“A Dangerous Method”

14 Jul

So, I am not a big fan of David Cronenberg. In fact he is the the only director whose film I once reviewed by saying he should never be allowed to pick up a camera again and meant it wholeheartedly. If he was never allowed to make another film for as long as he lived I would be happy.

There are several reasons for this. I came into Cronenberg’s career relatively late, having skipped his straight up horror film phase (I don’t watch horror as a general rule, so I’d stayed away from those films though I’d heard of some of them). In his drama film phase, which is when I became aware of him, he’s made movies with the same overwhelming theme. He explores masculinity and violence, the nature-as-wild-and-violent and culture-as-forcing-us-to-repress-that-nature. His protagonists are always men, usually torn between acting “normal”, civilized, calm, collected, rational, even gentle at times (usually with women), and acting in their “true nature”, which the world around them invariably requires them to reveal, which is violent and brutal and often includes Viggo Mortensen’s naked ass. He’s fond of exploring the price of that duality – the price of indulging, due to lack of choice, in those base, violent instincts, and the price of repressing them and keeping up a “civilized” veneer the rest of the time.

On his greatest hits list you will find:
1. no more than one woman character per film (or, at best, one main female character and one supporting female character)
2. scenes of graphic, artistically stylized violence
3. men moping about ~the price of violence~ which is nevertheless part of their nature
4. men having rough sex with ladies when their ~baser instincts~ are let loose
5. women being the antithesis of men’s baser instincts, and either not prone to violence, or discovering violence and being shocked that they can actually withstand it (when it comes from men)
6. any and all women characters being there solely to elucidate/facilitate the men’s character arcs
7. men, masculinity and men’s issues being the primary focus (see also: characters are often killers, mobsters, cops, etc)

If all of that is beginning to sound incredibly familiar in light of the recent A Dangerous Method trailer, your thinking is apparently not too different from mine. I mean, look, I don’t know what that movie’s going to be about because I haven’t seen it? But I am going to hazard an educated guess. I am going to say that Jung’s character is going to be a man torn between having to act “civilized” and controlled and respectable in society (and with his wife and their children/family, since she symbolizes culture and civilization) and wanting to act on his natural, baser instincts of violence and destruction. It’ll start as being under the guise of treatment at the mental institution he works at (where everyone’s already indulging their sadism with the patients anyway) and spill over into a strictly informal arrangement with one of his patients, who will discover that being the object of Jung’s violence actually excites her. There will be much moping and existential angst from Jung over this impossible dual state, with some psychoanalysis babble about repression and Freud’s structural model thrown in. I can’t tell you where it’ll end because Conenberg’s films usually end nowhere – it’s all the journey, not the destination – which, for a historical drama, will be quite fitting.

Anyway, items 1-6 on that list are not actually why I dislike Cronenberg as a filmmaker. His misogyny is not more egregious than a lot of other directors’ (encouraging thought of the day, heh) and I quite enjoy his brutal, graphic stylized violence. Most of it happens between men and you know, as long as I’m not being triggered, I enjoy his treatise on the sheer brutality of humans. I mean, I think his subjects are sort of trite and predictable and he does ~masculinity~ in a mostly boring way but… I like stylized graphic violence 😀 His films are sometimes like the dark underbelly of 300.

The reason I dislike Cronenberg is that he shuns any connection between the real world and his narratives. He’s a philosopher, a ~psychologist~ if you will. He’s not bound by a time and a place. His movies take places in non descript settings, places that could be anywhere, with details deliberately kept vague and inconsistent. For example, Eastern Promises, which is a film I hope no one ever mentions in my presence again, was supposedly about the Russian mafia in modern day London. A very real topic, not exactly something esoteric, there is a large community of Russians, many of them oligarchs who live in London today, some of them are accused of being part of organized crime organizations, etc etc. I’m not really going into this topic, I’m just saying, this is something you might read about in the newspaper.

