Saturday, September 26, 2009

Falling Down (1993 - dir. Joel Schumacher)

In a previous post for the movie Thirteen, I remarked on the fact that, notable by their absence in the film, were strong, stable male figures in the lives of the teenage girls. Evolutionary psychological research suggests some hypotheses about how father absence and early adolescent female behavior might be related. In Falling Down, my focus will shift to how fathers may be affected by such absence. And, how the psychological impact on many men may be more profound than frequently assumed.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it will be difficult for me to be completely objective here. About seven years ago, I filed for divorce from my wife of 10 years. The grounds for my filing will remain personal but, suffice it to say, they were as they were since it became clear that reconciliation was impossible. She had found another life. We had, at the time, a 7-year-old little girl. A beautiful creature....then, and now. As is the rule in the vast majority of these cases, physical custody of our child was awarded to her. I remember experiencing a level of anger, terror, and despondency the likes of which I hadn't experienced before, or since. To a large degree, it's still there. I've just figured out how to accommodate myself to it. I had seen Falling Down upon its initial release but, when watching it again after the breakup of my marriage, I was overwhelmed with emotions that completely transcended the "social commentary" about violence and modern life that the film was described by many reviewers as being all about.

For unexplained reasons, a man leaves his car in the heat and congested traffic and begins to work his way across Los Angeles. His misadventures involve a series of encounters with the pitifully inconsequential frustrations of everyday life that, for some reason, he has decided not to put up with anymore. Gradually, it becomes clear that the man simply wants to "come home" to his wife and his little girl. You is his little girl's birthday. And, along the way, he has bought her a snow globe. And, he just wants to go home. And, give it to her. Gradually, the man becomes more enraged by the obstacles in his way and becomes more unbalanced and violent in his dealing with them.

Contrary to the facile interpretations of the evolutionary psychology of human mating behavior, the primary literature points to a much more nuanced picture. There are many reasons for a "facultative" long-term mating strategy by human males. The potential costs of short-term strategies (STD's, risk of violence from the female's kin or other partners, etc.) are numerous and the probability of offspring survival in human ancestral history was likely to be relatively low without the presence of parental investment by the father. Consequently, evolutionary psychologists have predicted, and found, evidence for the psychological importance of long-term mating and parental investment in human males. Financial child support payments are the responsible and necessary things to do. However, this does nothing to address the terrible isolation and dislocation felt by many fathers that are unable to actualize the level of psychological investment that they are prevented from experiencing. The daily meals...the nightly good-night kisses from your adoring children...yes, many men miss this. Deeply.

For me (an un-objective viewer, remember), this is what Falling Down is all about. The fact that the detective on the man's trail has also lost his little girl (to death, in this case, rather than separation) speaks to the centrality of this theme in the film. While many interpret its message as saying something about how violence may be a likely reaction to the alienation and social isolation of modern life, I simply see it as a heartbreaking story about a guy who wants to go home to be with his kid on her birthday.....and loses his way.

All I want is my breakfast...

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Elephant Man (1980 - dir. David Lynch)

Psychologists and, especially, evolutionary psychologists, are always inquiring why. Why do parents love their children? Why are people attracted to physically desirable others? Why are some people more physically attractive than others? Evolutionary psychology attempts to examine the deepest reasons for what many take for granted. From this point of view, it is not because someone is "good-looking" that you find them physically attractive. The scientific question is, why are they perceived as "good-looking" in the first place and, therefore, found to be attractive? Research in this area provides a context from which to understand what is perhaps one of the most promiscuous themes in cinema...the "monster"movie.

One of the best treatments of the deep themes that run through many "monster" movies is David Lynch's The Elephant Man. This film does not portray a supernatural monster, an outer space monster, or some sort of improbable creation of science gone out of control. But, that makes no difference in that the underlying psychology behind films of this type is remarkably similar. Turning the psychology of physical attraction on its head, Lynch's film addresses the question, "why are people repulsed by physically unattractive (indeed, repulsive) others, even though these others are intelligent, sensitive people"?

Joseph Merrick was afflicted with physical deformities, the causes of which are still hotly disputed. Lynch's film is a moving rumination on the way that interpersonal connection is often preempted by apparently superficial physical variables. Why should the way one looks matters? Why can't people look beyond physical abnormalities (or, even "normalities") and see the "real" person? While our disgust reactions to physical deformity seem "natural" and unrequiring of explanation, something inside us demands to know why.

