feeling that, bad as it was, she was making some attempt … I don’t take the view that it’s not going to turn out no matter what, or that it’s going to turn out okay in only very small instances.
A: I think – going back to our previous discussion – part of the power of art, even if it is delusional or fake, is to provide hope or comfort, so in that case I find it valuable to be tricked or manipulated to provoke a positive emotion. But I do think there is a place for brutally honest art, too. The fact, though, that in this movie you’re cutting it off at a really high, beautiful moment… that’s not terrible. As long as you know that there will be more lows than highs, possibly, there’s no harm in preserving one nice moment.
D: More to the point, what will life be one week from now?
A: I think it does leave that question up to possibility. You see some really, really awful scenes of him hitting his mother and losing control, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that this kind of behavior is going to happen at least a little bit in his future. I think the movie acknowledges that while also presenting a portrait of hope… So, one final question. One of the other themes in the movie is the power of family to help the protagonist – in some ways. His father has faith in him, if only as token of luck for his gambling problem. His parents seem to really care about him. And at the end you see them going through their Sunday tradition – making the food, sitting down for the game, he’s got his friend there, they’re all together. So, what do we see as the power of family – in general, but also as relating to mental illness?
D: It’s always a helpful thing. Sometimes more so than others. Especially when a family is as dysfunctional as their family was.
J: It was, but it worked in its own peculiar, zany way. If anybody was delusional in that family, it was his father. I mean, he had all of these delusions about what his son could do in terms of the Eagles. Last year, we really needed somebody to do that in terms of the Eagles. But, fact of the matter was he also wanted to help. And I was interested in his mother, who in her own way was a strong force of trying to help him out of the hole – getting him out of the hospital, and trying to get him back to a normal life … In her own quiet way, she was kind of a fulcrum, and people kind of moved around her. She also cooked a lot.
D: By the way, our current rate, incidentally, is 50 dollars an hour.
A: Okay, I guess I’ll turn this off now.
J: Turn it off, turn it off.
After I turned off my tape recorder, my grandmother continued. She wasn’t surprised they had this disagreement, she said to her husband of almost 55 years. “It’s characteristic of the way we see things – I think you see things in a very rational way, and it tends to be somewhat black and white, and I tend to see things in all sorts of shades of gray.” Maybe you need both sides, then, for anything to make sense, or to last. The creative and the pragmatic, the optimistic and the realistic, the hope and the truth. In marriage as in film.
Leaving the theater after the movie, my grandfather crossed the street first, half-blinded by the late afternoon sun. He stopped, in the very center of the road, having lost track of my grandmother. Behind him, a familiar voice: “I’m here if you’re looking for me.” The two of them then walked the rest of the way together, starting up a discussion that would, it seems, never be quite settled.
Featured image courtesy of imdb.com