Fake Signing at the Mandela Memorial


In Act I, Scene 4, of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1593), the Earls of Mortimer and Lancaster debate whether Edward’s detested low-born lover, Gaveston, should be brought back from exile. The return has been proposed to reconcile the besotted king with his angry peers. Lancaster bitterly opposes it; the wily Mortimer, his eye on the crown, counters once Gaveston in in London, he can be quickly dispatched by some anonymous assassin to the general rejoicing of court and country, without any blame falling upon the nobility.

LANCASTER: Ay, but how chance this was not done

MORTIMER: Because, my lord, it was not thought upon.

The exchange has always seemed odd, comprising an anbsolutely unexpected “duh” moment in the midst of Marlowe’s sumptuous poetry. It also contains a potent, if mundane truth.
History is strewn with calamities which stem from staggering disregard for dire consequences lying in plain sight, yet perversely “not thought upon”. One example amongst the multitude: France’s defense against the German invasion of its borders in 1944 hinged upon a “Maginot Line” of powerful fixed fortifications. It was regarded as a work of supreme military genius. But the Germany army simply swept around the Line into Belgium and the Low Countries, to conquer France in six weeks. “Duh” indeed.

Flash foward sixty years: at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesberg on December 12, one Thamsanqa Jantjie stood a scary heartbeat away from world leaders (Barack Obama included), high South African government officials, other notables and the Mandela family. Jantjie was tasked to sign the event to hearing impaired people in attendance and watching throughout the world.

During the long ceremony, as different languages were spoken (including African dialects), Jantjie’s gesticulations were curiously stilted, varying little from one speaker to the next. His face, often raised to the heavens, remained impassive; utterly devoid of the expressive play which fleshes out the play of hands in every deaf signing system.

Complaints from the local and worldwide deaf community quickly flooded the internet. It was obvious that Jantjie was performing a private pantomine of outlandish gibberish. One surmises that some listeners in the audience would have been apprized of the cock-up. But Jantjie kept up his bizarre performance, with not a finger raised to give him the hook.

Jantjie blames his aberrant behavior on an attack of schizophrenia, in which he saw angels hovering about the stage. Apparently he has been treated for past episodes; and got himself hospitalized a few days after the memorial service.

It turned out that schizophrenia had also been invoked on several occasions of alleged criminal behavior – including attempted murder – since the mid-1990s. Each time, he was judged unfit to be prosecuted by virtue of mental illness. In one television interview, available on YouTube, he appears quite lucid, shows no psychotic stigmata. In fairness this isn’t conclusive proof that he was not delusional at the memorial.

Jantjie claims his credentials are impeccable; states that he has signed before other events without incident. His qualifications have yet to be ascertained. The interpreting firm that hired him out possibly has intimate ties to the ruling ANC party, and so far has not responded to ‘phone calls. At the TV interview, he was asked to demonstrate his signing competence, but testily refused on dubious grounds.

Government officials have yet to offer a satisfactory explanation as to how Jantjie got to crash the party. The predictable investigation is being undertaken. Its conclusions are not likely to be known soon. At this writing the only certainty amidst the swirl of uncertainty is that some agency and/or individual did not properly vet Jantje. Apparently “it was not thought upon” that he might sully this solemn occasion so flagrantly, and also pose a terrifying security threat.

One submits that the Jantjie affair is yet another example of humanity’s timeless obliviousness to one or another glaringly obvious potential for crisis, with dire or merely risible consequences. One wonders if this chuckleheaded disregard is hardwired into our genome. Down through the ages, it has afflicted brilliant minds as well as those with little wit; politicians, generals, and the average Jane or Joe.

Our profession is hardly immune. During my Bellevue residency, a patient in a trichotillomania study was a successful, apparently well put together borderline woman. In those green and salad days, I was blissfully unaware that a high-functioning facade could mask serious borderline pathology, and overzelous to break new research ground. I failed to recognize that my patient was gradually becoming unglued, as I probed relentlessly into her history. Fortunately, an astute supervisor counselled that I was undermining her fragile defenses. She returned to her previous tranquil state once I gentled up my approach.

Today as never before, we labor under formidable pressures to spend ever less time purely listening to our clients without rushing to judgement The problem stems from – inter alia – the incursions of ill-Managed Care, the shift from an analytically-oriented/supportive paradigm to biological and cognitive interventions; the prevailing yen of our age for therapeutic quick fixes.

If anything is to be taken by clinicians from the Johannesberg debacle, it’s that we must be even more mindful of distress and despair which can easily elude a quickstep march through DSM-V criteria. Like Poe’s purloined letter, profound sorrow may lie in plain sight under one’s clinical gaze – but not yet “thought upon”.

orginially published on Psychiatric Times http://www.psychiatrictimes.com

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Bully, a film directed by Lee Hirsch.

At one time, it was received truth that a documentary comprised the obverse of the Hollywood fiction feature. By its very nature, the documentary discovered the world, whatever world, as it ‘really’ was. The idea documentian, from this perspective, was like a Taoist master:
an absolute neutral, like purest water reflecting back to the viewer only what his camera beheld.

Of course, this is purest balderdash. Much as a documentarian consciously strives to efface his persona, the work will inevitabloy be shaped by one or another subjective bias. Not necessarily a bad thing:

Robert Flaherty’s film of Eskimo life in his iconic Nanook of the North
is inflected by his Anglo perspective, but it remains a craftworthy, deeply affecting film. On the other hand, ignoble bias, conscious or otherwise, has tainted excellent work. Leni Riefenstahl’s stunning capture of athletic power and grace in Olympiad, her account of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics is undermined by the fascist mentality which is so odiously blatant in Triumph of the Will, her depiction of the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party rally.

Contemporary documentarians do not shy away from declaring personal and political biases. Two schools have emerged in this regard. One features the directors’ active presence. Errol Morris’ gentle off-camera questions are heard throughout his films. His unvarying discretion is a tool which renders his revelation of unsettling truths all the more powerful.

In The Thin Blue Line, his relentless inquiry into police and prosecuturial bungling freed the innocent victim from execution, and lead to the conviction of the real murderer. In The Fog of War, under Morris’ gentle probing, a tearful Robert McNamara disclosed his culpability in our Viet Nam debacle.

Michael Moore is an unabashed in-your-face polemicist. In Roger and I, his provocative encounters with General Motor executives enabled a scorching exposure of the corporation’s despicable prizing of profitability over protecting a devoted Flint, Michigan work force from destitution. But as Moore himself has become a leftist poster-boy, his films are increasingly married by his trademark intrusiveness gone hyperbolic. The director now often seems to fancy his own fastidiously messy persona as much his subject, as the venal establishment under his attack.

In the other major current documentary trend, the maker’s maintains a deliberate unobtrusiveness. The film is free of an ‘omnipotent’ narrator, whose God-like pronouncements actually distances the viewer from the subject. Here, the material alone speaks the message. Images and sounds may be real, staged, or a combination of both. This ‘cinema verite’ practise is commonly traced back to Fifties and Sixties indie and documentary cinema, here and abroad (France, notably). However, one discovers verite techniques in Riefenstahl’s sinister craft, and even further back in the silent era, e.g. in Jean Vigo’s hilarious send-up of the idle rich in his 1923 short A Propos De Nice.

Fredrick Wiseman is the old master of American documentary verite, still at work today (he says he doesn’t like the verite label, because it’s too neutral from his engaged – and quietly enraged – political perspective. His 1967 debut, The Titicut Follies, exposed the scarifying milieu of a Massachussetts hospital for the criinally insane. Since then, he’s exquisitely investigated institutional practises and relationships of – inter alia – a high school, hospital, ballet company, welfare agency, and legislature. His cool but always compassionate vision has shaped important pictures like Hoop Dreams (Steve James’ 1994 moving account of inner-city ‘teen pro-basketball hopefuls), and Grey Gardens (the Mayles’ brothers 1975 tragi-comic portrayal of folie-a-deuxed mother/daughter socialites, descended into desparate circumstances.

Director/producer Lee Hirsh brings Wiseman’s engaged politics and documentary strategies to his new docuemntary, Bully. It explores the endemic persecution of the hapless weak by their largely unrepentant oppressors in American schools. Hirsch also exposes the frequent crass, if unwitting, sanction of bullying by the very school officials mandated to protect present victims and protect future harm. His courage in address this immense and still largely ignored issue is admirable; his commitment to its eradication absolute. But he doesn’t own nearly enough of Wiseman’s expertise at the vocabulary of documentary argument to stroke a viewer head-on, as with the astonishing rawnes of The Titicut Follies. Of which, more presently.

Hirsch advances his arguments via the actual and narrated experiences of five victims, their families and associates, all from working- to middle-class backgrounds. Two youngsters are already dead by their own hands as the film begins, so others must speak of, and for them. Alex is a socially awkward Iowa middle-schooler, unrelentingly ridiculed as ‘fishface’. Kelby had a bright athletic and scholastic future at her Oklahoma high school, until she bravely left the closet. Now most kids – and, incredibly, some teachers – ridicule her openly, while her once widely admired family is being wrenchingly shunned by their community, fellow churchmembers included. Ja’Maya, a shy Mississippi ‘teen, was so mortified by savage schoolbus taunting that she took a gun onboard to threaten her perseuctors, and was promptly thrown in jail.

