Anyone who comes from a "colourful" family will enjoy P.J. Hogan's latest film Mental. It is, in Aussie slang, not everybody's cup of tea. Mental is over-the-top, raw, crude and maddening. I thought it was hilarious.
Entertainment, aside, the film acts as a sort of Uncle-Sam-ometer indicating how far we've come in adopting the American view of madness. In Crazy Like Us Ethan Watters looks at the way America exported its biomedical view of mental illness globally that, naturally, requires expensive drugs or, as I see it:
We've got pink pill
We've got green pills
We've got happy, happy little yellow ones
And they're all called Just-Give-Me-Them
And they all taste just the same
(Sung to Little Boxes performed by Pete Seeger)
Each of the 5 Moochmore daughters in Mental, a film loosely based on P.J. Hogan's childhood, claim to have a mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Their mother (Rebecca Gibney) has a breakdown and ends up in the "nuthouse". Their father (Anthony La Paglia) picks up mad hitchhiker Shaz (Toni Collette) to babysit the girls. Shaz arrives, toting a highlighted copy of DSM IV, which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. At one point Shaz - I don't think this is a spoiler - uses the DSM manual to point out the mental disorders of various locals.
Madness and Marketing. Americans do them so well. In Australia we've gained treatments for some serious mental disorders, we've totally lost our colourful Aussie slang terms for madness. With the DSM, you become the disease: an anorexic, a schizophrenic, an ADHD kid, an autistic, a socialphobe, a bulimic, a sex addict and the rest. There are no shades of grey. This creates the them-and-us view of madness. It is so easy to talk about THEM.
Things were different in the '60s. We had so many words for stupid and crazy including drongo, galah, twit, dag, moron, fool, goose, ratbag, loonie, nutcase, nong, fruitcake and dipstick. You could go troppo or mental, be loopy or wacko, be as mad as a Malley bull, a cut snake or a hatter, be as silly as a two-bob watch or a wheel, and be a few slices short of a loaf. These tags are more humane and more redeemable than a hard clinical term for a mental illness. Old Mrs Weaver was a funny old stick or that Davy is as mad as a coot. In other words, you were a person first and a little crazy second.
I remember taking friends home from university to visit my folks in the bush. My family couldn't act sane for three minutes straight. Our pet sheep would bolt in the back door, slipping on the lino and bleating "Sarge", we claimed. My dad, the local police sergeant in a country town, would sit in a singlet top on the wood pile in front of the stove inspecting his false teeth when not trying to swipe blow flies with a tennis racket. My mum would be on the police phone giving recipes, possibly for lamb chops, to someone who just ran into a sheep on a back road. My eldest brother used to skin rabbits and leave the pelts drying on the back fence,My youngest brother walked around holding on to a tin opener. He was a baked bean addict.
You know how you deal with all this madness. One day you grow up and write three books about these ratbags. I did. And P. J. Hogan made a film. Our families could have been sane and, to use another Aussie saying, as boring as bat-shit. ■