The Selfish Gene Philosophy
(Because of enthusiastic reader response, here is the second chapter)
If the world of Lucy’s soap operas is built to offer immediate gratification, overstimulation and sensationalism, then movies on a much deeper level show us what it is we imagine we most need. In Like a Movie (Alper, 2004) I devoted an entire book to the subject. Here I want to focus on how narcissistic giving — via some key contemporary films — infuses our profoundest fantasies.
Based on a true story, Chris Kent’s deceptively unassuming film is a study of unrelieved existential horror. What begins as a lighthearted, tropical diving pleasure trip turns truly nightmarish when they inexplicably discover their chartered boat has abandoned them. Incredibly, the tour guide has miscalculated the number of divers returning to the boat and failed to realize there are still two divers unaccounted for. Ominously unaware of their sinister blunder, the chartered boat heads back for shore. When the swimmers finally do return to the designated rendezvous point they are at first puzzled, then incredulous, then startled not to find the boat waiting for them. Could they in their perhaps overly adventurous explorations have lost track of the meeting place? No, they are both equally certain it is here. Have they perhaps arrived earlier than the others? Their watches tell them they are if anything rather late. Is the boat, then, obviously aware of its initial oversight, heading back to pick them up? They see nothing but endless stretches on all sides of relatively flat, open water. Slowly it sinks in they really have been left behind in the middle of the ocean.
The story does not need anything more than that to make it gripping and unforgettable. But there is more. We learn that the captain and tour guide, continuing not to realize their tragic mistake, together with all the other vacationing scuba divers, have actually returned to the shore. We learn, in short, that the boat is not coming back, that what they both cannot accept and cannot begin to comprehend, has happened: they have been abandoned in the ocean.
What I found almost unbearably touching about this simple film, is how both swimmers never seem to completely lose hope. Not when the day passes into nightfall and the night passes into early morning light. Not when the woman, drifting off, awakens screaming to the fact she has floated about two hundred yards from the only contact she now has in the universe. Not when she is strangely bumped by several fast-moving, large underwater bodies. Not when suddenly, in an horrendous splash, a huge fish just feet away, with a prominent pointy fin, briefly surfaces.
“Was that a shark?” screams the woman.
“A big one.”
Her protector, we see, grimly struggles to keep his sense of humor. The rest of the movie will now focus on how they separately and together fight to keep their growing despair at bay. They take turns trying to comfort and even cheer each other up. It cannot be that the professional tour guide — if not him, then at least one of the nearly two dozen other fellow vacationing scuba divers — will fail to notice their absence. How could it be otherwise? They simply must wait and survive. When the woman excitedly wants to swim towards several boats she suddenly spies on the far horizon, her boyfriend calmly points out it is crucial they remain as close as possible to the original rendezvous point so that the boat, when it does return, will have no trouble finding them. Besides, he chides her, those other boats are probably moving away from us. Stubbornly they try to stay upbeat. They are fortunate that the water is rather warm, that they are after all experienced scuba divers, that at least they have one another.
As more and more time goes by, hope begins to fade. They see other sharks. Are they beginning to circle? Should we swim away from here? What is the best shark attack defense, anyway? “Don’t splash,” says the woman, “it attracts them.” They stay still then, pitifully hoping to hide from the sharks. An eerie underwater shot showing several sharks circling beneath their legs instantly tells us just how desperate their plight really is. More time passes and then, sickeningly, the man screams out, “I’ve been bitten! . . . Is it my leg . . . is it my leg?” “I’ll have a look,” his girlfriend says, who immediately disappears below in a rather heartbreaking display of heroic self-sacrifice. Moments later she resurfaces, with what she apparently considers the best possible news given the dire circumstances. “It is not so bad . . . It’s not so bad . . . I’ll put something on it.” She dives again and in an another uncanny shot we see her carefully approach her partner’s wounded leg, guided by some sort of undersea hand-held light. “You’re going to be alright . . . you’re going to be alright!” she cries, returning. “I’m going to be eaten by sharks,” her boyfriend yells, succumbing to panic.
In one more breathtaking shot, so stomach-turning the audience can feel it viscerally, the camera pans slowly up from beneath the man’s flailing legs to the surface, and above, revealing a thickening, fast-spreading, purplish pool of human blood. As though we have seen all we need to see, the scene mercifully shifts to the now deserted docked charter boat and a lone deck hand who is startled to find in a far corner two hitherto undetected, unclaimed carry on bags. We see a flashback recollection of the faces of our two abandoned scuba divers, a moment of terrible epiphany, a glimpse of the deck hand pounding furiously on the door of the guide’s room, immediately followed by the spectacle of an eleventh-hour search party, noisily and self-importantly setting out at the crack of dawn.
