Wednesday, January 29, 2014

12 Years a Slave, Best picture of the Year

12 Years a Slave deserves best pic (and the Golden Globes thought so, too) if only to hold a mirror to the USA so we never forget (like the Germans teaching the Holocaust). It is a British director, Steve McQueen (who won New York Film Critics Circle’s Best director for this film) who must tell us Solomon Northrup/Platt’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor, of Kinky Boots, Children of Men) story. The film depicts Northrup’s autobiographical account, published in 1853, of his kidnapping, in 1841, and what he survived after being sold into Southern slavery.

Friends told me this movie was hard to watch. With the exception of the flogging of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), I did not find it so. The triumph of Northrup’s determination to “live” not just survive in order to return to his wife and children is strongly woven throughout the film. While we are not privy to whatever survival guilt or PTSD Northrup subsequently suffered, we know that a strong family and community connection had immunized him enough to allow him to move the Abolitionist movement forward for a nation oblivious to its shame. In addition to seeing  people treated like property, raped, beaten,  and eerily forced to dance for the merriment of their slaveowners, also horrifying to me was slave owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) reading scripture to family and slaves alike while the film narrative juxtaposes slaves being beaten and murdered.  

For those who avoided this film to save themselves from the painful truth of this nation’s shame, I urge you to see it for it is a beautiful film about the human spirit and the power of love for family and freedom. I often tear up watching films, but this film brought me to frank crying (with joy). There are also  excellent performances from Sarah Paulson and Michael Fassbinder, and cameos from Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti.

Like 12 Years a Slave (see 1-28-14 post) American Hustle turns a mirror on the USA, but American Hustle is a mere needle biopsy whereas 12 Years a Slave is the full body MRI showing a pernicious and widespread cancer in American history. David Denby of The New Yorker called American Hustle the best movie of the year but asks if it is an important movie.  While American Hustle depicts the real life Abscam affair it is so farcical that we forget this is a slice from history. Director David O. Russell (The Fighter; Silver Linings Playbook) and the superb acting of Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale,  Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner make this film highly entertaining even while it is difficult to empathize or identify with such a group of con artists and self serving sociopaths (politicians and FBI agents) , including those who think they work for the common good.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Age of Loneliness and Despair: Gravity

In this age of income disparity, with its escalating vitiation of communal responsibility, there is the sense that each of us is left to fend for herself. So, too, it is for Mission Specialist Ryan [“Dad wanted a boy”] Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity, one of the nominations for best pic. I have yet to see all of this year’s nine nominations, but I would be deeply disappointed if this film took the prize. Co-written and directed (winner of Golden Globe) by Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men; Y Tu Mama, Tambien; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), I found Gravity a tad tedious despite its vertiginous (think amusement park rides) special effects (CGI supervisor Tim Webber) and breathtaking views of earth from space (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki). Alone in space, Stone finds herself confronting one perfunctory crisis after another leaving little time for the audience to come to know the texture of her inner life. Perhaps we can, in this graceless age, no longer fathom, or bear, texture—Inside Llewyn Davis was passed over after all—and must be distracted from it. 

We do, however, come to know Stone’s mettle. Debris [motto: don’t litter] fallout, has put the astronauts in peril, and George Clooney, I mean Matthew Kowalsky, keeps Stone calm with small talk, their voices and the tenuous umbilicus, their only connection. There is a single moment of humor: “it’s not rocket science.” 

 Making it inside the space station capsule, disencumbered of her space suit, Stone floats in her underwear (remember Sigourney Weaver in Alien) like a joyful dancer, like a fetus in the womb. Was Stone’s favorite thing in space-- “the silence” --cavalier, or meant to foreshadow irony? Now all alone, lonelier  than Twombley in Her (see 1-21-14 post), the memory of human connection is strong, and Stone uses the voice of her mentor to soldier on.

My favorite scene is when she picks up a signal from earth and almost luxuriates in hearing again another human voice. But it is, like an unresponsive and unrecognizing mother, unable to hear her, and it is in a foreign tongue. She considers her imminent death, and the tragedy is that no one will mourn her. She even wishes to hear again what neighbors find so annoying, the barking of dogs. Most poignant is her recognition of a lullaby to sooth a crying baby.  She awakens to the hallucination of Kowalsky with new found determination. For a moment we hope Kowalsky is real—our own terror of being alone? Kowalsky is the voice in her head, the constant object, the good mother, that therapists strive to evoke. The music swells [please!] and we see Bullock’s sweet, pale, determined face. 

The viewer is ecstatic for her when she contacts [motto: have your fire extinguisher ready] the Chinese space station. On reentry, again the music swells [OMG, really?]. When she finally makes it to earth, emerging from the water like the first creature from the primordial ooze to stand heavily on land, we do not think about the inevitable osteoporosis and, worse, PTSD: the life threatening situation, the survival guilt, the sight of Sharif’s head blown out while the photo of his family hovers.

Is the only attachment en utero, after which we are forever alone? 

“…that’s why we keep talking, somebody might be listening” and it is “scary as shit, being untethered up here.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Academy Nominee: Her. From the paranoid-schizoid position, one mistakes the part for the whole.

