This piece is based on a talk I gave at the Steambot Explore Workshops in New Orleans this past weekend (May 22-26, 2013).
Many people feel like Tony Stark. True, we aren’t all genius inheritors of billion dollar arms manufacturing companies, but I believe that on a deeper level Tony’s issues resonate broadly and are a key reason for the film’s mass appeal.
From the opening scene of the 2008 film Iron Man we get a pretty clear picture of who Tony Stark is and what his character flaws are. He’s riding in a Humvee with the military. They’re serious and dressed in camo while Tony’s wearing an expensive suit and shades, and kicking back some scotch. He teases the military to loosen them up and one guy gets the nerve to ask Tony if it’s true about him and a playmate.
Right away, we know Tony’s wealthy, stylish, the kind of guy who says and does what he wants, and of course, a playboy. As the opening scenes progress we also learn that he drinks a lot, uses and discards women, is spoiled, and has his assistant, Pepper, deal with his responsibilities. It also appears that he uses Pepper to feel cared for, without reciprocating emotionally - instead he does it financially. When he finds out it’s her birthday he tells her he hopes she got herself something nice with his money.
We learn he’s irresponsible (not showing up to receive his award), and unaccountable (leaving others to explain his absence). He arrives three hours late for his plane, disrespecting Rhodey who has to wait for him. When Rhodey tries to talk business during the flight, Tony dismisses him in favor of drinking and turning the plane into a nightclub.
When they arrive to their destination and Tony pitches the Jericho weapon, he lays out his business attitude: “I prefer a weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how dad did it and that’s how America does it. One hit and the bad guys will be afraid to come out of their caves.”
Yeah, right Tony, unless the bad guys use your weapons on you, which is of course what happens next. A rebel group with a huge supply of Stark industry weapons famously takes Tony hostage and orders him to build a weapon for them. This situation is a real eye-opener that forces Tony to make a decision. The result? Tony builds the Iron Man suit.
While an act of self-protection, survival, and a rejection of the terrorists and their efforts to coerce him, ultimately, I believe, this move is Tony’s first move toward accountability.
Rather than his usual behavior of sending out weapons to anonymous customers, Tony goes with his weapon. He merges himself with the weapon he creates and is therefore responsible for the damage it causes.
Once Tony gets home he makes another major decision. He refuses to sell any more weapons and gets to work further developing the Iron Man suit. In other words, he goes deeper into linking himself with his actions. He’s still not accountable because he does it in secret, but he’s moving toward greater responsibility.
The evil father figure, Obadiah Stane, Tony’s dad’s former business partner and friend, is naturally pissed by this turn of events. Stane wants to keep the old system of zero accountability and selfish profit going. He insists Tony take time off and let him handle it. In essence he urges him to stay in the dark or stay a child. When Tony refuses to regress, Stane tries to destroy him.
Tony feels shored up by Pepper’s love and tells her how he feels. When he asks her to replace his generator he admits to her, “I don’t have anyone else.” In other words, there is no one else he entrusts to protect his heart. Her support, joined with his insights, lead him to confront the evil paternal figure, Stane, and engage in the final battle.
It is only after success on all these fronts that Tony can say to the world, “I am Iron Man.” I am the weapon I make, and where it goes, and what it does, I am responsible for. Hold me accountable.
Okay, so how is this fantastic story in any way representative of the struggle of the everyday person? The answer lies in Tony’s internal, psychological struggles.
We get some insight into the nature of his struggles by looking at his excessive alcohol use and reliance. It’s well known among psychoanalysts that “the bottle” often emotionally stands in for “the nursing breast,” or the nurturing presence of a parent who feeds the baby with attention and love. Tony’s drinking is therefore a clue that his issues stem from a very early developmental wound. This leads me to suspect that his Iron suit protects a vulnerable core.
Tony Stark appears to have a powerful need for love and nurturance, which he constantly rejects using narcissistic defenses (such as grandiosity, selfishness, exploiting women, etc.)
Narcissism is an unconscious defensive personality system that is designed to help an individual deny their needs for others and any sense of emotional vulnerability because it feels too risky to be in touch with these feelings.
Tony’s chest plate generator is designed to keep pieces of shrapnel still lodged in his chest from piercing his heart and killing him. We can understand the shrapnel dangerously close to his heart as a symbolic representation of this constant sense of emotional vulnerability and threat: he feels as though his heart is in constant danger of being shot to pieces.
I do believe that Tony is not the only one out there who feels like this. The question I’m still curious about is whether or not the following Iron Man films are successful in showing how to further evolve out of this condition. Does Tony achieve a feeling of safety and love without that constant sense of being under life threatening attack? And is his journey one that others can learn from?
Artwork by David “Vyle” Levy
Though not every female will attest to Twilight movies as a guilty pleasure, an average of 600 million in gross box office sales per film suggests that these movies feed in a bloodthirsty many.  While some theorize that sexual frustration is what makes for the hungry Twilight fan base, my take is that universal, female developmental issues are the greater reason for the story’s resonance. Sex is only part of that.
There’s a lot of story material to dig one’s teeth into – so to speak, but to start with, I’m going to limit myself to Bella’s relationships with Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Jacob (Taylor Lautner) as depicted in the third film, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010) directed by David Slade with a screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel, Eclipse, by Stephenie Meyer.
