Film Essay

15/11/11 Film Essay # , , , ,

The Hedgehog (2009)

The Hedgehog (2009)
Director: Mona Achache
Writers: Mona Achache (screenplay), Muriel Barbery (novel)
Stars: Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic, Togo Igawa


IF you’re drawn to the elegance of mystery and surprise,
SEE The Hedgehog, a film made faithfully if not as fully to the book.
BECAUSE art is provocative, secrets delicious, death prickly.

What a beginning. A superbly talented eleven-year-old, Paloma Josse, is planning her own death. In spite of her prestigious good fortune of having been born to wealth and endowed with prodigious creative intelligence, Paloma cannot imagine life being worth living once she emerges from childhood. As we watch her draw a calendar on her bedroom wall and mark the days before she will die on her twelfth birthday, we’re brought to the brink of a consciousness we mostly keep secret. Without feeling significant to someone who matters in our own estimation, the meaning of life eludes us.

Paloma’s sense of herself as a goldfish living an invisible life going round and round circling a small glass fishbowl exquisitely parallels her self-appointed role as cool observer in her family pointing a video camera at their everyday life and proving to all of us that they’re living trivial lives. She sees herself destined to repeat a senseless life, captured in a paralyzing system of family beliefs. That is, until an accident of good fortune – the death of an elderly tenant in her building releases an apartment – and brings a stranger into their midst. His presence breaks the stultifying pattern enforced by her family’s class and brings about an unexpected change.

Mr. Kakuro Ozu, an elegant Asian man of no particular identity but a man of particular sensitivity, moves into the empty apartment in Paloma’s building. He seems blind to formalities of age and class, awake to tender allusions of thought and feeling lying behind glazed eyes, intrigued by closed doors. Another order of connection exists for Mr. Ozu. One C.G. Jung called synchronicity, a reference to a hidden causality of events not to be ignored but not readily revealed. Comments made in ordinary conversation are noted by Mr. Ozu as signs of an inner life active and well. And he’s quick to note a kindred spirit regardless of outer appearance. A moment of recognition signifies a bonding fated to pierce veils of detachment.

When Mr. Kakuro Ozu introduces himself to Renee Michel, the superintendent of the building, he asks her about who lives in the building. She answers simply, implying it’s not her business to say. “They’re all happy. Happy families are all alike”. To which Kakura answers, “…and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The quote from Anna Karenina spurs a knowing look between the fine gentleman and the frumpy super. They’ve met beyond the divides established by class in the building.

When Paloma accidentally catches a ride in the elevator with Mr. Ozu, they strike up a conversation and she discloses a conclusion she’s made from observations of the super. She wagers the overweight frumpy Renee hides, like a prickly hedgehog, a refined interior spirit. Mr. Ozu nods in agreement. A bit alarmed at being taken seriously by a grown up, Paloma feels her invisibility threatened. She retreats to her room where she advances her plan to commit suicide by experimenting on the family fish with her mother’s medication.

The goldfish turns belly up in the fishbowl, for all intents and purposes dead, and Paloma flushes it down the toilet. However, the fish magically reappears in Renee’s toilet downstairs. The fish becomes a metaphor for revival from heavy sedation that points toward a different ending for Paloma. Coming into the consciousness of death, as all pre-pubescent children must, contains an awakening. The individual life must become meaningful to the one who’s living it.

And then another closed door opens. Delicate exchanges between the intriguing, silver-haired Kakuro and the reclusive, mindful-of-her-place Renee unfold over the next few weeks. Each day, as surely as Paloma’s finely drawn strokes of ink complete a day on her calendar marking time until her birthday and her death, a relationship between Kakuro and Renee develops. More lives than one are in for a surprise ending.

Not many films attempt the reach of The Hedgehog to reflect the presence of a higher order of synchronicity in our lives. The clashing reality of Paloma’s eleven-year-old proclamation, stated with such flat candor in the early part of the film, addresses the proverbial question about how she could take her life. “Death itself is not the point,” Paloma repeats, “it’s what we’re doing when we die that matters.” The film’s ending provides a jolt of transformative emotion only readers of the book upon which the film is based could anticipate. It clearly makes her point but leaves the viewer in a quandary.

Embedded in The Hedgehog’s unexpected ending is an opportunity to leap across an abyss, feel connected beyond everyday estrangement. In the end, Paloma discovers a secret that wakes her from somnambulant path toward death. The older man and woman in The Hedgehog, Kakuro and Renee, discover feelings they were sure were gone forever. Paloma discovers feelings she didn’t know existed. And we, the film’s lucky audience, discover a feeling akin to the bittersweet pleasure of chocolate melting and simultaneously disappearing in our mouths. Even transient moments of feeling trump intellectual deductions of meaninglessness. But, that said, you may argue for a different ending.

Or we may greet across the room, nodding knowing looks of recognition. Namaste. The eyes of our souls meeting and helping us get through the night when we can’t stand it that there’s no getting around the end.

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14/11/11 Film Essay # , , ,

Buck (2011)

Buck (2011)
Director: Cindy Meehl
Stars: Buck Brannaman, Gary Myers, Bibb Frazier


IF you’re interested in how to discipline with a cool hand

SEE Buck put rowdy horses and frustrated horse owners in sync

BECAUSE the soul heals when dancing.

Buck is not just an extraordinary man – which he is. Buck is an extraordinary movie. Seeing Buck in Buck is an uplifting experience. Buck’s “love in action” brings the audience as well as his horses and their trainers into a profound realization of relating as well as healing. Buck keeps circling back to a key message for all of us. We first have to get ourselves in order before we can get anyone else or any horse in order. Once we can feel ourselves grounded in a sense of well being within ourselves and in our relations with others, once we can get in charge of our emotions in stressful circumstances and once we can acknowledge the importance of evolving as we live our lives, we can accomplish much more in the world than we imagined would be good enough.

Buck – man and film – embody a sensibility of love that celebrates the desire to please and to be someone who is worthy of being pleased by others. It’s a message carried by the sound bite “Be All That You Can Be” but goes further to illustrate exactly what that means when the chips are down. When faced with difficulty, we have to become more to deal with it. A larger, more skillful respectful love is required. In particular, Repeatedly he shows that spirit is a nature-given plus lying beneath a block of fear that once released is a beautiful thing to behold.

Releasing spirit is Buck’s gift. Showing him in action while releasing spirit from a scared animal in mild, ordinary and extreme situations is a profound sight not to be missed. We see him walking a horse through complicated maneuvers with a gentle turn of his body. We see him riding his horse dancing like a ballerina in a field of green grass. We see him urge a deadly stallion into a horse trailer without raising a whip. We see a live demonstration of kindness merged with discipline as he teaches with a firm hand and a loving heart. Sadly, the deadly stallion was beyond even the help of Buck but its owner learned enough about herself to know that putting the horse down was a better choice than having him beaten mercilessly by another owner. A limit can be a worthy adversary, a provocation to open our hearts and expand the meaning of love beyond what we’ve known it to be.

Seeing is believing. That’s what movies can do. They can change your life. Bring you into a fresh realization of yourself. Some movies. Some movies turn a story into more than a story. They turn story into myth. When I see a film like Buck, I feel like I’ve touched an ether wind, the invisible wind that brings light to earth. Myth is not a lie. It’s a living presence that guides and informs and sustains the spirit of being alive. I feel more in sync with my own nature as a result of seeing Buck.

As the man says, to train horses means learning more about ourselves than about horses. In particular, Buck makes the point to stop mistaking fear for who we are and for who others are. Bad behavior is not evidence of evil or worthlessness. It’s not an invitation to be harsh. It’s self-protection coming from a darkness of mind that can be eased in most cases – not all – by learning to feel safe. Buck transforming bad behavior into a thing of beauty reminds me of Luke Skywalker learning to follow the force. Beyond fear is spirit, a through line to love of being.

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24/01/06 Film Essay # , , , , ,

Crash (2004)

Crash (2004)
Director: Paul Haggis
Writers: Paul HaggisRobert Moresco
Stars: Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton


(Published in Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2007)

Quite surprisingly, Crash rose through the ranks of many excellent films in 2005 to win the Academy Award for Best Film and the esteemed 2006 Humanitas Prize for a feature film. It hit a nerve. “The dark secret of America has always been and always will be race.”, says David Mamet*.Crash visualized racial conflict for the big screen, located it in Los Angeles where racial populations are almost equal and won global recognition, making a special connection with audiences. People all over the world are living with the secret. But Crash does more than recount conflict and conflagration. It illuminates an unusual viewpoint, dramatizing collisions between people as capable of bringing down society’s divisive barriers.

Perhaps a film about the power of race to drive such ordinary everyday activities as getting stopped by the police for a traffic infraction, running a small business and applying for health benefits won such prominence because it speaks to a hidden longing in our culture, a desire for conflict to lead to something positive, something other than trouble and war. Its tagline, spoken by a police detective, “we Crash into each other just so we can feel something” frames the deep chasm of alienation left in the wake of unresolved differences. Many people would like to believe there’s a way out of the societal instability and disorientation that turns neighbors into enemies but, at the same time, doesn’t ignore our anger about injustice at the hands of authorities. Crash points to the mythic realm of transformation for an answer.

As Crash opens, it’s a cold night in Los Angeles, cold enough to snow. Extremely unlikely, even if it is Christmas.

Two plain-clothes detectives, an African American man (Don Cheadle) and a Latina woman (Jennifer Esposito), have just been rear ended on one of the winding canyon roads that cross the Santa Monica mountains from the San Fernando Valley to L.A.’s Westside. Common occurrence, even if it’s cops.

An event as common in L.A. as a car accident paired with one so unlikely — snow – sets Crash up to metaphorically reflect a big city as a world of extremes, a mythic centre where nature and society exist as opposites and change will be as magical as it is scarce. As viewers, we become participant observers in a black and white Crash perspective, allowing everyday encounters between diverse people to immerse us, symbolically speaking, in alchemical clashes of opposites. Crash is a collection of interlocking scenarios in which characters of different race, class, religion and gender literally run into one another during the short course of a couple days. Some get more than they bargained for. And so do we. Jung referred to a coming together of extreme opposites for transformation of consciousness as coniunctio. If we shift our point of view and experience Crash as a series of interlocking allegorical stories meant to challenge our personal imaginations and intellect, the film can be a process of learning for protagonists and viewers alike.

The ancient Chinese yang-yin symbol symbolizes nature’s dual distribution of opposing forces as invested with a dynamic tendency. As such, they are comprised of interdependent, integrally connected and constantly balancing opposites that contain within them their antithesis. Yin is soft, warm, darkly fecund and receptive. Yang is hard, cold, inseminating and brightly active. Feminine and masculine, perhaps, but not female and male. They are universal in nature, not gender bound. They exist within us. Each depends on the other for full realization. The white yang side contains a black yin spot; the black yin side contains a white yang spot as reminders that the seeds of one can always be found within the other. In other words, good and bad, misery and joy, losing and succeeding, rising up and falling down are constant and in motion, exhibiting a natural rhythm like a regenerative heartbeat supporting life as we know it — and as we can never know it fully.

Sitting still on the canyon road, Graham, the male detective, seems weary, too weary to jump out and face an angry Asian woman driver ready to do battle. He waxes philosophical, attempting to give meaning to the unconscious motives behind the frequent car accidents in Los Angeles.

“It’s our sense of touch. In any real city, you walk. You brush past people. People bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches anybody. Always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much we Crash into each other just so we can feel something.”

His partner, Ria, shrugs off his remark as a little bit crazy and takes the initiative, getting out of the car. With an ironic tone, she offers to go find the “frame of reference” she feels he’s lost. For her, an accident is matter of fact. She approaches the woman driver who’s talking to a motorcycle cop. Out from behind the protection of metal and glass, as Graham predicted, emotion flies between drivers. The Asian driver, not knowing she’s yelling at an officer of the law, deflects responsibility for the accident by hurling insults at Ria about sloppy Mexican driving. Ria sneers reactively, “I blake too fast?”, making fun of her attacker’s English. “How about you being too short to see over the steering wheel so you know to stop?” Their blatant racist blaming exaggerates differences, exposing edges of hatred and inciting animosity.

Meanwhile, Graham walks through police flares to the side of the road. “What’ve you got here?” he asks, recognizing one of the policemen. “A dead kid.” Graham crouches down, using his silver pen to turn over a lone sneaker lying in the dirt. Now, he seems more than weary. His eyes look outward but his gaze pulls inward as if he’s seeing something we’re not seeing, drawing us more deeply into his thoughts. More than a collision of cars has occurred on this isolated road. A line between life and death collapsed.

Yesterday. Crash backs up in time to bring us to the moment at hand. The action starts on the streets of Beverly Hills and picks up speed, quickly running through one racial clash after another, tying them together with threads of festering frustration. Each encounter, like a fender bender on a mountain road is on one level a small, minor incident that should pass without trouble. On a symbolic level, however, death lies near by, letting us know we’re being drawn close to the mystery that links the mundane and the profound. Initiations of consciousness seek such landscapes. We’re in mythic territory. Manners and convention, some kind of moral fabric should prevail and protect. Instead, each confrontation in Crash breaks through an established system that we rely on to get through each day.

Rich or poor, small businessman or big politician, degreed, pedigreed or in need, people are facing an unprecedented fear of losing control over their well being in a multifaceted society. Cultural diversity is developing faster than the thinking and understanding required to handle the range of challenges. Angry accusations based on stereotypes may aggravate difficulties but they’re symptoms of already existing frustrations, not a source. They’re a response to feeling helpless, taxed emotionally and endangered. We live in a society with systems of protection in place that are meant to buffer children born into poverty, assist elders who are ill and provide basic safety in homes and city streets. But these systems are collapsing and, as they fail, it’s like a promise broken. As seen in Crash, people lock their gates, buy guns and harbor dualistically based rationales of the behavior of others as if a wall of prejudice will hold where protocol fails. Worse, many gatekeepers of security – police, social workers, parents – first fail and then become abusive. Trust is broken. Now when prejudice leaps into the void, naked names and acts of retaliation explode, leaving greater, not less, fear in their wake. As buffers of reason and consideration deteriorate, vulnerabilities are exposed and an impatient anxiety rises up and spreads out.

