Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Shape of Water – The Ethics of Love

Monsters are primitive creatures and when we go to movies about them we are going to be confronted by primitive material.  Well, there is plenty of sex, violence and black and white thinking in this movie for it to qualify as a primitive movie but, despite that, or maybe because of it, it is a delightful love story – one that is surprisingly warm – at least for the older members of the crowd who went to the movies together.  In talking about it afterwards it was surprising that the reluctant wife and I, along with her parents, were fully supportive of the interspecies coupling that was depicted, while the two reluctant (and old enough to go to a movie like this) stepdaughters found that aspect of the film to be not just off putting but morally reprehensible.  They, who are generally on the side of all things liberal and progressive, became quite dismissive of the idea that humans should pair with anything but other humans.

We enter the film on an underwater ocean dive where we come across a doorway that leads to a hallway that leads to an apartment where the furniture is hovering, held up by the water but not buoyant enough to float out of the rooms and, in the final room, we discover a woman sleeping, suspended above her couch, peaceful in her watery space.  We have entered a dream world where one can live underwater and the light that shines in on us is murky – it has filtered down through layers of water and reflects in odd and unworldly ways – things are dreamy and unclear – not sharp and definitively depicted.

The story told in this film is of a top secret research lab in Baltimore operating at the height of the Cold War, and a brutal agent – a man who is as all-American as apple pie – who has discovered and brought back from South America a hominid creature that is capable of breathing both in air and in water – and the agent believes that the creature might be useful in our space project – an answer to the Russian dogs.  But he treats the creature – he calls him the asset – like a dog – or worse – using chains to restrain him and attacking him sadistically with a cattle prod.  Little does he know that the physician on the team who is charged with keeping the asset alive and doing research on him is a Soviet Spy.

The woman we spied sleeping in the water is a janitor at the facility – Eliza Esposito played by Sally Hawkins.  She was an orphan – raised in an orphanage where her vocal cords were apparently cut.  Mute, she signs to the closeted gay artist who lives next door and also her to her African American co-worker who interprets her signs to their supervisor and the other workers at the research lab. 

The tension in this film between ideologues who want to control the world to meet their own ends – the brutal agent and the general he reports to, but also the spy apparatus supervisors that the Russian spy reports to – and the people who are invested in caring for and about each other and the creatures that live in the world with them – Eliza is at the head of this troop, and she enlists the aid of her next door neighbor, her fellow janitor, and the Russian spy to free the trapped and endangered creature.  When the humanists outwit the ideologues, the ideologues don’t get it – people who are concerned couldn’t be involved in the drama they have created- it must have taken a crack team to have accomplished what they have done – and the crack team must be intent, as they are, on domination – on control – on winning the war.

When we meet Eliza her world is pretty circumscribed and her existence is largely grim.  She commutes to a job where she works the midnight shift cleaning up after others.  Her moments of joy include masturbating in the tub while she cooks the three minute eggs that she will eat for lunch and watching old musicals on her neighbor’s TV and mimicking the dance and tap routines.  We can easily look past her, the way we do when we pass people who are doing janitorial work, her features are plain and she is slight and seems to want us to look elsewhere, but in the moments when she is doing a little soft shoe – and she is smiling – we see that there is much more there.

The other person – or, as the girls point out – creature who notices her is the asset.  We get fleeting glimpses of him at first – and she is curious about him (as are we).  She draws him out by offering him her lunch eggs – and by playing music to him and dancing for him.  They become attached to each other even as he engages in mortal combat with the agent.  Eliza both wants to protect him from the agent – but she also comes to want him for herself and, it turns out, he comes to want her as well.  They learn to communicate through signing – it is pretty rudimentary, but, the old folks maintained, this demonstrates that the creature is capable of communicating and thus of relating – indeed, we framed the relationship as one between consenting adults.  To avoid spoiling the whole thing (haven’t I spoiled enough already?), suffice it to say that Eliza and the creature take care of each other’s needs across a spectrum of physical, sexual, and emotional levels.  And the creature – who at first seemed scary and ugly - turns out to be beautiful, as does Eliza.

So this film could be seen – as the reluctant father in law proposed – as a morality play.  The bad guys are the government agents who are interested in exerting control in a world that feels filled with threats.  The good guys are the caring ones who see the others not as threats, but as fellow creatures – Eliza’s inability to speak is mirrored by the creature’s – but they share a desire to communicate, not control.  Viewed from this angle, it would be possible to see the film as criticizing the powers that be – the Trumps of the world that would keep us safe from nuclear threat by strangling those who threaten us – and I think this is a viable reading of the movie.  But I also think it can be read as a conflict within ourselves, between that part of us that would keep us safe by controlling the world around us – and that part that would endanger us by becoming attached to those we care about.  These two parts of ourselves on some levels would appear to be allied – aren’t they both interested in our well-being?  But they can be surreptitiously at war – we can try to control those we love rather than appreciate them – we can try to subdue others – and our own passions – rather than listen to and express them.  Del Toro – the co-author and director of this film – is encouraging us to embrace that which is different and scary and dangerous – to embrace the monsters we discover and to find within them something human – something sentient – something warm and loving.

I think the girls in the family’s repugnance at the interspecies love reflects the resistance Del Toro ran into in creating this film.  He originally pitched a remake of the Creature of the Black Lagoon to be told, this time, from the perspective of the creature – with a happy ending where he makes off with the girl.  The studios didn’t buy it.  I think that, as advanced as the girls are on many fronts, there are limits to our capacity to embrace things that are different.  Freud’s attitude towards our sexuality was amazingly liberal given his background – he believed us all to be essentially bisexual – and he believed that our primary mature attraction was driven by our early navigation of the (sublimated) sexual relationships within the family.  Psychoanalysts, especially American psychoanalysts, jumped on this to label homosexuality as a “pathological” resolution of those familial sexual relationships.  Gays and Lesbians had to fight like mad to get analysts to get it that mature object attractions towards either sex can be healthy.  When the transgender folks wanted to tread the same path, though, some gay and lesbian analysts were not so sure that having something as primary as one’s gender being alien could be anything but pathological.  As we move into a world that is increasingly accepting of connecting with others (and our own) otherness, we are going to have our abilities to connect sorely tested.  We are going to find limits where what and who we love (including parts of ourselves) is very hard for us to embrace.

The girls pointed out that not everything is OK.  Having sex with children is not OK, for instance.  Within my profession, it is clear that having sex with clients is not OK.  There is something monstrous about both of these things.  The irony is, I think, that it is the agent and the Russians who are more likely to engage in these activities – the ones who want to exert control.  Indeed, it is the agent who wants to impose himself sexually on Eliza – to make her cry out (while he doesn’t want to hear anything from his wife when he has sex with her - it is as if he wants the other to be other than who they are when they are with him). 

The creature, who is worshipped as a God in his native habitat, has healing powers.  He heals both an unintended wound that he inflicts on the balding neighbor – but he also causes the neighbor’s hair to regrow – something about which the neighbor is greatly excited.  The ways in which he cures Eliza are, then, telling.  She becomes vocal in her dreams – and we expect her to become vocal in her life – she seems to be approaching it and I, at least, expected it to happen.  But the healing that he offers is very different.  Again, you will have to see the movie, or if you have seen it to remember it, and to think about the ways in which he offers her healing that allows her not to live more fully in her world, but in his.  He bridges a divide – not just seeing in her something that is like him, but offering her something that allows her to be in his world, something that allows them, then, to be more fully in each other’s.