Through the first two films, Bella (Kristen Stewart) has matured quite a bit: first crossing the falling-in-love threshold and giving herself over to an absorbing relationship with Edward. Next, she suffers traumatic heartbreak experiencing life without him. Edward’s departure in the second film left Bella suicidally depressed but the outcome proved to each that their love was enduring and genuine. In the vein of Romeo and Juliet, they were each prepared to sacrifice themselves for love of the other.
Therefore, we start Eclipse knowing that Bella is committed to this guy and no wuss when it comes to the demands of his vampire lifestyle. Her opening lines of voiceover speak to a tension between fire and ice:
“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire. But if I had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great.”
While certainly open to interpretation, generally these lines to my mind foreshadow a tension she is feeling between the needs aroused in her by Edward (ice) and Jacob (fire) and the inevitable destruction siding with either brings.
Why, after all she’s been through with Edward is Jacob even a consideration?
Jacob is the kid that her dad introduced her to, the son of his long-time friend. Jacob is open, warm and upbeat and his companionship gives her a reassuring sense of safety. Yes, he’s a werewolf, but that’s basically the same as being a Native American: true to the land, nature and family, and protective against the destructiveness of white, Victorian killers. To hear Jacob tell it, he offers Bella easy, carnal contact and natural warmth. He keeps her from freezing by holding her to him and he loves her with a transparent physical and emotional desire that broadcasts loud and clear to Bella and Edward.
Striping him from the fantasy landscape, Jacob represents the boy her age. He’s the kid her dad wants her to date and that a ‘normal’ girl in her position would. Like every healthy eighteen-year old guy, Jacob’s hormones are raging and he’s burning a hole through his pants for her. He pleads with Bella in a visceral, youthful manner. Stay with me! It’ll be easy. Like breathing. He claims he’s down for the fight, but has a tantrum every time she denies him. Jacob is pure impulse and raw emotion.
Edward is mature. He’s been living for over 100 years and he gets the big picture. Edward can tolerate frustration and withstand his impulses for his greater values. Ultimately, he is a grown-up, able to use thinking to managing his drives. His interest in Bella encompasses physical lust but it is mediated by reason and care for her as a person. Edward declines to make-love to Bella before marriage because he’s romantic and can wait for the full package. He offers a mature, spiritual love, which forever separates her from youth.
The tension Bella is confronted with in this film is between youth and adulthood. The vampire Rosalie (Nikki Reed) is bitter about Bella choosing to become a vampire when she herself didn’t have a choice. Rosalie lost her innocence the night she was raped. Looking back, what Rosalie misses most about being human was “the hope.”
What Rosalie and the Twilight movies generally speak of when they use the word “human” is I think, “youth.” For children and teens, anything is possible. It’s a thrilling and intoxicating way to live and as we mature we lose this sense and it’s painful. We look at the young and yearn for their unfettered ambition and idealism. It is the burden of adulthood to know that we are imprisoned by time and the limits of who we ultimately are. Consolation comes, as the vampires show us, in finding our soul mate and community. With the right partner, in the right coven, we learn to master our destructive passions, nourish each other and ourselves, and come to terms with the limits of who we can be.
Bella tells Edward at the end of the film that her choice to become a vampire is only partly about him. The rest has to do with the life she’s lived – the pains and losses she’s suffered with him, and without him, have made her the kind of person who belongs in his world. The life she’s lived caused her to grow up fast so that she hasn’t felt at home among her peers. She felt the call of maturity from within and when she met Edward understood that he would help her to develop it. Why then is Jacob a temptation?
To my mind, Jacob feeds Bella’s illusion that she can have the adolescence she didn’t. That she can ignore the losses and pains of her life and become a free, teen spirit. When Jacob carries her through the woods in his bare arms, she is momentarily transported into a fantasy of letting go of the past and entering a space of carefree and carnal play. A part of her wants to let go of the heaviness of her experience and enter this fiery place, but in her gut she senses it will not satisfy her fully. This isn’t to stay that what Jacob offers isn’t of inherent value, rather that Bella is in a different developmental place, ready to cross-over to adulthood. Her lingering attachment to Jacob represents her ambivalence and the ambivalence we all have or have had about becoming adults. It can feel like death and requires a leap of faith to discover that it isn’t.
During May 22-26, 2013, I will be giving a seminar on character development and story crafting, based on my knowledge as a forensic psychologist, for artists in the entertainment industry. http://www.sbexplore.com/index.php
As a preview of the topics I’ll discuss at this New Orleans-based workshop, here’s my brief analysis of what I think makes Batman such a universal and appealing character:
All great stories start with character. D.C. Comics’ Batman stories work because they dramatize the exact issues that torment Batman’s character and make him unique. Bruce Wayne is a guy who lived what every child fears: the loss of his parents when he was dependent on them and unable to fare alone. As an adult, he appears strong: he has money, muscles, power and a Batmobile, yet none of it changes his internal sense of powerlessness, loneliness and the forever fresh wound of being abandoned. It’s this internal reality that torments and depresses him and motivates his crime fighting. It is also exactly what makes him an appealing target for villains like the Joker.
Like many well-developed characters, Batman is trying to repair his early wounds and break out of his neuroses via heroism. The Joker knows this and sadistically toys with Batman, exploiting his need to help others and to create safety.
The forces that challenge any character should be hand-tailored to confront the essence of the character’s internal conflict and should also reflect universal themes. Batman wants to protect the citizens of Gotham, whom we might say represent his vulnerable child parts. His approach is earnest, self-sacrificing and disciplined. In perfect contrast, the Joker is a selfish trickster, empowered by chaos. He delights most in manipulating the unconscious needs and weaknesses of Batman. The theme is eternal: Order versus Chaos.
