The following film comments are not actual reviews but more like riffs on what I saw to be key themes and messages in some films that I get inspired to write about as to their psychotherapeutic import or relevance, typically their messages about relationships, self-discovery, and life's priorities. In most cases, I originally wrote them for (and they still appear on) imdb.com.I would like to make an interactive component available to this and other pages on this website. If you have comments, questions, whatever, please know that I would welcome you emailing them to me, whether you are a client or not.
Be forewarned: These postings will contain spoilers and are meant to be read after seeing a film rather than before. You can rightly infer from that that each movie included here is not only one I saw psychotherapeutic relevance in but also one I generally found to be worth seeing - or I wouldn't be offering these as post-movie foods for thought.
Thus, with spoiler alert in mind, proceed with caution :-)
October 20, 2014: Mr. Nobody (2009, Belgium, Jaco Van Dormael, dir.)
The quest for mutuality in love
As Nemo looks back (from age 118, yearningly, and forward from age 9, predictively, drawing on a 9-year-old's storybook-even-horror-story-based clichéd imaginings of adolescent/adult life and sci-fi future worlds), he sees his life's choices and their envisioned consequences pivotally stemming from one crucial choice at age 9, each path "typed up" as a draft of an alternate life. It's an existential tale of the power of choice to create the environments that reshape the persons who then choose from what life presents in their consequent environments, ad infinitum. It's a romantic tale in both the historic sense of quixotic, picaresque adventure multiply envisioned (including into distant time and space) and the modern sense of a quest for the idealized romance of heart and soul.
The alternate lives Nemo envisions ultimately hinge on a quest for one thing: mutuality of love in marriage. No cliché in that; rather a truth of human want and need borne out of the anguishing pain of a 9-year-old caught in rupturous divorce. Desperate to make the choice no 9-year-old should be asked to make, in such a way that it will be "the right choice" for his future, especially to find rapturous, enduring love, not re-creating his parents' fate, he engages a daunting will to prediction and a time-travel suspension and projection that allow him to see three futures before making the fateful choice.
So, to me, Nemo's three "lives" – represented by three girls and the wives they become in his predictive imaginings and rememberings – depict three points on the continuum of mutuality in love:
• loving more than being loved (with Elise, who marries him on the 'rebound', keeping the torch alive for the old flame)
• being loved more than loving (with Jean, who he marries as fated by a dance, thus a kind of 'arranged marriage')
These two reflect shoe-on-the-other-foot variations on the torturous "I love you but I'm not in love" dynamic where Nemo thinks a marriage can work, but discovers it cannot.
• and mutually impassioned loving (with Anna)
Across scenarios, we see his one mutual love, Anna, as someone he'd meet in various contexts (as if destined, as if his scriptwriting mind is trying to relieve him of the paralyzing thought that any one choice could preclude finding his true love yet also revealing that some timings for crossing paths with Anna could be inopportune, that perhaps only one timing might lead to the sustainable love life he craves):
second as adolescents, brought together by parental merger, a merger that eventually reinforces his 9-year-old-self's pain about the fragility of imperfect love while exiling his and Anna's mutual pledges of soul-mate-like-passion;
third as adults, passing in a crowd - train depot, city street, funeral - where timings are off, where too much accumulated adult pain, caution, and distrust interfere, making all but the final draft of such adult encounters – the miracle in the chalk circle – come to a dead end;
and last as aged fellow travelers to Mars (i.e., destined to meet even if Nemo initially married Elise, upon honoring Elise's wish for her ashes).
When old Nemo lives long enough to reach time's reversal, he laughs a victory laugh for having found the scenario that miraculously returns his one mutual love to him in the nick of time, now presumably together (in some time and space) "for as long as both shall live."
Some suggest the "moral of the story" carries a (negative) verdict about wealth or career. But I think it was not wealth-boredom that made the Nemo who married Jean seek an alternate identity that got him assassinated; rather it was the restless boredom of never truly loving, reflected in Jean's questioning whether he even liked or knew her (even whether she took sugar in her coffee), missing the passion of two lovers who mutually attune to their beloved's every desire.
