Saturday, June 1, 2013

Gimme Shelter (still further updated)

[This wisp of an essay, rather than being a depth-psychological look at works of art, has a more modest object, simply commenting some cases in which film or literature explicitly and consciously depicts, alludes to, or mimics  the analytic situation.  It is thus principally an exercise in literary criticism, rather than psychoanalysis:  rather like listing the films that feature penguins at some point.
Yet much as idly tracing a trail of acorns in the forest, may prove to lead to the hobbit’s hole, so too might our uncertain gropings  be rewarded with an insight or two.]

For the benefit of our younger readers -- those under fifty-five -- we offer the link to the song that is (only apparently) eponymous to this post:
Ladies and gentlemen, and things in-between -- the Rolling Stones !

Actually that is at best post-eponymous, the real inspiration for the title being our earlier essay on the film Take Shelter.   And since we had already foolishly recycled the title of that post (as “Take Shelter (II)”), to surmount (in a punning spirit) a little causerie de lundi about (literally) “taking shelter” from a shower of acorns being launched onto our domestic Back Deck by Mr. Naughtysquirrel (which you may consult here, if so inclined, though it has nothing to do with anything, cinema and psychology  least of all, the only point in common being assault by the forces of Nature) -- having done that, I say, (to our lasting discredit), and quailing before the absurd prospect of a “Take Shelter (III)”, there was nothing for it  but to rack our brains:  Hmmmmmm….. Shelter … Shelter …..  I’ve got it!  By George  I’ve got it!  “Gimme Shelter”.   (For our older, our more refined, and our trans-Atlantic readers, “gimme” means “Give me”.  It is an informal idiom of the American vernacular.  -- "By George, I've got it!" is from My Fair Lady, the best musical ever.)
Still, there is a certain appropriateness to the title nonetheless, since it once again instances apparent bravado which devolves into (unacknowledged) regression.   The lyrics are superficially very Knowing;  Rape -- murder -- it’s just a shot away!”  But ultimately it is back to:  Give me shelter, Mother.

Commercial Break
A private detective  confronts the uncanny;
an ecclesiastical mystery:

[Update]  NPR just featured the song on the evening news, in an interview with a well-spoken, gently humorous and self-deprecating gentleman, whom I took for  perhaps  a retired British diplomat, but who turned out to be none other than Mick Jagger.  Boy has that man mellowed!  Or who knows -- perhaps he was always secretly mellow, and just put on an act for his fans.
For those of us who lived our young lives through the sixties, the song was full of portent.  But we have all grown up now, and after all, “it’s only rock & roll”.  Asked what had been going through his head when he wrote the song (a typical softball interviewer’s question, and an open invitation to bloviate), Mr. Jagger did not rise to the bait, but said rather apologetically that he really didn’t remember:  those were simply troublous times.   And added the detail that the female soloist who rang out that memorable “Rape --- Mur-derrr !” line, had been hauled in hastily and showed up in curlers.  And then, neither Sturm nor Drang:  she polished the thing off in a take or two.
Another factoid-tidbit:  The harmonica solo in this song  was played by Mr. Jagger:  but (as he revealed) it consists of only two notes, "since the song is in a key that is lousy for harmonica."
It is deeply reassuring to hear from someone who lived in the center of all that craziness, and prominently stoked it, wind up on the far side of sixty  and perfectly, placidly sane.

He did make one remark about “Gimme Shelter” that brings us back to our “Take Shelter” theme:  the song has come to be associated with fierce storms and natural disasters.   That is not at all what it was about, of course;  so it is interesting to see the song’s psychology   projected outward  like a searchlight  onto the lowering clouds -- where, in its turn,  it stands as an audiovisual metaphor for the turmoil within.


We have cast a glance at two movies, each featuring a psychoanalyst  and a haunted/hunted character who seeks shelter amid peril -- a peril which appears to be external, but which turns out to originate within himself:

            Take Shelter
            Shutter Island

This motif might be dubbed with the Pogo Slogan:  “We have met the enemy  and he is us.”

Professor Pogo, celebrated disciple of Dr Sigmund Freud

Let us now turn our attention to the cult-classic British one-season TV-series, "The Prisoner", in which a spy vociferously resigns from Her Majesty's service (for reasons we do not hear), then (gassed) wakes up to find himself detained in a quaint and isolated Village.