During the New Orleans seminar, we will analyze great comic book characters including: Ironman, Batman, Spiderman, The Hulk, Cat Woman and Wonder Woman, and deconstruct the psychological tools writers used to make these characters and their adventures meaningful. Afterwards, we will create! Using the building blocks identified in these classic models, you will create your own characters (or further develop characters you are already working on) and begin charting dramatic stories with universal themes that will make your stories pop!
Artwork by David “Vyle" Levy
Someone recently said to me that he didn’t understand what made Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in Black Swan, the 2010 Oscar winner from Director, Darren Aronofsky, go nuts. If it was the life of a ballerina and the pressure to be perfect, why, he reasoned, didn’t his wife, a former ballet dancer, feel a similar pull into madness? While not all ballet dancers are driven to stabbing themselves with shards of glass and bleeding to death on mattresses at the close of a much sought after performance, I think there are common vulnerabilities depicted in Black Swan that draw young girls to dance ballet. Black Swan realistically captures, in my view, a breakdown during female development that is not totally uncommon.
I got my first hit of the kind of character we were dealing with in Nina Sayers when this late-twenties ballerina swooned over how pretty and pink the slice of grapefruit her mom just served for breakfast was. Right away viewers get that Nina is stuck in childhood and sense that sooner or later she is going to get a wake-up call. Not only does Nina live with her mom who still prepares her meals and helps her dress and undress, but her bedroom looks like an adolescent’s – filled with pink ruffle trimmings and stuffed animals.
One motivation for anorexia is the unconscious desire to remain a child. Not only does not eating keep an anorexic’s body small and fragile; the anorexic woman does not menstruate and often maintains a voice like a young girl’s. Ballet is a great world for an adult child. It can reinforce an anorexic body, a child’s dependence on knowing adults who set high standards for her achievement, and it can offer a seemingly magical world with dress-up clothes rather than the real world to live in. To be sure, not all ballerinas approach ballet with these needs, but for those who are conflicted about growing up, the ballet can be a choice environment.
One theory of anorexia views the anorexic’s relationship with her mom as a problem. Not to say that the anorexic’s mom is intentionally or even actively standing in her way. The issue is internal. The anorexic girl doesn’t want an adult body because she fears it means acquiring her mom’s body. That wouldn’t be a problem unless there was a preexisting confused relationship with her mom and her mom’s body. Mom and her body feel suffocating as the girl is developing. The girl feels that there isn’t enough distance (physically and emotionally) for her to develop a private relationship with her own maturing body and self. The film illustrates this when Nina, sexually awakened by her choreographer, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), tries masturbating in the morning and is interrupted when she discovers her mom sleeping beside her.
The thing that keeps Nina from moving out and tossing the teddies sooner, and other anorexics from risking becoming their own woman, is the fear of not being mommy’s little girl anymore. Nina doesn’t feel psychologically equipped for the life of an adult and relies on her mom’s guidance to make it through the little hurdles of each day. The unconscious solution to this conflict of wanting distance from mom, and also needing her, is to stay a child. That way the anorexic’s body remains different (child vs. woman) and mom’s love is secured because, what mom would leave a child? The problem of course is that it is not real. Efforts to reconcile this internal reality with external reality might make an already vulnerable young woman crack.
Nina wants to dance Swan Lake. Her desire to mature can be read in her wish to play a role that represents the dark side (what she fears and represses such as sexuality, jealousy, and a woman’s power) along with the white swan, the innocent (i.e. childlike) side. Nina aspires to play this adult role, to dance it with excellence and to be recognized as a full woman. Though she might be able to do the dance technically, psychologically, she has no clue how to manage the two parts. And, tragically, there is no one to help her figure out how to do it.
It seems that many people gathered from the film, and extrapolated to life, that striving to be perfect is what drove Nina crazy. I’d emphasize something a little different: that striving to be perfect is a symptom of Nina’s ongoing battle with insanity. Trying to be perfect is her way of trying to stay a child – i.e. manage her need for her mom with her need for distance from her. As she starts dancing the role in the ballet, it becomes harder and harder for Nina to keep up the charade of being a child, especially as her sexuality starts emerging.
Her role in Swan Lake involves changing from the white swan, the perfect and innocent child, into the black swan, a state in which darkness infuses her. To do this role perfectly, to be the perfect little girl, Nina needs to do what she fears will destroy her: let the darkness in. The very essence of the dance involves abandoning a way of life that makes her feel sane. Nina desperately wants and needs to grow up, but she can’t psychologically manage her darkness. The closer she gets to doing the black swan perfectly, the closer she comes to losing her sense of control. This situation challenges her psyche beyond what she can tolerate. It creates an explosion inside that leaves her in bits in pieces, not knowing anymore who she is and where danger lurks.
From the fragmentation, the black swan, suppressed for years, finally emerges and takes charge. It moves Nina in a bold and flawless dance, which her body can support, but her mind cannot. This is similar to the rare situations of violence that we see in Dissociate Identity Disorder, aka Multiple Personality Disorder. The self is divided into parts because the psyche cannot support contradictory points of view at once. In those rare instances when a part of the self acts out, killing someone that is felt to have wronged them, or harming the self, the other parts look on as passive victims, unable to intervene. The Nina at the start of the film, working so hard to appreciate her mom’s grapefruit breakfast is obliterated by the force of the black swan, finally freed. This angry force kills the white swan and, not understanding they are one and the same, destroys the body that houses them.
