Category Archives: Best of Shrink at the Flicks

Bah Humbug

A review of 
by Alvin G. 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 flling 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.

The Shape of Water

by Alvin G. Burstein

My first reaction was to think of this film as a mash-up of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with its fantastic and frightening monster, and Splash, with its mermaid romance.

But more complexity is promised by the beginning and ending epigraphs that frame it:

If I spoke about it – if I did – what would I tell you? I wonder. Would I tell you about the time? It happened a long time ago, it seems. In the last days of a fair prince’s reign. Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast, but far from everything else. Or, I don’t know… Would I tell you about her? The princess without voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you, about the truth of these facts. And the tale of love and loss. And the monster, who tried to destroy it all.

And the afterword:

Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere.

The opening, with its uncertain ifs and references to fair princes and last days suggest something other than facticity despite the story’s purported setting in the 1950’s cold war and space race. It implies a truth that transcends history, the truth of myth or legend.

The central characters are a striking assortment: A possibly divine monster from the deep, capable of bloody wrath, magical healing and striking vulnerability; a totally mute scrubwoman, employed at a top-secret research facility; a closeted gay illustrator, her confidant; a federal agent who combines sadism and phallic narcissism.

As the story unfolds, one striking theme is the federal agent’s figuring himself as a Samson castrated by a wily Delilah. He suffers losing two fingers in his battle with the creature, and ultimately rips off the re-attached digits in a desperate effort to avoid being defeated by the woman protecting his captive. This sub-plot includes the agent’s trying to act on his urge to sexually assault the mute scrubwoman. When she rejects him, he reacts by having rough sex with his wife and buying a fancy new car—which gets wrecked in the course of the unfolding plot.

The major focus of the film, however, is on the “princess without a voice,” the scrubwoman. During the day, she mops floors and cleans urinals. At home, she luxuriates—and masturbates—in the tub of her decrepit bathroom, and fantasies while watching television movies with her illustrator neighbor. When she encounters the captured monster, she sees past his grotesque and frightening appearance. He, beset by alien humans, recognizes her as a savior—and princess.

That brings us to the closing epigraph. Our prince and princess avoid attending to apparent externalities. They choose to bathe in each other’s love.
Amor Omnia Vincit.

Is the mythic lesson of the film that love always wins? Or that love is most important? Or is it that the real monster is not the grotesque creature, but crass and dangerous appartchik functionaries ignorant of the meaning of love?

Or does writer/director Guillermo del Toro have all three in mind?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

by Alvin G. Burstein

“Once upon a time” is a phrase signaling the beginning of a fairy tale. Fairy tales are folk tales that persist in a culture because they embody and illustrate that culture’s values. They function as parables. So the title of this film invites us to look for its moral center.

There is another interesting aspect of director Tarantino’s choice of the title. On one hand, the film is deeply rooted in a particular historical moment, the fifties and sixties. On the other hand, the tale is an odd amalgam of fact and fable. Movie actress Sharon Tate, whose tragic 1969 murder by Manson acolytes riveted the public, is a central figure in the film. But the tale the movie unfolds is an alternate history saga: what if the murderers had gone to a neighboring Beverly Hills mansion instead of that occupied by Tate and her famous husband, Roman Polanski?

That second house is owned by the fictional character Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Dalton was the star of a western bounty hunter TV series. He is struggling to upgrade his stereotyped small screen television career into a more rewarding one in big screen movies. An integral part of Dalton’s career is his relationship to his stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt.

Booth is more than a stunt double. He is Dalton’s factotum, and the film makes much of their relationship, intentionally troubling us with the disparity between their rewards and social status, and the nature of their tie to each other. They need each other, but in ways that transcend convenience and utility. Part of the fairy tale element of this film is its providing an opportunity to make a moral judgment about this pair of characters. The fictional movie star owner of the opulent Beverly Hills mansion next door to Tate and Polanski is less admirable than is his stunt double and body man, an ex-Green Beret who lives in a trailer on a lot behind a drive-in movie screen.

Booth’s “roommate” in his trailer abode is Brandy, a pit bull. In a highly comedic element, Booth feeds his dog Wolf’s Tooth dog food, “Good Food For Mean Dogs.” It comes in two flavors, Rat and Raccoon. Brandy, eager and quivering with hunger, is trained to wait while Booth prepares the dog’s dinner. Not until her owner, at his leisure, gives her the signal, does she lunge slavering to her repast. Brandy later plays a key role in dealing with the misdirected home invasion by Mansonites. She is one of the most admirable characters in the film. The moral point: a creature of simple if urgent impulses, she controls herself out of attachment to Booth. In addition to the contrast between Dalton and Booth, we have a contrast between Dalton and Brandy. Dalton uses Booth and others, Brandy’s devotion is unconditional.

The film is very popular—high ratings from Rotten Tomatoes, grossing over a hundred million dollars at this point. Part of its popularity is its focus on an interesting time and place. Another element of its fascination is its look behind tinsel town glitter. It has the allure of a gossip column, a peek at what goes on behind the doors of the rich and famous. In Freudian terms, a peek into the parents’ bedroom.

Dealing With The Devil: A Review of Black Mass

by Alvin G. Burstein

The biopic’s title prepares us for a consideration of moral perversion. Johnnie Depp’s chilling portrayal of James (Whitey) Bulger, the Boston mob boss, his bloody career, and his relationship with the FBI provide that opportunity, raising questions, some of which go unanswered.

The film describes Bulger’s transition from a member of the Winter Hill mob of “Southies,” Boston toughs at war with the Italian mafia centered in north Boston, to a crime kingpin in that city, one whose odious tentacles extended abroad. His success, perverse indeed, was grounded in his murky collaboration with the FBI as much as in his elaborate murderous sadism.

