Monday, 20 June 2016

Spellbound (1945) and Freud




There is a Latin epigram that goes: Quidquid luce fuit, tenebris agit, in English: what has taken place in the light continues in the dark. The reverse seems also true, though thousands of other epigrams also warn of the illusions that darkness elicits, the insidious workings that can so easily escape our beclouded vision. The riddle cannot be better illustrated through an even more insoluble enigma- that of dreaming. Nietzsche, in 1886, discovered that a man who acquired the ability to fly in his dream related this gravity-defying “upwardness” to an uplifted happiness he felt in his waking moments. From then on that man’s notion of happiness had been dramatically altered- whatever feeling that failed to evoke that peculiar upwardness would seem to him too heavy and, on a superior note, too “earthly.”

The entrance of Sigmund Freud, in his audacious quest of unlocking the age-old mysteries of dream, effected a startling change in the psychological study of the subject. His seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams, introduces dream-interpretation as a viable means of curing the patients of their neuroses. This “talking cure” predicates on the unconscious as conducive to the visions we experience in our sleep. The method has its flaws, an obvious one being that the attempt at making conscious of the unconscious seems in itself a self-defeating antinomy- at what level of unconsciousness should the unconscious ultimately strive for?

Freud wasn’t heedless of the confusion to which his theory of the unconscious contributed, and throughout his life he’d retracted his views multiple times. In the early 20th century, however, when the surrealists, citing Freud as the forefather of their movement, began experimenting with automatism, a pictorial method that relies on the dictates of one’s impulse, it became clear of how absurd this exploration of the unconscious would bring about if done in extremis.

This link, though contentious, between Freud and Surrealism made Salvador Dali (himself always a detached member of the movement anyway) a worthy collaborator of Alfred Hitchcock’s Freud-fixated Spellbound (1945), responsible for the design and conception of an elusively beautiful dream sequence, reduced to two minutes from its twenty minutes original length by producer David O Selznick. This is the scene where the two psychoanalysts, one of them Ingrid Bergman’s stout-hearted Dr. Peterson, attempt to have Gregory Peck’s amnesiac John Ballantyne recount the exact details of his dream. The rudimentary reading of the patient’s dream seems disappointingly platitudinous. It is at best a “cipher method,” the most elementary kind of dream interpretation that involves with very basic decoding of signs. The procedure is ludicrously facile: one just simply connects the dots and the result will be arrived at in no time. Therefore it wouldn’t be too surprising when the possible psychic connotation of an eye- in Ballantyne’s dream there are a dozen of eyes dangling from the ceiling, and a man with an oversized scissor is cutting through one of them- goes blithely unnoticed by the two supposedly experienced professionals. In Freud’s thesis of the uncanny, the loss of an eye is associated with a fear of castration. The patient’s dream appears to be far more complicated than was pronounced to be.

Spellbound provides an inadequate primer of Freud’s theory. The attitude it displays towards the practice of psychoanalysis is what Freud had been frequently at fault, and thereby warned of: arbitrariness. In Interpretation of Dreams he opposes the notion that a definite connection can invariably be made between the dream-content and reality:

 “[…] it would be wrong to assume that such a connection between the dream-content and reality will be easily obvious from a comparison between the two. On the contrary, the connection must be carefully sought, and in quite a number of cases it may for a long while elude discovery.

Elsewhere, Freud admits to the limitations of his method. Apparently not every dream yields a persuasive answer:

“Every dream has at least one point at which it is unfathomable; a central point, as it were, connecting it with the unknown.”

One is often told that a good professional in his field would be one that embraces the unknown, instead of exhausting his exhaustible reservoir of what he knows. There is an ingenious twist near the end of the film when Dr. Peterson realises that there’s a fault in her initial reading of Ballantyne’s dream, and the real culprit of the mysterious crime dwells not in a faraway place, or solely in Ballantyne’s imagination, but just one floor above her room. This time the doctor needn’t do much analysing as the villain himself promptly confesses his crime, and corners her with a pointed gun.