The storyline of “The Prisoner”s penultimate episode (#16) is a regression therapy -- or rather, a regression interrogation.  Number Six is regressed back to toddlerhood, and brought up by stages, in a sort of Sheltered Workshop (“the Embryo Room”), by the schoolmaster played by Number Two:  who   at appropriate moments  keeps whispering that key question, “Why did you resign?”. 

In the default view of the series, in which The Village is evil, that is because, far from any therapeutic intent, those that run The Village have an evil axe to grind.  Only -- bear in mind the Alternate Ending of “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, reproduced in “Shutter (Shelter) Island”, and experimentally apply it.   This could actually work, at quite an abstract level  barely comprehensible in the week-to-week views that we see through the eyes of The Prisoner -- or should we call him, The Patient

Now -- I wouldn’t wish to press this suggestion too hard.  At the very least, one would have to concede, that if therapy this be, there were severe problems with the counter-transference.  The junctures, in the episode above-referenced, in which the  (purported) therapist (baring his neck) mockingly exhorts the patient (who is armed with a rapier) to kill him;  or when the patient similarly invites the therapist (who is armed with a knife that the patient -- here also a prisoner, behind bars -- has supplied);  can scarcely be recommended as sound therapeutic practice.

In support of the suggestion, however:  In any actual case of competing spy-teams, the burning questions would involve suprapersonal facts -- ciphers broken, the identity of agents in place, what have you -- and not:  “Why did you resign?”, which is rather the question you might expect from a concerned therapist.   And it can stand-in for any such question in the therapeutic situation:  a question that may not prove the most central, but after all, you have to start somewhere, and a natural taking-off-point is the presenting symptom: as,  “Why do you cut yourself?”  “Why do you gorge, then vomit?”  “Why do you exhibit your genitals in public?”  or what have you. 

[Update -- watching this in real time]

Towards the end of the episode, they actually refer in so many words to the psychoanalyst/analysand relationship -- and to a possible reversal of roles.  Now Number Two, distressed, is supine on a sort of rough trestle equivalent of the Freudian couch (a chair placed conveniently behind the head of the patient).

And, just as in the egregious (and probably invented) scene in “A Dangerous Method”, in which Jung rhythmically ass-whacks his analysand (we understand that such therapeutics are now frowned-on in Toronto), so too, in the “schoolboy” scene in that “Prisoner” episode, the Prisoner kneels to receive the celebrated “six of the best”:  but then, hoarsely, requests, as a favor, that it might rather be ... twelve ... -- sir. 
      Oh so?  Why, pray? 
      (hoarsely, with lidded eys)   “So -  I’ll -  re-   memm-ber…”


A similar sort of “regression-interrogation” scene  occurs in Jim Thompson's novel, The Killer Inside Me (1952).

The etiquette these days is, you’re supposed to warn “Spoiler Alert!” -- but look:  the book in question was published over half a century ago, so if you haven’t yet read it, you must’ve just had something better to do with your time.   So like -- here’s some stuff  that comes at the end, alright?  So sue me.

The book began as a schlock paperback, but is one of the pulps which got taken seriously by the French, and get reissued in pretigious editions  -- this one from Vintage, with its signature generous trim-size, impeccable font and layout, and paper so creamy you could spread it on a croissant.   It’s a crime novel, seemingly of the subtype Evil Texas Lawman Takes the Law into his Own Horny Hands -- but turns out to be a genre-bender.   It is a crime story told by the criminal;   and this of a somewhat unusual type.  He’s a psychopath who is aware that he’s a psychopath, and by no means exults in this fact:  it complicates his life considerably.   He keeps getting’ a hankerin’ to rub out folks that he had liked just fine (he does have affectionate feelings, it seems), and durn if that don’t mess up a perfectly nice day.
What brings this book into the ambit of this essay, is that, despite the spare masculine prose and prevailing I-am-a-camera exterior view  that is de rigueur for such fiction, the author decides to toss in some psychologizing.  It is done obliquely, so as not to alienate his original soda-fountain audience, who just want action and maybe a little spicy sex;  but if you have your Freud-dar antennae up, you’ll see it.

