DVD Review Of David And Lisa

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/23/06


  One of the earliest independent film successes in America, both in terms of box office and critical acclaim at international film festivals (including Oscar nominations for direction and screenplay), was director Frank Perry’s issue oriented David And Lisa, produced by Paul M. Heller (My Left Foot), which was the first starring vehicle for two young actors of great potential whose careers eventually fizzled: Keir Dullea, who would reach his career apogee in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Janet Margolin, who a year later would star as Woody Allen’s wife in his directorial debut, Take The Money And Run. These days, Perry is most well known for his unwitting camp classic Mommie Dearest. But, back at the start of his career, Perry was what might be termed a social realist filmmaker who made several other films in that vein with his then wife, Eleanor Perry, who wrote the film’s screenplay, adapted from the book, David And Lisa, by Dr. Theodore Isaac Rubin.

  While there have been any number of films dealing with mental illness and institutions (Harvey; John Cassavetes’ A Child Is Waiting; One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest; Girl, Interrupted, to name the most memorable) few have been as well wrought as this- from the screenplay (remarkable in its prescience and sensitivity, given its year of release), to the acting, to the political commentary, to the 35 millimeter black and white cinematography, by Leonard Hirschfield, which renders many of the shots as sort of moving Ansel Adams photographs of cityscapes. Dullea portrays David Clemens- an intelligent, hyper-organized blond seventeen year old (although he was twenty-five during filming) with a phobia of being touched, and a penchant for highly symbolic dreams. He is very well read and literate as he enters a special school for teenagers with psycho-emotional problems. He is a perfectionist who fears death, which is at the root of his touch phobia, and his obsession with clocks. He feels that if he could only stop time he and others would be safe. He also has dreams of the heads of people he dislikes sticking out of a giant clock whose hands are razors that behead his victims- including Lisa, after he is withdrawn from the school by his parents, and also fantasizes of building a master clock that sends out radio signals so all clocks can be synchronized and everyone can have the exact time; not unlike the atomic clocks we now have.

  He openly resents his dysfunctional parents, his mother (Neva Patterson), who is an old fashioned shrew, and his father (Richard McMurray), who is a wealthy businessman from a poor background, often away on business trips, who is dominated by his wife, as well the school’s principal and head psychiatrist, Dr. Swinford (Howard Da Silva, who was blacklisted by Hollywood studios), a caring man who gradually wins David’s trust; enough so that after David’s parents remove him from the school, after he rebels against his mother, and we see his home life- which is reminiscent of other such 50s and 60s era films like Rebel Without A Cause, in its rather stale Freudian depiction of domesticity, he runs away from them, back to the school and doctor, who takes him back, and convinces his parents to let him stay.

  David also initially resents the rest of the teens at the school, including Lisa Brandt, a beautiful fifteen year old brunet (although Margolin was eighteen during filming), with large and beautiful eyes, who has seemingly schizophrenic tendencies that makes her speak only in rhyme. She may also be a multiple personality, for we learn that her real name may be Muriel, yet the film never deeply explores which is the real girl- Lisa, who rhymes in speech, or Muriel, who writes her thoughts, nor how she got this way. Slowly, over the course of this fast moving, 94 minute film, which seems longer and richer due to its many short, intense and introspective scenes, the two leads gravitate toward each other. Lisa clearly likes David from the beginning, but he claims his only interest in her is analytical. There are many standout scenes between the two, such as when Lisa tries to claim the power position in their relationship by pointing her finger at David, and threatening to touch him, which causes him to back up until…she relents.

  Other scenes in the film are just as interesting. On a school afternoon outing, the kids come across a mother, father, and daughter at a train station, and, after Lisa takes an interest in them, the father denounces the kids as screwballs, and the family walks away. The scene of the kids taunting the family as they walk away, shouting ‘We’re just a bunch of screwballs, spoiling the town!’, until some of them start weeping, is as great a portrayal of cruelty sans physical violence as has been filmed. In another scene, after Lisa has asked David repeatedly through the film, ‘What do you see, when you look at me?’, he cultivates a rhymed reply, as he grows to like her: ‘I see a girl who looks like a pearl. I see a pearl of a girl.’ When he says this to her, Lisa runs over to her therapist and says, ‘I’m a girl,’ with such a look of joy on her face that it really leaves an emotional impact where a lesser actor would not have been able to.

