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Forrest Gump

by Dr. Alvin Burstein
with J. Nelson

It seems fair to say that Forest Gump has achieved the status of an American classic. Fans in an ABC poll voted the film the best of all Best Pictures over the last decades. The film manages to evoke laughter, heartache, and a sense of depth. This remarkable combination results from literary and cinematic devices that deserve our attention.

The story is book-ended by an image of a feather drifting, floating hither and yon as it slowly falls to the ground. It is ultimately picked up by Forest, who inserts it carefully into his childhood copy of Curious George, from which his mother early read to him. The emphasis accorded these images urges us to wonder about its meaning, a question to which we will return.

Aristotle taught us the comic protagonist is one that the reader or spectator feels superior to, so we chuckle at his social awkwardness and concrete thinking. But Gump not only has a name that makes us smile, he is intellectually disabled and, at the beginning of his story, crippled and wearing clumsy leg braces. His early classmates—except for Jenny—regard him as a target for bullying, evoking our sympathy.

In a classic comic move, this simple-minded man achieves extraordinary feats as a football and (don’t laugh) ping-pong player, and stumbles into remarkable acts of heroism in Viet Nam and financially successful ventures afterward. All in all, a classic Chaplinesque format. The character pulls us along in both delight and pain. “Tom Hanks may be the only actor who could have played the role,” said Roger Ebert, “The performance is a breathtaking balancing act between comedy and sadness.”

Forest Gump’s clearly fantastical history is literally woven into prominent historical events, the kinds that are deeply inscribed in our emotional memories: Gump is shown on in an actual newsreel on the occasion of the admission the first African American into the University of Alabama, he is photo-shopped into a real Medal of Honor award ceremony presided over by Lyndon Johnson, he is on the scene during the Watergate burglary that brought down the Nixon White House, he is photo-shopped into a newsreel of a reception given for an All Stars’ football team given by President Kennedy, etc.

This kind of interweaving of fiction and historical accounts has been explored and elaborated by the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, in his award-winning trilogy, Time and Narrative. Ricoeur sees this interplay between fiction and fact as facilitating fiction’s ability to help its audience experience alternative worlds, enriching the reader/viewer’s empathic abilities and psychological growth. Using this powerful tool, Forest Gump focuses our attention on the existential issue of the tension agency and chance, choosing and being externally controlled, in human affairs.

The story portrays Gump as having an enormous impact on others’ lives and of achievements that would ordinarily require and reflect extraordinary motivational focus. But Gump stumbles into them. He has no idea what was involved in volunteering for military duty in Viet Nam, nor, for that matter, what the nature of the conflict was, beyond walking in the jungle.

When his GI buddy, Bubba, proposes that Forest join him in a post-war career in shrimp fishing, Forest matter of factly says, “OK.” He sets off on a three year run, without a plan, without meaning to, and ends it on impulse, without knowing why. In short, he cites his mother’s mantra that life is like a box of chocolates, “…you never know what you are going to get.”

His readiness to accept all that happens to him, close brushes with death; involvement with world-shaking events, and tragic loss is, in its own way charming and appealing.

We are reminded of the Jungian archetype of the “Fool” who in one theoretical incarnation, embraces the serendipity and capriciousness of life by experiencing it on its own terms, accepting what comes without judgment, neither struggling to change it nor wailing to the heavens about it. This is strangely similar to the modern psychological emphasis on mindfulness. Forrest seems often blissfully free from and immune to social prejudice, competitive malice, or self-loathing. He is not burdened to intervene at every step, nor does he make the mistake so common for those in the American culture of perceiving control where he has none.

Forrest’s approach to life’s adversity is contrasted by the story lines for Lieutenant Dan, who angrily rejects the losses of his life, and Forrest’s beloved Jenny who is driven to escape her life.

Lieutenant Dan, who was supposed to die with honor on a field of battle, struggles through his hero’s journey after losing both legs and sinking into depression, a showdown with God, and then finally making peace with himself. He builds the shrimp business and makes Forrest a wealthy man investing the proceeds.

Jenny’s drive to escape is highlighted in the scene when, joined by Forest, she is trying to hide from her sexually abusive alcoholic father. “I wish I could be a bird and fly away!” she says. Her life is a series of self-destructive rebellions, in sharp contrast with Forest’s unplanned achievements.

