TiVo This: A Summer in the Cage

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I'm not normally in the business of reviewing documentaries, but this one has personal resonance for me.

Short version: Do yourself a favor tonight at 9PM and check out A Summer in the Cage on the Sundance Channel.

Long version continues after the jump:

Buddy flicks come in all shades and flavors, but Ben Selkow's film is probably the world's first guy movie about manic depression. It is also an exceptional and deeply humanizing look at bipolar disorder, which afflicts roughly five percent of Americans... and probably someone you know.

Selkow didn't set out to make a major film about mental illness. In 2000, the fresh-faced filmmaker begins a documentary about streetball at "The Cage" — the famed Greenwich Village bball court — where he quickly befriends Sam Murchison, a 30-year-old former division-1 player for Long Beach State, and one of the lone white guys on the court.

The charismatic "Clark Kent" — as Sam is known to his fellow ballers — has just quit his i-banking job and offers to help Selkow build trust with the denizen of the Cage. But what starts off as an over-eagerness to help quickly crosses a line into mania. Murchison's side obsession with getting an already-defeated Bill Bradley elected president with Colin Powell as his VP starts to seem less oddball, and more delusional. Within weeks, Sam's mania crosses another line into psychosis. He ends up in a mental hospital, but not before maliciously torpedoing Selkow's street cred at the Cage.

A lesser filmmaker, and a lesser friend would have packed up his camera and gone home. But Selkow's gut-level connection with Sam abides. The suddenness of his friend's breakdown haunts the filmmaker. And so, with a recovering Murchison's permission, Selkow decides to make Sam and his ongoing struggles with bi-polarity the focus of this film.

What follows is a six year odyssey into the mind of a manic depressive. Where most explorations of the subject veer into over-wrought, Oprah-esque discussions of clinical symptoms and medication, A Summer in the Cage captures the illness, not as it is treated, but as it is lived.

By a dude. A handsome, articulate, athletic guy — whom the disease cruelly boxes out from a vibrant life of sports, job success, and, well, getting laid.

Selkow captures unvarnished glimpses of Sam's mania and all too haunting moments of depression. On his meds, Sam struggles with suicidal thoughts; he packs on 70 pounds and, despite his master's degree, has little luck holding down a job. He's not himself, and he describes in painful clarity his alienation from the life he feels ought to be possible for him.

Off his meds, where he ventures in search of a happiness short of mania, Sam repeatedly loses control — endangering himself, straining his friendships, and repeatedly landing in the hospital. The searing intimacy of the footage stirs the discomfort of not only the viewer, but also the filmmaker — who struggles honestly against feelings that he might be exploiting his friend's condition for the sake of a good story.

But Selkow's deep and dudely affection for Sam — which is clearly reciprocated when Sam is stable — carries the documentary through patches where it seems like mania or depression might permanently derail the project... if not Sam himself.

The result is a haunting film about the power and the limits of a friendship to save a good man from his inner demons.

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