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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ICARUS IN CONCRETE

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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‘Cine-diagnostics': Mental illness on the Big Screen

Silver Linings Playbook,” one of nine pictures nominated for the 2012 Oscars, featured a bipolar hero. (The last nominee with an Axis I protagonist was “A Beautiful Mind,” a lamentably inaccurate portrayal of paranoid schizophrenia, which nevertheless became a beautiful gold mine for Universal Studios.)

My research shows that “Playbook” is one of a half handful of films about bipolar disorder. This set me wondering about the prevalence of various psychiatric disorders in a small group of so-called “mental health” movies focused on the specific syndrome of the hero/heroine, as well many more movies from other genres that provide sufficient material to infer a character’s diagnosis.

Why has cinema favored some disorders while others go neglected? Obviously, there are no statistics on this score. The following remarks about what I’ll call “cine-diagnostics” are based my own impressions rather than established fact.

Whether a feature film (I’m excluding documentaries) focuses on a specific psychiatric disorder or contains characters so well drawn that a diagnosis can be sussed out, filmmakers have always been especially attracted to syndromes that they perceive as hallmarked by especially melodramatic symptoms and behavior. (Of course, the disorder’s presentation might not be as electrifying in real-world psychiatry.)

I suspect that producers and filmmakers conceive that characters with “spectacular” symptomatology offer more entertaining narrative possibilities than less sensational maladies, thereby generating bigger box office revenues. When it comes down to the wire, a disorder’s prevalence or clinical accuracy usually will not count as much to the industry as the picture’s profit potential.

That’s not always a bad thing. See my article on “In Treatment,” the HBO series, on internationalpsychoanalysis.net for more on this point.

The largest group of “mental health” movies was produced from about 1957 to 1963, a period in which increasing public knowledge about psychiatric illness coincided with greater acceptance of its treatment. Krin and Glen O. Gabbard have explored this golden age of “pro-therapy” pictures in their estimable “Psychiatry and the Cinema” (Washington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 1999).

The Gabbards note that former World War II military physicians, who became conversant with promising new therapies during service, were instrumental in demystifying psychiatry upon returning to America. (These methods were often taught by émigré psychoanalysts who had fled Nazi persecution.) Not unsurprisingly, some of the most popular pro-therapy movies were about wartime and post-war post-traumatic stress disorder. Films like “Home of the Brave” (1949) often portrayed PTSD’s more melodramatic features.

Courtesy Showtime
Showtime’s “Homeland” has provided a reasonably accurate portrayal about character Carrie’s (pictured) bipolarity, says Dr. Harvey Roy Greenberg.

After the Golden Age, other “spectacular” syndromes depicted in mental health pictures and popular genres included: conversion disorder (“Freud,” 1962); multiple personality disorder (“The Three Faces of Eve,” 1957); dissociative disorder (“The Swimmer, 1968″); erotomania/de Clerambaults syndrome (“Fatal Attraction,” 1987; “The Story of Adele H,” 1975); alcoholic hallucinosis and delirium tremens (“The Lost Weekend,” 1945); acute schizophrenia (“The Snake Pit,” 1948); and compulsive gambling (“The Lady Gambles,” 1949; “California Split,” 1974).

Antisocial personality disorder was, and still remains, the most prevalent – often immensely popular – Axis II category, particularly in mainstream fare featuring sociopathic characters who relish mayhem and murder (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” 1999). Movies about antisocial serial killers have done so well in recent years that they’ve become an industry staple (“Silence of the Lambs,” 1991; “Manhunter,”1986).

Major depression doesn’t usually present the florid symptomatology of multiple personality disorder or acute paranoid schizophrenia. Arguably, that’s why major depressive disorder (MDD) seems to appear far more often in thoughtful indie or foreign cinema than in action-oriented mainstream movies.

MDD has evoked some of the greatest acting by accomplished actors in cinema – for example, Victor Sjöström’s despairing aged physician in “Wild Strawberries,” (1957); Jeremy Irons’s despondent Antonio in “The Merchant of Venice,” (2004); and Steve Cochran’s inarticulate, ultimately suicidal despair in “Il Grido,” 1957). (“Il Grido” – “The Cry” in English – is a neglected small masterpiece by Michelangelo Antonioni.)

Other psychiatric disorders/conditions less often addressed at the multiplex include Alzheimer’s disease (“Away From Her,” 2006); autism/savant syndrome, (“Rain Man,” 1988); and mental deficiency (“I Am Sam,” 2001); “Light in the Piazza,” 1962). One wonders if filmmakers imagine that a film about Alzheimer’s disease would be too close to the bone for older viewers and might not interest young viewers, who don’t imagine they’ll ever grow old. (The Dustin Hoffman character in “Rain Man” was a misdiagnosed savant, possibly for narrative purposes, but I would rate him in an autistic category.)

I can’t easily account for the dearth of movies about autism and the mentally challenged. Perhaps there’s a mistaken assumption that audiences would be turned off by such pictures because of the uncomfortable, if unacknowledged sense of “otherness” these syndromes evoke in some people, filmmakers included. (The “praecox feeling” of schizophrenia comes to mind.)

I return to the peculiar shortfall of bipolar disorder at the Bijou. “Lust for Life” (1956) isn’t on my short list, because I don’t think Van Gogh was bipolar.

The Madness of King George” (1994) is another vexed case: It remains unclear whether George III’s mania was attributable to porphyria or some other organic disorder. (The porphyria theory has been much disputed.) The monarch’s medical records offer no evidence of a major depressive swing – but then, I wasn’t there. In “Bigger Than Life” (1956), James Mason’s flagrant mania obviously stemmed from heavy doses of steroids given for a collagen vascular disease.

Pressured speech and giddy behavior pervade screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s (“The Awful Truth,” 1937; and “Bringing Up Baby, 1938″). However, their rat-a-tat zaniness is a function of the genre, evidenced by virtually everyone in a screwball movie.

Mr. Jones” (1993) presents an incontestably bipolar patient: Richard Gere’s eponymous hero seems embued with a romantic aura from the start. The picture intimates that his illness endows him with a “specialness” placing him far above the mortal crowd (R.D. Laing was of the same opinion about schizophrenia, and that notion caused much woe.)

Jones and his psychiatrist (Lena Olin) fall in love. Typical of Lalaland’s female practitioner, life outside the job is lackluster until she’s smitten with her patient. I don’t recall if she quits her work to marry Jones/Gere, another standard outcome for female cinetherapists.

She would do well to stop practicing, and not only because of her flagrant boundary violations. A real-life psychiatrist would fend off Gere’s advances and instead seek to determine whether his mania is influenced by a comorbid narcissistic personality disorder or is solely a symptom of his mood disorder – a vital therapeutic issue.

The paucity of bipolarity in past movies, when the disorder was still known as manic depression, might be a function of its unfamiliarity to the average screenwriter back in the day.

It’s not unlikely that the manic side of bipolarity could be confused with acute paranoid schizophrenia with grandiose delusions – a common clinical error that still crops up. Bipolarity also was once deemed relatively rare and didn’t enter as much into public, let alone psychiatric discourse, compared with schizophrenia and “neurotic” diagnoses.