A gunstore owner boils over with contempt when a middle-eastern father, Farhad, (Shaun Toub) and his grown daughter, Shereen (Marina Sirtis), deliberate in their own language about buying a pistol. Because the owner is an outsider to their language, he can’t understand them. He starts fuming, feeling excluded and losing control. To gain back a respect he imagines he’s lost, he demeans their conversation with a racial slur. The father, already agitated and in an argument with his daughter about the wisdom of buying a gun, raises his voice, attacking the storeowner for making an insult he doesn’t feel he deserves. Under pressure, both men picture the other as an enemy with malevolent intent. The owner’s resentment about war in the middle-east restructures his customers as Iraqi when they are actually Persian. The father is irate that he’s not regarded with respect as a man who has worked hard to become a legitimate American citizen. First, race and nationality, then gender infuses the owner’s arrogant attitude toward his customers. After throwing the father out, he demeans the daughter, likening the bang of a gun to having sex. It’s ugly. Buying a gun becomes a sado-masochistic struggle for dominance that has nothing to do with making a purchase.

After leaving the gun store, the Persian father becomes increasingly incensed with his inability to keep his own store safe, helplessness in keeping his own family fed and housed. He’s blinded to consequences of rage he could not consciously accept. He precipitates a heinous act from which only an accident of extreme good fortune saves him. Saved, he’s humbled by discovering the racism he so hates in the outer world within himself. As an allegory of transformation, he is a man who finds the respect he’s looking for in the eyes of others coming – finally – from within himself. And he’s brought back to his senses by the realization.

Most of us deal with the bewildering complex society we live in by drawing lines to help us navigate safely. We draw a line separating one race from another. One religion from another. One gender from another. One point of view from another. We try to avoid conflict, confrontation with “the other” — the one who sees, feels and thinks different from us. However, this dualistic perspective usually leads to more, not less hostility and estrangement. When we project a stereotype onto another person, simplifying as Crash does in its portrayal of differences, it’s a small step to experiencing others as antagonistic. The Los Angeles car culture easily perpetuates an illusion that opposites can be kept separate and an isolationist policy of living maintained. What may not be so obvious is that duality builds a latticework of protective thinking that is short sighted. But to give it up undermines an unconscious structure of security. When we’re deprived of dualism’s feeling of safety, however false or limited, we recoil because it puts us in touch with our vulnerability. It is only in the aftermath of duality’s repeated, painful failure to ease the consequences of prejudice that a larger, more truthful reality can emerge – one in which perceiving differences becomes part of an accepted totality.

Two young African American male friends, Anthony (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) and Daniel (Larenz Tate) amble down a sidewalk in Beverly Hills. They may be cool dressers but they’re acutely aware of being outsiders in this posh part of town. They’re engaged in an animated conversation about whether they were or weren’t given short shrift by a waitress in a coffee shop based on their race. One argues they were, the other doubts it. An upscale Caucasian couple walks toward them. The wife, almost imperceptibly, pulls up a little closer to her husband. Already in a mood for feeling slighted, the two men make a joke. “Why do people respect us?” They look at one another, laughing. “Because we have guns.” Bam. As if on cue, a stereotype springs to life and become the couple’s worst nightmare, carjackers with guns. They steal the couple’s black Navigator because they can. Fear rips apart a scene that was, a moment ago, funny and disarming.Crash follows the fall out from this clash, showing how – when isolation is broken – a stream of consequences ripples through every level of society with good and bad effects.

Next, Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon), a seasoned but bigoted Caucasian cop teamed with a Caucasian rookie, Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillipe), pulls over a Navigator fitting the description of the stolen car but clearly not it. It’s driven by a well-dressed African American couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard), a Hollywood director and his wife, Cynthia (Thandie Newton), on their way home from a party. A routine check turns into an inflammatory confrontation. Officer Ryan runs his hands over the man’s wife’s body feigning a search for weapons while making taunting remarks for the sheer pleasure of asserting his authority over a couple who felt safe, protected against brazen acts of prejudice by their status and wealth.

It is from the inherent fluidity of a mythical yin/yang dynamic of opposites in nature that Crash reaches for change. It posits racial clashes between people as alchemical vessels for a transformation of consciousness. To grasp the gift of such storytelling, it helps to think of its stories as allegories where the process is always more than it seems, emphasizing the importance of what goes on inside a character rather than between characters. “In the course of their adventures the heroes of allegory discover which ideals are worth pursuing and what things are obstacles to that pursuit.”** It takes a shift in thinking to see that belief rests on attitudes held in one’s own mind as much, or more so than what happens between people.

Later we learn some of the reasons behind Officer Ryan’s need to assert his power over successful Blacks. He is the sole caretaker of an ill father who has lost his benefits along with his job and been rendered helpless by a failing health system. He can barely stand his father’s pain. He treats the couple with disrespect as he believes he’s been treated by anonymous African Americans who’ve displaced his father and, particularly, by a Black HMO caseworker who has control over his father’s health care. He takes out his frustration on the couple, making them scapegoats for his misery.

When the couple finally arrives home after the humiliating experience, Cynthia turns on her husband, accusing him of letting her down because he doesn’t want his name in the paper. She puts her finger on a sore point, the place of conciliatory silence that helps Cameron maintain his status as a Black director in Hollywood. Silence often plays a role in oppressive relationships when speaking up could invite devastating consequences. This is one of many times in Crash that women turn on their men for failing to provide protection in a culture where dire consequences for disagreement are commonplace. When race and gender are both factors, as they are with women, they’re often the first to react to the toxicity – and the first to become targets – of divisive social systems that depend on dualistic thinking, intimidation and separation.

Hurt to the core by his wife’s accusations, Cameron later speaks up and provokes a confrontation when police officers again pull him over. This time Anthony is hiding with a gun in the front seat of the Navigator. Luckily, Officer Hansen — Officer Ryan’s partner during the previous traffic stop, who had been offended by his treatment of Cameron — is on the scene and a disaster is averted. This “miracle” of a black man mouthing off to the police and living to tell the tale takes place in front of a Nativity scene in a cul de sac. It’s a narrow escape for Cameron but an awakening for Anthony.

And then, Officer Ryan comes upon a car turned over in an accident and on the verge of bursting into flames. He’s thrust into saving an African-American woman trapped by her seat belt that requires him to risk his life. Saving her simply calls him to duty. But saving her when she recognizes him as the policeman who molested her requires him to look himself in the eye. Is he a racist who will walk away, not go to the depths of feeling between human beings that will change him forever? She becomes hysterical and fights off his help. He has his chance to retreat. A fellow cop pulls him out. But, instead, he crawls back into direct contact with the woman, near death. To gain her trust so that they don’t both blow up in the car, he has to soften. He convinces her to let him touch her, even to use a knife to free her from her seatbelt. The challenge awakens him to an emotional nuance within himself he didn’t know he possessed. He finds a streak of compassion that cannot change his father’s pain but can ease it for both of them.

Crash portrays its direct clashes of antagonistic differences as containing a possibility of revelation and even redemption. Its tales of black, white, brown and yellow peoples crossing paths in the sprawl of L.A. don’t give us a road map to resolving the angry estrangement between races but they do show instances of personal violation changing to a felt connectedness. To see characters emerging from the terrifying encounters in Crash with life-transforming insight is to acknowledge a reality that heated conflicts often play in our own individuation. Becoming more perceptive, more capable of learning and more empathic as a consequence of surviving the fire of volatile conflicts is more true than we like to believe.

Almost as a living symbol of the threads of frustration bringing the people inCrash together, a Latino locksmith (Michael Pena) first re-keys the locks for the upscale couple whose Navigator has been stolen and then goes to the Persian storekeeper whose door won’t lock because the door itself is broken. On his way from one job to another, he stops home to check on his daughter who’s been so frightened by a drive-by shooting that they’ve moved. He finds her sleeping under the bed. To coax her out and comfort her, he tells her a story about a magical cloak, handed down by his mother to protect him in times of danger. Now, he tells her, it’s time for him to give it to her. It’s a high point in the film because it reminds us that we’re living in a very large world of make believe where safety is more mindset than reality. The L.A. inCrash is not a city of perfection. It is one in which belief in the presence of a force for good sometimes works as miraculously well as it sometimes fails. Ironically, this father is a locksmith, one who makes homes safe with real locks. But break-ins occur and breakdowns happen in spite of his locks. However, a miraculous event later in the film brings alive the symbolism of Los Angeles as a mythic land – a city of angels.

Jean (Sandra Bullock), society’s picture perfect wife of Rick (Brendan Fraser) who is L.A.’s district attorney and whose Navigator was stolen at gunpoint, reacts to the theft by having the locks on her Beverly Hills mansion changed. Crazed when she discovers the locksmith is Latino, it’s clear that changing the locks will do nothing to heal the anxiety she is experiencing following the destruction of the fantasy of safety she’s built around her. She lashes out, slandering Latinos, her husband and her friends for being indifferent to the injustice she’s suffered. She feels entitled to foolproof safety. And then, alone inside the house that represents her sense of safety, she slips on its polished floors and falls down her own stairs. Unable to get anyone to help her, Jean becomes like the child under the bed on the other side of town. She feels her fragility instead of defending against it. She can no longer find an enemy or anyone who can prevent anything horrible from ever happening to her. When her Latina housekeeper arrives, she offers help and a kind word. Feelings of gratitude replace Jean’s anger and condescension. She holds onto the housekeeper for dear life, unable to let go, seeking the connection that she has avoided from not only her housekeeper but everyone else in the film. She seems to feel genuine feelings of love rising in her that she didn’t know existed.

The clashes in Crash dramatize encounters in which characters move into the fear zone where prejudices about race and gender dominate. One becomes cut off from “the other”; extremes are bred that do neither side any good. As allegories, stories symbolically expressing opposites in human nature for the purpose of discovering deeper meaning open exploration of how incendiary interactions have a positive side, a side we can learn from. However, even with the best of intentions, the potential of confrontation for healing is often difficult to discern when it’s happening directly to us. In myth and allegory, we can more easily see the details of movement between opposites interacting, creating and allowing transformation where none was possible before. Since we cannot avoid culture clashes, we could look to them for whatever insight they can bring, perhaps uncovering an alternative outcome to the separation and distrust that has led us to withdraw to false islands of safety.

Her husband, L.A.’s District Attorney, is faced with the problem of handling the theft of his Navigator and needing to avoid being called a racist for wanting to prosecute the thieves. He comes up with the idea of a photo op in which he honors an African American man that can be released simultaneously with the news that his car has been stolen. Graham is picked for the compromising honor. It puts him in a strange triple crossfire of professional insult, a desired but tainted promotion, and his mother’s anger. His mother resents that her successful detective son does not take more time to look out for his brother who, good kid that he may be in her eyes, has followed a lowlife of crime. In fact, he was one of the black men who stole the Navigator. Graham travels between his ghetto family and his respectable job, unable to call either home. Accepting the offer from the District Attorney will require Graham to compromise his integrity regarding another case but will also give him the wherewithal to save his younger dropout brother from jail. When duplicity is required for survival, anomie is not far behind. A marginal view of place, identity, and role develops. Circumstance requires what can’t be given freely but which must be rendered. Cooperation. His idealistic separation of good and bad as mutually exclusive cannot be maintained. Graham cannot choose good without choosing bad.

This imaginal inferno of contradiction, an irreconcilable duality of everything Graham holds dear, is a true crucible. He fully experiences a collapse of the line that holds him apart, separate and different. Painful. When we have these kinds of experiences – and survive them, we discover firsthand the meaning of movement between opposites. Our lives become testimony to the underlying unification of opposites in the universe and its unfathomable mystery of redemption. We are initiated into a new range of feeling, humbled by nuance and shaded by emotion beyond intellect.

Drifting and driving the stolen Navigator, distracted by talking, Anthony and Daniel sideswipe a Chinese man who’s been locking up his white van on an isolated street late at night. The Chinese man ends up in the hospital while his van stands quiet on the street until Anthony spots it later as he’s riding the bus home and gets the bright idea that he can take it and get a few bucks from a broker who deals in stolen cars. In the course of events, Anthony discovers the van is filled with Asian immigrants smuggled in by the Chinese man, presumably to fill sweatshops in downtown L.A. Anthony can’t quite go along with the car broker’s idea of selling the Illegal immigrants to him for cash. Is it, perhaps, because his vision of a hopeless future as a black kid was changed when Cameron faced down the police officers and survived? He takes charge of the illegal immigrants, steps far out of character, far enough out to suggest that he might make a break from his path of crime.

His friend, Daniel – who is, as we are to learn, Graham’s younger brother – doesn’t get a second chance. The accident of good fortune that saved the Latina child is now contrasted by its opposite, an irreversible tragedy, and a moment from which there is no recovery. The self-righteous, well-meaning young Officer Hansen, who recoiled at Officer Ryan’s blatant racism and later saved the day for the African American producer in very dicey second encounter with him, offers Daniel a ride from the Valley to the Westside. Off duty and unprotected by his uniform, he becomes suspicious of the wandering black teenager he’s picked up. Afflicted by paranoia, he’s quickly offended by Daniel’s easy-going manner when he reaches out to him as a friend, someone cut from the same cloth of youthful idealism. Hansen doesn’t wait to see what Daniel is pulling out of his pocket to show him. Prejudice colors Daniel evil and Hansen pulls his gun and shoots and kills his hitchhiker before he realizes what Daniel is offering him is an icon that represent the very kinship he has been longing for. Then he dumps Daniel’s body alongside the canyon road, drives to another location and sets his car on fire. The protective cloak of St. Christopher – the patron saint of travelers and strangers – eluded these young men. Hansen’s righteous indignation about racism is not sufficient to guide him when he feels personally threatened. Lacking empathy, he couldn’t see himself in Daniel.