This crossing of boundaries is dicey stuff – as the girls point out.  It is the stuff of morals and ethics – as the father-in-law proposes.  What Del Toro offers as the result of this particular boundary crossing between this creature and this woman is a kind of reassurance that our monstrous selves, when loved by others (and perhaps by ourselves) can produce a profound kind of healing.  We should think about that.       

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Paterson- Was Kylo Ren Really a Bus Driver?

The Indy Movie Paterson showed up in our mailbox the day after watching Star Wars – The Last Jedi and imagine our surprise to see Kylo Ren, Jedi drop-out, master of the Dark Side and would be master of the Universe driving a bus and writing poetry in Paterson, New Jersey.  This quirky little film was on our watch list because it had been well reviewed and we had not had a chance to see it.  How refreshing to see an actor,Adam Driver, who can portray both ends of a very broad spectrum of ethical functioning.  I had actually been concerned by what I considered to be his semitic features in his role as Darth Vader’s heir apparent.  So it was with some relief that a quick Google search clarified that he was raised a choir boy and that his stepfather is a pastor.  According to Wikipedia, he was a bit of a terror as a kid, and he sold Fuller brushes after high school before joining the Marines and then ultimately ending up at Julliard to hone his acting chops.

In Paterson, he plays a local kid named for the town – Paterson – who now lives in a very plain house with his ditzy wife and walks to work each morning as a bus driver.  We are invited into his daily routine, waking with him each morning of the week as he awakens, without an alarm, and nuzzles his wife, who usually tells him about a dream in which he figures prominently.  We follow him through his day where he eaves drops on his rider’s conversations, has a beer after work at the local bar while walking the dog, and, in between, writes poems – poems about love and poems about driving a bus.  He writes his poems in a journal that he carries with him or keeps locked in his basement office – it is what his girlfriend calls his “secret notebook”. 

The film is filled with whimsical convergences to which we give meaning – his wife dreams that they might have twins – and the rest of the film is filled with his chance encounters with twins.  We are invited to wonder about twins and what they might mean – but we are given few clues.  Perhaps the encounter at the end of the film with a Japanese Poet is an encounter with Paterson’s twin?  Similarly, he encounters a gang of hoodlums who point out the value of his dog – and warn him about the potential of a dog napping – but he doesn’t seem to pay it any mind, other than to note, as he is loosely putting the dog’s leash around the pipe outside the bar that night that the dog should watch out for dognappers   - and we are left to wonder, vaguely, if he would welcome them.

The central convergence is between this man’s name and the city in which he lives – a city that has many famous son’s – the two most prominent being Abbott of Abbott and Costello fame – and William Carlos Williams – of poetry fame.  Is Paterson fated to be a poet?  Or is he called to it?  What is the nature of a poet?  Is a poet an observer?  Someone who is caught in the forces that move around him and describes them in pithy and dramatic ways so that others can experience them with him?  Is this what Shakespeare did?  Is this what my poet friend Phil does?

Meanwhile, the action in the film is almost all about the people around Paterson – he is a nearly inert observer – pained by but reluctantly supportive of his wife’s ambition to buy a guitar to become a country singer and more openly pleased when her cupcakes sell well at the local farmer’s market in what she is sure will be her other path to fame and fortune.  When the action centers on Paterson, his bus breaks down on a routine run, he is nearly derailed by it – efficiently evacuating his passengers, but flummoxed by the complications of calling in the incident to the central office. 

This movie is, then, a poem.  Austere, beautiful, each day a stanza, it tells in the arc of a week story of the life of a poet – and the meeting with the Japanese poet at the end of the movie helps to underscore that being a poet is who this man is.  However other poets may live, this man, a bus driver, lives in the way that he does and produces the poetry that he does as a result of living the poet’s life.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, this man’s emotional life is very near the surface.  He, like the actor who plays him, is an ex-marine (I assume it is Adam Driver’s marine portrait that graces his nightstand and lets us know that), and he uses his military skills when he needs to – when there is danger that calls them out.  He is also remarkably observant of his wife – and we observe her too – both her physical and ditzy beauty, but we also wryly realize with him that her dreams, while painful to his sensibilities, are an expression of hers – and that his love for her – as her love for him – is pure – it takes her into account, it does not discount her.

From this perspective, I think the film is suggesting that the life of a poet – or rather living as a poet writes – is a desired state – an aesthetic state – possible even in a place like Paterson where the natural beauty has been hemmed in by industrial necessity – the old factories crowd near the picturesque waterfalls that almost certainly once provided the power to run the mills whose presence leave it viewable only from a small park with a chain link fence that separates the viewer from what is to be seen.  And yet the beauty can be seen – not just dispassionately; Paterson’s waters run deep.  The poet loves his town, he loves his wife, and he loves his poetry.

I realize that in this writing I have left out the central dramatic moment.  I think it actually makes sense to do that.  It is a moment where the plausibility of the story is most highly tested.  It is the moment, I have written elsewhere, where the movie as dream is being stretched almost to the point of breaking – the storyteller’s need to clarify the importance of writing poetry – and of sharing it with the world – of sharing our perspective so that others can appreciate it, and, I think, so that we know that we aren’t alone – this is so important to tell and yet it is not part and parcel of the peaceful narrative that a moment of violence creeps in – and yet the movie is able to survive the moment – we are able to remain asleep and to come to grips with what needs to be known – that this writing is not just a pastime – it is not just part of who this man is – it is who he is.  He is not, essentially, a bus driver, or even a lover, though both of those are essential to his primary identity – the identity of being a poet.

Now this is, of course, through another lens, a fiction.  None of us can be reduced in this way.  But from the perspective of this movie – which is, I think, a highly aesthetic one – and the perspective of a dreamer – it is a way of characterizing the essential nature of a person.  Paterson’s power is to distill the universe into a series of poems – to describe the world as he experiences it, just as Kylo Ren’s power is the desire to rule the universe with an iron fist and to make it into what he would have it be.  The psychoanalyst’s power – to help a person gain perspective on a particular moment – to put it in place – to help him or her understand how this thought and this action have a particular context – that is much more like the power of the poet and the artist than it is like Kylo Ren’s.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Star Wars – The Last Jedi

The central problem in this film is also the central problem with the film.  Our Hero, Luke Skywalker, the young, brash and impetuous fighter for all that is right and good, has grown old and bitter and withdrawn from the galaxy.  When Ray, the next generation force gifted woman hungry for training tracks him down and shows up on his doorstep – the final scene in the last film – Luke has no interest in her and no interest in training her in the first scene in this film - and his refusal is hardly believable.  What happened?  Well, the movie explains the steps that led to this point, but the more central question is, what has happened to Luke the character and Mark Hamill the actor?  The answer within the movie is provided by Ray; Luke has closed himself off to the force.  As for Mark Hamill, playing an old curmudgeon seems to no longer allow the force to be with him either.  The flatness of a forceless central character felt to me, as I watched the film, to be a central flaw of the film.  After a few days of letting the film baste, and also having a dream this morning that was, I think, stirred by the film, I am willing to think of this flaw as a way into what may be the central compelling aspect of the film. 

