Film Review:- A Dangerous Method (2011)

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Dir:- David Cronenberg

Starr:- Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel

As academic disputes go you could do much worse than the doctrinal spat between the twin behemoths of psychoanalysis (the naming of which is depicted here as a delightful piece of early powerplay by Freud) as the subject for cinematic drama. Unlike many dry and bookish tales of intellectual ego, Freud and Jung’s squabble had a whole litany of intriguing tensions and conflicts (primarily sexual and quasi-Oedipal), which are only emphasised by the primacy of their practices on the psychological health and well-being of many at the start of the 21st century.

Canadian body-horror specialist David Cronenberg has, for the last decade, been moving progressively toward a more mainstream cinema aesthetic, that has refined some of his earlier interests in physical malformation, deformity and sexual threat, into an overarching interest in violence as both a mental and physical act. Personally, I was not overly impressed with either the gangland gothic of Eastern Promises, or the disinterred and soulless western at the heart of his critically lauded The History of Violence. Comparing these modern works to such decadent and overblown fare as Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, or Crash, makes it appear as if Cronenberg has lost a little of his scalpel-sharp edge. A Dangerous Method continues this trend toward stately cinematic conventionality, but, that said, it is a highly accomplished drama with some impeccable central performances.

The narrative of the film covers the early part of the 20th century, from Jung’s first encounter with a patient called Sabina Spielrein, through the growth of his relationship with mentor Sigmund Freud, to the inevitable deterioration of both these relationships. The acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Total Eclipse, Atonement) does a decent job of adapting his own play The Talking Cure (itself an adaptation of the non-fiction work A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr). Despite the fact the movie is very much about talking, Hampton is shrewd enough to avoid overdoing the analytical sections, allowing the movie to develop rapidly, with a fairly organic focus upon the way therapeutic methods are slyly applied outside of the confines of the therapist’s office.

Cronenberg is an expert at the use of fetishistic detail and he often deploys such motifs with the aim of creating  truly unsettling tension. Aside from the fantastic attention to period detail (with a glacier-clean use of CGI backdrops being a particular standout), Cronenberg is most effective in the minutiae he chooses to focus upon. Teeth are frequently placed within the centre of the shot, with special attention being paid to their unevenness, or potential decay. Much like the recently reviewed Drive there is an obsessive fixation with gloves, in Jung’s case crisply-squeaking black leather, whilst in Freud’s case they are more felt or velveteen. Freud is frequently seen wearing these soft gloves in external or formal locales and Viggo Mortensen seems to particularly revel in the slight twitches of playful tension that are magnified by the use of such an accessory. Both food and footwear are also ogled with the kind of lasciviousness that is normally the domain of Nigella Lawson or the Sex and the City women. Such seeming frippery should not be treated dismissively, as the rigourousness with which Cronenberg depicts them lends them an emblematic quality, becoming exemplifiers of neuroses and repression. The visual overload that Cronenberg employs at times in the movie has a quality reminiscent of the odd little Don McKellar short-film he appeared in called Blue, in which the executive he plays derives a perverse pleasure from things coming into contact with his feet.

One particularly impressive sequence in the movie involves Jung’s word-association test on his wife, performed with the assistance of Sabina. The bizarre mechanisms that are put into operation and the almost ritualistic application of soft weights, pen marks and electrical measurements, inexplicably rack up the tension in the scene. Close-cutting between Knightley’s focused and anxious Sabina, Fassbender’s abrupt and clinical Jung and the suppressed anguish that Sarah Gadon carefully emotes, creates a deft moment of drama, that ultimately cements Sabina and Jung’s illicit affair. At another moment in the film Cronenberg subtly frames Sabina and Jung, lying side-by-side in the hull of Jung’s sailboat (a gift from his wife), as the boat barely moves upon the still waters of the lake. Viewed from above this frame-within-a-frame shot hints at the potential for union, or the dissolution of self, that Sabina and Freud later discuss.

