Rep Diary: Who’s Crazy?
“Insanity: a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”
In 1967 a London screening of Thomas White’s Who’s Crazy?, a small independent picture that had premiered a year earlier in Cannes, was canceled after the authorities deemed it to be encouraging disrespect toward the London police. The film chronicles a fortuitous escape of a group of mental patients when the bus that carries them from the asylum to an unknown location breaks down in the middle of the Belgian countryside. Fleeing the enclosed space in which they were confined, they reach a house inhabited by a lone, taciturn man. Attempts to interact with him keep on failing as the man seems unable to communicate or interact with them. The fugitives proceed to take control of their lives, finally free from the shackles of normality and the straitjacket of institutional insanity. A couple’s marriage is ambiguously celebrated with a pagan rite accompanied by sorrowful music. Lively and incoherent discussions take place on all sorts of matters, ranging from the search for water to interpersonal issues. The “normal” man of the house looks on, aloof, until the police break in to take our cheerful heroes away.
When presented in Cannes, Who’s Crazy? earned the enthusiastic and typically egomaniacal plaudits of none other than Salvador Dali, who likened the film “almost” to his own work. The film is, according to White, “designed rather than written,” a freely but consciously shaped work about the self-imposed constraints of so-called normality. “I wanted to make a musical tragedy,” White confessed to the French daily L’Espoir, which considered the film to be a “eulogy to folly.” He was trying, he said, to “pose the problem of the relativity of insanity.”
The film had been originally presented in Locarno in 1965 but had left its director somewhat disappointed. “I realized that the energy of the actors, while very impressive, was not enough so I decided to hire Ornette [Coleman] to create the musical soundtrack that was needed to light the fuse and set it off,” he said in a recent interview. “Ornette came along serendipitously, exactly when I needed him.” A sought-after rarity among record collectors, Coleman’s soundtrack effectively brings the film’s spirit to vivid and audible life, perfectly matching the actors’ performance.
Coleman scored the entire film with cacophonous melodies, while the film’s sparse, often overlapping dialogue consists of grunts and laments. Marianne Faithfull sings the opening song.
The film’s ensemble cast is entirely composed of Living Theatre actors then in artistic exile in continental Europe, after U.S. authorities had made their happenings and lives impossible and jailed their founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck over alleged tax fraud. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable match for the film’s poetic core than the collective performance of the Living Theatre, aimed as it was at the dissolution of barriers between actors and spectators, life and play, sanity and insanity. The collaboration between the director, the technicians, and the actors took a 33-page script as its starting point and resulted in over nine hours of filmed material, which was then edited down to its current length. White met all of his crew members and actors while in Paris, where he had moved in 1957 to study music and French after attending UCLA. In 1963 he served as assistant to Roger Vadim on the set of Château en Suède. A year later, he helped form a Swiss company which produced the pilot for a Don Quixote TV series under the banner Creative Productions Associates.
Though unaware of what would came to be known as the anti-psychiatric movement, White could almost be seen as the author of its unwitting manifesto. As the ’60s reached their peak, mental institutions too became the focus of political action. In the U.K., people like R.D. Laing and David Cooper understood “madness” as an eminently social phenomenon that needed to be addressed politically. They founded experimental clinics (such as Villa 21 and Kingsley Hall) where patients were not forcibly interned, but were proactive and liberated agents in their own therapeutic recovery. In Italy, too, heretical Marxist doctors like Franco Basaglia (whose eponymous law officially closed Italian mental asylums in 1978) rejected the authoritarian and coercive role of psychiatry to practice communal forms of therapy. In North America radical psychiatry coalesced in organizations such as the Insane Liberation Front in Oregon or Project Release in New York where in 1975 a conference on “schizo-culture” was held at Columbia University. But of all the militant experiments in alternative forms of psychiatry, the one Who’s Crazy? resembles the most is the short-lived occupation of the Socialist Patients’ Collective at the University of Heidelberg in Germany under the slogan “Turn Illness into a Weapon for Agitation.” White’s film, too, freely stages a shared experiment of patients’ self-management, evoking, if only for a fleeting while, a happier and more just community where the anomaly is normality.
Along with Marco Bellocchio’s omnibus film Matti da slegare (“Fit to Be Untied,” 75), Who’s Crazy? is one of the very few testimonies of a lesser known and celebrated movement of ’60s and ’70s radicalism: a movement which refused to take the division between sane and insane for granted, thus opening the gates of self-representation to those who had been locked away despite having committed no crime. After completing Who’s Crazy?, White made his living as a commercial producer and cameraman for industrial film companies in western New York State. In 1979 he went to Vietnam as a correspondent, and his final job was as film editor for CBS’s 60 Minutes before retiring to Connecticut to breed Arabian horses. As for his long unavailable, precious film, the director is certain that “it raises social issues that are as relevant today as they were when it was filmed in the mid-1960s.”