Monthly Archives: July 2017

Dunkirk

 

The war film is a dying genre. I do not intend a pun, and I didn’t want to dislike Dunkirk, the latest effort to memorialize a famous World War II battle. But unfortunately, I didn’t like Dunkirk, or rather, I didn’t love Dunkirk which, given my expectations going into the theater, was tantamount to hating it.

War films have a special place in my life. In theory, this is because James Daniels, my grandfather, was a veteran of World War II, and more specifically, a veteran of the Dunkirk evacuation that rescued around 340,000 British soldiers in May 1940 and thus girded Britain’s survival through the early years of the war. You might think I’d have heard the odd tale or two from my grandfather about the brave efforts that brought him home. I’m afraid not. Granddad said little, if anything that I recall about the battle or its aftermath. Occasionally, he’d utter tongue-in-cheek comments, barely chuckling as I asked if he’d “killed any Germans”; instead replying that he was too busy running away. As I conjure the memory of his dignified medals, sitting within a framed, sepia certificate of recognition, and hanging on a wall in his home in North Wales, I don’t recall hearing of the shame supposedly anticipated by escaping soldiers, as the film suggests happened. After his passing, I learned that James’ experience must have been more horrific than I’d ever imagined. He couldn’t swim, and according to my father, retreated from gunfire into the English channel, not so much escaping as choosing how to die. James was spared because a daring sergeant grabbed him by the scruff and pulled him into a boat. James spent his later war years in places like Iceland, the Orkney islands, waiting upon further assignments, and meeting a nurse that would be my grandmother. He fought at the D-day landing in 44′. He didn’t talk much about that. Iceland, he complained, smelled of fish.

To hear what I thought were proper, exciting war stories, I had to watch movies when I was a kid. From the fifties through the seventies, the best war films featured largely British casts fronted by American stars: The Bridge On The River Kwai, with William Holden (though Alec Guinness, later Obi Wan, won a best actor oscar); The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen stealing scenes with a motorbike; and The Dirty Dozen, with Lee Marvin kicking ass and being cool and snarky. Even the obviously bad films were guilty pleasures: The Longest Day depicted the D-day landing with a technical prowess that was admirable in 1962, but despite an all-star cast, the acting scenes were embarrassingly awful, and the anecdotal tidbits between battle sequences seemed hopelessly contrived. A Bridge Too Far (1977) followed a similar formula, was similarly bad, yet was also oddly enjoyable (like The LD, BTF was based upon a Cornelius Ryan novel). And it, too, relied upon an American star—Robert Redford—to front a largely British cast and thus cameo the film to financial success.

After that, for a while anyway, the most important war flicks were all about Vietnam: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. Stars featured in the first two, not so much Platoon. In FMJ, the man behind the camera—Stanley Kubrick—was the star. In 1998, WWII made a comeback in the form of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which was nothing less than an assaultive viewing experience—the most traumatizing of all war films. That same year, Terrance Malick revived the war-time poetry of James Jones with The Thin Red Line, perhaps my favorite war film ever, and the only film amongst these to achieve a coherent story and theme with an all-star cast. By the way, I think of Schindler’s List differently: a holocaust story, not a war film in the traditional sense. The Hurt Locker is perhaps the best film from the desert war era. What it has to say about PTSD is incomparable.

The closest thing Dunkirk has to Robert Redford is a guy from a boy-band called One Direction. Otherwise, it has Kenneth Branagh, best known as Hamlet, playing a commander who spends the evacuation stuck on a pier, staring out to sea and making decisions. Then there’s Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar last year for Bridge of Spies, playing a civilian rescuing soldiers on a private boat (apparently one of many at Dunkirk). Star-power isn’t the selling point of Dunkirk. I’d imagined or hoped that it might rival Saving Private Ryan for spectacle, or maybe The Thin Red Line as an artful effort. But it matches neither standard, unfortunately. Behind-the-scenes stuff is regrettably eschewed. The true story of Churchill’s demand that boats return to collect the French is omitted, as is Hitler’s famous halt order to his troops, which allowed British, Belgian, and Dutch soldiers to collect on beaches and climb atop boats.