Bipolar disorder had finally come into its own before “Silver Linings Playbook.” One reason is the revelation of their bipolarity by celebrities. I also wonder whether the name change might have played a role in making bipolarity better known and more accepted.

The very word “bipolar” has a kinder, friendlier nimbus than “manic depressive.” Arguably, “manic depression” also held obscure connotations of aggression and irresponsibility for some folks. In my practice, I’ve found that “bipolar disorder” is frequently thought to be somehow more treatable than “manic depression.” I free associate to a patient’s belief that “Wellbutrin” would do him more good than “bupropion.”

Today, bipolar disorder has become the flavor of the month, notably among the glitterati, where it’s as fashionable as Botox. Bipolarity is jabbered about at Hollywood watering holes, on TMZ and reality TV shows.

The word is so detoxified that it’s comfortably entered the vernacular. When an adolescent patient told me that her best girlfriend had become bipolar, she meant the kid was scatterbrained, moody, and, worst of all, messing around with her (the patient’s) boyfriend.

With the ups and downs of bipolarity getting so much play, I expect that screenwriters will create more bipolar characters, because the inherent dramatic value of those affective swings has been recognized in Hollywood. The success of “Silver Linings Playbook” is sure to generate clones.

So far, Showtime’s “Homeland” series has been reasonably accurate about Carrie’s bipolarity; it’s also proved a useful plot device. One can only hope that filmmakers can come up with more fare like “Homeland,” rather than grinding out flyweights like “Silver Linings Playbook.”

A closing thought: Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz” could by a stretch be construed in her dream of Oz as afflicted with Charles Bonnet syndrome, except the tiny and very busy little people of Munchkin Land are extremely interested in her, indeed honor her for slaying the Wicked Witch of the East. In the real deal, the Bonnet’s munchkins go about their business utterly uninterested in the hallucinator. That’s show business.

 

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Film’s side effects not worth the risks

Glen and Krin Gabbard’s “Psychiatry and the Cinema” describes our discipline’s considerable value for screenwriters. The Gabbards cite the term “ficelle,” first used by Henry James in discussing narrative devices. A ficelle is the system of strings used to control a marionette.

According to the Gabbards, the celluloid practitioner often serves as an admirable ficelle – enabling exposition via flashbacks to recent or remote events (“Tell me more about your bar mitzvah …”); eliciting sensational revelations about emotional trauma; illuminating motivation, and so on. In return, Hollywood’s contribution to the understanding of mental illness and its treatment has been meager. More often than not, movies serve up distortions and trivializations about our work.

Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” is the 26th picture in an artistically accomplished and lucrative career. His works range across nearly every genre from science fiction (“Solaris,” 2002) to the caper film (“Ocean’s Eleven,” 2001). He’s directed exemplary “indie” movies like “sex, lies, and videotape,” (1989) as well as box office hits like “Erin Brockovich”(2000). Bafflingly, “Side Effects” is a toss-away turkey. It owns the dubious distinction of cramming the greatest number of misrepresentations about our work and ourselves into a single movie. Some of these are merely risible, others potentially hurtful – of which more presently.

A thin screenplay is cribbed from thrillers with gonzo therapists – for example, “Dressed to Kill” (1980), “Basic Instinct” (1992), and “Final Analysis” (1992) – as well as the “black widow” crime subgenre. [Spoiler Alert!] Dedicated, compassionate Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) undertakes outpatient treatment of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), after a suicide attempt that brought her to the hospital ER, where he’s a consultation/liaison psychiatrist. Several years ago, her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), was convicted of Wall Street insider trading. Martin’s recent return from prison apparently has exacerbated the devastating depression brought on by the loss of her husband, unborn child, and affluent suburban lifestyle. Crippling side effects from a first round of the usual suspect drugs leads Banks to prescribe a new antidepressant, Ablixa. It’s been recommended by Emily’s former Connecticut psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The drug provokes a mild episode of somnambulism, but Banks continues it because Emily is improving.

A few days later, she slashes her husband to death during another bout of sleepwalking, awakening with no memory for the murder. Dr. Banks, a perennial multitasker, turns out to be a respected forensic psychiatrist. His testimony in that capacity gets Emily declared incapable of participating in her defense “by reason of insanity,” and committed to an inpatient facility until deemed competent to stand trial.

As a result of the hailstorm of publicity surrounding the case, Dr. Banks’s life begins to unravel. He’s blamed for prescribing Ablixa, fired by his patients, shunned by his colleagues, threatened with losing his license. His marriage lies in ruins. Broke but not broken, Banks begins to smell more than one rat. He winkles out a conspiracy between Emily and Dr. Siebert – it’s as full of holes as John Dillinger’s corpse. Emily seduced Dr. Siebert. It’s unclear whether she came to Dr. Siebert for help, and intuited the latter’s latent lesbian yearnings and criminality, or planned to corrupt her from the start (my read). The smitten Dr. Siebert taught her to how to mime depression, while giving a short course in psychopathic psychopharmacology. Thus, Emily never took Ablixa, or anything else; faked her suicide; chivvied Dr. Banks into treating her; and slew her husband.

Figuring the value of the Big Pharma company manufacturing Ablixa would plunge in the wake of Martin’s death, Emily and Dr. Siebert scored immense profit by shorting Ablixa. (Emily arguably took a tip from her husband’s criminal market tampering to engineer her own insider fraud). Dr. Banks was cold-bloodedly selected because of his impeccable credentials and forensic clout, under the assumption he would find her incompetent, then push for her acquittal once she was “cured” of her phony major depressive disorder. Emily is now Dr. Banks’s only patient. At first, one cannot ascertain whether he’s only a visitor to the hospital where she’s confined or is consulting with ward therapists. By the end, he’s totally in charge of her care and fate.

One wonders if his job description mutated according to script changes dictated by the director and/or whichever writer was on board the project at whatever time. (Using multiple script writers is common in the industry, particularly in mainstream filmmaking: One of my patients was hired and fired from a production six times.) Dr. Banks compels Emily to confess to the murder by a devious combination of guile and threats. He cons her into thinking Dr. Siebert has secretly paid off his cooperation, because he’s ferreted out the deadly duo’s con. While she’s reasonably certain that that Dr. Banks has been bribed into enabling her release, admitting her guilt to him wouldn’t be a problem in any case: Once acquitted, she cannot be tried again. A murderer invoking double jeopardy is a bromide of crime film and fiction. Dr. Banks entices Emily into entrapping Dr. Siebert into making whoopie at her office. The latter is promptly arrested for professional misconduct, financial fraud, and as an accessory to Martin’s death. In a move typical of film noir, Dr. Banks abruptly turns the tables on Emily (think Sam Spade “sending over” spider lady Brigid O’Shaughnessy to prison and possible execution in “The Maltese Falcon”). Dr. Banks declares Emily is far sicker than he first imagined, summarily orders her communication with the outside world severed, and prescribes a massive cocktail of psychotropics that will keep her indefinitely hospitalized and zombified. His professional and personal happiness is restored in an eye blink.