My appetite for describing, analyzing, or celebrating serial killers, is quickly sated.  In particular, they are of little psychoanlytic interest. They do not respond to treatment;  they are not appropriate analytic subjects;  they are simply missing something, the way a scorpion is missing a cerebral cortex.  (Though actually,  it would be interesting to see if they respond to exorcism.)  The litterati who magnify and glorify serial killers, and deem them more romantic, more existentially central  than the guy who fixes your A/C, are themselves typically paraphiliacs of one sort or another, and their counsel is of no account.

Anyhow:  The narrator-killer is suspected of having murdered a certain girl he’d been sleeping with (that in itself does not fit with the serial-killer profile; they’re generally sexually too far out of joint to enjoy normal intercourse), but they can’t pin anything on him, so they confine him and try an experiment -- part regression-therapy, part anamnesis -- projecting a series of photographs of the victim, beginning back when she was fifteen years old.  Now, a more normal perpetrator might crack under that, but a psychopath lacks a conscience, and this one simply enjoys the slide-show.   When his keepers come round to see if he’s ready to confess, he says, basically, could he see it again, this time more slowly and with popcorn.

In the end, the novel is without psychological interest;  but the mere fact that the author recognizes the existence of such things as psychological explanation (he plays lip-service to it with obscure references to a supposed childhood trauma of the killer-to-be) lifts it both cognitively and morally above the otherwise equally entertaining work of, say, Mickey Spillane:  there the bizarre misogynist violence  seems to spring from the unconscious of the author himself, unredeemed by either consciousness thereof, or conscience.

[Update June 2013]   I just now happened upon this passage, in light of which  I might modify  that “without psychological interest”:

Most analysts look askance at the candidate [i.e., a potential patient, presenting himself for psychoanalysis] who is too comfortably “normal”:  … partly because the expectation … would be that such an individual is not seldom dealing with an unconscious fantasy and impulse life  so formidably frightening  that it cannot even be admitted to the sphere of neurotic conflict.
-- Leo Stone, The Psychoanalytic Situation (1961), p. 166

Thus precisely  the eponynous anti-hero of The Killer Inside Me.  Outwardly he is normal -- indeed normative, since  after all, he’s a deputy sheriff.   Inside there’s … all this stuff.  But what makes the disjunction somewhat more interesting than mere pro-forma irony, is a certain tic or shtick that the deputy has, which we meet on the very first pages, without enough context to appreciate.    He is given to doling out platitudes  characteristic of the most achingly average Babbitt, but which he lays on just a lit-tle bit too thick. Only if you are privy to what is really going on inside this man -- and no-one is, but him himself -- do you get the joke.   From the opening episode, in a diner:

 “I reckon I should have been a college professor or something like that. Even when I’m asleep, I’m working out problems.  Take that heat wave we had a few weeks ago;  a lot of people think it’s the heat  that makes it so hot.  But it’s not like that, Max.  It’s not the heat, but the humidity. …
“Another thing about the weather.  Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything. …”


In college, I began writing a one-act stage-play upon this theme, called “Transference”, but came to see this motif as unworthy, as a mauvaise-foi self-inflated fantasy of the analysand.  Still, one must concede, it does coincide with the whole “Golden Bough” scenario. 
Compare also Kafka’s “Ein Landarzt”.  I wrote a Golden-Bough-style variation on it, which I might post, should I manage to find it, anywhere among my papers.

That whole “regression” business  -- touching catagogic bottom (in age-regression) with the “primal scream”, and the even more worthless California-bottom, with “past-life regression”  (beloved of those who, in former lives, were morons, as in this)  --  leaves me cold, btw.    And to their credit, the writers of this episode of "The Prisoner"  do not dwell on stupid toilet-training /Nefertiti stuff, but progress  -- note the verb -- through the “Seven Ages of Man”, evoked so splendidly in “As You Like It”:  they even reprise the celebrated soliloques of Jacques.  Such is a … let us say not, “regression”, but:  recapitulation,  worthy of an adult.  Of a man.


