Sunday, August 14, 2011

Escape from Alcatraz - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes to the Movies

When we were on vacation earlier this summer, one of the big family hits was visiting Alcatraz.  Numerous friends had recommended it, and it was number one on the kids’ wish list of places to go.  The Rock was wonderful and terrible all at once.  Designed for inmates who were troublemakers in the federal prison system, it was intended to be a penitentiary.  Modeled on monasteries, the prison cells and isolated life were intended to help inmates build an internal world, one that included a sense of being penitent.  One of the differences between a monastery and Alcatraz is that, while both provide shelter, medical care, and food, on Alcatraz everything else was earned, including contact with others.  Even speaking was a privilege.

In our continuing efforts to remember the vacation, we watched Escape from Alcatraz last night.  Based on real events, this movie stars Clint Eastwood as the leader of a gang of four who figure out how to break out of prison, and disappear into the waters of San Francisco Bay never to be seen again.  Filmed in part on the island, the movie powerfully evoked the place we had visited, and seemed largely true to what we had observed and imagined.  While the plot had been slightly Hollywoodized, it seemed to have significant psychological truth to it.

The film was stark.  It began with the Eastwood character’s (Frank) transfer to Alcatraz, complete with his boat ride to the island, his bus ride up the hill tourists walk today, his medical evaluation and his delivery, naked, to his cell.  We are slowly introduced to the other characters; prisoners, guards, and warden, largely through Frank’s eyes as he meets and interacts with them. 

There was no voiceover explaining what was taking place.  The director trusted us, the audience, to make sense of the story as it unfolded, figuring things out from context.  The dialogue was stripped down.  True to the nature of a place where even talking was a privilege and overuse could leave to the privilege being revoked, the interchanges were concise.  This led to beautifully spare interactions, as when someone asks Frank what his childhood was like.  His one word response, “Short,” speaks volumes.

The characters that emerged out of these brief and terse interactions were wonderfully detailed, nuanced and different from each other.  Placed in a context designed to minimize identity (the inmates were referred to by number rather than by name), the differences between the individuals quickly became apparent.  It was as if the narrowness of the window for expression increased the intensity of the need to assert oneself.  Further, in a world filled with the most criminal of the criminals, the need to differentiate those whom you could trust from those you could not became critical.  As we watched over Frank’s shoulder, it was easy to see why he made the choices that he did.

What was more difficult was to fathom the character of Frank himself.  Intelligent (his prison testing suggested a superior IQ), able to defend himself (targeted by a huge thug named Wolf, he gave more than he got in each interaction), we are given neither the crime that led to his first imprisonment, nor the in prison offense that sends him to Alcatraz.  A cursory Google search provides these data, but the choice to leave them out of the film creates a kind of opacity to Frank’s character that allows us as viewers to project ourselves into the lead role, to imagine ourselves as Frank.  Or to imagine him in whatever way we might.  Early psychoanalysts used this technique when they presented themselves as a blank screen for patients to project their expectations of others onto.  Here, though, I think it is used to promote identification.

Identifying with Frank is tricky business, though.  His history is not like that of most of us.  Raised in foster homes, first imprisoned at age 13, sent to Alcatraz after multiple escape attempts, it is easy to imagine that he could be deeply hurt, but also angry as a means of protecting himself, and therefore quite impulsive.  But the task that he engages in is one that requires a great deal of foresight, planning, care and attention to detail.  If his behaviors were driven primarily by anger, which the Hollywood influenced interaction between he and the warden would suggest, his fuse burned slowly but continuously for many months.  Eastwood’s enigmatic portrayal suggests the possibility of something more universal.  And here we might insert any number of motivations, but the one that occurs to me is the basic need for freedom. 

Robert Kennedy shut down Alcatraz when he was the Attorney General about a year after this escape occurred.  The reason given on the tour was that Alcatraz was deemed to be cruel to the inmates.  The movie certainly portrays cruelty.  Access to such basics as contact with other humans and with sunlight could be taken away for six months at a time and the movie depicts Frank being washed when in solitary confinement with a fire hose.  The philosophy behind the system used to manage – and perhaps treat – inmates was based in both the monastic tradition and in behavioral psychology – reinforcing desired behaviors by rewarding them should lead to an increase in the desired behaviors. 

Frank’s response – his plan, his careful work, his recruitment of others to join him, their team work, the conspiracy of the other inmates to support them and to not rat them out, is a testament to something that is greater in the human condition than responding as animals do to the environment around them.  It speaks to a deeply and powerfully human desire to be human – even in the midst and in the wake of the most inhumane treatment.  I don’t believe that all of us are able to do that – the Wolf character in this film does not, becoming both in name and in action an animal – but the humanity of the other characters, while dramatized, also feels real – and portrays the kind of world, even in a place as grim, cold, unpleasant and frightening as Alcatraz, that we recognize and want to live in – and to escape from.

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