In classic verite mode, Bully has no narration. Hirsch deliberately – and to my mind wisely – avoids the usual parade of expert talking heads, who spout mind-numbing stats; cite uncertain causes; and recommend contradictory or unworkable solutions. The viewer’s conclusions will be drawn from what Virginia Wool called ‘the cotton wool of everyday life’: from establishing shots of the various small town and city locales; from what young and older characters say and do; at home, in typical schoolday milieus – buses, classrooms, lunchrooms, recess yards; hallways; offices); at community meetings; public protests – and, tragically, at funerals.

As far as I could determine, there was no hidden camera surreptitiously gathering evidence. Bullies are in plain sight. Most don’t appear particularly villainous away from their nasty business. One is struck by how native bullying is, not just to the perpetrators, but to most of the kids who stand by as neutrals, or participate vicariously: a pencil-poke or passing slap here; a vicious insult there. Even more painful is the passivity of the bullied. They’ve obviously learned to go along to get along, and avoid worse.mars

orginially published on Psychiatric Times http://www.psychiatrictimes.com

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Multiplex Mayhem

I’ve always savored a movie theater’s magical cocooning—that ineffable sense of being whisked away from mundane reality into the film’s seductive realm. Snuggled into your seat like a swaddled babe, your safety seems implicit. It’s utterly unimaginable that danger could ever be lurking in that enchanted darkness – except for the people on the screen.

Sure, characters can be machine-gunned by mobsters, drowned in an upside-down ocean liner, or disintegrated by alien death-rays. But aren’t they actors, and isn’t being killed occasionally part of their job?

Movie violence has become more brutal over the last 50 years. Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) paved the way. The director’s grisly slaughter of a major star like Janet Leigh halfway through the story (how could it be believed?!) terrified viewers as never before. Vicarious carnage steadily escalated thereafter. As a result, we may be more disposed to writhe in our seats—but we still stay put. Our faith that we can be frightened, but never actually harmed at the Multiplex remained inviolable.

One would have thought this illusion of invulnerability would be exploded when a shooter invaded an Aurora, Colorado theater on July 20, 2012. The assassin emptied a powerful shotgun, then a semi-automatic into the audience waiting to watch The Dark Knight Rises. Twelve were killed, 70 others wounded.

Afterwards, media talking heads blamed vicious videogames, or barbaric movies for the slaughter. Yet neither before nor after Aurora has there been one piece of statistically valid research proving that even a single murder was incited by a violent videogame or film.

The possibility that the shooter was afflicted with mental illness that went undetected because of systemic failure was also pondered. He still keeps silent about his motives, probably on legal advice. So we cannot know at this time to what extent—or indeed if—he was deranged.

Despite another interminable round of debate about gun control, no viable legislation has yet to be passed. Indeed, gun sales have risen. Continuing gargantuan box office successes would seem to indicate that viewers still feel as safe in theaters as theaters as they do at home. One surmises they consider the bloodbath at Aurora a spectacular one-off.

The industry’s only discernible response was desultory safety training for movie personnel.

On December 12, 2013, shortly after a training session at the Grove 16 theater in Wesley Chapel, Florida, Curtis Reeves, Jr. killed Chad Oulsen with one shot from a .380 semi-automatic handgun. The shooting occurred during matinee previews. Reeves allegedly objected to Oulsen’s text-messaging. (It turned out that Oulsen was checking in with his daughter’s baby-sitter.) Reeves’ attorney invoked Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” statute – claiming that his client acted in self-defense after Oulsen had bombarded him with popcorn. The court rejected this repellant balony. Reeves currently is awaiting adjudication behind bars. Reeves is a 71-year- old retiree; a former Tampa police captain; then a security chief at Busch Gardens. He is described as a devoted husband and father, and a church-going good neighbor. Oulsen was a naval veteran, a hard working husband father, generally beloved, who never owned a gun.

The media has been odiously sharking through Reeves’ past for psychological “issues.” Apparently he was a bit authoritarian on a few occasions, but that’s neither a felony nor a misdemeanor. Nor was he a devotee of violent amusements. He allegedly denounced someone else for text messaging a week or so before the Grove 16 shooting.

Like the Aurora shooter, Reeves has disappeared into the criminal justice system, so we are unlikely to hear more about him soon. Whatever else motivated or disinhibited him, I wonder if this latest homicidal eruption in a user-friendly communal space comprises an extreme example of a gradual erosion of the social contract that has beset our nation.

In small towns and big cities alike, one encounters less of that agreeable American willingness to get along in order to get along. Too often, common courtesy is replaced by rank rudeness. Congenial resolution of individual grievances is frequently supplanted by the taking of great affront on small provocation. Not that long ago, Reeves might have expressed his disapproval about Oulsen’s texting more rationally and listened to his explanation more reasonably.

However, the chief cause of these outrages in civic places continues to be the staggering national arsenal of guns, frequently lying close at hand. As an ex-cop and security officer, carrying a weapon may have been second nature to Reeves. But did he need to bring his revolver to the movies? Did he even have to own it after retiring? Without it, Reese might have treated Oulsen more peaceably, or merely shouted his objections.

I researched purchase of a .380 semi-automatic over the internet. One website offered it “dirt cheap.” Another chillingly analyzed its disadvantages and merits. While the .380 was judged less powerful than, say, a Colt 45, it was commended for easily being concealed. One was also assured that close up to one’s target, it would “get the job done.”

Reeves got the job done.

Movies continue to draw banner crowds. Once again, it appears that the Florida shooting is perceived as just another one-off. Ever higher ticket prices may ultimately scare off audiences. . . but not an occasional homicide.

orginially published on Psychiatric Times http://www.psychiatrictimes.com

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Hail Caesar!

caesarSid Caesar died on February 12, at 91. From 1950 through 1954, he starred on NYC-TV’s Saturday evening Your Show of Shows. Previous variety programming relied heavily on vaudeville antecedents. A banana-peel laugh rioteer like Milton Berle performed broad slapshtick in the midst of an omnium gatherum of acrobats, animal acts, anemic tenors, and second string hoofers.

Your Show of Shows had its share of stock variety material. But its enormous popularity stemmed from a comic vision with a scope and originality unprecedented in the medium. On any given Saturday night, one would howl through send-ups of marital woes in the ‘burbs; or foibles in the workplace; wicked parodies of bathetic reality weepfasts like This Is Your Life, or Italian neo-realist cinema; sidesplitting pantomimes and barmy monologues on anything or everything by a daft German professor. There was a dash of slapshtick bufoonery, too, raised to absurdist Dada-esque altitude.

Your Show of Shows was ably produced by Max Liebman, but Caesar was always its presiding genius, master crafter and player in skits, monologues and pantomimes. The most famous of the latter was a frenetic one man, all parts depiction of a World War I aerial combat duel.

caesar220px-Coca_caesar_your_show_of_shows_1952He was supported by a cornucopia of comic talent. Notables in his madcap fellowship were the rubber-faced Imogene Coca and dimunitive Howard Morris. His writing stable included Carl Reiner (who also acted), Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and Larry Gelbardt.

All went on to become legends in theater, film, and TV. Spurred by Caesar’s prodigious gifts, Your Show Of Shows provided the groundwork for Saturday Night Live, Annie Hall, Seinfeld, The Producers, and so much more. Incredibly, each show was assembled in several days with limited rehearsals and broadcast live.

Caesar not only pleasured millions . . . he helped me get through a reasonably tormented adolescence. One recurring skit particularly echoed the plight of being placed in the middle of my parents’ endless skirmishing: Caesar would find himself haplessly sandwiched between a battling couple (Reiner/Coca) in a movie theater, restaurant, or some other public locale.

The pair always ended up walking away hand in hand while Sid was left on the ground, dazed, his clothes in rags. It was my psyche rather than my wardrobe that often got shredded when I was elected parental peacemaker. Somehow I took perverse satisfaction in Caesar’s ability to endure every trashing by the gruesome twosome, and return next week for more – like the Road Runner’s tattered coyote.

The antics of Caesar and his wacky crew also inspired me to read James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, H. L. Mencken, and other sparkling wits of the day. Miraculously, I awakened to my own ability make people laugh. (In all fairness my parents’ quarrels were leavened by their own crackpot wit)

In high school I was a earnest lonely nerd – mocked by jocks, ego savaged by unrequited love for girls to whom I hadn’t spoken a word. Tutored by Caesar and his literary counterparts, I became the class clown; acknowledged—even admired—when my shenanigans got me tossed out of class and into detention.

I skipped my senior year; went directly to college at 16 on a Ford Foundation scholarship. Unfortunately the well-meaning experiment made no provision for planful mixing the klatch of immature “Fordies” with older students as well as Korean War vets. Once more I had become the dorky outsider. No wonder that I instantly identified with the gang of Animal House misfits I stumbled upon in the office of Jester, Columbia’s humor magazine. I honed my writing skills as I rose through Jester’s rowdy ranks, eventually becoming its editor.