Nor is marrying 'trouble' (Elise grappling with mental instability) what undoes love – Nemo stays committed to the most trial-by-fire of marriages - as long as the love is mutual, but Elise's romantic fantasy is elsewhere.
It's asymmetric, unrequited love that smothers marriage with Jean or Elise, not the fact of an easy life or a hard one.
This message points back to the tale's beginnings, for the very 'die' the 9-year-old Nemo must cast and that traumatizes him is the result of a broken marriage, a love that was not mutually "for better or worse." Whichever of the 9-year-old's Hobson's choices he makes, what he scripts enough drafts to realize is what matters most to sustainable ("eternal") love and how to make his heart recognize, treasure, and hold it when he finds it. His last gasping word, "Anna," evokes Citizen Kane's dying, cryptic "Rosebud," but the latter portrays a self- pitying sense of boyhood loss, whereas Nemo's "Anna" portrays a transparent self-realizing sense of a boyhood dream found.
July 23, 2014: Boyhood (2014, US, Richard Linklater, dir.)
What the film says about boyhood, the divorce version
Every review of Boyhood I've seen is either about the film process or about time (because of the 12-year-long filming) or about their disappointment in a film not living up to the hype or their disdain for a film getting so much hype. I've seen no one even broach what the film might be trying to say, neither in the NYT et al. top critic reviews nor among posters. So, in that vacuum ...
To my mind, the title is an important part of a film and, whether we like it or think it suited the film or not, it says something about the lens the director sees the film as a whole through. So to say that it could just as easily have been called Motherhood or a number of other things, as some have suggested, imho misses the point that Linklater chose to call it "Boyhood," so part of what it means to thoughtfully consider and try to appreciate the film he made is to consider what the film says about boyhood.
And this is what I come away with: Mason's boyhood was a wary one. From the time we first see him and his sister go off for a weekend with his long lost dad, we see an already somewhat jaundiced-eye, jaded 6-year-old not ready to throw himself into dad-adoration or even overt dad-longing. He has learned already to associate dad with abandonment and has rightly come to maintain a rather ambivalent or modulated trust, as if he's already learned to rein in expectations of others, especially adults and especially dad and, as the movie progresses and his life takes on stepdads and other male authority figures, we see a boyhood spent growing up in search of a male role model - compounded by seeing mom choose to bring two of the worst candidates into his life as stepdads.
Mason comes out seeming resilient but boyhood nevertheless looks pretty fragile, pretty vulnerable to a chaotic mix of messages from adults who are seen to be as confused as (arguably more confused than) the kids. Samantha experiences the same mix of adult male figures but she's not seeking one to emulate as role model. And it's Mason as lead character whose eyes and needs we perceive the chaos through. And it's Mason (and by extension boyhood) that winds up getting a diversity of really messed-up images of what manhood is. And the older boys he deals with all operate on a basis of intimidation, taunting, goading, demeaning, threatening - and where have they presumably gotten those notions of 'manhood' from? The dots could hardly connect more vividly.
Irony is that it turns out Mason's own dad - the first male in his life, who mom left cuz he was a 'loser', is the closest thing Mason's got - at least a dad he can actually question about life and be taken seriously, even if dad's insights about life may sometimes leave a lot to be desired (e.g., seeing women as opportunists wanting to "trade up"). But one advice in particular from his dad seemed incontestable - and reflected Mason's own lived experience in observing how his mom interacted with the men in her life. Namely, in the balcony overlooking the band doing sound check near the film's end, after being bafflingly dumped, Mason hears his dad tell him to remember that only he holds the key to his own self-worth, to not let himself be defined by someone who has dumped him. It's the very lesson his mom took a long time learning at her children's and her expense, letting one authoritarian husband after another keep her own self-worth on a short leash and squeeze the oxygen out of her own and her children's home lives.
So maybe that is the ultimate view of boyhood here: If one can escape it with an intact sense of self-worth (seemingly against all odds given the array of confused and/or corrupted adult 'guides'), maybe they can reach adulthood themselves, by mostly holding their own counsel, as Mason so deftly depicts turning inwardly to do, and essentially raising themselves to become the male role models they never quite had. But it seems pretty much of a crap shoot - look at the many boys he interacts with who show signs of having learned only to seek to control others and impose their misery through intimidation.
