Erasing The Distance – Room For Light

I was lucky enough to attend the launch event for Erasing The Distance’s Room For Light exhibit last night. Erasing The Distance is a non-profit organization located right here in the Windy City that works to de-stigmatize mental illness by inviting those who live with a mental health condition to tell their story. The stories are then shared in podcasts and presentations to help individuals connect and understand what living with a mental illness can be like.

The Room For Light opening was held on the thirtieth floor of a skyscaper overlooking Chicago’s Milennium Park, so that was an attraction in and of itself. It was fun to see people window gazing. The immersive exhibit was comprised of 8 x 8 light boxes that each featured a photograph of someone who lived with a mental illness. These portraits were striking and one thing that stood out right away to me is that the subjects appeared to be young, healthy, and happy—I think all of them had bright smiles and looks. Right out of the gate, that might work against some stigmatizing beliefs people have about the mentally ill, such as that they are scary or mopey or dangerous.

Next to the light boxes were a few artifacts telling the individual’s story, and also a pair of headphones connected to an Ipad where you could listen to that individual’s story. There was only one set of headphones next to each piece, but one clever thing the exhibitors did was including a QR code that you could scan to listen to the story on your own device. Young folks seemed to pick up on this quickly and you could see some of them in clusters listening to headphones.

If I have one critique of Room For Light it is that so much of the exhibit was audio-based, like an individual tour through a museum. I don’t recall that being in the description of the show I read or being advised to bring my own headphones. A lot of the interviews were broken into clips of five minutes or so, but some ran for as long as twenty minutes, and only one person could listen at a time. I wonder about the accessibility of the exhibit for the hearing-impaired, and the individual listening didn’t encourage the kind of community discussion that I think was one of the goals of the show. I realize that recorded interviews are the highlight of what Erasing The Distance does, however, and I’m not sure how I would change it. Maybe having a transcript in a binder as an alternative, or a little video clip with scrolling text as well? I know that it is easier to criticize and harder to do, and it was still impressive.

The portraits and light boxes were absolutely gorgeous and dramatic in lighting up the room. They were beautifully shot and some of the pieces the storytellers included were really creative, including one participant’s different items of clothing that reflected her alternate personalities, all with their own names and character traits, or collages and digital prints celebrating overcoming adversity. Additionally, some of the storytellers did include their own diaries or notes as a part of the exhibit, which was another way to access their personal narrative and really get a glimpse into their mind.

Erasing The Distance is such a great idea, and I’m a bit embarrassed that they’ve been around so long in Chicago (since 2005) and I wasn’t aware of them. They are looking for more storytellers and I just might sign on. The name is absolutely perfect–when we get to know people who live with a mental illness and relate to their struggles and perseverance, it becomes more difficult to categorize and treat them as the “other.” Our stories help erase the distance between those who live with a mental illness and those who do not by highlighting our commonalities and interests. They can help de-stigmatize pre-conceived notions about whether or not those with a mental health diagnosis can lead stable, productive, and even joyful lives. Included in the exhibit were musicians, artists, chefs, designers, and more.

Another thing about the exhibit is I noticed in the Ipad bios next to the interview clips, there were labels that the storytellers used to define themselves. They used words like “drummer, animal lover, biker.” I don’t think there was a diagnosis label on any of them that I saw, and for a few exhibits I wasn’t entirely sure what it was until I listened to the story. I think that was an intentional choice.

Beau Is Afraid (Movie Review)

You can run, you can hide, but you will never escape the primal instinct to please your mother. That is one way to summarize Ari Aster’s newest entry into his canon of psychological horror. To summarize whatever plot there is, you could say it is that a terrified man must overcome one grueling obstacle after another in the course of a quest to visit his mother–which I guess says a similar thing.

Many people are comparing Beau Is Afraid to Synecdoche NY, which is one of my favorite films. I can definitely see the similarities. In both films, middle-aged men who seem to lack any agency over their lives see the world, which they perceive as hopelessly and relentlessly nightmarish, reflected back to them through their own miserablist lens. In both films, the grim nature of their lives is so ridiculously outlandish as to become darkly humorous at times.

I would say the main difference between these two films, other than one of subtlety, is that Aster’s film is more surreal—surreal in the classical, absurdist Bunuel sense of the word. Just like you can’t leave the dinner party, you can’t leave the all-seeing, all-judging eye of your mother. Beau Is Afraid utilizes dream logic and dream symbolism, sometimes in a quite literal psychological way, in much the same way classical surrealism did.

