September 29, 2009

SAN SEBASTIAN '09: The Motherly and Elderly

by Amber Wilkinson

The 2009 San Sebastian fest winnersWith its streets hugging the coastline of two beautiful beaches and a broad river running through it, you don't have to go far for a glimpse of water in San Sebastian and, for the first part of this 57th consecutive edition of the San Sebastian International Film Festival, torrential rain ensured the streets were wet, too. The Blade Runner-style weather, however, failed to wash away the enthusiasm of locals, stars, or the large number of press who descended on this picturesque city for some reel entertainment.

At just two years younger than the Berlinale, the fest feels sprightly in middle-age and offers both an opportunity for Spanish cinemagoers to enjoy the presence of Hollywood A-listers (Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt, and Sir Ian McKellen were all in town this week), and a chance for Spain and Latin America to show their wares to the rest of the world. The auditoriums include theatres majestically converted for the festival's duration—and the cavernous conference hall, the Kursaal, which has a capacity of more than 1800 seats. The large crowds don't stand on ceremony—and rarely sit through the end credits—but if the assembled throng likes your film, you'll certainly know. At the first screening of Inglourious Basterds, for example, the audience was so keyed up that they even clapped for the Universal logo and TCM introduction, while the Australian film Blessed was greeted with a five-minute standing ovation.

The festival line-up is strongly diverse, but despite the films emerging from countries as varied as Korea, Australia and Argentina, certain themes begin to emerge. There has been a recent trend to embrace world politics and war zones, but many of the films here that I've seen—around 20 at the time of writing—have a much more domesticated feel, even if they nod to wider world events. Like this year's Sundance, many directors have returned to telling more intimate stories, and arguably there is no greater intimacy than the bond between a mom and her child. That Rodrigo García's Mother and Child closed the festival seems appropriate, since examples of motherhood are abound in some of the most interesting films here.

Le Refuge François Ozon's Le Refuge is the pick of the bunch and sees him return to a contemplation of motherhood after his last film Ricky—but this time with no recourse to the fantastical. The plot focuses on Mousse (Isabelle Carré), whose drug-addled lifestyle is about to leave her pregnant and alone. Beginning with some shocking and disturbingly beautiful scenes of drug-taking, it morphs into an examination both of pregnancy and the nature of relationships. Those who hate the sight of needles be warned, as at the screening I attended, the film had to be stopped after someone keeled over as one character injected themselves in the neck. Carré was pregnant during the film's shoot, and Ozon makes sure we are given plenty of time to consider the changes this has brought about to her body, while also painting a psychological portrait of a woman whose life is in flux. The French director deftly avoids passing judgment on Mousse, leaving plenty of complexity from which the audience can draw their own opinions.

The conflicts of motherhood are also explored by Ana Kokkinos's Blessed, which makes a virtue of its intricate structure - that sees the action focus on a group of disparate kids in a Melbourne suburb in the first half, before switching to the perspective of their mothers in the second. Adapted from the play Who's Afraid of the Working Class?, the film initially feels as though it may still be trapped within its stage constraints, but once the kids begin their odysseys through the urban jungle, Kokkinos breathes cinematic life into the action, which though difficult and a slow-build results in a surprisingly haunting and touching climax.

If Kokkinos and Ozon don't laud or condemn the moms in their films, The Host director Bong Joon-ho has no time for such niceties. The central protagonist in Mother (Maedo) may initially seem like just another slightly over-protective mom, and with good reason, since her son is at least two sandwiches short of a picnic. But as the film progresses and he is steamrolled into a confession of murder, it seems she is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prove his innocence. Although it descends a little too far into melodrama in the final reels, Bong's portrait of obsession is nevertheless an entertaining one, thanks largely to Kim Hye-ja—famous in her homeland for portraying mothers of a more caring, sharing nature—whose understated performance takes the edge off some of the more hyperbolic plot twists.

The Secret of Their Eyes Kim Hye-ja is just one of a platoon of older thespians taking on key roles in films at the festival, as many of the filmmakers here explore and celebrate the process of aging. The best of these considerations—and my personal favorite of the lost—arrives in Juan Jose Campanella's The Secret of Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos). He is a director drawn to the theme of old age, as his Oscar-nominated The Son of the Bride (El Hijo de la Novia)—with its examination of a middle-aged man's mortality and his mother's Alzheimer's—amply demonstrated. When I asked him about it, he said: "I am very obsessed with old age... I was looking for a word, 'intrigued'? No, it's more than that... because I am afraid of it."

Campanella may find the passing of time scary, but when it comes to manipulating it within the body of his film, he proves to have a masterful touch. He seamlessly blends the lightness of a will-they-won't-they romance with the political grit of 1970s Argentina and a dark drama involving a woman's murder, while achieving that rare trick of taking the audience forwards and backwards through a 30-year period—without his plot sinking into the shifting sands of time. Argentine big-hitter Ricardo Darín (probably best known to English-speaking audiences for his role in Nine Queens) plays Benjamín Esposito, a retired court worker who decides to write a book about the case of a woman who was raped and murdered three decades previously, in the mid-1970s.

As he contemplates the case and the political machinations of Argentina in the period, Benjamin also reassesses his relationship with his beautiful, younger boss—a lovely performance by Soledad Villamil—and the romance they always seem to be teetering on the brink of. With its blend of humanity and humor, political comment and tension, this is a smart looking, well-acted crowd-pleaser, and I am not at all surprised to hear that it has just been selected as Argentina's candidate for the Foreign Language Oscar. It will be a strong contender.

Get Low Also taking comfort in old age and fine performances is Aaron Schneider's Get Low, which recently sold to Sony Pictures Classics at the Toronto Film Festival. It features Robert Duvall as Felix, a hermit-like "old man of the woods" who has earned himself an almost murderous reputation with the local Tennessee residents. Fearing he may not have long to walk the planet, he decides it is time to reveal the secret behind his seclusion, and sets about organizing his own funeral party, which he plans to attend. Although its denouement is a little predictable, this is a very accomplished debut. Duvall is magnetic as Felix, while Bill Murray turns in a bittersweetly comic turn as the local funeral director, and Sissy Spacek looks as ethereal as ever as Felix's former friend. Schneider has spent almost two decades as a cinematographer, a talent he brings to bear here, to produce a lovely evocative look.

As the festival drew to a close on Saturday, the award winners were announced. That they were spread across several titles is a testimony to the generally strong field of competitors, especially as some of the fests on the circuit this year have had a distinctly lackluster feel. The Chinese film The City of Life and Death—which has been garnering critical buzz all week—won the coveted Golden Shell for best film, and picked up the cinematography award thanks to Cao Yu's black-and-white camerawork. The hard-hitting film concerns itself with the "Rape of Nanjing" as told from the shifting perspectives of the Chinese and Japanese.

Yo Tambien Both the Silver Shells for best acting were given to the Spanish film Yo, También (Me, Too)—which examines the difficulties faced by a Down's syndrome man attempting to woo a woman without the disability—while Spaniard Javier Rebollo picked up the Silver Shell for best directing for his contemplative study of a house wife La Mujer Sin Piano.

I was pleased to see Ozon's Le Refuge take home a special jury prize, Blessed pick up the Silver Shell for best screenplay (penned by Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius and Christos Tsiolkas) and Sammen (Together) garner a special mention in the New Directors category. It came as something of a surprise, however, that The Secret of Their Eyes was overlooked—although prizes surely await it elsewhere.

The top gong for the Kutxa-New Director Award went to Belgian director Philippe Van Leeuw for The Day God Walked Away (Le Jour Où Dieu Est Parti En Voyage), which recounts the first day of the Rwandan genocide through the eyes of a Tsutsi nanny who finds herself abandoned. Meanwhile, cinemagoers across the world continue to warm to Lee Daniels' Precious—about the tribulations and triumphs of an abused obese girl in Harlem—which notched up another award in the audience vote.

Sir Ian McKellen accepts the Donostia award The most touching award moment, however, happened earlier in the week, when veteran British actor Sir Ian McKellen picked up the Donostia gong for a lifetime of achievement that has seen him take on roles as diverse as Gandalf and Richard III. Receiving the award in a Basque beret, he was clearly moved by the overwhelming reception he received.

Smiling broadly, McKellen said: "I don't know about you, but I think actors get far too much attention, they get far too much praise, and they have far too many photographs taken of them—because actors really are just one in the team. That's why I'm not too fond of these prizes for acting. How can you compare one film's performance with another? You can't. We are not in competition with each other.

"But this award is different. It is not just for one performance but for many. It's for 50 years of acting, a whole career—almost a lifetime. Some actors act hoping for success, hoping for fame, hoping for fortune—and that's why there are so many disappointed actors in the world. Many of us, of course, act because we are not fit to do anything else. But I act, simply, to try to get better. If I'm in competition, I'm in competition with myself.

"I'm like a carpenter, always hoping one day to make the perfect chair, and so, taking this home with me back to London, I promise myself one thing—that I will carry on acting. And I promise you one thing, too... I will be back in San Sebastian."

If the film selection is always this varied, the welcome so warm, and the acceptance speech-making so humble, McKellen won't be the only one making a return visit. It's just a shame they can't order in a 3D reel of sunshine for the 2010 edition.

Posted by ahillis at 3:41 PM

September 27, 2009

NYFF '09: Sweetgrass, Ghost Town, To Die Like a Man

by Vadim Rizov

There was much skepticism and whining about this year's New York Film Festival line-up before it started—the usual cries of gratuitous elitism from some quarters, general frustration from others about the sheer obscurity of some of the line-up. Okay, maybe that was just me looking at a line-up initially full of bewildering unknown quantities. But NYFF is almost like two separate fests: the public screenings, sure, but also the press screenings, which start a little over a week before the actual fest and run concurrently. In the week we've been going, I've seen three very strong films—all without distribution, all worthy of your buck—and am now officially on board for the rest. Three capsules to guide you on your way:

Sweetgrass

Sweetgrass (2009, Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor).