Let me explain to you how accurate Eastern Promises was, in terms of portraying Russians or the mob or the British police for that matter, or like, anything at all. Imagine making a movie set in the imperial palace in ancient China, hiring white people from Denmark to play all the roles, dressing everyone in French 18th century style clothing, having them all speak Japanese with each other and making the plot be about electric flying bicycles invading the country. That is how accurate that movie was. And it wasn’t a parody, it wasn’t a farce, it wasn’t self aware in any way. It was just Cronenberg saying “I don’t give a fuck” when someone asked if he’d like to do any research for the film. (Yes, I know he claims to have done some research, excuse me while I laugh. Electric flying bicycles invading over the border.)

Which, for me, is hella problematic. Because you know, I’m an immigrant, and I have to live with this shit, and I am identified as “Russian” in my home country because I was born into a Russian speaking family and I get enough stupid stereotypes and misconception and prejudices and ignorance as it is, thanks. And there’s fic about that movie, there’s a fandom, there’s a whole lot of people who really feel like if they just do a bit of research into Russian whatever they can write these characters faithfully. Which, lol. A bit like the new Star Trek, fixing that canon and its Russianness is a matter of demolishing everything to the last stone and rebuilding from the ground up. There’s nothing there to salvage, you might as well just write an original story. Anyway, this isn’t about fandom, this is about Cronenberg, who saw nothing wrong with any of this.

(I should make an allowance for Viggo Mortensen who actually did do amazing amounts of research for his character and sticks out in that film like a pig in a hen house. Basically, he’s doing one film, and the rest of the cast and crew are doing another, and it’s a very disorienting experience overall.)

And so, there’s a limit to how much I enjoy stylized anything when it’s set in the real world and not tethered to any kind of actual reality. I mean, I enjoy the violence? He does it well, he does it pretty, I enjoy myself quite a bit? But it’s not worth the frustration and rage I ultimately feel and how he refuses to acknowledge any kind of social reality. Like, you know, that women exists as their own people. I mean, seriously, how many years has this dude been making movies, and he’s still incapable of writing a single female character who is not a metaphor or a tool to advance the male protagonist’s plot. I just… there’s a point where the pretty bruised eye candy isn’t worth it anymore. Social context matters, especially when you’re acting our your gangster fantasies in film after film.

Anyway, so, here we are with A Dangerous Method. Honestly, if there’s a worst thing Cronenberg could have chosen to adapt other than a book on Freud and Jung, I’m not aware of it. If there’s any point in history where his perpetuating of the misogyny of the times would have been more harmful, I’m having trouble thinking of it. I’ve written a bit about Freud and Jung and psychology and pop culture before, but basically, nothing Freud or Jung said had anything to do with how human psychology actually works. Nothing.

They were literally a bunch of people sitting in their living rooms, looking at how people around them behaved, and making up theories about why that was out of nowhere. Which is how philosophy works! Except not, you know, something that attempts to explain human nature through ~science~. Science actually requires um, evidence other than your own imagination.

It is always astounding to me (and every other psych major I know, or ex-psych major as the case may be with me) how people in the humanities and arts adore Freud (and to a lesser extent Jung). And I say this as a full fledged arts/humanities major (just a few exams shy of having a degree). It was like a bucket of ice water to my face, the fist time I realized there were actually literature/film classes where they analyzed shit according to Freud’s theories. Mostly I was lime “…why?” Nothing that dude said was accurate about human psychology in any way. What relevance does he possibly have except as a historical figure?

And then I realized that in the arts and humanities Freud was being utilized as a certain theoretical model of how humans work. Yes, it turned out he was wrong and it was completely made up, but it’s an interesting model nonetheless? And it’s influenced many works of fiction, while it was popular. Which, in my 3rd year as a film student, I can understand and (mostly) be OK with. But it’s just dawned on me how people outside of (some) psychology departments usually don’t study Freud within the full social and scientific context he was operating in. They study him as a philosopher, with perhaps some biography thrown in. You have to invest pretty hardcore in the history of psychology to really get the full effect.

In general, I think a movie about Freud and/or Jung is a really cool idea. I spent so long studying everything there is to know about those guys and their pals (and the endless women-in-refrigerators their lives were filled with), I would love see a film adaptation. But, like a giant bunch of psych majors on the forum where I originally saw the announcement/trailer about this film, just looking at it makes me certain is going to be the greatest instance of fail imaginable concerning this history. This history which is literally the history of misogyny and the very genesis of “mental illness” as we know it today (and the connection between the two). It is going to be all about Jung and his struggle to have vanilla sex with his rich, upper class wife, and kinky violent sex with his foreign, exotic patient.