The casting at first seems unusual, but works impressively well. Keira Knightley has never been an actress I could warm to, and even when she has turned in an astute performance, as in Atonement, it has often been in spite of the fact that she is wholly inappropriate for the role. Here she is given a role that is perfectly suited to her brittle, neurotic sexual energy. Despite an initial burst of psycho-theatrics, reawakening the clichéd physical madness of Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, Knightley, much like each of the main cast members, quickly disappears into her role, and the startling jaw-jutting enunciation of masochistic pleasure in the opening analysis sessions is a testament to the strength of her performance, which is possibly her best to date and one which forces me to reconsider my attitude toward her. Much like Knightley, Viggo Mortensen has had to gradually change my perception of his limitations as an actor. After a fantastic turn in the Ed Harris western Appaloosa, Mortensen here delivers a wholly convincing and entirely unexpected performance of great subtlety and charm. Cinematic Sigmund Freud’s have tended toward the depressingly clichéd, but here Mortensen balances of the pragmatic logic of a great thinker, with the spry, mischievous wit of man who never seems to entirely switch his analytical apparatus off. Completing an impressive triumvirate of acting triumphs, very much against my own personal prejudices, is Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross. I frankly find Cassel’s clownish physicality and smug arrogance a massive cinematic turn-off, yet, unlike in the earlier Eastern Promises, Cronenberg somehow manages to reign in much of Cassel’s wasteful excesses and his brief cameo is a perfectly pitched interlude in the triangle that forms the crux of the drama.

In the central role of Carl Jung the German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender adds yet another impressive role to a rapidly expanding CV. Fassbender has the looks of a classic Hollywood matinée idol, reminding one a little of a steely blue-eyed Trevor Howard. Yet like the very best matinée idols (the non-Brad Pitt’s of this world) Fassbender also has the ability to give a variety of difference performances and demonstrates a particular assuredness in those moments when a lesser actor would undoubtedly reach for the OTT switch. Throughout the film, and despite the coldness of his character, Fassbender was compulsively watchable. Playing the part of a man who is obsessed with where to apply restraints in his life, there is a scene in which Fassbender subtly emphasises the aloofness and remoteness of Jung by simply failing to react to Sabina’s assault with a letter opener. It is a remarkable scene as Sabina’s aggression is so fleeting and so direct, yet it is barely even allowed to register on the clinical deportment of Fassbender’s Jung. It is safe to say that many thirtysomething leading men in Hollywood will be losing out to Michael Fassbender when it comes to securing the most challenging lead roles over the next decade.

Within the strict limitations of a mainstream cinematic biopic Cronenberg has crafted an intelligent film with a narrative that has clearly been trimmed of any unnecessary fat. It falls somewhere between works like Amadeus and Immortal Beloved, whilst avoiding much of the bombast of both those works. Almost certainly the Freudians and the Jungians will pick apart the slenderness of the plotting and the superficial rendering of the theory, but how else are such lives to be explored in narrative form. The film should certainly pique the curiosity of a few people hitherto unaware of the significance of these two great men and that is a testament to the ingenuity and talent of director, writer and cast. One last point that needs to be made is the weight that Cronenberg gives to issues of Jewishness over the course of the narrative. It appears to suggest that a major element in Freud’s attraction to Jung was the clearly Aryan legitimacy that his Protestant-Swiss background lent to the psychoanalysis movement. Jung’s attraction to Sabina is what appears to drive the fiercest wedge between himself and Freud, which suggests curious reservoirs of self-loathing in amongst Freud’s careful pragmatism. This issue of Jew and Aryan throbs away underneath the Jung-Freud feud and is illuminated somewhat by Freud’s final discussion with Sabina, in which Freud effectively reminds her of her Jewishness. In the increasingly anti-semitic tenor of the times, this seems a highly plausible fear for Freud to hold.

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Armand Traore on a Train to Auschwitz?

