movies


I recently finished reading Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel about the near future. It took me nearly four months, and would have taken longer if I had not had extra time on my hands as I recovered from surgery. Reading the middle third of the book was like wandering through a wilderness; I kept going out of sheer determination, but it seemed like I was getting nowhere. There’s some satisfaction at having persevered to the end, but mainly there’s relief.

One of the reasons I initially decided to read the book was that I had seen the DFW interview movie The End of the Tour (2015) when it was first released, and that movie (which I discussed here) had made me curious about DFW’s analysis of the struggles those of us living in modern (or postmodern) USA have with living meaningful and genuine lives. As I read IJ, I paid attention to anything that shed light on this issue. There is of course much more to the novel than this, and I don’t want to suggest that DFW wrote primarily to offer advice about how to live with American entertainment, excess, and irony. I do want to focus on that issue in giving my thoughts about the book, though.

Just a couple of caveats before I begin. I have no particular expertise at literary analysis and only limited knowledge of DFW’s life and works, so readers are likely to find more astute information about IJ elsewhere. I’m merely sharing some of the thoughts the novel prompted in me. Also, I haven’t taken especial care to avoid spoilers, so if you’re reading IJ and don’t want to know what happens, it may be best to wait until you’re ready for such information before you read what I have to say.

To start, then, this post will focus on one feature that stood out as I read, namely that IJ portrays a world in which human desire is prevalent and problematic. Pretty much everyone is pursuing something they yearn for, usually something they hope will make them whole, or at least better. These desires aren’t a sufficient guide for life, though. In fact, they are likely to make life worse. In one of the two main settings for the novel, the Enfield Tennis Academy, the pre-adolescent and adolescent students all begin with a desire to make “The Show,” the professional tennis circuit. Not reaching this goal is problematic, but achieving it is even more fraught with danger:

“It’s possible that the only jr. tennis players who can win their way to the top and stay there without going bats are the ones who are already bats, or else who seem to be just grim machines….” (p. 437-8)

Thus Schtitt, the head coach of the academy, is as interested in helping his charges avoid the perils of success as he is in helping them succeed. As one of the staff explains,

“The point here for the best kids is to inculcate their sense that it’s never about being seen. It’s never. If they can get that inculcated, the Show won’t fuck them up, Schtitt thinks.” (p. 680)

In the other main setting, Ennet House–a halfway house for recovering drug addicts–the residents had desired what they thought drugs could provide, be that pleasure or escape or peace, but eventually they were always disappointed. More than this, they became trapped. For example, one of the residents, Joelle van Dyne, attempted to kill herself by overdose just because she had been imprisoned by her addiction. Here’s where she found herself:

“It is the cage that has entered her somehow. The ingenuity of the whole thing is beyond her. The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much. She’s lost the ability to lie to herself about being able to quit, or even about enjoying it, still. It no longer delimits and fills the hole. It no longer delimits the hole.” (p. 222)

Desire is dangerous; it’s likely to become our master. DFW sounds almost as pessimistic as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer here, sharing with him the idea that what motivates human beings is primitive, illogical desires that can never be satisfied. Many of the characters in the book are caged in some way; typically this is the result of having pursued desires that seemed to offer bliss but end up causing harm.

Schopenhauer thought all we could do to mitigate the force of desire was to lead very constricted lives; fortunately, Wallace is more hopeful. I’ll discuss where he finds hope in a later post; let me close here by noting that for him at least one path to release could be found in addiction recovery organizations such as AA or NA. That this approach works is a surprise even for those in recovery. At one point, Don Gately, a staff member at Ennet House, reflects:

“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy, slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons…and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’s had and then lost, when you Came In.”  (p. 350)

We all could use a little help; the trick is to figure out what will genuinely provide assistance and what promises to do so but ends up harming us instead.