Jenny asks Forrest if he was ever afraid in Viet Nam, and it is in this scene that we glimpse the depth of what supports this simple man. “Yes. Well, I… I don’t know. Sometimes it would stop raining long enough for the stars to come out … and then it was nice. It was like, just before the sun goes to bed down on the bayou, those million sparkles on the water. Like that mountain lake, it was so clear Jenny. It looked like there were two skies, one on top of the other. And then the desert, when the sun comes up, I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the earth began, it was so beautiful.” Forrest’s simple observations connect us with the universal, and we feel it gives some comfort to Jenny, and to us.

The emotional climax of the film is Forest’s discovery that Jenny had born his son, who is “normal,” and Jenny’s decision to, finally, accept Forest’s love for her, both of them knowing she is fatally ill. They marry but very quickly we see she is dying.

After Jenny’s death, Forrest devotes himself to parenting his son. The film ends with Forest junior boarding the school bus, mirroring the opening of the autobiography that constitutes the movie. As his son climbs onto the bus, Forest says, “I will be waiting for you,” and the son introduces himself to the driver in the same words that his father had used decades before.

The film leaves us teetering on the brink of unanswered questions: Will his son’s life continue to mirror the father’s? To what extent will agency and contingency play roles in the son’s life… play in ours? To what extent are we floating feathers or authors of ourselves? To what extent can we choose?

10 Stress-Free Minutes a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

It is true that most of us cannot avoid stress, especially if we want to continue to be an active participant in the world. Stress goes with the territory of juggling a career, a family, and a social life. Most of us understand only too well the dangers of continuing to schedule full days, of adding new projects to an already overlong list, and still trying to find some time for ourselves at the end of the day. We routinely overbook ourselves. Some of us have the grace to promise to do better next week and might even believe that we can make it up later. But, can we? Chronic stress is now linked to so many problems related to illness, chronic health problems, anxiety, loss of memory, and reduced longevity that it would take the rest of this column to simply list all the ways it affects our lives. We know, for example, that the things we think about and dwell on can have a direct effect on how much cortisol, or stress hormone, is produced in our body. Keeping the cortisol down has become a new goal for the health conscious.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis have just published findings from a long-term study, called the Shamatha Project, that studied how meditation influences the brain and mental health. The article published in the journal Health Psychology reports that meditation, and particularly mindfulness training, helps lower stress and cortisol levels, which in turn can help you lose excess weight and avoid developing “cortisol belly.”

Manage Your Stress…Not the Other Way Around

It’s time to draw a line in the sand and start reducing stress and cortisol. What I am proposing is not perfect, but it is a start that you can build on. If you keep waiting until you have the time, or until you can do it “right,” it could be too late. Stop letting your calendar manage you. Don’t “try” to do better. As Yoda says, “Do or Do Not!”

Begin Your 10 Stress-Free Minutes Today

You might think that 10 minutes a day is not much help. But it is. A few minutes goes a long way toward recharging your energy and breaking up your resistance to taking breaks. You can gradually add more mental “down time” and physical relaxation to each day. Get started by making yourself push away from your desk or daily routine for 10 minutes. Take this break with the intention of taking a brief mental holiday; give your mind a rest. Why not begin with 10 minutes of Mindfulness? Or, spend 10 minutes in focused breathing (with longer exhale). Add some music or put your feet up, close your eyes and direct your favorite piece of music. Remind yourself to do this daily by putting the reminder into your smart phone.

And, by the way, those of you who work with stressed-out clients, I have found that many seriously stressed patients are so overwhelmed that they cannot even begin to think about how they can reduce their stress. The above suggestion that they start with just 10 minutes a day has helped many people start adding relief to their day. Once they begin, the time can be gradually increased. Psychology tells us that making a conscious choice with commitment is a powerful tool. Do as I say AND as I do.

Watch for more tips and hints in the next 10 Stress-Free Minutes Column. Next, we look at how stress affects diet and weight loss.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, July 2014

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

12 Years a Slave

by Dr. Alvin Burstein

Aristotle taught that the power of epic tragedy lies in its ability to stir the audience to pity and fear—catharsis. The emotional impact of 12 Years a Slave earned it three Academy Awards, a Golden Globe Award and British Film Academy kudos. Watching it I felt more than fear. I felt horror. Yes, and pity.

