Monday, September 29, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 16: Foully and Berserkly Rich

On the morning of August 14, 2012, David Cronenberg and actor Robert Pattinson rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. That they were approached to do this at all is strange -- it may in fact indicate a sense of humor among those who run the NYSE, but few people on the outside looking in will ever entertain this notion, but either way, it was strange. Cronenberg and Pattinson were there to satirically promote, or maybe promote satirically, whichever one more strongly suggests that they were there to do a specific job but fully understood that it was funny that they were there, Cosmopolis, the film that Cronenberg had recently made from the 2003 novel of the same name by White Noise and Underworld writer Don DeLillo.

In a 2012 interview with Cronenberg, Glenn Kenny asked the director about the fact that many people seemed to miss the point -- at least the point as Cronenberg saw it -- of his ringing of the NYSE bell, to which Cronenberg responded:

Yeah, I know, some people thought that we were betraying the movie by doing that. I thought, no, no, you're really not getting it at all. That was so perfect. I couldn't believe when they were asking us. But that was the perfect expression of capitalism. They were lovely there. They were so excited, they love their Stock Exchange and, after all, we were selling a movie and selling is what they know. So it was all perfect. A capitalistic enterprise, and there we were.

The reason all of this is strange, and ripe to be misunderstood, is because Cosmopolis is anti-capitalist to its bones. I would hesitate to assume that it follows that Cronenberg is unquestionably anti-capitalist, or even that DeLillo, a paranoid novelist of the same basic philosophical bent as Thomas Pynchon, is (although I bet he is); in the interview with Glenn Kenny, Cronenberg says that DeLillo told him that his novel wasn't inspired by a desire to attack capitalism but rather by a curiosity about New York's limos, and what happens to them at night. But nevertheless, that's what Cosmopolis is. The basic thrust of the novel and film's driving theory is that capitalism is not unlike anarchy, and that like anarchy, and according to Marx, the destruction wrought by capitalism is a creative act. As you read, or watch, Cosmopolis, how this idea applies to the events of the story will become clear.

"What events!?" many will sneer, and sneered at the time of Cosmopolis's release. Because this is one of those films that..."invite" isn't the right word, but maybe attracts criticism to the effect that "nothing happens" in the film, novel, etc. If I tell you that the story is about a New York City billionaire in his late 20s named Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) who decides to get a haircut, and as he rides in his limo towards that goal through horrific traffic caused by a visit to NYC by the President of the United States, he has encounters and conversations with various of his employees, semi-friends, lovers, and one wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon), both in and out of his limo (traffic moving at such a ridiculously slow pace to allow for such things), you might agree that yes, indeed, this is one of those things in which nothing happens.

And what of it? Cosmopolis is essentially about a kind of economic theory extrapolated to the point of science fiction dystopia. The story is ostensibly set in the present day, but Packer's limo travels through a haze of near-future America, or anyway New York (the word "cosmopolis" roughly means "city of the world"), on the brink of collapse, with a potentially post-Apocalyptic, as the movies have taught us to define that phrase, aftermath. So Packer might be talking to his head of IT security (or whatever), played by Jay Baruchel, in the back of his ridiculously tricked out limo -- it looks, probably not at all accidentally, like the cockpit of a spaceship -- and see Elise, to whom he's been married for less than a month and whom he apparently rarely sees, in the cab next to him, so he'll get out and get into her cab, which they'll both exit to go find breakfast. This is the basic structure of the film. Packer never seems to be actually traveling by car, but the ease with which he flows in and out of it, and always seems to be somewhere in the city where he has something to do or someone to see nicely illustrates his place within the city: it revolves around him. (This also somewhat resembles the film Game 6 from 2005, falling somewhere in between the novel Cosmopolis and Cronenberg's film version; this is a film that boasts DeLillo's so far only original screenplay, and which features a playwright played by Michael Keaton taking a lengthy and labyrinthine, sort of cab-based trip through the city.)

On top of all this is a development relayed by Packer's security chief, Torval (Kevin Durand, an unusual actor with an unusual presence). A "credible threat" has been made on Packer's life. The President's, too, but that is announced earlier, and which seems to fade into, or be overshadowed by, the threat on Packer. Also on this day, video of Arthur Rapp, "managing director of the International Monetary Fund," being stabbed repeatedly in the eye (to death, in case clarification is needed) on a Korean talk show, is big news. Packer watches this with some fascination, but not exactly horror. All the while, a risky financial move by Packer is not paying off, and continues to not pay off, so that after not too long, and by his own calm admission, he's losing money by the truckful. And around him, anti-capitalist protesters are running wild, as visually inspired as Packer was earlier in theoretical terms, by a line from the poem "Report from the Besieged City by Zbigniew Herbert: "a rat became the unit of currency."

