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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What is Porn? A Psychoanalytic Reaction.

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["...