And yet, and yet.

The story is that of Solomon Northrup, an African American man born free in New York State who, in 1841, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It describes his scarifying experiences over the more than a decade in the cotton fields and mansions of south Louisiana, confined, beaten, lynched, and betrayed, all the while clinging to the flickering, fading hope of returning to his wife and two children and to his life as a free person.

During the opening credits an announcement that what follows is “based on a true story” scrolls across the screen. The unfolding story limns the evil of slavery, and its power to inflict agony and corrupt the spirit. But the characters in this drama verge on caricatures, seeming almost two-dimensional.

Consider the portrayals of Northrup, and Patsey, a young woman slave. They have an extraordinarily complicated and intense relationship. They are physically intimate and close enough that she pleads with him to kill her as an escape from the abuse and exploitation that dominate her life. Northrup not only refuses to help her die but is bullied by his master into mercilessly whipping her. Their relationship is fraught.

When Northrup is rescued by a friend from New York who had learned about his situation, Patsey bewails her desertion.

Northrup returns to New York, weeping at being reunited with his wife and two children and meeting his namesake, a new grandchild.

A happy ending.

But I found myself wondering how Northrup remembered Patsey. How her feelings about him, about how all of his experiences of being a slave for twelve years had marked and changed him. Had he to deal with survivor’s guilt? Did he feel shame at being an instrument of the sadistic erotism of the master that made him participate in Patsey’s beating?

Exploring these dynamisms, looking more deeply into Patsey, and, for that matter, into the dark and twisted ambivalence of Patsey’s master, would have transformed a deeply moving film into great art.

 

[Dr. Alvin Burstein is Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and currently serves on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center where he moderates their Film & Discussion Series.]

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RoboCop2014

The 1987 film, RoboCop, was a financial success, grossing over fifty million dollars in its domestic run. It was also well-regarded critically, being listed as one of the best one thousand movies ever made by the New York Times. It is not surprising, then to find the 2014 remake playing in current theatres.

The original film was noted for its degree of violence and for being an oblique criticism of contemporary culture. The remake equals its predecessor on the first characteristic. The cultural critique in the 2014 version is less subtle, much more pointed.

The new version opens with a 2028 “airing” of the Novak Element, featuring a hyped up super-patriotic talking head extolling the use of American robots, manufactured by OmniCorp, in pacifying the streets of a middle-eastern country using high-tech murderous violence. Despite the reality that the “pacification” bloodily backfires, Novak conceals its flaws, and argues for the implementation of robotic control of crime-ridden American cities. His plea is obviously in the service of influencing a current domestic debate over the Dreyfus act, a law prohibiting robots in the United States from killing humans.

Raymond Sellers, the Steve Jobsian CEO of OmniCorp, is inspired to resolve the political problem by constructing a cyborg using a wounded American warrior-hero fused with a robotic body to produce a device with robotic efficiency and human moral sensibilities. Detroit policeman Alex Murphy, terribly and graphically wounded by gangsters, is chosen. Dr. Dennett Norton, a scientist who has been doing work with prosthetics, is seduced by the offer of bottomless grants (and perks) by OmniCorp into undertaking the effort, despite his moral reservation.

Using only Murphy’s lungs, brain, face, vocal apparatus and, gruesomely, Murphy’s right hand, Norton constructs a computer controlled armored robotic body—RoboCop. When Murphy comes to understand what has happened, he pleads to be killed. Norton, arguing that Murphy’s beloved wife and son, as well as the community at large, would be served by Murphy’s heroic rescue of Detroit’s streets from bondage to criminality, persuades him to undertake the effort.

Shortcomings in RoboCop’s design make it necessary to blunt Murphy’s emotions and to short-circuit his control of his prosthetic body, leaving him only the illusion of choosing his actions. Nevertheless, in a series of predictably violent events, Murphy finds criminal corruption that reaches into the political hierarchy, and also discovers OmniCorp’s role in manipulating Norton into deceiving him. His mind manages to overcome computer control of his “body,” and he bloodily revenges himself.