  Yes, the film has dated poorly in some aspects, as diagnosis, and the idea that love can cure all, and that mere social interaction is a preventative for many mental ills, but it never deeply explores such options, nor even Freudian psychotherapy, which David is constantly deriding. But, the truth is this film is about difference, not mental illness, and this is made clear when, late in the film, during a therapy sessions, David reveals to Dr. Swinford how, the night he ran away from his parents and returned to the school, he saw a colored woman and her boy at the train station, and he so admired the fact that the mother obviously cared for the boy that he wished that she was his mother. That scene, innocuous as it was, would have never made the final cut of even the most socially conscious Hollywood film, like To Kill A Mockingbird, released the same year as David And Lisa. Also, the film never goes into exploring the roots of David’s and Lisa’s conditions, and one of the students, a Hispanic, is merely a sexually aggressive homosexual, which was considered a mental illness at the time. The students, and their ills, simply exist and must be dealt with. In that regard, the film can actually be seen as being ahead of its time, and devoid of much of the psychobabble that has dominated the current socially irresponsible PC era we now live in.

  Much has been written about the supposedly mawkish, and some might now claim, PC ending of the film, wherein, after David yells at Lisa after she interrupts a piano performance by another of the boys, Lisa runs away, into the city- replete with vintage 1950s film noir melodramatic jazzy scoring (the film’s worst aspect) by Mark Lawrence, and winds up sleeping on the steps of an art museum she cannot get into, where we previously saw her curl up with a sexually suggestive statue of a man, woman, and child on another school outing. David finds her, with Dr. Swinford, and when he offers to allow her to touch him by taking his hand, she stops her rhyming, becomes Lisa alone, and speaks a bit normally. This has led critics to state that the film has a simplistic ‘love conquers all’, etc., end in regards to mental illness, yet I see the denouement in a slightly different fashion. While that may have seemed so at the time, I think the Perrys were a bit ahead of the curve.

  While Lisa clearly is the more disturbed of the two protagoists, neither youth would, today, be institutionalized, although they would likely be overmedicated since preschool, and given an assortment of irresponsible diagnoses, in this age of made up alphabet soup armchair maladies of autism for kids who are merely a little slow, or ADD (or ADHD) for kids who are a little hyperactive. David would be diagnosed as having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), while Lisa seems to be suffering from some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her subtly lascivious and sexual touching of the statues in the museum, which echoes a brief scene of her fondling her own breast (albeit covered) after she realizes her attraction to David, clearly suggest sexual abuse, not true schizophrenia, nor anything worse. Thus, their reunion at film’s end does not really suggest that love can conquer mental illness, but that it can help alleviate some of the problems that teenagers have faced since time immemorial, and which adults have often misconstrued. And, we have no reason to believe that David and Lisa will be released from the school anytime soon. Their admissions of love, without directly stating it, simply suggest that they have gotten over the worst in their lives, and can continue with their full recovery.

  Reputedly, the film was shot for about $185,000, but made over a million dollars in rentals after its 1999 release, by Fox Lorber, on VHS and DVD. Unfortunately, the DVD is rather standard. The only ‘extras’ are some written filmographies of the three major characters, and director Perry. This film was also remade in 1998, by Oprah Winfrey, as a mawkish telefilm starring Sidney Poitier as the psychiatrist, and the execrable Lukas Haas as David. The original is better, and soap opera fans should note that Karen Lynn Gorney (then only fifteen), the original bad girl Tara on All My Children, and later to star in Saturday Night Fever, as Stephanie Mangano, plays the small role of Josette, another student at the school.

  All in all, this is a very good film, and one that without the advent of mass market DVDs would likely have had its negatives wither away in some vault. Instead, it can be seen not only as an important American film, historically, but one that entertains even as it enlightens, that rarest of artistic achievements.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]

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