Another difference is that Synecdoche NY reads more like a twisted narrative, and Beau Is Afraid reads more like a painting. Where Synecdoche NY relies heavily on dialogue and, as the title implies, wordplay, Beau Is Afraid relies heavily on visuals. Ari Aster has already proven himself to be a master of nightmarish imagery, and he pushes that aesthetic to a new level in Beau Is Afraid, which is visually stunning even during the times where it may wander or falter narratively. I was particularly enchanted by a dreamlike sequence featuring old-fashioned paper-cut theatrical production design that didn’t really seem to fit anywhere within the general storytelling flow, except that it was yet another vision of Beau’s where he was working out his deep-rooted trauma surrounding birth and family ties.

Beau Is Afraid feels a little one-note at first blush–like it’s using a lot of different sets and sequences to tell the same story without ever offering any clear revelations or resolutions. Perhaps that’s deceptive, though. The film does seem to have something to say or at least to show about urban and suburban living, medication, parental expectations, and procreation. Operating at its three-hour run time while maintaining its energetic visual creativity I’m sure it will prove, much like a film like Synecdoche NY, to reveal more secrets and Easter eggs about its nature and meaning over repeated viewings.

Some movies feel like they should be three hours long. This one felt a bit exhausting, but maybe that was because of its emotional toll. Joaquin Phoenix does an admirable job propping up the perpetually shell-shocked, stuttering Beau for that length of time, and I can only imagine what Aster’s actors had to endure to deliver their traumatic performances at this level of intensity. I think another reason Beau Is Afraid wore out its running time is that it felt a bit choppy. Transitions between its different episodes were so abrupt and dramatic that it didn’t feel like it all cohered in the end. I suppose that’s true of a lot of epic journeys like The Odyssey, though, and this feels like those classical mythical quests. Our hero is rescued, only to find himself out at sea and confronted by monsters again. He spends some strange time in a magical woodland of orphans understanding himself. In the last chapter, he has to confront some of his greatest enemies and fears.

I’m sure that when Ari Aster made Beau Is Afraid that he knew it wouldn’t be for everyone, and that he probably knew even the people it was “for” wouldn’t like every part of it. It feels to me like a personal movie where he probably got to do a lot if not most of the things he wanted to do. And as we’ve seen by the huge mark Aster has made on the horror genre, the visual playhouse in his mind is capable of generating some particularly intense and disturbing nightmare fuel. He’s turned that talent to the subject of family trauma in the past but this is the furthest he’s delved into that imagery while untying himself from conventional narrative form. It’s surely dividing his fans while also blazing a new trail for him as a surrealist filmmaker.

I usually prefer overly ambitious and flawed films to boring ones. Beau Is Afraid may lag at times but it included so many inventive surprises at every turn I could never in good faith never call it boring. It’s a movie that you continue to chew on and think about, and some of its images, like some in his previous films, will always remain lodged in my mind. To me, that is a sign of powerful filmmaking. Maybe his reach exceeds his grasp at times, but trying out this many grandiose visions and having as many succeed as they do is impressive.

How Not To Kill Yourself (Book Review)

Clancy Martin is a philosophy professor, author, and the survivor of ten suicide attempts. Even as he describes the onset, his mind state, and yes, even the methodology for some of these attempts, the book is full of unexpected hope and I daresay lives up to its title. He does for suicide what Andrew Solomon, whose work he praises, does for depression. He demystifies it a bit by digging into some of its historical roots, religious aspects, and literary significance. He delves into what different cultures believe happen after we die, the idea of Freud’s death drive, and the romanticizing of suicide in literary history such as in the Sorrows of Young Werther. He speaks to current specialists in suicide. Most of all, he interweaves all of this with his personal experiences to help us understand the continued epidemic of suicide.

The book is also very much about addiction and the author’s personal experience with addiction and AA, and how it tied into his suicide attempts. He posits that suicidal thinking itself can be a kind of addictive thinking, often tied up with a skewed perspective of yourself. I loved his analysis of David Foster Wallace and his fiction about suicide, and how a continual theme in his books and in Wallace’s own conversation was that he was a phony and a fraud. Clancy suggests that many people walk around feeling this way a good deal of the time, and the error in thinking could be that this feeling is unique to you.

Not all suicide, though, is caused by mental illness or distorted thinking. Seemingly inescapable chronic pain and suffering, or catastrophic events, or other unknowns, can change life quickly and unexpectedly. Clancy’s attitude toward suicide is similar to mine. He understands and empathizes with it, while still hoping to prevent it where necessary. This delves into some tough territory because of the massive what-ifs surrounding suicide. We’ll never know if the people who died by suicide regretted it. We’ll never know if their pain would have gotten better. We’ll never know what would have eventually happened in their life. However, you can also spin these very same questions toward reasons to live.

