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Artistic Vision

(From Beyond Willow Bend, November 20, 2012)

man in tunnel
Photo by Jan Kroon on

In Shadows and Ghosts, the main character, a filmmaker, is suspected of being mentally ill when she suffers a near fatal heart attack as the result of trying to survive on the same meager rations as the homeless subjects of a documentary she has been making. She doesn’t see her willingness to risk her life for her work as worrisome; she thinks only that she is artistically fearless, and points to her creative output as proof of her stability.  She is brilliant, but she is also teetering on a thin and fragile line….

This line, which exists for a number of artists, is well documented. But, how we recognize it, how we define and interpret it, and how we treat those who struggle to stay balanced, is less clear-cut.

In his short film, “Crazy Talk: What is Mental Illness?” the late filmmaker, Gabriel T. Mitchell approached the question with the visual clarity and artistic vocabulary of one who experienced both sides of that line.

Created in response to a call for short films by “Murdered: De-framing the Frame,” Crazy Talk presents a multifaceted and multi-layered view of mental illness through commentary from mental health professionals and sufferers,  juxtaposed with media images and sound clips.  While these clips illustrate how news sources and various forms of entertainment shape our perceptions of mental illness, they also serve as a pictorial history of how the medical profession has defined and treated mental illness, and the way anomalous behavior of any kind has been misunderstood.  What emerges from this history is an image of a profession that is still groping, discovering, experimenting, and still making mistakes.

There are many powerful and haunting moments in Crazy Talk, but, of these, the most unforgettable one comes at the end, when tiny, distorted human forms, reflected in a Chicago sculpture’s smooth silver surface, become a disorienting swirl culminating in sudden blackness. This is Mitchell’s unique vision—a view of what mental illness looks like, how it sounds, and, especially, tragically, how it feels.

Watch it here.

Gabriel Mitchell (1973 – 2012), was a graduate of Kenwood High School and attended NYU. In 1994 he returned to Chicago, took courses on screenwriting and worked in film production. For several years he regularly attended film classes taught by film critic Michael Wilmington at the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. He began film studies at Columbia College in the fall of 2011, concentrating in documentary film. He has written a graphic novel, three screenplays and numerous songs and poems; he also made abstract drawings and geometric sculptures. Philosomentary, his feature length film, has been shown in several film classes; one of his short films, Crazy Talk, has been the subject of discussion in representations of mental illness. This and his other short films may be viewed on his website,

Additional Reading: “An Artist’s Struggle”