One part of the issue is the question of the force itself.  Like the manifold gadgets that the characters use in each film that are not explained but just part of the background, the force is a religion that is a creation of Lucas and we receive hints about aspects of it, but we are never catechized.  The Jedi are, apparently, the high priests of this religion – and they have been all but driven out of the universe – we are, as the title suggests, down to just one.  And this religion, like the religions of old, allows the practitioner to perform miracles – though Luke pooh-poohs the lifting of rocks as a central aspect of the religion, it certainly comes in handy in other films and in the resolution of this one.  This religion is, like all religions, powerful.  And a little power gives the illusion of great, vast, even infinite power.  And this can be heady stuff.  One would think it would be the stuff of the dark side, and I’m sure it is, but it is also the stuff of the other dark side, if you will, those who stand by, as Luke is doing, and do nothing, because as powerful as the force is, it can't seem to make the world behave the way that we want it to.  Because when a little power doesn’t turn out to be absolute, it can be disillusioning and we can take our ball and go home if we don’t get to be the winner – the one with absolute power and absolute knowledge.

One of the things that drew me to the field of psychology generally was the power that I experienced in the hands of the practitioners who treated me when I was an adolescent.  They were able to intervene helpfully in my personal and in my family life.  When it came time, however, to become a therapist myself – when I went off to graduate school – I was aware of leaving out power as a motivating factor for going into this field.  That is, I think, telling.  We don’t want to acknowledge how important power is to us – and when we deny that (which I was doing publicly – but very aware of privately) we can get into all kinds of problems.

The Jedi are, in the Star Wars movies, fighting against the dark side of the force – the side of the force where the naked desire for power leads to corruption and the creation of an evil empire run by those who are enslaved by the dark side and all that it promises.  This is a very American viewpoint – we view ourselves as liberators – as protectors of what is good in the world.  We are the underdog (even when we were, for a brief while, the sole superpower).  The forces of evil always outweigh the forces of the good.  Or, the force of power is never strong enough.  We always need more.  That is demonstrated in spades by the bad guys – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in the early films – Ben Solo/Kylo Ren in the Last Jedi, but also, I think, by Luke Skywalker, the best of the good guys.

No one has more power than Luke Skywalker.  But, and this is a significant and fun moment in The Last Jedi, this does not mean that he is impervious to making errors.  In fact, he is told by Yoda – the true and original font of all things Jedi, that it is an essential part of being a Jedi to make mistakes – and to learn from them.  This lightness of being that Yoda personifies – this sense that we do, in fact, have a great deal of power, but that the universe, despite our power, is bigger and stronger and more complicated than our power can master or than our genius can comprehend – and Yoda's ability to be OK with that – is a very difficult to state to achieve.  It is easier to feel powerless – to feel that others have what we don’t have and to envy that and to try to acquire it.

As an aside, I think that one of the issues in the last US presidential election was that Hillary was running as an outsider – as the first woman candidate.  She wasn’t running as a Senator, a Secretary of State, and a First Lady – as among the most powerful people in the country save the president.  Her denial of her power – her denial of the power that the democratic party has wielded to create a more inclusive country – “No, we haven’t achieved all that we might, but we have, especially in the eyes of others, come a long way, baby” – made her, I think, vulnerable to the fear based position that Trump took – a position that led those with the most power in the country, and many with the least – to feel that they were the disempowered outside group – they saw this despite her not having said it.  Had Hillary’s debate position been something like, “We have made great strides and I am the frontrunner because I speak to the concerns of most of the people – I am not trying to convince the people who would vote for you to vote for me – I am trying to convince those of us who have been in power to assert the importance of wielding that power for the good things that we have done and will continue to do” perhaps there would have been a different outcome.  Who knows?  Of course, I think Obama did say that, but, apparently not enough people bought it.

Closer to home, I haven’t written a blog post in over a month.  I have achieved a number of external goals that I have set for blogging – number of posts, number of hits – but I have found some internal goals more elusive – articulating a cohesive vision of what psychoanalysis is and how it helps to open up works of art and the process of living to being more cogent.  I feel good about some posts – less so about others.  It’s also true that I have also been simply swamped by the end of semester grading and holiday planning, but I think there is a part of me that is empathizing with Luke’s experience – if I can’t make it all make sense, maybe I should just take my ball and go home.  I also think that is a stage of life issue.  But I can’t imagine, living it, that it would be much fun to portray it.  It is embarrassing to withdraw from something that you have been deeply invested in.  The hubris that it takes to undertake something big – like becoming a Jedi or a psychoanalyst, and the sense of pride about having achieved it can be overshadowed by how limited the achievement is: not only does the world not bend to your will, but you are bound and determined to NOT have it do that, but to use your power to help others articulate themselves in ways that will empower them and ultimately be for everyone’s good.  As noble as that sounds, it was frustrating when both the reluctant son and the reluctant stepdaughter backed out of a day of skiing during this down time – both for legitimate reasons, but both thwarting my vision of a “family day” that would be good for all us – but is essentially something that I am most heartily invested in.  Almost as frustrating as having Ben Solo, your nephew, appear to be toying with the Dark Side.

So, as I wrote about The Force Awakens, one measure of the power of the universal themes articulated in the films of this series is that they translate into the lived experience of our lives.  We are just ordinary mortals – like Anakin, Luke and then Ray – who are living on the periphery of the universe at the beginning of our lives.  Like them, we discover that we have special talents and abilities.  We hope that they will be recognized and shaped, that we will be mentored to become what we feel ourselves destined to be.  Yoda was concerned about Luke, and this applies to Anakin and now Ray, that he was not taken into training early enough to prevent his becoming vulnerable to the dark side.  Presumably Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son, was trained early enough, and by Luke.  But – and here it is, I think, ambiguous, Ben’s deep engagement with the dark side, but also Luke’s discomfort with it – Ray demonstrates a curiosity about it – as a place where she can learn more about her own heritage, but I think it is also a place that is filled with a big chunk of all of our heritage and Luke’s disavowal of that – his wish that the world could only be lightness and good, or that all of his pupils would embrace the light side at the least, indicates that he has not accepted the universe on its terms.  I suppose it is hard for me to fault him for that when I have failed to do that my own self.

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Battle of the Sexes - Biopics (and psychoanalysis) bring life to ghosts

Emma Stone and Steve Carrell

Where were you in 1973 when Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome?  I was where many other Americans were, watching it on TV.  Visually it was odd.  The Astrodome was huge and the tennis court was small.  This was not a tennis venue.  Even 13 year old me could tell that.  And what I remember most – but what was not depicted in the movie – was that Bobby Riggs (what thirteen year old had heard of Bobby Riggs) intentionally dumped his first serve into the net to express his disdain for Billie Jean King.  I hated him for that.  Billie Jean King was cool – I liked watching her play on TV.  Plus, you should always respect your opponent.  And when it became apparent to me early on that Billie Jean was going to win, I kind of thought Bobby deserved to lose – but perhaps more importantly I thought that he wasn’t in BJK’s class (and she did take him apart).  It felt like a foregone conclusion that she would win.

The movie Battle of the Sexes manages to make that foregone conclusion – I did watch it on TV and knew who was going to win – not seem so foregone at all.  Billie Jean King is played by Emma Stone.  Emma Stone brings to life a person who is confident, but not brash, intense while still being human – in a word, she captures some very important aspects of BJK.  That said, she is not BJK any more than Will Smith was Ali.  The subjects of biopics – even very good ones – I Walked the Line, Ray, Julia and me, and we also watched Jackie this weekend – are always, not just to my eye but certainly to my eye – more beautiful than the very beautiful actors who portray them.  Don’t get me wrong – Joaquin Phoenix is much prettier than Johnny Cash could ever hope to be.  Johnny Cash is not, to my eye, an attractive man, but he is beautiful because of – I don’t know what – his inner beauty?  My attachment to the way he sits behind that pock marked face and practically dares you not to love him, sometimes in spite of himself can’t be topped by the appreciation of a prettier boy trying to do the same thing.  If you want to see how beauty is not skin deep, watch a biopic and then remember the person being depicted.

