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A high-culture docudrama presents a profoundly misleading portrait of mental disorder.

Alan A. Stone

Shine, the Australian film about the life of pianist David Helfgott, was an unexpected success at the box office, garnered an Oscar nomination as best picture, and earned Geoffrey Rush the prize for best actor. Though Rush, an accomplished Australian stage actor, had almost no previous experience in film, he was surrounded by film veterans. Armin Mueller-Stahl, who played Peter Helfgott (David's father), earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. An extraordinary film actor/political activist/intellectual, Mueller-Stahl may be remembered as the farmer in Agnieszka Holland's first major film, Angry Harvest. John Geilgud and Lynne Redgrave, too, have important roles in the film and add their pedigree and polish to the effort. Shine is also beautifully crafted--tied together by visual images that lend poetic depth--and the music is wonderful. The film has made Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto the best-selling classical CD in the country and is even being credited with reviving American interest in classical music.

Despite all these redeeming contributions to high culture, Shine is a docudrama, with all the predictable deficiencies. Docudramas show half-truths about the tragedies of real people while audiences think that they are watching the whole truth. These truth-telling problems seem most disturbing when a docudrama portrays mental illness, perhaps because no one knows the full truth, not even the victim. Docudramas are, almost by definition, manipulative; the aesthetic question for members of the audience is whether the film is worth the emotional games it plays with their minds. As Shine's critical and popular success indicates, most moviegoers gladly paid the price. Still, it raises troubling moral questions about the demonization of Helfgott's father, the portrayal of his family--whose public identity will be forever held hostage by the film--and the presentation of mental illness itself.

Shine is the mythical story of a Jewish father whose overbearing pride, possessiveness, and envy ruined his talented son, and an astrologer wife whose unconditional love eventually resurrected the victim and launched his professional career as a concert pianist. The film leaves no doubt that David Helfgott suffered a "nervous breakdown" and a very serious, prolonged mental illness. But much of the story is left implicit. We see Helfgott collapsing and passing out as he finishes a performance of the famously difficult "Rach 3" but are not told what led to his first hospitalization--crucial to our understanding of his illness. Various accounts of his diagnosis have been reported in the media, and although his wife, Gillian Helfgott, says he is now just eccentric, the film portrait (though ambiguous) suggests a major psychosis, Schizo-Affective Disorder, from which he has not fully recovered. The screenplay suggests, too, that David Helfgott was further victimized by unseen psychiatrists who gave him shock treatment and, in their sinister ignorance, ordered him to stay away from the piano--his only route to salvation. Although psychiatrists still make acceptable targets, one might have thought we were past blaming parents who suffer themselves as they try to cope with their children's serious biological mental disorders. And the last 20 years should have taught everyone who cares about people with serious mental disorders that unconditional love, while salutary, is more effective when combined with appropriate medication.

It comes as no surprise that this film was the product of a long negotiation between Gillian and David Helfgott and director Scott Hicks. Gillian Helfgott, who now seems to be calling all the shots, is presented as the healing angel of the film. Helfgott's sisters are--again, no surprise-- distressed about the depiction of their father and their family. Art holds a mirror up to nature, but the artist is unlikely to make a true copy when creative choices are negotiated with the subjects being portrayed. Hicks and screenwriter Jan Sardi have gone beyond a sympathetic portrait of David Helfgott to give us heart-wrenching, deeply moving, but profoundly misleading pathos.

While the film has received extravagant praise, an undercurrent of criticism has emerged as well. The latter apparently has struck home. When Geoffrey Rush made his Oscar acceptance speech, he felt the need to defend the film: "To those people who said it's a circus, then with your [David Helfgott's] celebration of life you show me that the circus is a place of daring and risk-taking and working without a safety net [a phrase borrowed from the film] and giving us your personal poetry." Rush's obviously prepared acceptance speech with its analogy of the trapeze artist was meant to put to rest the image of a side-show freak being paraded before an audience. But the source of that image is not so much the film itself as the marketed package featuring David Helfgott's concert tour--surely unthinkable without the celebrity status he achieved through Shine. His New York and Boston concerts sold out within days of the tickets going on sale. Despite the devastating judgments of music critics that have dogged every stop on his tour, he continues to pack concert halls all over the world. For people who love his concerts and his movie, perhaps the most important consideration is that Helfgott has made the journey from the back ward of a mental hospital to the stage of great concert halls. That achievement apparently transcends musical imperfection, leaving some critics unsympathetically apoplectic.