In these pages and elsewhere, I’ve stated that mainstream moviemakers will always sacrifice clinical accuracy for narrative sizzle when push comes to shove. But I’ll always forgive a film that is only mildly inaccurate and owns redeeming artistic or sheer entertainment value. In recent years, “Homeland” and much of the “In Treatment” series fit that bill. I can’t forgive Soderbergh, whose hits like “Ocean’s Eleven” draw large audiences, for encouraging a multitude of misperceptions in order to make a dismal dud that could easily discourage an emotionally distressed viewer from seeking psychiatric care. I’ve always avoided the periodic wrangling over this issue. However, “Side Effects” is the only film that I believe does pose a substantive risk of putting off prospective clients. What follows is an anatomy of its mistakes and downright falsifications:

• In a case like Emily’s, it would be conceivable but uncommon for a psychiatrist treating a noncriminal patient to also be a qualified forensic expert, tasked to render the pivotal opinion about the client’s competence to stand trial. It would be decidedly rare for that psychiatrist to undertake inpatient treatment of the patient he’s been instrumental in committing. (Let me know if I’m wrong on this score.)

• No lawsuit is ever brought against the manufacturer of a drug with such lethal potential, nor against Dr. Banks for prescribing Ablixa, as would most certainly happen in the litigation-loving real world. (The validity of such legal action is beside the point.) Dr. Banks would seem to have a fourth-rate insurance carrier without a risk-management service. He’s not represented by a skilled malpractice attorney who might advise him not to testify at all if possible or would sharply limit his testimony. In either case, he would be cautioned to cease all contact with Emily.

• These and other omissions could proceed from the creative team’s blind ignorance or willful disregard of the facts in order to facilitate a tighter, more-compelling narrative, as noted above. While annoying to the practitioner, the elisions would not have significant impact on our notional prospective patient. The film’s negative presentation of various psychiatric therapies, and particularly its toxic characterization of practitioners themselves, is vastly more off-putting.

• Soderbergh seems bent on having it both ways vis-a-vis psychopharmacology. He discharges psychotropics from blame by revealing that Emily’s somnambulism and other side effects were malingered, then subliminally criticizes their use. The plentiful mention of unpleasant reactions to well-known psychotropics outweighs citing their very real benefits, particularly to seriously ill patients. (Be it noted in all fairness that Soderbergh also intimates, if distantly, that Big Pharma’s rampant hucksterism may be turning us into pill pushers and folks with ordinary woes into enthusiastic pill poppers.)

• The inpatient service where Emily is confined is at best a drab, cheerless place, where no one seems to care or do very much for the clientele beyond drugs and restraints. But via plot developments, the mise-en-scene’s design, and declarations of camera, the milieu is eventually transformed into a snake-pit cum penitentiary. Patients are totally at the mercy of their minders. Tyrannical psychiatrists can, on a whim, reduce them to vegetative compliance by overmedication and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

• To wangle Emily’s confession, Dr. Banks shows her an ECT treatment like an inquisitor exhibiting the instruments of torture to a recalcitrant heretic. He also infers that ECT memory loss is permanent. Soderbergh resurrects the standard “shake-rattle-and-roll” depiction of earlier mental health movies in which ECT – which in many cases rivals drugs in effectiveness for major affective disorders with fewer side effects – is painted as a barbaric assault upon brain and body.

• Most disheartening is the unsympathetic, even repellant portrayal of virtually every psychiatrist in the film. Underneath her empathic facade, Dr. Siebert is a debauched ice queen, a sleek pantheress capable of loving someone only as perverse and corrupt as she is. Dr. Banks’s colleagues quickly desert him when he most needs collegial support. They’re a timorous, distasteful lot – one recommends Effexor passim but offers not a jot of compassion. “Side Effects” quickly establishes that Dr. Banks is a smart, compassionate humanitarian when, at his ER consultation/liaison job, he identifies a Haitian patient’s supposed hallucinations as a cultural manifestation of grief. But he escapes Emily’s web of deceit by easily identifying with the aggressor, first introjecting, then outdoing her wickedness. Emily happily slaughtered Martin. Now Dr. Banks takes equal pleasure in murdering her spirit. In the closing sequence, he’s seen dropping off his son at a ritzy private school, with his contented wife at his side. All would seem as before, but the taint of Dr. Banks’s spectacular wrongdoing hover around him, rendering his reversion to benevolent healer profoundly suspect. One is reminded of the conclusion of “Suspicion,” which suddenly revealed that Cary Grant/Johnnie never plotted his wife’s murder for her money; he’s always loved her and saw her as his redeemer. The studio allegedly suppressed Hitchcock’s original ending, which unmasked Johnnie’s remorseless psychopathy and had him strangle the wife. The taint of Johnnie’s evil hangs ominously over the bogus happy ending, utterly undoing it. Even auteurs like Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Welles had their flops. Several of Soderbergh’s previous pictures were unsuccessful but always honorable failures.

I would not be so disparaging about “Side Effects” were it not for the possibility that its deep stupidity or flagrant indifference vis-a-vis the psychiatrist’s methods and person might prejudice viewers needing help. Granted their numbers might be few, given greater public awareness of mental disorders. But even one would be too many. TV commercials routinely caution that such-and-such nostrum might not be “right for everyone,” then unreel a list of black box warnings and other disagreeable reactions (the sinister roll call frequently concludes with the very ailment for which the drug is prescribed in the first place, but farewell that). I believe “Side Effects” isn’t right for anyone. Take this review as a warning against Soderbergh’s deplorable black box.

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Seth MacFarlane’s off night

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual award ceremony debuted at a modest dinner in the Blossom Room of Los Angeles’s Hollywood Roosevelt hotel in 1929. Two hundred and seventy people attended at $5 a head. Who could have predicted that by 2013, the Oscars would have evolved – or devolved, depending upon one’s viewpoint – into a Tinseltown behemoth, staged before a glittering celebrity horde, broadcast to millions of viewers across America and around the world?

(Worshipping at Oscar’s Golden Calf also yields millions of shekels to the host TV network from commercials, as well as to winners – especially big name stars –- their retinues and sundry studio machers.)

Today’s Oscar ceremony (it’s officially no longer called the Academy Awards) is a gross spectacle of self-congratulation, wherein Lalaland egos are stroked to an even higher gloss. Standing ovations, once rare, are now obligatory, regardless of the talent on display, or lack of same.

The dilemma posed year after year to the producers of this anthem to the culture of narcissism is how to articulate the actual presentations with a semblance of entertainment. One doubts this can ever be satisfyingly brought off, due to the nature of the beast.

Each year brings an ever-glitzier high-tech mise-en-scene, but the Oscars inevitably – and endlessly – pivot around the unwrapping of the Holy Envelope, the strut to glory, then an acceptance speech cataloguing the recipient’s benefactors, which frequently stretches from parents, to high school drama teacher, to King Abimelech.

This year, the Oscar sachems chose Seth MacFarlane, creator of Fox’s “Family Guy” and the hit movie “Ted” (2012) to host the show. One supposes they thought that the series’ irreverent humor, which has notably drawn young adult viewers, would likewise seduce them to watch the awards: MacFarlane could surely be trusted to send up Hollywood’s foibles in the spirit of “Family Guy’s” satirical edginess.