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holocaust n 1 great destruction or loss of life or the source of such destruction, esp. fire. 2 (usually cap.) the Also called: Churban, Shoah. the mass murder by the Nazis of the Jews of continental Europe between 1940 and 1945. 3 a rare word for burnt offering

Sometimes it is important to start an essay with the lazy, or overly literal, students favoured opening gambit, namely the dictionary definition. Before discussing some of the truly simian outrage that has greeted Tony Cascarino’s use of a word, even a word that is showily hyperbolic, I’d just like to fall back on the students favoured follow-up, the etymology of a word. The etymology of the word holocaust, is from the Late Latin holocaustum, meaning whole burnt offering. Which in turn was derived from the Greek holokauston, which is Holo + kaustus (or kaiein), meaning to burn the whole.

I have to begin in this manner, as those simian yelps and howls make it really, really difficult to focus, so apologies if you actually know the rudiments of the English language. Now granted Tony Cascarino, during Sky Sports News’s coverage of the Arsenal vs Man Utd match, is maybe going a bit far semantically (that hyperbole) when applying the noun to the following sentence: “Poor Traoré at right-back is having a holocaust because he’s finding himself against Nani, who’s literally running him from everywhere and Arshavin’s just not tracking his runners.”. However, can anyone truly say that Cascarino is making a wantonly historically ignorant remark, that is truly offensive to people in a directly harmful and hurtful manner, like Ron Atkinson’s more furtive indiscretion? Apparently they can, as the internet has been abuzz with the kind of jive-talk that seems to come up whenever there has been a dearth of sensation in the media.

Marcus Dysch stated that: “Tony Cascarino said Traore was having a ‘holocaust’ against Utd??Fantastic. I’ll enjoy ending Mr Cascarino’s career this wk at work.”. Nice to see Mr Dysch, a journalist for the Jewish Chronicle, taking a reasoned approach to Cascarino’s utterance. Whilst Steve Busfield, took a slightly more attenuated position, claiming: “Arsenal’s performance was bad, but Tony Cascarino’s “holocaust” description is stupid”. Steve Busfield being the Sports Blog Editor at the Guardian was generally bucking the trend of hysterical condemnation, that the usual suspects from the red-tops, as well as the Daily Telegraph, were all too eager to embrace.

As someone with more than a passing interest in keeping the idea of The Holocaust at the forefront of societal collective memories, I actually take offence at the apparent willingness of commentators to leap to the assumption that there is something overtly racist, tasteless and/or politically loaded in Mr Cascarino’s outburst. When looking for live comment from ex-football players it is rare to hear them do a credible job of anything more than describing the action. Cascarino on the other hand, in a similar way to Pat Nevin and Lee Dixon, has tended toward the insightful, if occasionally impassioned, in his reportage and his columns for The Times. Do I think that Tony Cascarino is seeking to make an equivalence between the organised slaughter of six million people (predominantly of Jewish origin) in Europe during 1940-1945 and an aberrant display from an Arsenal squad football player, positioned on the left-side of their defence during a mauling from Man Utd at the weekend? No, I do not. Do I think Tony Cascarino was utilising the term as an acceptable, if overly hyperbolic, way of describing the devastation Traore’s performance was causing down Arsenal’s defensive left-side? Yes, I do.

If Mr Cascarino had said something like ‘Armand Traore is playing football like a Jew trying to escape The Holocaust’, then I would have been jumping in with the condemnation myself. As it is, he didn’t even prefix the word with ‘The’, suggesting we perhaps shouldn’t be reading ‘Holocaust’, where it may well have been ‘holocaust’ that was intended. To demand a pundit’s head for such a remark only highlights the modern tyranny of ‘fixed semantic interpretation’, that seems to make a mockery of more serious and verbally wounding outbursts. In policing the ways in which we talk freely, on air, or otherwise, we are merely creating a futurescape in which thoughts lead to actions, with very little discussion, or reasoned debate – in fact not so dissimilar a set of social conditions as that which existed in Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. Our freedom of speech should be what we protect robustly, not the questionable sensibilities of the eager-to-be-scandalised.