Here are a few stories I wouldn’t mind seeing in a film, if one had to be made about Jung and Freud.

1. The story of how Freud struggled his entire life to be taken seriously by the medical establishment he was never really part of because he didn’t have the proper medical degree, because his theories were outrageous and because he was a Jew. Because ultimately it all came down to “he’s saying children have sex lives” and the deviancy of Jewish masculine sexuality. What more could you expect from Those People, of course sex and children is something they’d think of. And then came along Jung. His brightest, greatest, most ardent student, who was young and Catholic and a proper doctor. Who came from a family of priests. Who was the ultimate agent of legitimization. If someone like Carl Jung espoused Freud’s theories, with those impeccable credentials, a man no one would dismiss simply because of who he was, well. Who could possibly deny that Freud’s theories were right? And it was such an enormous partnership, they were more than BFFs, they were practically intellectual soulmates. This dude was everything Freud could ever hope to be, to make the world accept his assertions, and he happened to think Freud was the most awesome thing since sliced toast. Jung became the number one propagator of Freud’s theories, literally the president of his fan club, and while Freud was already popular and established by then, having someone like Jung on his side was basically the final, much sought after ultimate seal of approval from the universe.

And the thing about Freud’s Jewishness was that, like many, many Jews in his position, especially in the sciences, he was about as secular as you could imagine. He kind of had to be. The more he stressed his Jewishness to harder it was to get people to listen to anything he said if it was even remotely revolutionary, and besides, being Jewish and part of the scientific community in general wasn’t exactly an awesome time. Judaism was seen as an archaic, closed minded, traditional, backwards religion that certainly had its exotic flavors but had no place in something as objective and progressive as science. Secularism was imperative to Freud, like many of his peers, because it was his way of being taken seriously. He was absolutely against any kind of mixture between religion and psychology, it was basically the chief tenet of world view.

Anyway, so then one day Jung got up and was like “so hey, you know what I think? I think the subconscious is totally just God talking to us in our sleep!” and Freud was like “…” and Jung was all “:D?” and Freud… well, honestly I don’t know how Freud didn’t strangle that guy right then and there but I guess the physical distances between them helped.

And so it went. Jung became a hippy developed his theories on how dreams were just God’s way of telling us our future, and there’s a universal consciousness that links us all through space and time and so on (co-opting helpful stuff as he went along from the cultures of then conveniently colonized countries). And Freud… probably tried to kill himself? Or drink himself into oblivion, or something? I can’t even imagine the anguish and rage and frustration there, my god. It’s like, one day a guy is your soul mate and you’re bonded for life and the next he’s talking about God and spreading rumors that you banged your sister’s wife. Like, that’s gotta be harsh. I would watch a movie about that shit. I mean, the hatesex alone, you know?

(BTW, one of my favorite LOLZ things about Jung is how, post WWII one of his responses to being accused of antisemitic sentiments was HOW DARE YOU, EVERYONE KNOWS SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS WERE JEWS! LOLOL Rock on there, dude, rock on.)

2. Or, if you want more of the Jung character study type fiction, as this movie seems to, how about Jung’s journey to discovering The Actual Truth about psychoanalysis? I’m sure you know that most of the patients Freud (and, for most of his life, Jung) treated were suffering from a disease called Hysteria. A mysterious illness that was practically an epidemic in Freud’s time but had never been seen before or since. It afflicted almost exclusively women.

The genesis of Freud’s treatment methods was the now famous case of Anna O. aka Bertha Pappenheim (great great aunt of one of my psychology profs, ahem). A woman who was displaying all sorts of symptoms – hallucinations, temporary paralysis, temporary blindness, all kinds of unexplained physical disturbances. She was young and bright and lived in a fairly conservative family where she was allowed to acquire a certain amount of education but was not allowed to lead a public life otherwise, except through marriage. This was not uncommon for young women at the time.