When a movie is described as a documentary about sheep-herding, that gives you a strange amount of confidence; NYFF is, generally speaking, not in the piety sweepstakes of programming worthy but dull docs, so a certain amount of rigor seems guaranteed. Still, it was temping to bolt at the first shot of Sweetgrass, whose awful consumer-grade video took me straight back to the bad old days of 2001 - 03, when documentaries finally made the leap from 16mm to camcorder amateurishness, and pretty much everything was painful to watch. But Barbash and Castaing-Taylor establish pretty quickly that they know exactly what they're doing with their medium. This is ostensibly a straightforward chronicle of the shepherds of Big Timber, Montana and their last ever grazing drive against public lands before the storied tradition ends. The video quality falls into three categories: the neutral and unobjectionable, the savvy and the slightly painful. At night, when the shepherds fire into pitch-black forests, the barely perceptible video crackle is tensely accentuated by white gunshot blasts as potent as anything Michael Mann's cooked up; during the day, when shooting from afar (and some shots are Werner Herzog-majestic in their physical scale), video gives figures against the landscape a sharp edge that's almost outlined. There's a few shots I wish could be cut—since nothing is narratively "essential," anything that doesn't look good really should go, and at some points the video just looks shoddy blown up onto 35mm—but they're minimal detractions.

This is almost certainly the least sentimental American movie about Nature since Gerry: this could read like an activist doc about preserving natural tradition, but there's really nothing within the actual footage to suggest that. It's not that nature's red in tooth and claw; it just doesn't care if you admire it. It's also shockingly unsentimental about sheep: not the fuzzy, adorable baa-lambs of nursery rhymes, but dumb, obstinate creatures who can be a real pain. Part masculine comedy of swearing, part formalist experiment in which not a real word is spoken for the first half-hour, it's anything but cloistered. I was certain I was in good hands during an early sheep-shearing sequence: the camera roams in restless panning arcs—side to side, top to bottom—as sheep are separated from their wool with industrial speed and thoroughness. The noise is metal-factory intense, but slowly I began picking up a backbeat; was it an elegant soundscape, or tinny radio? As the drums became clearer, it became clear: "Highway to Hell" it is, and I was rocking out. The footage veers between the abstractly compelling, the naturally stunning and the occasionally surreal: you may never forget the sight of a hundreds-strong herd marching past the Radio Shack on a small town street. The shepherds are a pragmatic, profane lot: an eloquently despairing, absolutely unquotable stream of invective against recalcitrant sheep in the mountains becomes even more comic as the camera zooms back to dwarf everyone, back to make a wry joke about the gap between the ostensible majesty of nature and the sheer pain of navigating it.

Genre-wise, there's really nothing like it in American film; it is, however, of a piece with the numerous French films on the same subject (Raymond Depardon's Profiles of Farmers series, Will It Snow For Christmas?, Samuel Collerdey's The Apprentice). I've long wondered why America—certainly not short on rural areas and citizens—has constantly failed to document those areas. This is a start, even if Castaing-Taylor is British. Sweetgrass is set to open at the Film Forum on January 13; other distribution prospects, sadly, remain unknown.

Ghost Town

Ghost Town (2008, Zhao Daoyang).

Ghost Town begins in approved festival-film fashion: an immaculately framed shot of a city street, majestically distant from everyone, held for eons. "There's nothing worth filming here," someone says; har har. The gauntlet's been thrown down: over the course of three hours, Daoyang proves just how wrong that assessment is. The focus is Zhiziluo, a village in southwest China, and the title has twin meanings. Zhiziluo's a place where nothing happens and economic prospects range from the grim to the non-existent; it's also a place where the local church and pagan traditions co-exist equally and those ghosts can be taken quite literally. I know the difference between a film pleasantly encouraging my attention to wander and when I'm impatiently bored; as with Jeanne Dielman (except, okay, not quite on the same scale), this does the latter. It's hypnotic, but it won't wear you out over its length: you can float in and out. Daoyang's camera is handheld and indifferent to strict composition, instead using distance and duration to construct his film. It's novelistically vast in scope and physically tactile. If it sounds like I'm temporizing, it's just that it's hard to describe the film's main pleasures, which are as much about taking in, in bracing fashion, the environment of Zhiziluo as any of the people we meet.

The first 50 minutes are a prelude of sorts, a portrait of the town's Christian community, culminating in a Christmas day gathering inside the church: Daoyang patiently scans over the packed assemblage, just taking in expressive faces for a good four or five minutes. It's also the oddest of father-son portraits between Pastor John and his father, the terrifying and near-Old Testament John the Elder; the son explains at one point that when it rained through a hole in his roof, the Elder accused his son of climbing on top and pouring water through the hole. It's the first of many tangled relationships Daoyang lays out, all increasingly painful. The footage can seem haphazardly assembled, but give it time: from father and son to son with no parents at all, it's all laid out in a retrospectively eloquent arc.

Reference is made to the government coming in at some point and kicking villagers out of what are officially not "their" houses, and Chairman Mao makes an ominous climactic appearance, but this is really no China that's hit western screens before: neither the world of grinding agricultural poverty nor the fast-paced capitalist boomland, and very far removed indeed from the tragedies of displacement due to the Three Gorges Dam. Zhiziluo is a town that's been left to hang to dry on its own. The texture is of a very impersonal, essence-of-Balzac kind of novel, one where people are sketched relatively quickly but always weaved into an ever-expanding social backdrop. It should go without saying that, like any film made by halfway intelligent people, this is no monolithically doom-and-gloom document: the site of a drunken reprobate being threatened with a good cane-thrashing by an 80-something looking woman is one for the drunken Frederick Exley files. But adequately describing all the sights and events would take more time to read than to watch the film. The real question is: do you implicitly trust on faith that a semi-rigorous 3-hour Chinese small-town documentary sounds like a good idea? If so, you belong here. Ghost Town is hypnotic and far easier to watch than you suspect.

To Die Like a Man

To Die Like a Man (2009, João Pedro Rodrigues).

To Die Like a Man is both aggressively formal and aggressively queer; to a certain extent, it seems to genuinely not care if straight audiences want to be there or not. A drag queen melodrama that turns into a hard-to-define Something Else halfway through, it bifurcates itself like the finest of Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's films; the diving line is between exquisitely-composed hysteria and the truly mysterious. The first half is just fine, if occasionally dozy-making if you're not on its wavelength: Tonia (Fernando Santos) is a drag queen forever wavering about committing to the final sex change, which pisses off his/her junkie boyfriend Rosário (Alexander David). There are screams, thefts, confrontations, abortive blowjobs, fabulous dance routines, bitchy fights over wigs, the whole deal: not my deal by temperament, I'm afraid, but exquisitely filmed enough to cover up all but the most repetitive dramatic developments. If you know the film's about drag queens, the first shot is truly disorienting: an unblinking close-up of a man having decidedly non-glam make-up applied to him. Drag queen or soldier? The latter, it emerges, but Rodrigues has already eloquently begone laying the visual language for parsing the potential fluidity of gender. He also has the gift for shooting films with the austerity of an art-house master while pacing the drama within the frames faster than Fassbinder; a rare combination indeed.

In the second half, something happens; I don't think I can reveal what it is. Like Joe with more penises, the action retreats to a forest, at which point Tonia and Rosário are decisively yanked out of their spiraling rut by one Maria Bakker (Gonçalo Ferreira De Almeida), an absolutely incredible drag queen who transcends surface affectation and camp devotion to reach a mystical, Oscar Wilde-level of self-assurance and poise. And then... what to say? There are color filters. There are musical numbers. There is, finally [VAGUE SPOILER], a very literal rendering of the title, to a gut-wrenching extent. Rodrigues is prone to the overly literal metaphor, but in ways that are craftier than they seem. Tonia's the one who has her shit together, Rosário the one constantly going through withdrawal and back again; they're mirrored by a pair of dogs, one a domestic house-pet and the other a rough-and-tumble street dog. Clear enough which animal mirrors which person, until it isn't: Rodrigues is at least as ambivalent and fluid about gender (re)construction as Judith Butler, and ultimately he arrives at the intersection point between visceral life-and-death matters and academic contemplations of sexuality. The results are staggering.

Posted by ahillis at 1:02 PM

September 25, 2009

NYFF '09 PODCAST: Wild Grass + NYFF preview

Wild Grass The 47th New York Film Festival gets underway tonight with Alain Resnais' playful ode to romantic impulses late in life, Wild Grass. The general consensus among my peers is that it's the 87-year-old French master's richest and most accessibly experimental film in quite some time, but that's the wonderful thing about critics: we can simply agree to disagree.

Outside the Walter Reade Theater, where the NYFF press screenings have been held, I was joined by Slant Magazine's Nick Schager and my Benten Films partner Andrew Grant, who hashed over their contradicting views on the film. In the first of a series of GreenCine Daily podcasts from this year's festival, we also review the programming lineup with, again, our differing tastes. What are we most eagerly anticipating? What have we already seen? What should people not miss? Here we go, folks...

To listen to the podcast, click here. (16:52)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Mark Snow, "Coeurs (Générique)"
OUTRO: The Rolling Stones, "Midnight Rambler (live)"

Posted by ahillis at 8:07 AM

September 22, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: O'Horten

O'Horten

O'Horten
directed by Bent Hamer
2007, 90 minutes, in Norwegian with English subtitles
Sony Pictures Classics

O'Horten The oddest quality about the 67-year-old Norwegian pipe puffer who grants this low-key absurdist comedy its title is his name: Odd Horten. Or perhaps, because this loyal railroad engineer of four decades is a creature not just of habit but of synched timetables, his dedication to his near-ceremonial morning preparation is the mark of an eccentric. Meticulously dressed, polite and reticent, the lanky Horten walks curiously through the wintry Nordic landscape with a stiff upper everything. He's the epitome of everyman dignity, though his ever-present pipe and ability to meander into frame as a curious, Magoo-ish observer draw easy comparisons to the accidental slapstick of Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot. In a wonderfully and precisely understated performance, Baard Owe (whose craggy, mustachioed, ovoidal mug also suggests a blood relation to the French actor Jean Rochefort) doesn't just carry the film; he is the film. If you can settle into his playful deadpan rhythms, a bittersweetly funny, existential mystery—or call it a modest adventure, if that's not too oxymoronic—awaits.