Attempting to side with some of the sensation-hungry out there, I’ll go along with this condemnation of Cascarino’s use of a ‘word’ (a word that clearly must only ever now be used in one, historically accurate, context) and let Cascarino be fired by his employers, despite his apparently contrite apology (his more stupid move, if you ask me). In the future live sports broadcasters such as Sky, the BBC and ESPN, will then need to ensure that all broadcasts are scripted and vetted as the action unfurls and the Gareth Southgate’s and Alan Shearer’s of this world can then be safe in the knowledge that their teleprompter will never let them stray into the choppy waters of poor word selection.

Alternately, you could condemn Cascarino with the questionable grammatical accuracy of his noun selection and read Martin Gilbert, Hannah Arendt, or Primo Levi, safe in the knowledge that The Holocaust hasn’t suffered a significant devaluation in meaning. Oh and spare a drop of sympathy for the recently immolated Armand Traore.

The Coen Brothers: Serious Men?

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High seriousness and the Brothers Coen do not an immediate marriage make. The first ten minutes of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest effort A Serious Man, far from altering this impression, rather shocks the viewer into remembering how effectively the Coens utilise the mechanics of horror in their best films. Joel Coen started out as assistant editor to Sam Raimi on the comic-horror masterpiece The Evil Dead and the brothers have maintained some of the horror aesthetics on display in that movie, in their own most effective nightmarish visions, such as: Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother, Where art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. Alongside their undoubted love for film noir, the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, screwball comedy and the pointed satires of Preston Sturges, the Coens have frequently utilised suggestive imagery, horrific violence, supremely eerie camera angles and lighting and the unsettling soundtracks of Carter Burwell, as only true pioneers of horror, such as Jacques Tourneur, Tod Browning and Georges Franju, could. Where the Coens excel yet further is in the quality of their writing which, whether focused on the verbal or physical, unerringly hits the right mark of wry humour, or encroaching menace. In A Serious Man the Coens are intent on using Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ as the filter through which all dialogue and action must pass, thus making the movie their most unsettling experience to date.

The movie opens in the 19th Century, in a Polish Shtetl, with a husband returning to his wife to inform her that he has met a Rabbinical relative in the snow, who helped him fix his cart. The wife is certain, however, that the person in question, Treitle Groshkover (yet another fabulous Coen Brothers character name), died three years earlier and therefore her husband must have come across a Dybbuk (a troubled spirit, either kind or malevolent, that cleaves to an individual in a time of difficulty, or crisis). The husband has unfortunately invited the relative to eat with them and on Groshkover’s arrival the wife sets about proving her suspicions. This opening section of the film is shot in Yiddish, with English subtitling, and plays fast and loose with the commonly held Jewish folk mythology of a Dybbuk. That aside it is a wondefully atmospheric and chilling exordium that sets the tone for the seemingly wholly unconnected events that follow.

The Coen Brothers display a frequent fascination with the visual depiction of orifices, as elaborated in the bowling ball sequences of The Big Lebowski, the schematics of the hula-hoop in The Hudsucker Proxy and the frequent lingering shots of various piercing wounds and punctures in almost every one of their films. A Serious Man actually presents the most startling of all such shots as part of its impressive credits sequence. Jefferson Airplanes ‘Somebody to Love’ (a recurring joke throughout the movie) is played over the opening credits which end upon a black screen. Gradually a small speck appears and expands in the centre of the black screen, taking on the metaphorical import of a birthing canal, or yet another hole in a Coen character’s head. For the briefest of moments it is suggestive of the central spoke on a spinning record deck, but is revealed to be the direct passage from the dark emptiness of the head, down through the ear canal and into the earpiece of a portable tape player, being listened to by Danny Gopnik, the errant pot-head son of the film’s protagonist (although not the earnest man of the title) Larry Gopnik. Danny is in Hebrew school and it should be considered as to whether the nightmarish opening sequence is in fact no more than the overactive imaginings of an otherwise bored teenage boy.