From a dramatic point of view, Depp’s depiction of Bulger is extraordinarily effective. I find myself feeling an unreasoning reluctance to suggest an Oscar because of the evil of his creation. And the film director’s blood-splattered horror scenes of torture and murder will doubtless gratify any inhibited or displaced aggressive drives in eager audiences.

From a psychodiagnostic point of view, the movie poses a question about whether the portrayed Bulger is a psychopath, a person without the capacity for empathy and lacking a moral sense or whether he is a sociopath, someone whose morality is deviant, a person whose social surround and consequent morality deviates from that of the larger society.

Many of Bulger’s associates would appear to merit the second diagnosis: sociopath. They are loyal to their fellow crooks, see law enforcement as the enemy, and the larger society as naïve in its inhibitions. Bulger himself, despite the film’s nod in the direction of his having a love for his mother and his son, violates a basic law of his deviant tribe by becoming what the FBI called “a top echelon informant.” In that capacity, he was later claimed to have contributed to the conviction of many members of the mafia. But he also escaped prosecution (until many years later) for serious crimes of his own.

A central question raised by these anomalies is the degree to which the FBI itself displays a kind of sociopathic readiness to collaborate in some criminal activities, perhaps even murder, in order to pursue other illegal practices. In the film, the FBI’s collusion with Bulger is regarded as the work of a few bad apples, but some commentators have suggested that a code of silence operates at the FBI level as well. Some have suggested that the Bulger’s success in avoiding capture for a decade and a half was due to the desire by the FBI to avoid questions about a practice instituted by J. Edgar Hoover in 1961, to develop “live sources within the upper echelon of the organized hoodlum element.”

The film does not go deeply into two fascinating loyalty issues. One is the tie between John Connolly and Whitey Bulger. Connolly was a fellow Southie who joined the FBI and who recruited Bulger as an informant. Connolly was one of the few of Bulger’s associates who did not agree to testify against his old buddy in return for a reduction of sentence. Like Bulger, Connolly is still in jail. And then there is Bulger’s younger brother, Billy. A long-time member of the state senate, Billy went on to become president of the University of Massachusetts. When it became clear that he had been lying to investigators about being in touch with his fugitive brother, he was forced to step down. What he has said about Whitey is, “…I cared about him deeply and I still do.” There is no indication that he ever suggested to his brother that he turn himself in.

One is left wondering about how Whitey, the sadistic murderer, feels about them.

Get Out: A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

Jordan Peele, well known for acting in comedy skits for fifteen years, has earned his chops as director in his first film, Get Out.

The film is a tasty dish, an innovative combination of horror, comedy and social commentary. The film opens with an amuse bouche, the relationship of which to the main story line is not clarified until later in the film. A young black man is walking alone down an affluent suburban street late at night. He becomes frightened by a car tailing him and is ultimately attacked and manhandled into the trunk of the car which, to end the episode, speeds off. A mood of danger and racial tension is set.

One of the strengths of the film is Peele’s artful invocation of mood changes. The first switch is the opening of the main story. An attractive young interracial couple, Rose and Chris, undertake a visit to introduce her black boyfriend, a talented photographer, to her upper class white parents. When he expresses mild concerns about their reaction to his race, she reassures him about their liberal views—they would have voted for a third term of Obama’s presidency.

Fright interrupts their drive when their car hits a deer; a hostile policeman called to the scene finally sends the couple on their way. At the parents’ palatial home, as the visit unfolds, manifest expressions of welcome are punctuated by an increasing tempo of eerily peculiar events. Odd behavior by black servants, a maid and a yard man; the girlfriend’s brother; and a bevy of white, upper class friends, which includes one black man married to an older white woman, all combine to introduce a thickening sense of dangerous tension.

The weirdness ratchets up when Rose’s mother, a psychiatrist, asks Chris about his past and learns about his mother’s death, run over in a car accident when he was young. Rose’s mother goes on to hypnotize an unwilling Chris to eliminate his cigarette addiction. She uses the sound of stirring her cup of tea to induce a deep trance that sends Chris spinning into a deep, dimensionless space. In the trance Chris recovers a memory of sitting at home watching television, unaware, while his mother is dying.

Uneasy, Chris makes a phone call to his roommate, a black TSA officer who is dog-sitting Chris’ pet. The officer introduces comic relief warning Chris about the dangers of relating to white women based on slapstick fears of being made a sex slave.

Finally, unsettled to the point that he decides to follow his roommate’s advice to get out, Chris tries to leave, to learn that Rose and her family are involved in a bizarre scheme of using the bodies of black people as vessels for the brains of white people whose bodies are compromised in some way. Chris is wanted to provide a body to replace that of a white photographer who has become blind and needs Chris’ photographer’s eyes and talent. It would be a spoiler to reveal the outcome of Chris’s struggle to escape this fate.

A psychoanalyst, Charles Brenner, has argued that there are three central fears of childhood: abandonment, loss of love, and physical injury/castration, at the hands of parents. Much of the horrific impact of Peele’s film inheres in the impact of all three on Chris: his mother’s abandonment of him is echoed by his girlfriend’s transformation from a lover to something worse. That concatenation is heightened by another archaic dread, the fear of losing control of one’s self.

Early in the film, Chris’ TSA roommate comically talks about hypnosis in those terms: a hypnotist can make you bark like a dog. Behind that comic distortion is the fear of an alien possession of one’s body, represented in religious terms by demonic possession and in psychiatric terms by identity disorders.

Peele serves us a dish in which that fear is pictured in racial terms—black bodies utilized by white minds. He suggests, I think, a metaphor for slavery and perhaps, some aspects of professional athletics.