In Lynch's film, the deformed Merrick is rescued from a life as a carnival sideshow attraction by a physician who is fascinated with his malady as well as the possibility of integrating this kind soul into Victorian society. Despite Merrick's human nature, it becomes clear that his physical presence is a curse that he will never be able to overcome. Recent evolutionary psychological research has given us a way to understand this peculiar aspect of human behavior. Schaller and Duncan (2007) have hypothesized the "behavioral immune system" that, essentially, argues that
"evolved mechanisms designed to inhibit contact with disease-carrying conspecifics are likely to promote specific kinds of aversive reactions toward many specific kinds of people who are, in fact, perfectly healthy." In other words, humans may possess psychological adaptations that promoted aversive reactions to cues of infection, disease, or other maladies in our ancestral history. Those that possessed these cognitive aversions, and their attendant emotional reactions of disgust, etc., were more likely to avoid the possible contagious effects that would occur with close, interpersonal contact. As with most evolved disgust reactions, overgeneralization of such responses would be selected for as the costs of avoiding a healthy person would be less than the cost of not avoiding a "contagious" person. Consequently, and as subsequent research by these psychologists has demonstrated, contagion avoidance, as ancestrally cued by physical abnormalities, has generalized to avoidance reactions to cases of deformity and infirmity that have nothing to do with contagious disease (for example, physical disabilities). Think about it. Do you ever feel uncomfortable in the presence of physically disabled or deformed individuals?

Monsters have mothers, too...

Obviously, these reactions are not justified in that "disabled" individuals are not less human nor less "worthy" than anybody else. This research is clearly not suggesting that. What is being examined is the nature of individuals' reactions to specific cues of "contagion" that, over time, have been overgeneralized to physical cues that signal nothing at all.

Frankenstein's monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, Jason, and never-ending squadrons of zombies attest to the fascination of humans with the physically "abnormal." Clearly, in these films, they are beings to be avoided. Lynch's Elephant Man provokes avoidance. But...he's nice, smart, and elegant. And there's the eternal contradiction of the monster...

Monsters on Parade

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Antichrist (2009 - dir. Lars von Trier)

Premiering at Cannes a few months ago, this film is about to be screened at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival. It promises to be, what one might call, an event. Being somewhat familiar with the reputation garnered by this film, it was with serious trepidation that I sat down in my comfortable chair to watch it. How I ended up with a copy to watch before it's official release will remain a well-guarded secret.

All of these preliminaries fade into oblivion in the face of the profundity of this film. I don't particularly consider myself a fan of von Trier and have been less than moved by his previous work. And then, he goes and creates a film that, for me, can only be considered equivalent to the finest of Kubrick...the all-time master. Quite simply, Antichrist probes the marrow of human nature, and the concept of "nature" itself, as profoundly as an artist ever has. It is a magnificent achievement.

He and She are making love. In their toddler's room, a window is blown open by the winter wind. Their son leaves his bed to explore. He walks out his window, into the snow, stories below his bedroom. Weeks later, She is still consumed by grief. And He, a therapist, pretentiously believes that he can remove all the guilt and remorse through clever clinical discourse. She remains unmoved by such trivial attempts at healing and agrees to go to the couple's cabin in the forest ("Eden"), a place where He has concluded lies the source of her despair. What transpires can only be described as an impotent attempt by He to throw a net of rationality over the chthonic forces of nature....embodied by She.

Darwin was haunted by the elemental forces of nature. This awareness was probably responsible for his eventual adoption of an atheistic/agnostic worldview. This is perhaps best captured by his consideration of the apparent brutality of nature in service of the survival and reproduction of individual organisms...such as the ichneumonid wasp:
"I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." Cannibalistic spiders, praying mantis, infanticidal lions and monkeys, female fish whose "mates" are little more than sacrificial males whose main function is that of an attached appendage contributing sperm. Nature not only doesn't provide moral lessons for humanity; it provides a brutal backdrop from which to gain the proper perspective in understanding our species.

Antichrist pushes our collective faces into the moss and detritus of "uncognized" nature. An early image in the film is a slow zoom into a vase holding the flowers brought to She by He. Rather than showing the bright blooms and, by extension, the expression of buoyant "get well soon" wishes, von Trier zooms in on the flower stems, immersed in their fetid water, swirling with dead plant tissue and microorganisms which form the core of these expressions of condolence. This image is the red carpet leading to the remainder of von Trier's vision.

In reproductive fitness terms, females "cost more" than males; eggs are a more valuable commodity than sperm due to their relative rarity. Consequently, in the absence of parental investment, males of most species are, what might be considered, "expendable." In the film, it is after the couple's son has passed that He becomes unnecessary. The viciousness of the sexual conflict that transpires in Eden is the playing out of the (mostly unconscious) conflict that underlies male/female relations, not only in humans, but in many other species. Males are a cheap contributor to the powerful movements of nature that are dominated by female fertility, gestation, growth, and development of offspring. It's enough to overwhelm a male...a male who wants to set things right....a male who wants his partner to return to sanity...a male who wants to control natural chaos. A male like He.