Hitchcock, infamous with his penchant of complex psychic phenomenon between human relations and of human mind, had made and would be making better examples of such than Spellbound. The characterization, however, may be one of the few aspects that really yield a psychological edge, especially Bergman’s character, whose persistence and perseverance veer dangerously towards an unwavering allegiance to hard-and-fast rules. One wonders if Spellbound would do better justice to Freud if the focus were on the nuanced portrayals of the characters, instead of tossing off flippantly the numerous complexes as though they were the labels readily affixed to vials of poison.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Review: The Night of the Iguana (1964)



Of all those that explore the troubled frontier of human psyche, there can be a few who have subjected it to a more penetrating study, and with a greater avidity for the discovery of its intricacy than Tennessee Williams. His plays centre on the lonely, the grotesque, the misunderstood, the crazed, the perverted and, ultimately, the tragic. One is surprised to know that one of America’s most loved playwrights is such a morbid purveyor of unhappy tales. And a wayward maverick, too, unafraid to challenge censorship by evoking themes like homosexuality and substance abuse. In Williams’s memoir he enumerates the countless events in which he made for “long, agonising exits” when his plays were roundly booed by the audience. Common to those who rebel against an established tradition, Williams was both reviled and admired, the acknowledgement of his astounding impact on America’s theatrical culture however unanimous. In the late 50s and early 60s especially he became a favorite amongst serious filmmakers who took to cinematic realism in enacting bleak parables of social concerns.

The chronological order of Williams’s vast output tallies with the episodic development of his personal life. The Night of the Iguana, presented in 1961, is arguably the last great play of his long career, belonging to a period when life’s various miseries had rendered Williams embittered and contemplative, contrary to the irascible and angsty young adulthood to which his earlier plays bear testimony. The story concerns a deposed ex-minister Lawrence Shannon, banished from his service after a public blasphemy of God and just released from a mental institution, acting as tour guide to a squadron of women tourists on the coast of Mexico. The play opens with the group being led to a rundown hotel managed by Maxine Faulk, an old friend of Shannon and a brassy virago, barefaced of her promiscuity. Shannon arrives on the scene a shattered man, ravaged by his paroxysms of madness and a growing disenchantment with God. He hopes to seek refuge from a badgering Judith Fellowes, who accuses him of raping her sixteen-year old ward Charlotte. Also chancing on the resort is the wayfaring duo Hannah Jelkes, an artist, and her grandfather, a self-styled poet Nonno, who keep afloat by peddling second-rate artworks. A storm is imminent.

A chief part of the dialogues is dominated by long discourses that meander several topics, most of them confusing and inconsistent, without arriving at any plausible conclusions. There seems a shared tendency in modern theatre towards inconclusive endings- the most satisfaction a play can offer to its audience is, paradoxically but truly, an absence of such satisfaction. In Williams’s case, however, he wasn’t always so fond of the tenterhooks; he was a mild tragedian that wouldn’t behead his heroes or heroines without taking into account the feelings of the audience- the execution would therefore be conducted behind a drawn curtain, but by then we were complicit enough to know what were afoot. Nevertheless in those plays a semblance of conclusion, convincing or not, can be drawn, though it is often based on the characters’ still unsolved issues and ambivalent states.

In Iguana there isn’t a traceable route that leads us out of the labyrinth; to compound the troubles there seems masses of heavy fog obstructing every possible exit. To read the play is to commit to the arduous task of giving ear to an old man’s rambling speech. There are a lot of discussions, most of which fervently taken up by Shannon and Hannah, that do not stray far from a few banal matters of what can be reasonably termed an existential crisis. One suspects that loneliness, depressing though it may be, does not engender verbosity, at least not so much as an indefatigable will to survive- preluded the play is this couplet from Emily Dickinson’s poem:

“We talked between the rooms,
 Until the moss had reached our lips,
 And covered up our names.”

John Huston’s 1964 film adaptation, blindly complying with the loose pattern of the original play, fails to summon up a force that the play would’ve lacked if Dickinson’s poem- which by the way acts as a witty riposte to the play’s wordiness- were omitted. The performance, however, is brilliant- boasting of a stellar cast of Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon, they make the tedium of the long speeches bearable and occasionally even enthralling. I especially enjoy the sequence in which Burton’s Shannon, trying to dissuade Lyon’s Charlotte from continuing their affair, walks on a floor of broken glasses. Charlotte, unable to come to terms with Shannon’s addled behaviour, takes off her shoes and joins in with the walking on broken glasses. This combination of self-inflicted pain and grudging hilarity is a genuine Williams’s touch. I am surprised to notice that something like that is absent in the play.