Other critics are made so uncomfortable by the obvious ineptitude of Helfgott's piano playing (Isaac Stern walked out of the concert he attended) that they can only assume that Helfgott himself must be humiliated. A billion viewers had their own opportunity to weigh in on this controversy when Helfgott unexpectedly appeared during the Oscars to perform Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee. As Helfgott bowed to the warm greeting of the surprised celebrity audience, his face betrayed not a hint of stage fright nor a trace of madness. Chronic mental illness usually leaves unmistakable scars on a person's face but Helfgott's face is unmarked. He radiated a kind of serenity, the charismatic look of the Dalai Lama or the Maharishi Majesh Yoga--not exactly otherworldly but not of this cruel world either. His face certainly had none of the pained and heightened expressivity that Geoffrey Rush brought to the film.

When he sat down to play it was soon clear that Helfgott was performing in his own separate world. Flight of the Bumblebee is designed to display technical virtuosity to the musically uninitiated; at a crucial moment in the film Rush silences and astonishes a noisy restaurant by a bravura performance (Helfgott is credited with actually playing the music). On Oscar night, performing live on television, Helfgott obviously lost his grip; if he were an acrobat performing without a net, nothing would have broken his fall. The "ordinary" virtuoso pianist would no doubt have been humiliated by such a botched performance, but Helfgott gave no evidence of being in pain. He seemed unaware of his mistakes and when he took his final bow the same serene glow remained. No drug legally prescribed by psychiatrists can produce that kind of charismatic expression: this face of innocence--vulnerable, winning, and at the same time completely unselfconscious--was the most astonishing aspect of Helfgott's performance at the Oscars. If there is a miracle here, it lies in his seeming beatitude, not in the musical perfection.

Helfgott's innocence is the psychological backbone of Shine. It insures that we see him as a pure victim. Helfgott is first played as a strangely poignant child (Alex Rafalowicz) trying desperately to please his father, then as an awkward, bed-wetting, vulnerable teenager (Noah Taylor), and finally as a lovable but demented adult (Rush). Trying to avoid the documentary format, Hicks (directing his first feature film) tells the story in circular, supposedly concerto style. Rush appears in profile to begin the film with the sing-song, clang-association, expressive speech that establishes Helfgott's damaged psyche. Behind the babble of nonsense one hears a gifted intelligence making connections that jolt, surprise, and amuse the attentive listener. This communicative style is not uncommon in patients with chronic psychotic disorders, but what is unique in Rush's impersonation is the absence of any flash of anger. Helfgott's is a saintly child-like madness.

Rush's Helfgott is also, as psychiatrists would describe it, quite regressed: impulsive, heedless, inappropriate, and mannerless, though without being offensive. He leaves everything a mess, smokes constantly, bounces around half naked, never turns off the water, and cannot keep his hands off women's breasts. All this can be forgiven--particularly by the women in the film--because he is child-like and because Helfgott is never presented as hostile. In real life, patients with chronic mental disorders who are regressed are very stressful to live with and care for, and often provoke rage and burn-out in professional caretakers (and in their families). Rush gives a Chaplinesque portrayal of the regressed but lovable Helfgott. But, truth to tell, disorganized, impulsive behavior is no laughing matter.

