Monday, September 15, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 15: Another Thing, in Another Country

In 1889, a London newspaper called the Southern Guardian printed an editorial concerning the Jack the Ripper murders, crimes which at that time would have still been fresh but also dormant long enough to allow for some reflection. The editorial contains this passage:

Suppose we catch the Whitechapel murderer, can we not, before handing him over to the executioner or the authorities at Broadmoor, make a really decent effort to discover his antecedents, and his parentage, to trace back every step of his career, every hereditary instinct, every acquired taste, every moral slip, every mental idiosyncrasy? Surely the time has come for such an effort as this. We are face to face with some mysterious and awful product of modern civilization.

Over a century later, Alan Moore would take this basic idea and run with it in From Hell, the exemplary comic book about the Ripper murders (plus loads else) he created with artist Eddie Campbell. A quote attributed to Moore (the question of who said this first is somewhat unsettled, but anyway) in relation to From Hell and Jack the Ripper goes so far as to claim the Ripper "gave birth to the 20th Century." In the comic itself, this idea appears as a revelation spoken by Jack the Ripper to his carriage driver: "It is the beginning, Netley. Only just beginning. For better or worse, the Twentieth Century. I have delivered it." This doubtlessly gives Jack the Ripper far too much credit but it's a powerful idea, especially if you're an extremely pessimistic sort of person.

Anyway, the power of the idea doesn't have to rest in Jack the Ripper specifically. If you want to look at where we find ourselves today ("we" as a species, and as the only agents of history that care to regard themselves as such), and regardless of your individual politics or philosophy or theology I think we can pretty much all agree that where we are is describable as "not good," the impulse to trace it all, all of this, to a certain point, a specific moment, a thing, or cluster of things, or even a thought, can be irresistible. And such is the pull of A Dangerous Method, a late career masterpiece for David Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton. The film, based on Hampton's play The Talking Cure and John Kerr's non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method, pins the birth of the 20th Century as we understood and experienced it, and which in turn gave birth to today, right near its beginning -- in 1904, in Zurich. The key figures over the course of the film, which will stretch until 1913, a not insignificant year, are Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), at this time, 1904, a young psychiatrist who is fascinated by the new methods of psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who he hasn't met yet, but will, and the young patient Sabina Spierlein (Kiera Knightley), who, in Cronenberg's typical "let's get to it" fashion, Jung begins treating scant minutes after A Dangerous Method has begun.

Sabina, a bundle of extreme physical tics that serve to put on display the deep shame and anger she feels as a result of her somewhat off-center sexual desires, is extremely intelligent, so intelligent in fact that despite her desperate unhappiness ("There is no hope for me," she says) she is fascinated by her own mental illness, and the mental illnesses of others. This leads Jung to take her under his wing, and to encourage her to pursue a career in psychiatry. She assists him in psychoanalytical experiments, such as testing the concept of word association on Jung's own wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), and interprets the subsequent answers with unsettling perception. Sabina and Jung become so close, in fact, that Cronenberg wants us to make no mistake: when Jung first visits Freud in Zurich, he arrives with Emma. When their meeting is done, the next scene shows Jung walking down in the street in conversation with Sabina. Some members of the audience (I'm talking about me here) might find themselves trying to remember which one he actually when to Zurich with. Emma and Sabina are becoming the same in his mind, though he doesn't know it, or won't acknowledge it. The difference is, Emma is the one he impregnates.

Because yes, soon Jung and Sabina are having sex. But first, to be clear about where we stand: Jung, an Aryan doctor, is treating a Jewish woman suffering from a deep sexual repression that has led to a mental breakdown. Jung's mentor is Freud, a Jewish doctor who watches his independently wealthy protégée waltz through his life and career with little worry, so oblivious that it's beyond Jung why Freud's Jewishness might be an obstacle in Freud's theories of psychoanalysis gaining any traction among the European establishment. It is beyond Freud how this could be beyond Jung. Jung's major criticism of Freud's interpretation of the human mind and subconscious is that it is exclusively focused on the sexual ("There must be more than one hinge into the universe," he says to Sabina). Freud, in turn, is frustrated, on the surface, by Jung's drifting into mysticism -- Jung wants to study telepathy, he believes he can sense what's coming in the near future, etc. -- but of course at root what frustrates Freud is Jung's naïveté. In any case, Freud certainly couldn't have foreseen the consequences of sending into Jung's care another psychiatrist, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a man whose instability is the opposite of Sabina's -- if anything, he's not repressed enough, and he encourages Jung, his Aryan colleague, to embark on the affair with the young Jewish patient Gross is quite certain is what Jung truly desires. That Gross is Austrian -- as he was in real life, as the real Sabina Spielrein really was Jewish, A Dangerous Method being, after all, "based on a true story," as they say -- is certainly neither here nor there. Certainly not in the early 1900s, before even World War I. Yet it's Jung, with his somewhat mystical and superstitious mind, who continually insists that he doesn't believe in coincidences.