Back in the day, that position could have launched a career in print journalism or in Hollywood. But I had become smitten with psychoanalysis – hadn’t Freud authored a terrific joke book? – and opted for medical school and psychiatry instead.

Subsequently I’ve blended practice with journalism. My speciality remains adolescent therapy. One needs considerable humor to withstand pubescent sturm und drang. Mutatis mutandis, many kids learned to deal with their angst by acquiring an ironic perspective in their work with me.

I haven’t written humor per se for years. The market for it has become terribly slim. But I hope my work in the “applied analysis” of cinema, media, and popular culture has not lacked wit. I’ve also been able to fight off my own occasional blues by re-viewing Sid and his merry crew on YouTube.

Caesar himself wasn’t so lucky. The audiences who savored his wit didn’t know that by his supremely successful 30s, he had become an infuriating self-loathing drunk and pill addict. His afflictions over several decades after Your Show of Shows crippled, then nearly destroyed, his career. His devoted wife of many years and his 3 children suffered for him and from him.

A prolonged Freudian analysis in the 50s was monumentally ineffective. Caesar’s fame, even as it declined, as well as his formidable denial made him avoid AA. Hospitalization dried him out, but relapses predictably followed. Several therapists did better than their orthodox predecessors, but he never really let them reach him. As far as one can determine, his drug regimen for a mood disorder (which possibly fueled his addictions) was hair of the dog, along with whatever sedative comprised the flavor of the day.

Caesar hit rock-bottom in the late 70s when he realized he was a few steps from suicide. So he traveled alone to his beloved Paris—presumably to take a relatively small role in a Peter Sellers movie, but really to heal himself through his own loopy version of gestalt therapy. He took a room at a quiet hotel where he tape recorded and listened to himself – actually himselves – for hours and sometime days at a time. “Sick” Sidney debated “healthy” Sid for both their souls. His autobiography* samples those dialogues, profoundly moving – are often funny as anything he ever did on Your Show of Shows.

Caesar’s idiosyncratic self-analysis freed him from substance abuse and stilled his personal demons. He became a health and fitness addict, lived an infinitely happier life for 35 more years. He performed nearly until the end, ever the consummate, reliable pro. But, poignantly, his work somehow never attained the xenith of wit he achieved on Your Show Of Shows.

Much print has been put to paper about the relationship between art and madness, between comedic talent and affective illness. Why the gift of great mirth so often co-exists with ravaging anguish in many comic geniuses remains a vexing question. Was the euthymic Caesar unable to reach the dizzy heights of the hypomanic Caesar? Or had years of addiction so bruised his brain as to simply rob him of his powers?

No matter, not now. Those 5 years of Your Show of Shows alone have won him a secure place in comedy’s pantheon as well as my heart. In Shakespeare’s words:

“Here was a Caesar.

Whence shall come another?”

orginially published on Psychiatric Times http://www.psychiatrictimes.com

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Pink Panther


(This piece was published as “BOND REVISITED, CLOUSEAU OBSERVED”, in FILM/PSYCHOLOGY REVIEW, Volume 4, #1, 1980, pp. 140-51.
My remarks then were prompted by the latest Inspector Clouseau film, THE REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER , released in 1979, and sixth in the Clouseau series. The latter began in 1963 with THE PINK PANTHER, a routine caper movie in which David Niven took the main role of a notorious international jewel thief. Clouseau played second banana to Niven. His maladroit character, portrayed by the inimitable Peter Sellers, quickly became popular with audiences, and a lucrative franchise followed.
The Bond oeuvre commenced in 1962 with DR. NO. Unlike the Clouseau films, the Bond franchise hit the ground running, its instant popularity stemming from Sean Connery’s witty impersonation and a caravanserai of special effects, exotic locales, and perennially nubile beauties. The latest, tenth Bond movie, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME was also released in 1979..
The following version has been edited slightly, but remains very much of its time, which embraced (inter alia) the Watergate cock-up, Richard Nixon’s malodorous presidency, and the seemingly endless Viet Nam conflict.)

At the end of Diamonds Are Forever, the pair of yobbos, who’ve tried unsuccessfully to kill James Bond throughout the film, are masquerading as waiters on a luxury liner. They are about to serve Bond and his latest pneumatic companion a lethal supper, when Bond sniffes out one of the assassins’ cologne. In a single fluid motion he douses him with cognac, sets him ablaze, trusses the partner to a ticking time-bomb between his legs, and pitches him overboard. All of this, detonation included, takes place in about ten seconds. Bond emerges without a scratch, his haberdashery dazzlingly intact.
In Revenge of the Pink Panther, Inspector Jacques Clouseau is being fitted for his latest egregiously obvious disguise. Comes a knock at the door; someone hands him a comic-strip anarchist’s bomb, sparking merrily away. Clouseau pitches it to the tailors with a mad howl. It detonates, destroying the entire store. Clouseau emerges with not a scratch, his wardrobe in smoking rags.

Autre temps, autre moers. Different times call forth different heroes. Conceive that Bond’s star rose throughout the Sixties. Although the sun continued setting over the British empire, the dollar was doing just fine, thank you very much, and all things seemed possible for the American imperium. One submits that Bond was essentially a Hollywood creation, Lalaland’s version of the omnipotential adolescent* – the kid who thinks he knows everything and can do anything.

Bond’s intellect and memory were prodigious for a man of mayhem. In a flash he could digest arcana about heraldry, the gold market, or laser weaponry. His reflexes were razor sharp, his courage unfaltering as he faced man-eating sharks or megalomanic madmen. He also shared the adolescent’s loopy blend of lofty idealism and rank narcissism, shifting dizzily between service to Queen and Country, and shameless self-indulgence with luscious babes, choice wines and baccarat.

Then came a cascando of assaults upon our nation’s most precious givens, including cheap gas: the Watergate scandal, the Viet Nam debacle, Nixon’s resignation and the downfall of the Holy Buck. It becomes more difficult to sustain belief in an sexy, omnipotent secret agent when E. Howard Hunt, supposedly one of the CIA’s best and brightest, is discovered skulking about the Watergate, disguised in a crimson fright wig. Bring on the clowns!
Et voila, Clouseau, the reverse of Bond’s medal. Clouseau, who affects a Bondish image, but whose omnipotent fantasies are consistently undone. Clouseau – who genuinely believes he knows everything – or the unrevealed will soon be illuminated by his consummate sleuthing. Yet it’s hilariously obvious that the man has the deductive powers of a gnat.

Like Bond, Clouseau is never at a loss for action. Bond grasps danger instantly and always does exactly the right thing with whatever means at hand to get out of a deadly jam. However, Clouseu is an impulse ridden flailer, an Harpo-like addict to the large muscle groups, strewing wreckage and ruin about him for the innocent and culpable alike.
Clouseau doesn’t lack courage, but it’s the foolhardy bravado of the two-year old who steps into a bustling thoroughfare, absolutely confident that his reality takes precedence over the traffic. Clouseau, too, usually prevails in the end, not through the exercise of intellect or karate; rather dumb luck, fate, karma, whatever.

Bond, who masters every hostile environment with consummate sang-froid, gives over to this stumbling boob, totally at the mercy of whatever perils he stumbles into – until dumb luck, fate, karma, whatever – prevails. However, Clouseau’s continuing survival is predicated on external caprice, sheer whims of fate, .Yet, in an ancient and great comic tradition he remains God’s fool, absurdly confident in the grandiose delusion of his omnipotence.

A note on Oedipal intimations. The potent, gentlemanly Bond betrays little personal competitiveness or will to power within Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He affects a rebellious posture, but in the crunch he remains absolutely obedient to the directives of his acerb chief, “M”. The applied analyst speculates that this “M” worship – which is quite clear in the novel – is founded on an Oedipal compromise. One notes that Bond is content to flirt, but never bed, Moneypenny, M’s gal Friday.**

Clouseau, on the other hand, is insatiably ambitious and fiercely competitive. His desire to supplant his boss, Dreyfus, as head of the Surete, has escalated with each Pink Panther movie. Meanwhile Dreyfus has mutated into an archetypal mad scientist like Dr. No, engaged in ever weirder schemes of world destruction in aid of eliminating his idiot ‘son’.)
Clouseau is utterly without Bond’s gentlemanly graces, a parvenu supreme. He fancies himself suave, magnetically attractive, while women regard him as a risible, gullible jackass.

T.S. Eliot wrote that:

Ambition comes when early force is spent
When all things are no longer possible…

The ever loyal, patriotic Bond, rather than act out Oedipal rivalry with M, projects unconscious patricidal intentions towards his surrogate father, “M”, upon the malignant foreign adversaries he dispatches so handily. Clouseau, on the other hand, is no devotee of Gallic gloire, and just as eager to dispatch Dreyfus as the latter is bent on slaughtering him.

In sum: Bond, a paragon of gentlemanly graces and selfless patriotism, a hero of unerring skill and exuberant sexiness, yields pride of place to Clouseau, hero manque/maudit – an inelegant Nixonian bumbler, well befitting this age of narcissistic entitlement and gross mismanagement in the halls of power.


