This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw The Disaster Artist, the movie about the making of The Room, one of the worst movies of all time. James Franco both directs and portrays Tommy Wiseau, the main force behind The Room. James’ brother Dave plays Greg Sestero, Tommy’s friend and collaborator.

Among other things, the film is about friendship, about the making of movies, about art, and what it’s like to live without self-awareness. Tommy’s inability to view himself accurately or imagine how others see him were major factors in his conceit that he could write, direct, and star in a major motion picture. Early in the film, he and Greg move to Hollywood to pursue acting careers, but he receives a uniformly negative response. In one scene, he accosts a famous director (I didn’t catch who it was) in a restaurant, bombarding him with lines from Shakespeare. When Tommy persists despite a polite rebuff, the director is unstinting: never in a million years could you become an actor. Slowed only a bit by this onslaught, Tommy pleadingly asks, “But after that?”

Through the second half of the film I kept wondering how someone so singularly incompetent and unqualified actually succeeded at making a movie that opened in a first-run movie theater. Why didn’t reality stop him early in the process? I don’t have the answer to that question, and I haven’t seen The Room, which might provide some insight. Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, though, I came up with three factors that may have played a role.

First of all, because Tommy couldn’t see himself through other’s eyes, he didn’t feel shame or embarrassment. Thus he is undaunted when doing things that make others quiver. Early in the film he and Greg are eating in a packed restaurant. Tommy insists that they perform a scene from a play right there, which they proceed to do at full volume. Greg is clearly uneasy, but not Tommy. The stares of others, their negative comments and thinly veiled derision have no effect on him. When I feel shame, I’m quite uncomfortable, and at times I wish I wouldn’t feel that emotion as easily as I do. Watching Tommy, though, I was thankful for the capacity to feel shame; it does provide information that sometimes steers me away from doing things that I would later regret.

Part of Tommy’s defense against shame is that he sees himself as an artist whose vision isn’t appreciated by others. This second reason for Tommy’s imperviousness to feedback comes up over and over again on the set of the movie, whenever anyone suggests a change to a scene. “You don’t understand my vision,” Tommy laments. The narrative of the misunderstood artist comes from Romanticism, one of the cultural metanarratives that affect how we see ourselves and live our lives. Unfortunately, not all artistic visions are of equal value, and probably none of them provide the kind of unerring guide to goodness and truth that the Romantics thought they would. For Tommy, the idea of artistic vision is a convenient way to deflect criticism and legitimize incompetence.

None of these factors would have been enough for him to complete the film, though, if Tommy hadn’t also been rich. He bankrolled the entire project; it’s estimated that he spent six million dollars making The Room. After several days of filming, we see script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogan) trying to cash a check from Tommy. He is apprehensive, doubtful that the check will clear. The banker reassures Sandy that there are vast sums in Tommy’s account. Having learned this, throughout the filming Sandy tolerates Tommy’s rants and indulges his whims. The rich are treated more leniently than the rest of us. At the same time, they become blind to how others view them. As summarized in The Atlantic, several research studies have found that the powerful have more difficulty than the powerless in understanding what others are feeling. Money is a form of power, and can be expected to produce similarly diminished awareness of the reactions of others. There’s a wrenching scene near the end of the movie when Tommy learns how others view his movie; he squirms with discomfort. It might have been better for him had he been able to feel some of this uneasiness before spending a fortune.

Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, then, I’m grateful that I can feel shame, unpleasant as it is at the time. I’m glad, too, that I don’t lay claim to an artistic vision that elevates me above others. As a middle class American, I have enough wealth that I don’t empathize with the poor as well as I might. Still, I’m not flush enough that people cater to me–not as far as I can tell, at least. As confident as Tommy appeared, it must have been difficult to be him. I may have a more modest ego, but at least I feel comparatively little pain when it’s deflated.

Kelsey Hamilton, who blogs at Musings of a Mad Woman, recently wrote a post asking why society views bipolar disorder as a joke. As evidence of society’s view of bipolar disorder she alludes to media fascination with such  bipolar casualties as Amy Winehouse. Kelsey also mentions movies such as Silver Linings Playbook that provide a humorous take on characters with mood disorders. Elsewhere, there’s plenty of humor directed at bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions; consider this Pinterest page, for example.

Why is there a fascination with bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, ADHD, and other mental health conditions? There isn’t a similar fascination with physical disorders such as diabetes or arthritis. Kelsey mentions one possible explanation for this preoccupation, namely the suspicion that these conditions aren’t real disorders. Possibly that contributes, but there are probably other factors that also play a role. One such factor might be our fear that bipolar disorder represents something that is wrong (or might go wrong) with us.

We all have doubts about ourselves. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Marti Horowitz describes us as having desired self-schemas and feared self-schemas. Our desired self-schemas are who we want to be; our feared self-schemas are who we are afraid we are. Each of us have our own individual fears about who we might be–an incompetent bumbler, a greedy ingrate, an emotional cripple. I suspect that some feared selves are common to all of us because they relate to larger societal messages about what sort of people we are supposed to be. I wonder whether the two most serious forms of mental illness–schizophrenia and bipolar disorder–besides being actual disorders that afflict millions, are manifestations of fears that we are not the selves we ought to be.

Here’s a vast oversimplification: over the past four hundred years, the two most important intellectual developments affecting how we view ourselves were 1) the  Age of Reason beginning with modern science and culminating in the 18th century Enlightenment and 2) Romanticism, a reaction to the Age of Reason emphasizing emotion and nature. Each of these is, as philosopher Charles Taylor described in his dense and detailed book Sources of the Self, highly influential in shaping our identities, filtering down by means of popular culture even to those people who don’t read books and have never heard of the Enlightenment or Romanticism.

So, what sort of self did the Enlightenment encourage? An independent self capable of carefully observing the world as would a scientist. An eminently rational self that reasons dispassionately and is free of bias.

What would be the feared self of someone pursuing the enlightenment ideal? A self characterized by ignorance and superstition, incapable of careful observation. A self unable to think rationally or objectively because it is beset by massive biases.

What would an extreme version of this feared self look like? A person with schizophrenia, whose hallucinations prevent any sort of accurate observation and whose delusions so bias thinking that rational or objective thought is impossible. (Actually, most people with schizophrenia are rational most of the time; I’m speaking here of lay perceptions, not reality.)

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

The Romantic Self: Looking Deep Within. Portrait of Romantic Poet Adam Mickiewicz by Walenty Wankowicz

And how about Romanticism, what is the desired self according to that system? A self that experiences and expresses strong emotions, and sees deeply into reality as a result. A self that benefits from relying on imagination and intuition. An artistic self that is authentic and true to one’s inner nature.

What would be the feared self of a Romantic? A self in which emotions, rather than being a sure guide to truth, mislead the person. A self whose internal gaze sees chaos and confusion rather than one’s authentic nature. A self in which imagination misfires and intuition misleads..

And what would be an extreme version of this feared self? A person with bipolar disorder, prone to episodes of extreme emotion–mania and depression–that distort rather than reveal the truth about oneself, conjuring up fantasies of grandiosity or nightmares of extreme inadequacy. (Again, this is the popular perception, not the lived everyday experience of most people with bipolar disorder.)

So, this may be what fascinates us about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Perhaps they represent our feared selves, the flip side of the desired selves that the Enlightenment and Romanticism tell us we should be. I’ve noticed that over the past forty years or so we’ve become progressively less fascinated with schizophrenia and more fascinated with bipolar disorder. Maybe we are less concerned than we used to be with achieving the Enlightenment ideal, but more concerned with being good Romantics. That change may or may not be for the good, but it’s the world in which we find ourselves.