Artwork by David “Vyle" Levy
Why is Shame called shame? Certainly not because Michael Fassbender’s character, Brendon, is shameful about sex. He does the deed with the accepted necessity of brushing his teeth or eating. Brendon requires sex to function. No shame there. Brendon does not feel shame or much emotion of any kind because constant sex wards it off.
Shame is the emotion of the sexually abused and this movie screams sexual abuse in every way but words. The scenes go on uncomfortably long, violating the limits of viewers like the boundaries of molest victims. One such scene is the reunion between Brandon and his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), when Sissy stands nude in the shower before Brendon and they watch each other in silence. When Brendon finally throws her a towel, she doesn’t use it to cover up, but rather pats herself dry, keeping her skin exposed and his eyes on her.
Countless mental health studies show that the most crippling impact of incest and sexual abuse is the shame that victims carry. Shame is the focus of treatment when victims get therapy. In the process of abuse, shame is internalized so that the victim’s identity becomes infused with a sense of badness. Life choices are dictated by this feeling. “I can’t be close to others because I’m bad.” “I’m crap so who cares what I do.” Because shame is so tied to the victim’s sense of who they are, intimate relationships that involve being emotionally close feel dangerous as they risk exposing the victim’s “badness.”
Brendon flirts with having a relationship that could last beyond his four-month threshold, but cannot do it. He literally loses his erection. The intimacy with his charming and candid co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), brings with it vulnerability and exposure of those parts of himself that Brendon systematically wards off; presumably feelings of self-loathing, disgust, and shame.
His sister too brings closeness and memories that force Brendon into contact with his shame and he hates her for it. When Sissy tells him, hoping to console them both, that they’re “not bad people,” Brendon explodes in anger. He does not want to be reminded. To rid himself of the overwhelming feelings and memories Sissy stirs up, Brendon attacks her verbally. And, to rid himself of the shame he feels for doing that, he takes off on a sex spree.
If sexual abuse is at the core of Brendan’s problems, why does he seek sex when upset? Wouldn’t he avoid it? There are different reasons why compulsive sexuality is often an outcome of sexual abuse, from the way that being sexually stimulated before a child learns to manage their sexual impulses can lead to generally un-modulated sexuality, to a system of trying to stay aroused in order to not feel the negative feelings. Sometimes incest is passed on in families and learned by its members as a way of coping with stress and frustration. For Brendon there may also be a quality of what is clinically termed, “identification with the aggressor.” Though he does not become an abuser, raping or molesting anyone, Brendon seeks the sex out. He takes it from strangers and once he gets his fill, discards them. Because Brendon sees to it that he is never in a passive position, there may be an element of reversing the sexual dynamic so that he feels identified with the powerful position of aggressor rather than the weakness of the aggressed upon.
Of course, we’ll never know the specifics of what happened to Brendon and Sissy and what motivates Brendan’s compulsive sex because the writer/director, Steve McQueen, does not give us this background information. What is clear, at least in my opinion, is that Shame is the story of sexually abused siblings, crippled by what happened to them, struggling to find a way to live with incapacitating shame.
Artwork by David “Vyle" Levy
“They’re here…” Our hairs rise at that singsong call of the child co-opted by demons. More than three decades later those words and this film still terrify. The 1982, Steven Spielberg movie, Poltergeist, suggests that a destructive presence lurks outside the realm of human psychology and therefore beyond our capacities to intervene. The Freeling family: Steve (Craig T. Nelson), Diane (Jobeth Williams) and their three children: Carole Anne, Dana and Robbie are powerless once the poltergeist slips through their television set and stakes claim on Carole Anne (Heather O’Rourke).
Might it be that this film shows the unconscious at work, turning emotions into nightmarish images that make them easier to interact with?
When we meet the “Free-lings” they are, as their name suggests, free. They live in a nice home in the quiet sunny suburbs. They are beautiful and loving without being corny or conceited. They are, one might say, enviable. The angelic five-year-old, Carole Anne, with silky blonde hair and big blue eyes is perhaps the most enviable. And so the film begins when she, like any good fairy tale victim, is innocently lured by the dark. Rather than disguised as a grandmother or young woman picking apples, the monster makes contact through a television set; the modern playing ground for the youth. Carole Anne tells the television snow her age and engages in an intriguing get-to-know you game.
Next come the paranormal events, when mom is actually disarmed at how the foreign agent restacks the kitchen chairs and makes a slide in the linoleum for the family to ride. These benign gestures prime the family for attack. Exploiting the Freelings when they are most vulnerable – at bedtime when they are separated and children feel unprotected by their parents – the poltergeist abducts Carole Anne.
It is explained to us by the medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein), why Carole Anne was chosen. The displaced dead, rejecting the loss of their lives, cling to this free-ling child. “They’re attracted to the one thing about her that is different from themselves: her life force. …Something they desperately desire but can’t have anymore.” But there’s more at work here. There is also a demonic force that keeps Carole Ann close and pretends to be a child. Behind the mask is, Tangina explains, “So much rage, so much betrayal. I’ve never sensed anything like it. It lies to her. …it is the beast.”