Instead, a series of Luftwaffe attacks that sunk ships and doused British morale are depicted prior to a triumphant finale. Meanwhile, the story follows three young soldiers who jump queues (lines), stowaway on doomed escape boats, bicker over a French interloper, but eventually make it home to Dover. The biggest hero is a pilot of a Spitfire who seems to take on the Luftwaffe all by himself while running out of fuel. His singular heroics redeem a British air force that is otherwise absent, and his surrendering glide over Dunkirk’s beaches is an eloquent tribute to the operation. These mini-plots all contain their share of suspense and thrills, and are indeed moving. But somehow, the finished product underwhelms. What I’d expected was an expansion of the experience I’d had reading Atonement, Ian McEwan’s war-time novel (later a good film, also), which features harrowing descriptions of the Dunkirk evacuation as a subplot. Watching Dunkirk, I was waiting upon a coup de grace, a war film to end them all. I was ready for a cathartic event, one that would bring me to tears as I thought of my grandfather, James.

I’m not gonna find this in movies.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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We are the dead

 

I’m about two thirds in to the black hole that is Leftovers, the cryptic, apocalyptic HBO drama that has taken my life over the last two weeks. I’m down in the well with Kevin, the psychotic protagonist, with Patti, his tormentor/imaginary friend, wondering when and how I’ll ever get out—not that I want out, necessarily. It’s complicated.

Actually, I’m glad Kevin got rid of Patti, finally. I mean, I think he got rid of her. For all I know, her death will have been another hallucination; a Twin Peaks-like spin into a netherworld, after which she will appear again, stalking him and us with her maddening presence. She reminds me of a girl who wouldn’t leave me alone when I was nine years old, and no, she wasn’t looking for her first kiss. At least we got an explanation out of Patti. Moments before getting her head blown off in a Godfather-like ruse, she pronounces to Kevin, her assassin, a rationale for the diabolic breakdown in feeling that has overcome humanity since October 14th. It concerns attachment, and love, and abandonment, she states—all themes that have dominated this mind-slogging second season.

Kevin thinks he’s in purgatory, having accepted a mission into hell to kill the demon Patti, who in this underworld dream has become a senator, having presumably ridden a wave of end-of-world fervor. Kevin’s been having a rough time lately. He’s dead, sort of, after an inferno-inducing overdose facilitated by…well, nevermind. Anyway, he is estranged from his wife—that happened before season one. He’s been dumped by Nora, his girlfriend, in season two; he’s also estranged from his son, who at this point has joined a Guilty Remnant (a cult devoted to smoking and stalking) split-off group; meanwhile, Kevin’s pissing off his teenage daughter, who thinks him unreliable, blameworthy for her own abandonment struggle. Kevin feels alone, desperately, epitomizingly alone. Patti thinks this is the new normal: October 14th, that spectacular cosmic event of 2011, in which 2% of the world’s population inexplicably vanished, has rendered love moot, by demonstrating once and for all that goodness and justice mean nothing. The seemingly random extraction of people has turned the world upside down: it has made a liar of religion, morality, even medical science. It has shown that personal responsibility, good and bad deeds, don’t matter. It has destroyed our implicit belief in a meritocratic universe.

Two thirds in, Leftovers is shaping up as a parable of depression and deadness: what happens when the event is over, the moment of choice has passed, and only the aftermath remains. Well, questions remain: does it matter if we take care of ourselves, each other? Does it matter if we smoke, for example? The Guilty Remnant hierarchy denounces violence as a means to elicit memory (the ‘We make them remember” ethos), declaring violence “weak”. But if self-care, morality, and love don’t matter, then what’s so important about strength? Is it, as Patti suggests just prior to her demise, a matter of survival in a context wherein happiness or personal growth no longer exist? Are all of these strange behaviors—the delusions, the mutism, the acting out—variations of self-defense? Season two ends in relief, with a breathless, tearful reunion between Kevin and all of the estranged. Paradise? A happy ending? Not quite, but it rebukes Patti’s decree, anyway. Some things matter. Good thing too, for Leftovers was starting to get me down, into defense. No, I won’t choose mutism or smoking.