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs
In the best biopics, as Emma Stone does here and as Smith did with Ali, the actor who portrays someone we know well captures essential qualities of the person but doesn’t do an impression: they don’t mimic their subject.  They become the character.  I think, then, the irony is that no one can play us better than we play ourselves.  One of the reasons that we want to see a biopic like this is that we want to be in touch with the person who is being depicted.  We get instead a ghost of the person that we know – a representation.  And, at least in the case of this movie, but I think more generally, we get to know that person in a whole new way.  We get to know them intimately.  This is, I suppose, the way that we get to know our parents in the process of going through a psychoanalysis.  We remember aspects of important early figures, and in so far as, even if they aren’t like those figures, we imagine others – in particular our analyst (though I think this happens all the time with, for instance, our spouses) reminds us of aspects of them, and the task is to actually discover them (both our parents and/or other early caregivers and our analyst and/or spouse) in other ways that they in fact were or are is a tremendous achievement.  OK, that was a psychoanalytically determined and dense sentence.  Let me take a paragraph to unpack it (if you understood it as written, just skip the next paragraph).

Just as Billie Jean King – someone that I “knew” from watching her on T.V. – is both someone that I am (weirdly but I hope not creepily) attached to and that I remember, but is now a ghost – someone from my past that I might compare to current tennis players, so my mother, who is someone I am genuinely and deeply attached to and is someone that I “knew” from a particular perspective – as her son – actually as her eldest son who had the particular attributes that I have – I have internalized a version of her – or more precisely a version of her in relationship to me – and this is a ghost that I carry with me and compare to people in my current life.  I may use the feel of that relationship to anticipate the rhythm of those current relationships in my life, occluding in the process both my memory of my mother and my ability to perceive the other in their own right (I make assumptions about my spouse and my analyst based on what has gone before and what I have learned to anticipate in intimate relationships).  In a word, I project – or imagine – that they fit that template more completely than they actually do because there are feelings – for instance of attachment – that tap into the template, the ghost, that I have of my mother.  I transfer onto my spouse feelings that I have had towards my mother and my analyst and the technical term for that is transference.

So the Billie Jean King that I didn’t know – the one who left the women’s tennis circuit and started her own because Jack Kramer, who ran both the men’s and women’s tennis circuits and was the real bad guy in this movie, wanted to pay a small fraction of the prize money to women that he was paying to men even though the women were putting the same numbers of fans into seats is like the person my mother was when she was off at work – someone I didn’t know.  But she is also like, when I see her in this new movie, the person my spouse or analyst actually is – someone with whom I have a much more complicated relationship and about whom I know a great deal more than I knew about my mother as a child.  This Billie Jean King, for instance, is married to a man that I took an immediate dislike to onscreen because he just looked too perfect – like the quarterback for the football team who models on the side – but he turns out to be a prince of a guy.  She is married to a man who understands that tennis is her first love and he is a sideshow – and somehow he is OK with that: really OK with that.  He is still able to love BJK despite her inability to know and connect with him in the way that he wants to with her.  So when BJK has an affair with a woman, rather than being threatened by that, this man connects with and supports her lover.  Wow.  But I diverted myself.

The BJK that I didn’t know, the one who was real and not just bouncing around on the court destroying women players (and one man), was struggling to discover her sexuality.  She was struggling to discover what it meant to be a woman – and a woman jock.  How do you engage in both of those identities simultaneously?  Jack Kramer maintained it couldn’t be done.  He firmly believed that she would fold in the match with Riggs because she was a woman and couldn’t bring her “A” game when it really mattered.  She would defer.

There is interesting data to support that.  Girls tend to be competitive with guys in the classroom until about junior high school.  Then they start deferring to the guys.  The reasons for this are complex and socially based.  Single sex education – as in the seven sisters colleges and some Catholic school traditions – makes sense for women in a way that it doesn’t for men, where that tends to be exclusionary for a privileged group rather than providing a base for a group that needs it.  What BJK did was to found a women’s league – one that had ironic corporate sponsorship from Virginia Slims – the cigarette brand – and it was a league where the players sold tickets and greeted fans as they arrived at the venues. 

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs is played wonderfully by Steve Carell (and the biopic issues of attachment to him don’t play in – I was angry at a guy I saw once in the tiny corner of a small screen taking in a very big space).  He was leading a childlike existence, doing nothing for his rich father in law’s company, playing delightfully with his son, and making outrageous bets on himself in acts of tennis wackiness, though probably on lots of other things as well, all of which his very rich wife did not approve of.  Riggs turns out, then, to be a clown.  He is not so much a chauvinist as clueless – and both pitiable and oddly loveable.  But he is a good tennis player.  The chapter that was unknown to me was that, before he beat BJK, he beat Margaret Court, her nemesis and the person who had passed her to be number one in the world.  The outcome of the match between Riggs and King was hardly a foregone conclusion.

What the picture portrays in microcosm is the symbolic nature of the event for the nation in the context of the life of an individual and her battles with figures in the establishment.  The tennis match, as silly as it was, marked a shift in the consciousness of the country.  Rosie the Riveter, who had picked up her rivet gun to build the tanks that won the second world war, had put that down to welcome back the GIs who drove them and walked beside them and she had (here I am painting with a very broad brush) raised her boys and girls at home on her own.  Her daughters were intrigued by the possibilities of wielding that riveting gun.  The strident, first generation or wave of feminism was here.  This game foreshadowed for my 13 year old self what would become a lifelong adjustment process in the way that I would come to see women, an adjustment process that has been occurring within me and around me ever since and which continues to shift and change both for me but also for society.  It was interesting to go back to a formative moment, one that, at the time, I did not know was formative, and to get a better sense of the complex narrative that was at the heart of it.  I discovered that it was not simply a weird sideshow but something that drew as large an audience as it did because of what it actually was.  This bears an eerie resemblance to the revisiting of our childhoods that we do as part of the analytic process.  We revisit with our adult selves a time in life when we had a very narrow vision of what was occurring and we discover that a lot more was going on both around us and within ourselves than we could have known at the time.  

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Fences – Denzel Washington’s filming of August Wilson’s play.

Fences played in our local theater years ago and I wanted to see it then – and wanted to see it again when it came out on the screen last year.  Watching it in the intimate theater of the small screen in our home recently, we finally became acquainted with the play – and this movie production seemed confined by the play – it seemed to be bursting at the seams of the small movie set that was created for it – but also not to be quite big enough for the screen that it would burst out onto. It is a powerfully intimate play that should not be as broadly populated as a movie screen allows.  The production thus interferes with the pleasure – if you can call brutal confrontation with the realities that our circumscribed lives dump on us a pleasure – of engaging with this material because it seems oddly remote, unreal, and therefore, as it were, staged.  And this is too bad, because this really is very good theater.  I am glad to have had a shadow experience of it – though rue not having seen it in its natural setting.  (See another discussion of the difference in experience based on venue here).

