I have mixed feelings about this documentary.
It is about a man named Sam with a pretty severe case of manic depression. Filmmaker Ben Selkow films him off and on for a few years, chronicling Sam’s efforts to get his life in order.
I take it the movie has two related purposes. One is to tell a compelling story about a specific individual. The other is to facilitate a greater understanding of manic depression in general.
As far as the personal story, I kind of went back and forth on that. Elements of it grabbed my attention (most notably the ranting phone calls near the end of the movie, where Sam is demanding money from Selkow and being very accusatory–and not very coherent–about various things), but the rest of the time my interest in it ranged from average to below average. It never lost me entirely, but Selkow maybe just isn’t great at the storytelling aspect of documentary filmmaking.
I also was left wishing there had been more explicitly about manic depression in general, because the little bits there are of that I found quite interesting. I especially liked Johns Hopkins psychology professor Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison. She is articulate in her definitions and descriptions, but I also thought she had some emotionally insightful things to say. I really liked her discussion of love and human connection–how hugely valuable it is, how people who are used to having it as a normal part of their life can sometimes take it for granted, and how the mentally ill need it as much or more than anyone but sometimes can’t get it precisely because the behavioral manifestations of their mental illness drive people away.
I would have liked more from her, and just more about mental illness and manic depression in general. Because it’s something I don’t know very much about.
I was struck by how crazy Sam is, and how–I gathered from some things that were said–that’s not atypical of manic depression.
As a layperson, going in I took depression to be a great sadness, apathy, low energy, etc., and mania to be a very high energy, bouncing off the walls, talking a mile a minute, maybe euphoric kind of thing. But this guy–on top of that stuff–is just regular crazy, as in losing contact with reality at times.
One example that’s used multiple times is his rambling on about vague strategies for getting Bill Bradley elected president, well after the primaries are over, the candidates have been decided, and Bradley has pulled out months ago. He seemingly has no grasp of how what he is proposing simply has no connection with the facts. It isn’t like he has in mind some convoluted, possible but unlikely scenario about the Democratic nominee pulling out of the race (due to scandal or illness or whatever) and Bradley being best positioned to become his replacement. It’s more just vague, grandiose pronouncements about how he himself is going to talk to the people and somehow get them on board to elect a Bill Bradley-Colin Powell ticket.
There’s a fair amount of sheer lunacy like that. At those times he sees himself as some sort of mystical or religious figure who is going to save humanity by spreading the great truths about life he’s discovered.
So I guess being manic can include being delusional like that, whereas I would have thought that’s some totally different form of mental illness from just having wide mood swings.
As I watched him, I also found myself reflecting on what was “off” about not just the substance of what he was saying, but the whole style of presentation. I don’t know the best way to even describe it, but I sensed a definite overlap with the verbal patterns of people I’ve known in real life, people who maybe have other mental illnesses or arguably have no official mental illness at all but still express themselves in certain ways I pick up on and am dubious about.
There’s a pontificating quality to it, an overconfident feel to it. It’s this tendency to constantly speak as if you’ve just come to an important realization about yourself or about life, “and here’s how things are going to be from this point on.” A kind of positive thinking, strategic way of talking, or an attempt to say what you’re supposed to say to indicate you know there’s a problem but luckily you have the solution so neither you nor your listener needs to worry about you any longer.
When I listen to people talking like that, I get the sense they’re trying to convince themselves (and others) of something. They don’t necessarily believe it; they want to believe it. So they try to create self-fulfilling prophecies by speaking as if it were already true. They want to have insight into their psychological state and problems, they want to have identified the proper approach from here, and they want to have resolved to follow that approach, so they speak as if all these things are already the case.
I don’t know, though, if that verbal style stems from mental illness, or from therapy for mental illness. That is, a lot of it just sounds like mimicking of the jargon and the basic positive thinking approach of a lot of therapy. I recognize when people are in that mode, because there’s a self-deceptive or delusional quality to it (albeit a quality that some would argue is good–“What’s the big deal if their pronouncements are true or not, if it’s therapeutically beneficial for them to utter them?” would be the claim).
So some of what I saw in him seemed like stuff I would hear from mentally ill people or people used to a therapy environment in general. And heck, a lot of it sounded like the way drunks talk, so I guess that way of slowing down and messing with the brain can have a similar effect. Just a lot of pontificating, a lot of grandiose claims about oneself, a lot of rambling pseudo-philosophizing, etc.
Even when Sam’s not making incoherent claims about Bill Bradley and such, he’s never in the whole movie very close to being right in the head. One result of that is I found myself not rooting along with the filmmaker and others for him to get a job and put himself in positions where he’d have to function as a normal person. For example, there’s a whole section in the film where he’s pinning all his hopes of turning his life around on some set of tests to become a high school teacher, where the film’s seemingly setting up for a “happy ending” of a determined man overcoming his mental handicap, etc., etc. But regardless of whether he can pass some standardized test, the man’s just plain nutty and I wouldn’t want him in a responsible position like being a teacher. We’re supposed to recognize that it could somehow help him cope with his condition by giving him focus and such, but I don’t think it’s good for society to be steering delusional people into teaching positions.
While I’m not buying most of what Sam utters in his confident assessments of himself and his road to improvement, I did think he articulated a nice extended metaphor about how even when you have a mental condition that will never go away entirely, the difference in degree between letting it dominate and destroy your life, versus keeping it at the level of a small impediment to your life, is very important.
On a stylistic note, I appreciated that Selkow personalized the film by providing his own narration and talking about his relationship with Sam, and about the filmmaking process itself. It’s become so common for documentaries to take more of a “direct cinema,” minimalist “Pennebaker-style” approach–where the narration and explanations and background and such are kept to a minimum–that it’s quite refreshing to have a narrator clarifying and explaining why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.
Overall, A Summer in the Cage is a reasonably well-made, sometimes interesting treatment of an important issue.