Here’s what happened. Kevin had been through purgatory and hell. In fact, he technically went through it (them?) twice after being shot on earth after his first return. Guy couldn’t get a break. When he wakes up in that Twilight Zone hotel, recognizing the scene, knowing he was back for another ordeal, he yells “MOTHERFUCKER” into a bathroom mirror in despair. I felt for him, his frustration and hopeless. But I laughed. I laughed my ass off.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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The ultimate risk of addiction treatment

 

In the field of addictions work, so-called, it is common for practitioners and later patients who integrate ideas to cast addiction as a problem of emotion.

The addictive personality is one who is pleasure and novelty seeking, and risk taking, it is said. Risk-taking except in the area of intimacy, wherein he/she is likely avoidant. Psychoanalytic theory, attachment theory, and a host of techniques derived from either, are supported by neurobiological research, which affirms that unconscious process, communication that occurs implicitly, via eye contact, body language, and voice prosody, is mediated via the prefrontal orbital areas of the brain, and nurtured (or not) in human beings during early childhood development. The role of the therapist in our society, not unlike that of the early caregiver in some respects, is to serve as an auxiliary ego, using words, reflection, tone and physicality: to connect.

Addicts and trauma survivors would appear to have something in common: a penchant for disconnection, or dissociation, as trauma researchers indicate. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory in the latter half of the twentieth century, offered that psychoneurosis derives from protracted separation anxiety: that children deprived of maternal care first protest, then despair, and then finally exhibit detachment, which is characterized by dissociation, a state of disembodied escapism. What latter day research indicates is that infants and toddlers’ levels of the steroid hormone cortisol maintain elevated levels when a caregiver is either absent or insensitive. If such a child is deprived of all caregiving, cortisol levels stay chronically high and therefore children will develop passive parasympathetic strategies of dissociation. Habituation of the brain to the opioid-releasing state of dissociation thus becomes a “default mode” of affect regulation. The result: a predisposition to addictive behaviors, and insecure attachment in the form of an unresponsive, intimacy-avoidant personality.

This perspective is a paradigm shift for many seeking treatment for problems of substance abuse, sexual acting out, food addiction, and such, because society’s inclination is to externalize the problem of addiction: it is the substances that are addictive, for example—not so much that a predisposition within an individual exists. Meanwhile, sex addiction is a term used by some to exert an alternative, moralistic argument against sexual promiscuity, or alternative sexual lifestyles, rather than an assessment term that draws attention to a mood or mind-altering use of behavior. Food addiction is a label that is likewise criticized for being a thinly veiled attack upon the obese, especially obese women. The problem with labels is that they elicit persecutory anxiety, especially in those prone to what Melanie Klein once termed the paranoid-schizoid position, a primitive stage of childhood development. The benefit is that labels, like any succinct form of communication, draws quick and urgent attention to problems that merit just that.

The reason why the paradigm shift is important is so that preventive measures can flourish. Education is of course important, but education in the cognitive, Socratic sense is only the beginning, not the end of the intervention. We can, as we have for decades as a mental health community, provide appropriate medical care for those whose dependencies (to opioids and alcohol, for example) merit such monitoring and focus; we can concurrently and thereafter dogmatize that the consequences of addiction (jails, institutions, and death, to quote 12-step programs) are prohibitive; we can gingerly (or not) shame addicts into realizing that their behaviors are self-centered and immature, and we can impose various consequences based upon the premise that imposing limits will alter behavior (actually, limits are a good idea, but are mostly beneficial for friends and family—not as an agent of change in treating addiction). But for real change, the following is necessary.

Consciousness. Structure. Honesty. Time. Consciousness comes first. Not consciousness of the problems outlined in the last paragraph. There’s plenty of consciousness-raising about that already. Consciousness of feeling states, beginning perhaps with bodily sensations, as mirrored, amplified, and sometimes spoken to by an observant other, perhaps a therapist: someone who will monitor the moment-to-moment reactions of the patient; modulate closeness, sensitive to the fears that may manifest as withdrawal, whether the person is aware of their defenses or not. Structure comes in the form of routines: go to therapy, 12-step meetings, work and family obligations, etcetera—those necessary things to do to support growth and recovery. Time: the re-building of this afflicted self takes time, patience, and ongoing consciousness, about things like bodily sensations, feeling states that are felt and not—about that which has been driven underground, into the unconscious, and otherwise discharged via behavior.

This recovery process is another kind of risk. The biggest risk of all: to re-attach.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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