Since Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari premiered in 1920, psychiatric hospitals have been a recurring theme in cinema. While made under the guise of other genres—from horror to melodrama, direct cinema to dystopian science fiction—the mental institution film has almost become a genre in itself, similar to the prison film or military film.
Filmmakers have used mental institutions as an ideal microcosm to study society at large; psychiatric hospitals are presented as isolated scenarios where inmates and staff engage in role-playing normalcy and pathology, authority and deviance, order and disorder.
This film program focuses mainly on the 1960s, a period characterized by important transformations in the care for the mentally ill. In the United States, the Community Mental Health Act was passed in 1963 and continued with the strong impact of anti-psychiatry in parallel with the pharmaceutical revolution. Straight jackets, electroconvulsive therapy, medication, and even lobotomy are the usual suspects in some of the films of this era, which offer a critical view toward psychiatry.
As the psychiatric institution changed during the second half of the twentieth century, its depiction in film consequently changed. Some of the films in the program present a more benevolent view of the psychiatric institution, but always keep a critical eye on the relationships between society and those who are diagnosed with mental illness.
– Javier Téllez, series curator
This series was organized in collaboration with the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) and artist Javier Téllez in conjunction with his exhibition on view at MAG, April 22–June 17. Javier Téllez will discuss his recent commission for MAG with scholar and theorist W. J. T. Mitchell on Sunday, April 22, at 2 pm at MAG. Mitchell will also deliver a public lecture “American Psychosis: Trump and the Nightmare of History” on Friday, April 20, at 4 pm in Hoyt Auditorium at the University of Rochester. Visit mag.rochester.edu for more details.