It is the tyrannical father tormenting his son out of his own egoism that gives the audience its insight into how Helfgott was driven mad. Though the film suggests that Peter Helfgott is a Holocaust victim who, twisted by that experience, torments his son, the father was in fact a Polish Jew who emigrated to Australia in 1935. Much of his family was "concentrated" as David puts it in the film, but the father saw none of Hitler's camps himself. Like many Eastern European Jews who emigrated in his generation, Peter Helfgott was an atheist and communist who hated his own father, disdained religion as superstition, struggled to survive, and thought his own children should consider themselves lucky to have anything. In the film he relentlessly drives his only son to succeed at the piano, resents his success, and refuses to let him pursue his studies abroad. He puts a father's triple curse on his son: no one will ever love you as I do; if you disobey me you will be punished for the rest of your life; you can never come home again.

We are told by Helfgott's sister that the father was loath to let David leave home because at the time he was offered the scholarship to study overseas he was already showing signs of the inherited mental disorder that would soon cripple his mind. In the film the father's ego and not the family genes is the fons et origo of David's madness. By the time he leaves for London the intimidated David is an easy mark. His friends exploit him for his small living allowance; he freezes in a cold apartment sharing cat food from a tin with his cat; and he finally destroys his remaining sanity by trying to master the "Rach 3." John Geilgud is brilliant as the inspiring and eccentric teacher, subtly instructing the audience by his own sympathetic example to be amused by the growing signs of David's mental distraction and inappropriate behavior.

David conquers the Rach 3 in a triumphant but traumatic performance which ends with his collapse. We are next shown a sight-and-sound collage of David silently convulsing under the effects of shock treatment. In the background, a telephone insistently rings. It is a call to his father. David has returned to Australia from London a broken spirit and wants to come home. This nightmare father turns him away, and he lands in a mental institution. We then see the adult David Helfgott as the chronic mental patient we saw at the beginning of the film. His family has abandoned him, and it is only the kindness of women that saves him from the fate of long-term institutionalization that would have swallowed up his life. One woman takes him home and gets him playing the piano again after his psychiatrists had forbidden it for a decade. His music restores a kind of sanity. He finds a home and success in the restaurant where he dazzled the customers with his Flight of the Bumblebee.

One last gruesome meeting with his father reminds us of how this father desperately needs to dominate his crippled and vulnerable son: madness, once more, is about the bad parent, about the double-bind, about conditional love, about the father's destruction of the son. This is the family myth of the 20th century, where possessive love turns to hate and parents devour their own children.

Screenwriter Jan Sardi works this "blame the parents" myth of mental illness to perfection. This last confrontation between father and son exemplifies the kind of double-bind psychiatrists used to teach to their students as the cause of schizophrenia. The father, after once again tormenting David, forces him to deny his own emotional pain and pity his father who suffered worse at the hands of his own father. It is cruel to undermine one's children like this, but parental cruelty does not cause Schizo-Affective Disorder.

David Helfgott is eventually saved by the woman who becomes his wife. The screenplay lets us know that Gillian (played winningly by Lynne Redgrave) is a well to do astrologer with a fancy home and a wealthy man who wants to marry her. She has no self-interested reason for marrying David Helfgott; but unconditional love and the stars lead her to accept his impulsive proposal of marriage. Of course she also appreciates his rapturous piano-playing, but her decision would seem bizarre were it not for Rush/Helfgott's lovable innocence. (Perhaps Helfgott is lovable in real life as well: it is a distinct advantage in the struggle to recover from the depths of psychosis.) In any event the film makes Gillian out to be as good as David's father is bad. And, in a last scene at his father's grave, Gillian asks David what he now feels about his dead father: "Nothing," David answers. Gillian's unconditional love has allowed him to forget his evil father, but not to forgive him.

This film makes us weep for the wrong reasons. It is a docudrama that scavenges the painful past of the Helfgott family and recycles the old myth of mental illness. A brief disclaimer appears at the very end of the screen credits, after most of the audience has already gone. It states in effect that although Gillian and David Helfgott are real people the film is not meant to be accurate in all respects. True, but the damage has already been done.

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review

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