Review: Asylum (1972)

This is a documentary, of sorts, about crazy people. A small camera crew spent a few weeks in a psychiatrist’s experimental group home for, well, crazy people. The result is absolutely fascinating. There is basically no narrative — a few interjections from R.D. Laing, the psychiatrist whose work inspired this group home, and occasionally some commentary from the psychiatrists and more functional residents of in the home. Most of the time the film is just a fly-on-the-wall perspective on life in the house.

The psychiatrists mean for the house to be an “asylum” in the original sense of the term — a safe place, a place where, as one of the residents pointed out, it was ok to freak out and be crazy without being judged or frightening anyone or being threatened with institutionalization. There are several main “characters,” although we are told very little background information about any of them. Julia seems to occasionally regress into infancy. Lee, an American, is the most functional resident and seems to suffer from an anxiety disorder. Jamie seems to be extremely introverted and shy, and when his overbearing father (or possibly uncle?) comes to take him away for the summer (and perhaps forever) you are actually surprised that 1) Jamie turned out so well considering and 2) the father and/or uncle isn’t on the couch himself. (He has actually hired/persuaded an ugly but nice secretary — I’m paraphrasing — to go on dates with Jamie to make sure he doesn’t “go the other way.”)

It is striking how much of an “asylum” the house really is. For the most part, the tenants all get along well with each other, despite their quirks and outbursts and wall-writing. In a particularly touching scene, one resident patiently helps an almost catatonic Julia walk down the stairs, step by slow step.

The only conflicts shown involve David, who apparently suffers from dissociative identity disorder (formerly called MPD) and never stops talking. No, really. He never stops talking (much to the distress of Julia). He is hands-down the most “crazy” and potentially dangerous resident of the asylum which leads to a bit of a crisis near the end of the movie, after David hits several of the other residents. The most fascinating scene is a democratic-ish town hall meeting led by the psychiatrists, with all residents of the house present. The psychiatrists are actually trying to reason with David and (with varying levels of success) trying to get the other residents to participate. The psychiatrists’ dedication to human dignity is phenomenal in this scene, as they refuse to treat David like a crazy person and insist that he take responsibility for his own actions. The most terrifying thing about David, to me, was his absolute inability to see or acknowledge another person’s point of view.

The film doesn’t really have much of a conclusion as to how that turns out. The final scene takes place with a subdued, relatively laconic David talking about his former jobs, and you finally are able to see even him as a real person.

If you have any interest in psychology or sociology, you will find Asylum worth watching.

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