Portrait of a Family
New independent film Canvas, based on a true story, offers a sensitive, informed, and realistic picture of schizophrenia
By John Anderson
Reprinted with permission from Schizophrenia Digest, Winter 2007
Twenty-odd years ago, while he was attending elementary school in Hollywood, Florida, a terrible thing happened: Joe Greco's mother came to visit his fourth-grade classroom. He hadn't done anything wrong. Neither had his mother, really, except for showing up unannounced. But the moment looms large among Greco's childhood memories.
"I remember wanting to shrink into the carpet," he recalls. "I was just absolutely mortified -- and terrified that at any moment my mother was going to start doing the things I saw her do at home."
What Greco's mother did at home was show the symptoms of severe schizophrenia that she developed when she was college age, and which informed Greco's family life for as long as he can remember.
Looking back now, he says, "My mother was completely normal in that particular scenario. She wasn't hearing voices. She wanted to come in and talk to the teacher and make sure I was okay.
"But Greco, fearful of what could have happened if his mother hadn't been well, went home and cried, "Mom, why did you come? You shouldn't have come!"
To deal with his difficult childhood, Greco, now 34 -- who graduated from Florida State University's School of Motion Picture, Television and Recording Arts and also worked under the auspices of film director James Cameron during the making of Titanic -- made a movie. Greco's debut feature, Canvas, is a straightforward look at schizophrenia, painted with love.
"It's been very cathartic for me," he says. "I believe that all art stems from a profound or painful experience, or something that impacted you so much that it has become the core of who you are."
Drama in Real Life
Greco, an only child, says Canvas is a fictional narrative inspired by the real events of his childhood.
The character representing Greco is 10-year-old Chris Marino (played in the film by newcomer Devon Gearhart), who lives in a blue-collar beach town and can often be found fishing at water's edge. His uncommunicative father, John (played by Joe Pantoliano), is a construction foreman, while his mother, Mary (played by Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden), suffers from schizophrenia and paints her dreams onto canvas, according to the film's Web site at www.canvasthefilm.com.
At the beginning of the film, Chris is returning to Florida from a relative's home in Alaska, where he's evidently been sent during one of his mother's bad patches. What he comes back to witness includes police visits, his mother's arrest, and her ongoing irrational behavior.
Chris attempts to conceal his mother's illness, but her bizarre public behavior alienates him from other kids at school and places a wedge between him and his father. When Mary's illness leads her to violence, endangering her family and herself, John has no choice but to hospitalize the woman he adores.
"You can't get over the undying love this guy has for his wife," says Joe Pantoliano, who plays John Marino, a husband and father caught between the opposing forces of an unstable job, an ailing wife, and a son disoriented by the instability at home. "What I love about the movie is how this 10-year-old kid becomes the parent. My character at one point says, 'Mommy will be all right,' and he says, 'Don't ever say that Mommy's never going to be all right. '"
Much of what happens in the movie transcends any specific disease, says Harden, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film Pollock.
She points to another scene in the film in which the Marino family decides to have Thanksgiving dinner at an overbooked restaurant during one of Mary's temporary leaves from the psychiatric hospital. Their reservation isn't honored, and Mary's desire for pumpkin pie escalates into a major scene.
"You know how it is," Harden says. "One member gets angry and the whole family gets whipped up. It's not about being mentally ill. People recognize it, because you know -- you're hungry, and you're sitting there, and you don't get the place you want, and you're angry, and you start going on and on, and then everybody gets involved. I think people can recognize themselves." Unable to accept his wife's illness or relate to his son, the film shows John trying to cope by immersing himself in building a large sailboat in his driveway. He works on it day and night, neglecting his son and his job. Chris, meanwhile, misses his mom and longs for his dad's affection, but John doesn't notice -- consumed with his project, John dreams of taking Mary sailing again in the boat he promised her years ago, before she became ill.
Throughout the movie, Chris tries to keep his chaotic home life a secret. But his worst fears are realized when Mary unexpectedly shows up at his birthday party at a roller-skating rink, a candled cake in her hands and a paper hat cocked on her head, and proceeds to inadvertently humiliate her sensitive son.
"She's trying to be a good mother, "Greco says of the sequence. "It's Chris who goes a little overboard. But that's what I loved about that scene." In Canvas, the classroom of filmmaker Joseph Greco's memory has become a roller-skating rink and the event a birthday party. But the moment remains ripe with potential public embarrassment and the lingering legacy of a life with schizophrenia.
Ridiculed and bullied by his classmates at school -- one asks if his mother wears a straitjacket to bed -- Chris lashes out. He picks a fight that gets him a suspension from school and punishment by John.
In one of the most dramatic moments in the movie, Chris's emotions are pushed to the limit, lead into a confrontation and catharsis that result in a better understanding between father and son.
THE ROLE, THE RESEARCH
Critical to the film was Harden's portrayal of Mary .
Greco says the actress "was very concerned with making sure we portrayed the illness and the story accurately, sensitively, and without sentimentality."
Harden did not meet the real-life Mary, Greco says because "I never wanted her to feel like she had to copy my mother." "Even though the film is very personal," he explains, "the Mary character is her own person. I wanted Marcia to have that freedom. "
Greco says he was amazed by how spot-on Harden's performance turned out to be.
"She bared her soul in the movie. Every time she went before the camera, I found it almost uncanny how very similar it was to what my mother would have done in that situation.