We all struggle to understand how opposites work in our own personal lives.Crash invokes the difficult questions of what it means to contain opposites within ourselves – of sex, race, religion, age and point of view – and confront them in the world around us. The heated exchanges in Crash lead to surprising awakenings. In Crash, we see over and over again that only when an iron bar becomes red hot does it become pliable enough to bend, change direction, and take a different shape. Even in confrontations we’d rather turn away from, Crash opens a door of insight. In the mythic realm of coniunctio, Crashes and clashes activate dormant but potent elements for change that lie buried in the psyche. Perhaps the interactions release individual and collective resources to meet society’s unprecedented loneliness, apathy and neediness. Surely, the stories in this film show how attempting to protect oneself by acting out self-righteous feelings of superiority over the “other” with indignation only leads to greater feelings of fear and greater likelihood of doing damage to oneself as well as others. It’s not that one side is superior to any other, or that it is necessary to erase all sense of difference to arrive at a resolution, suggests Crash, but it is important to learn from and accept our vulnerabilities as shared and common.

If there were a mirror inside Crash looking out, its stories would be reflected inside every person in the theater. Crash brings our psyche, with all its hidden conflicts out of the dark into the light and onto the big screen for us to identify with, participate in. And, in so doing, Crash renews our wonder…how do we do it, be so good and so bad, so dumb and so smart, so predictable and so surprising? It’s a wonder we’re alive at all.

Of course, we have a right to fly in the face of enlightened understanding that “Crashes” caused by differences play a necessary part in the human drama of evolution. A sense of humor is key, of course, and Crash ends with a laugh. We see the imposing African American woman, Shaniqua (Loretta Devine) — the sternly charming gatekeeper who denied Officer Ryan’s request for health services for his father because he was incorrigible — get rear-ended in her car and throw herself into the fray of conflict just as rude and self-righteous as anyone else. Her voice of fair play turning foul makes us laugh at ourselves. We’re never far from a clash that could bring out the contradiction in us.

As I walked out of the movie theater into a mall of shoppers, I took note of a clash that I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about before seeingCrash. A group of adolescent boys, mixed in race but each wearing standard gear of provocation – everything too loose, hanging low and jangling – were being herded, ever so quietly but firmly, to a corner exit by security police. They had violated an imperceptible line with their mass and their energy. Now, after seeing Crash, I worried that they’d be back, not to enjoy themselves and make a spectacle but with malcontent in reaction to being seen as ‘the other’ and not belonging. I saw an invisible motive for this newly constructed mall made visible. These rowdy boys had been influencing the architect’s plans before they ever showed up physically. This super clean, upscale mall, designed to signal safe passage, functions also as a sign of our culture of fear. Fanning a fundamentally misleading illusion of safety, it contributes to the continuance of a fear-driven duality, a self-isolating reality.

Allegories leave morals in their wake. To the naked eye on a cold dark night, soot and sparks from a car set on fire to mask a murder look the same as snowflakes announcing a miracle. No one’s bad all the time; no one’s good all the time. The best also can be the worst, failing to love and failing those who love them. The worst can also be the best, coming through when least expected and making a magnificent difference. Perhaps miracle and tragedy are not separate matters but integral, part of a larger totality that supports us all – and we would do well to include “the other”, heed the wisdom. Is Los Angeles a big city symbolic of a mystic center where the tendencies of evolution and involution reside? Is Crash illuminating an ancient message for modern times in its revelatory stories?

*The New York Times, Movies, June 11, 2006 Quote from “William H. Macy Takes a Walk on the Dark Side in ‘Edmund'” by Neil Amour
** Clifford, Gay. The Transformations of Allegory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pg. 11, 1974.



This profile examines the film “Crash” as a series of allegorical stories that explores the inevitable “collisions” in a mixed-culture society such as present-day L.A. involving race, class, religion, and gender, which are transformed into an unexpected path toward healing society’s false divisions. These conflicts are presented in terms of Jung’s idea of conjunctio–the coming together of extreme opposites that activates elements buried deep in the psyche, something like the transformative power of the alchemical clash of opposites. The opposing drives that set-up these types of conflicts are an individual’s desire to create boundaries in order to maneuver through their increasingly bewilderingly complex society, and the personal, social, cultural, and spiritual needs for the growth and wisdom that comes fromCrashing into–and overcoming–the prejudices and false projections that we create in an attempt to protect ourselves from a feeling that our lives have slipped out of control.

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30/07/04 Film Essay # , , , ,

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Daniel Pyne (screenplay), Dean Georgaris (screenplay), George Axelrod (1962 screenplay), Richard Condon (novel)
Stars: Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep


Transformations in the Mythic Construct of the Hero:

The Manchurian Candidate from 1964 to 2004.

(Published in Spring 73, Cinema and Psyche, 2005)


Recasting The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, into a Gulf War context revivifies our terror of mechanized mind control with twenty-first century state of the art brain implants – but it also revamps Freud’s Oedipal complex and C.G. Jung’s negative mother complex with a heart over mind message. ‘Mother’ has long been associated with emotional memory and it is no secret that a man’s destiny depends on the peace he makes with both. But to believe mother love holds a dark underbelly of deceit and danger more deadly than a foreign enemy is old mythology brewed in a patriarchal pot. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, puts forward a contra-patriarchal image of masculinity in the role of hero, challenging the negative mother complex itself as a misbegotten source of power.

Perhaps catching a private corporation in the act of nearly taking over the American government for its own greedy purposes in the 2004 reprise of The Manchurian Candidate would be reflection enough of a basic twenty-first century fear of capitalistic control. But the 2004 film goes beyond grandiose corporate machinations to where the real control of the future lies. In the psyche. The film’s close examination of the fight for individual freedom to think, to care about others and to question any system attempting to control people’s minds proves to be about much more than money. If memory can be erased, laid down artificially and made to ‘feel’ as real as the truth, any dark deed is possible. If it can’t, what could possibly prevent it? What might protect truth? Where might hope reside?

Mind control is not new to the movies, not new to life. But The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, presents a surprising postulate for retaining humanity in a society increasingly dominated by technology you don’t want to miss. Unlike the original in 1962, no outside re-programmer need be brought in! There is an antidote lying within the hearts of men, creating a capability to fight back against brainwashing and strong enough to restore healthy mental functioning. It may stay dormant during indoctrinations but ultimately it’s capable of resisting the invasive technology of artificial encoding. To release the antidote, however, some fear-based patriarchal mythology about the emotional susceptibility of a man to his mother’s selfish motives must be given up.

Historically, societies dominated by patriarchy have feared the relationship between mother and son, developing a mythology that casts it in a dark light, denigrating mother love. The standard analytic interpretation of Oedipus is that mother-son love has a dangerous underbelly. A son enamored of his mother leads him to kill his father and claim his mother for his own. A mother, enamored of her son, colludes in the son’s emotional dependence and keeps him under her control against the father, in service to her own purposes. This conspiratorial mythology not only distrusts and distorts the love between mother and son from early on in a boy’s life, it provides justification for a father’s authoritarian control. In effect, a father’s egoistic fears of losing power to his son are blamed on reasons buried in the unconscious. Such Oedipal interpretations ignore the fact – especially in ancient times – that a woman’s well-being and desire to better herself as well as her safety was dependent upon her men. In a society dominated by patriarchy, a woman does well to align herself well with powerful men – including her sons.

Sadly, C.G. Jung gave this patriarchal distortion of mother-son love a name that stuck; he identified it as a ‘negative mother complex’ inherently innate to the human psyche and, like Freud, slid past cultural influences. He says, “On the negative side, the mother archetype may connote what devours, seduces, and poisons; it is terrifying and inescapable like fate (underlining mine). I have expressed the ambivalence of [maternal attributes] in the phrase ‘the loving and terrible mother’.” Those words, ‘inescapable like fate’ places Jung in a framework before women had a presence of their own in the public world and femininity was defined by men, seen through their eyes and bound by their expectations. It also dates him in a world before men of radically different ethnicity, financial means and class were thrown into wars where they would become close buddies, arousing an unprecedented felt connection between men (and women) of wide ranging diversity across the boundaries of nations and continents. It dates him before an instant invisible net of cyberspace existed around the globe, creating a web of international access, intrigue and knowledge far more powerful than radio or TV. These modern times challenge the soul of mankind to preserve a capacity for human caring against greater odds than have ever been known before. And The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, lends an image to how this may come about.

In both versions of The Manchurian Candidate, the mother’s capacity to manipulate her son’s love is co-opted by patriarchal entities – in the first by a foreign country and in the second by an international corporation. The mother yields to patriarchal forces – first without, and then with her knowledge. Given patriarchal reasoning, the use of the mother’s ill-gotten power over her son for the father’s goals is fair game. Patriarchal desire for control of the emotionally charged relationship between a mother and her son drives the drama in both films. In the 1962 version, The Manchurian Candidate turned a mother’s influence over her beloved son into a hypnotic spell of compliance that could be triggered by a playing card, the red queen. She rendered her son an assassin to kill the nominated presidential candidate of the United States, elevating her husband to presidential pawn for a foreign power. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, turns the son of an ambitious female senator into a war hero. Military brainwashing lays the ground for mother and son to become a presidential combo of shills in service to corporate greed. The son comes home from war programmed to fall victim to his mother’s determination to make him president as well as to kill on command from her – or a mysterious ‘them’. In the revamped version, a mother powerful enough to manipulate an entire political campaign fronts a corporate takeover of the U.S. government. And a brainwashing system strong enough to dupe a complete squad, including its Commander, spins the son into a cultural war hero in front of an entire world.

The 2004 mother differs from 1962 when a mother’s influence on her weak child-man son elevates her weak husband to power, not knowing that she’s selling out her son to get in solid with the foreign power that takes over. In the second, a mother’s political ambition lifts her techno-implanted son’s path of societal entitlement toward the presidency, promoting them as a dynamic duo and allowing them to work as partners for worldwide corporate greed. The central change in role of the son over a span of forty years, 1962 to 2004, from the end of one generation to the beginning of another, is from presidential assassin to presidential partner, from deadly sycophant to deadly consort to a mother who knowingly sells out her son to gain power in society. In both films, the mother-son relationship gets co-opted for the evil purposes of patriarchal greed. In The Manchurian Candidate 1962, the personal mother acts separate and alone from her son. In 2004, she acts within the archetypal relationship and the negative mother-son complex itself becomes the source of danger and destruction. And, the construct of the complex, symbolically speaking, gets to become the rightful target for a deadly bullet. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, like a cultural dream, seems to reflect a shift in mythology.

In both films, the son’s older Commander plays the hero, uncovering the scheme of mind control. However, in the first version, the Commander (Frank Sinatra) single-handedly breaks the code of control triggered by the red queen of hearts (with its obvious mother symbolism) and freeing the son from his mother’s clutches. In the second, the Commander (Denzel Washington) appears preoccupied with images of a recurring nightmare that have haunted him since the war. He’s in a low-level public relations position, giving speeches for the army to Boy Scout troops and living in his apartment as if contained in a cell. No friends, no social life, no change in routine. Years pass. He believes his nightmares contain a key to a confusing web of lies being spun around him by the military. But the meaning of his nightmare seems impenetrable until a soldier from his squad shows up at a talk he’s giving and shows him a sheaf of papers, revealing that he too continuously dreams the same nightmare. The soldier’s scrawls are the same images that come in the night to the Commander. Spurred by the possibility that his nightmare represents the remnants of a shared rather than private trauma of war, the Commander’s ruminative obsession turns into a search for truth. He sees one of his previous soldiers on TV, running for president and wonders if he too is having these nightmares. Eventually, meetings with fellow soldiers set off flashback memories to a week during the war when the whole squad was secreted away for a sci-fi medically inspired military indoctrination. He’s part of a group.

As the story progresses, The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, heads into less traditional mythological territory of the hero than presented in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962. The men’s collective memory, in effect, kept a reality intact on an unconscious level that couldn’t be erased by artificial mind control. An instinctive emotional bond felt between ordinary men, under the worst of circumstances, proved strong enough to counteract the machinations of evil men. Men who draw upon a felt connection with one another prevent the misuse of love between mother and son for dark purposes. They are stronger, not weaker, for believing in a feeling of caring for one another that won’t be pushed aside by aspersions cast against their manhood by the military. The second film breaks away from the archetype of a singular hero on his own, standing alone and on his own. 2004 characterizes the Commander as a hero woven into a bonded identification with the men who served with him. He’s a man embedded in an identity of camaraderie, one who’s an integral part of a group and prompted to action by empathy. And he connects to other men through a dream – not through logic or sport. When this Commander discovers that his nightmare is being dreamt by others in his squad, his personal quest for the truth begins. He’s frightened, believing that the dream signifies something major being covered up. And little does he know.