So maybe not so free of incident as previously suggested, although a lot of the above is communicated through dialogue. A lot goes on around Packer's limo, and therefore, in a sense, around the film itself, but visually Cosmopolis is hardly bereft of ideas. And the dialogue's not exactly worthless anyway. It's not simple exposition. Though the script was written by Cronenberg, he hewed very closely to DeLillo's novel (there are one or two changes at the end, changes which manage somehow to be both major and insignificant, in that nothing vital to the novel is really lost), and one of the most important things Cronenberg hung onto was DeLillo's dialogue. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Don DeLillo -- my objections tend to be philosophical except when they're aesthetic, and also except when he's great, which even I think he sometimes is -- but if he has one unquestionable gift, it is his approach to dialogue. As a matter of fact, he writes my favorite kind of dialogue: sentences that are realistically, humanly ungrammatical, funny in a way that makes it difficult to track the source of the humor. For example, and I may have to leave it at one, early on Torval tells Packer about a security threat. He's talking about a threat to the President which will further impede Packer's quest for a haircut, but Packer thinks Torval is referring to a threat on his, Packer's, life. Torval says "Not your life, his," and Packer says "Who the fuck is his?" I don't believe I've ever heard anyone say anything quite like "Who the fuck is his?", but I believe it to be nevertheless absolutely correct. And funny. Why? It's not because I believe it reveals Packer to be a dope. Somehow, this sort of thing is funny because it's right.

Also funny, in a different way, is when Samantha Morton as Vija Kinsky, Packer’s "chief of theory," tells him about her love of the idea of nanoseconds, even though she's not certain what it is, Packer informs her that there is also such a thing as a zeptosecond, and a yoctosecond, and she responds "Good, I'm glad." It's a strange sort of humor, I'll grant you. At any rate, on the page all of this reads as pure Don DeLillo, as you'd guess it would, but in Cronenberg's hands the words, and everything else about Cosmopolis, takes on the cold steel shape of a J.G. Ballard phantasmagoria. The very title Cosmopolis already sounds like it belongs to Ballard as much as or more than it does DeLillo, and Cronenberg, being basically the Canadian film director version of Ballard, slides into this mix of compatibly warped pathologies as easily as one would into a painfully cold bath.

None of which is to suggest that I think all of Cosmopolis works like gangbusters. In truth, I think it comes in second only to A History of Violence as my least favorite among his films. It's just that I do not for a second believe that the film is any kind of baffling misfire, much less the disaster it was claimed by some to be. The long stretches of theorizing that comprise a large portion of the film can become enervating, as I found was the case with the novel. I can find it well-written while wishing everybody would just shut up a second. Large swaths of it don't seem to matter, which on one level, on the level of the story of Eric Packer, I suppose is intentional -- things not mattering is almost a theme here -- but it also doesn't seem to matter as thought, thoughts thought up by Don DeLillo or David Cronenberg. Upon seeing an image of a large TV screen in Time's Square flashing the phrase "There is a specter haunting the world. The specter of capitalism," my reaction is to say "It's very interesting to me that you think so" and move on. All of this can be tedious, is what I'm getting at. If the section with Samantha Morton has more life in it, it's because Morton has more life in her than, say, Gadon (who was quite good in Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method but here seems to have been ADRed into oblivion), or Baruchel who is doing his normal shtick but without so many jokes as usual, or Juliette Binoche who seems very out of sorts playing one of Packer's lovers, or Kevin Durand, an actor I am not knocking here so much as I'm admitting that I can't make heads nor tails of him. The same goes for the various...set pieces isn't right, concepts doesn't seem much better, everything that happens takes so little time, but anyway, if the bit with the protesters in the diner holding the dead rats works -- and it does, not least because it feels like it could have come from Cronenberg's eXistenZ -- then it's just as certain that the later bit with the French "pie assassin" played by Mathieu Amalric, is just frankly stupid nonsense, a desperate grasp at satire and humor from two men (Cronenberg and DeLillo) who are much funnier than this, and much smarter about how to make humor flow along unseen and under the surface, but here want to announce their comedic intentions with a bullhorn. A gag bullhorn that makes fart sounds.