Instead, his wise-ass dishing was so witless as to make one yearn for Bob Hope’s harmless, but quite funny ba-da-BUMP-BUMP one-liners back in the day. In the introductory monologue, “Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk (William Shatner) addressed MacFarlane from the future. Kirk/Shatner prophesized that MacFarlane would receive a negative critical and industry response the next day – which is precisely what happened in many quarters.

The debacle following MacFarlane’s began with “We Saw Your Boobs,” a blatantly misogynistic number about famous actresses who had appeared topless. One of the spoofed was Jodie Foster, whose nakedness sharpened the horror of her rape in “The Accused.”

Then followed a reasonably repellant bashing of – inter alia – gays and Jews. (A sketch about how you couldn’t make it in Tinseltown without a yarmulke was particularly reprehensible.) His humor even descended into the territories of domestic violence and slavery with a joke about Rihanna and Chris Brown.

How to account for this orgy of bad taste? My guess is that the writing team assumed their odious gags would be received as so “in” to veterans of the industry that no offense would be taken. Many of the “in” crowd thought otherwise, women notably.

As for the “outs,” it didn’t seem to occur to MacFarlane and company that a worldwide TV audience would include parents who might deem their kids unready for X-rated trash talk. Or that the merely ignorant, or truly down-and-dirty nazified would find the argument that Jews really do run Hollywood quite persuasive.

Andrew O’Hehir, who writes for salon.com, did a good job of explaining why what MacFarlane tried to do just didn’t work: ” … If anything, I think MacFarlane’s Oscar night performance was too clever by half and resulted in a profound failure of messaging and symbolism. As one female friend of mine succinctly put it, ‘Somebody else might’ve been able to pull that off, but that guy just looked like a frat boy in a tux.’ ” He went on to say that many people experienced MacFarlane’s humor as “the humor of mockery and abuse.”

It was entirely fitting to the mediocre tenor of the 2013 Oscars that “Argo,” an entertaining but hardly memorable escape caper, would win best picture over Steven Spielberg’s magisterial “Lincoln.”

But let’s give MacFarlane credit for analyzing the 16th president’s enigmatic character with a subtlety that eluded Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis. The only person who ever really was able to get into Lincoln’s head, our host asserted, was John Wilkes Booth. That’s entertainment!

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Dulce Et Decorum – A Review of Saving Private Ryan

A photograph lies before me as I write, taken at a British airbase sometime in l944. It shows the crew of a B-l7 Flying Fortress, their plane in the background. My uncle Bernard, its radio operator, kneels in the first row, his presence rendered uncannily real via computerized restoration. Bernie had lied about his age to enlist at l7. By the time of the photo, three years into his war, he’d become a skilled technical sergeant. The oldest man — and only career officer — was the pilot, a 26-year-old captain.

Shortly afterwards all of them were killed, saving a gunner who had been grounded with a sinus infection over his angry protests. (Bernie’s best friend and the other Jewish crew member, he continued corresponding with my family for thirty years thereafter.) The Army said they had died bravely, but details were hard to come by. After the war, my uncle Hirsch — he’d served in the Navy — travelled to England and found Bernie’s grave, a Star of David amidst a sea of crosses. Hirsch also discovered that Bernie’s squadron had been tasked to shoot down the buzz-bombs — subsonic V2 rocket precursors — which the Germans were hurling across the Atlantic into English cities.

The mission called for long hours of aerial surveillance, carrying an extra fuel load which altered the B-l7’s flight performance. On its first training run Bernie’s plane reached the end of the runway, swerved, then suddenly blew up. There was no possibility of escape. Hirsch was assured Bernie had not suffered, but he knew there could be no certainty on this score. Bad weather conditions, pilot error, even sabotage, were cited as possible reasons for the explosion. At home we blamed the war itself, and never thought otherwise than that Bernie had died in an honorable cause.

My ten-year-old imagination intuitively sanitized Bernie’s demise through the mediation of Hollywood war movies. When his coffin was eventually brought back home to Philadelphia, I considered neither the incinerated dreadfulness of its contents nor the torment my uncle might have endured in that terrible vortex of flame. In my mind’s eye he reposed whole — as in a dignified sleep. Like the dead pilot on his hospital bed in Howard Hawks’Air Force (l943).

Our rabbi proclaimed that the tragic loss of Bernie’s promise would be redeemed by the free world that was his legacy; avowed his sacrifice would never be forgotten. But within a few years Bernie’s death and his purloined future already were insidiously slipping away. Remembrance and grief had ebbed as my uncle dwindled into history

The therapeutic, yet problematic attrition wrought by time upon traumatic recollection constitutes a central motif ofSaving Private Ryan, Stephen Spielberg’s epic reconstruction of the D-Day invasion and its aftermath. The theme is struck in the film’s first shot — of a bleached-out, gently stirring American flag. This strange, estranging image summons up the bold stars-and-stripes of Patton’s (l970) opening bellicose speech, here spurring intimations of subtle melancholy.

Like the Sabbath candle drained of color at the beginning of Schindler’s List (l993), the faded flag evokes another World War II site of irremediable loss which Spielberg seeks to recuperate before the D-Day combatants, like the victims of the Holocaust, are gone forever. The “good war” has often been a priveleged subject of Spielberg’s “oeuvre” as early as the surprisingly fluid home movie which he wrote and directed as a young adolescent, starring his backyard chums. Interviews indicate that throughout his childhood Spielberg was enraptured by his father’s tales of service as a B-25 radio operator in Burma.(l)

Crucial to the memory work of Saving Private Ryan is its creator’s intention that a public whose sensibilities has so often been dulled by a surfeit of artificial violence should behold the very thing itself: the grisly toll of war upon the flesh of young American troops on that distant Sixth of June. Mutatis mutandis, the film uncompromisingly depicts analogous horrors executed by our GI’s upon their opponents under the aegis of honorable duty (and sometimes questionably executed).

The establishing sequence’s palid banner dissolves to a cemetery above the Normandy beaches where an aged veteran walks haltingly through an expanse of crosses, past a Star of David like the one that stood over Bernie’s resting place. Had he lived, my uncle would have been the same age as this now grizzled warrior — a recognition whose pathos has doubtless been registered by other surviving viewers regarding their fallen comrades, as well as by relatives whose loved ones perished more than a half century ago in the hell below this place.

The old vet falls to his knees before a grave, his family hovering anxiously behind him. In closeup his eyes brim with tears. The camera pulls back to reveal the taut face of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), who one will later learn is the leader of an elite Ranger company. One’s awareness of Hanks’ star status is played adroitly against the introduction of his character as an anonymous cog in a mighty military machine, sitting quietly in a landing boat at the spearhead of the invasion. Other troops smoke, puke, and pray around him — as in a host of earlier cinematic recreations like The Longest Day (l962).

The men shuffle forward, the ramp slams down. Instantly the camera’s viewpoint cuts to that of a German machine gunner in a bunker above the beach. With a single burst, every soldier is mowed down before setting a foot ashore. It’s deliberately unclear whether one has witnessed the annhilation of the craft in the preceding sequence — and Miller/Hanks with it. This astonishing, transgressive “coup de cinema” instantly thrusts the viewer into a state of frightening disequilibrium, reminiscent of one’s incredulous reaction to Janet Leigh’s murder midway through Psycho (l960). Mainstream cinema isn’t supposed to expose one to such trauma from the safe perspective of the tenth row.