July 25, 2014
The role of the GTO: Parental promises, children's expectations, betrayals
When dad tells Mason (Jr) that he'd sold his "cool" black GTO, Mason is stunned - and thrown back into a feeling of being 'erased' by his dad that echoes the wary hurt of abandonment we first saw in Mason at age 6: He has never forgotten dad telling him in 3rd grade that his cool GTO would be Mason's at 16; he instantly feels betrayed and forgotten, and grows sad and sullen. You can tell dad knows he has screwed up, but he won't acknowledge it. Instead, dad tries to bail himself out with a statement that in itself seems to convey a whole notion of what boyhood, manhood, and/or growing up are about in his eyes. Namely, to rationalize his own obliviousness to his long forgotten pledge, he talks up the idea that it's better anyway for Mason to buy his own "cool" car - which is not unlike telling him at age 6 not to have bumpers on the bowling lanes - now telling Mason essentially that if he'd received dad's coveted car as a 16th birthday present it would have been like a "bumper" in life. Mason Sr. is being consistent in that regard at least - but is it that dad was wise in this regard before the rest of him got wise? or is it that he hasn't quite grown up yet himself (enough to acknowledge his 'false promise' and apologize or even acknowledge his son's hurt)? or that he's just applying formulaic rules as a cover for either fully hearing his son or fully meaning his own words and seeming commitments?
The next thing dad tells him in that road trip scene is that Mason (Jr) can, by getting his own car for himself, define his own "cool" instead of inheriting dad's perceived "cool" - and then adds on a seemingly self-disparaging comment as to how long it's been since he was "cool," something to the effect of "until you become an old settled-down uncool guy like I am now." In many ways, we see Mason Sr. as 'having grown up' and yet what does it say that he sees or defines his life with this sense of seeming regret that "becoming a man" means becoming uncool and painting a rather "downhill" portrait of adulthood/manhood as being one where dreams get sold off, where money or quick bucks rule, where 'growing up' means 'settling down' with a sense of 'something lost' rather than 'something gained'. The car (which ironically is apparently Linklater's own car, meaning that he Linklater held on to his "cool" car) seems to be a guy thing that represents cool but supposedly has to come to stand for a boyhood substitute for manhood.
There is quite a lot packed into this one father-son moment: Mason reveals that he had harbored a degree of faith in dad's words and a degree of caring about some 'thing' which we haven't previously seen in him. It's so true of kids, who hear a parent's words, take those words literally, while the parent turns out to have tossed the words off, never taken himself seriously as making a commitment to a child. While Mason Sr. has never been the kind of stereotypical dad who never shows up for son's baseball game or for divorced-dad weekend when he says he will (e.g., Jim Carrey at the outset of Liar, Liar) and so we see Mason Sr. as a good dad in this regard, he still shows himself to be a dad who tossed off commitments without really meaning them to be taken seriously - which is a way of not taking children seriously. And with boys in particular, it means socializing boys that men don't take you seriously - that part of manhood even is finessing moments (to show off, to navigate awkwardness, etc) by whatever-means-necessary and learning to say things expediently for short-term effect and not weighing the long-term.
Being a parent, as we see mom (Arquette) realizing and voicing, is a full-spectrum set of responsibilities - not least of which is what you model for your kids. And while Mason Sr (Hawke) does take one part of it seriously (once he returns from Alaska, repentant) and shows up in one way, he still has this capacity for idle father talk that makes a son want to believe in a dad's dreams (e.g., Willie Loman) until he instead comes to find out, by the time he reaches his own adulthood, that dad's dream talk was idle or self-delusion and never followed through. We see a son feel the pain of a betrayal of visions of the future he believed his dad would make true and can't help wondering whether the son will also come to assimilate a tendency then to say things he won't always mean or even hear himself seeming to commit to. We don't see Mason (Jr) having already adopted that pattern (as far as I recall), but the implication is that it could yet happen, especially perhaps with women if he absorbs dad's notion of women as opportunistic.