*In the ‘omnipotential stage’ of late adolescence described by Eugene Pumpian-Mindlin in 1966, the youngster believes all doors are open vis-a-vis career, romance, so forth. Under this rubric, adolescence is deemed completed when the omnipotential stage is replaced by an appreciation of ordinary reality’s homely pleasures.
Which is yet another reason why we envious oldsters, having closed the door on our own omnipotential possibilities, are so easily irritated by the presumptuousness of youth.

** Of course my Oedipal spin on the ambivalent father-son relationship between Bond and M is utterly fanciful. While Moneypenny remained a given in the Bond universe, M was replaced by an acerb Judy Dench after Bernard Miles died; she herself has been superceded by yet another male M, played by Ralph Fiennes, in mar (2012).

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This essay originally appeared in PROJECTIONS, Volume 16, #2, pp. 37-42.

Monster: Based On A True Story (2003), written and directed by Patty Jenkins.
Aileen Wuornos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003);
The Selling of Aileen Wuornos (1992), directed by Nick Greenfield.

From 1989 to 1990, a ragged drifter, Aileen Wuornos, murdered seven men along a stretch of central Florida freeway. Her MO bore the reckless signatures of a dissolute and desolate life. She would hitch a ride in a car or truck with a male driver; rattle off a song and dance about getting back to her kids in another state. After sussing out a mark with the prostitute’s native intuition, she proposed exchanging sex for a few bucks. The unsuspecting john drove to some offroad clearing, where Wuornos drew a battered pistol and blew him away.

Some of her victims were gunned down in the driver’s seat. Others stripped for action outside, to be slaughtered buck-naked. Wuornos would then toss the corpse into a wooded area nearby, take the cash (little gain in most cases), and ride wherever the wind took her, until fear of detection lead her to abandon the stolen vehicle. She knew that the authorities were zeroing in on her, but their pursuit didn’t deter her from returning to her lonesome road and killing again.

Wuornos’ past reads like the history of a Jerry Springer trailer-trash guest. She was born in a seedy Detroit neighborhood. Her mother bolted early on. She and a brother were left in the care of a father who beat them mercilessly. He too took off, later killed himself in prison. This time, the children were sent to Kallikak grandparents who enthusiastically continued a daily round of brutal abuse, physical and possibly sexual.

Mean streets furnished Wuornos all the education she ever had. By her early ‘teens, she had already borne a child and given it up. The termination of a hasty marriage left her with only her husband’s last name – eerily alliterative with the oldest profession she had begun to ply. After squandering insurance money from her brother’s early death, she returned to the streets, exchanging sex for meagre sustenance. Occasionally she was arrested for petty crime.

Wuornos was never any kind of happy hooker. As far as one knows she disdained pimp or madam, preferring to work solo at whoring’s lowest rung. She stood by her gritty roadside, sporting roadhouse gear and worn sneakers instead of the street prostitute’s gaudy uniform – hot pants, stilletto heels, so forth. With an impudent thumb stuck out, one hip shot provocatively at the rushing traffic, she attracted homebound husbands with a yen for the gutter, as well as rough trade with more sinister urges. Often she was not used well.

Writer/director Perry Jenkins’ harrowing film, Monster, addresses the nine months of Wuornos’ killing spree during which she became involved in a passionate lesbian affair. Jenkins theorizes that Wuornos’ romance was the mainspring of her serial killing.

According to the director’s loose reading of actual circumstances, Aileen (Charlize Theron) meets a shy young woman, Shelby Wall (Christina Ricci) at a gay bar. Shelby has been exiled by her parents, sent to relatives with the hope that a change of scene will make her shed her ‘ungodly’ desires.

Barely out of the closet, primly dressed, hunched over her drink at the grotty bar, Shelby would seem an unlikely exciting object for a wild creature like Wuornos. But Aileen is drawn to Shelby’s innocence and vunerability – arguably these qualities evoke dim fantasies of a prelapsarian childhood.

Shelby for her part is infatuated with Wuornos’ manic energy, her absolute disregard for convention or authority. The two elope shortly after they meet, live in a succession of seedy motels.

Steamy sex between bisexual women is a staple of male oriented pornography. However, in mainstream Hollywood fare lesbian love tends to be curious chaste. It’s often shot in soft focus, frequently informed by a none-to-subtle assumption that the gender-ambivalent heroin will eventually see the light when Mr. Right comes along – e.g. Personal Best (1982). It’s greatly to Jenkins ‘ credit that Wuornos and Shelby generate an intense sexuality that fairly lasers off the screen.

Monster’s subsequent plot recapitulates a durable subgenre of doomed lovers on the run. Often from lower- class backgrounds, these misunderstood outlaws often are depicted as pitiable victims of a repressive, puritanical society (e.g. Gun Crazy (1949), They Live By Night (1949) and the signature Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

While Monster powerfully lays bare the utter impoverishment of a throwaway underclass woman – living roadkill – Jenkins laudably avoid facile blaming of Wuornos’ cimes on her lurid background. Indeed it’s scarcely mentioned. One only infers that Wuornos’ relationship with Shelby provides the first authentic love she has ever known, at least as an adult.

Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1981) introduced a lesbian context to the outcast couple subgenre. The heroines never actually coupled. After the parking-lot homicide which was clearly committed in self-defense, their non-lethal violence comprised an often hilarious clarion call to arms against a dulled-down patriarchal culture.

The film’s feisty heroines facilitate each other’s becoming liberated equal partners through their criminal adventures. In Monster, however, Aileen is always the boss, while Shelby grows increasingly incapable of fending for herself, a feckless parody of male-dominated suburban domesticity Thelma and Louise ultimately rejects. She cannot or won’t get work, relying on Aileen to find the money which they suppose will help them realize an absurd fantasy of a tidy picket-fence ever-after.

After a pathetic attempt to get a job in the daylight world fails, Wuornos returns to the only work she knows. Her love for Shelby puts her at risk as a disposable receptable for roadside rutting. She shoots a deranged sadist who rapes her, then tries to set him on fire. Afterwords – if one accepts Jenkin’s thesis – she’s gripped by a traumatic repetition compulsion, cannot stop killing.

Monster may be read at one level as a realization of the homoerotic sizzle and revolt against male oppression latent in Thelma and Louise. Monster is not nearly as well crafted nor ideologically sophisticated as the former picture. It would probably fade into DVD oblivion, were it not for Charlize Theron’s blazing portrayal of Wuornos.

Theron has radically transformed her alluring features – she’s a well respected model – into an uncanny simulacrum of her character. She gained thirty pounds for the part; artful make-up replicates Wuornos’ freckled, weather-beaten face. Theron’s Wuornos seethes with turbulent impatience; a ferocious kinetic energy seems to send her body juddering in several directions simultaneously.

Typically, Theron/Wuornos alternates between pressured, fragmented muttering and frenetic paranoid rant. But she is also able to address her alienation, the blasted lives of her peers, the venality of her captors, with startling eloquence. Her poignant yearning for Shelby and the small joys of an ordinary life articulates with crazily rationalized homicidal rage. The actress adroitly captures the complex nuances and contradictions of Wuornos’ tormented, tormenting character. She’s both appalling and pitiful.

The accuracy of Theron’s impersonation is even more impressive, after viewing Wuornos herself in Nick Greenfield’s unsatisfying documentaries: Aileen Wuornos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer and The Selling of Aileen Wuornos – the latter released twelve years ago. Both films are patchwork jobs, but they do accurately describe Wuornos’ life before and after the murders, as well the social canvas that backdropped both the homicides and their prosecution.

Wuonos’ own vision of her motives was slippery, inflected at any given moment by psychopathy, psychosis, even genuine insight. Initially, she declared her guilt without qualification. She then turned on a dime, pleading innocence by reason of self-defense. At one time or another she presented herself as a hapless victim of male depredations, betrayed and exploited at every turn; or a profane avenging angel seeking to redress the wrongs perpetuated on the feminine wretched of the earth by patriarchal authority.

Greenfield discovered that there was at least a grain of truth in many of her allegations. Wuornos maintained she began killing after her first victim, Richard Mallory, raped, then treatened to slay her. Subsequent to her trial, it was revealed that Mallory had indeed previously served ten years for violent rape in another state. Wuornos’ public defender was an inept pot-smoking wannabe rock star. Her real lover, Tyria Moore, who knew fully about Wuornos’ crimes, never served a single day of inprisonment in return for ratting her lover out.

Others also sought to cash in on from potential TV or movie rights. These crass unworthies included her attorney (who Greenfield insinuates may have wanted her dead, in aid of creating a more potent – and saleable – narrative arc) and three members of the Florida police department. Wuornos’ life also inspired a plethora of lurid tabloid stories and a sensationalist TV docudrama. Even Greenfield, pace his good intentions, does not refrain from inserting himself clumsily into his own film as a high-minded truth-seeker. (All this having been said, Wuornos herself frequently perpetuated and relished the publicity she generated). .

Wuonos’ last and most despicable exploiter was Jeb Bush, who wanted her executed to ramp up his gubernatorial campaign. Wuornos had been imprisoned for twelve years when Bush came on the scene. Although she knew he wanted her death, she definitively confessed her guilt – possibly because she could no longer tolerate confinement by that time.