There is a large section toward the end of the book devoted toward resources–both to official support lines and groups as well as practical tips to use in the moment, like taking deep breaths, a walk, or having a favorite song or movie queued up. It all sounds very trite and simple, but sometimes you just need something to break the spiral for a moment. Go somewhere. He said sometimes he would go get an ice-cream cone at McDonald’s. Just getting out in the world for a minute can sometimes remind you that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.

When we choose life, we know what we’re choosing over the unknown. The author posits, as suggested by the title, that suicide can be something you actively choose not to do every day, just like you might choose not to drink every day. He said one thing that might actually be helpful is to think of suicide as a door that is always open. It’s always an option, but it doesn’t have to be one that you take today. Give it some time—a day, a month, a year. He even suggests that if the United States offered legal assisted suicide and it was tied up with the same level of bureaucracy most health care was, the suicide rate would drop while people were waiting and considering it. Again, he’s dealing in hypotheticals—but they’re interesting hypotheticals, and not the ones you always hear in discussions about suicide. His first-perspective observations are unique and refreshing.

Help Getting “Help” With Mental Illness

I recently heard someone say something to the effect of, “We should be empathetic toward people with a mental illness who are getting help for it.” I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of that statement, but something about the second part rubbed me the wrong way, though I agree with the sentiment.

There are a lot of reasons someone could not be getting help for a mental illness. As we all probably know, one of the biggest ones is $$$. I am lucky to have a good salary and benefits, but even then quality psychiatric care can be prohibitively expensive. Also, as in every area of life, you get what you pay for. The good facilities, newer generation drugs, and highly-renowned psychiatrists and therapists are all more expensive. So, there’s that.

But what about other reasons people may not be getting help for a mental illness? Can we judge those? Well, even then, the issue gets sticky. Some people living with a mental illness may either be living in denial or may not even be aware that they have a serious mental illness. That was certainly my experience with bipolar disorder. My perspective of the world and my version of reality seemed so very real to myself that even when others told me it wasn’t, or that I was delusional, I myself felt I was fine or even better than fine and they were exaggerating or unnecessarily concerned. Philip K. Dick said that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, continues to exist. But we tend to believe our own reality above everything else. In this sense, some people may truly be unaware that they are experiencing a mental illness.

But what about people who keep going in and out of the hospital, or on and off their meds or a treatment regimen? Surely those people don’t want help? Yes, you do hear stories of people who go off their meds because they miss being manic or high or they miss those grand ideas that make the real world less dim and depressing. But as someone who has been in and out of the rotating door of inpatient and outpatient treatment, I can tell you it’s a bit more complicated than that. I can tell you that A) This is very, very common for people living with a serious mental illness. The majority of people I met in psychiatric wards were not there for the first time. And B) I certainly judged myself that way, and I know others who did, too. Why can’t I just get it together and keep it together, a lot of us thought? There must be something fundamentally flawed in me. It sometimes becomes a self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy.

The truth is, mental illness is often cyclical, for a variety of reasons. Mental health treatment often takes time to work, and usually several different drugs and therapies have to be tried before the right fit is found. Sometimes that particular regimen stops working, and different treatments have to be tried. Sometimes life circumstances interfere and exacerbate symptoms.

And yes, sometimes people do go off their meds and stop getting “help,” but that could be for a variety of reasons, too. Some of the side effects from these meds are brutal, and yes, sometimes people do miss the happiness of their “high” mental states when they are living with crushing depression or the feeling that they are no longer the best version of themselves. Unless you’ve been in a similar situation, however, it’s really hard to know what that’s like.

I don’t mean to sound preachy here, those were just some of the thoughts racing through my head in response to that particular comment. *All* people living with a mental illness deserve our empathy—it’s tough no matter what, whether or not you’re getting help for it, and even whether or not you’re sticking to a treatment plan. I like to think most people with a chronic illness, if they were offered a treatment they could afford with no nasty side effects, and without the fear of losing their job, employment, housing, relationships, or peace of mind, would take it. The truth is, it’s often more complicated than that.

Sometimes I Think About Dying – Sundance Short Film

One of my friends once told me he was relieved the first time he heard the term “suicidal ideation.” It sounds odd, but like many people are relieved to hear their diagnosis, he was relieved to know that suicidal ideation is a thing—you can be passively imagining how to die, without necessarily wanting to act on it. That is a large part of what this film is about.

I was only recently introduced to this Sundance short, which apparently is being expanded into a feature now. I had some mixed feelings about it although it’s obviously had *a lot* of audience love.