What is it that allows a boy to survive boyhood with forthrightness and sincerity and saying what he means and meaning what he says all intact? Mason Jr never comes across as a bs-er although he does seem to swallow some stuff of others that we sense he'd rather rebel against, but dad has acquired and modeled some of that bs-ing stuff - is that what Mason needs to see his dad cast off - the bs, the rationalizing, the glib life lessons (about women or whatever) - rather than (or at least along with) casting off his car? Is dad still holding on to the bs-er component of a prevailing definition of manhood - and we can expect Mason Jr. to acquire it too? Who do you think grew up more? Mason Jr. or Mason Sr.?
July 26, 2014 addenda:
Boyhood as Ode to Resiliency
Of the four main characters - the "nuclear" family - one thing about the plotline distinguishes Mason Jr. and mom Olivia from the other two. It's mom and son who we see get buffeted by life repeatedly and, if there's a takeaway for, say, adults embarking on starting a marriage or family or for kids at whatever age feeling besieged (e.g., bullied) by life, it would seem to be a message that says "Hang in there. Time heals wounds."
Interesting, though, that Olivia's final lines in the film - controversial parent lines which one commenter has made a thread about – seems to not yet have trusted the message, while it seems like Mason has, maybe because he's known a steady stream of buffetings from early in life - one gets the sense that Olivia grew up expecting more smoothness than adult life has offered and she has acquired a resilience she didn't know she had but wishes she'd never had to develop. Mason on the other hand seems to have grounded his whole outlook on life in that resilience, partly because we see him able to talk about the buffetings - he can explore with dad what it means to be dumped by a girl he'd thought was his soulmate - and by the last scene of the film, we see him already potentially meeting another who may well prove to him that it's all relative, that soulmatehood is on a continuum and he simply hadn't experienced with the first true girlfriend what degree soulmatehood could reach.
Similarly he had found, surprisingly quickly, much earlier in life that even the doom of an authoritarian haircut which made him never want to get out of bed again was actually attractive to a classmate. Far more significantly, we see him (and Samantha - although we see it through Mason's eyes and voice) feel the panic, loss, and abandonment of divorce and oppressive stepdads give initial senses of varying degrees of doomed childhood - and for Olivia doomed adult relationshiphood - which we watch them survive and seemingly acquire a muscle of resiliency through. The film seems to suggest that -- as voiced by dad himself, albeit self-servingly - if Olivia had only had a willingness to let time 'heal' in her first marriage, Mason Sr. might eventually have grown into the level of parental responsibility she sought in him. Hers was almost a lesson of "Be careful what you wish for" as she chose seemingly "responsible" follow-up dad figures for her kids only to have them take "responsible" to the point of authoritarian tyranny.
The film does also hint that perhaps it required Mason Sr. having to struggle on his own a lot longer (another decade?) before he was ready for mutual collaborative marriage and parenting, and perhaps it took Olivia seeing that finding a good husband/father is more than meets the eye. One senses when they are together in the kitchen, it's Olivia who senses a loss for what might have been if she were with Mason Sr. now. Olivia is the one who has proven resilient, over and over, learning to read 'red flags' more readily each time in her adult relationships, but at film's end she doesn't yet seem to trust her own resilience. Mason is the one who we sense may have begun to trust his.
On Love and Need
On the other hand, the resiliency we do see Olivia seem to eventually 'inhale' for herself is the apparent realization, hard earned, that she doesn't "need" a man under her roof or to share raising her children with. If anything, that seems by film's end to no longer be a driving priority for Olivia - and implicitly opens the way that she might actually meet someone who is more of a soulmate herself.
And I'm not making this into some 'feminist' message - men also suffer if they feel they "need" a woman and marry out of such need. For anyone, male or female, to love someone (or think they do) because they need them (or think they do) has a far different track record and outcome than needing someone because of first taking the time and having the self-awareness of one's real wants vs needs to actually come to love the person for who they are and THEN feel a need to share life with them. While this isn't the overt message-level of this film, it seems to be to be inferable from the adult lives we watch play out in Olivia and Mason Sr. And, having learned by observation or not, it's Mason Jr. who seems to show having acquired that concept (and perhaps Samantha too - who seems to have, what little we see of it, a healthy boyfriend relationship at film's end) - for we watch him seem to come to love his first girlfriend - and then come to need her enough that it hurts when she splits.