The boat’s destruction launches a half-hour sequence in which the human body is mutilated, macerated, punctured, disembowelled with scarifying authenticity. One cringes before an intolerable cacophany — the roar of explosions, the whang of richochets, the screams of the dying, the fragmented babble of the terrified living.

A frequent borrower from other films, Spielberg has just as frequently marred his skills by overwhelming his sources with wretchedly excessive special effects, as inAlways’ (l989) hyperbolic rehash of A Guy Named Joe(l944).(2) Saving Private Ryan refuses any competitive homage. In one bravura stroke, Spielberg “takes back” the standard World War II film’s stylized gore, unmutilating mortal wounds, last-gasp foxhole rhetoric — every device which disguised the gruesome reality of combat from homefront viewers — amongst them, my child self before and after my uncle’s death.

A multitude of untested boys lie slaughtered or horrendously wounded around Miller; crying out for mother, medic, or priest (by chance or the generals’ choice, such raw troops were flung wholesale on D-Day onto the brutal beaches beside the Ranger outfits, like so much raw meat). Amidst the chaos, Miller begins hyperfocussing upon the bloody scene. His decelerated flashes of traumatized and gradually organizing perception are exemplary of veteran cameraman Janusz Kaminski’s virtuoso riffs on the combat photography of the time.(3) The captain succeeds in rallying his company, supported by his equally seasoned top sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore).

The Rangers penetrate the German defenses and establish a beachhead for their comrades. Their professionalism is rendered more remarkable through Spielberg’s repeated, if understated emphasis that most of these men are not professionals — Miller taught high school — but have learned their perilous trade on the line. However, admiration for their gritty valor is tempered by one’s increasing awareness of its darker side: protective numbing of the sensibilities; cruel animal ferocity, compelled both by vengeance and the sheer need to discharge pent-up fear. Enemies flushed out of the bunkers by flamethrowers invite the laconic observation: “Let ‘em burn.” Surrendering prisoners are shot down with a diffident joke about the GI’s defective hearing.

Hardly has the assault subsided when Miller is given another impossible assignment, stoically accepted. He and the cream of his valuable cadre are dispatched to search out a single paratrooper, James Ryan, whose unit has been scattered across the French countryside during the pre-invasion drop, possibly stumbling into enemy held territory. Ryan’s three brothers have been slain — two lie on the Normandy beaches — and General George C. Marshall himself wants Private Ryan plucked out of the war, sent back to his mother and his prairie home.(4) Ryan’s rescue is no cheap PR gimmick. A moving Washington sequence, in which Marshall reads Lincoln’s famous letter to the mother who had lost five sons in the civil war, attests to the utter sincerity of the general’s purpose.

After a series of alternately picaresque and terrifying encounters in which two of their number are killed, the Rangers stumble upon Ryan (an insouciant Matt Damon). To their dismayed anger he refuses to abandon his outfit, which has been decimated in defending a crucial bridge. His buddies are now his family, Ryan declares; his mother would surely approve his decision to remain with them.

The ordinarily unreflective Horvath surprises Miller with the speculation that getting Ryan home may be the finest act any of them will take away from the war. Miller opts to join the paratroopers in a last ditch stand against the German panzers. The length and spectacular savagery of the action serves to bracket the initial invasion scene.

Ryan survives; Miller, Horvath, and most of the Rangers do not. In a return to the framing sequence, the aged Ryan — it’s he, not Miller who has made the painful second journey to Normandy — addresses the Captain’s grave; swears he has lived every day of his life according to Miller’s last words: “Earn this . . .” Ryan salutes; the film concludes upon a final shot of the faded flag.

Miller and his cadre encompass a broad sampling of American class and ethnicity: Jew and Italian, city and farm dweller, lowbrow and highbrow. (African Americans are notably excluded, for few were afforded opportunity to die for democracy by that segregated Army.) The group resembles those assembled in a hundred other Hollywood war movies, encompassing World War I to the Vietnamese debacle, including the choice handful Spielberg respectfully alludes to (e.g. A Walk In The Sun[l946], Battleground [l949], Attack! [l956], The Victors[l964], Platoon [l985]). Other genre commonplaces include the GI’s perennial griping; offcolor gibes; their angry debate about their mission’s validity, redeemed by ultimate respect for their leaders.

Saving Private Ryan’s strong casting lends an astringent depth to its characters, major and minor, which transcends the regional/ethnic cliches Spielberg consciously invokes. Hanks’ quiet integrity and Sizemore’s profane toughness inform the best work of their careers. Amongst the GIs, Barry Pepper’s devout Southern sharpshooter is especially — and eerily — striking. The single glaring disappointment is Jeremy Davies’ Corporal Upham, an egghead writer seconded to the Rangers as a translator. The liberal Upham comes wreathed in ponderously predictable tropes, his disastrous terminal cowardice included.

Robert Rodat’s workmanlike script largely manages to avoid “why we fight” bromides, no small task given Spielberg’s well known penchant for sententious sentimentality. Rodat/Spielberg’s grasp of myriad telling details of the invasion is unerring (e.g., the dead fishes littering the beaches; a GI efficiently knocking an ammo clip into his gun against his helmet). Equally impressive is the film’s feel for screwups, hilarious or tragic (e.g., in a compulsive post-traumatic babble, a haggard glider pilot recounts how the heavy armor specially installed to protect a general was responsible for the crash that killed nearly everyone aboard, the general included).

Saving Private Ryan has proven a surprising hit. However, like Schindler’s List, it has occasionally been labeled as yet another Hollywood co-optation of weighty and tragic events. The film’s accuracy (5) and ideological agenda have also been questioned. It owns the dubious distinction of being castigated from both right and left. Conservative critics have complained that neither the vileness of Nazi evil, nor the glory of its vanquishment are sufficiently addressed in Spielberg’s project.

One rebuts that, having already dealt plentifully with Nazi monstrousness in the enormously successful Schindler’s List, Spielberg has made a not unwarranted assumption that his audience is aware, however faintly, of the dire and just reasons dictating the necessity for D-Day. Although the force of the concluding graveside sequence is greatly diminished by Ryan’s saccharine plea for his wife’s validation, it still amply testifies to Spielberg’s belief that Miller’s sacrifice has shaped Ryan’s maturity by obliging him to live out the moral American future for which Miller gave his life.

Mutatis mutandis, various critics on the left have claimed the film is as jingoistic as any John Wayne flag-waver; object to the portrayal of German troops as anonymous stick figures to be competently massacred. One counters that, for once, Spielberg’s patriotism is blessedly implicit rather than banally explicit. With the exception of a single prisoner, German troops appear as they were customarily beheld: fierce, feared, innominate adversaries, glimpsed through a halestorm of destruction, to be killed before they could kill — and fuck them.

Indeed, if one sets ideology, viability of cause aside,Saving Private Ryan emerges as a harrowing pop-culture essay on the ruthless art and brutal vicissitudes of soldiering in any war.(6) One could well have done without both cemetary scenes, but these, too, are testamentary of another given of military experience — the veteran’s prevailing belief that he fought the good fight, even if the cause was objectively detestable.