 

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

It’s never easy when someone you love stops communicating with you. A day of such silence can be hard to endure; weeks or months seem unbearable. What if the loved one who is silent despite your entreaties is God?

silence_2016_filmThat’s the situation in Martin Scorsese’s recent movie adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1968 novel Silence. Two 17th century Portuguese priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) have volunteered to go to Japan to learn the fate of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has not been heard of for years but is rumored to have apostatized under persecution. Upon their arrival, they quickly learn the dire condition of the country’s Catholics. All priests have been killed and the Christian faith is outlawed. Believers who refuse to renounce their faith are killed, often in the most gruesome manner possible. The suffering of believers tests the faith of Father Rodrigues, the film’s main protagonist. God’s silence in response to his prayers is perhaps a greater test.

We eavesdrop on Father Rodrigues’ thoughts via voiceovers, most purportedly from his written progress reports to his superior. Early on, he is confident that he is doing what God wants. “We asked for this mission, and he heard us,” he writes. The two priests hear confession, baptize, and offer the Eucharist to small groups of Christians they encounter. “I felt God himself was so near,” Rondrigues writes after a visit to one such congregation. Yet he wonders: “Why do they have to suffer so much? Why did God chose them to bear the burden?”

Rodrigues is consoled initially that his priestly ministrations were improving the lives of his charges. However, the forces of the inquisition soon become aware that there are priests in hiding, and consequently intensify efforts to get the villagers to apostatize. Rodrigues starts to doubt that his presence is beneficial. “I’m just a foreigner who brought persecution,” he writes at one point.

Rodrigues is eventually betrayed to the authorities. When initially imprisoned with a group of peasants who are Christians, he is distraught. “We’re all going to die,” he bellows. One of the other captives is puzzled. Their former priest taught them that upon death they would go to paradise, a better place. Is that not true? “Yes, it is true,” Rodrigues replies, but it’s evident who has the stronger faith. I’m reminded not to judge another’s faith by outward signs, especially by such insignificant indicators as nationality, race, or class.

The chief inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), explains to Rodrigues that the inquisition is not a matter of dislike or hate for Christians. Instead, Christianity must be eliminated because it is a danger to society. Besides, the Christian message doesn’t fit the realities of Japan and won’t grow on Japanese soil. Rodrigues mounts a defense. Christianity is the truth, he states, applicable everywhere. It grew well on Japanese soil until that soil was poisoned by persecution. A good theological argument does wonders at momentarily dispelling Rodrigues’ doubts. Those doubts still lurk beneath the surface, though. We Christians today may similarly be tempted to focus on intellectual arguments for faith as a way of evading our own spiritual struggles.

A competent inquisitor utilizes methods besides persuasive argument, and Inoue is certainly competent. Rodrigues is informed that the Christians being held captive will be tortured and killed unless he renounces his faith. What to do?. Rodrigues wants to be an example to the faithful, but at what cost to them? He is prepared to be a martyr, but not to have others martyred in his behalf. He prays fervently, but still hears nothing from God. He starts to wonder, “Am I just praying to nothing because you’re not there?” Rodrigues has gone from disappointment that God hasn’t spoke to doubt that God is there at all. He’s faced with a difficult dilemma, but I wonder whether part of Rodrigues’ problem is that he’s hemmed himself in by appointing himself as God’s defender. God is perfectly capable of defending himself. Sometimes my efforts seem like those of Rodrigues–I’m working much harder than God seems to be in order to bring about what I think he wants. When that happens, I’m probably not perceiving very accurately what he wants.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” prays Rodrigues at one point, in imitation of Christ’s prayer on the cross. How much like Christ is he, though? Another character points out that, whereas Rodrigues compares his suffering to Christ’s, the Japanese Christians, who are undergoing the bulk of the suffering, don’t compare themselves to Christ. Rodrigues’ sense of his own importance–the last priest representing God’s cause in Japan–is getting in his way. Perhaps, as a general rule, those who think they are Christ-like probably aren’t, and those undergoing hardship to whom that thought never occurs actually resemble him.