What Mason Jr. may have learned instead is that he came to love his ability to feel at ease with her enough to open up and talk with her in ways he hasn't elsewhere. But what he was apparently somewhat blind to was that he may have been projecting on her that she was "in tune" with him - because she listened to his philosophical waxings, he projected that she shared his priorities. In the brief intro to his new connection at the film's end in Big Bend, there's a hint that he's now paying more attention as a listener to hearing more carefully what a potential partner expresses and believes herself and thus might come to love a second time not as much for feeling at ease to speak his mind but also to listen more attentively to hers.
August 2, 2014, revisiting the GTO:
The "GTO is sold" scene evokes thoughts about the cumulative effects on a child growing up watching adults convey variations on a message of "easy come, easy go" ... and/or "Don't get too attached to things - and, by extension, to people? - cuz the pain of losing them is too much." One hears these and similar notions that could on the one hand be interpreted in a very Buddhist way (nonattachment), but that isn't the spirit they are usually referenced in – instead, more one of becoming cynical or noncommittal ... I think part of what we see in Mason (that i referred to as learning early in life to be "wary") is that he's taking a big hit here in terms of the GTO (that he didn't even get to say 'goodbye' to, but again more importantly imho that his dad didn't even realize mattered to him, a signifier of how dad doesn't REALLY know him**)
Here it was the GTO but from the time at least of the initial divorce, before the film began, and through other connections that come and go - having to move sometimes for very legitimate reasons in order to remove themselves from harm (stepdad #1) - but having their stepsiblings then become also "easy come, easy go" ...
It makes me wonder if we (adults) underestimate how much this can teach a child to be wary of commitments, or to the contrary make commitments but unseriously or more cavalierly ... Imho, what is not healthy is for kids to grow up feeling afraid to feel, afraid to care about things or people cuz experience tells them they won't endure ... An undercurrent of what I sense we witness Mason Jr go through in the film is his own coming to terms with this, and it's kind of a high-wire act, and it makes him so vulnerable to being dumbfounded and self-doubting when his first girlfriend splits ... We'd seen him for years really keep something of a wall up around himself until he fell for her, and then whoosh ... I sensed that he'd grown up perceiving that dad had done something wrong that had made mom divorce him - and so by extension he of course could be thinking he must have done something wrong to cause this loss.
**On parenting and listening
It says a lot, imho, that we've come to know Mason Jr well enough by this point in the film that we aren't surprised at his hurt about the GTO - and yet Dad seems to be caught offguard. It echoes of how parents so often see their role as 'teaching' and getting heard rather than listening - that parents are supposed to model behavior and solve problems and explain life's rules - and indeed Mason Jr. comes to dad with his life questions. But imho at least as important a job for parents is to listen to their kids, to get to know them, to find out what makes them tick. And, ironically, sadly, it makes parenting a lot more fun if parents are genuinely curious about their kids instead of constantly thinking their role is to get the kids to listen (about rules or priorities in life or whatever) or having 'the answers'. (That's a lot of pressure. I'm just saying some of it is self-imposed and counterproductive.) And here we see a poignant upshot - where Dad hasn't really 'listened' to Mason enough - in and between the lines - to have known something that was so important to him and to therefore obliviously betray something his son trusted in.
March 7, 2012: Take Shelter (2011, US, Jeff Nichols, dir.)
MAJOR SPOILERS HERE!
As I see it, "Taking Shelter" is about many profound aspects of relationship to self and others. And, as the title suggests, it's about finding safety, a "port in the storm" so to speak. And where more significantly in our lives do we seek and need that port in the storm than in our intimate relationships, in marriage.
The film ramps up the stakes and odds of looking at the quest for safety and 'port in the storm' in a marriage by seeing it all through the lens of schizophrenia, a state of being which casts an inordinate constant shadow of doubt, distrust, and suspicion on both -- oneself and others. So the film is also about trust and communication.
