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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

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JUNE 2014 Issue
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A Long History of Madness, 2012 – Present

The “social unconscious” surfaces when a society first drives people mad through violence, then represses mad people, and puts them out of sight. What the film and exhibition project A Long History of Madness argues, demonstrates, and cinematically inflicts on its viewers is the breakdown of the social fabric as generative of madness. Analysts, psychotic people, and medieval fools interact to drive this point home.

All images are film stills from <em>A Long History of Madness</em>, 2012 Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker
All images are film stills from A Long History of Madness, 2012 Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker

The Fools are not mad but play the fool. So how do we know what “being mad” is, and whether that is different from playing? Can you play what you are—and be, or become, what you play? We had to visualize this ontological uncertainty of madness between enactment, being, and being perceived. Since playing the fool in street theater is the Fools’ profession, this took a specifically theatrical form, in an inter-arts probing of the relationship between theater and cinema. 

Take schizophrenic Sissi. While coming from a very simple working-class family, she imagines herself to be (a double of) the Empress of Austria-Hungary. This feature of the character became a great asset for visualization as well as empowerment. Instead of having her talk about her imperial status and dignity, we dressed her in a variety of fancy clothes, different for each session, with fitting hairstyles and jewelry. Thus we were able to create a gripping image sequence, give Sissi her own voice, and stage her madness without demeaning her through the symbolic violence of representation. Neither caricature, nor voyeurism, but a glamorous madness coming out in the open from the adorned body. This is one form the unconscious can take in film.

    Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker
    A Long History of Madness, 2012 (120 minutes)

    Based on Françoise Davoine, Mother Folly, Stanford University Press, 2014.

    With: Murielle Lucie Clément, Françoise Davoine, Marlene Dumas, Francisco Fernández Navarrete, Susana Espín López, Thomas Germaine, Helinä Hukkataival, Mathieu Montanier, Marja Skaffari, Fleur Sulmont, Louis de Villers, Olga Zuiderhoek, and many others.

    Music: Leticia Bal, John Morton | |


Mieke Bal

Michelle Williams Gamaker


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

All Issues