We know it is far too late and that these two never had a chance. The last we see of the man, over twelve hours after the shark bite, his motionless head is being cradled by his distraught girlfriend, who tells him she loves him, kisses him, and pushes his dead body away from her so as perhaps not to attract to her the steadily gathering sharks. It is now deep into the second night since she was left behind in the ocean. She is totally alone. There is a final underwater shot of numerous sharks swimming closer and closer to her legs. The camera grimly pulls back. We see the motionless shape of the dead man drifting out of sight. We see just the bobbing head of the woman turning right and left, like a terrified trapped animal, as though mesmerized by the tightening circle of sharks. To soften the gruesome end, the camera pulls very far back and you have to look quickly to see as she is swiftly pulled under.
Other than the image of the pool of blood oozing from the man’s leg, it is the look of final, fluttering terror on his girlfriend’s face that stays in my mind. She knows her time is up, that in just moments she is going to be ripped to pieces by sharks in a feeding frenzy. But plainly she wants to live. She is not hoping for a miracle, but dying is the last thing she wants. She wants more life, even if more life means the imminent prospect of being eaten by sharks. There is no finer example of what I am calling the selfish gene philosophy. It makes perfect sense when there are only two choices: life or extinction. It makes almost no sense, however, when there are numerous in-between choices with countless gradations of grey, which is usually the case. It is the hallmark of narcissistic giving that it treats the complexities of everyday life as though they are either/or, life or death distinctions.
Being abandoned, truly abandoned, however, is one of the abiding terrors of the human psyche. Being abandoned in the ocean is an unthinkable existential horror. The movie works because its central image — two swimmers in open water — is such a quintessential symbol of cosmic indifference. Repeated shots of interminable, unbroken horizon seem to underscore the huge gulf between the immensity of the world around us and our insignificant, puny selves, between our pressing needs and fervent wishes and the realistic possibility of the cold world providing succor. We see in short the frightening opposite — what really lies beneath — the urban illusion that literally a thousand support systems and high tech prosthetic aids to daily living lie at our fingertips. We are dramatically confronted with our primal existential position vis-à-vis nature and her inexorable laws. Adrift and forgotten in an open, shark-filled ocean reminds us just how defenseless we can be, and how pitiless nature can be if we find ourselves in a truly inhospitable environment.
From a psychoanalytic point of view, the ocean — which can remind us of how much we can fear the unknown — is one symbol for the unconscious. As the movie so graphically depicts, once the controls of civilization are stripped away and we are plunged into an alien environment, every motion becomes suspect, every movement may conceal a terror. We shudder with the woman when she cries out, “Is that a shark?” — and can feel the terror of her question. For a moment we are in touch with a residual, phylogenetic feeling of how our Pleistocene ancestors might have regarded and reacted to their prehistoric environment. We can intuit the truth in the old maxim that there are no atheists in lifeboats — as we empathize with the protagonists’ overwhelming yearning for cosmic rescue.
The effect of the movie is visceral; it creates a palpable regression. Our unrelenting and terrifying cinematic immersion in water takes us back to an original helplessness — when we needed to be bathed by others — although this time without the intermediary of a benign parent. To this extent, Open Water represents the most horrifying imaginable conjunction: our primal helplessness with the most pitiless, impersonal and indifferent universe. It is one thing to scuba dive for a few pleasurable hours; it is another to be called upon to survive in the ocean for an extended period of time. This slight temporal and contextual shifting dramatically changes everything. Suddenly it is of paramount importance that the swimmer now cannot walk, cannot be guided by gravity, cannot see into or through the water for more than a few yards, has no way of knowing when or from where an enemy might approach, has no familiarity or life experience (beyond a few safe hours of scuba diving) of how to survive in this new habitat, has no life support systems available for perhaps hundreds of miles.
The movie is so riveting because it viscerally shows us what it might be like to be abruptly deposited in a profoundly alien environment where nothing in this open water world has been designed or in any way fashioned to meet our needs (however much it may have been necessary for the origin of life, and still necessary to maintain our ecological balance). Not surprisingly, in such an open water world we have no clue as to how to initiate any sense of purposeful direction. Intentionality is rendered meaningless. Short of metamorphosing into another species, we cannot survive.
