People Like Ourselves discusses
about 70 movies in seven chapters, each with its own broad theme. These are titled:
- The Price of Conformity: The False Self
- The Denial of Reality
- Hitchcock, Chaos, and the Devils
- Women Who Can't Forget
- Divine Madness: Poets, Prophets
- War: A Battle for the Mind and Spirit
- Violence and Mental Illness
Zimmerman mainly discusses well-known Hollywood films, such
as Dead Poets Society, The Snake Pit, Ordinary People, Psycho, Sophie's
Choice, The Fisher King, Saving Private Ryan, and The Silence of the
Lambs. But she also includes some more obscure films, such as An Angel
at My Table, Raintree Country, and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.
For nearly each film, Zimmerman sets out the basic plot and comments on various
aspects of the portrayal of mental illness. She does not have any overall
thesis for which she is arguing, and she does not employ any theoretical
apparatus in her discussion. The films are grouped together loosely by theme,
but the book is best approached by browsing through it. It will provide the
reader with ideas for films to watch, especially for those who are looking for
illustrations of particular themes or ideas. For example, in my teaching
medical ethics, the culture of madness, and disability studies, I include
discussion the ways in which mental illness is represented, so Zimmerman's book
will be a useful tool for me to find more films to use in my classes, and to
plunder for points about the films I use.
However, I would not recommend
trying to read the book from start to finish. There's not enough unity to the
chapters for readers to get much from taking them as essays, and unless one has
seen all the films discussed, it is very difficult to assess Zimmerman's
descriptions. The writing style is a little awkward, and often reads like a
series of rather unconnected points, and ultimately she doesn't seem to have any
gripping general points to make. For example, in the forth chapter, her
conclusion seems to be that, "In films, Hollywood has managed on several
occasions to explore, convincingly, the hold the past can have and its
relationship to mental illness" (p. 89). She might be right about this,
but it is a very anticlimactic conclusion.
The topic of the portrayal of
mental illness in popular culture is fascinating, and there should be more
discussion and analysis of it. While Zimmerman's book does not do much to
advance our conceptual understanding of the issues, it does provide a starting
point for others who want to explore these issues further. Recommended for
libraries, or library borrowing.
© 2006 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor
of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.