O'Horten Perhaps more credit should be given to another oddly named fellow, writer-director Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories, Factotum), whose witty, shaggy-dog scenarios and hypnotic tone-setting are so naturalistically crafted (and exquisitely shot!) that his story really does seem to evolve out of fate and Horten's reactions. The film begins as our hapless hero is forced into mandatory retirement due to his age, throwing this graying bachelor's life figuratively and literally gone off the rails. (Here's a double-feature idea: Up.) In a series of increasingly droll encounters, Horten accidentally breaks into an apartment where a young boy holds him hostage, gets lost on an airport tarmac, and later winds up riding shotgun in a car with a stranger who enjoys driving long distances while blindfolded. Going with the flow of such humbling surprises, the kind that could only happen to someone who has let go of their regimented existence, Horten becomes a magnet for the high weirdness in humanity, and the cosmic punchlines in the unknown. Growing old has never seemed so frustrating yet fun.

Posted by ahillis at 10:23 PM

September 18, 2009

PODCAST: Harmony and Me (Bob Byington and Justin Rice)

Harmony and Me

From the official synopsis for the truly laugh-out-loud funny Harmony and Me, written and directed by Bob Byington (RSO: Registered Sex Offender) and starring indie rocker-turned-actor Justin Rice (Mutual Appreciation):

One of the highlights of New Directors/New Films 2009, Bob Byington's hilariously deadpan slacker film for the cell phone generation takes place in independent film capital Austin, Texas, where a voluble young lyricist named Harmony refuses to let go of the heartbreak caused when his girlfriend became his ex. He remains stubbornly unhappy, perhaps for musical inspiration or perhaps because it’s just the way he is. Although his depression annoys his tough mom, Harmony's friends, as oddball and eccentric as he, seem perfectly cool with his cultivation of misery. Starring musician Justin Rice as the motormouthed Harmony and Kevin Corrigan as his sidekick Carlos, Byington's film presents a goofy portrait of a bright guy and his buddies running in place.

Sitting down with me in a tucked-away room at NYC's Museum of Modern Art, Byington and Rice discussed the film, the various influences on its picaresque-like structure (including Killer of Sheep and a single sentence from Chuck Klosterman's Killing Yourself to Live), and which audiences deserve more pedophile jokes.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (17:49)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Elton John, "Harmony"
OUTRO: Bishop Allen, "Dimmer"

[Harmony and Me is now playing in New York through September 24. For tickets and more info, visit the MoMA website. For the official film website, that's right here.]

Posted by ahillis at 9:58 PM

September 15, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Next Day Air

Next Day Air

Next Day Air
Directed by Benny Boom
2009, 84 minutes, USA
Summit Entertainment

Scott Sanders' Black Dynamite (opening theatrically in the U.S. next month) meticulously spoofs the blaxploitation genre and all its pimps, dope pushers, martial artistry, noticeable boom mics, and funky bow-chicka-wowness, but while co-creator and star Michael Jai White's muscular comic charisma impresses, the film itself does not. The problem is that blaxploitation—unlike science-fiction, horror movies, and strangely for this argument, westerns—is so anchored to the music and mood of the grindhouse era that there's little place for reverent homage in 2009. That Black Dynamite deadpans like it came straight outta 1972 without addressing the flashback through contemporary hindsight, nor at any other time strives for the over-the-top giddiness of its climactic nunchaku showdown against Richard Nixon, underscores its irrelevance. We're better off watching Truck Turner again and appreciating that this kind of filmmaking back then was the real deal, maybe even akin to taking down The Man.

Next Day Air On the other hand, what gives the unexpectedly rousing Next Day Air its idiosyncratic flavor is that it begins with and updates the spirit of blaxploitation without feeling pressed to worship or satirize it. I'm not convinced that every half-decent genre flick invading the multiplexes is so enriching that high-minded cinephiles should embrace them (fun enough but forgettable, District 9's overhype still mystifies me), but what hip-hop video director Benny Boom's feature debut pulls off is a styled-down entertainment that works as both a loose-lipped comedy and a cleverly engineered thriller. Sure, the film needs its mouth washed out with soap and the threat of gratuitous bloodletting lurks in nearly every scene, but the characters exude soul and empathy (even at their greediest or most desperate), and most of the violence takes place offscreen until its weight needs to be felt. And it does, like a karmic comeuppance that proves Boom and writer Blair Cobbs are making no attempt to glamorize thug life.

Next Day Air The screwball plot catalyst comes courtesy of Scrubs star Donald Faison (as a pothead delivery guy on thin ice with his boss/mother) who, in a smoky daze, accidentally delivers a package hiding cocaine to the wrong Philadelphia apartment—and by fluke, to a different branch of criminals. Mike Epps and The Wire's Wood Harris are the clueless robbers and (un)lucky new recipients who plan to sell off the stash quickly to Epps' cousin, while Cisco Reyes and Yasmin Deliz are the bickering Puerto Rican couple who have to track down their bricks or else face the wrath of an underworld boss named, yes, "Bodega Diablo." Here come the antics, mayhem, and a whole lot of firepower.

The first puffs of smoke between Faison and the sadly underutilized Mos Def feel like Friday, and the overlapping ensemble narrative will draw comparisons to Pulp Fiction (or even True Romance, down to its Mexican standoff and an couch-surfing roomie who obliviously naps through every life-or-death decision). But even keepers like those don't have the old-school bite and grit of Next Day Air. While it's obvious that delivery company "NDA" is an abbreviation for the film's title, it wouldn't surprise me if Boom and Cobbs are riffing on the similarly old-school cred of hip-hop legends N.W.A. After all, these boyz are literally "delivering attitude."

Posted by ahillis at 2:03 PM | Comments (9)

September 12, 2009

PODCAST: Susan Seidelman's "Smithereens"

Susan Seidelman, SMITHEREENS

Sometimes thought of as the raw blueprint for her cult-beloved second film Desperately Seeking Susan, director Susan Seidelman's 1982 feature debut Smithereens [reviewed here by Erin Donovan] epitomizes the grungy spiritedness of downtown NYC in the post-punk era. Self-deluded but aggressively independent, working-class New Jersey scenester Wren (Susan Berman) meets Montana runaway Paul (Brad Rijn) in the city, and moves into his pad—a van in a parking lot. He's into her, but she's superficially eyeing both stardom and up-and-coming rocker Eric (punk icon Richard Hell). What shakes out to one of the hippest soundtracks in history (The Feelies, ESG, plus Richard Hell and the Voidoids, natch) is a sprawling series of cynically funny bummers that takes Nouvelle Vague-like liberties in its narrative looseness. As an urban-decayed portrait of the young wannabe, its rock n' roll immediacy grants the film an adrenalized sadness.

Beginning today, Smithereens makes its on-demand debut on Cinetic's FilmBuff cable channel, and will be available on both iTunes and Amazon VOD starting September 30. In support of bringing new (blank?) generations of eyes to this undervalued time capsule, Seidelman and I chatted about directing the first American indie to play in competition at Cannes, the Warhol Factory cohort originally considered for the soundtrack, and the reason Richard Hell was forced to live in her apartment.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (16:55)

Podcast Music
INTRO: ESG, "Moody"
OUTRO: Richard Hell and the Voidoids, "The Kid with the Replaceable Head"

Posted by ahillis at 3:21 PM

September 10, 2009

Minds In Progress (Part IV): Who's Crazy, You or Us?

By Simon Augustine, M.Div

[The final installment, continued from "Part III" here.]

COMEDIES

Harold and Maude: A Funny Take on "Sanity Is Not the Absence of Vibrancy"

Harold and Maude If in drama, the primary mode of audience participation is empathy—and in the horror film, it's vicarious escape achieved by moral extrapolation—then in comedy, the guiding principle is uncomfortable implication. The genre turns viewer anxiety about its own potential pathology back upon itself, questioning whether it may be the audience, and society at large, who—in their half-repressed hypocrisy, greed, aggression, and envy in the name of maintaining order and prosperity—may be more deranged in its collective consciousness than poor souls designated as, to borrow a phrase, the "identified patient." Several elements are in play: ragged individualism; tense suspicion of "The State;" and the efficacy of rebellion, against one's own mind or the fascistic minds of others, neatly summed up by a notion that "in an insane world, the only proper place to be is an institution" (a.k.a. "Oh My God, Inmates Are Running the Bleeping Asylum!" Syndrome).

Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971) chronicles the love affair between a death obsessed upper-crust teenager and a life-affirming octogenarian (Ruth Gordon is the definition of "irrepressible"). If Regan is the destructive rage of the counter-culture's teenager personified, then Harold (Bud Cort) is the same creature become a merry prankster. The film depicts an America in turmoil, where everyone we encounter is hilariously neurotic. But only those like Harold, possessing a sense of humor about their own misery (he expresses anhedonia to his mother in a series of faked elaborate deaths, replete with props), are given the chance to see beyond a broken ego and convert broken-hearted lunacy into redemption.

Rescue arrives in the persona of Maude: her last-chance stand against the solemn self-deception of authority (even if it's that of death itself), and delightfully deranged lust for life, ultimately pull Harold away from stifling wealth and alienation long enough to begin his healing process. Her vibrant "super-sanity" is contrasted with Harold's psychotherapist (his office is sterile to the point of surrealism) who shows a technical proficiency, but complete absence of genuine engagement with Harold's humanity.

The Dream Team The Dream Team (1987) is Cuckoo's Nest played for laughs; inmates lose their psychiatrist during a NYC field trip, getting entangled in murder and romance. The not-too-inside-joke is that 1980s Manhattan –where you could dress as a chicken, spout apocalyptic warnings on a street corner, or both, and merely evoke jaded indifference—is more dangerous than your average institution. Crazy People (1990) has Dudley Moore as a lovable loony also set loose in the city; in the best scene he pitches ideas to a group of advertising executives with tag lines for products so stunningly honest (Volvos: "They're boxy, but they're good") they are treated first as lunacy, then as genius. In our American Asylum, land of the used-car salesman shit-eating grin as a way of life and commerce, a basic honesty sometimes uproariously assumes the patina of transcendence.