More than any other recent movie, Open Water shows the void — how much we dread real or imagined deprivation — that narcissistic giving in a million ways rushes in to fill.
“The King Of Comedy”
In this often overlooked, cult classic by Martin Scorsese, we see once again Robert DeNiro’s uncanny ability to radically inhabit an alter identity (a transformation fully as startling as when he famously gained fifty pounds to portray an aging, over-the-hill Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull). As an added bonus, there is the unexpected chemistry of two official non-actors — Sandra Bernhardt and Jerry Lewis — who somehow manage to channel their unbridled, manic performer’s energy into their ideally suited characters. The result is a movie with an extraordinarily real, edgy feel to it that simultaneously is a delicious parody of both itself and its audience: the antic story of two surreal, over-the-top, celebrity-hounding, psychotic fans.
And indeed at first there is something undeniably humorous in the eccentric persona of the central character — Robert DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin — a cipher of a human being, seemingly without an individual psyche, who is an insatiable sponge for the autographs of the famous. At first content to be a receptacle for media images — reminiscent of the simple-minded gardener in Jersi Kosinski’s Being There — he grows increasingly megalomaniac as he beings to merge with his fantasy world. Soon the life-sized cardboard cutouts of the celebrities which bizarrely festoon the walls of his basement apartment take on a life of their own. We see Rupert Pupkin in a princely jacket, trading repartee with his favorite television talk show host, Jerry Langford, who cannot seem to get enough of his favorite guest, as the audience screams in delight. It is obvious Rupert Pupkin, rolling with laughter, is in his proper element — so what is that annoying background heckling voice that keeps calling out his name? It is his mother who lives upstairs, asking him to knock off the yelling and reminding him he is going to be late for his real world job as a lowly messenger.
At work, he is accosted by Sandra Bernhardt, another celebrity-crazed fan, and we learn they are both stalking their chief obsession, Jerry Langford, who in real life is a Johnny Carson-like talk show megastar. Rapidly, however, what first seemed eccentric becomes weird. Under the guise of pretending to rescue a terrified Jerry Langford from the clutches of a surging mob of frenzied fans, Rupert unexpectedly forces his way into Langford’s limousine. The trapped talk show host has no recourse but to humor his obsessed admirer, who it turns out is an aspiring comic. Believing this is his big break, an exuberant Rupert Pupkin forwards a comedy tape to the offices of Jerry Langford.
When the tape is politely rebuffed by a low-ranking assistant, Rupert, convinced the tape was never actually listened to, shows up uninvited at Langford’s country home. Now realizing he has a deranged celebrity stalker on his hands, an enraged Langford, threatening to call the police, throws Rupert out of his house.
It takes no less an acting genius than Robert DeNiro and a force of nature like Sandra Bernhardt to make what follows at least mildly plausible. Together, with the aid of only a fake gun, they abduct Jerry Langford and force him to have his staff book Robert DeNiro, the new “King of Comedy”, on that night’s show. Otherwise, Jerry Langford is “dead”. Incredibly, with two glowering men from the FBI hovering near by, Rupert Pupkin, introduced by guest host Tony Randall (playing himself) is allowed to be nationally televised doing his ten minutes of material. In an ironic twist reminiscent of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, who gains fame for his crimes, Rupert Pupkin at the movie’s end has become a one-of-a-kind show business legend.
The King of Comedy is an excellent example of what I have called ‘creative paranoia’ (Alper, 1994: the tendency of artists in particular to elaborate and dramatize the intrinsic theatrical nature of paranoid psychosis). As played to the hilt by Robert DeNiro, Rupert Pupkin could not be more colorful and dramatic. His stubborn desire to succeed in the face of ridiculously long odds, which at first seems entertaining, soon becomes delusional. Rupert Pupkin, against all evidence, insists on seeing the world the way he wants the world to be. He insists that his homemade comedy tape is of the highest professional quality, that Jerry Langford, should he listen to it, would be compelled to agree, that they are comedy soulmates meant to be friends, that ultimately Jerry Langford will forgive him for barging in on his country retreat, forgive him even for abducting him and forcing him to feature Rupert Pupkin on his nationally televised show.
