Jessica Yu's The Living Museum explores the powerful artwork
produced by patients of a mental institution. Making it was more fun than
the director expected
Yu earned a reputation as a 'stylish, sexy someone' after the disarming
acceptance speech she gave in 1997 at the Oscars for her documentary,
Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien.
Jessica Yu cut like a hot knife through the buttery
smarm of the Academy Awards a couple of years ago when she accepted her
Oscar for directing Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien.
That film was a profile of the now-deceased poet and journalist (O'Brien
died in July), who had been confined to an iron lung since contracting
polio at age six. There are those who might have seen winning an Oscar for
such a poignant topic as an occasion for more smarm, but not Yu.
The much-repeated opening line of her short acceptance
speech -- "You know you've entered new teerritory when you realize
your dress costs more than your film" -- brought down the house and
established her, in the words of Camille Paglia that year, as "a very
stylish, sexy someone." Ad campaigns for Coach bags and platinum
jewellery followed; Oliver Stone called for meetings. Even radio
shock-jock Howard Stern was impressed, doing a lewd post-Oscars riff on Yu
as a geisha girl the next morning. "All I remember is him saying
something like, 'She can walk across my back anytime,' " she recalls.
The borrowed dress, incidentally, cost only $5,000 -- it
was the $200,000 of borrowed Harry Winston jewellery that made the outfit.
"You sign this paper -- I think it's the Sharon Stone document,"
Yu notes, "saying you do agree that the jewellery belongs to Harry
Winston and not to you."
Now Yu has a new documentary, The Living Museum, about
the extraordinary art produced by patients at the Creedmoor Psychiatric
Center, in Queens, New York. The film is to be shown on HBO in the United
States, but will first be screened at the Vancouver International Film
Festival, which started yesterday and will run until Oct. 10. Yu found her
subject by serendipity while on the talk-show circuit: She met the film's
producer, Dawn Parousse, because Parousse was working on the Jon Stewart
Show. "We really hit it off and kept in touch," Yu recalls,
"and Dawn told me about borrowing a piece of art furniture from
Creedmoor when she was a propmaster on some low-budget feature. She'd just
always remembered it."
Like Breathing Lessons, The Living Museum is a subject
that could easily descend into soggy sentiment, but in Yu's hands never
does. She combines a penetrating eye with a light touch -- qualities the
museum's director, the psychologist and artist Dr. Janos Marton, detected
when he asked her to draw something as a psychological test at their first
meeting. Yu depicted a figure rowing in a canoe, which she describes as
"a kind of Asian-themed Gilligan's Island." Marton, however,
said it revealed "a person who brings good things home."
For her part, Yu remembers the experience of filming at
Creedmoor -- which might seem depressing or at least gruelling -- as
"probably more fun than you're supposed to have in a mental
Some of the film's buoyant spirit comes from Vienna-born
Marton, who explains that "my theory is that ... anyone who has a
psychotic breakdown comes out of it as a potentially great artist."
That might be a stretch. Still, there's no denying that much of the art in
The Living Museum is rather remarkable -- from the irrepressible erotic
abstracts of John Tursi's Dirty Tursi's to the contemplative sculpture of
David Halford, who, as Marton puts it, could have been conveniently
assigned to a monastery if only he had lived in the Middle Ages.
"If an angel said, 'David, you can be cured of
mental illness, but you'll never know the worth of life again,' I think
I'd have to pick the mental illness," Halford says at one point.
"It does show me a beautiful, enchanting side of life."
At times, the film reveals patients becoming a bit
exasperated with some of their kindly supervisor's c-r-a-a-z-y ideas.
"We're gonna get a hernia moving this stuff!" Tursi mutters as
Marton considers carrying a giant fallen log into the museum as material
for sculpture. "We can't do it piece by piece. That's crazy, you
know? I own Creedmoor, I own the state. Let's get professional people to
do it." Later, another inmate takes a disapproving view of Marton's
latest found object, a termite-infested chunk of wood: "I mean, we
can't be eccentric all the time. Firewood -- that's what normal people do,
not this nonsense. They're gonna lock us up!"