It may seem I’m rather hard on Rodrigues; I actually do admire his courage and passion. Some critics dislike the manner in which Rodrigues’ crisis of faith is resolved, but it did seem realistic to me. Scorsese reportedly had wanted to make this film ever since he read Endo’s book 30 years ago, and it’s easy to say why. Few films explore struggles of faith with such depth and nuance. I expect I will be thinking about this film for years to come, especially when my spiritual journey is at its darkest.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

manchester-by-the-sea-uk-poster

When we first meet Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck)  at the start of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea, it’s evident that something isn’t right with him. Lee, an apartment building janitor, goes about his work without complaint–shoveling snow, fixing faucets, and the like–but won’t supply even the slightest social lubricant to grease interactions with the residents he encounters. In fact, he seems to deliberately provoke one woman who is a bit obdurate about the matter of a leaky tub. He lives by himself in a basement room and spends his evening drinking by himself in a bar, where he ignores a flirting woman but takes offense when a couple of guys  look at him from across the room, picking a fight with them. Lee is troubled, but there is no indication of what might be troubling him. That makes him enigmatic. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe describes the movie as “a ghost story about a man who’s still alive,” and that’s about right.

In Lee’s case, it turns out that the ghost is himself haunted, as we learn from a series of flashbacks that are intercut with Lee’s response to a family crisis. He receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler)  is hospitalized. Joe dies while Lee is en route from South Boston to Manchester, on the North Shore. Joe’s will names Lee custodian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s spirited, temperamental teenage son. Joe’s plan was that Lee would move back to Manchester to care for Patrick, something Lee emphatically doesn’t want to do. About an hour into the film, we learn why: he had experienced a devastating tragedy when living there. It’s no wonder that he wants to be far away from reminders of what happened.

As a psychologist, I deal regularly with people who have suffered from trauma, usually either wartime combat or childhood abuse. Many of them are like Lee, trying to distract themselves from what happened but nonetheless pursued by it, easily swept into the maelstrom of memory. Scenes of past interactions between Lee and a younger Patrick show that Lee once had a playful, lighthearted side. As with some of my clients, that playful self has been lost. Like them, Lee’s interactions with others produce not joy but awkwardness, irritation, and withdrawal.

Lee tries to do the right thing. He delays his return to Boston and moves in with Patrick, driving his nephew to school and band practice, He doesn’t know quite what to do with a teenage boy: when Patrick indicates that he wants one of his two girlfriends to spend the night, a puzzled Lee asks, “Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?” Sometimes he is arbitrary, as when he decides he doesn’t want Patrick’s other girlfriend to visit, announcing “I don’t like her. Sorry.” He is cross and uncommunicative, as might be expected of someone who is trying his best to suppress the feelings constantly churning within. Looking out over Manchester in one scene, he is suddenly moved to frenzy, putting his fist through a window. Later, Patrick notices his bandaged hand. Their exchange goes like this:

Patrick: What happened to your hand?
Lee: I hurt it.
Patrick: (Smiling) For a minute there I didn’t know what happened to it.

Patrick sees the ludicrous side to Lee’s strained reticence, but Lee is too caught up in his struggles to notice the humor.

We like our stories to be redemptive, for healing to occur and people to grow as a result of their tragedies. Movies often cater to such desires. There is such a thing as post-traumatic growth–positive psychological change resulting from negative experiences. The mistake we make is to think that good always comes from adversity. Manchester-by-the-Sea reminds us that not every calamity has a happy ending. Lee never recovers his playful, buoyant self; we see only a faint echo of that self at the very end.  When his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) attempts to reach out to him, he can’t connect meaningfully with her. He appears to be permanently impaired.