Part of what makes paranoia a clinical thought disorder is its grandiose sense of entitlement. Everything Rupert Pupkin does epitomizes his outlandish sense of victimhood. Because he has been so cheated of recognition by the cruel world, he thinks he is entitled to do whatever is necessary to get his just deserts. Seen this way, the character of Rupert Pupkin is that of a typical paranoid whose pathological lack of trust in ordinary interpersonal encounters eventually precipitates a radical withdrawal into a delusional world: a silent though never-ending internal battle between imagined thought police and fantasized escape plans.
There is a sense, however, in which Martin Scorsese — by casting his story in the guise of a black humor satire — minimizes the extraordinary pain that would realistically have to underlie Rupert Pupkin’s break from reality. This is even more true of the Sandra Bernhardt character who — after singing a love song to a bound-up Jerry Langford, then setting him free, is last seen chasing him in only her bra and panties through the streets — seemingly revels in her craziness (in spite of which, and to her credit she manages to convey the inner chaos and rage that fuels her hallucinated love affair with Jerry Langford). As though to hammer home the ultimate surreal, satirical nature of the film, Scorsese allows Rupert Pupkin to have the last laugh: his willingness to risk life and liberty for just ten minutes of television fame, transform him at the movie’s end into a kind of freak show comedy icon.
To a therapist, however, who might actually have occasion to treat someone like the King of Comedy, the underlying emotional reality would be nothing like that of the screen character. By steadfastly denying that the protagonist has any inner life worth exploring, the movie embraces the satirical theme that there can be such a thing as a media-manufactured person. Accordingly, the audience is not allowed to empathize with the considerable pain the character of Robert DeNiro must be realistically feeling. Indeed, Rupert Pupkin’s delusional yearnings are presented as so consumingly all-powerful that he appears content to merely act out the details of his madness. While Martin Scorsese seems more than satisfied to relentlessly satirize a pop culture that — by addictively reinforcing celebrity worship at every turn — cannot help but eventually create its own Frankenstein of a fan.
But compare, for example, the equally satirical but far more poignant Being There. In every frame of the movie we can sense the pain as well as the pathos in Peter Sellers’ exquisitely sensitive portrayal of a simple-minded gardener. Or think of Dostoyevsky’s great character, Prince Mishkin, whose pain at the apparent lack of love in the real world is so great it drives him to embrace a heart-rending saintly idiocy. One of the movie’s layered ironies is that Jerry Langford, the supposed real life King of Comedy, comes across as far more bitter, frustrated and anxious than the delusional Rupert Pupkin. To heighten the contrast, we are shown Rupert Pupkin as the triumphant, antic kidnapper: gleefully taping and retaping Jerry Langford to a chair; mockingly holding up cue cards instructing his prisoner exactly what he is to say on the telephone to his right-hand man; brandishing his fake gun with gangster brio; patiently pointing out the chain of unacceptable behavior that ultimately forced his hand.
Not just in The King of Comedy but throughout his career, Scorsese — choosing to circumvent the inner — has focused on the kind of pain that is cinematically embodied in outbursts of sociopathic violence. He has been our acknowledged poet of ethnic, neighborhood tribalism. His famous portrayal of tortured humanity — Jake LaMotta banging his head again and again against the wall of his prison cell, screaming, “I’m not an animal . . . I’m not an animal . . .” — once again, ironically is itself a touching moment of animalistic pain. His obvious and obsessive fascination with sociopathic violence excuses him from any cinematic necessity to portray psychic pain that is not acted out or explosively discharged. Like Tennessee Williams before him (vis-à-vis Stanley Kowalski), Martin Scorsese seems hypnotized by the savage beauty of his protagonists’ primitivistic rages.
Unlike Tennessee Williams, however — who funnels all of his empathy towards the doomed Blanche Dubois — Scorsese’s world (like Francis Coppola’s world) is essentially a male-dominated one. Whatever empathic interest is to be aroused is directed towards men: note how little attention is paid to the feelings of female characters. Only a dazzling performance by a determined actress can address this imbalance: Catherine Moriarty as the underage wife of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull; Sharon Stone (who typically refuses not to be taken seriously) in Casino; and perhaps most memorable, Jodie Foster as the twelve-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver (in short, it takes a child forced into a life of prostitution by a stone cold killer pimp (Harvey Keitel) before we can be involved). Scorsese’s empathy seems mainly reserved for women who have been catastrophically abused by life and, in particular, by brutal men.