She also had gone quite mad. She told Greenfield that a mother ship – arguably a psychotic elaboration of the mothering she never received – would effect a one woman Rapture, take her up to sit at Jesus’ side. On the evening prior to her execution, several psychiatrists declared that she herself was sane enough to be murdered by the State. What gain these Doctor Deaths desired is not clear. Perhap they merely wanted a paycheck for an odious night’s work. But one never knows who knavery is afoot when a Bush is about.

The origins of Aileen Wuornos’ homicidal binge have never been satisfyingly elucidated. One could, for instance, blame a conflation of her horrific childhood, a genetic predisposition towards psychopathy, and a periodic dissociative state which emerged after barely escaping death from her first victim’s attack.
One must underscore, however, that the overwhelming majority of women who have suffered the same hurtful backgrounds and degrading experience as Wuornos do not kill. Indeed, it’s far more likely they will die at the hands of some malevolent misogynist – more often than not a husband or lover.

So – what finally tipped the scales to precipitate Wuornos’ road kills? A forensic psychiatrist told me that after years spent studying the minority of mentally ill who murdered, he never had been able to tease out an “X factor” separating the perpetrator from the majority who didn’t. I don’t believe Wuornos demonstrated the diabolic cold-bloodedness of male serial killers like Ted Bundy and Ed Gein. The “X factor” of these hideous creatures has proven even more resistant to explanation.

Some years ago I participated in a discussion about Silence of the Lambs (1985). Another panel member was an amiable Texas FBI profiler who had extensively interviewed Bundy, Gein, and others of their heinous ilk. Asked to speculate on their diagnosis, he drawled: “Well – let’s see. You folks are up to DSM-III, right? I guess I’d put Ted and Ed somewhere around ….DSM-22.”

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BRIEFEST ENCOUNTER: “Lost In Translation”, directed by Sofia Coppola

It’s as difficult to predict whether film stars playing lovers will sizzle sexually, as it is to foretell whether a mundane pair of actors will ‘click’. Hardly catastrophic when friends you’ve fixed up are turned off rather than wildly switched on. But megabucks and careers ride on a major studio’s faith that matching the latest hunk with the latest sexpot will generate torrid sexual chemistry and boffo box office.

The chowderheadedness of this notion was illustrated a few years back when the much paparazzied love affair between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez failed to charm viewers of “Gigli”. Ben and J-Lo’s erotic sparring in this dismal stinkeroo was about as exciting as the courtship dance of Galapagos tortoises.

I’ve always been fond of quirky films where unglamorous actors generate a surprising amorous buzz. There aren’t many: Lalaland, afte all, thrives on gorgeous bods. I particularly enjoyed Ernest Borgine’s lonely butcher courting Betsy Blair’s sweet spinster in “Marty”, and “House Calls” – which paired Glenda Jackson’s acerbic, not-so-gay divorcee with Walter Matthau’s mordant physician/widower. “The African Queen” features Hollywood’s most famous unlikely match: starchy schoolmarm Kathryn Hebpurn is smitten with Humphrey Bogart’s grimy, foul-mouthed river pilot.

Pride of place in this the unlikely romance subgenre arguably goes to “The Late Show”, in which Lily Tomlin’s hippie flake romances Art Carney’s aging harboiled LA private eye.

Sofia Coppola’s captivating second film, “Lost In Translation”, explores the vicissitudes of another poignant May/September relationship. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a played-out star adrift in an ambiguous mid-life crisis. Scarlett Johannson is Charlotte, a recently wed, equally unsettled young woman in her late twenties. Tokyo is the film’s third protagonist: nightime streets, ablaze with neon; daytime milieu bustling with crazy energy – alternately alluring, hilarious, and elusive. (By report, Coppola herself knows and loves the city.)

Dispirited Bob has come to Tokyo to shoot a lucrative Santory scotch commercial. He’s many years married with children he loves abstractedly, and a wife whose presence in the film consists of her absence, save for intrusive faxes and diffident phone calls. Charlotte’s husband is a fashion photographer on a shoot, with both feet perennially out the door.

He claims his vanishing act is work-related, but he’s mostly chatting up the vapid models and other decerebrate babes whose company he blatantly prefers over Charlotte’s.

Much of “Lost In Translation” unfolds in an anonymous Tokyo luxury hotel. Suave minimalist decor nicely captures the characters’ prevailing anomie. In a langorous establishing shot, one sees the back of the yet unknown Charlotte’s semi-nude body, suspended in a dimly lit nowhere (she’s actually asleep in her hotel room). One’s impression is not particularly arousing, not unpleasing either. Shortly afterwards, Bob, stupified by jetlag, enters his room just as the first of his wife’s ceaseless reminders about neglected domestic duties chatters out of the fax machine.

In dexterous match cuts, Coppola quickly establishes Charlotte and Bob’s dreamy isolation – she from her husband and the fresh start in their marriage she hoped for, he from a marriage gone stale and a once glittering career. Their glances cross in a crowded elevator. Then they meet, fellow insomniacs wandering through the empty night corridors.

Coppola interpolates their subsequent desultory encounters at bar and swimming pool, with scenes of Charlotte’s distracted by-the-numbers Tokyo tourism, and Bob’s bemused encounters with his Japanese hosts and assorted media types (a tyrannical director who refuses to speak English; a pixillated talk show host, think Soupy Sales demented.) One senses that Bob is sleepwalking through Tokyo just as he does in Hollywood – where he’s probably been on autopilot at home and playing the lackluster roles a star is lucky to get when fame slips away.

At some point – It’s Coppola’s gift, rare in mainstream cinema, to capture such an ineffable moment – Bob and Charlotte’s intimation of romantic possibility flames into an extraordinary intimacy, a stunning appreciation of and for each other rendered all the more piercing by their (and our) awareness of imminent separation. Lady Murasaki’s exquisite novel, “The Tales of Genji”, comprises a Proustian exploration of love’s vicissitudes which antedates Proust’s elegant prose by a millenium.

In the Heian period’s elite society which Murasaki knew so well, one’s approach to the beloved progressed through elaborate rituals more important than fulfuillment itself. Exchanges of flowers, poetry, small gifts were imbued with allusions to every nuance of amorous experience, such that the experience itself seemed peculiarly beside the point.

Coppola’s delicate portrait of Bob and Charlotte’s never declared courtship evokes Murasaki’s nuanced depiction of courtly love, as well as the perennial unattainability of the beloved which was a hallmark of trobadour poetry (think Dante’s Beatrice, too). Rather than cherry blossoms or haiku, Bob and Charlotte exchange a few spare words, but phenomenally charged with meaning; minute changes of countenance and tone which exquisitly register the couples’ dawning awareness of an utterly unexpected and consuming tenderness.

Bob, prodded by Charlotte’s profound kindness and youthful elan vital, vegins to emrge from his armored desparation. His ironic maturity and respect for Charlotte’s astringent (and well hidden) intelligence spur her unvoiced recognition that she, too, has been slumbering away her life in a post-adolescent holding maneuvre (which may have existed well before her barren marriage). The film’s opening shot encapsulates her Sleeping Beauty persona, as well as her yet-to-come enchantment for Bob, who is similarly trapped by his bleak domestic routine and the humiliating demands of a fading career.

Coppola’s screenplay acquires tragi-comic depth by refusing to have Bob and Charlotte ever make love. Both are obviously experienced in that respect. He’s clearly had affairs, indeed endures an inebriated one-night stand with a buxom lounge singer which he terribly regrets: it degrades him and wounds Charlotte to the core.

Until the final scene Bob and Charlotte barely touch, except when – lying next to each other, fully clothed, their fingers brush tentatively. The devotion which has fallen upon them like a flash of grace extends light years beyond mere sexual flirtation. Coppola infers that they know lovemaking won’t start a brief affair, but rather a wrenching commitment which will force them to cross boundaries neither is prepared to traverse.

Doubts about their radical differences in age and background perhaps restrain them. Bob could well be hesitating because of his unsparing, guilty awareness about the distress he’s caused to previous abandoned lovers. But at base neither Bob nor Charlotte want to destroy their marriages. Bob may truly love his wife, or his children, or simply want to take the easy way out as he has done before, backsliding into his drab ‘holding environment’. One intuits Charlotte will eventually leave her shallow, philandering husband. But she isn’t quite prepared to explode the Country Western myth of standing by her man, who isn’t worth the spit to blow him away, to commence searching solo for a new identity.

Coppola’s hand is too sure to spell out these dynamics in bold print. There may be little spoken in “Lost In Translation”, but there’s much silent, acute observations which might be marred by facile words. The couple’s discourse is fragmented, elliptical, but their faces speak volumes to the complex shades of their feelings as they fall in love.

I’ve always thought Bill Murray a fine actor beyond his acknowledged gifts as a farceur (see “Groundhog Day” again for confirmation). Here he’s magnificent here, conveying Bob’s spiritual and physical exhaustion, the amazed opening of his heart through minimal shifts of voice and countenance. Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte is uncannily “there”: a Zen-like ‘suchness’ pervades her perplexity over her husband’s desertion, her enchantment with the chaos of Tokyo, above all an unadorned youthful candor which plays beautifully against Bob/Murray’s mordant, defensive self-effacement.