The final, majestic scene of Antichrist shows a throng of faceless women ascending through the undergrowth, up a hill towards He as he stands alone in the primeval forest. Reproduction can only happen through the female. Male reproductive fitness is constrained by those things that constrain female reproductive fitness. The currency of nature is female. In this final scene, the reality of nature, female and male, is exposed as surely as the transcendence of the Starchild is exposed in the final frame of Kubrick's 2001.

In the marketing campaign for Antichrist, the last "t" in the title is presented as the universal symbol for female (a "t" with a circle on top). Thoughtless critics have used this, together with a prissy reading of the film, as evidence of the director's supposed misogyny. If I had one tenth of the artistic vision von Trier has in this film, I would be ten times as offended by this critical sophistry. It is a tribute to him that he has let his prodigious achievement speak for itself.

Antichrist (2009) - Trailer

Friday, September 4, 2009

Straw Dogs (1971 - dir. Sam Peckinpah)

By all reports, Sam Peckinpah was a force of nature. This legendary film director is consistently described as living on the rawest edges of life. This can be felt viscerally when viewing his films. Never one to back away from controversial subjects, Peckinpah seemed to thrive on them. Frequently criticized as being an insensitive celebrator of machismo, his reaction was to simply not care...and go on to make even more controversial films. After The Wild Bunch in 1969 was roundly criticized by many critics (Roger Ebert was perhaps the most important exception, hailing the film as a masterpiece on initial viewing) for being a self-indulgent, celebratory exercise in gratuitous male violence, Peckinpah responded in a characteristic directing Straw Dogs.

I can still remember the body-blow I experienced after viewing Straw Dogs on its release in 1971. While it was apparent to me that this film had tapped into some profound aspect of human nature that was responsible for my reaction, I was unable to articulate what it was. Once again, after a number of years of work in the evolutionary psychology of human cognition and behavior, I have been able to piece together what may have been the enervating force behind this movie that impacted me (and many, many others) so much. It wasn't just a simple matter of being repulsed by scenes of violence and rape. If that were the case, trashy Saturday matinee blockbusters would be considered "controversial." This film taps into something much, much deeper in the evolved human "psyche."

A married couple's life is disrupted by the presence of a group of males that have been hired to work on their house. As the couple now lives in the wife's old home town, these males are known to her...particularly one of them - the "leader" of the group. They have a history that is never fully explained. The wife is tepid regarding her husband, a timid mathematician immersed in his work. As the tension builds, the men decide to play a trick on the husband. It's a version of "snipe hunting", a trick I remember playing on naive guys when I was a teenager. After convincing the husband that they will be hunting for birds, they quickly leave him in the fields and go back to his house. And then begins one of the most challenging scenes ever filmed....

Straw Dogs

To me, quasi-political sociological bromides such as "no means no" contribute close to nothing to our understanding of the behavior depicted in this scene. Sexual conflict is an elemental aspect of the human experience and has been a central concern of the evolutionary psychology of human mating behavior. In fact, conflict of this type occurs regularly in many other species. Let's be clear: I am not suggesting that this behavior is acceptable or not criminal. That is for legal systems to decide. What I am suggesting is that the complexities of such behavior are frequently ignored by standard social science models. Clearly, this scene depicts ambiguities that, eventually, devolve into an irrefutable incidence of rape. However, it also presents the ambiguity....and it is this that accounts for the nervous reactions of the viewer, including myself in 1971.

In their 2000 book A Natural History of Rape, Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer addressed some of these ambiguities. While I disagree with several elements of their conclusions, I was happy to see that the complexities of this aspect of the human experience were being confronted in a scientifically responsible way. Of course, the authors were met by a tsunami of uninformed criticism claiming that males are "programmed to rape." I have a feeling that Peckinpah would enjoy having a drink with Thornhill and Palmer, discussing the somewhat less-than-profound nature of these critiques.

Currently, evolutionary psychological hypotheses regarding human sexual coercion include those that suggest that, in certain circumstances, male reproductive fitness is enhanced by such "strategies." For example, males unable to attract or seduce females ("low mate value" males) will be more likely to adopt a coercive strategy. A hypothesis that is even more controversial is that, if dominant, powerful males are preferred by females, coercive male reproductive strategies will be ambiguously preferred by females. Major caveat: these hypotheses are not restricted to humans but have been entertained by individuals that research other species (for example, Hanna Kokko). What is the benefit to females? Male offspring from such encounters will be more likely to possess these dominant traits and, consequently, possess increased reproductive fitness. The extent to which these hypotheses reflect human nature is unknown. However, I believe it is a question worth asking. And, I am completely aware of the chasm of misunderstanding that yawns in front of anyone entertaining such possibilities.

Similar themes are encountered in The Accused where Jodie Foster plays a character immersed in the same ambiguities. To me, the film veers off into the land of political correctness without keeping a laser-like focus on the disturbing, yet profound, realities of human nature. Peckinpah, in his masterpiece, does not blink.

The Accused