October 6, 2015
David & Lisa – US, 1962
In Frank Perry’s David & Lisa, we observe two likable characters who remain somewhat aloof to viewers throughout the duration of the film. The characters, a troubled young man named David (Keir Dullea) and an even more troubled young woman named Lisa (Janet Margolin), are patients in a small-town mental hospital, and their difficulties leave both of them prone to sudden outpourings of rage or fear that have no crescendo or build-up. It’s the equivalent of a clear, serene night sky suddenly erupting in lightning, only to become calm a moment later. Both of them have developed ways of coping with their complications – David refuses to allow anyone to touch him, and Lisa has taken to talking in rhymes.
The two meet after David, cold, sharply dressed, and always standing upright, arrives at the hospital with his mother, and their first meeting is a fascinating one, with David standing near a wall and Lisa crouching behind a staircase with only the top of her head visible. David soon takes an interest in her, believing that he can better diagnose her than her doctors, and Lisa becomes ever closer to David, especially after he begins lacing his exchanges with rhyming words.
Characters with these types of problems are nothing new in movies, yet they are very difficult to get right. All too often, they live in a world that is too distant for viewers to completely accept. Here the audience is asked to take David’s and Lisa’s peculiarities on faith, and I found this difficult. It is one thing to accept David’s primary phobia of physical touch, yet quite another to buy into the film’s outdated explanation of it. The film also suffers by relying too much on the notion that everything can be cleared up if only a recurring dream is deciphered. This has been a common theme in movies of this sort, but modern psychiatry has moved past looking at dreams as if they were the end-all to understanding the human psyche. It was easier for me to accept Lisa’s mannerisms and quirks because they seem to be more consistent with those associated with schizophrenia, yet as the film goes on, I got the impression that it was moving toward a solution that would seem entirely too simplistic.
In the film, David is assigned to Dr. Alan Swinford, well-played by Howard Da Silva, and Lisa is being treated by a doctor known only as John (Clifton James). To the film’s credit, neither of these doctors is presented as perfect or as always knowing which treatment will work. I liked how we see the doctors on good days when their approaches yield positive results, as well as on days when they completely fail to reach their patients – occasionally meetings even end in slammed doors or panic. One of the things that the film demonstrates is that the best treatments occur over time and that some of the absolutely essential qualities of those in this profession are patience, the ability to listen, and emotional stability. It is something Dr.Swinford has in spades, but there are moments in the film when even he looks as if the stress is getting to him.
The film has two primary storylines. The first deals with David’s treatment, and in an original twist, he is one step ahead of the doctors, often anticipating their techniques and questions and challenging them to do something new. The scenes with David and Alan cackle with tenseness and energy, and, when they focus on the real world, they are some of most interesting ones in the film. In is unfortunate that so many of them deal with the analysis of dreams that seem written by someone with a degree in creating intentionally obscure visual metaphors. Far more interesting are the scenes with Lisa, her psychiatrist, and David, for these moments allow viewers to see a side of David that is more compassion than rage against the system. His quest to understand Lisa is especially interesting in light of his persistent avoidance of self-analysis. What happens between them is both sweet and moving.
The film introduces viewers to an array of other troubled youths, some of whom are interesting, but only one of whom seems absolutely essential to the plot. One scene in particular is especially misguided and off-putting. In it, David and some other youths from the institute chant a man’s insult of them back at him in unison, a la Tod Browning’s Freaks. The scene seems intended as a plea for the audience’s understanding and acceptance, yet it came across as forced and inauthentic. More effective are scenes involving David’s parents. During one particularly memorable and uncomfortable one, David’s father (Richard McMurray) tries his best to talk to him about their relationship only to be met with stone silence. The scene works so well that I felt a great amount of pity for this man despite his rather conventional character. David’s mother, skillfully played by Neva Patterson, is also typical of movies of this sort – outwardly kind, somewhat unemotional, and utterly emasculating. In other words, the perfect sort to blame a child’s mental breakdown on.
In the end, I admired David & Lisa a bit more than I enjoyed it. The film’s leads give credible performances for the most part, and I appreciated the way Frank Perry directed the film. His choices of angles and shots reveal a genuine talent for imagery and lighting, and I love the way he filmed the hospital in the opening shot as if it were something out of a fairy tale. Also, his use of lights and shadows is particularly effective in creating an atmosphere of pent-up frustration and ever-present hope. A scene in a museum is particularly effective in conveying this. In it, Lisa clings to a statue of a mother holding her child, and the juxtaposition of the dark statue with her light form is beautifully haunting. David remains an interesting character throughout the film, even if some of the things he says and does do not seem entirely credible; similarly, Lisa maintains our empathy even when the film settles for a standard, audience-friendly ending over a much more realistic one. It is also unfortunate that the film is saddled with so much psychological theory and interpretation. It dates the film and prevents it from being as relevant today as it might otherwise be. In the end, the film is a noble effort that only partially succeeds. (on DVD and Blu-ray)