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Portrayals of Mental Illness in the Films of Martin Scorsese

In a new video essay, contributor Sean Maymon discusses the depiction of mental illnesses in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The Aviator.

There have been many portrayals of mental illnesses in cinematic history, from films like Pyscho, Taxi Driver, The Aviator, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to name a few. Some have done the conditions justice by portraying them correctly so the audience can empathize with both the afflicted character and the illness in question. Others have merely stereotyped people with mental illnesses as crazy, violent, and dangerous. In some cases, this makes way for interesting characters who are flawed in unique ways. However, it comes with the downside of negatively stereotyping mental illnesses in the manner they’re depicted on screen.

In the video essay below, Sean Maymon discusses the portrayal of mental illnesses in two films by Martin Scorsese. These films are Taxi Driver and The Aviator. When compared to a one-sided depiction of mental illness in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho, Scorsese’s films—while not perfect—showcase the viewpoints of characters who have mental illnesses in much greater care and detail. This allows the viewer to empathize with the character because we can actually see and almost feel what they do. The video analysis below makes this point clear with scenes from the films.

Transcript:

Society has always struggled to understand mental illness. The first theories of these illnesses were made up of stories of demonic possessions, angry gods, and so forth. From that time our understanding of mental illness has increased by leaps and bounds but it wasn’t a smooth journey and, to this day, there are still gaps in our understanding of these illnesses and in our ability to empathize with those struggling with them. This journey from the dark ages to the modern age of medicine has been represented, to a degree, through film. In the early days of cinema, these illnesses were viewed as something evil or monstrous. Even in classic films that were groundbreaking to the world of cinema upon their releases. Take this scene from Psycho for example.

In this clip, we see that, while Norman Bates’ motivations are explained to some degree, we still view him as an antagonizing “other”. This is because we are told about this character’s state and not shown what’s going on in his mind. We aren’t given a chance to empathize with him; we’re only given a clinical description of his illness.

So how can a director portray mental illness in a more empathetic way? To take a look at this let’s analyze the techniques in some of the films of Martin Scorsese. In films like The Aviator, Taxi Driver, and others Scorsese portrays mental illness and treats it not as a plot twist or a thing to fear but as something to be understood and explored.  Let’s take a look at this clip from The Aviator.

What’s interesting about Scorsese’s style is how he makes us feel what the character is feeling even if we wouldn’t in the same, real world situation. Every element in this scene is set up in a way that pushes us to understand Howard Hughes’ OCD. We see Hughes washing his hands from his point of view. The frequency of cuts speed up in order to portray the panic he is feeling. This peaks when Hughes’ hands start bleeding because of how hard he’s washing them. When he leaves the sink and approaches the door we feel the significance of that moment because we’ve been watching this chain of events through Howard’s eyes.  All of this leads us to feel how Hughes feels and fear what he fears even if we may not outside of the theater. When Scorsese finally lets us step back from Hughes’ point of view we don’t laugh at or judge his fear of the doorknob in front of him, we feel empathy for him and we understand what’s going through his head. Now let’s look at another scene from a different Scorsese film.

This scene is from the film Taxi Driver which was released in 1976. This is twenty-eight years before the release of The Aviator but we can still see similar techniques being used to put us in Travis Bickle’s shoes. First, take a look at the setups of the shots as we enter the scene. We follow Travis from his cab to the table inside the diner. The camera moves to follow him so we’re with him every step of the way. Once he’s seated we can see that he’s physically distant from the other cab drivers and from his dialogue and reactions we can tell that he’s mentally distant from them as well. We get a true sense of Travis’s anxiety and paranoia when Scorsese shows us what he’s seeing. This is very similar to the technique used in that last scene from The Aviator. Scorsese cuts to a low shot of two men at a table across the diner and slowly dollies towards them. This setup alone tells us that Travis feels paranoid about and threatened by these diner patrons without him even needing to say anything.

A few seconds later, Scorsese cuts to one of the most telling shots in this scene. We cut to Travis’s point of view again and this time we see a slow zoom towards his glass of water which he just dropped an Alka-Seltzer tablet into. We see the whole process of the tablet dissolving. Travis’s peers are still talking but Scorsese chooses not to cut to them and their dialogue slowly fades out. This shot alone tells us so much about Travis’s mental state. He’s completely removed from his peers, he’s isolated even in a group of people, and he’s completely lost interest in everyday social interaction. Using this technique, just like in The Aviator, Scorsese is able to show us how Travis is feeling rather than telling us like in the scene from Psycho at the beginning of this video. This gives us far more insight into the mind of this character and makes us empathize with him even if, in reality, we have next to nothing in common with him.

So why are techniques like this important? What reason is there to analyze them? The big reason is that empathizing with and understanding those suffering from mental illness can help us as a society to move forward and advance our understanding of these illnesses. Martin Scorsese isn’t perfect in this regard as films like Shutter Island and even the aforementioned Taxi Driver portray the mentally ill as somewhat scary or violent, but some of his techniques are definitely a step in the right direction. Today so many movies use mental illness as a plot device or an easy way to describe a character’s antagonistic intentions. Scorsese, on the other hand, shows us his characters in a way that forces us to empathize with them and understand their motivations even if those motivations are morally off-center to say the least. In a society that consumes so much media and is guided by it to a degree, storytelling like this is becoming more and more important.


Author: Sean Maymon is a senior at Columbia College Chicago where he is studying Cinema Arts and Sciences. This Fall he is the Media Archivist Intern at Facets.

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