Hollywood's Obsession ; Movies Can't Leave Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Alone, Says KALEEM AFTAB. It's Become an Indispensable Character Pointer

By Aftab, Kaleem | The Independent (London, England), February 11, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Hollywood's Obsession ; Movies Can't Leave Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Alone, Says KALEEM AFTAB. It's Become an Indispensable Character Pointer


Aftab, Kaleem, The Independent (London, England)


Cinema screens are being filled with movies featuring characters that simply can't help repeating themselves. Watch The Aviator, Electra, Assault on Precinct 13 and Are We There Yet? and you'd think that most Americans were sufferers of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). They all feature characters with a pathological aversion to germs, who continually check that everything is in order, or who have to go about their daily chores in a preordained manner. OCD has become a quick cinematic way for edgy characters to gain our sympathy.

The ghastly looks thrown at Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator show how those with obsessive- compulsive tendencies were once viewed as sure-fire candidates for the madhouse. The Outlaw director would wash his hands until they bled. Scorsese shoots the scenes in which Hughes quarantines himself in a single room for weeks on end with heavy religious overtones; the desire to confess is another characteristic symptom of obsessive- compulsives. Hughes also shows some of the less common symptoms of OCD, such as the hoarding of worthless items, and he also had tics, common in many OCD-related conditions, such as Tourette's syndrome.

The Aviator ends before his OCD and other psychiatric illnesses saw Hughes turn into a hermit, residing in a "germ-free" living room and wearing tissue boxes on his feet. It's a bizarre side-effect that in extreme cases of OCD the sufferer's fear of contagion leads to them living in extreme dirt when they give up hope of clearing the vicinity of germs. It's a side to OCD that movies choose to ignore.

American movies have traditionally identified characters with a propensity to repeat themselves as having a screw loose. In The Shining, Jack Nicholson famously spends the winter repeatedly typing, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", and in the comedy What About Bob?, Bill Murray refuses to touch anything except with a tissue and lives in constant fear of terrible events.

It was James L Brooks's As Good as it Gets in 1997 that established OCD as a syndrome able to invoke moviegoers' sympathy. Jack Nicholson plays a curmudgeon with racist, sexist and homophobic beliefs, but that's easily explained away because he can't leave the house without switching the light on and off several times; he throws away soap bars after one use; he can't step on cracks in the pavement; and he brings his own clean Tupperware to restaurants.

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