As a matter of mere happenstance,  my acquaintance with this televisual offering  was scanty.  Since I did not own a television set, the only episodes I saw  were those that chanced to be broadcast (“broadcast”:  a word with which my younger readers  will not be familiar -- this was before the Internet, you see) -- broadcast, as I say, for all the world to see, on the weekends when (as hap would have it) my sweetheart and I spent the weekend at the Napa home of her parents (my [as things turned out] inlaws-to-be).
In this manner, I saw (at most) a half-dozen episodes;  of which the most memorable (I even, ever, recalled the title) was the utterly atypical (since not set in the Village at all) “Living in Harmony”:  only, what I remembered, and savored, in after years, was quite different from (and better than) what was actually broadcast.  This pseudo-memory acquired, in time, the status of a vivid dream;  so that I was startled when (YouTube and the Internet having meanwhile been invented, -- thanks, one supposes, to Al Gore) I (forty years later) at length was allowed  to view the segment as originally broadcast.

   One "Prisoner" episode that I did see on TV  was the seventeenth, the series finale.  And I hated it.
   Hated it.
   Hated it.
   And in this, I was not alone.
   The final episode of the series had one of the largest television audiences in history up to that time. But “the intentional ambiguity of the finale caused bafflement and a great deal of anger amongst the public and McGoohan claimed he was ‘hounded’ out of the country after the episode was shown. The popular press joined in the ‘protest’ against this ‘rubbish’ McGoohan had foisted on the viewing public and he never worked in Britain again.” (Wiki)

From the purely visual standpoint, it was not bad at all, being (for example) a forerunner of the trial scenes in “Harry Potter”, with the raked ranks of eerie figures peering down.  As well as  (for the aesthetic) The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, which likewise came as a shock to most of us Stateside, at the time.

... guilty   guilty   guilty   guilty ...

More deeply than such aesthetic objections, there is the sense of actual betrayal.  We had imagined that we were watching a spy-thiller -- a well-defined genre, with venerable rules -- and instead it seems suddenly to morph into a three-year-old’s birthday-party.  We have to ask ourselves: What genre is this?    Have the writers simply tossed-in the towel, like the jump-the-shark  copout that has disfigured many an initially intriguingTV offering (as, recently, “Lost”)?

So, what were they actually up to?  What inner/deeper plan  lay beneath each weekly sparkle?
There is no unambiguous answer.  You cannot (despite Freud’s valiant efforts on Michaelangelo) truly psychoanalyze  art:  In the first instance, because it cannot respond, cannot free-associate, cannot supply you the “day-remnants”.   And secondly, in the case of a production like “The Prisoner”, because there is no one ‘psych’ to analyze.  You have rather:  The producer; the director; the actors; the scriptwriters… and the change-of-mind of any one of these, during the course of the production.

Certainly some of the story-arc suggests institutionalized therapy, as seen through the eyes of a paranoid; those uniformed athletes  tooling around in the surry-with-a-fringe-on-top vehicles, suggest  nothing so much  as the sort of muscular orderlies one sees in state psychiatric hospitals.   But if the series overall was intended to represent a therapy, it was a spectacularly unsuccessful one, since it ends in a florid and full-blown psychosis.


The latest pop effort  to try tossing a bit ‘o Freud into the pot, is the James Bond movie Skyfall.   But as critic David Denby  aptly remarks,

The director, Sam Mendes, has taken a pop concept  and solemnized it with Freud, which is not, perhaps, the best way of turning Bond into grownup entertainment.

The move is signaled early, as one after another MI6-er refers to M as “Mom” -- an echo of the epithet “Mother” for the equally creepy James Jesus Angleton, back in the day at CIA.  (Amusingly, the canny old Scottish gamekeeper, introduced to her by Bond as “M”, welcomes her as “Emma”:  an eminently sane move.)
The last half-hour or so of this overlong movie  attempts to pencil-in a Bond backstory -- rather late in the day for that, half a century after the first Bond movie appeared;  moreover, while the gloomy pop-psych primal trauma now offered  might plausibly go with the grim Daniel-Craig Bond, no way in the world would it fit the suave and dapper Sean-Connery Bond, let alone Bond sub specie Roger Moore -- who, as Denby amusingly remarks, “gave off the aura of a luxury product in an airline magazine”.