It's a wonderful, King of Hearts moment -- are the
inmates actually the sane ones?
Yu says that all the patients depicted in the film were
happy with the way they appeared, "and that was such a relief."
One, aspiring screenwriter-director John C. Mapp, even began chatting with
an intrigued cameraman from the Bravo network who was there covering an
open house. There was talk of the cameraman perhaps filming Mapp's
Storyboard of Frustration in Creedmoor: The John C. Mapp Story, which Mapp
envisioned as starring Jimmy J.J. Walker of the old Good Times TV show.
(Plot: "I was frustrated 'cause I can't get out of Creedmoor due to
screaming, cursing, hitting ... the way to get out is with new medication.
Produced and directed by ME!")
"It's funny," Yu says of the cameraman's
interest, "because John Mapp's gotten a lot farther than most people
with their unproduced scripts."
Although she's almost never recognized in public, Yu did
have a brief fling with celebrity a few years ago, when she attended a
film festival around the time of The Joy Luck Club and was repeatedly
mistaken for one of the actresses in that film. Now she gets occasional
genuine, if skewed, tokens of admiration from fans: "I got one weird
e-mail, which I keep in my weird e-mail file, which said: 'You are my
beautiful Asian wisdom lady.' " But she found the post-Oscar rush of
celebrity kind of a blur. "When the people from Coach bags called, I
thought it was the TV series, Coach." Still, she carries a chic
little Coach bag these days. "Yes, it replaced my ratty canvas film
The Coach campaign provided a little black comedy of
errors moment during the filming of The Living Museum. One day, a patient
the crew had planned to film did not show up at the museum, although he'd
been expected. It turned out he'd found the Coach ad in a magazine and was
proudly showing it around at the hospital, declaring, "This lady is
going to interview me today!" They thought he was having a delusional
episode and didn't let him out.
Yu doesn't take her own fame that seriously. At her home
in Los Angeles, the Oscar statue resides in the dining room with a bag
over its head. Her husband, the novelist and memoirist Mark Salzman (Iron
and Silk, Lost In Place), used to be the more famous of the two. Around
the time of Yu's Oscar nomination, the Los Angeles Times published an
adoring profile of Salzman, and Yu tells how a friend called up to
complain that her husband owed him a new copy of that morning's paper,
"because I just threw up all over mine."
The couple have been together about a dozen years,
having met at Yale where Yu was an undergraduate and Salzman was, as she
put it, teaching and "trolling for undergraduates." She was on
the fencing team and since Salzman was a martial arts expert, "a
friend thought we'd have weapons in common." That actually turned out
not to be quite true; they approach these disciplines in a very cerebral
way, and in fact are such a gentle pair that when they found a rattlesnake
in their backyard recently, they shovelled the creature into a big pot,
clapped on the lid, and drove for miles until they found a suitable place
for it to slither free.
Salzman turned their travels through China into the book
Iron and Silk, which later became a film. Yu, who grew up in Los Altos
Hills, an affluent city in northern California, does not speak Chinese.
But she did learn one phrase, because it was addressed to her in shocked
and disbelieving tones so often: "Ni Zhonggue ren, buhui shuo
Zhongguo hua! Zhangfu waiguoren, ta hui shuo! Zemma yang?" Which
means: "You are Chinese, but you can't speak Chinese! Your husband is
a foreigner; he can! What's going on?"
"Ting bu dong," Yu would say pleasantly.
"Which basically means," she recalls, " 'Listening, but not
understanding.' In other words: 'I'm stupid.' "
Salzman also translated the Taiwainese coverage of his
wife's appearance at a film festival there, where she got to experience
journalistic cliches, Taiwan-style. Two questions were asked over and
over: When are you going to win another Oscar, and why don't you have any
headline of one story: "Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu is so busy
she doesn't have time to have children!"
Catherine Seipp National Post