The play (and it is hard to think of it as a movie) is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.  Troy is a fifty something year old black man who is currently employed as a sanitation worker – he picks up garbage – with his best friend and wingman Bono.  In his youth, he played baseball in the negro leagues and he had a season that was truly exemplary.  He complains that racism kept him from playing for the New York Yankees – but we discover later that his break-out year came late in an athlete’s life – after he had served 15 years in prison for robbery – where he had met and befriended Bono.  In that break out year, when he was a star and had his pick of women, he chose Rose, who insisted that they marry, and they have led a hardscrabble life.  They now live in a shotgun house in Pittsburgh, a house his disabled brother Gabriel has recently moved away from into a neighbor’s home.  Gabriel’s settlement with the federal government over his war related head injury paid for the house.  Rose and Troy live in it with their high school age son, Cory.  They also live  near Troy’s son Lyons from a pre-prison relationship.  He is having an affair, which he denies to Bono (and implicitly to Rose), but can no longer deny when it produces a child.

This play is a tragedy – or rather a set of them.  The central tragic figure is, of course, Troy, whose anger about his own treatment, by his father and then by the white establishment ends up isolating him in an angry stew - he becomes fenced by his anger – and this, in turn, chases away those who love him.  His anger is toxic and it eats away at and destroys the winning aspects of his personality.  He tries to keep it directed at imaginary enemies like death, but it all too often gets directed at the people who love him.  Not only do they love him, he loves, needs and depends on them.  He does not articulate all of this, however.  Instead we infer it – we see it – and we also see and recognize that he is defending against being dependent – defending against his needs – at least in part because acknowledging them makes him weak or vulnerable and he expects that weakness will lead to others taking advantage of him – taking away all that is most valuable to him.  He cannot see that it his own actions that are bringing about the very thing he most fears.

Rose, too, is a tragic figure.  She has hitched her wagon to a man who is bigger than life – someone who is bursting the boundaries of what it means to be alive.  He is guy who hit more home runs than anyone else, and had a higher average – and got seven hits off of Satchel Paige in one season, but he is also the man that she is trying to fence in – or rather to fence the world away from – a world that tempts him away from her.  She has subjugated herself to him – but she decides not to do that any longer by supporting Cory’s wishes to become a football player and accept a scholarship to college.  Troy thwarts this attempt, refusing to allow Cory to play and refusing to allow Cory to talk to the recruiter.  Rose must live with Cory’s decision to leave – to go into the Marines – and she decides to raise Troy’s daughter when her mother dies in childbirth – but she locks Troy out of her heart in order to do that.  She chooses a life that is smaller than the one she would have had in order to make things work.

Cory is also a tragic figure – but in the modern meaning of that word – not the classical Greek sense.  Instead of being betrayed by his own character he is a victim of circumstance – of the ways that his father has been mistreated and now treats his son – providing everything that his son needs except love and affection – and envying him as a result – which the son finds confusing.  How can his father both despise him – think him unworthy – and envy him – want what he has that the father finds to be of such little value?  Cory’s tragic experience is one of confusion.  But it also opens the door to the overriding tragedy – the tragedy of the larger circumstances in which the more classical tragedies of Troy and Rose play out.  They are trapped by racism, by gender roles, by their economic conditions, and by the inter-generational violence that plays itself out in front of our eyes.  We see that they are victims as well as perpetrators of their isolation and despair.

Troy’s quixotic engagement with the world is symbolized by his opening anxiety about losing his job after asking why he can’t be a garbage truck driver just because he is black.  He is called into the commissioner’s office and we, along with Bono and Rose, assume that he will be fired for insubordination.  Instead, he is promoted.  But even this turns out to be, at best, a mixed blessing.  He is separated from Bono, with whom he was paired at the back of the truck, and he has no one to talk to – and he is now seen as an authority – just one of the many pieces that leave him more and more isolated – but in this case particularly from Bono.  Michael Balint, in writing The Basic Fault, noted that we much prefer to be Don Quixote to being Sancho Panza – the role of Bono – who keeps Don Quixote tied to the real world.  Troy’s other Sancho is, of course, Rose, and he is separated from her as well.  The tragedy that Troy endures is that of isolation.  As much as he wanted to be the great baseball player – the adulation that brought is a substitute for what he truly needs – the grounding influence and connection he feels with Rose and Bono.

After watching the movie, the reluctant wife and I agreed that we both identified with the Rose character more than the Troy character (though we are also, at least theoretically aware that we play Troy in significant chunks of our lives – and had earlier agreed that we would rather be Don Quixote than Sancho Panza).  Even though I imagine that Troy is modeled on real people in the playwright’s life, I think he is alive in the ways he is because Wilson has imagined himself into the character in writing him– as has Denzel Washington and, once upon a time, James Earl Jones in playing him.  I admire all three men for doing this.  Seeing ourselves in the mirror of demanding fealty and getting loneliness instead of love is intensely painful, indeed Don Quixote was defeated by the night of a thousand mirrors.  Being Don Quixote also involves being unconscious of how that looks from the outside so, when we are confronted with image, as we were in this movie – we escape into identifying with Sancho.  Being Quixote is no longer fun when we are confronted by the problematic aspects of being the isolated, tyrannical Don, so we can flee even further, into being victims in the broader, Cory-like sense.  The power of tragedy; however, and Freud’s realization and characterization of the tragic quality of living our lives – is that realizing our own part in a tragedy – no matter how disempowered we actually are and further feel – is all the leverage that we may have.  Ultimately, especially when we are disempowered, we cannot change others, but only ourselves.  In our roles as Sancho Panza (and both Bono and Rose exemplify this) we can, at best, put things in front of the Don to see – as they did with Troy, and as an analyst does with a patient.  It is the patient who is empowered to make the change.

What is remarkable about our government is that we put in place a powerful check on the rule of the majority – the court system.  I heard in an NPR story once that we frequently counsel other countries not to include this check in their constitutions because it is such a headache.  And it is.  But if we don’t build in a means for the minority position to be heard, if we don’t, as Troy, recognize that it is we who are, in fact, not just put upon, but putting upon others, if we don't hold up a mirror and recognize ourselves, we become despots, and this will always end tragically for all involved.  

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy

When I first landed in Albuquerque, I felt like I might as well have landed on the moon.  A sophomore in college, I had transferred from the “home” campus of my college in Annapolis, Maryland, to the campus in Santa Fe.  Never having been to the southwest before, I was unprepared for its austere beauty.  Riding “The Roadrunner”, the van that carried travelers from the Albuquerque airport to Santa Fe, some 60 miles away, I noticed every new scrap of green that appeared as we travelled higher up into the mountains – out of Albuquerque’s dustbowl and into Santa Fe’s, by contrast, verdant high desert.  During my four years there – school and one more where I tried to join the tiny middle class in a city that includes many poor and very wealthy citizens often living cheek by jowl – I pined for the lush green of the Midwest.  My friends would claim that I just needed to slow down – that the mountains around us were waves that were cresting and, if we could slow enough, we could see that they were liquid.

Edward Abbey’s 1956 book, The Brave Cowboy, dropped me back into Albuquerque and the mountains around it.  Though he played a bit fast and loose with the geography, the texture of the place – the canyons and the arroyos felt like – from a very different vantage point – home.  And it was good to be back.  The writing of the book is also a movement back – back into a world that is described from the outside (in beautiful and moving detail – with care that invites, especially at the beginning, the kind of slowing down that my friends in the southwest urged upon me), but that leaves us to imagining the internal world of people we meet instead of having direct access to it. 

The first and central figure is Jack.  A cowboy who is living in a world that is increasingly hostile to his kind, his first action is to cut a barbed wire fence when there is no apparent gate.  He is on his way to connect with his friend Paul, who is married to Jerry.  He gets there on horseback and crosses lots of uncluttered landscape, and one memorable highway where his mare, who is barely broken, becomes skittish, imperiling them both as she skids and clatters across the unaccustomed black top while cars and trucks bear down on them.  (In a seemingly random coincidence, I once road my bike on that same highway and was carried across the lanes – through traffic – to be deposited safely upright and still riding on the other side – by a dust devil – one of the small tornado-like wind events that occur in the Southwest).