The rage and envy that hold the family hostage are depicted here and in scores of children’s fairy tales for a reason. These forces terrify us. Envy frightens us as adults because even though our adult mind can think about it, our child mind could not. We carry with us into adulthood an impression of something horrific that was beyond comprehension. How many gifted, attractive, trusting children are cruelly (i.e. willfully) demoralized by adults? What about subtler versions of attack on a child’s enviable innocence and capacity for life? Most adults as we age envy the young, of course to varying degrees. The very young, though they may not fully understand, feel when they are viewed through a hungry, envious lens.
Visual images of the poltergeist “beast” are consistent with the child’s experience. From the sucking vaginal-like canal with a reaching umbilical cord that Carole Anne and Robbie cling to bed posts and door knobs to resist being pulled into, to the tree that for an instant swallows Robbie until Dad yanks him out, to the ultimate, super-human sized, haggard, skeletal creature with thin, blowing white hair, the poltergeist looks like exaggerated aspects of the envious other. The skeletal creature is life’s shell. Ancient and starving, it is fiercely determined to fill up its hollowness by robbing Carole Anne from her safe and happy family.
When destructive envy comes from caregivers, it is especially threatening to children. To adapt psychologically, children unconsciously treat it as a disembodied force. It’s not mom, or dad, or grandma, or auntie, or older brother, or the old maid next door, it’s a monster that could get me when someone I trust isn’t taking care of me. This is one of the reasons nighttime is frightening to children. It’s when they are alone and split-off aspects of a threatening adult’s psychology creep back into the child’s awareness.
These mentally immature representations of aspects of adults we encounter as children are in my view the origin of the demonic presence that haunts innocents in films like Poltergeist. Not able to know it as part of the human realm because to do so would make us feel unsafe in the world as we grow, we unconsciously locate destructive envy outside of our world, freeing us to continue to believe in the complete goodness of those on whom we are dependent for survival.
Artwork by David “Vyle" Levy
One message to be gleaned from the classic, 1977 Steven Spielberg film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is that if you follow your inspiration, ignoring the protests of others, you can reach the stars. This film is a great example of an archetype identified by Carl Jung named the “puer aeternus” or the “eternal child.”
After Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has a close encounter with an alien vessel a compulsion takes possession of him. He returns that night to his suburban home and typical middle class family but can no longer participate, feeling touched by something larger. Efforts to convince his wife (Terri Garr) of what he has seen are disorganized and maniac and it is not surprising that she grows frightened for her safely and that of their children. Neary loses his job and, despite his wife’s tears, is unaffected, feeling all he needs is to once again make contact with the incredible space beings in their exciting flying ship. With Neary’s increasing preoccupation and indifference to his family and responsibilities, his wife and kids leave him.
An artist wildly obsessed with a vision, Neary destroys his home, wrecking the yard and alienating the neighbors, in order to build a mud sculpture in his living room of the shape his mind is fixated on: a high mountain. For Jung and the puer aeternus scholar, Marie Louise Von Franz, the mountain is a classic puer aeternus symbol. Puers are typically men who love all things having to do with flight and height, flying and climbing – basically any activity that keeps them far from the ground. According to scholars, this stems from the puer’s semi-conscious sense of having an elevated existence and superiority to all things earthly.
In Von Franz’s explanation of the puer aeternus complex, the puer in childhood did not have “the father” to ground him and model how to live as a responsible man on earth. Whether his father was actually physically absent or only emotionally unavailable, the puer did not have the benefit of his dad’s guidance and came to resent what he might have shown him because of that lacking relationship. Hence, the puer adapts by clinging to childhood and in a sense refusing to grow up, believing that eternal youth is possible and even transcendent.
According to Von Franz, the puer seeks “the mother” because in this relationship he feels himself to be a loved and celebrated youth forever. Puers famously pursue the companionship and nurturing of women as in that union they feel taken care of and free from responsibilities of an adult. Nevertheless, most of them, once they pass the enchanting first stage of idolizing their companion as a goddess, suddenly and with great dismay realize that she is merely human. That constant idolatry followed by disappointment is a pattern often attributed to Don Juanism.
Running from the military, which likely represents “the father,” Neary and his new girlfriend (Melinda Dillon) climb the actual high mountain. It is fitting of a puer fantasy that on the mountain top Neary discovers that Dillon can not continue with him to the alien landing. He kisses Dillon goodbye and following his inspiration goes and waits for an encounter with the space creatures. With great spectacle the “mother(ship)” arrives. Her doors open releasing innocent and loving child-like aliens who invite Neary to come with them. He is the chosen one – a puer’s dream come true. More than willing to leave the world of adult responsibility behind, Neary boards the mothership, ready to launch into space flight.
While to those remaining on earth this path might look a teensy bit self-absorbed and inconsiderate, to the puer it feels like higher inspiration. Puers seek something out-of-this-world and when they find it they experience it as a truly spiritual calling. Often they are inspired people. Von Franz and Jung identified puers as often driven and extremely creative artists. However, the art for which they are passionate tends to be reflective of these puer aeternus themes.
Artwork by David “Vyle" Levy
Evil is spreading. If it doesn’t come after you, evil will trick you into unwittingly handing yourself over to it. In the 2007 Academy Award winning Coen Brothers’ film, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is aptly described as a “psychopathic killer” by the man set out to hunt him, Carson Wells, (Woody Harrelson). “But so what?” Wells adds, “There are plenty of them around.” And there are, the film and Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) repeatedly tell us. But is the evil Chigurh represents growing, consuming us one by one so that we are inevitably destroyed or demoralized? The film suggests that only evil and those wise enough to be cowed by it will survive.