Both versions of The Manchurian Candidate exploit the concept of a psychoanalytically based ‘negative mother complex’ to intensify the meaning of “Enemy”, as if war were less dangerous than a man’s relationship with his mother! When an outside enemy with weapons of mass destruction is construed as less dangerous than one developed in our own heads, it’s time to examine the truth of what’s inherent and what’s learned. The film assumes audiences will infer the patriarchal origin of ‘negative mother complex’ as purely innate. The use of an innate maternal trigger for a technological brain implant lends it greater evil, implying a cold dispassion for mankind laid deeply – inevitably – in a son’s psyche, not simply his brain. The complex gets put conveniently in service to an ideal of ultimate patriarchal dominance, influencing a mother to “devour” her own son to further a private corporation’s greed, power and control. This is a good moment to remember that a complex is not a person, not a real – living and breathing – mother. It is made up of emotional memories distilled into our most intimate habits of feeling to which we cling for survival. We will resist giving up what we require in love, how we style our bodies, what we feel to be a homecoming, the fears to which we have become accustomed. This is all a mother memory ruling a man’s life, a continuity of patterns we have lived with for so long that we become them. The personal mother is not the archetype. The archetype lives, influenced and shaped by cultural circumstance.

Both films make it clear: the mother’s need for power in a male dominated society drives her willingness to use her son as a pawn in a much larger game. What might be overlooked, however, is that a son taken over by a mother’s scheme to succeed in a man’s world can also be used to drive a young man into an ambition not his own, align him with a greed not his own and deprive him of freedom of choice – keeping him neatly in the service of a commercially driven patriarchy. For a young man to break away and think clearly, he must debunk the whole notion of the devouring mother as an inevitable underbelly of intimacy between a mother-son. A son’s freedom to grow up, mature and develop as a man independent of patriarchal programming remains in jeopardy as long as the underpinnings of the ‘negative mother complex’ go unrecognized for what they are — induced by society.

How to rid one’s psyche and culture of the control by a ‘negative mother complex’ is where the two films depart.

In The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, the cure for brainwashing lies in a superior intelligence – still military, male and patriarchal in origin – that breaks the code binding son to mother. And the death of the mother. The resolution of the first version requires only the son’s riddance of the physical mother – and the idiot stepfather. In the 1962 film, the son breaks away from the spell of the Red Queen at the end by killing his scheming, incestuous mother and her puppet husband (his stepfather) instead of the programmed target, the next president of the United States. That old mythology required revenge, an adolescent, Oedipal anger rising up in a cold heat to slice the umbilical cord and free not only himself but also his country from all mothers who would bargain their sons’ souls to secure their own place with a patriarch. That son, played by Laurence Harvey as a whining child-man, conveyed the image of mother as the instigator of infantilization in her son. A mythology of heroes who broke away from the mother – symbolically killing her as his only way to free himself – idealized men who stood alone and relied upon individual acts of heroism to prevail.

In The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, the cure lies dormant in a man’s basic make-up — in his natural ability to form emotional, empathic connections with the man next to him. The antidote to brainwashing begins in a feeling of camaraderie aroused between soldiers who fought together day in, day out in a war. Together, they form a multi-faceted chorus not so easily silenced as a single voice. This grand, captivating portrayal of a heroic bond of empathy between men offers an alternative to the mythology of Freud’s famed Oedipal complex and Jung’s monomythic hero, the exceptional man symbolized by Odysseus. Alfred Adler, the third originator of psychoanalysis along with Freud and Jung, considered the ‘feeling of intimate belonging to the full spectrum of humanity’ to be a dominant motive of life, as basic as Freud’s sexual drive or Jung’s urge toward meaning. The twenty-first century may be Adler’s turn to shine. ‘Intimate belonging’ urges men to connect emotionally in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, forming an immunity to a masterful scheme to invade the human psyche with actual mechanical implants.

Then, as illuminated in the film’s stunningly symbolic ending, a man’s transformation from shill to free spirit lies in a riddance of the whole concept of a negative mother complex, a full death of the incestuous complex superimposed on the mother-son relationship, planned and directed by a son empowered by his found feeling for other men. The implication? Possibly that young men who know a different truth about their emotional natures can rid the culture of the negative mother complex, identified for the patriarchal concoction it is. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, dramatizes – as the theatrical dramas of ancient Greek reflected fresh and timely cultural sentiment – an alternative base of emotional strength for men and a timely answer to an old problem of competition between fathers and sons.

In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate begins with a scene in a bar, a rowdy sexualized interaction between soldiers and foreign women. An uptight Captain enters, putting a damper on the fun with a stern call for his men to report for duty. By contrast, The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, opens with a group of young soldiers sitting in the back of a humvee, playing cards and laughing shoulder-to-shoulder while Kuwaiti oil fields burn in the background. They’re strangers thrown together in a strange country by the Gulf War in 1991, harking not only from different parts of the United States but also from different ethnic backgrounds. Here they are. Friends, like alloys forged into steel under fire, doing what they can to lighten a dark night while waiting for the call that will put their lives on the line. The music on a boom box echoes ethnic diversity in songs from reggae to rock to rap. The camera pans their faces, bridging a dozen differences while the rhythms in the background blur their boundaries and many biases. Here, in a foreign land under fire, they’re all the same man, tense beneath the skin and scared, but comfortable enough to be friendly toward their Captain who, separated from them by rank and class, dampens their fun with his condescending, cold call-to-action attitude. One of the men jokes that the Captain needs a friend and a hug. Everyone laughs. Little do they know how right they are.

Captain Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schrieiber) stands apart from his men and his commanding officer, Major Bennett Ezekiel Marco (Denzel Washington). Shaw appears socially awkward and distracted by a private irritation. A few minutes after ordering his men into battle, he’s seen fulfilling the role of war hero. Ostensibly, he saves all but two of his men’s lives, earning the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor. This sets the stage for his mother’s ambition. The second film veers from the original, propelling Shaw (rather than his boorish step-father) as the man of choice in his mother’s determination to project one of her own men onto a fast track through the U.S. Senate straight to a nomination for Vice President. His mother, Eleanor Prentiss (Meryl Streep) is a Senator with a reputation for getting her way. She single handedly engineers a small coup among her colleagues to make sure her son gets the nomination. In the professional hands of Meryl Streep, the image of Eleanor Prentiss rises to symbolic resonance of an archetype, conjuring up C.G. Jung’s negative mother complex with the artistry of a William Shakespeare creating Lady Macbeth. She will push her son to greatness, leaving blood on the carpet if she must.

Twelve years after the war, as Prentiss Shaw’s star is rising in the presidential race, retired Major Ben Marco continues to suffer from a recurrent nightmare from the Gulf War. Embedded in his psyche, disturbing images have resisted treatment by drugs, psychotherapy and time. He lives within his dream; his apartment and his choices are still identified with the strictures of war. He also finds himself tormented by a freakish repetition of obsessive behaviors that won’t let go, making him feel more robot than man. Another soldier from the Kuwait battle seeks Ben out to show him a notebook full of the identical insomniac dream images and writings. Marco wrestles with a growing internal pressure to dig up the root of his nightmare. He begins to contact and confront Shaw, insisting Shaw shares the nightmare from their days as soldiers together in Kuwait – insisting the dreams cannot be ignored.

Shaw can’t imagine he’s part of a nightmare even more disastrous than the love-hate relationship he experiences with his smothering, controlling mother. However, as actual events unfold, he realizes his mother not only has an uncanny control of him but also has – true to an old mythology – aligned herself with a power-mongering corporation determined to use him in a dastardly plan to take over U. S. government. Unable to lift herself to the political heights of grandeur enjoyed by her father, hindered as she is by being of the female gender, she uses her ‘motherly’ talents to secure her ambitions through her son. The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 redirected the assassin son’s aim at the last moment to kill his mother and his stepfather instead of the designated target, the next president, was a sufficient break in mind control programming to startle expectations at the time. It represented an act of freeing sons from the emotional torment and constraint of a suffocating mother complex. But it didn’t kill the real enemy; it didn’t kill the belief in the distortion of a mother-son relationship purported to exist within the collective psyche that binds a son pathologically to his mother. In that version, a son has only one choice — to rid himself and society of the mother as if it were she and not the distortion that was the problem.

The Ben Marco of the early film represented the conscious side of a man and helped the son who was a good man held captive by incestuous, crippling memories. The analytic Marco unveiled Shaw’s emotionally based mother complex. As a buddy – a friend dedicated to truth – he could step forward and compete with the mother, even break her grip. But the extension of a man’s friendship to another man was transitory, not transformative. Feelings made a man suspect of being feminine and, by faulty deduction, associated with weakness so Ben approached the problem intellectually, using mysticism to defeat hypnosis.

The mythology of heroes in 1962 had not yet begun to include hero as common man, an ensemble hero of everyday who wasn’t a man of destiny from an elite family. It’s worth noting the evolution that takes place in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, where Alfred Adler’s concept of an legitimate, emotional but not sexualized sense of ‘intimate belonging’ between men shows up as an interesting, deep and powerfully connective tissue that can withstand the pressure of mind control and open a new door. It steps away from the legacy of an inevitable, inescapable aberrant mother complex by shifting away from the familiar hero’s journey as the only journey, the only source of heroism. Many are now walking the hero’s path, made an integral part of popular culture by Joseph Campbell’s book, Hero of a Thousand Faces and George Lucas’s epic franchise, Star Wars. That questions its elitist hold on the only way to prevail against evil. Men – and women – from all walks of life, levels of society and gender identifications evolve toward a consciousness that contributes to and insists upon good for mankind.

Taken as companion pieces, the old and new Manchurian Candidate films can be seen as a dramatization of differences between the old singular type of hero and a new type of hero whose identity is multiple, ordinary and coincidental with a team of men. His conflict is their conflict. He draws his strength from an invisible, instinctive and emotional bond with them – not an inanimate cosmos. His power comes not from some abstract, mystical place in outer space but from within his own feelings, manifested and held in place by a dream. A dream! This ineffable, imagined and felt bond existing between men proves more real and more central to their survival than a rule of law. When the lone man on the battlefield proves vulnerable, easily implanted and manipulated with state of the art triggers to kill, the heroic image of superstar loses its luster. The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, finds its tale of an attempted double invasion into a country and a man’s psyche defeated by an ethereal air of energetic, intense and empathic exchanges between men who believe more strongly in the truth of their own nightmares than the spin of outside authorities. Heroism emerges from the flimsy stuff of a collective dream to penetrate the conspiracy and unseat the enemy. And it engenders hope. It’s a vision of heroism based in a natural psychological resources, possessed by every baby born – feelings and dreams.

In the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate, a heroism synonymous with a bond felt between men offers an alternative to the single-minded heroism of one man. It opens up and ushers in new prospects for balancing good and evil in a technology driven world. The mythic and psychological message of this latest version of The Manchurian Candidate is different than the first, promoting a felt connection between men that can act as a strength as well as a guide to truth and new options when faced with artificial intelligence. It’s not enough to kill the wicked symbol of ‘mother’ to alter narrow-minded patriarchal goals. No, what must be shot straight through is the whole ‘negative mother’ complex.

The final act of the son in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, represents a reckoning, a redemptive act that frees him, his commander, the men who fought with him – and the audience – to move on. He instigates the death of his fear-based, disabling enmeshment with his mother not by suicide, as if it were contained within him, or even homicide as if it were contained in his mother. He steps together with her, letting a single bullet from Marco kill them both simultaneously, demonstrating the clarity of his intent to do away with what exists between them. Symbolically, the pathological distortion of the dynamic between mother and son is eliminated by a new hero. The son’s insight makes possible the emergence of a new archetype of heroism, one that honors the veracity of a masculine bonding and awards all sons their rightful legacy of feelings. With the death of the distorted complex, the film suggests a fresh mythology can begin to rise in which men can identify masculinity with empathy as well as a healthy emotional bonding with each other – and their mothers. At the end of the new version, Ben Marco returns to the scene of the crime on a deserted isle where minds were warped and futures ruined. He slips a group photo of his men, along with a single Congressional Medal of Honor, into the sea. It’s a ritual of return, referencing the symbolism of reclamation and renewal. But it also signifies a transformation in the type of leadership that can now mean ‘hero’, one of a man belonging to a matrix and not a complex. The men with their medal return to the source of life on earth – an inclusive, elusive fluidity that sustains a natural flow between human beings and repeatedly withstands evil.

Patriarchal mythology, based upon and heavily vested with values supporting iron-fisted domination of one order of human beings over another, must yield its complexes. When the son, programmed as an assassin wakes up in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, and discovers links of destruction in his own psyche reaching from personal mother to corporate father, he throws light into a cultural construct of developmental psychology in need of change. His self-instigated release from the artificially implanted nightmare of a twisted mother-son dynamic symbolically ‘kills’ the archetype that destroyed his chance to become an independent young man. The hopeful mythic thread of “Resonance, Return and Renewal” in The Manchurian Candidate, 2004, shows a way out. The film demonstrates a source of hope in dark times. Empathy forms an abiding bridge between men and liberates acts of independent thinking even when aggressive attempts are being made to program individual choice into oblivion.

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16/04/04 Film Essay # , , , ,

Kill Bill, Volume I & II (2004)

Kill Bill, Volume I & II (2004)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, David CarradineVivica A. Fox


…”Who is Bill? If you see Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and don’t grapple with that question, you’ve missed a key point. Kill Bill I set us up to ask the question. Kill Bill II delivers the answer.”

At a time in history when comics and comedians – Doonesbury, Boondocks and Jon Stewart – are delivering cutting edge truths about the uses and abuses of power, it’s not surprising to see Tarantino’s comic book movies delivering deep philosophical truths about traveling between the mythic realms of life and death and dramatizing the imbalance of masculine and feminine forces in our modern age.