"At Greco's suggestion Harden and Pantoliano visited Fountain House in New York City, a professional self-help program operated for and by men and women recovering from mental illnesses.
"People find this incredible support there through art, painting, flower arranging, jobs, and just communicating with each other," says Harden, adding that she walked away from the experience feeling like all people are more alike than they are different.
"I guess you see the universality of mental illness in people living in kind of a small cross section of society," she says.
Pantoliano, who also is a producer on the movie, says that during the making of the film, he started identifying with Mary's character more than his own -- thanks in large part to the Fountain House visit.
"When Marcia and I left Fountain House that day, I turned to her and said, 'I can identify with these people more than I dis-identify with them.' And when I came home from making the movie, I found myself in therapy, because I've been battling depression for the last 10 years."
Greco says he was pleased with what both actors took away from the Fountain House experience. "They both said they started to forget who is a consumer and who isn't -- it was a profound moment for both of them. It crystallized what we all wanted the movie to say."
HEALING THROUGH ART
Although he concedes that Canvas helped him come to terms with his past, Greco says he didn't intend to make a "message movie" and that he considers himself a filmmaker first and a mental-health advocate second.
"That said, I did my own research, met with mental health consultants; Iwanted to make sure my experience growing up with a mentally ill parent wasn't so specific that it wouldn't relate to other people," he says. "And I wanted to make sure I got it right."
In that process, Greco became "more of an advocate than I intended to be, and thankfully the mental health community -- NAMI [the National Alliance on Mental Illness] and also Schizophrenia Digest -- approved of the film."So did his mother." I was worried about that," Greco admits. "But I didn't make the film for her, I made it for myself."
Greco says his mother still suffers from severe symptoms of schizophrenia and lives in a group home. "I'm happy to report that she loved the film. What I found most interesting is that while she was watching it, she turned to me and said, 'This woman really needs to take her medicine.' She was able to have more insight into the character's problems than her own."
His parents divorced when he was a senior in college, Greco says.
"My father, as a caregiver, reached a point where he couldn't give any more," he recalls. "Unfortunately, it was decided by my mother's doctor -- and I was part of those discussions -- that for her to receive the proper care that my father couldn't give emotionally and financially, they had to divorce."
Greco says his father is now remarried; however, with his new wife's blessing, he is "still very engaged in my mother's life. He visits her, but he still feels guilty for leaving her. My father still really cares about my mom.
"Remarkably, the divorce ultimately had a positive impact on Greco's mother. "The weird blessing is that she's doing better than she ever has been," There was nothing for her to do, no one to talk or relate to.
"Now she has a large circle of friends at the group home, she's active in her church and spends a lot of time emailing me and writing letters."
Greco says time and art have begun to heal the wounds of his boyhood.
"My mother's illness defined my childhood. So much of it was spent wondering what mood she was going to be in. Other times, I was sheltered because of her paranoia, which led to frustration. Coming to terms with it has been a process. I've grown from being very afraid and resentful to ultimately accepting of my mother's condition.
"I don't look at it as a negative now," he says. "I'm thankful for the experience because it's given me the ability to have compassion for people who live with mental illness -- or for anyone who's battling an intractable problem."
John Anderson's reviews and features appear regularly in Newsday, Variety, Screen International, and the New York Times.
"I believe that all art stems from a profound or painful experience, or something that impacted you so much that it has become the core of who you are." - Joseph Greco
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An important revelatory family drama
By John Anderson
Schizophrenia in the cinema has been one mixed-up bag. From the quasi-sensationalism of Sybil to David Cronenberg's brilliant but creepy Spider to the sensitive, inside-the head treatment of Lodge Kerrigan's cult film Clean, Shaven, the disease has been used as either monster or metaphor. Even at their most sensitive, the movies have dealt with the subject in a telescoped, highly focused manner that assumes the sufferer to be the center of the universe.
Enter Canvas, Joseph Greco's revelatory drama about a Florida family's experience with the disease, and its effects on that Florida family -- the whole family. As is made quite clear throughout the film -- the screenplay was based on Greco's own childhood -- no one in a household escapes the wrath of the disease, nor walks away from it unscathed .
Blessed by three remarkable performances, Canvas is told from the point of view of 10-year-old Chris Marino (newcomer Devon Gearhart), who has returned from a trip to Alaskan relatives who have provided shelter from the storm that is his mother. Mary Marino -- played with predictable precision and dramatic power by Marcia Gay Harden -- is a sweet woman, a loving wife and mother, and a person who hears voices, suffers paranoid delusions, and cannot be controlled by her husband, John (Joe Pantoliano), regardless of how much he loves her. The impotence of John's love, perhaps more than anything else in the film, gives Canvas a sense of overwhelming poignancy.
But the movie isn't a downer, even if the uninitiated might have difficulty with the fine line Greco draws between the territories of mental illness and mental health. In her well meaning but occasionally scattered maternity, Mary mends Chris's torn shirt by sewing a large, color-uncoordinated patch across its breast. Once his classmates see it, Chris's patchwork shirt becomes the rage of the school. He starts sewing and selling shirts, and before long he is bringing in real money. His mother's inspiration -- echoing the questionable sanity of so many artists throughout history -- becomes fashion.
His father, meanwhile, starts building a sailboat in their driveway. No one suggests treatment, medication, or commitment. But Greco's point is made, and made well.
Canvas may be a tough movie, but its knowledge and sympathy are rare qualities in a genre that all too often chooses exploitation over the facts -- which, with regard to schizophrenia, are dramatic enough.