Delta-Endorsed Bonkery -or-the Southern Gothic Metric of Madness

Men behaving badly is the foundation of international drama. Since you need conflict, you need a motivation for bad behavior. I first learned to write in the smoky southern bars off the main college drag. I was haunted by cream-suited artistes sitting at the same booth, hunched over the same manuscript and nursing the same Old Fashioned. Ever since the first Bush Administration they tell you that man has five motivations for bad behavior: Power, Lust, Greed, Revenge, and Fear. You can tell it’s a southern framework of drama, as the Bayou Gothic rainbow of darkness and tragedies we believe represent the true mirror of the human condition. Let those New England Ivy Humpers and New York Nancy Lads write you a message, we, living south of Shiloh, especially in the Delta, offer you the nauseating pain of life itself. Full stop. No pinko agitprop. No lifting man-is-good-on-the-inside psuedo-communist-eat-the-rich-beat-poet bullshit.

But if you buy one of the cream-suit-and-Trilby-hat art heroes another Old Fashioned, they’ll explain there’s a sixth literary motivation for character rampage that sounds like cheating if it wasn’t so demonically common, when your character is balls-out bonkers.

Madness is a tricky thing, as it comes in a thousand shades of grim gray-green. Laying it down so it doesn’t come off as exploitative Daffy Duck mania requires an understanding holistic enough to explain that madmen weren’t always mad, and to give it true impact you must show how normal the madman actually is. Therein lies the horror, the tragedy, and the southern-ness of batshit bonkerdom.

You must discern between insanity and performative eccentricity; the Joker is not crazy, he’s an eccentric murderer instead. The comic book Joker may be closer to true crazy, but even there the Daffy Duckishness is too strong.

So, I give you a Bayou Gothic survey of some of the best depictions of insanity on film, those that don’t make us drop our hushpuppies in haughty disgust for their utter un-southern lack of Southern viscerality. -or- how should I put this? Their lack of zoop-zoop-boing-wup-wup-wup-AhYOOOOga-pfffbbbt–but definitely Southern.

5) Whatever Happened to Baby Jane

If you expected me to go with this movie’s spiritual sequel Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, a story filmed in Baton Rouge, not far away from your humble narrator’s home burg of Opelousas, you’d be wrong. Charlotte may take place in the South, and it may be dark but it’s faux gothic, relying on the drooping moss and elegance of the Oak Alley Plantation as a thin patina of Gothic hoping to fool the rubes.

Baby Jane was set in California and it showed, thanks to Bette Davis, an actual Gothic treatment of insane-in-the-membrane. Baby Jane was a child star who blamed herself for the crippling her sister who was prettier and was more famous. Now in her fifties Baby Jane is bonkers for real, feeding her sister rats, for example.

We see in Jane how early fame was cruelly dashed, plus she had to care for her invalid sister. This was served over a bed of self-loathing resulting in Jane’s typical day consisted of living in the past because she has no present. “Regression to Adolescence” is a psychological phenomenon of returning to an innocent time, as it’s the last period you felt safe or loved or had the ambition to live. This may be why soldiers cry out for their mother when shot, or, as E.R. Doctors recount, why members of motorcycle gangs with tear-drop tattoos ask the doctor if he’ll take them to McDonald’s when they’re being wheeled into surgery after getting splattered.

“And for Madam, ze esspecial of ze house: Braised Dumpster Rabbit wiss fire-roasted silverfish on a bed of Saratoga Sailor Scratchers. I hope you enjoy, Bon Apetit-POP!”

Some say Davis overplayed the character, I say no, it was ugly because madness is ugly, ridiculous because madness can be ridiculous if you don’t know what you’re looking at. This flick fits the bill for southern grit, even if it did take place in rainless, godless, completely alligator-less Southern California.

4.) Girl Interrupted

I hate this maxi-pad of a movie with its lingering Winona Ryder narration, its self-indulgent montage of the crazy girls staring despondently at the rain because Martin King got shot. (Really? All of you nutjobs were big into race politics, were you?). This sisterhood is the motif that’s as hollow as the men-made-us-crazy motif which is as hollow as the maybe-it’s-you-who-is-crazy motif. Its sole redeeming 35 minutes surrounds three secondary characters played by Brittany Murphy, Elizabeth Moss and Clea Duvall.

“I wish there was more pointless posturing I could do to prove that though I’m in an asylum I’m still on the right side of the issues…which matters, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? Oh right, I’m batshit crazy–probably NOT the endorsement my side of the political aisle would find helpful right about now.”

Self destructive insanity was on full display with these three. Murphy is addicted to laxatives, because she wants to shit, because her father gave her the ole’ dutch passage in the back room of his restaurant, which she identifies with the smell of rotisserie chicken. This is why her room stinks because she has nine rotting uneaten rotisserie chickens from her father’s restaurant under her bed.

Clea DuVall is starving herself down to a wisp-she LOOKS sick, and it wasn’t make-up, either. When an actress winnows herself down to ninety pounds she deserves something for that feat. Her character is interesting because though her kneecaps are broader than her shin bones, it reveals the truth about such self-destructive people. They aren’t merely shrinking daffodils wanting people to be nice to them; they are aggressive, surly and antagonistic-they want to keep destroying themselves and are SUPER-pissed you won’t go away and just let them do it. The one that triggers the savior complex in the audience is Elizabeth Moss as a burn victim, with a distorted face. Why? When she was eleven, poured gasoline over herself to rid herself of a skin rash, so she is regressed to childhood like Baby Jane, frozen forever in a mindset when she didn’t look like a plate of scrambled eggs.

These three “cut the pith”, as our cream-suited bayou art hero might say, they show the ugly, the rancor and the rot of insanity. Too bad the rest of the movie is a curl of monkey poop.