Kill Bill I and II certainly capitalize on the fascination with gore and violence that sells movies but they go far beyond the usual Pow! Bam! Shoot ’em Up attraction. Believe it or not, there’s a mythic sized romantic tragedy at the center of these films. A beautiful young woman falls in love with a smart, older man who thinks he knows what’s best for her. She puts herself in his hands, wanting to please him and fulfill his vision of the perfect woman. And then she grows up, gets pregnant, questions the fast track life defined by her man, turns on a dime and disappears. He feels abandoned, alone and rejected, his manhood radically in need of revenge and reparation. He tracks her down, finds her with another man and kills her – he thinks. But women these days are not so easily put out of the picture. She comes back, ready to do battle with any man insensitive enough to take her unborn child for his own ego satisfaction.

But Kill Bill is not simply a story of revenge, it’s a contemporary portrayal of the larger seesaw of life and death forces aptly dramatized by the storyteller of our times – film. With finely tuned cinematic appeal, Good and Evil rage against one another in a most acceptable form – the unreal world of the comic book. The conflict between the universal forces of feminine and masculine, subjective and objective perspectives as well as the mystical and the scientific are set into high-speed motion by Tarantino for your viewing pleasure and enlightenment. It’s all very believable in the realm of fantasy; impossibly so.

Done in lighter ways, this story is Pygmalion – a man who thinks he knows what a woman should be and finds himself left behind when she grows up and has some ideas of her own. Done in a dark way, this is Medea where a man was wrong when he thought a woman who devoted herself to him and his career would not mind him taking their sons and moving on to greener pastures. Done darkly in the movies, this is Lost Highway where David Lynch morphed men mercilessly in the night searching for a comfort zone with gorgeous women. Men who base their masculinity on control of the feminine may start out well, even draw the most beautiful and exciting women. But the rebellion that occurs when a woman gets her own idea of who she is can make for a nasty ending if a man resorts to violence to maintain his control. It’s this kind of woman and this kind of man that fill Tarantino’s bill in both volumes of Kill Bill. Mother nature has drawn an invisible line of respect in the sand between men and women – and Bill crosses one that invites a fight to the death with his beloved, The Bride. We know from the film titles, from the horrific massacre at the beginning of Kill Bill I, and from the fact that a sequel, Volume II, promised to reveal Bill ‘s true identity and the truth about his top woman assassin’s determination to do him in.

So, who is Bill? I mean – really. Sure, he’s a pimp, a broker of killers for hire. But what does he represent in the world and why must he be killed? For the woman’s sake, for the world’s sake?

The first twenty minutes of Kill Bill II almost sent me from the theatre in shivers, willing to miss out on the answer. There’s a relentless, ruthless attack on The Bride (Uma Thurman, the hero we believe in) by Bill’s brother, Budd (Michael Madsen, a true brother in crime). I wish I could say I had the trust of a kid reading a comic book that the good girl would win while watching Volume II. But I was really worried that I could be in for a misogynist driven second half to Kill Bill I. After all, Uma got away with a lot of murder in that first half. It wasn’t just the sadistic laughing of Budd who felt he was justified in burying Uma alive because she had hurt his brother’s feelings by leaving him. It was the finality of comic book logic – every superhero meets situations where there’s no way out.

Burying The Bride alive was just a little too close for comfort to the history of male-dominated societies and sad revelations of female mythology. Many books testify to how the patriarchy has sunk the feminine far into the underground on purpose, for greed and power (The Da Vinci Code is a recent, fictionalized version of this research.). My trust moved to even shakier ground when Uma not only got nailed into her coffin with feet and hands bound by heavy ropes in a box barely the size of her body but was also lowered into a gravesite and covered with dirt. Even if she did have the wherewithal to get out of the box, the earth would crush her. Her plight arouses a flight or fight response that had me gasping for air. It lasted just long enough — lit off and on by a flashlight she had chosen (over being blinded by mace) to ease her crossover to death– to make me desperate for a superhero to show up.

And then, just when I thought I couldn’t stand it another minute, Tarantino tucks in a back-story. He changes the pace, eases the despair of terror by showing The Bride adding Chinese martial arts under the tutelage of The Master Killer, Pai Mei, (Chia Hui Liu) to ones she honed earlier in Japan. This taught her mind over matter. Whew. I won’t spoil the suspense but suffice it to say, it has something to do with getting in touch with the power within. It’s well known that an individual’s subjective viewpoint colors much of how you see things but the lesson here is that it could save your life. It isn’t Superman but The Bride’s own, natural superpower that gets her out of the box. A Wonder Woman for an age of wonder, she taps into the roar of her eternal life force. The Bride rises like an original earth goddess from Budd’s intent to suffocate her, spiraling like a whirling dervish straight from the grave as truly as the ancient Sumerian goddess, Inanna, returned after her descent into hell.

The larger story point is that women in descent – pushed or pursuant – experience revitalization. Years of oppression do not go unrewarded in mythology. They reconnect with their unconscious, uniquely feminine spirit and begin to rise again. The Bride survives this second certain death at the hands of a man determined to do her in and resumes her path of revenge toward Bill. Integrated now with the powers of the mythic Underground as well as martial arts from Japan and China, The Bride holds new options for taking on obstacles – even at close range and when seeming hopelessly trapped. Flying in space and traversing time without constraint is old hat for this heroine. This feminine hero now possesses a few special, secret tricks about resilience that will come in handy later, in the nick of comic book time.

Dusty and smeared with mud – otherwise no worse off from her ordeal – the Bride, fleet of foot and vast in energy, crosses desert mountains with in a single stride to pay Budd another visit. But she finds her dirty work done. One of Bill’s other ViPERS, Elle (Daryl Hannah, a ‘She’ if there ever was one), has given Budd more than money for The Bride’s famous sacred Hattori Hazon sword. She hid a poisonous snake midst the million and killed him, dead within moments. Elle, a one-eyed blonde mirror image of The Bride greets Uma, Hattori Hazon sword in hand – knowing full well how to use it. And Elle wants nothing more than to take The Bride’s first place position with Bill. But look out. The Bride knows Budd has been hiding a Hattori Hazon sword of his own, given to him by brother Bill. She finds and pulls it from its sheath.

Now, as kids would say, the next scenes are the good part – a clashing sword fight between two lithe, tall, blond and well-matched female warriors. They tear poor old Budd’s trailer to shreds as they would smash a city to smithereens if they were let loose in it. They go at their fight pretty evenly until The Bride discovers that Elle killed Master Pei Mei who had taught them both their super skills. Then she ends it with one of those other tricks she’s learned from The Master Killer – another one that should be revealed only to the brave moviegoers who survive The Bride’s Texas burial. That’s when we begin to suspect The Bride of ethics not befitting a cold-blooded killer. The white eye-browed bearded monk not only trained The Bride as a master assassin, he opened doors of perception for her, and ones he didn’t open for others. Everything she sees is psychic, there for dissolution, remaking and transforming to her heart’s desire.

From now on, she is a sleek killing machine intent on ridding the world of Bill, her archenemy, ex-lover and the leader of the ViPER pack. Volume II began by telling how the wedding massacre in Volume I came about. The Bride had left Bill when she found out she was pregnant, wanting to leave the business that endangered the new life growing in her body and putting her in constant peril. She dropped far out of the limelight, looking for a quiet retreat into domesticity. But Bill found her and, unable to lure her back to him, shot her in the head. She didn’t die but she did go into a coma for four years, a symbolic death from which she awakens stronger than ever. In Volume I, she makes a list and starts on the rampage that leads her to Bill in Volume II. It’s clear. There is no life for her if Bill is alive. This is more than revenge, more than retribution for the death of her child and the unmitigated attempt on her own life. She could never be free. He owns her perception of herself as a natural born killer. To have a chance at being her true self, she must break the mirror.

As The Bride descends upon Bill’s house, she is intent upon killing this enemy of her soul. But she’s met with a surprise that pits her realities one against the other. She discovers an outer reality that she definitely wants to be a part of. But there is also the internal reality – being in service to Bill – that goes directly up against it. The emotional tension of The Bride carrying both simultaneously visibly reads as a tough cookie with heart. She’s awesome. And we want to know what she’s going to do. It will be a fight to the death – of realities. The Bride kills Bill and, with him, the old image of herself. But that’s not the secret that closes the story. Again, I wish I could tell it but The Bride has a grand trick this time, one that restores balance in her life, one that you have to see and feel for yourself. Bill’s ability to maintain an imbalance of power is killed. His foot on the neck of innocence and belief in the goodness of ordinary life is lifted.

Bill’s own ego killed him. Like Orpheus who – against explicit orders from Hades – had to take one look back as he led his beloved Eurydice up from the underworld, Bill had to know why The Bride left him. Unable to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty and the tension of trust without control, he shoots The Bride with a truth serum so that he can believe what she tells him. And she does tell him the truth. She left him because he was wrong; she is not a natural born killer. She is not his right arm. She was a manmade killer and she no longer is. When she discovered she was pregnant, she found her center, the eye of generativity that offset the historical horrors in her life. And Bill (like Orpheus) loses her, dies of a blow to the heart he didn’t know was possible. In truth, it was Bill’s lack of imagination, his inability to embrace the ineffable meaning of love and his perverse addiction to the momentary delight of domination that did him in. It was his inability to trust The Bride as his own soul.

Lucky for us. Because Bill symbolizes the separated, unbalanced masculine that turns away from the mystery of what is not yet known, what is yet to come.

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30/01/04 Film Essay # , , , ,

Monster (2003)

Monster (2003)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern


“Monster born or monster bred? It’s a question often asked. What causes a serial killer? Monster depicts Aileen Carol Wuornos as homemade, crafted straight from a childhood of abuse and triggered by the disillusionment of romantic love.”

Monster is not a pretty story. Abuse of Aileen Carol Wuornos – a serial highway killer of seven men in the 1980’s – began early, reducing a sweet child to a teenager desperate for affection and turning a hungry young woman into a dollar a night hooker. But, as Aileen (played by Oscar award winning actress, Charlize Theron) says, the real story all began one night in a bar when she met Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). She wasn’t looking for anything more than a beer but she was down to her last five bucks and in a strange, suicidal frame of mind. If life had anything to offer, it had better come soon.

But Monster is not only ugly, it’s scary because it’s not only about the deliberate murders of seven men by a crazed prostitute. It’s about something familiar exaggerated, taken to an extreme but still within the realm of sympathy for anyone who’s fallen in love and been betrayed. It’s about the way the dream of romantic love can turn to murderous rage when the illusion cracks. It can’t be said that Aileen was happy being a dollar a night hooker but it can be said that she was quiet. She accepted her fate, took her hard knocks, slept where she could and kept to herself. She only had one friend, a Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern) who sympathized with her post-traumatic plight. This was a woman who had long ago given up any idea that she could do any better.

Falling in love changed all that.

At a bar one night, she met Selby, a young lesbian who had struck out so many times that even attention from a hooker felt good. The two hit it off. Loneliness and cynicism had a drink, shared a cigarette and made an old-fashioned match. Lee, as Selby called her, was far from being a lesbian but they inspired each other to try for the dream. Regardless of gender preference, falling in love is a sure thing for igniting hope. Selby hoped she had found a woman to fulfill her smoldering desires. Aileen hoped she had found someone who wanted her for more than sex, someone who truly loved her.

They tumbled together in the bliss of new love and, for a few moments of eternity, enjoyed what had eluded them both. Love. Aileen felt emboldened to go out into the alien world of the workplace and apply for a job. She wanted to give up the sordid life of a hooker, make a normal life with Selby. But the more she interviewed, the more she looked into mirrors of rejection that exaggerated her abnormalities. The fantasy of a house on the beach, an SUV and the soft glow of candlelight that was sold, stamped and delivered in magazines, movies and billboards of romantic love was slipping away. It didn’t seem within the reach of a woman who couldn’t even get a filing job in an office.

So Aileen went to work at the only job she knew. And one night she slid into the open door of a car with a man that she knew instinctively was bad news and, in a scene too nightmarish to describe, was raped beyond her senses. Pent up rage from a lifetime of abuse broke loose and she, believing but not knowing for sure that he would kill her, blew her attacker to smithereens. Her fierce drive to return to the loving arms of Selby, not to die ripped apart on the seat of a car, turned Aileen into a murderer. And from that moment on, a fabricated monster woman took over. She no longer walked or talked in ordinary reality. She lived in frantic fear that Selby would leave her, continuing to kill with impunity the enemy of her obsession – any man with money in his pocket and on the road looking for sex. “He” represented what stood between her and normal life. And the murders that she committed in the name of that enemy stood between her and final despair.

Regardless of Aileen’s efforts, it wasn’t long until Selby was threatening to go back home. No money. No food. Nowhere to go. Aileen wasn’t living up to her promises. Desperate to keep Selby with her, Aileen hooked and murdered. She would fulfill their honeymoon dream with money. Money could buy happiness. It was the American way. She walked back onto the highways, took the ride offered – and shot the men behind the wheel. She turned more tricks than she’d ever turned before. She needed Selby to believe they could accumulate a big pile of money, enough to get them to dreamland. But the door to dreamland opened up a new door for Aileen, one that she wouldn’t have entered before. Risk. Going for the gold ring, she swung out a little farther than she would have when there was nothing at stake.

In one particularly poignant moment, Aileen sees Selby recoiling at the realization of her as a murderer. She pulls herself up into almost noble stance and, fighting back tears with grotesque grimaces, “I want you to know I’m a good person”. She attempts to separate the killing she’s done from a deserving self. The murders she committed in the name of that enemy who had stolen whatever little hope she’d been given for a few moments cannot be forgiven. But her effort to honor the love she felt for Selby was extraordinary and something audiences identified with, a wrenching picture of a survivor’s instinct after hope is gone. Aileen, at least the way this film tells it, held onto her love for Selby right up to the end in spite of the fact that she knew Selby had joined the police against her.

