Friday, 19 December 2008

Changeling: Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish' redux

Tonight Linda and I went to see Clint Eastwood's latest film, Changeling. We had both been really moved by Million Dollar Baby and so looked forward to viewing it with anticipation.

Let's make one thing clear: it isn't pretty viewing. The film opens reminding the viewer that it is based on true life, and this is what makes the movie powerfully arresting. In fact, the auditorium was quieter at the end of the film than any other I'd been to since The Passion of the Christ. Whilst there wasn't much gore, the subject matter was such that it leaves you squeaming at many points.

The trailer for Changeling only gave the bare bones of the plot: a boy is abducted, a police search ensues, a boy is found, but the boy's mother Christine Collins (played by the very good Angelina Jolie) insists that the boy returned to her is not her son.

However, perhaps the main issue that the film raises is the matter of madness. After confronting the city authorities, Mrs Collins is branded an unfit mother, branded delusional and sent to a secure psychiatric hospital. Later in the film, another view of madness is presented in one of the other major characters. The movie considers what 'madness' is, who has the right to call someone else 'mad' or delusional, and whether 'madness' ever mitigates one's societal responsibility. And so whilst there are other strong themes (human evil, death, the family, justice and women's rights), it's issues of 'madness' and the role of the institution that is explored most deeply. In this respect, it is very similar to the 'archaeology of knowledge' of the penal system and the hospital presented by the French postmodernist Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish. The movie questions whether two key figures - Mrs Collins and Northcott - might be treated in the same way today (and if not, why not?).

It's true that societal factors are highly influential in governing behaviour. I believe that evangelical Christians (like me) have traditionally underplayed these societal forces. However, part of what Foucualt's philosophy has done has placed us in a society where nobody is ever 'guilty'. We can always blame our mental health, our disposition, our upbringing or our parents. At the end of Changeling, it's worth considering this question: despite all of the guilt and the violence, who is guilty? (The answer might surprise you).

For a second opinion, here's what Nick Pollard of the excellent Damaris organisation made of it:


Dan Dassow said...

I find your analysis insightful. I do not recall that any of the many reviews and blogs about Changeling has made this connection between Christine Collins and Gordon Stewart Northcott. In retrospect,
the connection that you mention is clear.

The screenwriter, J. Michael Straczynski, is a graduate of San Diego State University (SDSU). He earned Bachelor's degrees in psychology and sociology with minors in philosophy and literature. Those familiar with his work have noted his examination of self and sanity. A prime example of this his Babylon 5 episode, "Passing Through Gethsemane."

I have not been able to review Changeling and attitudes towards women
and Changeling and transformational truth, since the videos are slow to download.

peterdray said...

Thanks very much. I wasn't really aware of Straczynski's other work, but the theme of sanity and its penal treatment is clear in Changeling.

I'll follow the links and have a look a bit further myself.

Dan Dassow said...

Peter, with you permission, I would like to repost your review of Changeling on JMS News, a discussion forum devoted to the works of J. Michael Straczynski.

peterdray said...

Please do, my pleasure.

Chris said...

cheers pete - that's a really helpful connection. Can't wait to see the film. See you at STC if not before!

Dave K said...

Interesting connection. I was only seeing the abuse of power as a major theme.

The acting was superb wasn't it?

peterdray said...

Dave - yes, that's true (although the abuse of institutional power is also, of course, a major theme of Foucault's). The scenes that I thought were particularly powerful in comparing Northcott and Mrs Collins were in the court scene (when Northcott claimed to be just like her), and at his execution (again where there were loads of comparisons between Northcott and Mrs Collins).

The acting was superb. Not sure I'd want to see it again though...