The Mental Filmness Hall of Fame: Philip Brubaker

I’ll never forget the first-ever Mental Filmness. It was a little two-day affair held in the multidisciplinary arts venue Comfort Station in the heart of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. It was even smaller and no-budget than it is now, and when I reached out to the selected filmmakers I told them of course they were invited to the festival in Chicago, but we couldn’t afford to pay any travel or accommodation fees. A few people still took me up on the offer, and one of those people was Philip Brubaker, who traveled from Florida to Chicago on his own dime.

As I was setting up, of course, I experienced technical difficulties. To my horror, I realized out of the handful of people who had wandered in while we were troubleshooting, one was Philip, who I recognized. His film was a documentary called Brushes With Life, about a program and gallery that featured artists with mental illness, and he was one of them. He didn’t tell me I should have arrived earlier or tested or had a backup, or ask how it was going to affect the timing of his film and Q & A, or any of those things. He just sat there calmly and made some joke about how I was experiencing typical first festival difficulties. I think it became clear to me that he wanted it to succeed just as much as I did, and that gave me renewed courage and perseverance.

Philip stayed the entire day, watching all of the films, and gave a very gracious and insightful Q & A after his own film. One of our jury members described “Brushes With Life” as “exactly what we’re looking for” in terms of an empathetic and realistic portrayal of mental illness, something we were still defining at the time. He seemed to appreciate the Realism Award we gave him, and that was before I even had a color printer. If it hasn’t become clear by now, I kind of think Philip is a wonderful human in addition to being a wonderful filmmaker and mental health advocate.

That’s why I started beaming when I saw Philip had entered another film this year. I think I smiled even more when I saw the title: How to Explain Your Mental Illness to Stanley Kubrick. Sure, I’m biased, and maybe I had watched too many serious movies about mental health, but something about it really pinged my love of absurdist humor when I started watching it. When Philip first conjured his hero Stanley Kubrick from the year 1980 to confront him about the problematic portrayals of mental illness in his films and Kubrick appeared there huddled like a wild raccoon under a flashlight beam, I actually laughed out loud. I did again when Philip started dancing with Kubrick and throwing popcorn into his mouth.

While humorous, however, the film also displays some raw vulnerability. Philip opens up and shares stories and photographs of some of his own painful memories of his struggles with bipolar disorder, including once when he cried so hard he gave himself a nosebleed. Philip has also become a successful video essayist and engages those skills to use film clips to critique Kubrick’s treatment of mental illness as well as show Kubrick what experiencing mental illness is really like.

All of these elements together make Philip’s film very difficult to describe or classify. It’s part video essay, part raw memoir, and part a re-evaluation of one of his heroes. What I didn’t realize was that the film was actually made during a rare psychotic episode and shaped into its final form by a more stable hand. As someone who shares Philip’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I guess I am allowed to say this, I could feel some of that fun manic creative energy at work in it.

Philip you are definitely one of the stars of the Mental Filmness festival who has helped shape it from the beginning, and we very much appreciate you.

Everyone should watch How to Explain Your Mental Illness to Stanley Kubrick (how could you resist that title?) for free in the virtual festival:

Also check out my interview with Philip Brubaker, where as usual he is very insightful and sheds a lot of light on how the film was conceived and made:

Also check out a special bonus interview Jim Laczkowski did with Philip Brubaker for the Director’s Club, which provides some fascinating detail about Philip’s artistic background and the art of video essays:

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