The movie ends with the Dreyfus act protected and Murphy, with a new robot body, awaiting a visit from his wife and son. I had to try hard not to wonder what kind of life together the family would have.

But I liked the film a lot. Its psychological implications run deep.

Many of the current developments in psychoanalytic theory raise questions about the role of instincts in driving behavior, directing our attention away from the focus on sex and aggression that was once central.

In this film one of the salient themes is that of potency. Murphy, at the mercy of mechanical aids, pleads for death, but lives on in a hyper-masculine form that belies his no longer having a penis. The film ends with his newly armored self, equipped with armaments and a badge, awaiting that visit from his wife and son. The device of the expected event both provokes and conceals the question of what kind of husband and father he can be.

The appeal of the extravagantly gory display that characterizes this movie is important as well. It provides a safely unreal, almost pornographic, gratification of the aggressive element that is part of all of us.

But most important may be the film’s applauding the uniqueness of humanity. Its repudiation of the reduction of psychotherapy to pharmacological manipulation.

Its avowal that mind cannot be reduced to matter.

[Dr. Alvin Burstein is Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and currently serves on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center where he moderates their Film & Discussion Series.]

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Hitchcock’s Vertigo Taps Into Basics

by Dr. Alvin Burstein

Oh, the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall,

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed …

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I learned the other day that in the British Film Institute’s poll of film critics, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane had been displaced as the best film of all time by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo.

Classic tales like Oedipus Rex or Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel, persist over time, because the stories resonate with some basic aspect of being human. What was it, I wondered, that the Hitchcock film tapped? With that question in mind, I recently viewed a re-mastered DVD of the movie.

The plot is intricate. The protagonist (Jimmy Stewart) is a police detective forced to retire because of debilitating acrophobia. The phobia resulted from a traumatic experience. While attempting to assist Stewart, who was dangling in space after slipping during a roof top pursuit, a colleague fell, and Stewart saw him plunge to his death.

After his retirement, Stewart is pulled into an intricate murder concocted by a friend who wants to kill his wife. The friend has recruited the second protagonist, played by Kim Novak, and groomed her to look and dress like his blonde wife. He persuades Stewart to tail his “wife” suggesting that she may be suffering from a combination of split personality and possession by her grandmother, a woman who had killed herself. He persuades Stewart to follow Novak to determine whether she is actually possessed.

Novak and Stewart fall in love, but Novak, unable to extricate herself from the murder plot, lures Stewart into following her to the top of an ancient church tower. Trapped by his phobia part way up, Stewart watches what he believes to be Novak jumping to her death. In fact, Stewart’s friend, has flung his murdered wife’s body off the tower’s top.

Stewart slowly recovers from the crushing depression of this reprise of his earlier trauma, but is haunted by the experience of seeing women he takes to be Novak. He encounters Novak again, with her hair its original color and no longer dressed like the wife. Taken by her resemblance to his lost love, he persuades her to date him, and, ultimately, to bleach her hair and dress like the woman whose death he thought he had failed to prevent.

When Novak inadvertently dons a piece of jewelry that she had worn before her faked suicide, Stewart realizes the imposture, and forces her to return to the tower and climb to its top with him. At the tower’s top, Novak confesses her complicity in the crime, but pleads her love for Stewart. Just as he is about to embrace her, a nun walks out of the shadows, and Novak, startled, steps backward off the tower’s edge, falling to her death. The movie ends with Stewart walking to the brink of the tower and staring down at Novak’s body.

A central issue in this film is that of love and loss. Stewart and Novak fall in love. There is a powerful irony in the fact that the woman with whom Stewart falls in love is an imposter, one who has an assumed identity, and that when he encounters the “real” Novak, he forces her to re-assume her alien self. This can be understood as a demonstration of the power of transference, of our attempt to construe new relationships as recreations of our past. It also reflects a tragic element, the inextricable link between love and loss, the truth that every love relationship must end in loss, a truth that mortality imposes on us. Stewart loses Novak when he thinks that she has died, recreates her, only to lose her again, twice, once when he realizes she was an imposter, and again when she actually falls from the tower.