The film ends with Aileen shielding herself and Selby from the truth of betrayal. Monster, like Bride of Frankenstein, is a stiff reminder of the suppressed fear and anger that lie beneath a psyche pieced together from leftover, deadened body parts. Hope became a dangerous, explosive thing when placed into the already heavily damaged hands of Aileen Carol Wuornos. But the murderous rage, rising to the surface when hope was rallied, then rudely recalled, constitutes a dark reality of dreams punctured that goes further than a personal story.

Understanding how rage relates to the breakdown of an illusion in a film can provide insight into how it can happen to a society. In a recent essay in the Los Angeles Times, “Transplanted Democracy Will Wilt in Infertile Soil”, Shlomo Avineri argues impressively that a change in the Arab world must come incrementally, from the inside out. He warns that “To imagine Western-sponsored democracies flourishing anytime soon in the Arab world is a dangerous illusion, doomed to bring about violent resentment and rage against U.S. ” (Italics are added to the original text.) In other words, Americans should not fall in love with the idea that democracy is realizable without considerable healing in the Middle East. Arousing hopes of a quick democracy may have a paradoxical effect. Rage can be spurred by the break down of romantic illusions on a larger cultural level as well as on the personal. Unquiet times.

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01/01/04 Film Essay # , , , ,

Casa de los Babys (2003)

Casa de los Babys (2003)
Director: John Sayles
Writer: John Sayles
Stars: Daryl Hannah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen


“One thing about a John Sayles’ movie. The man tells a hard story well. It’s not easy to tell a story where shame marks every motive, every transaction, every result. In Casa de Los Babys, South American infants born without a future are given up for adoption to wealthy mothers from other countries, especially the U.S. The babies may be winning a ticket out of a dirt scraping poverty but it is a coveted ticket, carrying the stain of fathers and mothers left behind who long for opportunity. Try that for complexity. And then, to make matters worse, the mothers who are reaching out for the babies bear their own cuffs of shame. Casa de Los Babys doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Told with empathy for all involved, Sayles makes it difficult to take sides, to find any ‘right’ position to defend or any enemy – other than despair – to blame.”

Most movie reviewers took the high road with Casa de Los Babys, calling the mothers superficial and the South Americans poor victims. But there’s more than that. Much more. There’s shame.

Shame – What is it? A deep sense of personal inadequacy passed on from parent to child, one generation to another, as if a child were to blame for being a burden, as if babies were responsible for imposing on a family’s meager resources – material and emotional – and as if their birth accounted for the lack of opportunity that awaits them. Shame conquers by invisibility. This is not a feeling of guilt where something has gone wrong and can be fixed. This is shame, a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with you that is passed down and passed on by ridicule, self-righteous discipline and elitist rules of oppression. It rises up in work that doesn’t pay or provide, thrives in families with mouths too many to feed, and cuts off its victim from feelings of trust for years to come. This is eye-dropping shame, the kind that self-perpetuates long after a baby changes hands. The only way out is for all of us to become aware of the silent erosion of dignity taking place beneath the surface. That’s what Sayles gives us in Casa de Los Babys. Awareness is the beginning of a reversal of fortunes.

This is more than a story about six mothers coming to adopt babies in South America. Casa de Los Babys weaves a profound portrayal of a country’s people trapped by the stifling consequences of corrupt politics, rampant unemployment and a futureless future for their youth. The film backdrops its tale of adoption against a pictorial representation of a fated progression from baby to adulthood in a South American beach town.

Sayles starts with the babies, born to girls too young and grandparents too poor to keep them. They are adorable, innocent – and too many. What would happen to them if they were not adopted?Los Babys shows the next stage – homeless street kids, begging, stealing to survive. They foretell the future. And then it moves along to the cadres of young, well-meaning men and women who have dropped out of school and subsist on menial or pick up jobs. They live on dreams, hoping for a lottery ticket that will bring back a child adopted by a family far away or enough money to buy a seat on an airplane and start a new life in a far away city. Finally, he brings in vignettes of older adults who eke out a living tending, feeding or fixing things for tourists. They shake their heads in disgust watching their fairly grown children who, attempting to rebel against a dead-end, take out their frustrations carousing, hustling and scheming against the government. Almost everyone comes down from dirt floor shacks in the mountains – on foot, bicycles or ancient buses – to work the tourist trade near the beaches. A sense of great sadness, a head hanging shame, accompanies their descent.

Then Sayles turns his eagle eye on each of the six mothers of so-called privilege waiting for babies to be given to them. They are enduring months of anxious waiting, worth it because international adoptions are sure things, but nerve wracking because…well, that’s the question, because why? As each woman’s character emerges under an expectant impatience, another kind of shame emerges. The shame of not feeling worthy – a disqualifying shame that marks them ‘not normal’ women. The women’s wanting and buying babies represents hope against hope, not just for the babies but for them as well to escape shame. Slowly, Casa de Los Babys examines what lies beneath each woman’s desire. Each woman’s history reveals a deeply felt personal emptiness no less poignant than the emptiness of opportunity in this South American town. The baby represents her hope to transform a different kind of shame – one that they believe will be fixed by circumventing their failure to give birth, sustain new life.

Behind each woman’s reality lies debilitating doubt. One prospective mother, easily labeled New Age, strives for the perfect body, exercising obsessively to stave away the pain of giving birth to three babies who died before they lived. Another, easily labeled an alcoholic, looks continually on the bright side, a Pollyanna refusing to entertain a bad thought about anyone as if it might reveal her own weakness. She strives for perfection. But she is the one who has seen another wanna-be mother furtively steal soap from the housekeeping cart. That woman, easily labeled a bitchy bigot, bears a physical scar of shame burned into her wrist by her own mother as a disciplinary measure. She hides her shame with a prickly anger that isolates her. The dark side of yet another rescuer, money worried and working class, emerges as she spins her tale of sweet dreams to a young Latina maid who can’t understand a word she says but gives her the idealizing looks she craves. This woman’s dreams will never come true because she, herself, will have to work long hard hours to pay the bills while her child is growing up. And then there’s the one easily labeled confused. She’s the youngest and most frightened, a woman who seems to be trying to save a floundering marriage by bringing home a baby. The last mother-wanna-be, easily labeled a lesbian, lays out a tight defensive plan about how she’s going to raise her child. It must be a baby girl. She’ll be careful not to show too much feeling, never spoil her or be friends with her. And she won’t be disappointed when the child hates her. These are not women who feel confident, coming to adopt babies for the pleasure of sharing their love, delight and good fortune. They come fearful, needy and equipped with their own personal closets of shame.

The cover-up pictures of shame have a tendency to come with many pretty labels in real life. Mothers of wealth and cute babies-in-need may seem like a match made in heaven but, as Casa de Los Babysreveals, devastating feelings of personal inadequacy lie not far beneath the surface on both sides. Sayles’ complex film with his “picture-worth-a-thousand words” storytelling may leave us sad, feeling helpless and inclined to drop our own eyes. But the shrewd genius of Sayles’ Los Babys is that it makes the invisible visible, bringing hidden wounds into full view and creating an authentic opportunity for healing. Awareness of the circle of shame is the beginning.

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14/11/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Peter Weir (screenplay), John Collee (screenplay), Patrick O’Brian (novels)
Stars: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd


Original version published in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library
Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2.


“New Heroes for New Times”

When I first conceived of this essay on the forging of true male friendship on the high seas in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, I simply thought of the gift of mythic inspiration being offered by the portrayal of a dynamic caring between two splendid men. But then I saw Fog of War in which the inability of two powerful men to speak honestly to one another — a U.S. President and his Secretary of State — resulted in one of the great disasters of the twentieth century. That was when I realized that open communication between men of immense power who know that they must sometimes commit evil in the name of good cannot be judged as ‘gay’ or ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ or ‘irrelevant’. Now, in these modern times, when it’s not just a matter of individual deaths but the death of nations that’s at stake, our mythology of what makes a real man is critical. In Master and Commander, duty is wed to compassion as both friend and opposite, inseparable companions worthy of and dependent upon one another for survival, healing and success.

In Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a deep friendship between men is elevated to the level of heroes. And manliness is given a new strength to face an unknown future. The film reinvigorates the old mythology of what makes a man a real man, showing how consciousness and identity can be forged in intimate relationship as well as in battle. And then it goes one step further. Master and Commanderputs forth a new kind of hero – a boy who finds insects as fascinating as dragons, pencils as necessary as guns and good male role models more compelling than bad. It seems like a good time to be a boy.

A boy’s odyssey to manhood may still be held captive by Homer’s ancient tale of the man who bears its name – Odysseus – but the nature of the journey, once completely singular, has begun to change. Master and Commanderprojects an expanded vision of expectation meeting the boy who is growing to manhood in our society today. It holds friendship with other men and caring for children central to the task of becoming a ‘real man’. This heroic image of manhood calls for self-reflection and listening as well as decisive action and conquest. And decisions, solo as they must remain, are not without context. Individual performance often emerges from intense interaction, be it warm and complementary or antagonistic. And, important to the challenge of today’s complicated conflicts, the expanded myth of manhood taking symbolic form in Master and Commandershows an empathetic understanding of an enemy’s point of view beginning to compete with brute force as a tool for victory. Purposeful expression, honest communication, and a genuine feeling for others gain stature as an integral part of leadership. The consequence is a complex, more complete and more fulfilled image of male identity.

Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World opens fast, sweeping across a wild, vast sea with only a fluttering of sails to suggest that men are present. But present they are. In the creaking hold of a British ship of war, a lone lantern makes its way through the dark. A disembodied hand flips the daily sandglass and shadowy sailors exchange places on the tall masts of HMS Surprise against the dawning light of a new day. Napoleon may represent the enemy in 1805 to British imperialism, threatening to claim the South Seas for France but, in this film – in the hands of master filmmaker, Peter Weir – the French enemy ship, Acheron, represents the threat of a future dominated by technological advancement. The Acheron comes like a phantom from the fog, pinpointing the aging Surprise as if equipped with laser beam radar and sporting an invincibility that will require more wit than gunpowder from its Captain, “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). Aubrey’s orders may be to keep the Southern Atlantic Ocean under English control, but his truer purpose will be to assert the spirit of man over the reach of machine. This is the stuff of mythology, the coming of a new hero for a new time. But Aubrey, unlike Odysseus, brings friendship to an even level with the power of personality as key to a man’s stature. He enters into a creative tension with the ship’s physician, a man his equal and opposite, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Friendship undergoes close examination inMaster and Commander, articulating a modern, yet very manly, vision of caring for others. It is the forging of a fit, compassionate image of leadership from a friendship between two extraordinary men on the far side of the world at the cusp of a new age that lies at the center of this film.

Homer’s famed Odyssey established Odysseus as a new hero for his times, a man with a more enlightened consciousness, one in which a mere mortal possesses heightened god-like mental as well as physical abilities. As the tale goes, when Agamemnon forced Odysseus to join Ithaca’s war against Troy and bring civilization to a primitive world, he dragged Odysseus from his fields as a man who knew how to sow seed, nurture it to fruition and reap the rewards of civility. When war became Odysseus’ only pursuit, he hardened and learned to defend himself with a cleverness and pride that excluded concern for community, honing his mind to the fine art of thought designed for action in battle. If we were to imagine Odysseus’s twenty-year journey home from the Trojan wars as a personal quest to develop a male identity more suitable to society than battle, his extended visit with the goddess Calypso could be seen as necessary to the transition, critical to the development of emotional and spiritual sensitivities. Woman was regarded – borrowing words from Joseph Campbell – as ‘being there’ at the center of a man’s quest for wholeness. Odysseus was a battle weary man in desperate need of getting in touch with feelings that would allow him to re-enter his previous life. He was headed across the great seas of the Mediterranean toward home and Penelope, his devoted, patient and much desired wife who had kept his palace, lands and marriage bond intact during his absence. Odysseus could be seen as a man in great need of integrating emotion into his being. He accomplished this task of learning to love, empathize, and be sensual in the typical way imagined for a hero – with a woman. In the time of Odysseus, a man’s spiritual desire was deemed synonymous with capitulating to the lure of feminine beauty beheld in a woman.

The notion of a Greek hero developing or emanating empathy in context of another man was a contradiction in terms. So, when Peter Weir’s Master and Commandershows the brave, cunning and charismatic Captain Jack Aubrey of the HMS Surprise expressing private worries, seeking out frank opinion and playing impassioned string duets with Dr. Stephen Maturin, his stature as a traditional hero is either in question or under revision. And the same could be said of Maturin, a man of no small heroic stature even though he serves in a secondary position as ship’s surgeon. He not only performs brain surgery in a makeshift open air amphi-theatre of the ship’s hold while the patient’s shipmates look on but he digs the remnants of an errant bullet from his own belly, with little or no anesthetic, backwards through the reflected image of a mirror! These are men whose manhood should not be in question. But, of course, that is what’s at stake. Aside from the intensely emotional confrontations that stretch anyone’s notion of male bonding, there will be two crucial moments when each of these men must choose between his egoistic goals and friendship. Their decisions challenge the self-contained image of stoicism traditionally thought critical to the definition of a real man. The oceanic forces of the collective unconscious are at work once again. Under the pressures of war and weather in Master and Commander, they set male identity in motion — and demand from audiences a greater appreciation of the breadth of male heroism than previous myth would have it.

The two men of Master and Commanderare strong individualists – and worthy adversaries in conversation and vision. Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin are about as contrary in temperament and calling as two men can get. But the differences that lie between them are not there to be mollified, lessening either man’s stature by negotiation or compromise. Having a friend not like himself proves useful, making each man feel unique, strong and true to his nature. At the center of this story lies a choice point for each man, a moment when each must look deep within and choose what marks himself as a man – honoring friendship or pursuing ambition. They shift and ponder and groan, determined to integrate the feelings they have for one another into their larger sense of purpose in the world.