We see the same tendency in Francis Coppola, the other great mythologizer of gangster lore. In spite of a fine performance by Diane Keaton in Godfather I and II, his female characters seem to be romantic placeholders in the plot. Only when Coppola ventured to create his own version of the Godfather myth did a sympathetic woman emerge (not surprisingly played by his actual daughter and future Oscar winner, Sofia).
From the standpoint of our theme, the affects that Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese portray — along with much of contemporary cinema — can be seen as the volatile discharging of sociopathic behavior. Once the traumatic emotions have been removed — and we can briefly glimpse what lies underneath — we see a painfully arrested personality: Stanley Kowalski, like a wounded animal, howling, “STELLA!”; Joe Pesci (in Goodfellas), after shooting and killing a crippled waiter (played by Michael Imperioli) who had irritated him, indignantly defending his actions to his dismayed friends, “You mean, I did something wrong?” (the peculiar poignancy of these scenes comes from the combination of childlike primitivism and violent behavior).
Because modern cinema has seemingly lost faith in presenting life-sized people in ways that are dramatically engaging, they are often jacked up with digital sensationalism. Characters as such no longer have their traditional appeal as lynchpins of dramatic narrative and in their place are stereotypical triggers meant to trip cascading waves of enveloping stimulation. Not surprisingly, protagonists, especially in action blockbusters, tend to resemble adolescent cartoon characters. Today, a likable, boy-next-door teenager type like Toby McGuire can believably portray a comic book superhero like Spiderman because presently the reality barrier between ordinary life and the implementation of a superhuman fantasy does not seem so formidable: in part because there seems to be no solid idea of what psychical development realistically entails and therefore no sense of process to discredit it. This is no doubt further reinforced by our contemporary immersion in the spooky world of high-tech, prosthetic, life-extending virtual reality. We are more and more accustomed to having our needs met — not by developmentally entering in and working through whatever process is required — but by setting in motion a series of instrumental procedures. And, of course, the more needs are thought of as mere information-processing glitches, the more plausible this will seem.
If in our culture of narcissism there is a void when it comes to our capacity to achieve lasting intimacy with another, as I believe there is, something has to replace it. Movies, as mentioned, show where to look. Their obsession with fantasies of power is a measure, among other things, of the importance of stimulation as a substitute for meaningful engagement. When relationships are reduced this way, love and aggression, which normally are relatively separated, become fused. In its most sociopathically titillating form — as in The King of Comedy — violence may even be seen as a necessary ingredient of love.
The Charming Sociopath
There is a whole subgenre of contemporary cinema devoted to the seductive fantasy of instantly having or being whatever you want. In Catch Me If You Can, Steven Spielberg, wearing his master entrepreneur’s hat, is content to tell the story of real life teenager Frank Abagnale, Jr. (played with irresistible charm by Leonardo DiCaprio), one of the most successful check forgers and con artists in the annals of American crime. Apparently unable to accept his father’s continual financial failures, and the eventual breakup of his parents’ marriage, young Frank leaves home. He is determined not only to make a better life for himself, but to give his father more money than he ever dreamed of having. His ability to almost magically impersonate characters he sees on television, especially authority figures — airline pilots, doctors, secret service men — plus a hitherto undetected but now blossoming genius for check forging make him, while still a teenager, a master confidence man.
In just a few short years Frank Abagnale, Jr. manages to successfully cash an unprecedented three million dollars in forged airline tickets. It is his fate that he be assigned to — and quickly become the all consuming obsession of — the FBI’s chief fraud specialist, Carl Hanratty (played with wonderful understatement by Tom Hanks). Catch Me If You Can is built around a can’t-miss, action plot — Tom Hanks doggedly pursuing a devilishly elusive Leonardo DiCaprio. There is an undeniable fascination in watching someone repeatedly flout the rules of civilized society in the most outrageous manner imaginable without having to pay the real life consequences.
In essence that is the movie. Steven Spielberg makes only token attempts to go beneath the surface. There is, however, one truly touching scene between Frank Jr. and his father (played with heartbreaking pathos by Christopher Walken). When his father, trying to explain why he cannot get enough of his son’s daredevil adventures, says simply “I’m your father” . . . Leonard DiCaprio, suddenly leaning forward, shouts accusingly, “Then ask me to stop!” To which his father, saddened and stunned but unable to address the deep pain welling from his increasingly desperate son, softly utters the most poignant line in the movie: “You can’t stop now, Frank.”