To my mind No Country For Old Men indulges the compulsion to become predator or prey that is basic to us as living creatures and that is particularly pronounced in people who have had exposure to violence.
Well schooled on violence, Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss, (Josh Brolin) doesn’t make-love to his wife and snooze through the night, smile curling his lips at having just scored two million without leaving a trace. No, he lies awake. Distracted. Feeling the call of the hunt. Llewelyn knows where the call leads yet can’t resist it. “I’m fixing to do something dumber than hell, but I’m going anyways,” he tells his wife (Kelly Macdonald). From the point of view of the civilized mind, returning as he does to the crime scene is crazy, but for the animal inside, instinct demands it.
Ostensibly going to give a dying man some aqua, Llewelyn in effect offers the ultimate predictor, Chigurh, his scent and the chase is on, filling Llewelyn with an intoxicating sense of aliveness that compels him and us as viewers to jump in with both feet. Llewelyn throws his wife, we might think of her as representing his familial attachments, his link to civilization and his super-ego (which dictates socially responsible behavior), on a bus to her mother, and unleashes the animal inside.
Chigurh is not burdened by regard for family, society or the lives of his fellow men. The predator unabashedly pursues his desires, indulges in his prejudices, and dictated by a bizarre system of justice, pursues supremacy. What makes Chigurh so compelling and terrifying is that he is human. Not to say that he feels human because to most of us he feels like a programmed killer; a robot. Yet, we know he is human because we smirk with him as he tries to wrap his mind around the feeble life of the man at the Texaco station, we see him drink milk, bleed from wrist cuts and tend a painful leg wound. Chigurh possesses the extremely adaptive cognition of a predator. He can improvise quickly to get what he wants and unlike Llewelyn he does not feel burdened by a need to negotiate with conscience.
In my interpretation, Chigurh embodies the human predator that dwells in each of us that we reject and label “evil” and “inhuman” because of its destructive capacity.
Like most repressed material, what we deny has the greatest capacity to disrupt our lives. Because our eyes aren’t on it, it seems to appear from out of nowhere. Llewelyn is seduced by the adrenaline of the chase but he denies Chigurh as a true threatening force. This makes Llewelyn naïve and vulnerable to being destroyed by him. Not fully grasping the deadly path he’s on, relying on hubris rather than knowledge, Llewelyn is easily wiped out.
Sheriff Bell on the other hand is realistically frightened of Chigurh, understands his power, and like his father before him, is committed to being “a part of this world,” or fully alive, acknowledging the inevitable presence of anti-life agents. That reality depresses and wears him down, but it is also what keeps him alive. He hasn’t clung to ideas of god as salvation, or his own super-human powers. Sheriff Bell wrestles with the destructive forces in humanity and has faith to remain in that struggle because his father, a former Sheriff of the county, modeled how to do it. In the final scene of the film Sheriff Bell shares a dream of reuniting with his father who leads the way to a resting place in the cold with the promise of a fire. The dream seems to say that warmth and connection is reachable by travel through the tough, cold and hard elements in life.
As I understand it, play with the predator is irresistible to Llewelyn because he did not have other models for how to live. Repeated exposure to violence can create a perverse addiction to the hunt. The high of feeling one’s life at risk can be used to defensively avoid the depressing reality of co-existing death and life, or killing and loving, forces. It seems to me that Llewelyn did not know how to manage his conflicting impulses and gave over to the one he knew best. Giving over to the killer, either to becoming it, or to constantly tangling with it, can feel like heightened reality or greater truth, but because it denies our equally present loving instincts, it is not full reality.
As films like The Hurt Locker and Brothers also represent, this perverse relationship to the hunt is one that wartime military service can foster. No doubt many veterans suffer tension trying to integrate the ruthless animal side to our nature they experience in war with the familial tug. The near-death situations of war offer a high that stops the painful tension of trying to work out these conflicting impulses. Because of that intoxicating relief, it may feel to some veterans that full immersion in the hunt is the only solution.
Artwork by David “Vyle" Levy.
Dialogue is a developmental achievement. A feat many adults haven’t mastered. We speak of “one-way conversations” and shake our heads with frustration about those that just don’t listen. On the surface the Oscar winner hopeful silent film, The Artist, from writer/director Michel Hazanavicius, appears to be about a 1920’s actor having a hard time transitioning from silent films to talkies getting helped over the hurdle by a loving woman and cute dog, but a psychoanalytic view suggests a deeper and more complex meaning.
Wounded by the lack of parental presence in early life or violated by overbearing insensitive caregivers, narcissists defensively block out the existence of others and become the center of their own universe. As a result they miss out on a lot. Never fully engaging with others they don’t get to feel mutual love and deep human connection.
Though audiences of this film are rightfully enchanted by the sensory experience of watching a silent film, The Artist’s silence may also convey what it feels like to be the film’s protagonist, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Encapsulated in a narcissistic bubble, George is partially functioning. He doesn’t really hear others and perceives the life around him to only a limited degree.
At the start of the film George steals the spotlight from his co-star (Missi Pyle) and ignores her fury, transfixed by his appeal to the crowd. Though George’s denial of others makes them feel rejected, the greatest damage is to George. Narcissistic bubbles are designed for insulation from an interpersonal world that feels threatening but the downside is that the person is walled off from the connection they need.