I guess my main quibble is, there seems to be nothing—nothing—defining the lead actress’s character, aside from her depression and social anxiety and a co-worker’s possible romantic interest in her. But maybe that’s the point. It works well as a short, with her just being a living embodiment of depression and suicidal ideation, and the dark humor being that *she herself* thinks that all there is to her—working on spreadsheets, going home and microwaving a meal and just literally staring at the wall. I’m curious about how it will work feature-length, I imagine her character will have to be fleshed out a wee bit.

But now, what I really do love and relate to about it. The actress Katy Wright-Mead pulls off an amazing physical performance almost on the level of classic silent movie acting. Her constant tense muscles and pinched expression are incredibly emotive. Embodiment is truly the word for it, and it makes it all the more tear-jerking when she cracks at the end.

Also, I have to admit, I do have an uncomfortable window into this character. I once suffered from so much crippling social anxiety, shyness, and fear that I remember having a couple of people who I envisioned as being really “cool” at the time ask me what kind of music I listened to, and me telling them “Oh, I don’t really listen to much music”—which was patently untrue. I often went home and listened to music for hours on my headphones for comfort, I was just afraid of what they would think of my opinions and really didn’t know what to say and was afraid of engaging from that point forward, so I just shut down. I feel like that memory is probably akin to what this character feels about expressing an opinion on a film, and the great commentary this movie makes is, well that actually doesn’t matter, I just wanted to get to know you as a person, cause I think I might actually like you, dumbass.

I also think there is a lot of dark humor in the film, and the lead actress is suppressing so much of herself, and is so self-loathing, that it’s hard to tell (especially in a short film) how much of her lack of a personality is real and how much is imagined.

The whispering confessional voice-over, the title, and even the cinematography to me are so reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things that I almost wondered if that film was an influence on this one, but they were made around the same time. Without revealing too much, both of their narrators are women possibly entering relationships and their inner monologues, and both of them turn out to have their brains hijacked at times by depression and suicidal ideation. It’s an odd similarity.

The ending does really destroy me. Like I said, there’s a crack in the depression and suicidal ideation, and some desire to connect to someone, that feels very genuinely sad and genuine. I think that’s why it works so well. I’m curious to see the feature.

Now Streaming! – How to Explain Your Mental Illness to Stanley Kubrick

Now streaming! From the creative brain of our dear friend of the festival and talented filmmaker & video essayist Philip Brubaker comes How to Explain Your Mental Illness to Stanley Kubrick. Truly one of the most unique films the festival has ever screened, it blends video essay, memoir, and experimental documentary to tell the story of a filmmaker confronting one of his flawed heroes about the portrayal of mental illness in his films.

I am so happy this film is available to rent now so more people can appreciate its weird, fun energy.

Happy World Bipolar Day!

Happy World Bipolar Day!

World Bipolar Day is celebrated on March 30th, the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh. The goal of the day is to increase awareness and advocacy for bipolar disorder.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2015. I don’t celebrate that fact per se, but I celebrate the fact that I’ve learned to live with and manage the condition. I celebrate the accomplishments I’ve achieved despite and sometimes even because of my diagnosis.

I always felt my brain was wired a little differently than most people’s. I feel my emotions very intensely. My disorder made me say and do many things I’ll always regret, but it has also given me a heightened sense of empathy and creativity. I love what Ryan Licht Sang said — bipolar disorder is an evolutionary step in brain development, but the bugs haven’t been completely worked out yet.

Here I am below, next to my painting that was honored with a grant from the Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation. This to me was probably my greatest artistic achievement ever, acceptance to a show all about creativity in the bipolar brain where all of the artists were living with bipolar disorder.

The Year Between – Coming of Age & Coming to Terms with Bipolar Disorder

I have to admit, I’m pretty proud of this interview for the Director’s Club, it may be the most personally meaningful to me. The Year Between is a darkly humorous and heartfelt film about a college student who spends a semester living with her family and recovering after her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The film is very obviously set and filmed in the Chicagoland suburbs which was just another connection I had with it. Lead character Clemence is played by writer-director-star Alex Heller and is a semi-autobiographical depiction of her own experience spending a semester off school managing her bipolar disorder. The character she embodies reminds me a great deal of myself, both when I was younger and when I received my diagnosis. She’s brash and intense, having little control over her moods and low self-awareness of how her actions affect others—yet she’s also bitingly witty, creative, and sensitive, secretly hungry for affection. 