Like almost everyone else in the audience, I loved this movie, finding the chemistry between Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Walken pure box office magic. Yes, the fun was irresistible, but on another level, there was a puzzling (if undeveloped) current of sadness. What on earth drove Frank Abagnale, Jr. to respond the way he had to almost commonplace psychic pain? Millions of teenagers suffer through the excruciating breakup of their parents’ marriage, but only young Frank was inspired to become an iconic confidence man. At best, we are given only teasing hints of the seeds of his future sociopathic career. We glimpse the strangely vicarious delight of his father when he first learns of his son’s astonishingly truant behavior. We sense that beneath the deeply affectionate and obviously symbiotic bond between them, lurks the unfulfilled need for a real father, someone capable of maintaining proper and desperately needed boundaries. And we immediately understand that Carl Hanratty, divorced and cut off from his grown daughter, is yearning to be just such a surrogate father. It is only this underlying, briefly sketched dynamic that allows us to find plausible the fantastical climax to the movie: Frank Abagnale, Jr. allowed to serve out his remaining sentence in a federal penitentiary by working side by side with FBI Specialist Carl Hanratty, ironically united in their pursuit of master check forgers (just in case we miss the point, the epilogue reminds us that today, many years later, they remain “good friends”).
On an unconscious level the hopelessly impulse-ridden sociopath surrenders to the magical desire for instant gratification. There is a defiant denial of any need for boundaries. It will be up to the painful lessons of a harsh reality and the necessary authority figures to enforce self-restraint. The normal developmental super ego has been externalized and cast in the role of a punitive adversary, something to be avoided and out-witted at all costs.
What Catch Me If You Can portrays in outlandish terms is etched in far subtler brushstrokes in the Oscar-winning, surprise independent hit film, Sideways. Ostensibly a road picture, this is the story of two middle-aged friends who are trying to take a vacation from the daily reminders of a failed life: Miles (brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti) is a divorced, disheartened, unpublished writer who is covering up his growing alcoholism under the façade of being a fine wine enthusiast, while his sidekick, Jack (also played wonderfully by Thomas Haden Church) is an embittered, marginalized actor who is about to sell out for a comfortable marriage of convenience. Before he does, he is desperate for some eleventh hour sexual adventures and determined to involve his best friend in his intended debaucheries. Along the way Miles meets and falls for Maya (Virginia Madsen), a soulful waitress who finds his self-deprecating poignancy irresistibly appealing; and Jack meets Stephanie (Sandra Oh), Maya’s waitress friend who seems hungry for love.
Superficially the plot hinges on the vicissitudes of these two rather impromptu conflictual relationships. Jack shamelessly omits to tell Stephanie he is getting married in a week, while professing to love her, while Miles, who seems genuinely smitten with Maya — but is tortured with lingering feelings of inadequacy stemming from his ex-wife’s rejection of everything their marriage ever stood for — can barely kiss the voluptuous woman who plainly yearns for him. What’s worse, further undermining his already shaky self-confidence, Miles has spinelessly allowed Jack — in an effort to talk up his friend — to tell Maya that Miles is a hot writer who has just published a big novel. The inevitable conflict arrives on schedule when Stephanie finds out Jack is about to get married (she responds by savagely bashing in his nose with her motorcycle helmet) and Maya, crestfallen but a true blue friend, immediately breaks it off with Miles.
The adventure and the movie ends with Jack opportunistically going through with the planned wedding as though nothing of consequence had intervened, and Miles unexpectedly receiving a letter of forgiveness from Maya: she has not only read his unpublished novel, but in spite of all his lies, she continues to believe in him, encouraging him not to give up on himself. Our very last shot is of a faintly reenergized Miles contritely ringing Maya’s doorbell.
Despite its many subtleties and some touching moments, Sideways, like most all of contemporary cinema, is content to skip over what is most important in a relationship. Miles and Maya do not, for example, seem to notice or care that their best friends may be sociopaths, howsoever colorful and engaging they happen to be. It takes all Maya can do to eventually forgive Miles for covering up Jack’s lies to Stephanie, but she never registers the faintest disapproval when Stephanie viciously attempts to disfigure Jack’s face. While Miles, who in an earlier scene is shown calmly stealing road trip money from his unsuspecting sweetly ditsy mother’s bedroom drawer — seems only to be roused when threatened with the loss of necessary love.
The movie thus ends on a similar note to the iconic The Graduate: meaning comes — not from any inner resolution — but from being found worthy in the eyes of an ideal other.