According to Los Angeles senior concept artist, David Levy, this condition is common among artists. Not to say that all artists are narcissists, but narcissistic vulnerabilities may dominate so that the drive for recognition and pain of criticism usurps their focus. Until these issues are worked through, “true art,” reflective of the greater human condition, is not possible. To represent our world the artist must live in it. Perhaps then George Valentin’s character arc, true to the film’s title, reflects the artist’s journey.
When we first encounter George his primary companion is his dog. Adorable as his canine sidekick is, his charm to George probably lies in how well he mirrors George and reflects his emotions. Doggy is a non-threatening, empathic, therapeutic presence that expresses George’s true feelings. He hides his face in shame when George’s wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), is upset by his public flirtation with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). And Doggy literally saves George’s life when George can’t stand who he is any longer and tries to burn all his silent films.
Peppy, through her tenderness of feeling for him, brings to George’s consciousness a sense of lack, which he had been warding off until then. Like a probe pushing against his bubble’s wall, George senses someone out there and longs to make contact, but to let her in would mean tearing his insulation and changing.
When George is called upon to change because audiences now expect audible dialogue from actors he refuses. That doesn’t keep his dawning awareness of life outside his bubble from disrupting him. George has a nightmare in which sounds intrude sending him out of bed and into a fight to preserve his way of life. Charged with defensive grandiosity, George leaves the studio and self-finances another silent film in which he is an arrogant beloved hero. The film flops and George is met again with the necessity to change. Grandiosity exhausted he spirals into depression and ultimately suicidality.
The movie suggests that the love of someone who has faith in our capacity to change can help many of us through the excruciating process of personal transformation. George fights this process almost to the point of killing himself. As a psychologist and someone who has been in therapy this process is all too familiar. Even positive change is disruptive and can feel like a death our psyches must fight against. Just as kids of abusive parents will beg to be returned to their alcoholic, physically assaultive or otherwise sick parent, we cling to what we know because it is reliable. Peppy’s compassion, faith in him and commitment to helping George discover a path with integrity lent him the courage he needed to cross the bridge over to dialogue and the artistry of creative collaboration.
Though an analysis of the film might stop here doing so could involve a little self-deception. The story also portrays a rescue fantasy though it flips the convention from Prince Charming to Princess doing the rescue work. How realistic is a love like Peppy’s? I suspect that the narcissistically vulnerable parts in many of us, artist or otherwise, responds positively to this fable because it gratifies a wish. At the core of the narcissist’s situation is a feeling of not having been loved enough or given enough room for the “true self” to come into being. The fantasy solution from the narcissist’s point of view is to be loved, worshiped even, so steadily and over such a convincingly long period of time that one is persuaded it is safe to let the other in. In this light, Peppy is an exaggerated personality designed to capture the wishful fantasy of artists and, I suspect, the parts of all of our psyches that still grapple with narcissistic needs.
Thanks to Judith Armstrong, Ph.D. for her insightful thoughts on George’s dog.
On the resounding appeal of The Artist see Big Hollywood.
Artwork by David “Vyle" Levy.
One son returns home and enlists his recovering alcoholic dad’s help in training for a mixed martial arts competition while his estranged brother, a struggling teacher, returns to UFC in order to pay his bills. The brothers are ultimately pitted to fight each other and in so doing heal their broken relationship. Nick Nolte was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of their father, Paddy Conlon.
Violence can repair broken relationships. At least that’s the message we’re left with at the close of the 2011 film from Writer/Director Gavin O’Connor, Warrior. O’Connor calls it “intervention in a cage” in this excellent clip with L.A. Times film reporter, Rebecca Keegan. But is it true that violence mends? The sense of healing between brothers and the satisfying feeling most viewers are left with at the close of the film suggests that it is. But if so, why violence and is there any precedent for this in psychoanalytic literature?
Before trying to answer, first we need to understand the characters in this movie. As any sibling knows, though we may live through the same events as our brother or sister we are affected by them differently. One of the reasons for this is character; we are each made up differently. We come to situations with different needs, tastes and vulnerabilities. In the case of Warrior, we don’t know what Tommy and Brendan were like as kids and so we work backwards, figuring it out by the state they’re in today.
At the start of the film Tommy Conlon, played by Tom Hardy, is painfully scarred by betrayals. The first betrayal was his father’s, Paddy Conlon’s, played by Nick Noltle, through drunken states in which he hit Tommy’s mom and otherwise attacked the family. These acts were traumatic betrayals for Tommy because his Dad was also a supportive figure. When a good parent, Paddy supported Tommy’s talent and gave him the secrets to succeed (coaching him in wrestling). Emotionally, “good dad” betrayed Tommy every time asshole drunk dad stepped into the room.
Betrayal number two was mom. No doubt doing the best she could, Tommy’s mom planned to run off with the boys. But from Tommy’s point of view what kind of solution was that? For him it meant not standing up to “bad dad,” losing “good dad” completely, and as it turned out, losing his brother, Brendan. Rather than hate his mom, the one parent he had left, Tommy turned his hate to Brendan as a betrayer for staying behind.
Betrayals in his adult life pile up after these primary ones: Paddy and Brendan’s absence when Tommy’s mom was dying; the army, his new family, firing on Tommy and a comrade after he signaled that they were on the ground amongst the enemy; and in an un-shot intro from the script, the guy who buys him out of jail doesn’t keep his promise to free Tommy after a year of enslaved fighting. Incidents mount so that when the movie starts and Tommy pays his dad a visit, under his beer buzz he’s seething with rage.