“Lucky” Jack Aubrey is a man of action, Master and Commanderof what it takes to keep men, ship, and country together under siege. As he dares to round the Horn of South America in his creaking brig against great and dangerous odds, he yields to Maturin’s pressure to be self-reflective. Not easily, but he does. He finally admits to his friend that his pursuit of the more advanced Acheron into treacherous seas is, indeed, no longer dictated by orders from England. It is his own will, his own interpretation of duty that sends him forward. Only in the privacy of intimate conversation does he admit such hubris. Aubrey feels he must prove that an experienced man of skill and intelligence will be relevant to a future that promises to be dominated by advancements in technology. As he casts his eyes upon a small model two of his men have constructed of the Acheron, he declares, “That is the future”. But he also comments, “it is still vulnerable at the star, like the rest of us”. Subtly, he refers not simply to the construction of a ship but to the ego of his enemy, the man behind the weapon. This is a leader who values empathy as an advantage in war not to be forgotten.

Dr. Stephen Maturin is a quieter man of science, observant, thoughtful and sardonic, preoccupied by a curiosity for nature. He may be aboard a ship but he is not a man of the sea. With nerves as steely as Aubrey, he holds his own and inspires high regard from seasoned sailors. ‘He’s a physician, not just a bloody surgeon’, snaps a seaman who knows most naval doctors simply cut off limbs after a battle. In spite of his ignorance of sailing, Maturin is not a man to be taken lightly. He may not understand nautical terms but that doesn’t stop him from grasping intention and expressing strong opinions about the direction Aubrey chooses. He also operates upon wounded men with a cold confidence that denies his awareness of the limitations of medical treatment at sea and leaves him optimistic about the future of a boy who loses an arm from the nasty consequences of war. It was common practice for boy children to be sent into naval service by their parents in 1805, but uncommon for them to be regarded with such respect as they receive aboard the HMS Surprise.

Together, Maturin and Aubrey set a tone of mentoring and convey a vision beyond war. Maturin is as intent upon using the Royal Navy to further his scientific investigation of the unknown world as Aubrey is intent upon extending Britain’s power into it. He bristles with anger when Aubrey dismisses his scientific investigation as a hobby, not of worldly consequence. Maturin takes Aubrey equally to task when he refuses to turn back toward England when both men and ship are stressed past the breaking point. “Can you really claim that there is nothing personal in this call to duty?” The two seem to thrive on being honest to the sticking point with one another. Intensely competitive, their exchanges reveal the workings of a friendship, showing an interplay between passion, honesty, and respect that feeds achievement. Each man sees himself in line for legend and, with a little mythic imagination, can be seen as using the navy for higher purpose – to further the reach of mankind beyond the known.

Even when they’re having fun, an exchange between the two carries mythic significance. As all the officers are having a meal together, Aubrey mocks Stephen’s serious nature with a joke. He asks Stephen to make a choice between two bread weevils. And then, with a twinkle in his eye, he takes advantage of Stephen’s gullibility. ‘Don’t you know, Stephen, that there is no better of two-weevils?” Might it be the two natures of these men that pose the choice? Or perhaps something even more profound? Later, when Jack and Stephen are discussing the responsibility they both feel for the deaths of young men aboard ship, the joke comes back to haunt them. Stephen owns to Jack that guilt weighs heavy on him when he operates. He must remind himself that when a man dies under his knife, it has been the enemy and not himself who has caused the man’s death. Then, in somber tone, he returns Jack’s joke to its source. “It’s service to war, Jack, that requires a choice between two evils.” Aubrey’s casual joke is brought full circle, revealing the emotional complexity required of responsible men.

More than the buddy camaraderie seen in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid or in a myriad of movies with the likes of Hope and Crosby, the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin often requires each man to become introspective, look within himself and reconsider what’s important to him. Thus, each man is called upon to develop himself and stretch beyond his own consciousness. The string duets with Aubrey on violin and Maturin on cello are described by the ship’s cook as ‘scrape, scrape and screech, screech’ which is, indeed, an amusing characterization of the insistent nature of their collaboration.

Aubrey, long past his orders and against Maturin’s counsel, pursues theAcheron ’round Cape Horn. It is at this point that Master and Commandertruly lifts into mythic storytelling and opens the way for an alchemical transformation of common friendship into something heroic. The weather gods are not with Lucky Jack this time. Raging storms, freezing winds and bizarre blankets of snow are not relieved but aggravated by a blistering hot dead spell. A stream of fear passes from man to man. Rumors of the Acheron as a supernatural enemy, one meant to sink them into the deep, replaces reason. As tensions escalate, Jack comes down hard on his men to keep order but it’s clear that things are out of his hands. It will take a sacrifice of human life – a young officer committing suicide – to get the winds moving. It’s as if HMS Surprise has entered another world, where life and death choices scrape against one another.

When the Surprise comes upon the strange and never explored Galapagos Islands, rare wildlife comes into view. Flightless cormorants and swimming iguanas can be sighted from aboard ship. Maturin feels they should be his to examine up close. Aubrey, believing the Acheron is long gone, grants Maturin his wish. But then Jack learns from a couple pirates that theAcheron is nearby and can be caught with small effort. He breaks his promise to Stephen, favoring the opportunity to chase after the Acheron. Maturin is furious, confronting Aubrey with the meaning of breaking one’s word. Tempers fly but Aubrey is resolute. And then an uncanny accident occurs that will force a character defining choice from Aubrey. Maturin is shot by mistake; a shipboard marine, attempting to shoot an albatross flying in and out the ship’s sails, misses and hits Stephen. He is not killed but the bullet wound contains a scrap of cloth that will fester and take his life. Removal is tricky, not a task to be performed by a skilled surgeon on board a rolling ship much less by Maturin’s inexperienced assistant. Aubrey must decide. Friendship or duty. Saving Stephen’s life or catching the Acheron.

Aubrey faces the crux of the matter in a world beneath and below; is he Maturin’s friend or, solely, his captain? Scrape, scrape. Duty is no longer a defense he can throw at Stephen in anger. He must ask himself. Is he on this journey alone or is Maturin an integral part of it. To Aubrey’s mind in the moment, it is his friend’s life or his dream, the chance to prevail in English history with singular ego. England’s praises await him. And he’s capable of heartless action to achieve his goals. But, to chase after the Acheron will mean certain death for Maturin. The doctor’s survival requires a steady hand on steady land. In a pensive set of cinematic reflections, Aubrey walks amongst his men, looks at the Acheron so tempting within his scope and ponders Maturin’s cello without a hand on its bow. He makes up his mind. Aubrey aborts his chase and escorts Maturin ashore for the surgery.

Aubrey’s decision to be in service to his friend, however, calls for a bit more of him than captain’s orders. It requires a reversal of roles, casting him in the role of a nursing assistant. For a few moments, he is handmaiden to Maturin who must take the scalpel to save his own life. Seeing Stephen operate on his own body exposes Jack to a queasiness he never feels in battle, a feeling he could’ve avoided for a lifetime but now has an opportunity to integrate. Then Aubrey, who believes the Acheron is long gone, grants Stephen a week to explore the island. Of course, because they are in the land of the gods, Stephen is miraculously up and about the next day, taking a five-mile hike to the far side of the Galapagos Island.

Then, the weevil joke turns again. Maturin faces Aubrey’s choice between ego and friendship. While hiking to the edge of a cliff to get a close look at a flightless cormorant, he sights the Acheron just setting sail from a hidden inlet. Screech meets scrape. Friendship makes another call. Maturin could ignore his duty to the Royal Navy, sure in his own mind that he’s fulfilling a higher duty by bringing home to England an unprecedented treasure. But he can’t deny his emotional commitment to Jack. He must match him. Maturin stares with longing eyes across an island as rare as the moon. He must abandon his investigation, releasing his exotic specimens from their cages, and rush back across the island to alert Aubrey. Now, friendship drives this man away from his chance to go before god and country as a singular hero. In Maturin’s case, there is even more at stake since Aubrey is intent upon taking them into battle with the Acheron, a battle that could take his life as well as his goal into the deep dark sea.

But their friendship yields an unexpected gift.

Later, under sail with Maturin back to work making notes and drawings, Aubrey pays him a visit. Jack commends Stephen for, what in his mind, was the right choice. But he also commiserates with Stephen’s loss. “Nothing saved? All lost?” Then, as they screech and scratch their way through a sensitive parry of pride and loss, something magical happens. Maturin shows him one ‘save’ from the island. He hands Jack a small branch of a bush and, enjoying a moment of foolery at Aubrey’s expense, looks on without saying anything. Aubrey plays along, especially since he has the audience of young Will. He holds the stick under his gaze until it moves ever so slightly and reveals itself to be an insect. Stephen explains that the insect camouflages itself as a stick to elude hungry birds. A sly look creeps across Jack’s face. Maturin has given him just the note he needs to draw in the phantom Acheron and, with Lucky Jack’s luck, possibly take it as a prize. He will disguise the Surprise as a whaler, pretty prey for the Acheron.

The creative tension between Jack and Stephen, epitomized in the music they play together but drawn out in detail in the choices they’ve made to elevate friendship above duty, yields an edge for the HMS Surprise in battle. Jack turns Stephen’s trick of nature into a ‘ruse de guerre’, using an insect’s instinct for survival not simply as camouflage for survival but as a way to get the upper hand against a superior force. Stephen, of course, can’t resist teasing his friend by pointing out that it is Jack, not the captain of theAcheron, who is the hungry bird! Later, in hand to hand combat on theAcheron, it will become necessary for Stephen to pick up a sword, exercising physical aggression as well as intelligence to defend himself. Each man must become more than he has been to meet the future.

And then there’s Will. Early on, when the Acheron came out of the fog like a phantom, its long cannon crashed into the HMS Surprise. It took its toll on ship and men alike. Will Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a bare teen, lost his right arm. But it seemed to make him stronger, more of a leader among the men. He gladly accepted the consequences of battle, determined to make others feel better about their weak points. The boy rises above the wound, using his recovery to study and learn. He reads Aubrey’s books on war at sea, (in particular, one about the renowned naval hero, Lord Hornblower) and draws pictures of Maturin’s insects. He softens the blows of Aubrey’s stubborn command upon Maturin and buffers Maturin’s angry judgments against Aubrey. He is a voice of kindness, especially providing a calm presence to the sailors around him as fear fed superstition characterizing the mightyAcheron as a devil ship. But he also steps up to take command when necessary. Will fills the bill as ‘the one’. He connects the above and the below, the opposites of rule and exception, reason and emotion, light and dark. Hermetic, he listens, carries messages and furthers a mysterious connection between forces when all else is failing. When an officer, designated by the seamen as a scapegoat for the unexplainable adversity of bad weather befalling the Surprise, takes his own life to appease the gods, Will is there to witness it. Of course, the winds began to blow. The ineffable connection between belief and effect has been paid homage – and acknowledged, much like in the ancient days of Agamemnon.

It is no small gesture of mythic storytelling that the fledgling image of a ‘relational masculine’ takes its human form in the ship’s very young midshipman, Will Blakeney. Will may be destined to the action of war but he harbors talents as a naturalist, gluing opposites together with empathy. His mentors may turn to one another for sibling-like solace but Will’s caring is key to his personality, instinctual not behavioral. He not only draws insects, he cherishes a lone beetle saved from the Galapagos. The beetle proves a bit of welcome salve for Maturin’s loss as Aubrey takes off after the Acheron. In case the implication of Will as a new kind of hero in the making might be missed, Maturin reflects out loud to Will that – perhaps, somehow – he will grow up to combine the qualities of a captain of war and a doctor of science. Will likes the idea. “Perhaps I could become a fighting naturalist.” If so, he would transcend and unify the opposites that Maturin and Aubrey find so antagonistic – and add an alliance of male strength to the myth of what makes a real man.

Novel idea, two heroes in the same story. Each made more unique by the other. True friendship. Novel idea, two men parenting a ‘fighting naturalist’, a real man for a future that will call out for both. Out of fierce confrontations, solid disagreements and embarrassing concessions, Aubrey and Maturin wring a broader version of manhood from mythology than the one left by Odysseus. The conflict between two friends drives the center of a drama in the mythic territory of wild seas on the far side of the world. And the boys who watch, the boys who would become men under such unusual tutelage constellate an Odysseus who turns egoism to compassion, avoiding the pride that brought Poseidon down on Odysseus. As Stephen says of the Iliad, “The book is full of death, but oh so living.” Yes, as it is also in the film, Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World.

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31/10/03 Film Essay # , , ,

In America (2002)

In America (2002)
Director: Jim Sheridan
Writers: Jim SheridanNaomi SheridanKirsten Sheridan
Stars: Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou


“What America comes to your mind as a poor immigrant family with two small children drives into Manhattan, rents an apartment in a ‘junkie’s building’ and starts looking for work? And what does it take to believe in the one you see In America?”

A young girl’s voice starts the film, promising a child’s tale that sounds like a modern version of Jack in the Beanstalk’s magical beans – and conjures up the same measure of disbelief. She’s recently lost a baby brother who she is sure has given her three secret wishes to help guide the family through the transition from Ireland to Manhattan (via Canada). Her younger sister is an irrepressible, angel of a child who, if faith in the three wishes weren’t enough, would make anyone a believer in fairy tales. Their mom’s been a teacher but, of course, lacks credentials to teach in New York, and ends up with a job in a neighborhood cafŽ. She carries a heavy mother’s guilt for the death of her son and, while committed to a stiff upper lip for the sake of her daughters, drags a sack of gloom. Their dad, a wannabe actor and good guy, drives a cab part-time and struggles with his inability to get in touch with the deep feelings he deems necessary to succeed in New York theatre. In fact, the plight of this family seems more determined by frozen grief than by their very real poverty. And the thawing of that grief is the tale Jim Sheridan and his daughter, Naomi Sheridan choose to tell, giving Manhattan a dress of decency that is refreshing if a bit fanciful.