Much like Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers evocation of another earnest Jewish male, A Serious Man appears to be primarily concerned with the questionable state of mind of its central protagonist, when placed under the unremitting trials, stresses and strains of external forces. Larry Glopnik, however, unlike Barton Fink, has no airs or pretensions. He is a Professor of Physics in Minnesota, a family man, living in a predominately Jewish community in the suburbs. The audience first encounters Larry undergoing a regular checkup with his doctor, a sequence that is brilliantly and disorientingly cross-cut with Danny’s classroom mischief. The film already seems hell-bent on reinforcing uncertainty as its primary theme through its formal choices. How does the audience connect the parallel events portrayed? Are they even meant to be connected? How should the pre-credit intro be regarded in relation to what is now being portrayed? All of these questions, and many more, are left hanging, some to be answered, others to have no such luck. The Coens would appear to be positing early in the film the premise that is later espoused by the rather sanctimonious Rabbi Nachtner, namely that our questions are not raised to be answered and that Hashem (God) has no responsibility to his creation, to reveal the methodology of his actions.

Larry Gopnik is such a benign presence within the movie that it seems almost masochistic on the part of the Coens to hang the framework of the narrative upon his unassuming shoulders. Whereas other ‘nobody’ Coen protagonists, such as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo and Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, however reluctantly, allow their survival instincts to force them into decisive action, Gopnik throughout A Serious Man strongly decries his ever having done anything. To some degree this is true, as the things that befall him seem primarily to be as a result of his inaction, rather than any impulse, or volition, on his part. In talking about this project the Coens have described it as their take on the Book of Job and Gopnik seems to endure his fair share of torments with quiet torpidness. First of all he is confronted by the inscrutably direct deviousness of a dissatisfied Korean student, who seems to have thoroughly understood how Heisenberg’s principle should be applied to actual human interaction, even if he sucks at the maths. Then there is the small matter of Sy Abelman, a widower of three years (another source of wry Coen humour), who appears to be far more aware of the condition of Larry’s marriage than Larry is himself. Gopnik’s living purgatory is fleshed out by the persistent and unrestrained selfishness of Larry’s son and daughter, the indefinite stay of Larry’s mentally unstable, goiter-draining, maths whizz of a brother (wonderfully portrayed by Richard Kind), the surly gun-toting NRA survivalists who live next door and seem to be under the impression that more of the lawn is actually theirs than they are truly entitled to, the tongue-tied yet recklessly verbal Dean of the faculty who creates a pervasive sense of paranoia in every reassurance of tenure, the rather too liberal, middle-aged housewife whose recreational activities involve pot-smoking and naturism, the friendly, but high-fee charging legal representation that Larry takes on initially to help with his unwanted divorce proceedings, and most disturbingly of all the Columbia Records Store that Larry’s son has joined and whom now hound Larry for the cost of records that he has no idea about.

Intriguingly, throughout the movie Larry is heard to be asking questions. Questions of his family, questions of his work colleagues, questions of Rabbis, questions of his legal representation, yet not once in the entire film does he actually receive, what he considers to be, an adequate answer. More often than not his family ignores him, leaving him in a seemingly perpetual state of catch-up. Whilst the Rabbis, lawyers and work colleagues merely give him an assortment of convoluted avoidance statements. The only people in the movie that ever really get to grips with Larry’s enquiries are the various portly, middle-aged, slightly owlish secretaries he comes into contact with, who offer contrite and frequently rebarbative responses, that fail only in the fact that they do not answer Larry’s questions in the manner that he would wish them to be answered.

The smug platitudes and odiously false understanding that Sy Abelman (the ‘Serious Man’ of the title, as designated by Rabbi Nachtner at his service) foists upon the reluctant and unwilling Larry are by far and away the most comic of all the sufferings he is forced to endure. The esteemed voice artist Fred Melamud is superb in the role of Abelman, turning Larry’s cuckolded situation into an opportunity for them to bond, yet proving unwilling to listen to Larry’s suggestions for how the divorce from his wife, Judith, should go ahead. Abelman’s death is yet another of the moments in the movie where the Coens deliberately cast doubt on what the viewer is actually seeing, cross-cutting between Larry and Sy driving to work and the golf course, respectively. The expectation is that they are driving toward some literal or metaphorical collision with one another, however this is simply not the case, although Larry later sees some significance in the fact that both Sy and himself were involved in car accidents at almost the exact same time.