Their penultimate parting at the hotel is strained. Charlotte is furious over Bob’s one night ‘infidelity’. Then, as he’s being driven to the airport, he glimpses her through the window of his cab just as she’s about to disappear in a swirling crowd. He rushes out to stop her.

In standard Hollywood fare, Charlotte would suddenly, radiantly nullify Bob’s grief. The couple would embrace to a crescendo of delirious music and live happily ever after, their spouses and troubles tidily disposed of.
Coppola subverts such bromides. Bob and Charlotte do indeed fall into each others’ arms with a huge sense of relief that’s both wryly amusing and singularly touching. Near tears, they affirm wordlessly the preciousness of the affection they’ve stumbled into, and will soon relinquish.

There’s been considerable debate over exactly what Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear before going their separate ways. Cynics have said he’s telling her when and where they’ll meet again. I submit that he’s murmuring – as in a prayer – how dear she has grown to him; how dear she always will remain with no future meeting in mind. Coppola’s solution is infinitely more heartrending, truer to the film’s rueful – very Japanese – tone, than a trite plunge into despair or an even more trite upbeat finale.

In the end, “Lost In Translation” doesn’t reference “Casablanca” – unless you believe Rick never bedded Ilsa after she stepped through the door of the Café Americaine), or “The Honeymoon Kid”, in which a feckless Charles Grodin, fresh off the altar, abandons his hapless bride to elope with Sybil Shepard.

The film that Coppola so elegantly evokes is Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter”, a deeply moving depiction of an illicit romance, honorably declined by both partners. Two decent, ordinary people meet fortuitously, are hurled into stunned adoration, the absent themselves from felicity, returning to the decorous rituals of a diminished life with a thoroughly decent spouse. It’s the right wrong thing to do, and quietly, utterly desolating.

Harvey Roy Greenberg, MD
PROJECTIONS: Snapshots, Volume 16, #2, 2004. pp. 5-9.

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I Will Never Speak A Word

Published originally: | October 17, 2013 | Psychiatric Times

At the end of Othello, a Venetian nobleman angrily
demands that Iago disclose the reasons for his wicked deeds. His reply:

Demand me nothing
What you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Iago’s stubborn silence came to mind as I sifted the mountain of contradictory evidence that has accumulated around the enigmatic figure of former Major and military psychiatrist, Nidal Malik Hasan.

Brute facts: on November 15, 2009, at Fort Hood’s Soldier Readiness Processing Center, Hasan allegedly shouted Allahu Akhbar!! [God is Great!], then opened fire with recently and easily—purchased guns. He slaughtered 18 people, wounded 30 more, before he himself was gunned down.

Hassan’s outcry comprises virtually the only words he has uttered in public since the shootings. His guilty plea at arraignment was quickly denied because military law doesn’t allow it in cases that might warrant a death penalty.

At trial, Hasan, now paraplegic, fired his attorneys; represented himself; made no opening or closing statement; asked only a few prosecution witnesses to identify him as the perpetrator. A military tribunal quickly found him guilty and called for his execution. At this writing, he is imprisoned, fate uncertain—and continues to speak not a word publically. His silence, like Iago’s, thus comprises a screen upon which one can project any theory that seems to fit. The most plausible although unproven to date is that Hasan sought and still seeks—a Jihadist’s homicidal martyrdom.

Like nature, the media abhors a vacuum. The tube and internet hums with portentous pronunciamentos of the commentating horde who predictably descended upon the scene. A plethora of those who knew or claimed to have known Hasan have been endlessly interviewed in the press and on TV.

Experts from a dizzying array of disciplines are still parsing Hasan’s life for clues as to what motivated him. A red thread of uncertainty or downright unreliablity runs through much of this reportage. Hard facts about Hasan often turn out to be unverified opinions, second and third-hand hearsay especially revelations about the notional dark side of what previously seemed an orderly, productive life. (An offender’s dark side is especially dear to the hearts of true crime aficionados.)

Hasan’s history has been plumbed for evidence of psychiatric disorder. It’s a particularly juicy project for crime buffs, given that he is a psychiatrist. He received training at the Armed Services excellent medical school, then completed a 6-year psychiatric residence at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Depending on who has sussed out his medical career, he is depicted as a dedicated, competent physician, or as sub-par and mediocre.

Hasan holds a masters degree in traumatic stress studies. He investigated the vicissitudes of American Muslim soldiers: was particularly concerned about the maintenance of their mental health later on in his work, their spiritual well being as well in the context of their being tasked to fight co-religionists. Some listeners to a lecture he gave on these issues supposedly found it sensitive and helpful; others thought it odiously subversive.

Hasan has been described by family and acquaintances as quiet, peaceful, and thoroughly devoted to his profession. That very quietness is elsewhere deemed a mask for malignant paranoia, notably about the persecution of Arabs at home and abroad. (Media suits often absurdly construe a quiet demeanor as a predictor of future violence, terrorist-inspired or otherwise. )

What does seem reasonably clear is that Hasan was raised in an unexceptional Muslim-American family with moderate beliefs, was proud of his career, then became radicalized at some point over 1 or 2 years preceding the Fort Hood catastrophe. The reasons put forward for his extremist turn are many inter alia: his car may have been broken into by some bigoted fellow soldier. . .  he had recently received orders for duty in Afghanistan . . .  so forth. But at base his motives still remain obscure.

Hasan did send a swarm of emails to Anwar al-Awlaki, an Imam who previously counselled him at a mosque he attended in Silver Springs for many years. Al-Awlaki’s Islamic beliefs were supposedly moderate at that time, but he emigrated to the Arab world and became a well known Al-Qaeda spokesman. (He was killed in a drone attack last year). Speaking from Yemen after the Fort Hood massacre, al-Awlaki claimed he never incited Hasan to violence, and insisted the two only discussed spiritual issues. He seemed genuinely annoyed at Hasan’s deluge of cyberspace questions.

I believe al-Awlaki spoke the truth. However repugnant their actions, Al-Qaeda-type outfits are usually well organized and tightly run by competent leadership. Their existence depends on intricate webs of secrecy. I think it is unlikely that such groups would welcome Hasan in their midst, because they would probably have perceived him a loose cannon, and a possible security risk.

It turns out that the FBI had been vetting Hassan’s correspondence with al-Awlaki and his visits to Jihadist websites for at least 6 months preceding the Fort Hood attack. The Bureau eventually concluded that the al-Awlaki emails and other radical internet activity were essentially related to Hasan’s sanctioned research, and ceased surveillance. But Hasan may have evolved into what terrorist experts have called the home-grown Jihadist—radicalized in private through the internet alone.

In any event, the blame game flourishes, facilitated by that most accurate scientific instrument—the retrospectoscope. Insinuations from various quarters abound that Hasan was a human time bomb who should have been properly identified early on, then hospitalized, incarcerated, or even terminated with extreme prejudice (the spook s repellant euphemism for rank assassination).

Those taken to task for not taking Hasan off the board include medical school and residency supervisors; sundry military authorities; the FBI; the CIA; Homeland Security, so forth.

Blame gamers appear unaware or not to care that at no time did Hasan threaten harm to any individual or group. Also, retroscopic demands for more rigorous clinical screening ignores the fact that in the wrong hands that such might pose a serious threat to basic constitutional rights.  Particularly alarming was a suggestion that soldiers who refuse help for dangerous psychopathology should be situated in some vague fashion within the criminal justice system. Associates, friends, and relatives have even been advised to rat out suspicious recalcitrants for the country’s good. Such dubious patriotic pantopticonning has ever been an ominous signature of totalitarian regimes.

I certainly don’t fault improving clinical assessment and treatment of stressed-out soldiers, especially for troops about to be shipped to combat zones. However an individual like Hasan (in so far as we know about him) might well reject help on one pretext or another including constitutional grounds. Also, it has been my experience that emotionally troubled doctors are often granted far more leeway by their institutions and colleagues to delay psychiatric care, or to avoid it altogether.

It is enormously problematic to separate psychopathology from political ideology and religious belief in ascertaining what might lead a vulnerable but previously non-violent individual to explode into mass homicide. We cannot not know the actual truth about Hasan’s mental state, nor if there was a sinister relationship (if it indeed exists) between his psychological condition and his dire deeds, as long as he maintains his Iago-like silence. One doubts that this will be broken soon, if ever.

I rate the chances of capturing other Hasans before the fact slim, no matter how sophisticated the methodology for monitoring them. I fear that both their possible schizoid disposition as well as an eerie ability to don a mask of sanity will continue to keep most well beneath the radar until they erupt into mayhem.

Nevertheless, one would think that living in a relatively closed society like the Army would not have allowed Hasan to elude detection. But a perfect storm of suspicion without action in many quarters appears to have kept him in the shadows—until he drew his guns.