At another, even deeper level, one might wish to recall Freud’s comment, … the act of birth is the first experience of anxiety, and thus the source and prototype of the affect of anxiety…. The very act of being born must leave deep preverbal, non-conceptual traces of the painful loss of the natal environment, the primal fall out of Eden. Stewart’s attempts to undo the terrifying inevitability of that fall, doomed to failure is captured in Vertigo.

The terror of loss is expressed in his symptom, and the symptom evaporates in grief when the loss is undeniable.

 

[Dr. Alvin Burstein is Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and currently serves on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center where he moderates their Film & Discussion Series.]

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Bah Humbug — A Christmas Carol

by Dr. Alvin Burstein

The approach of Christmas stirs up memories—and a wish. Some of the memories reflect my confusions about the holidays as a child.

Both my parents were Russian immigrants. Mother was an observant Jew. Although my father had spiritual interests reflected in his Masonic studies, he did not follow Jewish religious practices. He sold Christmas trees in the Mom and Pop grocery he ran with my mother. More-over, he donated trees to our public school classroom, and erected one in our home–no doubt provoking Russian language conversations with his wife indecipherable by us children.

And I recall a second grade experience of being excused from participating in singing a Christmas carol with the rest of my classmates. I wanted to sing, too, but I understood the exclusion to be an expression of our teacher’s sensitivity to religious difference. That motivated me to hide both my disappointment my curiosity about the meaning of the mysterious term “ronyon virgin.”

Those memories, and the imbedded feelings, may have contributed to the wish to re-read Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol, and my viewing a couple of film versions of that tale.

The 1830 story is a classic, demonstrated by its having spawned at least eight film versions and by the tale and its reincarnations continuing to shape our views and feelings about the holiday. Of the many film adaptations, I looked at two: the first a re-mastered 1935 version staring Alistair Sim, the second a 2009 3-D Walt Disney/ImageMovers effort.

The power of the tale lies in its being a story of a redemption, one that depends on the recapturing of Scrooge’s forgotten past, the curative effect of which is at the heart of psychodynamic therapies. The pathogenic node of Scrooge’s forgotten past is the terror of parental rejection, a potential theme that accounts for the popularity of the classic tales of abandonment and adoption from Bambi and Orphan Annie to Harry Potter.

The Dickens story starkly contrasts happy families, the Fezziwigs, that of Scrooge’s nephew and the Cratchits, with the lonely Scrooge, abandoned as a school child. That theme is deepened by the climactic adoption of a resurrected Tiny Tim by the healed Scrooge.

Though his story antedates Freudian theories of psychosexual orality, the link between being loved and being fed is manifested in Dickens’ emphasis on opulent feasts for the fortunate and deprivation and hunger for the wretched, and his depiction of Scrooge as having two selves, a mean, calculating, unloving self, and a disowned emotional one. That in his redemption the second replaces the first rather than being integrated with it may be a flaw, psycho-dynamically speaking. That might account for a manic element in Scrooge’s “recovery:” his ebullience, his hyper-activity and his showering of money on others. Here is an illustrative excerpt from Dickens:

“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath and making a perfect Laocöon of himself with his stocking. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as and angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas everybody. A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoops! Hallo!”

It may be over-pathologizing to raise a question about the durability of such an excess. On the other hand, it may be Dickens’ contribution to our contemporary demand for unmitigated happiness during this holiday, a demand that opens the door to disappointment and holiday depression.

A final comment specific to the DVDs: Both are very close to the Dickens text in the sense of using much of the dialogue from the original. The Walt Disney version is stunning in its visual effects, actually overindulging by stressing the terror of falling and eeriness, thus distracting from the more psychological issue of deprivation. It begins with a prequel in which Scrooge takes the coins from the eyes of Marley’s corpse, sniggering “Tuppence,” a scene that highlights his avarice in way that many children would find upsetting. Scrooge’s animated cartoon presentation, scrawny and desiccated, underlines his emotional starvation but lends him and the other Disney characters a one dimensional quality.

Paradoxically, Sims’ 1935 black and white Scrooge, though more dated, is more real, making it easier to empathize with his pain. In fact, this version elaborates Scrooge’s abandonment by attributing it to his mother’s having died in childbirth. Because Sims’ Scrooge is more real, this version is the one I prefer.

 

[Dr. Alvin Burstein is Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and currently serves on the faculty of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center where he moderates their Film & Discussion Series.]

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