Jack finally arrives at Paul and Jerry’s home to find only Jerry there with their young son.  Jerry is a vision.  She is a confident, brash woman who is clearly connected to Paul and quite attracted to Jack (whom we only learn later is not a particularly physically attractive man).  The connection between Jack and Jerry is palpable – but they, largely because of Jack’s restraint, remain chaste.  Paul, it turns out, is in the county Jail waiting for transfer to Federal Prison because he has refused to sign up for the draft.  He is not, it turns out a draft dodger.  In fact, he served in the military.  Nor is he a conscientious objector, which would not make him a criminal.  He is opposed to the idea of the necessity of the imposition of the federal government making a claim on him – the draft, instated in 1948 – is, in his mind, unconstitutional.  Jack promises Jerry that, having heard about Paul’s predicament, he is here to talk with him about that and sets out to visit him in jail, despite Jerry’s protests that this is not one of the jail’s visiting days.  Jack proceeds to get himself into jail as a prisoner where he meets up with Paul.

Initially I thought Paul was the most interesting character in the book.  Frankly, I thought that it would be a book about his moral dilemmas and sense of being trapped.  In fact, I thought that Paul was everyman, trapped by authorities, but also by time, in a jail that he could not get out of.  I imagined he and I as prisoners in our own heads, caught by ideals and concerns and blind to what is going on around us.  Even when it became apparent that Jack was there to spring him – Jack brought a couple of files with him into the jail – Paul’s ambivalence about leaving and his fear of living on the lam seemed to be further evidence of his sense of entrapment – which by then Jack had clarified was an entrapment in his sense of moral rectitude – a moral rectitude that led him to value being right over being home and thus trumped his being relationally available to his wife and child.  This became even clearer when Paul revealed that he could leave at any time – all he had to do was to agree to be on the draft rolls and his two year sentence would be commuted.  And now Jack is in Jail with him – beaten by the guard, about to go on the lam himself, with no simple get out jail card like Paul’s, and I felt concern that Jack had been hornswoggled by Paul’s rigidity.  But it becomes clear that it is Jack and his freedom, or lack thereof that is the central concern of the novel.  And we leave Paul, summarily, behind.

The protagonist who proves worthy of Jack is the sheriff.  The sheriff could not be more different than Jack.  Where Jack is thin, the sheriff is round.  Where Jack is single and carefree, the sheriff is henpecked and deeply attached to his children.  Where Jack is impulsive and loyal, the sheriff is thoughtful and self-centered.  These two characters are, however, the two characters that are most clearly cut from the same cloth.  They represent many things, but among them they represent us, the reader – and me, the reader cooped up in the Midwest – hoping to take his family to the land that is so close to his heart and so far from everything that is familiar and comfortable – for me, but also for them.

Jack and the sheriff are the only two who, in the posse chase that draws in more and more people to traipse through the canyons and the arroyos, have a reverence for the world of nature that they are lucky enough to be immersed in while going about an increasingly grim business.  They are the only two who are thinking about each other – Jack anticipating that someone will do what the sheriff does, and the sheriff thinking through the options available to Jack as he works to track him down.  They are drawn together and both are trapped by a system that is grinding each of them down, a system that will ultimately consume them both – and they are the ones that we end up caring about (OK, we have a few feelings for Jerry, but this author is not one to acknowledge women as independent beings, nor does he acknowledge the feminine in his own soul (and I find myself wondering if this is one of the walls in his personal prison cell)).

In any case, the dilemma for both of these men is that the modern world cannot tolerate them.  One commentator on the book maintains that this is the last cowboy bookwritten.  This is not my genre and I wouldn’t know, but it certainly seems to be a book about the last cowboy.  And his death feels like the death of one version of the American Dream.  The dream – or fantasy – that we can expand westward indefinitely – that we are infinite in our vision, and unencumbered as we move forward into an inviting new day turns out to be just that – a fantasy that is empty and, despite having been alluring, ultimately one that disappoints us.

Jack, when he is a young boy, is sent by his mother, after his father dies, to live on his grandfather's ranch because she cannot keep both Jack and her new man and she chooses the new man.  On his grandfather’s ranch, Jack joins his grandfather and the other cowboys on a cattle drive as cook’s helper.  His hero is the lead cowboy who is dazzling in his abilities in the saddle.  But the lead cowboy embarrasses the cook, and Jack’s grandfather steps in to sets things straight.  In doing this, the grandfather – the man who stands up for the little guy against the tyrant – becomes Jack’s new hero.  And Jack has emulated that hero, giving up his own freedom to fight for Paul who, it turns out, doesn’t really want or need his help.  Paul is already hopelessly enmeshed in the system.  And so, it turns out, is Jack.  This is a tragedy not in the Greek sense, though it is that, but in the cosmic sense.  Freedom is, it turns out, not something that we can aspire to, even in this, the home of the free and the land of the Brave Cowboy. 

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Anything is Possible – A blessing or a curse?

Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, Anything is Possible, seems to me to be her bleakest offering yet.  I have written about her Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, which I used to teach personality theory, and this book is structured like that one – every story has some tie – usually many of them – to a single character, but in Anything is Possible, Lucy Barton, about whom Strout has previously written a novel, does not shows up in every stand-alone chapter if only to breeze through as Olive did – in fact she only appears in person in one of them.  There are ties to her – and all of the other characters - in every chapter, though.  Sometimes the ties are are obscure and it is only when the chapter is almost over that we realize, “Oh, that’s the same Charlie who she talked about in the last chapter,” and sometimes we don’t even realize that the selfsame people are being referenced.  Some of the interconnections are so obscure that we are only likely to catch them on a second reading.

So the ghost who is at the center of this book and ties all of the short stories together is a novelist who grew up in the most psychologically and economically poor family in a small psychologically and economically impoverished farming community in Illinois.  She became an unbelievable success and now appears on talk shows and regularly churns out best sellers.  So, we have our first experience of “anything is possible”.  But I‘d like to start at the end of the book, where the phrase is actually used for the only time, to explore the phrase’s underside, which this books seems to explore over and over and over in a variety of ways and with subtle gradations, but with a consistent, haunting theme of decay and demise that belies its surface message of hope.

In the final chapter, one of the truly successful “graduates” of the next small town over, who is one of Lucy Barton’s cousins and used to eat garbage with her out of the dumpster when he would visit in the summer, is now living a comfortable life in suburban Chicago.  Abel Blaine is prosperous, running the heating and air conditioning company that he inherited from his father in law.  He is now a grandfather who has had a heart attack, and he is watching an annual production of A Christmas Carol that he has seen many times before with his family.  Scrooge is played by a bad actor who has been panned in the suburban news that morning and there is a power outage in the middle of the play.  Abel is hungry – he missed dinner because he was late from the office and when he gets home from the theater he wants to spend time with his granddaughter rather than eat, but then he discovers that his granddaughter has left her plastic pony at the theater.  He returns to the theater where the actor playing Scrooge is alone there, lets him in, and then corners him in a locked room, taunting him and decrying his own failures and acknowledging the he, Scrooge, turned off the power remotely in the middle of the performance to introduce chaos into the room.  Lucy’s cousin (and we) sees that Scrooge is unhinged just before Abel has another heart attack, which motivates Scrooge to call 911.  As the cousin is being carried away by the medics, he is struck that the interaction with the Scrooge character was a genuine interaction – and he imagines that, because of this genuineness, they are friends.  The novel then ends ambiguously, suggesting that he feels anything is possible – perhaps meaning that he can die and be free of life’s encumbrances or that he can live and look this man up and begin a relationship with him.