3) A Beautiful Mind

This is the true story of the mathematician who invented Game Theory…while talking to people that didn’t exist. The exquisite narrative plan of this movie was to unwittingly lure the audience into an understanding of Schizophrenia, by not explaining that several central characters were, in fact, phantasms of John Nash’s diseased mind. It forces one to realize just how convincing a schizophrenic’s delusions are, and how they exist, to him, as flesh and blood. It ponders the link between genius and madness, and postulates that-lacking intrigue sufficiently diverting to a brilliant mind-with a dash of serious mental illness, it will create one for itself.

“You see, the nightmare of schizophrenia,” says Christopher Plummer, playing John’s psychiatrist “is not knowing what’s true. Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people and the places and the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse…had never been. What kind of hell would that be?”

Schizophrenics on Youtube have analyzed the movie, they revealed the true nuance of the disease, the little things, like spreading magazine pages out on the floor because they are convinced there’s code in there somewhere. Also, the misunderstood violence where it appears you just knocked your wife and baby to the ground, but in your reality, you were protecting them from a delusion you thought about to shoot them.

“So, as you see, getting to the Student Union couldn’t be easier.”

The most genius part of the film is just when he first gets the diagnosis, and for a good ten minutes you don’t know if this is some elaborate commie conspiracy trying to get the facts behind Nash’s work or if he’s really crazy. Opie leaves you in crystalline suspense until…well, you know if you saw the film.

2) The Three Faces of Eve

For a movie from the fifties, this is surprisingly understanding of trauma-induced Multiple Personality Syndrome. The movie is based on a true story. Eve is three women, a considerate caring young woman in her thirties that everybody likes, a bookish wallflower who doesn’t talk to anybody and stays in, and a rum-soaked slut known by every sailor and gangster. She’s brought in, recognized by someone who couldn’t believe that three women lived as one and apparently didn’t know about the other two, experiencing long lapses of time, holding jobs, being in debt, dating different men who only knew the one woman they’d met. A pair of psychiatrists try to determine what this bizarre condition might be, and they conclude the trauma happened in her youth. 

Her grandmother died when she was six and in the tradition of her old-timey family, her mother held her and forced her to kiss the corpse causing a volcanic fracture in her psyche. Ever since then, they discovered, poor Eve suffered in silence. Each new persona arrives at a different stage of life. When sex was introduced, out came the slut, when school was too heavy, she receded into the bookish nerd, and when work required something, the reasonable, town-girl-on her-own was developed entirely independent of the other two.

She’s engaged to be married to two men, simultaneously. Lives in different places, has different sets of friends.

“I just found it wasn’t kissing the dead lady that drove Eve insane!”-“Then what could it be?”-“That night her mother didn’t cook dinner and made Eve eat a can of Hormel Chili, cold, out of the can, with a spoon.”-“Like a wrestling coach?”-“Like a wrestling coach.”-“My God, some people just shouldn’t have children.”

But who’s the real Eve? They eventually find her, popping out under hypnosis-a sad lonely woman who’d never grown-up because of the terror of being forced to kiss a dead woman-which, frankly, I can understand. It’s an honest Gothic treatment in a period of American film entirely unwilling to be Gothic in the southern sense. The twisted, unmoored sense of havoc is southern, the helpless girl-in-a-hole inner hell is southern and the reason for the bonkery is so southern it prefers sweet tea over soda.

But by far the best: you never see this treatment of insanity, it’s always giddy madmen holding a girl for ransom or locking a schoolteacher in a derelict toilet chained to the floor with a sandwich and hacksaw. Real insanity isn’t like that, so..

#1 Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, by Marlon Brando.

Martin Sheen is sent to murder Brando’s Kurtz after he leaves a stack of reel-to-reel tapes of his mad ramblings for the CIA to hear.

Sheen makes his way to Kurtz’ temple ruin and in their exchange Kurtz’ describes the moment he went mad without realizing himself that it was the moment he went mad:

I remember when I was with Special Forces-it seems a thousand centuries ago- we went into a camp to inoculate some children, we left the camp after we inoculated the children for polio. This old man came running after us, he was crying and couldn’t see, we went back and They had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile, a pile of little arms, and I remember I cried…I wept like some grandmother, I wanted to tear my teeth out-I didn’t know what I wanted to do-and I want to remember, I never want to forget-and then I realized, like I was shot-like I was shot with a diamond, a diamond bullet right through my foreheadand I thought My God the GENIUS of that, the genius, the WILL to do that…Perfect. Genuine. Complete. Crystalline. Pure.-Then I realized that They were stronger than We, because, you understand, that these were not monsters, they were trained cadres…these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love-but they have the strength-The STRENGTH!-…to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men that are moral and at the same time are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment-WITHOUT JUDGMENT-…because it’s judgment that defeats us.

Here we see an insane man describing what it feels like to go insane. To the madman, insanity is a REVELATION, not an oppression, when his mind breaks and can’t cope, what does he say? “Of course! It’s so simple. I see it now.”

Kurtz had to humanize his enemy because what happened to those children could only be done by monsters, and he was fighting the communists thinking he was fighting the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese are men, filled with love, and poor Kurtz could not hold the truth in him that the communists were, in fact, monsters. Something broke. After he cried like a grandmother, that diamond bullet of madness split his mind.

The best depiction of true insanity. Insanity as revelation. Great Praise to John Millius who wrote the film because that is some sublime southern, if southern there ever was. even if Millius was from California, we’ll overlook it.

About Bartholemew Cobb

Traveling salesman. I have danced with 12 governor's wives and hold the keys to 9 small towns. My friends are the highest and lowest in society, line cooks, chiefs of police, pimps and retired generals.