For a while, Cosmopolis is an interesting but only sporadically successful experiment. This depends, I'll admit, on how one views the subject to begin with. "You've convinced me!" is not something anyone has ever said after leaving a film with an argument to make. As this is more or less irrelevant, the interestingness of the argument or the film as a film becomes paramount, and Cosmopolis is mostly not especially interesting as an argument, but as a film making its argument through a lens of subtle science fiction, it can be fascinating. It's that lens that makes the argument better than the words do. Then Packer (and in the interest of fitting this in somewhere, I should mention that Pattinson is terrific and underrated here, dead-faced, consciously not looking at people who don't matter as people, but not dead behind his eyes, because he's human, even if he has a somewhat inhuman way of going about being that) confronts the man who threatened his life. Played by Paul Giamatti in one of his greatest performances, this long final scene, which lasts something like twenty minutes, pretends to hang on to its "philosophical theory" approach to the subject of economic inequality, but in fact largely jettisons it, or lets Giamatti's frightening, frightened, furious performance to do the jettisoning for them. A blank face is replaced by a real one, even if the character is as ridiculous in his extremes as everybody else. I mean, here you have a guy who lives in an apartment where he has to shit through a hole in the floor arguing with a character whose apartment is tricked out with two elevators programmed to play different kinds of music and move at different speeds, between which he may choose, depending on his mood. This is set up as an absurd illustration for an absurd lecture, but among the things that don't hurt this scene is the fact that Giamatti's Benno Levin isn't an angel with a dying child -- he is violent, and fundamentally self-serving. He's not angry because there are poor people; he's angry because he's a poor person.

But of course, that's what it comes down to. If up until this section Cosmopolis has been a somewhat intriguing experiment, in this last stretch it suddenly becomes a masterpiece, for 20 minutes. Levin's frustrations are so specific that they become weapons in the argument being made by DeLillo/Cronenberg as sharp as everything before was smooth in their generalities. A man who has to shit in a hole in the floor is driven crazy by people who have doctors who can order tests for them, by the sight of people sitting outside a café on a sunny day having drinks and talking, by the international symbol of disposability that is represented by the endless varieties of shoes available to people who are not him. The unavoidable truth of the discrepancy -- and your thinking on the subject can vary, and two people can hate each other based on those variations, while each still seeing the same thing as clearly as the other -- is plainly felt and strongly stated: "You are foully and berserkly rich," says Levin, and it's that one word, "berserkly," that carries within it such sudden clarity. It makes the case. "How rich is he?" now has an answer we can all grasp.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Let It Come Down

In 1823, Thomas De Quincey published a short essay in London Magazine called "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth." In it, De Quincey, a writer best known now for his book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and the series of long essays that are collectively known as "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," focuses on the scene in Shakespeare's play, following the murder of Duncan, the King of Scotland, by Macbeth, his heretofore loyal Thane of Glamis, then Thane of Cawdor, when, the morning after the killing, before the discovery of Duncan's corpse, there is a knock on the castle gate, and the porter noisily shuffles along to open it and let in, as it turns out, Macduff, the Thane of Fife, and the man who will eventually exact vengeance upon the vile Macbeth. De Quincey begins this way:

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth: it was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account: the effect was -- that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity: yet, however obstinately I endeavoured with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

The reason this scene -- the only comedic scene in the play, as the porter grumbles about the knocking, then commiserates with Macduff about the various effects of alcohol -- worked on De Quincey the way it did, he decided, is because it signaled the reaction, presence, and unavoidable continuation of regular life as it pressed right up against shocking horror. De Quincey uses as an example taking part in the funeral procession of a notable figure through city streets, which soon bustle back into life. A more everday example might be having to go out in public, perhaps to run an errand that can't be postponed, soon after hearing about the death of a loved one. People, you might notice, keep on buying beer and getting their glasses fixed. This fact bumps up against your despair, and fortifies it.

In adapting Macbeth in 1971, director and co-screenwriter (with literary critic Kenneth Tynan) Roman Polanski seems also to have adapted De Quincey's essay. If one single thing separates Polanski's Macbeth, which will be released on Blu-ray and DVD this Tuesday by Criterion, from other major film version of the play, such as those directed by Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa, it is the sometimes breathtaking savagery of the violence. Welles's wonderfully expressionist take depicts the violence in a more or less standard stab-and-fall style, whereas in Throne of Blood Kurosawa, no stranger to blood, keeps it mostly off-stage, including killings that Shakespeare kept on-stage, storing it all up for Macbeth's (Jon Finch) fate. Polanski, on the other hand, puts almost all of it on-stage, including Macbeth's murder of Duncan (Nicholas Selby), not shown by Shakespeare, and meanwhile throws in a handful of brand new deaths, splashing blood all along the way. Throats are cut, axes are buried in backs and groins, heads are severed, wounded men are beaten with spiked maces, people are lynched in groups, children die. Even the loophole to the witches promise that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth" that leaves him vulnerable is put on the screen, even before we're told what that means.