Curiously, the Coens seem to take the theme of uncertainty to unprecedently subtle extremes. The frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Carter Burwell creates a musical score that is often incongruously unsettling and sinister. Furthermore, it proves to be yet another layer of uncertainty to those fans of the Coen Brothers movies, as it strongly resembles the score of their debut work Blood Simple, a film that evokes comparable dread from the most mundane of situations. The score is most significant in the way it isolates sounds such as the scrolling of the yad during a reading of the Torah, or the soft squeaking of a leather chair, by surrounding them with a suspenseful passage of music that breaks into silence. The score is also used to full horrifying effect when underlining the sections involving the Rabbis, denoted visually by a title insert.

The Coens seem to take a certain cruel glee in depicting the domestic horrors of 1960’s Jewish-American life, which lacks the affectionate ribbing of Phillip Roth and strays into the territory of profound disgust. The Gopniks all sit around the kitchen table greedily and noisily slurping their soup. The wise old Rabbi Marshak is seemingly so bored by his own congregation that he refuses to see any adults and only speaks with the Bar Mitzvahed sons of the congregation (leading to the at first sinister and then hilarious cross-examination of Danny about members of Jefferson Airplane). Nobody seems to know what a ‘get’ is, including the Junior Rabbi. The Hebrew school is staffed by an assortment of aged, crusty men, who seem wholly out of touch with reality, let alone their students. The decor and fashions are suitably flock and pastel, whilst the community Larry lives within seems to very much operate along the lines of a modern-day Shtetl. The characters are fundamentally loveless people, with even the seductive, yet almost catatonic, Mrs. Samsky (surely a Coen play on the Dybbuk author S.Ansky), married but seemingly alone. Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the entire film is the most troubled, with Larry’s brother Arthur being unable, or unwilling, to find work and accommodation, getting busted for gambling and also for the solicitation of a rent-boy at the hilariously entitled ‘North Dakota’ club. Yet this sympathy for Arthur, is surely based on nothing more than pity for a fundamentally wretched existence. At times A Serious Man ascends far beyond the misanthropic view of humanity that the Coens detailed in No Country for Old Men. Whereas in that movie the shocking revelation was that Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones’ characters are only divided in the reasons they have for deploying authority, power and violence, here the shocking revelation is perhaps that the Coens see absolutely no revelation to give. The Gopniks aren’t cursed, Hashem has not forgotten them, it is simply that there is either no Hashem worth considering, or perhaps more distressingly Hashem, like the Rabbi Marshak wants absolutely nothing to do with all the Gopniks’ inane questions.

The wonderfully self-contained piece of silliness that Rabbi Nachtner tries to fob off on Larry about a dentist in the community who sees the hebrew letters that spell out ‘help me’ written on the back of a goy’s teeth, seems an almost perfect summation of this stylish exercise in disconcertion by the Coen brothers. Rabbi Nachtner offers this, what we later understand to be pat, tale as an answer to Larry’s straight questioning of what ‘it’ all means. However this answer only provokes the need for further answers to new questions, the last of which involves what happened to the ‘goy’, to which Nachtner responds ‘who cares about the goy’. With A Serious Man the Coen brothers appear as truly serious men, who are more than aware that the most profound and unsettling of topics are most often best approached through the prisms of humour and horror. The rough ride that faith, religion and tradition seems to superficially take in A Serious Man is undermined somewhat by the consideration that if we are to take ‘uncertainty’ as the only truth of existence, then we either have to accept faith as a ‘rational’ reaction to such circumstances, or we have to consider the implications of ‘uncertainty’ as a constant, as surely oxymoronic. This thought should return the viewer to that wonderful piece of pop wisdom that is used as a motif throughout the movie, the opening lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’: ‘When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies’. This is perhaps sound advice to bear in mind when considering the full import of A Serious Man, alongside its questionable prefaced quote from Rashi: ‘Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you’. The Coens are after all serious about one thing in particular – namely, misdirection.

This essay was originally published on July 17th 2010 on my now defunct ‘Imposturous’ blog.