Of course, as with most of us, it doesn't matter what Jung believes in. He's a great doctor, and a brilliant man, and throughout the film Cronenberg positions him as a keen, in his mind, observer -- passive too, up to a point, but that's part of the psychiatrist's job, after all -- anyway, sitting back, across the room, often behind the other person as he listens to them speak. But the point is, he misses everything. Despite how man hinges there are into the universe, he can't find them. About midway through the film, the key line is spoken to him by Sabina, and he doesn't understand it. This is not his fault, because given what it portends who could? But Jung is the mystic, so when Sabina, building off her reading of Wagner's treatment of the Siegfried myth in his Ring Cycle, says that she's developing the theory that "only the clash of destructive forces can create something new," he seems to miss out on every practical or immediately relevant, or even cosmically human, meaning those words might carry. When shortly thereafter Gross is pushing him into an affair with Sabina -- an affair she badly wants, because despite her obsessions she's had no sexual experiences of her own -- he doesn't even seem to recall what Sabina told him about their relationship, their opposite natures, among them being that she is a Jew and he an Aryan. "And other, darker differences," she said, which he wondered about at the time but then when that hinge to the universe that so preoccupies Freud swings his way, pfffft! Everything else leaves his brain.

Competing psychoanalytic theories presented in A Dangerous Method involve the reasonable repression of desire -- that's Jung (never mind how he actually behaves); Freud, in the context of the film, is noncommittal -- and the perhaps unreasonable pursuit of an pleasure one might desire. That's Gross. To cut to the chase, and considering the film's eventual implications, is it unreasonable to see Gross as the Teutonic will that will one day unleash Aryan dominance, powered by an untrammeled freedom to do as they wished, throughout Europe? Even Jung's occupation as a passive observer feels like the sometimes admired neutrality of the Swiss, until you consider sometimes what they're being neutral about. You can do it, you can stop it, or you can allow it to happen. Sabina, as unable to see into the future as anybody, loves Wagner's operas, and she asks Jung if he admires Wagner as well. Jung replies "The man and the music." Nowadays, with hindsight being so powerful, most people would only pick the second of those two things to admire, and of course even that perspective forces them to share an interest with Adolf Hitler.

This film isn't about taking Carl Jung down a peg, however. Given the metaphorical nature of A Dangerous Method, it's actually quite difficult to view these characters as bearing much relation to the historical truth, no matter how accurately it depicts the events and personalities (I'll confess that I'm the wrong guy to ask about this). One of the ancillary interests Cronenberg and Hampton seem keen to pursue is their skepticism of "great men" -- Jung, of course, but also Freud, who, wiser than Jung though he can often appear, is nevertheless shown being envious of Jung's wealth (his wife's wealth, to be specific); even his ideas about human sexuality, which one might guess Cronenberg to be sympathetic towards, is skewered. Anyway, I think it's pretty funny when Freud tells Jung, after the latter has just related a dream about hauling around a giant log, "I think you should entertain the possibility that the log represents the penis." In fact, I'd go so far as the argue that Mortensen as Freud -- a strange bit of casting that I think nevertheless pays off quite nicely -- is giving an essentially comic performance. His occasionally sing-song delivery sharply but quietly illustrates Freud's condescending arrogance, and if Fassbender plays Jung as naïve and thoughtless, he's also open and generous. Mortensen plays Freud as free of those weaknesses, and those strengths.