This book continues, in the wake of Lucy Barton, to be a meditation on the need for a writer, but more importantly a person, to be honest true and genuine and the complicated consequences of doing that.  Lucy Barton, the author in the book – and some kind of alter ego of Elizabeth Strout, the author of the book – continues to exhort people who watch her on TV to write truthful sentences.  This is, I think, a moral directive that was given to Lucy Barton by one of her revered writers when they had a chance meeting in a bookstore.  And the truth is that anything is possible – you can eat out of a dumpster when you are a kid (as Lucy and Abel did together), become fat and happy as an adult (as Abel has done – Lucy is lean and not happy but she is also successful), but also that you could then die hungry and lonely in a strange theater where you finally feel connected to someone – someone who appears to be unhinged.  And this comes in the wake of feeling, early in the conversation, that you are just saying the lines – as you felt the actors were doing in the play.  Then you begin to speak honestly – and so does Scrooge – and you are now in your own little Christmas Carol – seeing the past, the present, and, perhaps, the future. 

So, yes, anything is possible, but would you want the eventualities this would bring?  Those who postulate the existence of infinite universes caution that there is then, an infinite number of ways in which misery can be expressed.  But I think that Strout is proposing that to be the case within this one universe of ours, with its infinite possibilities, but also realities – realities that are harsh and lonely.  And, I think, she is proposing that the hope – and I think this is a very American Dream hope – that anything is possible – is a cruel hope – one that keeps us hanging in there, hoping against hope that the next relationship, the next job, the next moment, will bring happiness.   That hope is never quite realized, but we manage to squeeze enough juice out of it to keep us going – we realize that we don’t need happiness, perhaps all we need is hope, but that means that to honestly and directly articulate our experience as it actually is will deplete us of that hope and leave us withered and alone, as impoverished as Lucy Barton ever was in the worst moments of her childhood.

This feels to me to be an awful and cruel vision, but also, on some level, a true one.  We build dams against time, we accomplish a great deal, but in the end, we have also built dams between ourselves, we are isolated and alone, and what we cherish – what we hunger and yearn for, is not what we have invested ourselves in pursuing.  We have been distracted by shiny objects, we have worked to protect ourselves when protection wasn’t needed, and we have thus alienated those we love. 

As I have posted on Elizabeth’s books twice before, and the last time I did, a friend sent me an interview with Strout about her writing process.  Strout does not map out a book ahead of time.  She writes bits of it as they come to her, in longhand on pieces of paper and she arranges the pieces until the book has formed itself.  She writes from within her characters and allows herself to be distracted, when writing Lucy Barton, for instance, by Lucy’s acquaintances, and to write about them when they come to her, and by the time she has finished the one book, the other is almost written as well.  In that process, I think that Strout is searching for truthful sentences.  And she uses these as building blocks to write truthful stories. 

I think that we can sometimes write stories – and deceive ourselves in the process.  They have happy endings.  Don’t get me wrong.  Happy endings are a good and maybe even necessary thing.  In my profession, Dr. Karl Menninger exhorted us never to underestimate hope – the kind of hope that the phrase “anything is possible” engenders.  But I think we also have to be truthful.  I think that sometimes in these posts and sometimes in my work with my students, my patients and in my role as a parent and a spouse, I am less than truthful.  I want to believe that anything is possible.  And I think that Strout is pointing out the essential role that hope plays – but also that it can veil the truth of the thinness of the life we are living from us.  We can live for tomorrow – for the American Dream to play out – but in order to do that, as a recent spoken word artist pointed out in her performance – we have to be asleep.  And sleep walking through life creates holes where filled spots should be. 

In another part of the interview,  Strout maintains that this book is partly about the people who stay.  Most of them are women are she is writing about a time when women had to stay – when it was harder for them to leave.  And I think she may be talking about the things that help them stay – the ways in which they promise themselves that things will get better.  But she gets that this is not just the phenomenon of the woman – Abel has been making himself stay at his job and with his wife – though he does get moments of pure pleasure with his granddaughter – when he is doing what he wants – when he is feeding himself what he is truly hungry for.  But these moments are few and far between.  Because they are possible, we hang in there.  And even in our dying moments we hope for more of them and they end up being enough to sustain us – but, truth be told, there are times when that is all they do, sustain us – they keep us hanging on until we can find the next moment that will provide some sustenance – never enough to fully satisfy, but enough to keep us alive.

To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here For a subject based index, link here. 

I have previously posted about Strout's other books My Name is Lucy Barton and Olive Kitteridge.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Get Out! Fear and Horror

Fear:  this is the predominant subjective experience of African Americans as related by DorothyHolmes, an African American Psychoanalyst, in her Plenary Address to theAmerican Psychoanalytic Association

Horror: what better means of conveying fear to an audience within a movie setting?  The master of horror – before it became a cheap thrill industry – was Hitchcock, and it was Hitchcock’s conscious intent to induce in the audience the fear he felt as a five year old child when he was taken to be locked in the local constable’s jail cell for an overnight stay after some infraction that he had committed at home.  Apparently his father was friends with the constable and thought this would teach young Alfred a lesson – boy did it ever (btw, there are various versions of this tale, I don’t know which is true – I offer this one less as a historical note than to illustrate that movies can be used to communicate emotions – and fear is one that Hitchcock traded in – apparently from some early trauma which induced fear in him).

Jordan Peele is the director of Get Out.  I know his work primarily from the Key and Peele show, which I generally am seeing streaming on the T.V. when the oldest reluctant stepdaughter is watching it.  The show is witty and sometimes downright funny, but it can also seem loose and it occasionally beats a joke to death (I’m thinking of the sketch about weird names associated with African American football players).  He is the more rotund of the pair...

This movie is not loose.  It is incredibly tight, well-acted, and the plot is so well crafted that the ending is a delightful blind side – this movie is Hitchcockian in both the intense suspense, but also in the production value.  So, if you haven’t seen it and intend to, stop now before I ruin your experience and come back and read this once you’ve seen it.  I will let you know that it is a bit gory in the more modern horror tradition, but not over the top gory – in fact, the reluctant wife who saw it with me and is more uncomfortable with violence onscreen than I currently am, found the gore to be almost cathartic.  That said, there are some surgical moments that she and I had to look away from (and now I am coming close to the spoiler time, so if there is a chance you will see it and haven’t, really do stop reading).

Before the opening credits, we are treated to a violent kidnapping – one that takes place not in the inner city, but in the suburbs, and the violence is done by a helmeted – though it could be a KKK hatted – white against an African American male who is freaked out by being in the suburbs - and knows that he is vulnerable there.  Without explanation, we transition after the credits to a wonderfully warm interaction between a black man, Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) whose photographs adorn the walls in his hip apartment and his white girlfriend Rose (played warmly, authentically and then chillingly by Allison Williams) as they prepare to go to her home in the country to meet the parents – who have not been told that the boyfriend is black.  This is the first warning signal to Chris – and to us – that something might be amiss.  Rose reassures Chris that her parents are liberal – her father will tell him that he would have voted for Obama a third time – but Chris – and we – are uneasy.  This is her first black boyfriend she is bringing home and we know that will be an issue.  Perhaps even more so for a family that denies their own racism.