One is reminded of an ancient tale of 10 blind men sent by a king to describe an elephant. Whichever piece of the beast each blind man touched, so ran his faulty description. At one time or another the FBI, Army, and Hasan’s superiors* each touched a piece of Hasan. Tragically, no one was able to assemble the entire frightful picture, and head him off at the pass.
*An unofficial committee of Walter Reed psychiatric leaders was set up to monitor Hasan’s behavior several months before the shootings. Their impressions have yet to be disclosed.

- See more at: http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/news/i-will-never-speak-word#sthash.ZL0YcqZ7.dpuf

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‘Behind the Candelabra’: Insincerely Yours

I’ve been going to Las Vegas regularly for 30 years, to play poker and gratify a lifelong fascination with raffish milieus. In the latter context, a visit to the Liberace Museum was inevitable. I visited it in 1997, a decade after the entertainer died of complications from AIDS.

I came to scoff, having deemed Liberace a sententious fraud of questionable talent, whose fulsome effusions of universal love concealed a narcissism that could gag a goat.

I also faulted Liberace for not using his enormous clout to help the 1970s burgeoning gay rights movement by coming out of his opulent closet. His persistent denial of homosexuality grew curiouser and curiouser, when so many celebrities were affirming their gayness after Rock Hudson bravely revealed that he had AIDS.

Touring the surprisingly restrained archive of Liberace’s career and collections, I awakened to an unexpected appreciation of the wacky humanism that coexisted with Liberace’s hyperbolic self-inflation. The pleasure he took creating his gaudy entertainments was matched by the delight he derived from his audiences’ delight.

His affection for fans, family, and friends was unstinting and unfeigned – of which more presently. He lavished luxury upon himself, but was as generous to many others. His foundation to fund needy artists has given away millions.

I also learned that Wladziu Valentino Liberace, also called Lee Liberace, was a gifted child musician, if not quite a Mozartean prodigy. At age 19, he played Liszt’s formidable “A Major Concerto” with the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra. An amateur musician, I could recognize the strength of his pianism, particularly evident in early videos. That he decided to employ his gifts toward other ends than competing on the concert circuit was no bad thing. I had known – and treated – worthy competitors on that unforgiving stage who had gone down into the dust.

Naturally, he trimmed and trivialized Beethoven and Chopin. But he made their music available to multitudes who might never otherwise have heard it. How many of his viewers became serious classical music devotees as a result of hearing him tart up Tchaikovsky?

Pondering the museum’s collections, I began to perceive a rowdy yet oddly refined aesthetic sensibility. Decades before European and American academics furiously anatomized the paradigms of kitsch, pop, and postmodern culture, Liberace embodied them in his persona and performances. (The Vegas casinos where he strutted his stuff have been notably caressed as postmodern cathedrals by French social theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio.)

One discerns Liberace’s intriguing “pre-postmodernism” in his campy, carnivalesque spectacles, pastiches of high- and lowbrow entertainment. At center, always the spectacle of his exuberant, androgynous self, basking in his fans’ worship as he proclaimed his love for them.

Contemporary musical theater, kitsch or elegant, owes Liberace a huge debt – notably Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas extravaganzas. (The finest of these, “Love,” a deeply satisfying tribute to the Beatles, is available now and some part of forever at the Mirage casino.)

Liberace’s over-the-top costumes set the stage for brilliant fashion experiments conceived at the behest of future rock groups and divas, from Kiss to Cher. This screwball/sumptuous garb was the subject of a provocative exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art a decade ago.

Liberace’s lipstick traces also can be discovered in the work of artists like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst. Liberace would have gone gaga, both as a lover of wretched excess and an observant Catholic, over the sinister opulence of Hirst’s memento mori, “For the Love of God” – a skull recast in platinum, encrusted with 8,601 diamonds.

The museum predictably avoided any mention of controversy over Liberace’s sexuality altogether. One speculates that concern for his performing image might originally have dictated his urgent need to hide what was in plain sight, lest he be mocked out of his career. It’s likely that some of his older female fans intuited his gayness at some level, but denied it, lest their ideal be cast from his pedestal.

Liberace’s deception always threatened to unravel around its own false premises. He kept up his heterosexual showbiz disguise long after it was necessary, indeed until his demise. Still, whatever his rationale, what happened in his own private Vegas had every right to stay there.

It couldn’t and didn’t. A year after his death came “Behind the Candelabra,” the book that purported to blow the lid off Liberace’s id. Written by Scott Thorson with Alex Thorleifson, it recounts Scott’s 5-year love affair cum marriage that took place during the entertainer’s last decade. To give Thorson due credit, his description of Liberace’s past is for the most part plausible, even handed, and compassionate.

Lee Liberace’s Polish father left the scene early on. His family was dysfunctional and impoverished. He was both doted upon and dominated by an overweeningly, ambitious mother. One learns about the evolution of Lee’s musical career from classics to candelabra; his consummate professionalism and stringent work ethic; since youth, the searing angst about his homosexuality and its exposure.

Scott’s narrative descends into disingenuous, tawdry TMZ dirt-dishing once he meets Liberace. He describes himself as a 17-year-old naif from a broken family who, through the good offices of several foster parents, became a wholesome unlicentious bisexual.

In his book, Scott is working as a movie animal handler with vague ambitions of becoming a veterinarian. He’s introduced to Liberace by a friend, is instantly overwhelmed by Liberace’s charisma and charm, and seduced into becoming his personal assistant, duties unclear. He moves into Liberace’s garish mansion, a triumph of “palatial kitsch,” becomes his besotted lover, is showered with lavish duds, gems, cars, an apartment of his own. Lee even proposes to adopt him.

Then emerges that inevitable “dark side” so dear to the craven hearts of the TMZ vultures. Scott intimates that Liberace’s success was enabled by Mafia connections and whinges about being preyed upon.

But he’s a remorseless user and user-upper. His depredations even predated his birth at 14 pounds: Scott psychobabbles that Lee’s depredations even began in the womb. Liberace’s dead, shriveled twin was “an apparent victim to Lee’s greed.”

Liberace boosts his sagging bedroom performance with penile implants, pills, and porn. His promiscuity is rivaled only by his insane jealousy. He perceives Scott as a projected image of his rampant narcissism; persuades him to have plastic surgery in aid of becoming his replicant. Turned off by Scott’s girth, he gets Scott strung out on “harmless” diet pills and then rails at his increasing substance abuse.

Scott increasingly must answer to Liberace’s every whim, in and out of bed. Deprived of identity, figuratively and literally; humiliated by his demeaning servitude and Liberace’s infidelity, Scott sinks into despairing addiction. Liberace uses Scott’s plight as an excuse to eject him from his life. Scott sues Liberace for massive palimony, is compelled to settle for a pittance. A year later, Liberace summons Scott to his bedside for a tearful reconciliation. He pleads with Scott never to disclose their love and his homosexuality: “I don’t want to be remembered as an old queen who died of AIDS” (which is what “Behind the Candelabra” enabled, for all its pretense of honoring Liberace’s accomplishments).

HBO’s version of “Behind the Candelabra” was directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Richard LaGravenese. (Scott doesn’t seem to have been directly involved in the project.) Michael Douglas and Matt Damon respectively play Liberace and Scott.

The film has been widely hailed, commencing with its selection for special showing at Cannes. Hollywood has changed its homophobic tune since Liberace’s day, but the industry still plays it safe by producing pictures that construe homosexual love as the persecuted parallel of straight love (for example, see “Brokeback Mountain” [2005]).

In this setting, “Behind the Candelabra” was widely rejected by major studios as being “too gay,” before HBO took it on. I commend the network’s courage, while noting its commercial canniness – the film has done well on TV and is soon to be released commercially. Nevertheless, I find it even more flawed than Steven Soderbergh’s last production, “Side Effects.” Two more viewings have only increased my reservations, indeed distaste.

Soderbergh pays little attention to Thorson’s reasonably accurate, rather affecting description of Liberace’s past. Liberace’s unique showmanship and performing skills within that idiosyncratic ambit are also scanted by their passim presentation.

These omissions markedly diminish the film’s substance. I expect they were made deliberately to further Soderbergh’s brief: probing the tragicomic dimensions of an intensely ambivalent romance between two extravagantly gay men. It’s a love that very, very rarely has dared speak its name in mainstream filmmaking.

In book and film, Liberace and Thorson exhibit a tinseled superficiality that mirrors Las Vegas’s alexithymic gloss. However, superficial characters can be the subject of the most searching, moving art.

“Behind the Candelabra” clearly invites comparison with “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), which depicted the unlikely affair between Norma Desmond, an aging silent movie queen and the naive young writer drawn into her web. Desmond is a narcissistic monster.

However, the combined talents of Gloria Swanson, Billy Wilder, and writer I.A.L. Diamond document the grotesqueries of Desmond’s self-adulation, while endowing her character with exceptional pathos.

In pictures like his debut “sex, lies, and videotape” (1989), Soderbergh likewise explored the travail of shallow narcissists with impressive artfulness. His depiction of the painful vicissitudes of Liberace’s aging queendom has drawn the high critical plaudits accorded to Sunset Boulevard’s searing portrayal of Norma Desmond’s unquiet desperation.

