Forcing the Limits of Sanity

A Woman Under the Influence at the Sack Cheri Theater

THE ROOTS and symptoms of madness in the twentieth century have been pursued by psychologists, physicians, sociologists and philosophers. But until about fifteen years ago, madness was usually explained either as the result of some chemical imbalance, or "from the inside," a sacrifice of the ego to evade the role-playing of daily life.

The second position is appealing because it doesn't accept stereotyped social dramas as the only "real" human relations, and because we've come to realize that body chemistry often is the effect, not the stimulus, of interpersonal conflict. But the theory is unappealing when it becomes a repetitive chant for the counter-culture rather than an assumption to be tested. Only in the past fifteen years have therapists like Gregory Bateson and R.D. Laing studied in detail the family environment of schizophrenics. In over 500 cases Laing found no schizophrenic whose disturbed communication was not shown to be a reaction to the disturbed and disturbing communication within his family.

The pattern can be seen as a "checkmate" in which the subject can neither move nor choose not to move without running into contradictory and paradoxical pressures and demands. A husband might suggest, for instance, that his wife spend more time with the children and later implicitly condemn her for this. If the wife is not allowed to question the consistency of his demands, and they persist, confusion and self-doubt push the limits of sanity. A mother might ask her son for a kiss, but her body language and tone of voice tells him she doesn't really want it. When he hesitates, she asks. "Don't you love your mother?" Double-messages like these may cause the subject to shrink from ordinary communication.

IN HIS LATEST movie. A Woman Under the Influence, director John Cassavetes shows schizophrenic pressures at work on a blue-collar wife in her tacky Los Angeles neighborhood. Cassavetes doesn't moralize about the ultimate "causes" for why Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) is, in her own words, "going whacke." But we use it encouraged by the insensitivity and aggressive self-assertion of her husband Nick (Peter Falk), by the claustrophobia created by relatives and by the family's tiny apartment, and Mabel's failure to find meaning in her life beyond her children.

Gena Rowlands, who is Cassavetes's wife, dominates this uneven film. Her insanity really is a manifold personality: she moves from spasms of manic nervousness to chastened, hurt-animal despair, her foolish smiles rapidly become agonized searchings for approval. The director's over-long focuses on individual actors and his willingness to let them improvise, which made Husbands so tedious, here allows Rowlands at least to show everything she can do. Despite the prodigious exposure, she can't be gotten used to the way, say Susannah York could, in her portrait of madness in Images.

Mabel's husband Nick is well-intentioned and sometimes quite charming. But he's totally unaware of his choleric insensitivity. He can't get across what he means, at the same time his wife's feelings crupt in baroque and hyperactive detail. Nick literally tries to slap Mabel back to sanity. When the relatives gather for dinner upon her return from six months in an asylum, he exasperatedly demands. "Conversation! At parties people have conversation--you know--talk!" Near the end, his wife tries to lash her wrists, and in a clumsily symbolic scene. Nick stops the cut with a Band-Aid.

A WOMAN UNDER THE Influence is a kind of inverted Godfather II. Coppola's film is recognized as socially-relevant because it treats real, albeit distant, issues, while in Woman, the anxiety and boredom of housewifery is close to home but often surrealistically overstated. Mabel waits for the schoolbus to return with her kids, pacing like an anxious speed freak, demanding passersby to give her the time, and chasing after them when they try to ignore her. At a party she gives for her own children, she stampedes them into a performance of Swan Lake and supervises their deaths in a finale accompanied by a thunderous orchestra. The only scene of Nick at work is shot in the handsome, gralay, cinema-verite style characteristic of Cassavetes's earlier work. We got a sense of the other source of pressure in Nick's life, although the workers here as in other seenes are just a bit romanticized.

This suggests a chief flaw in the movie, the lack of serious characters, besides Nick, on whom Mabel's madness can be registered. Both mothers-in-law are one-dimensional, and I'm not sure it's in the nature of mothers-in-law to be to. Eddie Shaw is unbelievably silly as the Jewish doctor who tries to intercode between Mabel and Nick. Mabel's father appears at the dinner to welcome his daughter back from the anylum and we find that her obsession with the children is supplemented by a heavy attachment to him--but the idea is too new and too late, and confuses things. Generally, details which attempt to reveal the pathogenis nature of the characters surrounding Mabel come off in fatuous and artificial.

The subtlest relationship is Mabel's compulsive "production" of her children. The oldest boy, about ten, pretty well understands how anxious she is and seems to try to reassure her with his love; his younger brother, the favorite, is only dimly aware of what's going on. The little sister, apparently the victim of these cedipal ties, grows chubbier and more confused every day.

Cassavetes's admirers compare his home-movie method to Harold Pinter's drama. Although his well-known closeness to the actors, and his dependence on them, is offset by the tighter script of Woman, many scenes are still too protracted and improvisory. The film is nicely framed by two dinner scenes in which Mabel gamely attempts to role-play her Image of sanity. But there are scenes within the film which threaten to wander out of the theater.

The looser approach does have advantages. To bypass the restrictions a big studio would place on his work. Cassavetes garnered half of the million dollars required for Woman by mortgaging his house and borrowing from friends. Peter Falk put up the other half-million. In the sacred age of Earthquake it is rare to find an artist willing to go into debt to preserve his integrity and the independence of his actors.