Chris and Rose meet the Parents

After killing a deer with their car on the way up – which we just know is foretelling what is to come – Chris enters Rose’s parent’s home like a deer in the headlights.  After being treated to a tour of the house by Rose’s father (played in as straightforward and comfortable a fashion as I have seen Bradley Whitford play a role), where Chris learns that Rose’s paternal grandfather lost his chance to race in front of Hitler because he was beaten by the great black track star Jesse Owens – and that “he almost got over it”, and seeing the kitchen “where a slice of Rose’s paternal grandmother” remains – in the form of the black maid who cared for her when she died, and the black gardener who cared for the grandfather is also still working on what is beginning to feel like a plantation – we get more worried.  And it all seems a little too weird that Chris and Rose are to bunk together in Rose’s room – there’s an “it’s cool” vibe that feels forced.  Yes, she is an adult.  Yes adults can choose who will sleep in their rooms.  But she is going home to her parents and they, who don’t even know how long the couple has been dating, are fine with them sleeping together?  Oh, and there’s the reunion party this weekend that Rose didn’t know about – like she should have figured it out and of course the parents didn’t need to mention it when she talked about coming up.  Huh?


But the part that is the spookiest and that clues us in (as if we didn’t know from the advertising) that this is a horror movie, is the behavior of the black servants.  They looked hypnotized or drugged or something – and they don’t act black. Or maybe they are acting old time black – where they are subservient in an obsequious manner – but they don’t drop this when they talk with Chris – another African American… They are odd.  And oddness is the hallmark of horror.  Something isn’t right – and over time we discover what that is.  In the worst horror movies – and I have been treated to Texas Chainsaw Massacre – what is not right is so over the top that the movie falls apart and you can laugh it – or so my friend claimed who promised to meet us at the film to laugh at it – as if it were a comedy.  But generally, at least for me, by the time the thing falls apart I am so horrified, grossed out, and nauseous that I don’t gain any pleasure from how thin the premise is that is holding the movie together.  So I expected that the secret behind the odd behavior of the blacks would be the unravelling of the movie.

The comic relief centered around one explanation of the black servants.  Chris’s friend Rod (played by Lil Rel Howery) keeps howling that they are using the blacks as “sex slaves” which makes sense because he is hearing the description, but if he were actually seeing these spaced out creatures, he would never imagine that – these are the least sexual beings you could imagine.  They are all but dead.  But they are creepy.

So things just get more bizarre when Chris gets up in the night to go outside to smoke a cigarette and the groundskeeper comes running at him at a million miles an hour and the maid looks at him sidelong out the window and then he is hypnotized by Rose’s mother (played by Catherine Keener) who is a psychiatrist.  He has a deeply disturbing experience in which he remembers his mother’s death and then feels himself falling into despair – and he is suspended in space – unable to return to the room – but then awakens in bed and it all feels like a bad dream, except that he has no desire to smoke – one of the promised benefits of the hypnotism that he had, the day before, refused when it had been offered.  Chris now, as Rose’s father promised he would after hypnotism, wants to vomit just at the thought of smoking.

The reunion party turns out to be an odd collection of people who interact with Chris around his blackness – in ways that are incredibly creepy.  He meets another weird black guy – one who is so not black that he returns a fist bump with a handshake.  When Chris takes a flash picture of the man, he becomes black and tells Chris in genuine terror to “Get Out” (he is, btw, the person who was abducted in the opening scene, so we are now beginning to put pieces together).  After the black man is calmed down – returned to being not black - Chris and Rose go to have some alone time while the adults play Bingo, which is, in reality, an auction and we just know that they are bidding on Chris.

And this is one of those places where a horror movie should break down.  Who would collude to get together and auction a person?  Civilized people would not do this, right?  But of course they have.  The myth of the old south, promulgated by films such as Gone with the Wind, is that there was never a higher nor more honorable society than that one.  And one of its bases was, of course, the buying and selling of slaves.  This horrific movie, which is going to tell us about a fictional and unsupportable reality, is actually based on an ugly truth that we can’t erase.  This film, when it should begin to fray, becomes tighter.  We are now locked into something that is both unbelievable and undeniably true.  How can this be?

So, the next step – the horrendous moment when this becomes Frankensteinian and we should scoff at it, becomes oddly chilling.  And the gore that accompanies it – the gore of the surgery that will allow the highest bidder to occupy the majority of Chris’s cranium and just keep enough of him (a sliver) around to run the arms and legs and work the sensory apparatus becomes difficult to watch – as I mentioned before, we turned away – and this helps this most difficult part of the film seem oddly plausible – even though the notion of a surgery this complex taking place in a basement with only one assistant who is unreliable is incredibly ridiculous.  We are turning away not just from the surgery but from the unreality of what is happening onscreen.

And the other gore that occurs – the vengeance of the black man done wrong – of Chris who uses the cotton that his ancestors picked to stop his ears and prevent the continuing hypnotism that is leading relentlessly to his psychological death – is welcomed, even by those of us who are averse to violence.  We do not look away but take some joy in the retribution.  This is violence in the name of good over evil – until we see the cops come and just know that Chris is going to be blamed for all of this and go to jail for ever, especially when Rose finally quits being the cold trawler for black booty that she was all along and goes back into an act, this time pleading with what we know will be a white officer to save her from this brutal beast of a black man – and we are suddenly terrified not by the family nor by Chris and his violence – but for Chris.  We know that he will be done wrong by the system – by the man – and there is nothing that will save him.  At this moment – and it only lasts a moment – the filmmaker has, I believe, achieved his goal.  We have an empathic moment with the black man whose life is in peril not because of what he has done, but because of what he has been pulled into.  And we somehow know what it means to be scared because of who we are – not because of what we have done.

Jordan Peele releases this tension quickly – he does not hold us in it – but let’s us return to a reality where good people don’t have bad things happen to them.  He has terrified us enough in the film and with this moment.  We are like the black men who have been awakened by the flash only to return to being docile – because if we aren’t docile the whole of civilization will come tumbling down.  We need to go back to being in denial and we need to have a happy (ish) ending.

Fortunately this movie is not yet over for us.  Yes the credits roll and we leave the theater or turn off the T.V., but we stew about it.  And we put pieces together as we reconstruct it from the vantage point of knowing what was really going on.  So when Chris describes his parents by saying that his father was never in the picture and that his mother died when he was 11, I realize that I was played for a mark.  My prejudiced thought – something like this is a typical back story for an African American male – hides that this is the intent of Rose – to find someone with no family ties because they will be vulnerable to the kidnapping and destruction.  But then, to fold it back out, my prejudice is based in part on fact – the fracturing of the African American family has – what? – made African American men terribly vulnerable to, for instance, being jailed and losing the better parts of their productive lives.

This film is a deep and disturbing commentary on race in America at the present time.  In this commentary, it is the connections within the African American community that will protect vulnerable men like Chris.  These are, I think, being portrayed as being shredded by the assimilation of blacks into white culture that occurs when African Americans move into the mainstream culture.  I think that the Zombie like performances where the whites have taken over the black brains is a not too subtle reference to what Dave Chappelle noted in his Emmy winning Saturday Night Live monologue the week after Trump was elected.  He compared successful blacks to Brooklyn where, as their success increases, the blacks  in their lives move out and the whites move in.  Now this sentiment, if it is there, is deeply coded.  I don’t know if this last interpretation is correct.  But I think this movie serves a platform for many thoughts like that – and it can give us pause as we struggle with how to view current race relations in the U.S.  


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