Medication. Once you have been on it for a little while, you begin wondering if you need it. Some — like me — fiddled with the dosages. Others stop taking it at all. Those with an artistic temperament, especially poets, don’t like seeing their most valuable kind of intelligence stripped away from them so that exercising their craft becomes harder. Because Art is more important to them than their relations with their families and friends, they step boldly beyond sanity and give themselves over entirely to their illness — until life becomes unmanageable.
It is understandable why people seek to go back to mania, particularly those of us with an artistic bent. Personally, I found writing poetry came easily to me. I not only had the focus, but I also had the sense of association that one needed to choose words to convey specific, charged meanings. If I had had a lover afflicted with the same, my output of love poems would have been enormous.
We all think we are brilliant in mania, but a great many manic artists are at best banal. A few like the poet Robert Lowell needed mania to keep an edge in their poetry. Others like Shelley sought out doctors to get help quelling their mood swings. These famous names — along with that of Vincent Van Gogh and many others — tempt some to
Touched with Fire steals its title from Kay Jamison’s classic book of the same name. (Jamison isn’t mad. She appears as herself in the movie at one point, desperately trying to set one of the characters straight on the issue of whether to take his meds or not.) It tells the story of two young people who meet while locked up in a psych ward. Like many such relationships, there is a wind storm of shared stimulation that transcends sex and common love.
They are bad for each other. They sneak down into the basement of the ward in the middle of the night to talk, write, and make art together. This nightly rendezvous makes them wildly orbit each other, like two Kuiper Belt objects stuck in mutual admiration. When they are separated, they grow wilder at first, then crash into depression, their bodies digging out craters of morbid, energy-less, angst. When they get out, they stop their meds again and head out on an extended road tour which nearly costs them their lives when he drives their car into a river.
Both Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby deserve praise for their portrayals. She is the intellectual, the one who retains the ability to reason while he is the wildman who chants rap. It is Holme’s character who eventually sees the light; Kirby’s cannot resist bipolar disorder’s attraction. Griffin Dunne puts in a great performance as Kirby’s much maligned father whose bipolar wife abandoned the family. He and Holmes’ parents show part of the damage that unrestrained mania can have on families. Kay Jamison is a surprise appearance, as the goddess to who Kirby and Holmes turn when they must confront their mania. It is clear who understood Jamison’s message better in this confrontation. Jamison is often portrayed as an apologist for medications by anti-psychiatrists, but here she makes the case that too much medication is a bad thing and cites her own experience.
Touched with Fire gets it right. Nowhere have I seen the excitement of mania so brilliantly exhibited. We’ve needed films like this just as we have needed the recent Infinitely Polar Bear and Homeland because they tell the truth about us and show that we are human. We are not Jasons — we are children of the light.
If you miss it in the theaters, rent the dvd.