But the movie I saw lacked the complexity and pathos so lauded by the critical majority. It’s scathingly faithful to the sordid side of Thorson’s narrative; dwelling on Liberace’s colossal egotism, callous manipulativeness, and sexual rapacity. The “depraved indifference” of criminal justice sums up Soderbergh’s dispiriting portrait of a repellant poseur. Even Liberace’s staunch Catholicism is rendered suspect.

I don’t doubt the unsavory aspects of Liberace’s persona, but these weren’t solely, or definitively, what the man was all about. Both people who knew him at a distance or intimately consistently describe an extraordinary likeability and sincerity.

Soderbergh’s curious inability to depict Liberace’s generic kindness and specific tenderness for Thorson is abetted by Michael Douglas’s flawed impersonation (of a consummate impersonator). Douglas’s skills have grown impressively as he’s aged, but I did not for once believe he inhabited Liberace’s ultimately opaque character.

Given Douglas’s talents, I must doubt that his being straight is the problem with getting Liberace straight. Nuanced portrayals of homosexuals by heterosexual actors abound – such as Heath Ledger’s smitten gay cowhand in “Brokeback.” Douglas’s toothy smirk and arch drawl come across as unconvincing shtick, off-putting caricatures of Liberace’s flamboyant mannerisms.

Perhaps these were part of the performer’s “act” at one time, but to those who knew him well his weird, basic sincerity was never any sort of act, always the same, on or offstage. Did Soderbergh/Douglas seek to construct a Liberace so egregiously out of the closet as to underscore his lifelong terror of being outed? Everything I’ve read indicates that a spirit of compassion informed their conception, but precious little compassion came through for me.

The eve-versatile Matt Damon’s Thorson is thoroughly credible, particularly his initial naive insouciance and awestruck ability to be seduced. I emphasize again that here and elsewhere, Damon’s role is based solely on Thorson’s side of the coin. The latter’s reliability is, shall one say, a wavering quantum. (Liberace isn’t here to give his side and would probably take the Fifth if he were.)

Other strong performances include Rob Lowe’s sleazoid plastic surgeon, Dr. Jack Startz (he bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson); Dan Aykroyd’s Seymour Heller, Liberace’s much put-upon manager of 37 years; and Debbie Reynolds’s acerbic, guilt-tripping mother.

The film is not without its pleasures, some of them guilty. Its Vegas mise-en-scene, especially of its 1950s/1960s gangster-glory days, is reproduced spot on. Douglas/Liberace gets off some memorable Mommie Dearest drag-queen send-ups, such as on the egregiously invented heartbreak over Sonja Henie’s perennial rejection: “As if I would marry an ice skater? Please. I mean, THOSE THIGHS!!!

But in the end, the viewer is as ground down by the lovers’ sulks and fits as by the rancorous, self-serving exchanges of similar gruesome twosomes, straight or gay, encountered in couples therapy.

The plot that underpins the plethora of “Behind the Candelabra’s” glitzy bitching and dishing is thin, utterly unmemorable. There’s simply no there there. I have the same feeling about Las Vegas itself these days. My intimation of the town’s staggering emptiness articulates with a poignant awareness of the skull beneath its smile. There is simply no there there. Perhaps there never was.

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This Boy’s Life: directed by Michael Caton-Jones

In the tradition of a classic bildungsroman, the autobiographical hero of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a sensitive adolescent, alienated from his repressive provincial surroundings. Stephen Daedalus’ vaulting ambition, his contention with narrow-minded paternal authority figures, identifies him with Icarus. That mythological overreacher ignored his father’s admonition against offending the gods by flying too close to the sun on waxen wings, and tumbled to his death.

The Oedipal dynamic and Icarean metaphor of Stephen’s arduous journey towards autonomy has influenced coming-of- age narratives in American literature and cinema diverse as The Catcher in the Rye, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Graduate, and This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff’s unflinching memoir of his youth in the 1950s. The book was filmed by Michael Caton-Jones in 1993 from a script by Robert Getchell. The latter’s earlier screenplay for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore anticipated Wolff’s compelling history of the not so halcyon days he spent on and off the road with his footloose mother, Caroline.

As the film begins, Caroline’s perennial enthusiasm for hopeless get-rich-quick schemes and fuitless exciting-object relationships is wearing thin. Her plan for a killing in uranium mining has gone bust as her aging jalopy. Her last lover proved an improvident abuser, and her son, twelve year old Tobias, is drifting into sullen delinquency. One speculates that his petty acting out masked a substantive depression, fueled by Caroline’s fragmented lifestyle; his desolation over paternal loss; and his occulted resentment at his brother’s supposedly more favored lot – of which more presently.

The desperate Caroline allows herself to be wooed and won by Dwight, a coarse auto mechanic, who possesses an unnerving buoyancy and an inexhaustible supply of obsessional bromides (“Call me anything, just don’t call me late for dinner!”). Dwight hails from Concrete, a dead-end town in Washington’s Cascade mountains, where grey skies drip endless rain.

Dwight installs mother and son in a ramshackle house, with the three cowed children from his previous failed marriage. Caroline quickly discovers that Dwight’s narrow soul is utterly devoid of tenderness. In their first mating, Dwight repellently takes her from behind, a dumb receptacle of his masturbatory lust The act predicts an unending progression of loveless, soul- grinding days.

Caroline gradually grows aware that she’s exchanged her days of raucous freedom for the rule of a petty tyrant, just sufficiently cognizant of his mediocrity to detest (and fear) excellence in others. But she has become too depleted by the ebb of her fortunes to much oppose his domination. Besides, she knows he can put three squares on the table; and convinces herself that he’ll exert some kind of stabilizing influence upon the unruly Tobias.

Dwight does indeed take his stepson in hard hand, giving Tobias the outward trappings of a sturdy working class boyhood, with a miserly, sadistic spin – endless bootcamp chores; brutal boxing lessons; a profitless paper route (Dwight pockets and secretly spends Tobias’ earnings). .Tobias gradually comes to realize that Dwight’s nasty competitiveness has been sharpened by his recognition that Caroline quietly values her son above him for his intelligence and sensitivity. One recalls the skewed Oedipal configuration of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.

Tobias’ yearning for a father of any stripe; his inherent strength of character; and pure desire to succeed make him endure Dwight’s demeaning tutelage, even tentatively pull himself together. But at base he remains deeply dispirited, performs poorly in school, and continues to hang out with fellow troublemakers.

As Dwight’s children grow up and flee his bondage, his harassment naturally falls more heavily upon Tobias. With the help of a gay boy he bullies, then befriends – the relationship is etched with a special poignancy – Tobias fiddles his high school record, and wins entrance to a classy prep school.

Tobias’ school acceptance follows close on the heels of Caroline’s decision to work for JFK’s presidential campaign, over Dwight’s spiteful objections. He erupts into a jealous fury, and murderously attacks Tobias. Caroline, awakened from her debased passivity, knocks Dwight cold. The pair exultantly quit Dwight’s miserable homestead, and the barren confines of Concrete forever.

Caton-Smith’s cinematic translation of This Boy’s Life is artfully nuanced. His perception of Concrete’s reality is dark, but not condenscending. The town is never made to seem as odious as Dwight’s pathological corner of it. The director’s vision of Tobias and his mother is equally lucid, unsentimental, carefully matching the adult Wolff’s retrospections. Caroline is an appealing character, but the film quietly underscores the psychological burdens her unmoored lifestyle and her casual overstimulation have placed upon her son. Sympathy for the Tobias’ plight is tempered by acknowledgement of his less attractive features; his strong strain of duplicity, his penchant for bullying and self- destructiveness.

Ellen Barkin admirably captures Caroline’s flightiness and sensuality. In his impressive debut, Leonardo – at that time Leonard – DiCaprio conveys the vicissitudes and physical reality of Tobias’ puberty across several stages with impressive accuracy: he seems uncannily to mature as the picture unspools.

Robert DiNiro has played unhinged, dangerous borderline types before with exceptional subtlety. Unfortunately, in This Boy’s Life he continues the gonzo wretched excesses of his Max Cady role in Scorsese’s Cape Fear. DiNiro’s Dwight is all surface, redolent with quirky shtick. Dwight is a contemptible man, but not beyond our pity. DiNiro has inhabited such unlikeable characters with authority and compassionbefore – e.g. in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But the actor always remains curiously ‘outside’ Dwight’s twisted persona.

The film’s conclusion is not unambivalently upbeat, consonant with its refusal of the convenient Tinseltown pieties of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Caroline, one is told, remarried well. But Tobias’ conflicted Icarean struggles towards the light continued. He dropped out of the prep school he had schemed himself into, fought in Vietnam, then went on to become a writer, and the teller of his boy’s life. .

Ironically, the real father whose absence Tobias grieved so painfully, whose gracious patrician image spurred his longing for escape from Concrete’s mean streets, was actually a charming scam artist. For Tobias’ brother, living with the father was no less tortuous than Tobias’ life with Dwight. The Duke of Deception, Geofrey’s Wolff’s unsparing study of the father, and the cruel impact of his machinations upon the family Tobias never knew, comprises a remarkable companion piece to This Boy’s Life. No one, as Jim Morrison said, gets out of here alive – or at least unwounded.

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