The Holy Fool

LADY CLAIRE GURNEY: That's very clever, but is it the truth?
PSYCHIATRIST: Huh? Don't come to me for the truth. Only explanations.
- The Ruling Class

"The Fool is innocent, spontaneous and joyful, even Christ-like. As a result he may be ridiculed by conventional society, although he actually has the sight which they have lost."
- Cecil Collins, painter

The Ruling Class Crazy People is a minor proponent of the "Holy Fool," a person who can illuminate the foibles and hypocrisies of those typically considered adjusted by virtue of his or her unconventional version of reality—usually a kind of sweet, unaware, but penetrating honesty and/or innocence. The Ruling Class (1972) is anchored by a wild Peter O'Toole, playing a paranoid schizophrenic recruited by his aristocratic relatives to fill his brother's seat as Earl after the Earl hangs himself during ritual auto-erotic asphyxiation (dressed in a pink tutu!). O'Toole's charming lunacy, Christ-like antics, and emphasis on "love" confronts aristocratic attitudes in very funny ways. Clashing ornate tradition with '70s-style Jesus freak anomie, it is a merciless ridicule of aristocratic pomp as formalized pretension signifying nothing. Although highly romanticized, O'Toole's character mines humane truths instead of belittling schizophrenia by generating observations at the boundary between fresh irreverence and mannered madness.

Personal Psychology and the Therapist's Office

What About Bob? Since the "Me Decade," when a reign of interpersonal chaos and personal introspection precipitated an unprecedented concern with individual mental health as a centerpiece of popular culture, films have increasingly lampooned the therapy session. What About Bob? (1991), in which neurotic patient Bob (Bill Murray) infiltrates arrogant psychotherapist Dr. Leo Marvin's private home life, is a virtual Nostradamus in predicting the current invasion into legitimate psychological circles of charlatans and people-haters like Dr. Phil. Bob is a hapless walking dictionary of disorders, but more lovable in his fragility than smug, charmless Leo (Richard Dreyfuss), who doesn't want to deal with Bob, and so gives a copy of his newest book, "Baby Steps," for free.

Dreyfuss packs everything wrong with the current gaggle of New Age celebrity therapists into a single character: condescension, patronizing superiority masquerading as empathy, dollar signs for eyes, a tendency to convert complex ideas into chewable tablet form catchphrases, and a thinly masked dislike of actual flesh-and-blood people. When Bob inserts himself into Leo's family vacation, the psychiatrist must deal with him not in the abstract, as a patient, but as a human being. The doctor/patient power balance is also turned on its head to comic effect in the very funny Analyze This (1997), in which Robert De Niro's mafioso enlists Billy Crystal as his reluctant therapist.

The King of Comedy A darker form of stalking drives The King of Comedy (1981), with De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, a socially isolated aspiring comedian lost in delusions of grandeur. Instead of practicing the avenger's refrain "You talkin' to me?" he hangs out in his mother's basement holding talk shows with cardboard cutouts. Rupert embodies our modern media zeitgeist: part pushy nerd-fan nebbish, part scarily off-kilter obsessive, he pursues fame to replace loneliness with an absolving, self-justifying celebrity spotlight. When he kidnaps late night host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, accessing his uber-curmudgeon) in an attempt to get a gig on his show, weirdness turns criminal. To delve further into the goosebumps of borderline personality, watch Play Misty For Me (1971), in which Jessica Walter won't leave Clint Eastwood alone; Glenn Close's rabbit-cooker in Fatal Attraction (1987); and Single White Female (1992) in which Jennifer Jason Leigh mimicking roomie Bridget Fonda.

Other Funny Things

A mysterious stranger and brilliant therapist comes to town in Mumford (1999); Mel Brooks pokes fun at Hitchcock in High Anxiety (1977); Jeff Bridges is a radio DJ trying to overcome a tragedy who befriends a homeless man (Robin Williams) with mystical visions in Terry Gilliam's comic drama The Fisher King (1991); Nicholas Cage is a con-artist with OCD in Matchstick Men (2003); the British King of Hearts (1966), in which British WW I soldier (Alan Bates) finds himself in a town run completely by escaped mental patients; and anything by Woody Allen.

A Concluding Thought: In and Out of the American Asylum

The original American Psycho Despite the imposing buildings, huge manicured lawns, and teams of doctors, the barriers separating the institutionalized and those living on the outside are, if not gossamer thin, at least more permeable than most of us choose to ponder. For some, one or two thoughts maintain a precarious station beyond the evaluation room's grasp; for others, a few moments of courage or insight, the right medicine, or a series of compassionate gestures can mean impending freedom. All of us move forward and back across the scales of mental health; we are all partially ill; we are all partly sane. We exist, as individuals and collectively, on a spectrum of sanity characterized by high mobility, relative to how our consciousness expands or contracts in response to traumatic or liberating experiences. Constantly fed by images (from life, art, and mind), our state of mental health depends upon the accuracy and sturdiness of the ones we digest. The insane are too controlled by the image; the bored and vapid are not controlled by it enough.

All of America is a madhouse waiting to make a break for it in one direction or another; we are all image-makers, movie-makers, mental patients, grindhouse perverts, aspiring saints. If the mental hospital is a place where dreams and nightmares are tyrants, overwhelming touch and cry, then often the everyday world "on the outside" does not dream enough—loses sight of the spiritual, transcendent, creative elements of our minds. We go the movies, because in a practical sense, we need to be insane for a couple of hours. Unlike the (officially) committed patients of the asylum, however, afterwards we usually get to go home.

Posted by ahillis at 10:38 PM

September 7, 2009

Minds In Progress (Part III): When the Mind Goes Very, Very Wrong

By Simon Augustine, M.Div

[Continued from "Part II" here.]

HORRORS

Peter Lorre in M The Mobile Spectrum of Sanity: Man-Made Monsters and Man Made a Monster

If dramas about madness focus on the attempt to heal, to understand, to gain a new awareness of the causes of suffering, then horror films show us what happens when causes are not revealed and assuaged, but twisted into increasingly perverse appearances. When the mind works, sonatas, calculus and spiritual growth result; when it goes wrong, both in movies and life, it can go very, very wrong. Spectacularly wrong, in fact; the consequence being amazing characters like Peter Lorre in M, Norman Bates, and Hannibal Lecter. Horror takes the tragic, sad shades of the word "sick," and exploits them for purely sensationalist punch, infusing the word with all its blasphemous, lurid, humorous, campy, frightening and shocking manifestations.

A mind is a many-beleaguered thing—dense with paradoxes, dilemmas, fragilities, and riddles. We all exist on a fluid and vulnerable spectrum between health and madness, and our common slippery slope is a truly disquieting prospect for any audience. To address this problem, the horror genre intervenes on our behalf, using extremities designed to alleviate any uncomfortable identification attending more realistic images of mental illness. One of the oldest tricks in the book: push characteristics of the damaged psyche to a ridiculous, supernatural limit, producing not a sick human, but a monster come to life; a fusion of real person and legendary figure—The Thing Beneath the Bed, Madman on the Loose, the Boogeyman. Tortured minds become less than and beyond human, ironically disassociating audiences from real world horrors created by psychological dissociation; a fanciful and reassuring gap between us and the scariest failures to meet reality. "Shock" here is not that of recognizing ourselves, but the vicarious thrill of distancing ourselves from any relation to "sickness;" a dissuasion from our own capacity for "evil deeds," a Freudian taboo upon which communal sins are projected, so they may be sacrificed for everyone's benefit.

Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance in HALLOWEEN Dr. Loomis, the psychiatrist hunting Michael Myers in Halloween (1978) describes him this way: "I met him, fifteen years ago... No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong... with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes... the devil's eyes... purely and simply... evil." It's a darkly satiric version of the doctor/patient relationship: a psychiatric duty not to bring one's charge back from the brink of madness, but to hunt it down and stop a wordless death mission representing the impossibility of sanity. After Michael's rampage, his victimizer sister Laurie Strode asks Loomis in quavering tones: "It was the boogeyman?" He responds, with melodramatic dread: "As a matter of fact, it was." (Cue the infamously spooky piano theme.)

The Exorcist: Where Science and Psychology Fear to Tread

William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) locates our worst anxieties about the grey epistemological area between simple mental illness—the province of scientific knowledge, diagnosis, and possible treatment or rehabilitation—and the realm of pure volitional evil or "possession" that we suspect may lie beyond it. Writer William Peter Blatty turns conventional 20th-century logic, by which abnormal behavior is explained through scientific dispelling of religious superstition, on its head. The increasingly disturbing behavior of 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) is first dismissed as a treatable psychological condition difficult to diagnosis. Only after Regan undergoes an ultra-realistic series of tests, including spinal tap, do the doctors embarrassedly suggest exorcism. Her incredulous mother (Ellen Burstyn) asks, "You're telling me I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?"

Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST Most people in 1973 or today would have the same reaction. The Exorcist earned the moniker "scariest movie ever made" because it convincingly reverses, with total artistic commitment, the usual modern philosophical movement from theological explanation toward medical diagnoses. A thrilling admixture of Grand Guignol set-pieces, body shocks, and bravura sound mixing, all synthesized to exert a firm, relentless grip over the senses, The Exorcist pinpoints with a zealot's precision a small section of the modern mind: one acknowledging, ruefully, that despite increasing technological advancement, aspects of the human persona subject to disintegration and terrifying behavior will always emanate from a twilight area of knowledge lying in the province of mysticism, religious philosophy, and words like "evil," "Satan" and "mystery."