The only thing holding Tommy together and giving his life meaning is his system of honor. It’s a system built on the ideal of uncompromising loyalty. He will be the opposite of all the betrayal he’s ever encountered and in the name of honor will beat the shit out of all double-crossers. One problem. He betrayed the army by deserting. But he did it because they betrayed him. But he still betrayed his army family. He’s angry and guilty. It’s all mixed up and tearing him apart. His unconscious drives him back to where his problems started. Back to Dad, back to his brother, back to the fight.
What about Brendan? The good kid, Brendan Conlon, played by Joel Edgerton, put his emotions to the side and made the “right choices.” He found a girl to love, married, had kids and developed a career of service as a teacher. But guess what, it’s not working. On the surface it’s not working because he needs money, but on a deeper level he feels disconnected from his wife (Jennifer Morrison) and dissatisfied with his role in life. He is compelled to fight and he will do it even if it means alienating his wife and losing his job.
While suppressing his emotions got him in position for a happy life, he can’t enjoy it because it isn’t real. Brendan was just as damaged by his parents’ failures as Tommy, but he isn’t the type of character to express that. He holds his sadness and anger inside and acts with control; presumably to protect those he loves from his aggression. One of the best lines in the film is when in response to Brendan telling Tommy that he doesn’t hate him, Tommy looks deep into Brendan’s eyes and tells him he’s full of shit.
From Freud’s biosocial work on, psychoanalysis has recognized the importance of aggression in development. Like any creature hatching from an egg or hunting a meal, aggression is necessary for growth and survival. Brendan’s fear of the impact of his emotions released caused him to suppress aggression thereby limiting his ability to grow and as a consequence to experience passion and pleasure in life. Getting back into the ring gives him the chance to unleash aggression in a safe venue.
Even in the ring, with the socially sanctioned right to fight, Brendan holds back. True to his character, Brendan takes beating after beating until the very end and only then does he quickly and strategically defeat his opponent. Like the masochist in an S&M relationship he is most comfortable as victim to the aggression of the other. Just outside of the experience he cleverly maneuvers the dominating fighter into a compromising position and endures the pain of holding him there. He wins – both his fights and a comfortable vicarious experience of aggression – by holding back and enduring pain.
Like Tommy, Brendan also yearns to repair his childhood trauma. And so, like most of us when this is the case, we unconsciously recreate the situations of the past in the hope of finding the pieces we’re missing, getting what we didn’t then, or repairing what was broken.
Does violence help us do that? When the trauma of our past has to do with violence, we can’t process it without emotionally returning to it. Tommy lived in a constant state of hurt rage that couldn’t be calmed until he was emotionally met in that place. This is what fighting Brendan did for him. He pulled Brendan into his world and Brendan didn’t betray him by leaving, he endured it with him. More than that, Brendan contained him in that world. He let Tommy give him all his rage and then he physically and emotionally stopped him. Yes, he had to break his arm to do it, but that seemed to be what Tommy needed. Not to mention it, what Brendan needed too. It was in that moment that they each flipped out of their customary roles. Brendan took full possession of his aggression and became the sadist rather than the masochist and Tommy stopped pounding on others and felt his pain and vulnerability.
They each achieved the state they were warding off but needed to accept to become whole. And of course the key ingredient, love, was present. In the climax of the fight, over and over Brendan tells Tommy that he loves him. His aggression comes from a place of compassion and love. That was healing for Tommy but also for Brendan who feared his aggression as destructive.
Tommy didn’t need violence for the sake of violence, he needed containment and he could only feel that when Brendan met in him the violent world he lived. Brendan also didn’t need violence or to be violent but he needed to enter into an aggressive state in order to see that it didn’t hurt others or make them leave him.
This is consistent with writing on violence in psychoanalysis. Analysts who treat violent patients and research violence such as Peter Fonagy, Ph.D. or Christopher Bollas, Ph.D. agree that both the desire of the violent person and the goal of the psychoanalyst are often consistent with a process of conveying and receiving the emotional state of violence. In Fonagy’s paper, The Psychoanalysis of Violence, he describes how it is incumbent upon the analyst to emotionally enter into the arena of violence with a patient in order to truly understand and help the violent patient. That might mean feeling and potentially being terrifyingly vulnerable to the patient’s violent drives. The violent person not in therapy but in the world acting on their impulses can be said psychologically to be “projecting” or transferring their feelings of being violated by others into their victim. Motivations for this vary from wishing to simply rid themselves of the feeling to it being the only way they can feel compassion. There are killers who torture their victims so that they can comfort them and vicariously feel comforted.
So, in answer to the puzzle, is violence a means of healing relationships, in general, no. Though the person who acts violently might feel a temporary catharsis from unleashing his or her rage and forcing another person to feel the helplessness and demoralization they feel, this is not healing. No issue is being worked through. No problem resolved. In Warrior, with the unique histories Tommy and Brendan bring to the situation, the very specific meaning of mixed martial arts to them and because trauma to their relationship involved violence, healing for them meant some return to it. It was not in my view necessary for them to throw punches to reach a reparative emotional experience, but for these characters in this story, it worked.
- On the underappreciated greatness of this film, check out Carson Reeves’ ScriptShadow review of Warrior as one of his favorite films of 2011.
- Interview with Gavin O’Connor on his intentions with the film at Big Hollywood.