Taking the bad with the good can be a daunting task for many of us. How do we sustain a relationship with a fully breathing and embodied other who is a subject in her own right, and, consequently, sometimes carelessly indifferent to our needs and desires? Doesn’t the ideal mother always have an ear out, answer our cries, come when we call? But who is such a woman? Gergely, Beebe, and others have shown that affective matching needs to be less than perfect, in the same direction but, for example, of varied intensity. In Spike (Being John Malkovich; Where the Wild Things Are) Jonze’s Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin, Phoenix) does not have to deal with variations in matching, for after his failed marriage, his new love Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson) is the sci-fi futuristic, artificial intelligence operating system— light years beyond Siri— whose exponentially evolving consciousness and access to unlimited data and permutations, can tailor her responses to his needs. A quirky love story between man and ‘machine’ this is a profoundly disturbing and alluring film— high praise. Like many films nominated this year, this one is about loneliness

Creepy is Samantha’s insidious invasion (think NSA) of Theodore’s computer’s contents (inner workings). Creepier still are this film’s street scenes which show pedestrians engaged, not with other humans, but always with their technological devices. Even couples operate in parallel play, beside the other but without interchange with one another. A few decades ago, this behavior of engaging objects (here I mean things, not metapsychological internal representations) over human beings would be viewed as indicative of profound interpersonal disturbance. Now it is commonplace. Does our profession have to re-think our diagnostic manual, as we did about homosexuality? Is this all the intimacy we can muster, all the satisfaction we dare desire? Did technology lead to isolation and loneliness? Does a sense of alienation draw us to technology? Or some of both?

And I thought guys were supposed to be visual— hence Playboy and internet porn, not simply the failsafe for lonely and lubricious men too inept to deal with a real (whole) woman, but likewise ever ready even for those who have forged a relationship but whose real women are otherwise unavailable or disinterested. So how does Theodore settle for a disembodied voice, even one as appealing as Johansson’s?  While technology is changing how we interact with one another, there seems in Her to be little change from what heterosexual men dream of their fantasized women. Most disturbing about Her is this lack of evolving enlightenment in sexual politics, specifically the way men conceive of the desired ideal woman. Techno-geeks are more likely to be men, I suppose, but even an artificial intelligent simulation of a woman is not, in the this future, very enlightened.  Old stereotypes prevail. The ideal woman for some heterosexual men is still the Madonna, and Samantha’s motherboard is initially ideal in her maternal-infant matching of affect, her encouragement, and availability. Theodore (“God’s gift”…apparently not to women) fails to negotiate Samantha’s burgeoning, albeit artificial, subjectivity. If a film protagonist must eschew the subjectivity of his woman, I preferred Lars and the Real Girl.

Theodore, a writer of deeply romantic love letters, pouring out, in de Bergerac fashion, heartfelt sentiment on behalf of others, cannot seem to love a real woman (his failed marriage) nor can he love a virtual one. Both Samantha’s ‘desire’ for greater connection, and her desire for a world beyond Theodore’s, threaten him. She evolves in nanoseconds. [I am reminded of a quote from Somerset Maugham, “We are not the same person this year as last nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.”] Is one backlash to feminism’s changing of the American landscape that men should not date a woman more intelligent, for things will end badly?  Human relationships are hard enough. I would feel completely defeated if a machine broke my heart.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Kleinian Positions

Besides elaborating for us the concept of projective identification (see post of May 16, 2011) Klein proposed two positions—not stages (she saw stages as linearly placed, kept in the past once this phase was traversed and returned to via regression). Positions, on the other hand, are interminably available, and can move into background or foreground throughout the lifespan. The positions are the Paranoid-Schizoid Position and the Depressive Position. When one operates in the paranoid-schizoid position, the defense of splitting predominates. In the depressive position, integration— the capacity to see differing aspects simultaneously—operates.

Developmentally, before a child has integrated that one person can have good and bad aspects, the child’s perceptions are split: There is a good mommy who gratifies and soothes and a bad mommy who frustrates and frightens. This compartmentalization is a function of immature cognitive development but psychologically serves to ‘protect’ the good object from feelings felt toward the bad object. An unfortunate carry over in adults is when we judge a part of a person (a misstep, a behavior, an attitude), mistaking it for the entirety of a person’s character, as if it is the whole person. (‘You pissed me off or disagree with me so you are scum or stupid, even evil.’) Racism, sectarian violence, misogyny work this way, evacuating and disavowing from ourselves any unacceptable trait or thought that we must disown.

Once a child recognizes that the mother contains multiple, even contradictory, aspects in one  whole, both good and bad, two important things happen: the good aspect of the object is seen as capable of injury such that remorse, guilt and reparation may ensue; and the object is no longer seen as under the omnipotent control of the infant. Both guilt and loss of omnipotence can be ‘depressing’ to the infant.

Intersubjective theory advocates for striving to balance between both positions, including experiencing ourselves as both subjects and objects. In treatment, we alternate between seeing ourselves and our patients as subjects and objects. The less rigidly one holds to either position the more self-reflective one can be, and the more empathy one can develop.