Sunday, June 26, 2011

Shine - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reflects on the Tragedy of Trust

Last night we watched Shine, the intriguing 1996 film about David Helfgott directed by Scott Hicks.   Biopics are a particularly intriguing genre to watch from a psychoanalytic perspective.  They are movies about actual events, actual people, and they are narratives that tell a story – and reveal greater truths.  They have to hold together as a movie or – from my perspective – as a dream, for them to work, thus the successful biopic – or for that matter the successful historical movie of any sort - will sacrifice biographical details to achieve narrative integrity.  Shakespeare’s “historical” plays set an early precedent for this, though I think the tradition probably goes at least as far back as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.

I was, then, somewhat disappointed by one performance in particular in this film – that of John Gielgud, of all people.  The film is about many things, but one that it could have been about, the question “Why did David Helfgott go mad”, did not get quite the satisfactory answer that it might have. 

Obviously David (played by Geoffrey Rush) went mad not just because of whatever biological predisposition to schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder or whatever clinical label we attach to his madness, but because of the horrific treatment he received from his father, very ably played by Armin Mueller-Stahl.  His father was a child of parents killed in the holocaust, but also the child of a man he viewed as a tyrant for destroying the violin he purchased.  The child, now David’s father, works to undo the tyranny of his father by engaging in the opposite behavior, encouraging his son’s prodigious musical talent through teaching him to play the piano.   He does this, however, tyrannically – teaching him that the only thing that matters is to win competitions; further, he severely limits his contact with other children and even with potentially helpful teachers and institutions.

One theme, then, is that the father is very threatened by the outside world.  He wants to preserve his family – to not have it be destroyed as his own family of origin was – by the holocaust.  He demands that David both remain loyal to the family by not leaving it and that he explore his native talents, something that he cannot do within the confines of the family.  David is forced to make a terrible choice, to leave the family, to leave Australia and travel to England for training, and his father disowns him for doing this.  The resulting agonizing loneliness and the pursuit of playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto are the putative reasons for his break from reality.

In fact, I believe there is an even more powerful factor that is only hinted at in the movie.  Just as his father could not escape his fate despite his best efforts – his poignant efforts to prevent the kind of destruction that befell his birth family from happening to the family he builds with his wife and kids and instead creates the very hell he fears – David escapes the tyranny of his father only to discover that his talent attracts tyrants. 

Gielgud plays the professor who guides David’s musical development in England as an avuncular, nurturing individual.  That he himself, now crippled by a stroke, might be using David as David’s father did, as an instrument – turning David into the “Chopinzee” that one character calls him – is only hinted at when they play a piece together and David is the left hand and the teacher the right.  The teacher’s investment in Rachmaninoff’s third, his having performed it in his youth for the composer himself and being told that he had understood the piece, and the possibility that his investment in the piece and David as an instrument blinded him to the toll that learning the piece had on David is left to us to surmise. 

This becomes a problem when the dance between David and a patron with possibly dubious interests is played out for the third time with Gillian, an astrologer who becomes attracted to him, marries him, and helps him recover enough to begin playing concerts again.  The problem is that the double sided nature of a helpful, nurturing, healing relationship with a mentor – in this case a woman that David loves and marries – does not unfold as fully as it might.

I believe that the narrative thread that ties all three relationships together (a thread that is more benignly reflected in the relationships between David and two other mentors – Mr. Rosen, a local music teacher – and Katherine Susannah Pritchard, an author and co-founder of the Australian Communist party who befriends David) is the thread of the replication of the powerful relational paradigm that is laid down between David and his father.  Over and over, David’s efforts to realize his potential are thwarted as he tries, rather than to own himself and his talents, to offer them to others in the hope that this time they will use them in his best interests. 

This feel good movie encourages us, as viewers, to join in the tragic recreation of a family drama but doesn’t help us see the ways in which we might end up playing out that drama ourselves as viewers and patrons.  We need to wake up from the dream the writer and director have spun for us to realize the horror of David’s experience, a horror that he retreats from into the world of madness, and one that he ventures out from in the loving arms of a woman who, based on the best of intentions, necessarily mirrors in important aspects the relational paradigm he is trying so desperately to escape.

This biopic was wildly successful, then, in part because it kept us just unaware enough of the underlying tragic quality of this life, and tried to replace it with a more romantic vision.  It was also wildly successful, though, because the tragic underbelly is necessarily preserved; lurking beneath the surface; we are troubled by the double edged nature of the succorance that others seem to offer and rejoice in the surface tale – it keeps at bay our fears that the early horrors of David’s life must necessarily become part of the fabric of the compromise solutions that his later loves will offer.

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