Sometimes, as with Lee, the best we can manage is to soldier on courageously, doing what we think is required of us without any hope of receiving any joy or comfort in return. Here’s to the thousands of those for whom pain has become a way of life but are still trying to do what’s right. May they find peace.

the big short

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

The Big Short, the movie about the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis, is styled as a comedy, with flippant pop-cultural explanations of finance and humorous repartee between the characters. More than anything, though, it is an angry movie. Writer-director Adam McKay is clearly outraged at the deceit, the manipulation of markets, the collusion, and the fraud that occurred, not in just a few cases, but throughout the system. He’s angry, too, that ordinary workers and homeowners suffered the most, while the bankers who were responsible not only evaded prison but also received government bailouts to keep them from ruin.

The movie focuses not on the financial establishment but on the few investors who saw in advance that the mortgage securities market and derivative financial products were unsustainable–who knew that the system would crash. if you knew all that and could short–bet against–that market, you could make a lot of money. The movie tells the saga of these investors (the movie uses different names for most of the principals, but they are based on real-life counterparts) and how they won their bets.

On second thought, it doesn’t seem as if anyone really won. Of the main characters, only Jared Vennett (played by Ryan Gosling) seems to be unperturbed by the financial crisis and his role in it. Three characters in particular end up saddened or shaken by what happened. Their reactions are reminders that dealing in large sums of money isn’t a morally neutral activity. Someone is bound to become greedy, fearful, or envious; relationships will be destroyed; life will cease to be about human well-being and instead be about accumulating wealth.

The first character who is disturbed by what happens during the few years covered by the movie is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a medical doctor and hedge fund manager who is socially inept. He functions in the world of numbers, apparently as compensation for his inability to function in the world of people. He is the first to bet against the mortgage market, to the tune of 1.3 billion dollars. His fund loses money as he waits for the collapse he’s sure is coming, and his investors get impatient. Their relationship progressively devolves into threats and lawsuits. Eventually, Michael confesses “Making money isn’t what I thought it would be. This business kills the part of us that is human.” He is eventually vindicated, but at tremendous emotional cost.

Another character markedly affected by the bubble and its aftermath is temperamental hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), based on the real-life figure Steve Eisman. Mark has undergone a recent family tragedy, and his personal sorrows and the nation’s sorrows eventually merge for him. He is uncertain about the scale of the crisis. When finally convinced after a conversation with a banker who unconcernedly reveals that the potential risk was much larger than he could have imagined, Mark instructs an underling to short “everything that guy has touched.” He walks off abruptly; when asked where he is going, he says, “I’m going to try to find moral redemption.” He is clearly shaken by the danger to the world economy and his role in bringing the crash closer. Soon afterwards, he confesses to his wife that the work he is in “changed me into a person who couldn’t reach out to someone.” He is probably referring to the family tragedy here, but also may be thinking of the fate of millions of innocent (or in some cases, foolhardy) investors, homeowners, and workers. The ill wind for others that blew money his way also blew melancholy over what had happened.

The third troubled figure, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), is a legendary financial guru who is already so disillusioned that he has left the industry to hibernate in a rural retreat where he grows his own food. Two young traders (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who recognize the bubble but need help getting access to financial markets convince him to lend them a hand. When at one point the young traders become elated about their prospects for success, Rickert calmly lays out what success would mean. Don’t they know, he asks, that they are making a bet against the US economy? If they are right, people will be losing jobs, homes, and pensions. Many will suffer, so those who profit should have their spirits saddened, not lifted.

So, the movie invites us to reflect on our reaction when we prosper while, or even because, others suffer. The world is set up so this situation happens often: for example, slavery benefits most of us. In the end, Ben goes back to his farm. That response reminds me of Candide, who witnessed the world’s suffering, then decided to tend his garden. Not much help, but at least it limits the harm the gardener will be doing going forward. Maybe sometimes that’s the best we can do.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

Spotlight-Image-1

 

On December 17, the day that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened, I went to the movies. Hundreds of fans waited eagerly to be transported into the alternate universe of the evil empire and the noble rebel alliance. I, on the other hand, joined all of three other viewers in watching another movie, one that dealt with real evil that occurred not eons ago but in my lifetime. The movie was Spotlight, named for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that investigated the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. As reviewers have pointed out, the film is an excellent portrayal of an investigative journalism team doggedly pursuing an elusive and powerful foe. The team, consisting of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), follow the story wherever it leads, even as the number of priests implicated swells from four to 13 to 70.. The team’s expose earned a Pulitzer, and their story reassures viewers that, sometimes at least, truth prevails. That should have made me feel good.