Our Achilles heel is exposed by systematically dispensing with—via maximum suspension of disbelief—the job of ruling out every rational cause of Regan's demonic transformation. No brain lesion; psychedelics; catatonia, somnambulism. Now what? Now we are in territory we don't pretend to control; Book of Job land; hurricane country. Existentially, we truly are fucked. Scientific helplessness sets the stage for metaphysical maelstroms to erupt unhindered, taking center stage in our imagination. Fear of internal chaos is given a physical form ugly as hell; a body out of control: swelling, puking, masturbating, spitting, flailing, and levitating. Not to mention head-spinning and extreme tongue-lolling.

Spiderwalkin' in THE EXORCIST The limits of psychiatry, where doctors fear to tread and priests, shaman, and holy men enter the arena—the ancient hole in the midst of contemporary reality that never disappears, a realm comparable to queasy feelings we get looking at the infinity of stars, or meditating upon not just death but insignificant death—all combined with a cute little kid swearing like a sailor on a holiday bender, referring to herself as a sow, and upchucking big yellow goobers the size of small turtles is enough to make anyone feel really yucky. By the time a deformed, obscene teenager is jamming a crucifix into her vagina, barking "Let Jesus fuck you," proceeding to shove her mother's face into that same bloody crotch saying, "Lick me," metaphysical displacement equated with organic horror has been expressed irreversibly. Has there ever been a scene as blasphemous, as blatant, as audacious, as terrifically distillative of every fear about our carnal nature unleashed, without hope of being organized by logic or knowledge—as the spectacle of a adolescent girl jabbing herself with the greatest icon of Christian sacrifice and purity right into a forbidden place, the locus maximus of guilt, pleasure, pain, and birth? Forget vagina dentata—my god, this is vagina stigmata; vagina satanicus. Here, the religious question's sheer brute force—both its faith and doubt, the existential push inherent to physical creatures capable of metaphysical operations—is shown with outrageous reverse-ecstasy, as if completely localized in revelations of the flesh: the skin of Regan's stomach creating welts that read "help me;" the spider-walk; the pulpy, bulbous alien sex organs that appear in bloody glory on the statues in the church.

The film names the dilemma between Being and The Body that first appears so acutely in adolescence; a dreadful societal and cultural anxiety about teenagers beyond reach. Speaking to a Generation Gap as wide as the Grand Canyon, at the time of its release there was no more apt embodiment of all parents' fears about drugs, sex, rock, long hair, political insurrection, and notions of freedom from old time religion, than a teenage girl literally possessed by demons unexplainable by adult authority. Shit, by the time 1973 rolled around, to some parents, the hippies who flooded Woodstock and Chicago and anti-war demonstrations were the goddamn Antichrist.

Real and Imagined Threats: Polanski, DePalma, Cronenberg

David Cronenberg's THE BROODDavid Cronenberg is a director famous for melding psychological disease with its manifestation in deformed states of flesh. In The Brood (1979), a devilishly clever play on postpartum depression, Nola (Samantha Egger), under care of Svengali-like "experimental" psychologist Oliver Reed, bears a series of children resulting not from conventional insemination but as a physical manifestation of her suppressed rage (whoa!). Look for the moment Nola pulls another fetus out of her "womb" and licks it like a mother wolf; it will stick in your memory.

Roman Polanski explores a young woman's pathological fear of male sexuality in Repulsion (1966), notable for its haunting representations of delusion. When Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is left alone in her apartment, madness takes over: phantom men wait in bed to pop out and rape as soon as she lies down, and a narrow hallway doubles as a tunnel of groping, hungry hands.

Brian De Palma explores Hitchcockian male/female psychological splits reminiscent of Psycho in Dressed to Kill (1980), featuring a murderous cross-dressing psychiatrist (Michael Caine); and in the insular, garish, dream-like atmosphere of Sisters (1973), about Siamese twins separated at birth, one of whom is a closeted homicidal maniac. Conflation of twins and dual identities is explored in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1986) with Jeremy Irons as a pair of gynecologist twin brothers using some very nasty medical instruments, in De Palma's Raising Cain, and in The Other (1972), about two prankish brothers, one embodying conscience and the other sociopathic tendency; a similar dynamic drives Fight Club (1999), Primal Fear (1996), and Mr. Brooks (2007). In these films the difference between a psychological voice and real person is blurred, and cinema's dexterity—flashbacks, dreamscapes, interplay between literal and figurative characters—is proven to be the medium best equipped to deliver the nuances of a split (and/or conflicted) psyche.

A Few Refreshing Moments of Truth: Session 9 and Manhunter

Session 9 Session 9 (1999) portrays contractors renovating an abandoned, decrepit mental institution, where one of the workers finds old audio tapes of sessions between a psychiatrist and former inmate. During their conversation, a murderous personality named "Simon" emerges from the patient's psyche, creating a truly frightening moment. I promise you will feel that agitating but not entirely unpleasant electric sensation ripple through your body: yes, a bona-fide "spine-tingler." The film is also unique for sensitivity concerning the criminally insane. In its last, instantly classic voiceover line, we hear Simon say: "I live in the weak and the wounded." Insightful, nuanced moments like this are a rarity in horror; most of them prefer, a la Michael Myers, to see things in black and white, reticent to look farther into the nature of "monsters."

Manhunter (1986) highlights the same kind of complex moment: William Peterson plays Will Graham, a detective specializing in analyzing methods and motives of serial killers by "getting into their heads." But Will's associative skill makes him unbalanced, prey to the seductive pull of madness influencing even "good" people. The key line comes when Will says of the villainous Tooth Fairy: "As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult... as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to fulfill some sick fantasy. As an adult, I think someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks." Here, the film dubiously and bravely expresses the tenuous role of free will in severe illness, raising questions about motive and responsibility that go beyond conventional morality.

The Silence of the Lambs and Our Land of Serial-Killers

Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecter Anthony Hopkins made Dr. Hannibal Lecter (a character also featured in Manhunter) a household name with The Silence of the Lambs. Lecter presents a deliciously twisted betrayal of the mental health system: versed in analyzing afflicted minds, he uses specialized knowledge not to heal but to terrorize. This fascinating contradiction in his identity is an ambitious attempt to embody evil; he's aware at a genius level of the mind's mechanisms, but nevertheless embraces mayhem—implying the reasons behind "evil deeds" are perhaps not an object for analysis, but an otherworldly force of malevolence.

With its Molotov cocktail of ambivalence toward the utility of violence, pathological fascination with celebrity, and commoditization of the body as marketable product, naturally America produces the world's most notorious serial killers. Hollywood follows the leader: Spike Lee's interpretation of David Berkowitz in 1999's Summer of Sam (watch for the chilling scene when Sam talks!); Tony Curtis with a classic I-need-a-shower-now-please performance as The Boston Strangler (1971); Zodiac (2007), a detailed look at San Francisco's eponymously referenced murderer; Steve Railsback as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter (1977); and a recent spate of imaginatively titled fare like Ed Gein (2001, again with Railsback), Ted Bundy (2002), Gacy (2003), and Ulli Lommel's Green River Killer and B.T.K. Killer (both 2005).

Macaulay Culkin in THE GOOD SON Devil Children

The American heuristic project of understanding where mental illness stops, and preternatural evil begins, is prominent in "Devil Child" films, in which a cherubic, seemingly innocent child is actually a sociopath of the "nature," as opposed to "nurture," variety. The seminal (pun intended) film in this regard is The Bad Seed (1956), in which a mother begins to suspect her sweet, ponytailed daughter of being a born sociopath. In The Good Son (1993), the culprit is a boy (Macaulay Culkin), a very naughty little guy who likes to throw crash test dummies off of bridges to cause car collisions; similar tales serve as the basis for Orphan (2009) and the indie Home Movie (2008), a Blair Witch Project-style story about a progressive minister begrudgingly acknowledging his children are irredeemable sociopaths (watch for that last painterly scene, a demented "American Gothic" in miniature.)

More Scary Stuff to Check Out

Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM The first-despised-than-hailed-as-a-classic of voyeurism Peeping Tom (1962); Monster (2003) with Charlize Theron as Aileen Wurnos, the second woman ever to be executed on Florida's death row; David Lynch's Inland Empire (2007) replicates the bizarre logic of a mind in the throes of dreaming or illness; Kate Winslet caught up in a creepy fantasy world in Heavenly Creatures (1994); Warren Beatty's paranoid journalist tested to determine if he is a sociopath willing to kill political candidates in The Parallax View (1974); Jack Palance and Martin Landau as insane escapees conducting the siege of a suburban family in Alone in the Dark (1982); young men recruited by cults using group psychology and then "deprogrammed" in Ticket to Heaven (1981) and Split Image (1982); Bettie Davis is a bitter ex-child-star psychologically torturing Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1965); Jennifer Lopez journeys into the mind of serial-killer Vincent D'Onofrio in The Cell (1998); William Friedkin's Bug (2006), about a couple succumbing to paranoia while barricaded in a motel; Jodie Foster screws with Martin Sheen's head in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976); Kevin Bacon is The Woodsman (2004), a pedophile trying to keep straight; Powers Boothe is the titular cult leader in Guyana Tragedy: The Jim Jones Story (1980).

Part IV, "Comedies: Who's Crazy, You or Us?" (and a concluding thought!), continued here.

Posted by ahillis at 10:30 AM

September 3, 2009

Mike Judge's Extracted Truth

by Eric Kohn

EXTRACT writer/director Mike Judge Mike Judge has always presented sophisticated takes on human behavior, but he only recently allowed his anti-heroes to take charge. His fourth movie as a writer-director, Extract, focuses on trouble in suburbia and revolves around a dissatisfied factory owner. This brief synopsis alone should demonstrate the breadth of Judge's thematic journey, but a deeper look reveals its methodical progression.

With the sophomoric antics of Beavis and Butthead, Judge savagely critiqued the inanity of the MTV generation, singling out the lowest common denominator with anthropological specificity: His relentlessly giggling animated idiots qualified as "tornado bait," according to his own assessment, reflecting an ostracized youth culture rather than blindly endorsing it. These caricatures are relegated to the sidelines in Extract, signaling Judge’s broader concerns.