Freud treated her at length, taking over from another doctor who’d given up or was scared away by Bertha’s shenanigans (such as one day telling him she was pregnant with his baby although they’d never had an affair, ahaha), depending on who you listen to. It was she who called Freud’s method “the talking cure.” Instead of proscribing rest (which was the standard) or resorting to hypnosis he simply tried talking to her about her past, her life, her thoughts, her dreams, as a way of attempting a cure.

The funny thing about Bertha is not the role she played in Freud’s life (which was enormous, she was his Famous First Patient) but what happened to her after he declared her “cured”. She remained, as long as she lived with her parents, where she was seldom allowed to leave the house, a woman who was considered ill fit for society. She continued to have trouble functioning “normally.” After a few years, however, and several dramatic episodes, she ended up living with her aunt and uncle, in a family that was much more liberal and allowed her the freedom to study and later work as she pleased.

Miraculously, she led a productive life, started a charity organization and published several works without evidence of further mental illness.

Not that there’s any connection between that and the sheer amount of rich, young Austrian women who found themselves suddenly “going crazy” around that time. Or, how about Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightly in the film. How about the fact that at 20 she spent less than a year in a mental institution (where she was treated by Jung) and, following her release, enrolled at university and became a psychologist herself. How about the fact that she and Jung were professional colleagues and confidants – he was basically her thesis adviser at uni.

What about all these curious cases where women – exclusively women – who on the one hand were supposedly “crazy” were suddenly turning “sane” as soon as something about their lives changed. I want to see the movie where Jung investigates this irregularity, questions Freud’s methods and his own, the very validity of what he’s doing. Jung’s wife maintained a correspondership with Freud, his greatest intellectual partners throughout his life were women. Many of them former patients. Women with degrees, women who founded their own schools, their own theories. Freud’s greatest disciple was his daughter. What part of all of this played into Jung’s separation from Freud’s theories, Freud who couldn’t even formulate a cohesive theory on the development of women’s sexualities (when sexuality was central to every part of his psychological theories).

What prompted Jung to call the “female element” in all of us “unproductive” and “docile”? How did that actually sit with his experience of the women in his life, who were largely brilliant and talented and amazing? I’d watch that movie.

3. Or we can talk about Sabina Spielrein. I’m quite fond of her, if you can be fond of anyone on that scene. By all means, I would love to see a movie about her and her relationship with Jung (and Freud). I want to hear all about the 20 year old Russian (Jewish) girl who ended up in a mental institution in Switzerland. Who spent less than a year there and met Carl Jung and potentially became his lover (I would so not put this above Jung, I can’t even tell you), who was released less than a year later and entered university under Jung’s tutelage and became one of the first psychoanalysts in the world. Who also hung out with Freud and Jean Piaget and everyone who was anyone on that scene.

Who went back to Russia, to a post revolution world, and, along with another woman psychologist (Vera Schmidt) opened an experimental school for young children. Who conducted psychological research and was enormously influential in bringing psychoanalysis as a theory and a form of treatment to Russia. Who was murdered, along with her family, for being too prominent, too politically inconvenient and too Jewish.

Talk to me about a woman who, in the 1920s, had had several lovers, publicly, had been a mental patient and held a doctorate, who ran her own institution and was one of the most prominent people in her field. Talk to me about how that sat with her husband, himself a pretty extraordinary person, what kind of family life they had, what their ideals were like.

I want a movie about her. I mean, not that the version where she’s a sexy crazy lady Jung decides to have a BDSM relationship and then experiences existential angst over isn’t lovely, but. If there is a more boring story to tell about Sabina Spielrein, I’m not aware of it.

But you know, I guess instead what I’m gonna get is A Dangerous Method.

Which, sadly, horridly, I actually really want to watch. Maybe out of some misguided hope that maybe these stories will somehow be done right, despite all reasonable evidence to the contrary.

Whatever, I need to basically pretend this movie doesn’t exist because my rage and anguish over how the completely fucked up manner in which Cronenberg is going to render this history, ugh. I can’t.

ETA I forgot, obligatory “the only scene of this movie I’d actually be willing to see” screencap right here.

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