Instead, I left the theatre feeling troubled and somewhat dirtied by what I had seen. What gives? I didn’t personally participate in the abuse or cover-up. Is it just that evil has a way of splashing in the muck to such an extent that everyone nearby ends up splattered just by knowing what happened?

The movie reveals a great deal about what did indeed happen. The team encounters several people who had been trying to call attention to the abuse but were ignored. The reporters also learn that lots of people knew at least a part of what was happening but, for one reason or another, didn’t reveal what they knew. One lawyer apparently represented many abuse victims but quietly made settlements with the church, allowing the abuse and the identity of the abusers to be hidden. A second lawyer  represented the church, participating in the dirty job of keeping the abuse private. The Catholic school across the street from the Globe, of which Robby was an alumnus, wants to suppress information that one of the abusing priests found his victims while assigned there. Prominent Bostonians put pressure on the team to drop the investigation, arguing that the church is doing good in the community and thus shouldn’t have its reputation sullied. Robby is told that, as a member of the community, he would have difficulty with his neighbors if he brought shame on the church. One of the reporters ruefully comments, “If it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes a community to abuse one.” Evil resides not just in the pedophile priests but in all who protect them, including those who, while expressing their abhorrence of what the priests did, still hide what they did.

Did learning about the immensity of the abuse cause me to feel contaminated? Such knowledge sobers me and reminds that it is the nature of large institutions, including institutions with which I’m associated, to hide discrediting information. That doesn’t implicate me directly, though. It may produce some sense of being sullied just by virtue of being human, but I don’t think it’s the heart of my reaction.

One thing I noticed about the Spotlight team as portrayed in the film is that each member is affected personally by being part of the investigation. Sacha has a close relationship with her grandmother, a devout Catholic, and is troubled by thinking about how that relative would be affected by the scandal. Matt worries about his own children and the children in his neighborhood being abused. Mike, a lapsed Catholic, becomes distraught after reading some of the documents in the case. He tells Sacha, “I thought I would go back one day. I read those letters and something cracked.” Robby is haunted that the Globe had previously ignored or buried evidence that the abuse was taking place. Since a section of the paper he oversaw had been the burial ground for some such information, he felt personally responsible.

Having missed evidence that should have been noticed may be the other piece of why I felt sullied after watching the movie. There is so much I miss–that we all miss–as we go through life. I’m usually so focused on myself–meeting my obligations, pursuing my goals–that I don’t register much of what goes on around me. I often don’t notice the people who are hurting, people who were wounded by abuse or discrimination or neglect. Then I go to my office to work as a psychologist where I do pay attention to hurting people. I learn from them what it is like to be deeply injured, then to try to make it through life while others ignore them or judge them or simply  misunderstand them.

Robby was haunted by missed opportunities to uncover the church’s systematic concealment of sexual abuse. I miss opportunities to befriend, to comfort, to empathize with those who are suffering. Like the Spotlight team, I may get it right from time to time. Still, those successes are islands in a sea of blindness and deafness to human need. For me, the lesson of Spotlight is to not focus overly much on what I’ve missed, but to instead try each day, each minute, to be aware of that need in those around me.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

I recently saw Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic now in theaters. The movie shuttles between the ’60s, when Brian (played by Paul Dano) was the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, and the ’80s, subsequent to major problems with addiction and mental illness, when Brian (John Cusack) was exploited by Svengali-like psychologist Eugene (“Gene”) Landy (Paul Giamatti). The 60s scenes are about genius and psychic torment; the 80s scenes, apparently meant to be about love and mercy (after a Wilson song by that name), are really more the story of a heroine’s adventure.