I look again at the picture of the now antique B-l7 and its crew. More than a half century after the fact I can only remember Bernie’s broad smile as he gave my mother an absurdly huge bunch of bananas at the time of his last leave. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” wrote the Roman poet Horace of death in battle: “Sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country…” Saving Private Ryanaffirms that, were it not for young men like John Miller and my uncle, I would probably not be alive today. But Spielberg’s enterprise leaves no doubt that such deaths, such losses, are never sweet; no, never.

References

  1. For a fuller discussion of World War II’s significance relative to Spielberg’s personal background and career, see Harvey R. Greenberg: “Raiders of the Lost Text: Remaking as Contested Homage in Always“, in Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch. New York: Columbia University Press, l993, pp. 2ll-24.
  2. Greenberg, Harvey R., ibid.
  3. Besides referencing the footage of regular Army photographers, Spielberg and Kaminsky have obviously been influenced by John Huston’s documentary, The Battle of San Pietro (l945). Arguably the most accurate depiction of combat to that date, Huston’s stunning work was largely held back from homefront audiences by the authorities, who deemed the horrors he recorded antithetical to the patriotic sentiments the film was supposed to arouse.
  4. Both are limned with powerful economy in a scene which shows the mother peering anxiously through the window of her homestead at a war department car which threads its way down a winding road into her yard. An officer and clergyman emerge. They climb the stairs of the front porch, the minister’s hand tentatively outstretched as Mrs. Ryan slumps slowly to the floor. The sequence works daringly against the attainder of kitch. It achieves the hieratic status of a pieta sans Son through homely yet uncannily hyperreal figurations evocative of Thomas Hart Benton and Norman Rockwell.
  5. The Rangers’ mission may be an unlikely fantasy, but it unfolds in a mise-en-scene infinitely — and painfully — more factual than The Longest Day (for corroboration, see Stephen Ambrose, D-Day: June 6, l944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, l995; also, Paul Fussell,Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. New York: Oxford University Press, l989).
  6. A similar discourse from the Wehrmacht soldier’s pointedly unideological perspective is Sam Peckinpah’s unjustfiably neglected Cross of Iron(l976).
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Video games, violence, and a false premise

Politicos and media experts of various stripes and credibility have predictably implicated violent video games in the Sandy Hook tragedy.

In fact, it’s far from clear what, if indeed any role violent games, TV, or movies have played in the wave of public massacres besetting America – including the Sandy Hook slaughter. A complex cybernetic exists between game players and game makers, film viewers and film makers.

Debate about media-related aggression is hardly new. During the silent era, several commissions within and outside the film industry agreed that the new medium could have poisonous effects upon children, as well as on women and immigrants.

©adamfilip/iStockphoto.com

In the 1930s, with the advent of sound, worries further escalated that gangster films like “The Public Enemy” (1931) and “Little Caesar” (1931) might encourage youth and other vulnerable populations to turn even more savage (including those ever-suspect immigrants. After all, concerns were already high that immigrants would have a negative impact on the country’s social fabric). In this setting, the power of the Hays Office to monitor on-screen morality exacted a heavy toll on Hollywood’s creativity. Ham-fisted censors decreed that a married couple in a screenplay could occupy a bed only if at least one foot of each partner were planted firmly on the floor.

In 1954, concerns were voiced before the Kefauver commission about the corrupting influence on youthful minds of lurid horror comics like EC Comics’ “Tales From the Crypt.” Withering criticism by sachems like child psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham led EC’s CEO Bill Gaines to close down the shop. He went on to use EC’s artistic talents to create MAD magazine. Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” went on to become a prized comic collectible. And so it goes.

Today as in the past, any connection between public violence and violent media continues to be a highly vexed question. Christopher J. Ferguson, Ph.D., of Texas A&M International University, Laredo, an expert on the impact of media violence affiliated with, conducted an exquisitely sophisticated analysis of research projects purportedly proving that violent video games provoked aggression in youthful players. Dr. Ferguson, and John Kilburn, Ph.D., discovered that every “definitive” study was in fact profoundly flawed (J. Pediatr. 2009;54:759-63).

In a prospective study of 603 mainly Hispanic youth, Dr. Ferguson found that the best predictors of aggression and violence were depressive symptoms and peer delinquency (J. Youth Adolescence 2010;40:377-91).He and Dr. Kilburn concluded that violent video games and TV do not cause youthful aggression, major or minor. I agree – with the caveat that I’d be willing to change my mind if reliably designed future investigations were to demonstrate otherwise.

I know of no defendant who has ever beaten a murder rap by blaming violent media of any sort. Furthermore, our cascade of Newtowns, Auroras, and Columbines simply do not exist in nations across the world, whose youth are as devoted to videogaming as are our kids (even more ardent fans can be found in places such as Japan and South Korea.) Addiction to videogaming, per se, across the world is quite a different and very serious, DSM-worthy problem (Pediatrics 2011;127:e319-29).

After Columbine-type incidents in the 1990s, England and Canada enacted stringent gun control laws. No further Sandy Hooks have occurred in those countries since those laws were enacted.

An immense amount of writing has been done – fictional or academic – probing the uneasy articulation between the thirst for liberty, individual rights, and salutary violence in shaping the national character. [I especially recommend “Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America” (New York: Atheneum, 1992) by culture critic Richard Slotkin]. For a host of reasons, Americans have always prized guns, and we now own more of them than any nation on the planet.

Gun-making is enormously profitable, from manufacture to point of purchase. Personal arsenals now routinely include infinitely more formidable weapons than colonial musketry, including the popular Bushmaster, capable of spitting out scores of bullets in seconds.

As the familiar saw goes, guns do not kill people. People with guns kill people. The more guns, the more people die, singly or en masse (a fortunately rare occurrence). If only legal authorities carry guns and certifiable hunters carry standard single-shot weapons, then fewer homicides would occur. It’s that simple.

But what am I to do without my Glock when a bad guy sticks his Glock in my face? Criminals will indeed always find guns, but it’s quite possible that they won’t get them as easily if fewer are around. In any case, consider the yearly harvest of noncriminal citizens who become criminals by using legalized firearms.

For instance, if you tote your legal gun into a bar, an athletic event, or a problematic marriage, it will be easy for you to pull it in either instance when drunk and disinhibited, if your inclinations run strongly in that direction. Because the gun is there. If you’re a seriously disaffected, disturbed young man who’s easily procured a Bushmaster, you’ve been enabled to act out your frustrations or delusions by mowing down a schoolroom of children. No Bushmaster, no Glock, no Sandy Hook. It’s that simple. (One might use other means, fire, explosives, but it wouldn’t be easy.)

I certainly support any measure that would provide better psychiatric treatment in a great first-world nation. More quality education about emotional illness would be welcome. But I am profoundly repelled by the media hype that implies an affinity between madness and mayhem. It always surges forth after a Sandy Hook disaster and might very well result in further stigmatizing people with any psychiatric disorder – only a tiny fraction of whom pose a danger, and then more often to themselves.