And it's about the power of secrets, the insidious power of secrets -- and, boy, is schizophrenia a "perfect" lens for examining the role and power of secrets cuz the schizophrenic has hyper-attuned antenna for "secrets" in the world around him. And, in this case at least, Curtis (positioned in the film to be probably schizophrenic but also potentially psychic) is mightily propelled to keep his own brain's mysteries a secret from even his wife.
So, to my mind this film pivots on turning points that have to do with secrets - and Curtis's relationship to them. And this bears entirely on my interpretation of the final scene - and convinces me that it is a dream/hallucination ironically enacted in the form of a nightmare but for once a nightmare storm is not perceived as nightmarish - it is taken in stride - because for the first time he sees, feels, trusts, knows, that he truly has his port in the storm - that he's not alone in his nightmare but instead his wife and daughter are with him, his allies, sharing his vision, and thus he is finally safe, just when the ultimate ramped-up scenario should seemingly convey ultimate danger.
The ultimate turning point occurred, not coincidentally, just before the beach scene - when, for the first time in the story, Curtis opts to let go of his secrets from Samantha - fully let go - which means not only revealing his hidden truth to her but also letting her be his partner and witness at the shrink's (rather than seeking counseling alone, in secret). He makes a life-altering step toward releasing the power of secrets over his being. This has been possible for him - a risk he could take - because it built on the prior turning point -- toward trust -- which was the step he took in unlocking the storm shelter door.
And after the shrink's, the remainder of the film is, for me, Curtis's dream/vision of connecting -- feeling on the "same page" -- and another significant step toward healing: In the dream, he's no longer alone in his suffering and hallucinations. He dreams the entire beach scene. Imo, they didn't actually go to the beach - they had turned their budget for the beach over to paying shrink bills (which is clue #1: they had no money to take a vacation to the ocean). Instead, what the film ends with is him having a powerful and healing dream: Unlike all his previous hallucinations, this one is a dream, not a nightmare, for the key reason that for the first time he wasn't alienated and alone and dealing in secret with his visualized demons.
In his dream -- because he has let his wife "in" by including her even in his shrink sessions -- he is now able to see them as allies, loved ones seeing the same world he sees. He is no longer panicked -- or as panicked -- by the approaching storm he sees. He remains transfixed with a look of mystification and beholding in his face -- largely because in this dream, he is not the only one, not even the first one to see the storm, his daughter is. Though he does grab up his daughter, there is a newfound degree of calm to his fear of what lies on the horizon precisely because his family shares his perception and fear.
Samantha even feels and examines the same motor-oil downpour (an inclusion that, imho, is clue #2 and tips the scale of the director's intention even if he disclaims any preferred reading - raining motor oil cannot happen in a "real" storm). I think the reason it happens here is to indicate, metaphorically, that husband and wife are now - at last - in his own view of his world and his marriage -- back on the same page of shared perception, symbolized visually for him in his dream by casting his wife and daughter as seeing what he sees, feeling what he feels, even the surreal motor oil.
And so the dream is both effect and cause. It comes about as the effect of his having let Samantha into full partnership in his struggle. But it also portends being itself a "cause" or trigger of further healing beyond the end of the film - not longer feeling alone and alienated from his loved ones in the maelstrom of his perceptions of the world. The storm itself has always been metaphoric for the chaos and potential for life to be threatening and terrifying, but now he's found a vital life truth, that (you could say, to borrow a political phrase) "It's the secrecy, stupid" that is the real "killer" in life with oneself and others, not the vision/hallucination that terrifies. To borrow from politics again, FDR this time, you could also say he learns, or starts to learn, that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" - don't fear it, share it.
(A side note of sorts: At the moment the three of them entered the storm shelter, I recalled something a Brazilian author once wrote, "The schizophrenics are the antenna of the human race." In the context of this film's story, I initially applied that in a literal way - that perhaps it was going to turn out he was indeed psychic. And that is how I initially interpreted the final scene as well. But within minutes -- and something I additionally loved about the film -- its reverberations after the "final curtain" led me to realize that instead I see him having been the metaphorical "antenna" that he chose to act on ultimately in a way that led him back to his family rather than away from them.)