Brian Wilson

Brian’s genius is amply illustrated in the recording studio, where he leads musicians through the creation of the “Pet Sounds” tracks. As portrayed by Dano, Brian is frenetic and joyful while making music, fully confident in what he was doing. It may be something of a misnomer to call the process “making music;” Brian is acutely sensitive to sounds of all sorts, and his consciousness is devoted largely to internally replaying, revising and combining these sounds into the music that then spills out in a geyser of song.

Confident in the studio, Brian is troubled everywhere else. His intense stage fright keeps him from touring with the band. He craves approval. Though some people praised him, he can’t handle two who didn’t–cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love and his father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), who had been fired as manager of the band.

The movie makes a good deal of Brian’s relationship with his father. Murry had been physically abusive–we learn that Brian was almost deaf in his right ear because when he was a child his father had hit that side of his face. In one poignant scene, Brian plays his recently composed “God Only Knows” for his father, obviously looking for support. The elder Wilson scowls, refuses to comment, throws in a dig about having been fired as manager, and finally renders his judgment: the song is “wishy-washy … a love song and a suicide note.” In another scene Murry disrupts a recording session to tout a group he recently signed that plays the music he thinks the Beach Boys should (but aren’t) playing. Thanks for all the support, dad.

This being the 60s, Brian uses drugs to escape, but they just make it more difficult to cope with life. He reveals at one point that he started hearing voices in 1963; a hallucinating brain is typically not improved by hallucinogens.

There was another approach that friends offered Brian as a way to deal with his demons, but this, too, was counterproductive. In one scene, Brian is at a dinner celebrating the success of his song “Good Vibrations.”

One friend says “You can do whatever you want”

Another asks, “What are you going to do with all that freedom?”

Brian smiles wanly and asks “Has my dad called?”

60s-style freedoms don’t do him much good in the prison in which his childhood has incarcerated him. Freedom without a sense of direction is terrifying, not liberating.

It’s not surprising that the 80s find Brian in the thrall of a psychologist who serves as something of a stern father figure. As Gene–the psychologist–tells it, he saved Brian from himself, and indeed Brian weighed 300 lb., was bedridden, and was addicted to drugs and alcohol when Gene took control. Gene may have kept Brian from dying. Years later, though, Gene’s control even extends to yelling at Brian for taking a bite of hamburger after Gene had told him to wait. In the Drama Triangle, Gene has gone from Rescuer to Persecutor, while Brian has remained in the Victim role.

We see the middle-aged Brian largely through the eyes of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswoman uncertain of what to make of this perplexed man who wanders in her showroom and, before buying a car, rambles on about his difficulty dealing with his brother’s death. Brian doesn’t filter what he says, just like he couldn’t filter out environmental noise in the 60s. Is this lack of filters a sign of genius or mental illness? Maybe a little of each.

Dr. Landy and his minions invade the dealership and whisk Brian away, but Brian manages to contact Melinda by phone and they start dating. I think we are meant to believe that Brian was freed from Gene by virtue of Melinda’s love for him, but I have a somewhat different reading of this part of the movie. Melinda is clearly troubled by Gene’s mistreatment of Brian and Brian cowering in response. She urges Brian to resist, but, when he remains passive, she orchestratedsa lawsuit against Gene by Brian’s family that eventually leads to Gene being barred from ever contacting Brian. Love may be present; Brian and Melinda did eventually marry. In the immediate situation, though, Melinda seems to be motivated mainly by a desire to save someone who doesn’t seem able to save himself. She is a heroine who slays the dragon and rescues the gentle-man in distress.

The viewer is left with some questions. Having been passive while others fought for his freedom, did Brain remain quiescent or did he eventually take charge of his life? Did his problems with addiction surface again? What sort of relationship developed between him and Melinda? Successful biopics typically leave us with questions such as these; that’s what makes them good stories. I walked out of the movie with greater appreciation both of Brian’s music and of the struggles he went through to bring that music into the world.

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