Jung is still difficult to like, and after a while he's even difficult to admire. Fassbender's performance is a model of the kind of absence of judgment you often hear actors claim is essential to playing unsympathetic characters. Late in the film, Jung may have lived to regret some of his behavior, but for much of A Dangerous Method's run time the notion that his choices might actually be destructive would, if not exactly surprise him, be something he could rationalize. He could build a case in his own favor. His love for Emma -- genuine, I'd have to suppose -- would be his main argument for doing, or rather not doing, certain things, and he could even reasonably claim that the sexual relationship with Sabina, deeply unethical though it was, actually helped her. Two destructive forces -- Jung's entitled blundering and Sabina's erratic, sometimes violent madness -- clashed in deliberately painful sex, and created a brilliant woman who could put her inexperience behind her. Knightley, giving the performance of a lifetime, so exquisitely plays Sabina's wounds that the softening of her alarming harshness, and wild and ugly physical convulsions, that the mere quieting of these becomes incredibly moving (the real brilliance of Knightley's criminally underrated performance is that she never lets go of Sabina's peculiarities; she may be better, but some things are never gone, and Knightley holds on to that, beautifully). The pain her cure causes for others becomes acceptable. That's the positive reading.

But the rest of the 20th Century still has to be accounted for. The Aryan/Teutonic freedom Otto Gross celebrates and which Jung only pretends to want to restrain, is about to sweep through Europe. Cronenberg's fascination with the relationship between sex and death has never been so monumental in scope as the film he only hints would follow A Dangerous Method. Freudian psychoanalysis seeks to interpret the human mind and human behavior in terms of the drive for sex and towards death, and this method, the talking cure, was born at the conception and birth of the century. Sex can create -- Jung has many children with Emma -- and destroy, as it nearly did Sabina, as it to some degree seems to have destroyed Otto, at least as a functional person who could survive in civilized society, as it destroys Jung's sense of his own morality. It is a destructive force, one of Sabina's, and Wagner's, two destructive forces that clash and create something new. Psychoanalysis joined them, and the 20th Century was born. The film ends in 1913, the year before World War I. That's Death. In the years following this, in Berlin, Weimar Berlin is now popularly remembered for its decadent nature. That's Sex. They joined in Freud and Jung, as personified by Sabina, they split into war and its desperate aftermath, and joined together again in 1939.

At the end of A Dangerous Method, Jung tells Sabina about a dream he had, one of an ocean of blood destroying a town. It was "the blood of Europe." Not, perhaps, Christopher Hampton's subtlest line, but it's interesting to note, as I circle back around, that in Moore and Campbell's From Hell, the conception of Adolf Hitler is actually depicted. Hitler would have been conceived in 1888, right in the middle, or thereabouts, of the Ripper killings. In one of Moore and Campbell's least subtle moments, this sex act between Alois and Klara is symbolized by an ocean of blood pouring out of a synagogue. That too, I'd say, counts as the blood of Europe. So the 20th Century is conceived, but according to Cronenberg and Hampton, it was born in the back of a carriage, with a doomed woman screaming, as though giving birth.


John said...

Nowadays, with hindsight being so powerful, most people would only pick the second of those two things to admire, and of course even that perspective forces them to share an interest with Adolf Hitler.

Yeah? And so would, say, liking dogs. And hindsight is at least as susceptible to distortions, misinterpretations and other limiting factors as any of our other faculties. Wagner's public outbursts of intolerance are rightly condemned today, but at the same time the man's immense talents and dedication to his craft remain legitimately admirable qualities.

People are, after all, complex.

bill r. said...

You shouldn't take me so literally. I'm not saying this is a reason to stop liking Wagner's music.

Colin Biggs said...

Really a fantastic piece you've written. I had a hard time reaching A Dangerous Method opening weekend, but I'm definitely going to give it a rewatch now.

Tom said...

This is a great piece, Bill. I liked this movie a lot first time I saw it, but this really makes me reconsider it and want to revisit. Thanks for writing it.

And John: The reception of Wagner in a post-Nazi world is always going to be fraught, regardless of the achievement of the music itself. This isn't a new problem at this point.

John said...

I know. And I'm not without some sympathy for those, especially Jews, who choose to reject the man and his works for those reasons, and in any case, that's their business, not mine.

The problem I have is with those who'd suggest that the rest of us have a moral obligation to do the same, an idea I reject utterly. I didn't think Bill was necessarily saying that, but I realise there are others who would.