Jason Bateman in EXTRACT When the juice ran out on Beavis' bitter indictment in the mid-nineties, Judge upgraded his interests with King of the Hill, a gentle portrait of middle-class southern attitudes as viewed through the eyes of "common sense guy" Hank Hill. Guided by traditionalist family values and devotion to his settled, below-the-radar existence, Hank expressed his personal values while remaining subservient to a lower class lifestyle. He didn't want to get rich or change the world. By contrast, Extract leading man Joel (Jason Bateman) works hard to make his dough before seeking internal satisfaction, his main goal throughout the movie. Judge needed to work through a few more situations before arriving at this humble premise.

Office Space marked a turning point in the slow-moving Judge canon. With cubicle-oppressed Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), Judge created his first leading man in desperate need of an exit strategy. A decade since its release, the movie looks downright understated in juxtaposition to the vulgar fixations of today's mainstream comedies. Peter's transition from slave of the system to corporate hustler unfolds in a quiet progression of events culminating with his decision to steal from the company, a conclusion that practically makes sense in light of everything that preceded it. Peter does not become corrupt, Judge argues; society, with its backwards fixation on efficiency over happiness, forces him to break the rules so he can save himself. Now, Judge's middlebrow characters were acting out, refusing to lie down and forcibly devour the bullshit of their daily routines. The transition would continue until they won the battle.

Idiocracy Next came Idiocracy. Notoriously dumped by Fox, a studio that failed to understand its widely appreciated satirical edge, the movie contained a trite sci-fi premise in order to sneak in a red flag about America’s degraded intellect. Judge predicted that the dumb gene would increasingly multiply until stupid people dominated the planet, but his grotesque vision of the future clearly served as an allegory for our own times. Inserting modern character Joe (Luke Wilson) into the setting by way of cryogenic freezing, Judge posited that a man of average intelligence would become the smartest person on his future Earth. Given the opportunity to apply his mind for the first time, Joe actually manages to save the ill-fated future society and reaffirm his value on the planet.

Because Joe had been treated as useless in modern times, he stumbled upon his success. Having established the emptiness of striving for appreciation in an indifferent world, Judge turned his interests to financially successful characters unable to obtain self-gratification. Extract notably shifts perspective from his earlier works. Where Office Space brought the camera into the cubicles, Extract rises above the working class to explore the life of an overseer. Joel's productive factory endlessly bottles cherry extract along a virtually unflagging assembly line. He sits in a comfortable office above the operation and cheerfully maintains daily operations. His employees are a melting pot of cultural archetypes: A heavy metal fork-lift operator in a band called "God's Cock" suggests Butthead's more coherent cousin; a pair of old women gossip fearfully about a Mexican coworker; various blue-collar men proudly shuffle about their business as if it's the only game in town. These carefree personalities could easily wander into any of Judge's earlier productions, but Extract places them in secondary positions. The central drama involves Joel coping with sexual frustration and thieving temp worker Cindy (Mila Kunis). He runs into marital and legal troubles, but remains mentally stable and mostly in control of his fate. There's no epic climax. Joel simply accepts his life and continues living it.

Mila Kunis in EXTRACT On this level, Extract signals a major tonal shift in Judge's live action work. The humor is gently observed, rarely louder than the volume of conversation, and fairly believable—closer in atmosphere to King of the Hill than Office Space. As a director, Judge avoids visually audacious choices. (The zany futuristic environment of Idiocracy makes a noteworthy exception.) Extract mainly takes place in three barren locations: Joel's factory, his local bar, and his sizable home. He enjoys his boring turf, but never seems to get home in time to catch his distracted wife (Kristen Wiig) in a horny state. He laments about this situation to his stoner bartender (Ben Affleck, subtly humorous), who comes up with the unlikely proposition of hiring a male gigolo to romance Joel's wife, absolving him of the guilt of cheating on her. Joel, drugged out and annoyed, goes along with it.

Concurrent with the emergence of this unlikely scheme, one of Joel's devout workers suffers a factory-related injury and abruptly loses a testicle. Judge follows this fleeting moment of slapstick with the droll details of the paperwork—insurance claims, and so on. Meanwhile, Cindy concocts a scheme to infiltrate the factory, make contact with the afflicted worker, convince him to sue, and take the money. At this point, two disconnected narrative strands connect: Joel meets Cindy when she enlists as a temp and immediately falls for her, interpreting her fake charm as mutual attraction. As Cindy attempts to rip him off, Joel finds more trouble when the gigolo he hires not only manages to seduce his wife, but fall in love with her as well.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? For all their drama, the twisted romantic entanglements are a red herring. The real quest of Extract involves Joel's need to discover personal satisfaction and the effect this desire has on everyone around him. The chaos eventually simmers down, but the main ideas arise in the first few minutes. The movie opens with a seemingly non-sequitur incident, as Cindy uses her charm to steal a guitar from the local instrument shop. Her actions set the theme: Everyone wants to get ahead, but the means don't always yield a satisfactory end. It's the same problem facing Joel, his injured worker, and pretty much every character in Judge's entire creative output.

Some viewers may interpret the slow pace, subdued humor and simplistic conflict as flaws. Actually, these qualities are Judge’s strong suit. Joel's conundrum recalls that of Rockwell P. Hunter in Frank Tashlin's classic 1957 comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? in that both Joel and Rockwell sincerely wish to marry success in the workplace with inner happiness. Every Mike Judge protagonist has struggled with this objective since they started having jobs. If he's truly been working his way toward the ultimate everyman story, Extract comes close to finding it.

Beavis and Butthead = Rockwellian? In 1994, Judge told an interviewer that he saw Beavis and Butthead as "a Norman Rockwellian look at America," making room for the interpretation that each of his movies and television series functions as another canvas. His recently canceled primetime animated program, The Goode Family, gently mocked new-age green politics just as Extract mocks suburban discontent. The show, a sitcom about working-class, well-intentioned vegans, never quite settled on whether it sympathized with the organically-inclined family or wanted to deflate the values of their intentions.

Extract, on the other hand, wholly identifies with Joel's curious plight. He's a hero because he rejects heroics in favor of obtaining his own needs, but he still cares—about his wife, his coworkers, and that ridiculous cherry extract—because these elements create the fabric of the reality that he desperately strives to maintain. At long last, a Judge creation knows exactly what it wants.

Posted by ahillis at 3:37 PM

September 2, 2009

Minds In Progress (Part II): Sanity Is Not the Opposite of Vibrancy

By Simon Augustine, M.Div

[Continued from "Part I" here.]

DRAMAS (AND DOCUMENTARIES)

"A sane person to an insane society must appear insane."
- Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: The Battle of Imagination and Order

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality."
- George Gascoigne, Renaissance poet

"I turned down a job in 'Cuckoo's Nest' for this?!"
- John Belushi, bemoaning how Saturday Night Live cost him a film role

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is based on Ken Kesey's novel about Randall P. McMurphy, a rebellious spirit who pretends to be insane to trade prison for the comfy (or so he thinks) environs of the mental institution. All leering smiles, arched eyebrows, and devilish merriment, McCurphy is a virtuoso ne'er-do-well; a man propelled by a mania of bravura horniness, hot temper, and humanity that is infectious, inspiring, and eventually affects the lives of his fellow inmates. Although released in 1975, the story is a child of the '60s in its ethos of the spirit and spirited.

One key to the story's fierce impact is its implicit dictum: "Treatment does not consist of an over-rationalized, too rigidly organized, sanitized, neutralized, and controlled version of reality, for the sake of which a patient can be trained to adjust their behavior and thoughts; rather, it lies in offering the patient a vision of the nature of his or her own humanity, damaged but still viable, organic, capable of joy and humor, anger and growth, one that tends toward healing and fulfillment; and sanity is possible because a person can learn to acknowledge all the rage, heartbreak, grotesquerie, absurdity, and fundamentally uncontrollable, unsatisfactory nature of reality, yet survive it and remain alive to life without resorting to the illusory and painful safety of an ill mind." If repression and neuroses consist of a mind fitfully and fruitlessly trying to control what the heart must endure, then the most effective treatment evokes a balance between heart and mind, not merely using pre-conceived psychological models designed to make being human (appear) safer. It touches emotional aspirations locked in a broken psyche; seeds of life-force undiscovered, unguarded, and free, subject to aches and passions that cannot be tampered, only harnessed.

A less mature definition of sanity believes it can be delivered as a needle injects serum into the vein: in dosed units of right words, right medicines, and correct beliefs signifying a rote, book-learned, conventionally agreed-upon and technologically accessible version of reality. At its extremes, it seeks to dampen spirits by blindly honoring a modern god of scientific "objectivity," generically administered to "solve" the human problem. Cuckoo's Nest tells us although technology is an efficient tool it is not a substitute for a call to the soul. The film strikes a deep chord: the essential conflict between imagination and order, between those seeking to liberate themselves and other people, or those who fundamentally mistrust humanity, and so feel they must control it.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestControl is embodied by sadistic Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who runs the ward and enters a battle of wills for the inmate's allegiance with McMurphy. Although lawless and crude, McMurphy is not only not out of touch with reality, or claimed by some dissociative state; he is that rare man in touch with others' humanity and gloriously possessed by life in the moment. Most dangerously, his antics even begin to exert healing on his fellow inmates. On a raucous field trip improvised by McMurphy, replete with booze and women, the inmates' fevered brains get a watery dose of unhindered abandon; breathing outdoor, uninhibited air, they forget themselves enough to question their imprisonment. Eventually, the ensuing challenge of authority leads to tragedy.

Imagination is needed for healing. Denied the World Series on TV after a ward "vote," McMurphy decides to call the game anyway, without benefit of a TV set—pantomiming all the thrills and excitement. Befuddled, the others soon become entranced by a baseball game not really happening. It is a wonderfully realized instance of imagination triumphing over physical limit; not a delusion that harms, but a creative illusion that frees. Cuckoo's Nest is the gold standard for a central attitude in American cinema: sanity is not the opposite of vibrancy. As French painter Jean Dubuffet put it: "For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity."