I’ll also gladly endorse any reasonable method for early identification of youngsters with emotional problems, including violent propensities. But, at the risk of being labeled an Ayn Rand disciple (which I most certainly am not) I’m wary about fabricating strategies that might be intrusive, cause inappropriate labeling, or subvert the constitutional rights to privacy of parents or guardians.

Even with the best means and intentions vis-a-vis early recognition of young potential mass murderers, I suspect most will remain beneath the radar, attracting no attention until they erupt into havoc. Viewed through that most sensitive of instruments, the retrospectoscope, the failure of school and/or family to perceive their problems and danger seems glaring. But these deranged young men are all too often time bombs, ignored because no one hears the ticking concealed by their mask of sanity.

Finally, let me underscore Dr. Carl C. Bell’s observations about the peril of copycat killings as a result of media lingering over a Columbine catastrophe. The phenomenon is well-documented. Nevertheless, TV news programs continue to exhibit scenes of the carnage, interviews with grieving families, neighbors; funeral footage, so forth, for days afterward.

Meanwhile, the usual talking heads ceaselessly dither over the terrible event. To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s famous dictum: “Whereof one should not speak, one must be silent.”

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‘Bernie’ explores masculine identity formation

Slacker,” director Richard Linklater’s 1991 debut feature,unfolded a daisy-chain of Austin bohemian mavericks, and otherwise gonzo 20-somethings, weaving in and out of one another’s lives in a surreal roundelay. Their means of support were uncertain and minimal. Many were former University of Texas students and expressed vague anarchistic or new-age metaphysical beliefs. But they were totally devoid of political or spiritual action, indeed meaningful action of any sort. They seemed flash frozen in a state of not-unpleasant late-adolescent identity drift.

After “Slacker” garnered major critical praise on the festival/art house circuit, Hollywood was quick to recognize Linklater’s talents. Over 20 years, he has directed and written an impressive body of work. His films are hallmarked by a wide diversity of genres. He’s scored mainstream box office successes – for example, “Bad News Bears,” (2005) and made highly regarded independent productions – for example, “Before Sunrise” (1995).

“Slacker” ’s theme of an outsider embedded in a state of forestalled or permanently derailed individuation is threaded throughout Linklater’s Hollywood and Indie productions. Pictures like “SuBurbia” (1996), “Dazed and Confused” (1995), and “Tape” (2001) draw acutely upon his own experiences as a reasonably estranged Houston teenager and young adult.

Linklater’s protagonists are often spectacularly immature older male outsiders and misfits. Jack Black’s down-and-out stoner guitarist in “The School of Rock” (2003) poses as a substitute 4th-grade music teacher at an uptight prep school. He redeems his finances and selfhood by turning his students into a prize-winning band of Aerosmith acolytes.

Linklater’s new film, “Bernie,” reunites him with Black in his most complex, poignant exploration of compromised masculine identity formation to date. His unlikely medium is the true-crime “mockumentary”: a subgenre that has become a lurid TV cottage industry in the past decade.

Linklater’s script was cowritten by Skip Hollandsworth, from his piquant 1998 Texas Monthly story, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” (available on the Texas Monthly’s website (http://www.texasmonthly.com). Hollandsworth’s tall but absolutely real tale describes how the meanest woman in town was murdered by the nicest guy in town.

That town is Carthage, Tex.: pop. 6,500. Via a whimsical cartoon, Linklater instructs us that Texas is not monolithic, neither in its geography nor sensibilities. There’s Austin-land, replete with tree-hugging socialists; Dallas territory, with its money-mad oilocrats; the panhandle, next best thing to the Gobi wastes. And East Texas, a region of pinewood-enclosed hamlets with deep Southern conservative political and religious values.

Carthage is East Texan to the bone: a tightly knit community where everybody knows everybody, where you go along to get along and help your neighbor even if you don’t like him much. Hollandsworth told me that West Texas discourse tends toward dour monosyllables. East Texans, on the other hand, love to gab and gossip, and are wryly funny at both.

Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede II arrived in Carthage in 1985 to take up a post as assistant director at the Hawthorn Funeral Home. Funeral director Don Lipsey hired him by phone. Bernie owned credible mortuary credentials, but it was his striking warmth and sincerity that convinced Lipsey that he had lucked into the exemplary man for a tough job. Actually, Lipsey knew little about Bernie’s past, nor would anyone else in Carthage ever learn much more. It almost seemed that he had materialized in their midst ex nihilo.

Bernie proved a wizard at embalming, “cosmetizing, and casketing.” In Linklater’s delicious establishing sequence, he demonstrates his macabre art to admiring students: the dearly departed’s face should be turned slightly toward the mourners in gentle farewell and the lips shaped to a slight smile, Bernie tells us, with his own saccharine little smile.

Bernie’s people skills in the trade were even more formidable. He always knew just the right thing to say, or sing in his pure, light tenor. With Bernie cosmetizing, casketing, then serenading your corpus with “Amazing Grace,” you just knew that you were going to heaven. He was especially beloved by his DLOLs – Dear Little Old Ladies. His solicitude to widows extended past mere entombment. He visited them at home for weeks afterward, bearing flowers and comforting words.

When he wasn’t working, Bernie was as loving and serviceable to the Carthage community at large. He donated prodigious time and effort to a plethora of community organizations, especially the Methodist church. He sang in the choir, even gave sermons that were frequently – if not openly – declared better than the minister’s. He was always available to help with your taxes or hang your curtains. Yes, he was a bit of a spender, but never on himself, aside from the brood of plastic penguins on his lawn.

In 1990, Bernie casketized R.L. “Rod” Nugent, a former oilman who brought his wife, Marjorie, back to her hometown for their golden years. Rod built Marjorie a gated McMansion just outside of Carthage and became a respected banker. He was a good old boy, tough but fair minded. Unfortunately, Marjorie was a miserly misanthrope, totally estranged from her son and other relatives, given to bouts of depression, and increasingly reclusive. When she did visit the bank, it was to savor turning down loans.

Rod’s death left Marjorie devastated, for she was utterly dependent upon him. When Bernie first came to her doorstep bearing his usual flowers, she sourly turned him away. Soon, however, she was drawn to his kindness. He drew her out of her shell. She even started attending church. Over time the two became semi-inseparable. Although never actually living together, Bernie increasingly waited attendance upon her, cooked her meals, kept up the house and grounds, did her nails, pumiced her feet, and jaunted with her to Russia, Las Vegas, and New York.

Bernie eventually resigned from the funeral parlor to become Marjorie’s full-time majordomo. His finances clearly improved. Along the way, she gave him power of attorney, then made him her sole heir. Aside from buying a small house and several small planes – he had always wanted to fly – Bernie mostly used Marjorie’s money to help needy individuals and Carthage’s entire community. (The town’s fortunes boomed in the 1950s from large natural gas deposits, but its circumstances had declined by the 1990s.) Bernie bailed out old businesses, financed several new ones, ensured mortgages, promised a lavish church endowment. He was particularly preoccupied with raising Carthage’s cultural tone by financing and performing in college musicals.

