The revolutionary psychiatrist R.D. Laing established his ideas in the nineteen-sixties about how patients suffering from psychotic mental illnesses should not be locked away in hospitals for their own good and the general good of society, because he believed a more integrated approach was more helpful. These people should not be left to their madness in cells and on deadening medication, they should be part of a community, he said, and to that end he promoted these theories in programmes like his Archway project, where a house in London was the setting for a group of patients and their doctors to live together, using no pills or any of the usually prescribed drugs, and see if this made a positive difference…
R.D. Laing is rather forgotten today, but in the late sixties and seventies his lessons were taken very seriously, especially by the counterculture who found his excessively liberal approach to our state of mind was something they could relate to, the whole “Who is the real madman, the person who goes to work 9 to 5, has a house and family, never thinks about changing the world for the better – or is it those who have been diagnosed schizophrenic?” The answer is of course those who have been diagnosed schizophrenic, but the appealing notion that the afflicted had a better insight into the wider world than the squares for whom that mindset would be anathema was one which caught on in a big way, most obviously in movies like King of Hearts, They Might Be Giants or most famously One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
However, when director Peter Robinson, enthused after reading Laing’s books, contacted him with a view to making a documentary on his Archway community, actually shot there for a few weeks with a small crew, what he recorded may divide opinion. In one point of view it was clear the patients got something out of this freedom to cope with their illnesses and express themselves, but in another they would get upset with the others and their own selves, leading to confrontations and rows that did not look conducive to anyone’s wellbeing, even the doctors'. The main troublemaker was David, a former scientist who took to speaking nonsense at great length and occasionally with great fury – it is his messages we see painted on the walls of the rundown-looking building – and the film culminates in a discussion on whether he should leave or not.
That would appear to indicate this treatment was not working too well, but the project went on for some time afterward. An aspect which offers the experience of watching Asylum a certain poignancy is the distance from then to now; with no follow up since it was released months after it was completed we don’t know what happened to the people we see, many of whom are poor souls who don’t come across as going to get any better any time soon. You find yourself regarding them as problems in a way you imagine Laing would have strenuously objected to, with patients like Richard, who is upset by his violent outbursts he wishes he could contain, or the most prominent woman there, Julia, who needs a lot of comfort and more than once breaks down on camera, wailing her head off at one point in a distressing scene.
And yet, they all have their moments of lucidity, even the gabbling David who is interviewed right at the close of the film and can talk reasonably about his past life as an obviously very clever man of science. On the other hand, Jamie hails from a wealthy family, and his father comes to collect him as he doesn’t have much faith in the project but for the young man we can perceive this has brought him out of himself and you don’t imagine his strict parent who has designed his own plans (apparently so his son won’t become homosexual) is really all that understanding, it being easier said than done to tell someone who’s ill to pull themselves together. A lot of this is rather chaotic and needs plenty of attention to work out what the relationships are – even discerning the doctors from the “inmates” is difficult initially – yet merely as observing a social experiment it has a perhaps uncomfortable fascination. As for Laing himself, he hardly appears, interviewed in his office a couple of times but mostly letting his underlings get on with it. You hope there was a happy ending, but you just don’t know.
[The OEG DVD has short films on Laing as extras, along with a commentary presented by Robinson's son which offers valuable insight and background.]