Perhaps the finest moment in Sideways occurs when Maya (who can match Miles in wine connoisseurship) explains to an enraptured Miles what it is she loves about rare wines. Murmuring over the astonishing, organic complexities to be discovered in a single glass of wine she concludes, “It’s alive.” Plainly enthralled, Miles, looking like he has at last found his soulmate, responds in kind. Ironically, so long as they are talking about wine and not each other, they feel free to express their deepest, most tender feelings.
Lost In Translation is a striking example of a movie that is composed almost entirely of fragments of meaning. Sofia Coppola (who won an Oscar) says, “I love, and find those little transitional moments in life fascinating.” She admits what she has rendered is essentially an observational movie. To that end, Bill Murray, a past master of ambiguity, has been perfectly cast. He has built a career playing characters lost between whimsy, insolence, anger and anxious flight.
In Lost in Translation he plays Bob Harris, a burned-out movie star who is taking a lucrative offer to do an on-camera TV ad for Suntory Whiskey. But under the misty poetry of exotic Tokyo local settings he is strangely stimulated by Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a bored, young, unhappily married actress with time on her hands. Her pouty lips, full of promise, beckon like a flower needing to be plucked. Bob Harris, adrift and weighed down in his own tired marriage, wonders if here at last is a possibility for a fresh, magical start. The movie repeatedly hints that because of their mutual vulnerability — both are clearly in an important transitional phase of their lives — genuine possibilities are in the offing. It is suggested that the protagonists’ ambiguity of expression will somehow add up to emotional profundity, perhaps even the development of an authentic self.
Although Lost in Translation is an example of cinematic narcissistic giving, it is also a poignant study of two people trapped in an inability to commit, or even understand how to commit. A sad commentary on the cinema of contemporary relationships is that it does not show any faith in its protagonists to honestly face their deeper conflicts. Instead, character conflicts tend to be dealt with by symptom alleviation, situational resolution, ironic portrayal of the unexpected, dramatic consequences of dysfunctional behavior, and an occasional authentic release. Rarely is there the achievement of lasting, internalized meaning, greater wisdom (except in the cliché, Hallmark card, feel-good sense). In this regard, our current cinema, akin to today’s soap opera, shares a similar cynicism: targeted audiences are viewed as little more than addicts in need of their fix.
“No Direction Home”
As Martin Scorsese’s screen biography amply shows, Bob Dylan is a paradigmatic artist of our time. A picture of constant, protean movement, it seems impossible to pin him down: his work is so fluid, it can appear to be without a context, a center, and certainly not a commitment. A genius of the ephemeral, enamored of his own rootlessness, he is (if anyone is) a quintessential postmodernist: an artist who is addicted to endlessly reshuffling and reframing his past work.
Among his contemporaries, Bob Dylan is unique in that he seems to inhabit his own creative persona almost exclusively. From the standpoint of relationships, he does not give anything beyond his charisma, his ability to tantalize, and his brilliant songs. Because everyone comes to him, he can afford to come to no one. Although he presents himself in the documentary as someone who refuses to be manipulated, he shows few compunctions about manipulating others for his needs: he justifies stealing a cache of valuable records from a friend’s house and refusing to return them, by claiming, “I was a musical expeditioner . . . when you need records like that, you have to take them . . . .”
Regarding his refusal to let his adoring girlfriend, Joan Baez, sing with him in his youthful, famous London tour, he simply says, “You can’t be wise and in love at the same time . . . .” His defense against the frequent charge that he uses people, then dumps them, that he is chronically unable to connect with anyone, is that he is too busy channeling every current of whatever time he is in, that he has, one commentator puts it, “his finger on our pulse”.
Whatever the case may be, Bob Dylan comes across as the ultimate loner, and proud of it. As a therapist who has spent years trying to help struggling, unrecognized artists, I have often been struck by the unwavering, iconic status in which he continues to be held.
The other side of the coin of someone who cannot admit a need for human contact is someone who is desperate to be loved. Based on a surprisingly tender novella by famed comedian Steve Martin, Shopgirl is a nuanced but unabashedly sentimental movie. It is an example of what I call “that Graduate moment”. This is any film, in the spirit of its celebrated cinematic forebear, which assumes there is such restorative, nurturant value in a relationship that it can exist in a vacuum — almost without an underlying self — as though a loving relationship can itself create a self-sustaining identity. This is a model of the origin of the self that in effect denies the inner developmental process of the self by projecting it onto a rescuing other.
