Sound and Fury

In Search of Safe Havens

Cronenberg contrives a closed world at once richly detailed and stringently economical. The tone is also darkly comic, but it's hard to imagine anyone laughing. (The best equivalent I know is the bleak humor and nightmare mise-en-scène of Roman Polanski's similarly claustrophobic 1976 psychodrama, The Tenant.) Such chilly perfection will not be to every taste. But neither is Cronenberg's acknowledged model, Samuel Beckett. Spider lasts in the mind and it's built to last—this is a movie that invites and repays repeated viewings.

As its protagonist reconstructs, scripts, and "directs" his memories, Spider projects a powerful sense of madness as a form of artistic creation. For the late psychiatrist (and student of existentialism) R.D. Laing, madness was a form of self-creation or role-playing. It was Laing's radical contention that schizophrenics were driven mad, usually by their families, and sought protection by adopting the mask of a "false self." Conventional treatment only exacerbated the condition. In lieu of hospitalization, Laing advocated safe asylums, therapeutic communities where patients lucky enough to afford them might freak freely amid kindred spirits and doctors living as their equals.

Web cam: Fiennes in Spider
photo: Takashi Seida
Web cam: Fiennes in Spider


Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Patrick McGrath, from his novel
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens February 28

Directed by Peter Robinson
Kino International
February 26 through March 4, at Anthology

A charismatic counterculture oracle on the order of fellow academics Marshall McLuhan, Herbert Marcuse, and Norman Brown, Laing reached the peak of his fashion 30 years ago. In 1972, the same year that Ken Loach doggedly dramatized Laingian therapy in Wednesday's Child, Canadian filmmaker Peter Robinson made an official documentary of the Archway Community, an experimental treatment center founded by Laing in the mid 1960s. It's a place where the only rule, we're told, is that the rent must be paid—in advance—every Monday.

Set in a London row house not unlike Spider's, albeit far more cheerful and pleasantly situated, the Archway is populated by a gaggle of mainly young and generally well turned out Anglo-Americans. The women all have long hair; most of the men have beards. There always seems to be a healthy mess of macrobiotic nourishment simmering on the stove, and, as in a permissive kindergarten, the writing is on the walls: "Leon Has a Good Brain."

The Archway's ambience is at once laid-back and chaotic—with just a bit of Titicut Follies lunacy to keep the spectator alert. It's unclear how much the filmmaking process contributed to the overall theatricality. The filmmakers did, however, take care to insure that their movie had its stars. In nearly the very first scene, an ethereal blond named Julia makes an indelible impression, hysterically complaining that "Uncle" David's continual ranting about fascists and nuclear installations has become intolerable. One of the older patients, David demands attention with his sustained babble, bare chest, and glittering eye. Julia's scene-stealing strategy is one of total regression—apparently to the age of six months.

Other patients are heard from throughout, as are their relatives. A lordly gentleman comes to Archway to visit his son—explaining at length, while the cab waits outside, his strategy for building the boy's confidence. The idea of this omnipotent parent paying a girl to date his near catatonic son amply fulfills Laing's worst sense of family relations. But David soon reoccupies center stage. Asylum ends with an all-house meeting called to discuss his obnoxious behavior—gratuitously striking the other inmates. Julia can't stand the pressure and starts bawling; David gesticulates and acts "crazy" until the group leader manages to contact the extravagant madman's inner "little boy." A haunting postscript has David returned to himself—calmer, sadder, and, in the absence of his madness, unmistakably diminished.

Asylum is a fascinating documentary—both as a period piece and for its theater-of-the-absurd pathos. It would be illuminating to see a psychologically annotated version. Without overview, it plays like the inadvertent inspiration for Lars von Trier's transcendentally snarky vision of a therapeutic commune, The Idiots.

Related Story: "J. Hoberman talks with David Cronenberg and Patrick McGrath"

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