Indeed, lit up like an amusement park, the city seems to welcome the family as they drive in. People on the street greet Ariel (Emma Bolger), the younger daughter who hangs out the window of the car waving her hand and smiling with delight. Sheridan skips the days of looking for an apartment, the nights of everyone sleeping in the car. And keeps the child’s view as they arrive at what the older daughter describes as ‘the only apartment building in Man-hattan that will take kids’. A large black man looks down upon them from an upstairs window. Crackheads offer to ‘watch’ their car. And Christy (Sarah Bolger), the oldest daughter, nicknames the building ‘The House of Screams’ because recurrent moans of anguish emanate from the walls as they enter. Five, six, seven stories up they find a pigeon infested crash pad with scant plumbing, less electricity, broken windows and, probably, a smell better not known. They’ll have to sell the car to pay the rent. But, through a child’s eye, it’s all sheer possibility. “No, you can’t keep the pigeons,” answers the dad when Ariel asks. Contrasting Ariel’s enthusiastic embrace of ‘what is’ with the worried one of grown ups will be a continuing theme. She’s full of ‘beans’, ready to trade the cow and take her chances on an unknown future. When their dad manages to get water to come from an encrusted showerhead, both girls squeal with delight, want to stay in the bathtub all day as if they’d won a ticket to a water park. Christy, just enough older than Ariel to be cognizant of their true circumstances, swings from a quiet retreat behind her camcorder to an occasional romp with Ariel.

The fear of these children being molested, maligned or humiliated can never be far away in the audience’s mind as they go about their business. It tags along with each event. This family could go down in a second. Or up. The roller coaster of getting through a day takes them up and down. On Halloween, it’s time to climb the beanstalk. There’ve been indications all along that another spirit inhabits the world in which this family lives. In a wild, seeing what can’t really be seen moment, the large black man in the apartment behind a door marked ‘keep away’, drops a bare hand on a canvas covered in blood – or oil paint. Be it a malevolent or benevolent hand of a giant that holds their fate, fear shakes the ground when mom gets pregnant, dad has to take a job, and the kids go to school. Mom (Sarah Morton) becomes obsessed by an insecurity that she will fail this baby as she has the other. Dad (Paddy Considine) performs heroic tasks to make up for being a poor provider, pulling an abandoned air conditioner on a dolly straight down the street in traffic – and then hauls it five floors up in his arms! Mom and dad don’t fight at each other. They put their spines together, aching or prickly, to keep the family going. But when the girls, in homemade Halloween costumes, rouse smirky laughs from classmates at school, the parents are at a loss about what to do. Ariel and Christy react to the prejudice as if to the chant of a family game, “Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum, I smell the blood of an Irish woman”. They transcend fear, raise their courage to the sticking point and decide to become Americans.

On the way home from school, Christy describes ‘trick or treat’ to her family. “In America, you can’t ask, you must threaten to get what you want.” So, out they go, ‘trick or treating’ in their building. They knock on those closed doors behind which the unspeakable occurs. But no one answers. The girls are not discouraged. They yell louder, pound harder and, finally, behind the door with the yellow scrawled message, ‘keep away’, they hear a faint noise. Thrilled, they climb faster up the beanstalk, until HE looks down on them. The huge black man from the first day. Their parents peek out cautiously to see what’s happening, warily giving the girls permission to be on their own. The reclusive painter meets the mother’s eyes and an unexpected, unexplainable and unmistakable trust passes between them, swirling a soft fairy dust around them all. Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), for that’s the name of this prince of darkness from down under who is dying of AIDS, exudes the gentleness of a wounded giant. He is moved to tears by the girl’s ease with him. He has resisted contact with the outside world. And, Ariel, true to her angelic form, lays her slight white hand on his large dark shoulder without a trace of fear. “Are you crying”, she asks. “Why did you let us in?” And Mateo matches her, “When luck comes knocking at your door, you can’t turn it away.” Thus, the girls free the giant from his self-imposed exile, inviting the fearsome fellow into their family and turning their luck toward the light.

Not a bad backdrop for a fairy tale where mystery is as much a player as any circumstance. African meets Irish on the streets of New York for a profound confrontation between black and white, dark and light, dread death and risky living. While dying, Mateo revives the spirit that once lived freely in this family when their dead son, Frankie, was with them. Frankie died of a brain tumor, an invisible killer that stole their happiness, leaving them angry, sad and massively guilt-ridden. Now Mateo enters the picture, endangered as Frankie was, arousing all the same mixed emotions. Mom is reinvigorated but crazed with feelings of inadequacy. The girls jump for joy but know it’s to be short-lived. Dad attempts to push him out, paranoid about being tricked. He accuses Mateo of trying to steal his wife, his girls and his home behind his back. “You want my place? You love my wife?” But Mateo meets the moment with a fierce cry for help. “No, I am not in love with your wife. I am in love with you. I am in love with your kids, your unborn child. I am in love with your life – and your wife, yes, of course. I am in love with anything that lives.” Spirit of one land meets the soul of another; energetically, an exchange is made as sure as a cow was traded for a handful of beans.

And thus we get the answer to the question of what America is being imagined in In America. It is an America that lives, streams on the streets of cities in human beings of all sorts. And while a specter of death definitely hovers, it’s not the vision. There is a bridge, a tunnel, a way to cross back and forth between the real world and the world of possibility that – somehow – makes all and any life worthy of praise. As surely as E.T. returned home safely, as surely as Mateo crossed the moon on a bicycle with Frankie, as surely as immigrants come to Manhattan and find – somehow – childcare, jobs and friends In America, beans sprout. Returning from a devastating loss means taking a chance, feeling all kinds of feelings again, returning to the gifts of life. In America trades cynicism for the magic of children’s dreams and delivers an adventure, a challenge and an eye opener to healing grief.

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15/10/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Mystic River (2003)

Mystic River (2003)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Brian Helgeland (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)
Stars: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon


“The time bomb buried in the psyches of young boys sexually abused by men of the cloth explodes in Mystic River, a gutsy expose of a deep and far reaching problem ignored by the Catholic Church for too many years.”

Clint Eastwood steps out of the picture as a real hero of society with his production of Mystic River, brave beyond his ‘make my day’ film image.Mystic River makes it abundantly clear that sexual abuse by a priest is not comparable to any pain a child suffers at the hands of an ordinary adult. It’s personal, familial and societal, implanting a boy with a resounding world of hurt and filling his community with confounding guilt. Eastwood’s willingness to tell it like it is and show the power of sexual abuse laced with religious overtones to persist throughout a lifetime is more than an act of bravery. It’s a gift of sight. Mystic River translates a complex emotional injury into terms that everyone can fully comprehend. Sexual abuse by a man carrying religious authority acts as thief and killer of a child’s soul. Even the friends of a child who’s been abused, the ones who don’t directly experience the abuse but simply know that they could have, so easily, been victims suffer a crisis of trust that will affect their actions and personal destinies.

Three boys of about ten years old playing stick hockey in the side streets of an Irish Boston suburb lose their ball down a sewer drain. Left without a game to play, one suggests they amuse themselves by taking a parked car and driving it around the block. Another says his mom would kill him if he did anything like that. The third hangs back, hankering for a little excitement but not ready to break the law. Finally, the first gets a bright idea. They can carve their names in a block of freshly poured concrete sidewalk. He goes first, aggressively printing his name, “Jimmy”, with the end of a stick. The second goes along, scrawling “Sean” in the wet cement. And then, rising to a jibe from Jimmy, the reluctant third one takes the stick. Just as he finishes the second letter of his name, “Da..”, a car pulls up and a large burly man acting like a cop steps out in a big overcoat and, in old fashioned terms, puts the fear of God in the boys for destroying public property.

All well and good. A familiar scene of getting caught etched in the memory of many adults from childhood. But then the cop steps forward, a bit out of character, zooming in on the boy who went last when he finds out that he doesn’t have parents who might be watching from an overlooking apartment. He physically forces him into the backseat of his car. And then it gets worse. It’s not the false badge flashing nor the hand cuffs hanging from the belt, but the ring with the insignia of the priesthood on the hand of his pal waiting in the car that sends chills up our spines. The pal, a man in black with the telltale white collar casually drapes his right hand with the ring over the back of his seat, turning back to get a good look at Dave. Later, a large gold cross swings loose around his neck as he comes after Dave cringing on a mattress in a bleak cellar where he is being held by these two men against his will.

Dave manages to escape four days later, running through the woods like a wild, hunted animal. As he returns home, a crowd gathers to watch and someone whispers ‘looks like damaged goods to me’. Everyone knows what that means. His shamefaced mother huddles him into the house and can be seen berating him in an upstairs window. Not just Dave but his friends, Jimmy and Sean, will bear the blame for this abduction as if it were them, not the priest who perpetrated the crime. There is a specter of evil that comes in human form that cannot be captured and put behind bars. It lives in the shadows of hubris and rises up years later to take a deadly toll. Wanton assault on a child’s innocence by adults holding not just lawful but sacred authority is a game with far reaching consequences.

The three boys drift apart, grow up into a mobster, a cop and an unemployed ballplayer. Their friendship becomes a thing of the past until a young girl is murdered in their old neighborhood, forcing them to cross paths and showing exactly how the ghosts from a childhood incident can still dictate the critical choices in their lives. Dave (Tim Robbins) now has a young son, about the same age he was when he was abducted. He’s a dear but broken man, tormented by demons and married to a frightened, stupid woman (Marsha Gay Harden) who may love him but has no ability to think for herself. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has aligned himself with the law, becoming a homicide detective on the Boston police force. Married but estranged from his wife, he cannot say what he wants nor apologize for what distances him from her pregnancy, afraid to take on the responsibility of being a father. Jimmy (Sean Penn) solidified his penchant for rebellion into life of crime as a smalltime mob boss after a couple years in jail. He’s become a family man with a loyal but jealously possessive wife (Laura Linney) and three daughters, the oldest a blossoming nineteen-year-old daughter from an earlier teenage marriage. She’s the girl who’s been murdered.

Jimmy’s mind meets the disaster with rage, so wracked with grief and guilt that he can believe – against evidence – that Dave still holds his fate against him for that day so long ago. Dave still reels with shame about his hatred for fathers who abuse boys and cannot speak in his own defense. At first, Jimmy seeks Dave out as a confidant for his own guilt but then he turns on him as if Dave’s death offers salvation. He kills him with self-righteous clarity, raging against injustices he cannot prevent and raging justifiably against the forces of evil that have invaded him. Jimmy’s friends as well as his wife are persuaded by his hatred of an enemy they cannot find, admiring of his wild impatience with the law. Any enemy will do. Of course, Jimmy’s actions make him exactly what he so much wants to eliminate — an irrational force of violence aligned with religion against the exploitation of the innocent. And, once again, Jimmy slips away from the reach of the law, evading the police but not Sean. And Sean, once again, gets caught bearing witness to an injustice he cannot make right, cannot understand.

Sadly, each of the three wives in Mystic River is deeply enmeshed in her husband’s misery, playing roles that close rather than open doors. Dave’s wife is in over her head when he comes home covered in blood with a story that he may have killed a mugger who attacked him on the way to his car. She cannot contain her anxiety about what really happened and, when Dave cannot speak clearly in his own defense, she makes a terrible choice to seek solace from Jimmy. Jimmy’s wife is a woman envious of her step-daughter’s tag on her dad’s heart. So, when Jimmy is at his darkest moment, realizing the power of guilt to distort his good sense, she assuages him with a speech of self-righteous rhetoric that barely covers her glee at finding herself at the center of his attention. However, it’s Sean’s wife that clearly reveals the wives of such men to be mirrors of their own trap. She appears as a woman without identity on the other end of a phone, separated from Sean and pregnant. She dials but she doesn’t speak, making random calls to him that bear no message. She’s a reflection, waiting for him to speak. He must break the silence if it’s to be broken. It is only he who can open the door, make an attempt to escape the legacy of ‘what if’ – what if it had been him who had been abducted that day. Is he up to the role of father?

Mystic River is not a new story, it’s an old one. Children being brought up in a simple system of right and wrong where they are continually complying with and breaking rules, finding their way toward being an adult as they make their choices and receive punishment or praise. However, somewhere behind the simple system lies the ‘big system’, the one that determines whether they’re a worthy human being in the eyes of God. And somewhere along the line, a child decides about himself and begins to make choices that fit his decision of worthiness. In Mystic River, two boys get to make that decision – one doesn’t. For the two who do, one goes with the law and one goes against. The one who lost that critical decision lives life with a shredded soul guided by hands that shake and a mind that can’t remember. That child, haunted by nightmares, grows up never sure whether he’s a real human being at all, much less a worthy one. He’s eaten up by a wolfish anxiety that steals his choice, his intelligence and his spirit – and makes him a victim all over again.

At the end of Mystic River, Jimmy and Sean attend a community parade in the old neighborhood with their families. For a brief moment, they catch one another’s eye across the street. Silence hangs heavy between them like it did on that day so long ago. They’re not friends but a familiar feeling passes between them. They’re again implicated witnesses, bonded beneath the skin by a certain knowing. The son of the third man – the missing one – rides in the parade. One day, that kid will need the truth. Will he get it? Mystic River gives some idea of the complexity of that truth, some picture of just how many men and women are truly responsible for Dave’s death. And Jimmy’s daughter?

This is a story with a moral. When a boy’s soul is not protected from evil, he walks a dark path of perpetual doubt about whether he qualifies as a real human being.

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