By treating the relationship as a kind of panacea for every conceivable malaise of the self, Shopgirl manages to create an enormously pleasing narrative arc. For it thereby blankets the world in a feel-good meaning — true love conquers all — that it certainly does not have in reality. As noted by social scientists like Michael Shermer, there seems to be an innate biological drive to structure our experience in narrative form. This, I would add, is not merely a cognitive preference and need to order experience into a user friendly pattern. Perhaps on a deeper level it is also an urgent wish to project an existential meaning into the chaos and patternlessness of nature by placing it in the familiar frame of human storytelling. Perhaps our insatiable hunger to find narrative arcs — dramatic structures with a beginning, middle and end — mirrors a human need to understand and master a certain fundamental temporal rhythm of life. From that standpoint, our relentless search for a pattern may be not just a cognitive end in itself, but a necessary means to an end: that human meaning is a specific structure that first requires a certain narrative foundation (cognitive pattern) from which to emerge. To understand this, think of a cognitive pattern (an advanced mathematical formula, for example, that you cannot make heads or tails of) which plainly lacks an accessible narrative. Is there anything less satisfying?
It may therefore be that the narrative structure which we seem to crave comes from an unconscious mirroring of early developmental passages: a pressing evolutionary need — for survival, love, sex, adventure, dominance, competition and so forth — is expressed and the means of its subsequent satisfaction pictured in the form of a narratively compelling, emotionally captivating story. (In this regard, note the new discipline, literary Darwinism, which seeks to forge a meaningful explanatory link between the human need for mythmaking and storytelling and the cognitive need for an appropriately symbolic representation of our biological, survival-of-the-fittest struggles).
It is worth noting that the search for meaning in humans is an attempt to infuse a narrative arc — that may not posses an intrinsic connection to survival needs — with sufficient psychic energization to create motivation (a condition which often comes up in a person who is cognitively dysfunctional and buffered from the press of immediate survival needs).
To understand this, think of, in way of contrast, the surprise wildlife hit, Luc Jacquet’s The March of the Penguins. The movie symbolizes both the cruelty and indifference of nature and the life-saving power of community love and mate loyalty. It shows clearly how it is the bedrock urgency of needs (whether survivalist or symbolic) which makes meaning — or in the case of animals such as Antarctic emperor penguins, which makes the pursuit of meaning superfluous.
In light of this, it is not surprising that the protagonists of contemporary cinema tend to be compartmentalized, underdeveloped antiheroes. It is the genius of a reigning anti-hero, Steve Buscemi, to capture and project this essence without trying to oversell it. He is unique in being what I would call a true self actor. So much so that he has made his crooked teeth, sallow face and natural insecurity his cinematic signature. As audience, we cannot help but root for someone who is so unafraid to be himself. As John Lahr notes in his wonderful New Yorker profile, Steve Buscemi, as an actor, allows himself “to be indecisive”: having learned through years of painstaking experience that it could lead to worthwhile creative products. As a result, his cinematic persona is odd and somewhat uncanny. On the one hand, the characters he plays present an appearance of undeniable deficits, of unhealthiness. While you cannot say they are dramatically ugly, you tend to regard them as perhaps suffering from some sort of vague handicap. (Thus the comical scene in Fargo in which a good Samaritan, who has encountered a suspicious-looking character — the homicidal kidnapper being played by Steve Buscemi — struggles to find the right words to describe his unsettling looks.) On the other hand, it is hard to believe that the characters he portrays are anything less than genuine people (no one, we tend to feel — unless he had no other choice — would ever want to come across this way).
Steve Buscemi is a favorite actor of mine. His sad-sack, loser persona resonates with an aspect of many of the most creative, sensitive, but marginalized artist types I’ve worked with over the years. Perhaps more than any of his peers, he projects a kind of stoical acceptance of the deep sadness of contemporary life — a sadness that does not often get expressed in our culture of obligatory positive thinking. Amazingly, his profound sadness somehow leads him to affirmation and self esteem. By accepting the cruel indifference of the world we live in, he liberates himself from a dependent need for a cosmically maternal love that is nowhere to be found.
Such brutally honest self-affirmation is indeed rare. Most of us, refusing to accept our limitations, grasp at the nearest available compensation. It is the hallmark of today’s culture of narcissistic giving, that such compensations, on an unprecedented scale, are exponentially increasing.
The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient
Psychodynamic Studies of The Creative Personality
His new book is
God and Therapy
What We Believe When No One Is Watching