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Borderline Cases: Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie confront the '60s by going haywire in 'Girl, Interrupted.'

Therapy Chic

'Girl, Interrupted' and 'How to Stop Time' turn disorder and addiction into reveries of youthful self-absorption

By Richard von Busack

SUSAN KAYSEN'S Girl, Interrupted (published in 1994 and just now adapted for the screen), and Ann Marlowe's How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z (1999; Basic Books) are cautiously written memoirs about going haywire. In both works, we get the sense of authors watching the results of their own lives from a distance; we're always aware of the fervent scribble on diary pages.

Reading the books--evasive, sparse, brittle--is like watching a gyroscope balance on the edge of a tabletop without falling off. Kaysen and Marlowe expertly skirt the central question of "Why": "Why become a heroin addict?" in How to Stop Time, "Why spend 18 months in a mental hospital if you're not really insane?" in Girl, Interrupted. If these twin cases of omission weren't such delicate feats of engineering, you'd call them coy.

Marlowe's memoir, the better of the two books, provides an account of the author's seven years as an affluent heroin-snorter in Manhattan. Marlowe is a harder, bitterer writer than Kaysen. Her book unfolds as a series of essays on heroin, laid out in alphabetical order, like a glossary. If one essay doesn't work, the next one might. No one before has really chronicled the extreme self-absorption of the junk-fancier as opposed to the mere isolating effects of the drug itself. If the book is especially chilling, it's because Marlowe's a chilling person.

By contrast, Girl, Interrupted is the diary of a waif, who spent the end of the 1960s in a mental hospital. In director James Mangold's film version of the same name, an 18-year-old named "Susanna Kaysen" commits herself to a private Massachusetts institution following a half-hearted suicide attempt.

Three screenwriters attempted to defrost Kaysen's book, trying to give the narrator a reason for staying in the hospital when she couldn't even explain it to herself. Susanna (Winona Ryder) sums up her "that's for me to know and you to find out" aesthetic: "Was I ever crazy? Maybe. Or maybe the outside was crazy."

In the movie, the outside is crazy, definitely. Mangold ropes in 1968, prodding us into memories of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with references to the Vietnam War and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The scenes of women waiting around and smoking cigs in the TV lounge are accompanied by vintage music, mostly by the Jefferson Airplane. (The music is distracting because it is extremely evocative. The older viewers are knocked out by their memories; the younger viewers get restless hearing yet more damned boomer music on a soundtrack.)

Citing the '60s is a deliberate strategy. It is a way to turn the patients into rebels--a way of making Susanna's confinement a sort of prolonged sit-in.

WHATEVER ELSE you can say about Ann Marlowe, she wasn't drawn to drug use as a form of political rebellion. An investment banker by day, she was hitting the East Village by night, doing some writing as a rock critic. She was a hard-working woman hypnotized by the numbness and ease of junk culture.

In a sense, Marlowe inaugurated chiba-chic when, as "Ann M.," she wrote a moderately pro-heroin article for the Village Voice in the early '90s. How to Stop Time wavers from being an aggravating book to being an interesting book about an aggravating person. Marlowe is superior, rich, and self-admittedly snobbish. And she really sticks it to her parents for having not provided more material goods and, implicitly, enough self-esteem to resist the drug.

Much of Marlowe's book actually focuses on her parents: dowdy denizens of New Jersey. To start with, mother didn't believe in makeup or mirrors. Her father owned a "shelf of pornography" (a few tattered paperbacks, for heaven's sake, including a copy of Fanny Hill).

Even after all this denunciation, Marlowe writes, "So many of my friends have flirted with exposure of their drug use to their families that I suspect they became junkies to act out a drama of recognition or acknowledgment." That's the kind of maddeningly indirect writing I mean.

Surprisingly, the film Girl, Interrupted doesn't try to fill the hole in its center by blaming Susanna's plight on her parents. Though the film does cook up a case of incest to explain why one of Susanna's fellow patients, the anorexic girl Daisy (Brittany Murphy), has starved herself. (By the way, is incest going to lose its scariness in the movies through overuse as a plot gimmick? Lean on any button hard enough, and eventually it goes out of order.)

Susanna's own problems are challenged by Whoopi Goldberg, starring as a Life Force again. Goldberg plays a nurse who helps Susanna--confronting her as a lazy girl, confronting her as Kaysen never was confronted in her own book.

To keep us rooting for Ryder's pallid heroine (she's skinnier than Murphy, who is supposed to be the anorexia case), Mangold's provided a counterpart. In the book, the sociopath Lisa was just one of many characters; the part has been beefed up for the movie, to show us a genuinely crazy girl as opposed to our vaguely troubled Susanna--a Goofus to her Gallanta.

Angelina Jolie, who plays the chain-smoking Lisa, has shown flashes of promise in earlier movies, including a strong sexual charge, which can be used for outlandish comedy, erotica or horror. Whatever is eating Jolie, it's too sharp-toothed to allow her to play a normal female lead in a movie.

But here she's gone overboard. Her Lisa is bleached and pale, a raging blonde wraith. Yes, she's charismatic compared to anyone else in Girl, Interrupted, with its faded colors and dreary New England light. (That pale, dispirited lighting is a Mangold specialty, at this point, after Heavy and Cop Land.)

Girl, Interrupted gets its title from a Vermeer painting that shows a male figure, perhaps a teacher, surprising (perhaps seducing) a young female student at her music lesson. But Jolie is more like a Picasso caricature of a self-righteous woman, all big teeth and rolling eyes. That's Jolie's acting: Billy Zane with boobs.

Mangold uses some tactics you can't believe you're seeing, such as a moment in which a house cat cringes from the sight of the woman who drove its feeder-person to suicide. And he and his writers come up with a reason for Susanna's breakdown: she was driven to a half-hearted suicide attempt not by the 1960s but by sleeping with her teacher (he was married!).

MIND IF I PLAY the class card here? A poor girl going to the loony bin or becoming a junkie is less interesting to the publishing and movie industry than the decline of someone more upper-crust. So Girl, Interrupted and How to Stop Time treat madness and addiction as inferior finishing schools that the ladies managed to muddle through with the help of their superior breeding.

To pad out both books, there are therapeutic sections, authors' messages. Marlowe's point is that too much sympathy is given to the plight of the junk-lorn. She complains that society considers heroin users ritually unclean, even when heroin users do things like snort lines off the top of a filthy toilet tank, as Marlowe did once ("I partook"). She claims, for what it's worth, that quitting heroin was really no worse than a bad case of the flu.

Girl, Interrupted offers the equally breezy assurance that borderline personality disorder, which was Kaysen's own diagnosis, is a vague term. That could be exaggerated: Sid Vicious of the pioneering punk band the Sex Pistols, for one, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. On the one hand, the diagnosis dismisses his social protest, and it could be argued that time in a mental hospital wouldn't have helped him. On the other hand, he did prove to be a genuine menace to himself and the people around him.

In any case, the vague diagnosis has a sunny side. Girl, Interrupted the movie comes out squarely in favor of therapy, with Susanna getting free of the mental hospital once she learns to write in her diary.

Books--and movies--like this, that make madness and junk tantalizing, are just more extreme versions of the hackneyed young-girl reveries of self-abnegation, of peacocky self-absorption, that have been so popular over the years. How to Stop Time and Girl, Interrupted are romances about abandonment and isolation. The two authors are sleeping beauties who bewitched themselves.

Girl, Interrupted (R; 127 min.), directed by James Mangold, written by Mangold, Susan Kaysen, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the book by Kaysen, photographed by Jack N. Green and starring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie and Whoopi Goldberg, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the January 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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