Mommy didn't wuv me enuf ...

This coda is a parallel, though not explicitly signaled, with the classic pop-psych afterpiece in “Citizen Kane.”  In that movie, the magic word, key to its hard-to-read protagonist’s innermost psychology, is Rosebud.   In this movie, it is Skyfall, which we first realizes is a hot-button/sore-point  when the psychologist administering a word-association test to Bond, utters that word:  at which point Bond goes rigid, and pronounces the session over.  In Kane,  we learn the secret at the very end, after Kane is dead and his abandoned mansion is being dredged out of junk:  a workman tosses a child’s sled so-named into the furnace.  In Skyfall, a gloomy mansion so named  turns out to have been Bond’s childhood home in Scotland (the Craig-Bond seems rather more like a Cockney);  it too is abandoned; but here, instead of the furnace being inside the mansion, the mansion is inside the inferno.   As it goes up in a series of mostly unexplained explosions (hey, in movies, things just explode), Bond casts an unsentimental glance over his shoulder and remarks, “I always hated that place.”  Vis-à-vis the Kane-style sentiment, this line ranks with the Craig classic, when he was first being introduced to the audience as the new Bond and the director wanted to make clear how he differed  from those that had gone before:  asked whether he would like his martini shaken, or stirred, he snarls, “Do I look like I would give a damn?”

Since there is no genuine psychology in this movie, there is little to say on that account;  but we might consider our own psychology -- we, the audience -- to figure out why this particular film, for all its big budget and visual pizazz, is ultimately so uninvolving.  (My wife liked it even less than I did:  so much so that, when I asked her what was her favorite Bond movie, she said she didn’t even wish to think about the things;  and moreover -- she who had been so deeply enthusiastic about “Argo” --  wished not to go out to the movies again for a while.)

First, humor -- or rather, wit.  As noted, there some good lines:  but they are such as emerge from a writers’ committee -- you put a quarter into the machine and out comes a pack of gum.   The lines do not emerge from any vision or human context.
Next, thrills ‘n’ chills.  During much of “Argo”, my wife was clutching my hand in a way that recalled her earlier phobias on airplanes landing or taking off;  whereas, midway into this one, she found herself thinking with some longing about the textbook she’d been studying at home.  For me, the only heart-stopping thing in the film was simply the night shots of the empty forbidding and foreboding skyscrapers of Shanghai.  That city out-New-Yorks New York, and it is frightening.   Though here and there brightly lit amid the darkness, Shanghai  seems deserted. The fight in the night-lit skyscraper, against a background of Blade-Runner-style giant electric signs glaring through the glass walls, was more like the stylized, meaningless, balletic battles of “The Matrix”  than like a fine ol’ fisticuffs from the (bad old) good-old days, where it was personal.

Virtually all the old movies were thick with humanity, all the way down.  Occasionally some artsy Frenchman or whatever would serve up an “avant-garde” soufflé of emptiness like “Last Year at Marienbad”, but that was strictly for the art-houses.  It’s much odder for a piece of mass entertainment to have so little human interest (so little interest in humans).   In part, the reason may be economic:  Foreign sales make up an increasing portion of Hollywood profits -- indeed, “Skyfall” was released in Europe (to great critical reception and audience acclaim) weeks before it appeared in the US.   A movie deeply rooted in America culture, humane and observant, like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” or “The Best Years of Our Lives”, doesn’t translate overseas.   Just to take the example of the Western, contrast the people-savvy “Stagecoach” or the many radio episodes of “Gunsmoke” from the 1940s and ‘50s, with European-made spaghetti-Westerns:  brilliantly executed, even rising (with “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”) to the level of a formal masterpiece, but not really rooted in America at all, any more than the images on the Euro relate to any specific country over there.   Having hugely enjoyed Sergio Leone’s GBU (which was basically a formal kabuki-drama with only three characters, those in the title), I was expecting much, along “Godfather” lines, from his “Once Upon a Time in America” -- but it was empty, empty, vain and void.  I can’t remember a single line from it, nor the plot, nor even who starred in it, at all, though I do recall (textually, abstractly) that it featured some actors I otherwise like.

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