It’s quite an accomplishment that a talent as young as Alex Heller created a film that shows such self-awareness and perception of her past while balancing the tone between the comedy and the tragedy of coping with a serious mental health diagnosis, sometimes both at the same time. She also created a warm Midwestern family that acts as a foil by accepting her with open arms no matter how melodramatic she can be, including her long-suffering mother and father, played memorably by J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi. 

Of course my thanks again go to Jim Laczkowski for always believing in me and finding incredible opportunities to support me like landing this interview. I was very lucky to speak to Alex Heller about a topic so special to me and my identity and I hope to meet her at one of the Chicago screenings. I highly suggest that you check out the film when it plays at the Music Box Theater on March 30th, at Facets starting March 31st, or on VOD

 THE YEAR BETWEEN – About the Film (

The Year Between demonstrates that with a diagnosis of bipiolar disorder, the entire family is diagnosed, too—that is, they all must find ways to cope and understand.

Pep Talk With Kagan Goh

I once asked for, and my sister gifted me for Christmas a few years ago, one of the only books I could find about starting a film festival, appropriately titled So You Want To Start A Film Festival? It consisted of interviews with sixteen film festival directors, and although they all ran indie low-budget festivals they were all way out of my league in terms of budget and programming. I still remember every interview began with the same two lines: “What would you say to anyone who wants to start a film festival?” “Don’t.” Every interview ended with what the director’s plans were to essentially unload the festival to someone else. I can definitely see why. It’s high-effort, low-reward work. Even for someone as small potatoes as me, you have to love it and get some intangible benefit from it, otherwise it’s just not worth it.

I guess knowing all this, it’s no surprise that every year I second-guess Mental Filmness and wonder if I should retire it. I’d been wondering that again to myself lately—I figure if I “give up” after this year, it will at least have been a nice round five years of stories and memories. It’s funny how life sometimes gives you what you need instead of what you want, and kind of out of the clear blue sky, as this has been on my mind, filmmaker Kagan Goh messaged me saying after being in many festivals, his favorite has still been Mental Filmness, where his short The Day My Cat Saved My Life made its festival premiere.

I thanked Kagan, but confessed that I felt uncertain about the future of Mental Filmness, and if it was worth continuing in a world with an increasing number of outlets for films about mental health that could probably find better promotion and more of an audience than I am usually able to provide. He assured me I was giving myself short shrift in these areas and offered to give me a Zoom pep talk.

Kagan is an accomplished multi-disciplinary artist who practices what he preaches. He works as a mental health advocate and writes, performs, and directs pieces primarily based on his own experiences living with bipolar disorder, a condition I share. In our “don’t give up” pep talk, Kagan told me he watched all of the films and interviews from Mental Filmness and felt he learned so much from them. He felt like there was a diverse selection without anything being tokenistic, and he liked how Mental Filmness, putting it kindly, “gives the underdog a chance”—in other words, we’re perfectly fine with showing student shorts, movies made on Iphones, and other sorts of outsider productions if they reflect an authentic voice and theme about mental health. He said he felt I actually gave a lot of attention to the films through reviews and interviews compared to a lot of festivals, and that it was obvious that I approached it from a first-person perspective and really cared.

He said having a few hundred viewers for an online festival isn’t bad, and that he appreciated that I left the viewing window open for such a long time, which he felt was also unusual. I’d love to explore ways to make it more interactive somehow, like some kind of chat/comment board, this year, but I have been pretty happy with the online festival overall.

But, not to burst anyone’s bubble, we are not the first and only film festival about mental health—it seems there are more every year, including the long-runners like Reel Recovery and Rendezvous With Madness. I usually distinguish us by saying we’re a “Chicago-based” film festival about mental health. So while I’d like to keep the online festival running, I’d also love to increase the knowledge of our presence in the Windy City and at least feel some reassurance that when we bring in guests we’ll have an appreciative audience for them.

Kagan told me the same thing most people in our line of work would—go for the people you know you can touch over quantity or a mass audience. That being said, he told me, my real “market” is probably in the mental health community rather than the film festival world—exactly what I’ve been thinking myself, and I’ve been trying to reach out there more.

I’m so glad we had the pep talk not only to hear his motivational praise and about the amazing things he continues to do, but to realize how much I’ve touched one person’s life and to help me vocalize and identify exactly what the festival means to me and what I’d like it to do. He struck another chord with me when he said even if I was reaching my family, friends, and co-workers, and sharing an experience or a new perspective with them, that was still doing something very meaningful, and I *know* I’ve been doing that.

Thank you for the pep talk, Kagan, and for helping so many people by being vulnerable and sharing your stories. I can’t wait to see what we both do next! Mad love and love madly, I hope I get to meet you in person one day.