Without sentimentality, the film delivers a cosmic struggle between the limits imposed through a constrictive system of mind or The State, and the individual seeking liberation from societal neurosis. True liberation, it says, is ultimately not given by one psychological technique or ideology or doctor; it is grasped by the suffering with her whole being: physical, spiritual, existential, sexual. A very American conceit: rebellion by humanity against its self-imposed inhumane restraints as manifested in the delusion and prejudice of bureaucratic "necessity."

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Ordinary People

In 1977's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (in its day, this phrase made it into the popular lexicon as a synonym for "life is difficult"), Kathleen Quinlan plays Deborah, a teenager with schizophrenia admitted by her parents in the 1950s. Giving an exhausting, visceral wallop of a performance, Quinlan registers with total conviction how the task of overcoming a mental affliction exacts a toll on the body. Struggling to survive the hallucinations keeping her mind locked away, she is all sweaty nervousness and intermittent exhilaration.

The film boasts terrific visuals: during one therapy session a huge iron gate slams down between Deborah and her therapist Dr. Fried (Bibi Andersson), a startling manifestation of Sylvia Plath's "bell jar." Deborah harbors a fantasy world called Yr, inhabited by a primitive tribe—a cross between Quest For Fire's cavemen and Hair's hippies. When hallucinations about Yr appear to lure Deborah, literally chasing her down hallways, the effect is not silly, but surprisingly frightening and intriguing; aided by the low-budget restraints of Roger Corman, the tribe appears neither schlocky nor too elaborate. Their incantations and rituals allow Deborah's sexual and emotional frustrations free reign; the seductive allure and refuge of madness, sensual and numbing, is palpable.

In a key line, Dr. Fried encourages Deborah to challenge the rule of Yr by telling her: "I think your god is a cruel god." A profound statement for any mind abusing itself in the name of a trauma from which it suspects it cannot recover, it serves as a turning point for Deborah, transforming her feelings trapped and unleashed by Yr into this-worldly emotion, and breaking its spell. The finale, when Deborah cuts her arm, astonished she can finally feel realistic pain, and then excitedly runs around trying to convey the import of what has happened to anyone she can find, is an unexpected, tear-jerking end to a vicious ordeal.

Ordinary People In Ordinary People, Timothy Hutton is miraculous as teenager Conrad Jarrett, reintegrating into home and school life after being hospitalized for a suicide attempt. His family is recovering from the loss of eldest son Buck, who drowned when he and Conrad got caught in a storm while boating. Conrad encounters healing not in cool, clinical examination, but "sanity as vibrancy" in the form of an idiosyncratic, brusque, yet extraordinarily caring psychiatrist named Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch).

The exact root of the configuration of guilt, fear, and sadness plaguing Conrad remains mysterious. With uncommon realism and a deft, graceful tone (Pachabel's Canon in D is used perfectly) the story begins to assemble its underlying basis, especially as revealed in conversations between Conrad and Berger. Director Robert Redford layers suspense around Conrad's impending self-understanding as a thriller moves toward a killer. The climactic resolution matches the excitement of nabbing any suspect: a breathtaking moment of realization suddenly arrives, summarized by a psychological formula encapsulated in a few words. Dr. Berger challenges Conrad's shame surrounding the incident that killed his brother but left him alive (and behind): "What was the one thing you did wrong?" he asks. Conrad answers: "I held on. I held onto the boat." It's as good a maxim for a person seeking to restore identity through self-forgiveness as you are likely to find. Conrad's relief and wonder is a moving blueprint, writ large, for how self-forgiveness may fit in the structure of a person psychologically "stuck" life.

Three Elements of American Sanity: Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting (1997) uses three basic elements emerging as a pattern for the modern American struggle to overcome mental illness. It consists of a trio of reoccurring elements: a young person awakening from psychological numbness; a therapist who uses a combination of compassion, honesty, and idiosyncratic directness to penetrate the patient's emotional shield; and a critical moment telegraphing how a mind crosses the threshold separating stagnation from movement, illness from health. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a genius of rare capability who refuses to use his gifts, rendered immobile by an abusive childhood. Enter Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), a talented therapist heartbroken by his wife's death and also hiding from his potential. Wielding "sanity is not the opposite of vibrancy" through humor and risky confrontation, Sean coaxes Will to test the waters beyond trauma by showing him a sorrowful portrait of another man hemmed in, only twenty years down the line: namely, himself.

Again, we witness a climatic exchange between therapist and patient, father-figure and protégé, showcasing another maxim of self-forgiveness. After verbally sparring for months in therapy, Sean one day spontaneously embraces Will and, regarding the abuse still haunting him, repeats: "It isn't your fault." A dramatic and moving demonstration of the power of transference, the statement is both active reassurance and a verbal rite of passage for Will; a symbolic gesture paralleling the parental relationship—one that, if he can accept, will replace the grip of abuse by substituting it with caring.

One Step (or Two) Away From Reality: Cassavetes, Coming Apart, and a Joanne Woodward Double Feature

The Three Faces of Eve Both The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and Sybil (1976) tackle multiple personality disorder, and star Joanne Woodward. In the former, Woodward plays a modest and humble Midwest housewife whose husband discovers that she is exhibiting two additional personalities. Based on an actual case study, with some of the dialogue taken from notes and conversations, the film is a groundbreaker in terms of empathetically presenting severe mental illness to the public. Multiple personality disorder is a condition in which a person's core personality develops several "satellite" personalities, co-existing as separate entities within the single psyche. Usually, it is due to withering abuse early in life; in order to protect the core personality, who cannot bear the pain of the abuse, the mind creates other personalities who function in order to assume its psychological burden and disassociate from trauma.

In Sybil, Woodward is the psychiatrist treating a woman with sixteen satellite personalities (Sally Field). This TV film became a cultural touchstone, leading to official recognition of "MPD" by the psychiatric community. Case numbers rose, and controversy ensued: a heated debate in the mental health field as to the validity, etiology, and specificity of the disorder, along with questions about what role suggestion played in diagnosis. Confusion caused lay people to ascribe a multitude of conditions to MPD, sometimes inappropriately. The illness was eventually changed to dissociative identity disorder for clarity.

John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence (1974) shows us a working class mother and wife enduring a slow, agonizing breakdown. Cassavetes' aesthetic—loose, meandering, and rhythmically close to the awkwardness of real life—when combined with the story of a mind's disintegration from coherence to chaos, has a shattering effect. Gena Rowlands conveys the terrified confusion of a person unable to organize reality, and worse, unable to communicate to loved ones what is happening to her. Devolving into nonsensical, inscrutable thoughts, Rowlands expertly portrays a woman trying helplessly to describe an existential nightmare through a harrowing series of facial tics, unfinished gestures, abrupt sounds and tortured body language—as if despair is caught in her body like a wild animal she tries in vain to expel.

Coming Apart Coming Apart (1969) features Rip Torn as psychiatrist Joe Glassman, a womanizer of glowering macho sadism and imploding intelligence, whose private and professional lives are deteriorating. In an experiment that's part voyeurism, part self-examination, and part perverse heightening of self-conscious absorption, he opts to capture himself falling to pieces via a camera in his apartment (presaging today's "reality TV"). However, the lens only serves to heighten Joe's feeling of dissociation, rather than provide escape from it. In the end, shipwrecked, he smashes the mirror reflecting the room into the camera; a violent, symbolic removal of his own image that seems both queasily suicidal and a hail-mary attempt to face problems in real life, not via artifice; a disputation of media's "extra eye" as potential healer.

The Rest of the Pack

Grey Gardens David and Lisa (1962), a sensitive tale of two teenagers falling in love in an institution; Lars and the Real Girl (2007), with Ryan Gosling working out issues with a lifelike sex doll; The Bridge (2005), a documentary about people who attempt suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate bridge; Save the Tiger (1973), about a clothing manufacturer (Jack Lemmon) succumbing to generational alienation and ethical stress (lookout for his eerie speech to spectral audience); Billy the Kid (2007), about a small town boy with acute social difficulties romancing a blind girl; Grey Gardens (1977), an investigation into the eccentric Beale sisters, former socialites living in a dilapidated mansion; Robert Duvall as the father of The Stone Boy (1984), whose reacts to tragedy by ceasing to speak; Geoffrey Rush as a classical pianist who overcame illness to perform in Shine (1996); Frances (1982) with Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer, a movie star committed in the '40s for manic-depression; Winona Ryder befriends Angelina Jolie in a hospital in Girl, Interrupted (1999); Christina Ricci tries out a new drug in the annoying Prozac Nation (2001); Kevin Spacey may or may not be an alien from another planet in K-PAX (2001); Drew Barrymore battles depression in Mad Love (1995); Johnny Depp takes care of his schizophrenic sister in Benny and Joon (1993); "What is ‘the wall'?" a favorite teenage discussion starter explored visually by Alan Parker in Pink Floyd: The Wall (1981); Kathleen Turner's daughter develops autism in House of Cards (1992); King George III suffers genetic disease in the dark dramedy The Madness of King George (1994); Crazy Love (2007), the true story of a tumultuous tabloid relationship in 1950s New York; Jupiter's Wife (1994), a real-life look at delusion and homelessness.

Part III, "Horrors: When the Mind Goes Very, Very Wrong," can be found here.

Posted by ahillis at 10:52 AM | Comments (2)

September 1, 2009

Minds In Progress: Mental Illness in American Cinema

By Simon Augustine, M.Div

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest INTRODUCTION

Moviegoers and Madmen

Men are more interested in what they see when dreaming than what they see when awake.
- Diogenes

The movie theater is a miniature mental asylum. A temporary home made of cushioned seats (and padded, sound-proof walls) for the bereft, the dazed, the longing, the beautiful losers; men and women who need images almost as much as they need real people.