Over 7 years, the odd couple provoked desultory gossip, notably as to whether they were lovers. Not so, ran the prevailing opinion – some of the men in town “would insinuate that Bernie was a little light in his loafers,” Don Lipsey said in the Texas Monthly piece. In the main, the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie was tolerated with congenial bemusement.

Then, in August 1997, mounting suspicions about Marjorie’s whereabouts over the preceding year led police to search her home. Her body was discovered in a freezer, wrapped in a Land’s End blanket, shot four times in the back. Bernie was arrested and immediately confessed to impulsively killing Marjorie 9 months earlier with the .22 rifle she gave him to dispatch the armadillos despoiling her flower beds (he got nary a one). He said Marjorie had grown so tyrannous that he has passed from being her protector to her traumatized slave. He shot her in a moment of impulsive fury and was intensely remorseful; indeed, he still loved her.

But Carthage district attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson believed Bernie was a consummate con artist from the get-go and theorized that he cold-bloodedly executed Marjorie because she had discovered his embezzling and was about to turn him in. The DA made a move common in the defense bar, but rare for a prosecutor. He successfully requested a change of venue, convinced that Bernie would be acquitted in a Carthage courtroom. Bernie was subsequently convicted and received a life sentence from a backwater jury 50 miles down the road. According to a Carthage supporter, its members “had more tattoos than teeth.”

During the 9 months in which Bernie had fastidiously covered up Marjorie’s murder, he had dipped into her fortune even more extravagantly to help the town – but not himself. One speculates that Marjorie’s presence, however cancerous, reinforced a shaky superego. With her out of the way, this mouse was well and truly out to play.

Marjorie’s estranged relatives swooped down after the trial to reclaim their inheritance, with the IRS not far behind. Carthage’s citizens and institutions suffered mightily when Bernie’s munificence was undone. But many, if not a majority of Carthaginians still believe Bernie was justified in or even innocent of sending Marjorie to whatever constituted her just rewards. Bernie is now just as helpful to fellow inmates as he was to his Carthage friends – giving cooking lessons, leading chapel services, so forth.

Jack Black’s impersonation of Bernie is stunning. One realizes just how finely honed it is when Linklater shows us the real imprisoned Bernie chatting up the actor, 14 years after the event. Black either put on weight or pillowed himself into Bernie’s cherubic porkiness. He owns the slight waddle; the chirpy perkiness; the unparodied tinge of effeminate gesture. (Although we don’t hear Bernie’s voice, Black certainly has, and meticulously mimes its suave sweetness, spoken and sung.) Crucially, Black uncannily captures Bernie’s formidable character armor – of which more presently.

Curiously, Shirley MacLaine’s Marjorie has gone unappreciated or even been critiqued as a mere caricature. MacLaine does have far fewer scenes and lines than does Black, but the very shortfall throws her nonverbal skills into higher relief. Hollywood actresses classically perceive aging as an unnatural narcissistic injury and either take on inappropriate younger roles or retire altogether. MacLaine unhesitatingly displays sagging, liverish arms and facial wrinkles, the better to equate Marjorie’s physical erosion with her withered, mean-spirited disposition.

Bernie and Marjorie’s story is chiefly told by Carthage’s townspeople directly to Linklater’s camera. Many play themselves. Taken together, they comprise a pinewoods Greek chorus, meditating upon this ultimately tragic tall tale. Far from being central casting tobacco-road hicks, they’re a spirited, intelligent lot, with that inimitable East Texas blend of irony and drollery.

Their compassion for Bernie remains steadfast (a ray of charity for Marjorie also peeps through). While often admitting bewilderment about who Bernie really was, few – at least in the movie – doubt his good intentions, or think he meant to gull them. Notable exceptions are Marjorie’s starchy stockbroker, and DA Davidson: He continues to rate Bernie a smarmy Madoff, who made off with Marjorie’s lucre, offed her, and nearly ruined Carthage in the process. (In Matthew McConaghey’s flamboyant portrayal, the DA’s oleaginous aw-shucks charm conceals a canny self-promoter.)

Linklater has been tasked by some critics for being too sympathetic to Bernie, especially for insufficiently pondering his character and motives. The film does not cite significant events in Bernie’s past. According to Hollandsworth, his mother died when he was 3 years old, and his father passed away while Bernie was 15, leaving him to raise his younger sister and himself with little assistance. He had planned a career in the arts. But soon after his father’s death, in the setting of a job cleaning a mortuary yard, he knew he had found his life’s calling.

Were Bernie in one’s office, such details would precipitate a psychoanalyst’s speculative delirium. One would wonder, for instance, whether the shock of parental abandonments predisposed him to preternatural goodness, including rejecting a “bad” gay identity lest he be abandoned again; (homoerotic porn was found on his premises by the police, but its exact nature has never been revealed). Bernie seemed to have always been intensely pious. Was his hyperbolic benevolence based on identification with the all-giving Christ? Was his intense psychic pain somehow rationalized as mirroring Jesus’ suffering for the world’s collective sins? Bernie begins and ends over a lovely string transcription of the hymn “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“Oh Sacred Head, Filled With Blood and Wounds”). It figures poignantly in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. Was Linklater aware of its possible resonance with Bernie’s personal passion?

Did parental death during those tenderest of ages – early childhood and adolescence – dictate Bernie’s choice of a career centered on returning the dead to a semblance of life? Gripped by potent repetition compulsion, was he compelled to master and remaster his own grief through assuaging the grief of others?

Could the mother’s primal loss ground his increasingly symbiotic, ambivalent relationship with Marjorie Nugent, a woman double his age? Why keep her frozen for 9 months, when he could easily have disposed of her body? He told authorities he hoped to eventually give her a proper burial. In Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Norman Bates, after killing his mother to escape her stultifying domination, mummifies her corpse so as to keep her eternally by his side. From this morbid perspective, Bernie emerges not as a psychopathic con man, but a mortally damaged, guilty soul, striving desperately to preserve a maternal keystone of his identity, which had become an horrific burden instead of a blessing.

Whether such questions are relevant, groundless, or even absurd is peculiarly beside the point. We certainly can ask them, and others about Bernie’s motives, but it’s likely they will never be definitively answered. That’s the point. Far from being problematic, Linklater’s deliberately excluding facts about Bernie’s life before Carthage is testimony to his genius. And his sympathy for Bernie’s plight is evident, but artfully impersonal. Buddha fashion, it extends to every other character, Marjorie included, indeed hovers over Linklater’s entire project.

One of my teachers said that a therapist should always be aware of “the human animal’s awful otherness.” Whether or not we’ve done awful things (most of us haven’t; Bernie did) we are awfully insistent, consciously or otherwise, about keeping some crucial essence of ourselves out of the light. On this score, Hitchcock scholars have noted his perennial concern with the ultimate unknowability of every heart to another’s.

Linklater powerfully intimates that Bernie’s most profound unknowability extended to himself. In “A Scanner Darkly” (2006) undercover drug agents wear shape-shifting suits that display a different persona from one instant to the next. The film’s hero is another of Linklater’s unmoored, unindividuated man-boys. He’s become an addict trapped within his external and internal shape-shifting. Ecce Bernie! Linklater’s triumph in this masterful film lies in showing a man who has kept himself hidden so long and so deeply behind a mask, as to become that mask itself.

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