Life for Yu
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

Jessica 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 institution."

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 festival bag."

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 children yet?

The headline of one story: "Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu is so busy she doesn't have time to have children!"

by Catherine Seipp   National Post


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