Maybe that explains why some of the most iconic and compelling characters in American cinematic history are those who embody madness in one of its many forms; like we moviegoers who watch and live vicariously through these fictional people, the characters themselves struggle with a relationship between reality and image, trying to find a fulcrum between the outside world and imagination: Randall P. McMurphy, irreverent would-be savior of "The Cuckoo’s Nest;" Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, deranged stalker/fan par excellance, "hobbling" her favorite author in Stephen King’s Misery; Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, "god’s lonely man," dangerous dreamer, epitome of urban social alienation; Dr. Hannibal Lecter, fascinating in his genius brand of cannibalistic insanity; or Sally Field as Sybil, bringing the complexity and pathos of multiple personality disorder to national consciousness. And the list goes on...

These are the rebels and sufferers of delusion who buck the system, fight against the status quo, or terrorize the neighborhood; the pin-ups of our hearts; quintessential American (anti-)heroes who dramatically attempt to change reality, either in the streets or in their minds—with consequences of chaos, societal upheaval, or a measure of personal healing. And who among us has not walked into a theatre in hopes of changing ourselves by seeing something new, by dreaming with assistance, understanding our identity through fresh images and the words of unreal people? We watch the crazy-brave on the screen to measure our lives and minds against their thoughts and deeds; and with a unique sense of self-reflexive grandeur and paranoid fondness for the power of The Image that only movies bestow on us—we the believers so skilled at a suspension of disbelief—we suspect that perhaps our heroes and villains of semi-reality are watching us too, making sure we are sufficiently moved by their efforts.

MiseryBy describing three primary modes of how films portray mental illness—the dramatic, horrific, and comic—we can begin to name a Hall of Fame of the Mad, men and women littering the hallways, hospitals, and imaginary chambers of our shared American asylum with fevered brains and uncanny insights. But first, a brief detour for some philosophical considerations about the relationship between our minds and the movies...

The Mind and the Movie Screen

Think about how a film works on our minds when we enter the darkness: presented with a series of convincing and absorbing images, sounds, and performances, we are enraptured by a simulation of reality so powerful it produces genuine emotional and visceral reactions. The artificial produces something actual. The irony and paradox of the movie screen: a coordinated and intricate construction that by means of a skilled combination of elements—sets, makeup, actors, special effects—manages to affect both transportation from reality while also eliciting seemingly very real emotion, self-examination, and insight among its audience.

A group of strangers pay admittance to watch a flickering series of make-believe situations together, until moved to tears, screams, or feelings indisputably authentic in some sense. An odd set of circumstances. The "magic" of the movies, a true sorcery. But also, pardon the expression, kind of nuts, too. There they are: crying, yelling, anticipating, not because of another person immediately before them, or a direct situation, but because of a screen; something that in a fundamental sense is not really there. You might be persuaded to think these people freaking out because of mere images and sounds are suffering an unusual pathology of some kind.

From one perspective, they are sitting in an empty room, reacting to nothing at all. Like madmen.

Yet once the lights go back on and the street beckons, an audience carries an encounter with the illusory out of the realm of the unreal into the external world, to use it there in some fashion; to see a facet of reality more clearly, more empathetically, with greater intensity. They are truly changed. Maybe not so loony after all.

Sybil This strange dynamic between mind and media parallels the way a person undergoing mental illness interacts with productions of her own mind. Encountering a complex of thoughts and mental images, the mental patient has difficulty separating what is "real"—in the sense of what serves as connective tissue to the people, situations, and feelings in the context of his or her life—from what is the "sound and fury" of the mind’s tyranny: its anxiety converted to static, terror turned into white noise, a fun house of distorting mirrors, whispered lies and secret passages harbored to delay painful contours of the outside world and truths of heart. (The patient experiences false "visions:" in a figurative sense—as in neurosis; or in a literal sense, i.e. schizophrenic auditory and visual hallucinations) With psychotherapy, medicine, meditation, etc.—the patient struggles to distinguish authentic "images," i.e. conceptual structures successfully containing (importing and exporting) feeling, meaning and viable relation to surrounding situation and circumstances, from what are the more delusional, misleading, merely defensive elements on the mind’s "screen."

During treatment, patients (verbally) project defunct or destructive images holding them prisoner into the therapeutic space between themselves and a psychotherapist (or God, or a spiritual principle, or the wisdom and confrontational beauty of art or scholarship)—the space across which "transference" is conducted. Once this "mind-movie" gets "out of the head," manifested into malleable form, patient and therapist perform a psychological interrogation on these images and the stories they tell—about emotional content, relationship dynamics etc.—to reveal inappropriate or misshapen barriers lurking there. In effect, the patient makes a psychological movie, a projection of something illusory, and puts it into the actual world, in front of the therapist, so its delusional aspects can be separated from those aspects indicating the patient’s humanity, clarity, capability of being alive, "in touch," free, and open. By deduction and inference, patients use the delusional aspects of their images to inversely distinguish what is profound and real in them; the illusory is fuel by which the confused and lost can locate their own authenticity; the soil in which the seeds of freedom and release grow. The patient’s humanity has deformed its guiding images; the same humanity can transform them. The real has, in the mind’s echo chamber, become artificial; under the grinding chains of thought and fear it has lost substance and utility, and so must be converted back to the real. That is, from cyclical mental chatter to true relationship with Self and others.

Conversely, a movie audience willfully enters realms of the illusory, a suspension of usual laws of disbelief and reason, to use images found there in order to become "more sane": to experience life more authentically and passionately. In this case, however, the difference between what is illusory and what is real is implicitly acknowledged from the outset, so moviegoers can indulge within a controlled context in the productive, upsetting, and inspiring influence of images. In effect, they are seduced by promise of a "safe-word" hallucination: get a touch of fever and recover... Mental patients, meanwhile, have a harder task: they enter the realm of images in order to learn a more necessary and penultimate distinction: i.e. simply between what is actually an image and what is not. They attempt to understand and trust what the movie audience already knows.

Dr. Hannibal Lector Both parties share a use of images and stories to move farther toward reality, albeit from different "directions:" movie audiences jump easily from real to illusory and back again; the ill patient, in order to journey from illusory to authentic, examine the images and stories holding them captive (and captivated) to latch onto healthy, "grounded" elements demonstrated by distortions found there, in hopes they may exit the theatre altogether. Picture yourself watching a movie screen: you want to peer deeply into, and get lost in, its immersive tapestry of elements, its inner and relative logic. An ill mind too has an inner, hidden logic; in this case, however, healing means dissembling rather than reinforcing its governing laws. Trapped in the flattened, disorienting confines of a set of two dimensional psychological mirages, "too much in the play," the patient tries to get "off the screen" back into the theatre, the fully dimensional world, where you comfortably sit and watch. A damaged psyche pulls itself out of the quicksand of sickness by transforming what has made it ill in the first place: the quality of its images and concepts. Both activities, film-going and therapy, are thoroughly creative acts.

Relations between people and images are potent. After making love, spiritual release, artistic creation, or altruism, watching movies qualifies for many of us as the most pleasurable activity on earth. Like church or meditation hall, the movie theatre is a sacred temple; a microcosmic concentration of those processes by which our Self deliberates about its own identity. (In other words, you ain’t paying ten bucks just for the explosions, son.)

Whether the affliction is relatively mild, as with those who visit a therapist’s office for weekly "tune-ups," or debilitating enough to necessitates hospitalization, illness means being disconnected from our "human reality:" the mobile, reflexive locus of psychological and spiritual needs, desires, and potential that define the human organism: the pithy, nodal core of emotional substance, an indice of vulnerability and striving to which everyone is susceptible and from out of which everyone is in the process of moving toward change, growth, or transcendence.

The Demon Sensationalism

"Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous... the demon is a liar... but he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological..."
- Father Merrin, The Exorcist

"Here we are now / entertain us."
- Kurt Cobain

The ExorcistWhether you are a psychotherapist treating a patient, or a film documenting mental illness, your job requires an ambitious understanding of what it means to be essentially human. Humanity in action—beautiful and horrible—calls for a mature, adult, brave, sober, wise, realistic and conscientious understanding of how people function, suffer, and thrive in circumstances of everyday living; a willingness to eschew judgment, put aside the inveterate joys of ridicule, condescension, and smugness, if only for the time and space required to consider a piece of art, news story, or a conversation with someone else. If the possibility of healing consists of a rigorous attention to this core "human reality," then misdirection away from it is where sensationalism enters the picture. The demon of sensationalism: the worst collective neuroses of our era, whereby art and media (or their bastard conflation) creates images designed not to connect us to ourselves or others, but teach us to dissociate from our own humanity—that is, to dehumanize its subject matter.

Sensationalism is the dark cousin of movie magic. Its benign forms—camp, satire, exploitation as tongue-in-cheek thrill ride—do not necessarily de-humanize, because they make us transparently aware of their purposes. Cancerous forms of sensationalism (presented as meaningful information, as "news," but creating misleading images in spite of surface intention) threaten to make true things we see into a freak show, a jester destined for vicarious thrills, instead of providing us with higher attractions on the marquee: edification and empathy. When we sensationalize we seek to escape ourselves by distorting others. Basically, a masturbatory mode: not a relation between viewer and subject building affinity and interconnection like a love affair, but a shallow use of images for instant gratification without lasting meaning. Portrayals of mental illness can be dangerous because they are acutely susceptible to sensationalized distortions; in this case society, not the mentally ill, becomes pathological in regard to its image-making.

Take Capturing the Friedmans, a 2003 documentary about the disintegration of a family after father and son are accused of child molestation. No matter how tragic and unsavory the topic, we may start out watching such films looking for a little cursory schadenfreude. Inevitably, however, a moment comes when we pass a threshold, trading the sleazy payoffs of pity for seeing people authentically: not merely as symbols, but scarred human beings, capable of terrible violence but nevertheless suffering or victimized by abuse themselves. In these cases, I can’t help feel my initial intentions of voyeurism seem a bit shameful in hindsight. Sometimes you just want to relax, eat popcorn, and watch the riveting ruination of lives; but it doesn’t always work out that way.

Part II, "Dramas (and Documentaries): Sanity Is Not the Opposite of Vibrancy," can be found here.

Posted by ahillis at 11:47 AM | Comments (1)