That loophole, of course, is that Macduff (Terence Bayler) was not "born of woman" in the traditional sense, but rather for medical reasons we in the audience are not privy to but can imagine, he was surgically removed from her belly. So to dramatize that, as one of many images in the dreamy shimmer of the witches' cauldron, Polanski shows a close-up of a pregnant belly, then a knife entering the belly, and slicing. I will be far from the first and far from the last person to point out that Macbeth was Polanski's first film since his wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by Charles Manson's cult. Murdered simultaneously with Tate was Tate and Polanski's child, with whom she was eight months pregnant at the time. It's not necessary to go into what Tate's murderers did to her body, but that shot in Macbeth of a knife cutting into a pregnant belly isn't simply, in this version of the play, a bit of plot-work. It transforms the double murder of a young woman and her unborn child into an act of life-preserving surgery. Or perhaps it transforms an act of life-preserving surgery into the double murder of a young woman and her unborn child. I'm assuming this was all done unconsciously.

Hence, long story short, the film's savagery. The very existence of Polanski's Macbeth is an illustration of and comment upon De Quincey's point about the juxtaposition of murder and the "reaction," which is to say, everything that isn't the murder and has nothing whatsoever to do with it, i.e., a hungover old man opening a gate. By the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) have been "conformed to the image of devils," De Quincey writes, "and the world of devils is suddenly revealed." To show this, the world of devils must briefly go away, and so "the knocking of the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced...and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that suspended them.

Polanski's unspeakably grim film counted, for him, as "the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world" (though he has said that he consciously chose "serious" material for his return picture). The fact that, even if Polanski saw the significance of everything he was doing with completely clear eyes, none of this turns his Macbeth into some post-modern wank is a testament not only to his talent but also to the seriousness of everything involved, from the immortality of Shakespeare's language on up. Polanski's well-documented failures as a human being are deep, many, and unforgivable, but his films remain uniquely bracing dives into those failures, as well as the shocking tragedies that litter his life. Among those films, and along with his grotesquely funny horror movie The Tenant, Polanski's Macbeth, this reflection back on the "awful parenthesis," is one of the most piercing howls in film history.

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, justifiable as it unquestionably is, 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 Germany 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.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

October Has Been Cancelled

This ghost is sad because he got kicked out of a red castle (right) and also because of what this post is about

I probably should have posted this earlier, but anyway, listen: for the past God alone knows how many years, I have spent every October reading and writing about horror fiction for my The Kind of Face You Slash project. And I loved doing it! Sometimes! But not so much recently. I read countless (you could probably actually count them without much effort) horror stories and novels, and wrote about what I read every day for 31 days. Every November 1, I told myself I wasn't going to be doing it again next year, and then around May of the following year I'd start thinking about the writers and stories and books I could cover next time. So it kept going, and I was, and am, hugely grateful to the people who bothered to read and comment on my posts.

Two years ago, though, I was feeling burned out pretty much from October 1 to October 31. I had nothing else to say about the genre, or couldn't think of anything, and it felt like a terrible chore that was eating up all my free time. Last year, a friend recommended that I bring in guest writers to help carry the load, which I did, and which I think worked out extremely well. All the writers who agreed to write a post (for free) did a great job, but coordinating all that brought on new pressures and stress I hadn't anticipated. So well before last year's project was done, I knew, without question, that in 2014 I would not be doing any version of The Kind of Face You Slash. And I'm sticking to that. I'm not doing it this year. Even if I suddenly decided I wanted to, which I haven't and won't, I've done no preparation at all, and it's simply not conceivable. So The Kind of Face You Slash is done.

For now! I promise nothing. It might actually really be done forever, but it would be stupid to say that because what the hell do I know. But it's absolutely not happening this year.  Lots of other blogs and "web sites" do all sorts of fun and interesting horror-related things in October, so there'll be plenty to read. And I'm not shutting down the blog that month anyway, it'll still be running right along at the same snail's pace you've come to depend on. But no The Kind of Face You Slash for a while. Sorry, and thanks.