American Sniper: A Psychological Commentary

film poster2.2In a remarkable wide-ranging 1912 interview in The New York Times entitled “America Facing Its Most Tragic Moment” C. G. Jung claimed that men in the United States possess an inherent brutality which they repress beneath a veneer of chivalry and prudery. Such repression, or self-control, makes possible the pioneering spirit, business success, and philanthropic generosity for which the U.S. is known. It also leads to savagery and inequality in relation to minorities, including women.

Jung foresaw two possible outcomes to this situation. Americans will be devoured by the machinery and way of life which are products of their inherent brutality, or they will more consciously engage their emotional and instinctual selves to “produce a race which are human beings first, and men and women secondarily.” This latter development shall be known in part through the art and literature of the newly transformed American citizenry. In Visible Mind: Movies, modernity and the unconscious Jungian analyst and writer Christopher Hauke describes this development as a move toward an “über-humanity” (61).

Current events suggest that such a transformation in American society is yet to occur one hundred years (and change) after the publication of the Jung interview. However, signs of progress can be found. The present post turns for support to Clint Eastwood’s recent film American Sniper (2014) which was adapted from the 2012 book of the same title.

Eastwood’s film starts in the streets of Fallujah, Iraq. U.S. Navy Seal and sniper Chris Kyle occupies a rooftop position which enables him to keep a protective eye trained on the Marine Company below him. Kyle watches as a woman emerges from a building and hands a grenade to an adolescent boy at her side. The boy begins to walk in the direction of the advancing Marines.

The film narrative abruptly cuts to an extended flashback sequence involving Kyle’s childhood, military enlistment, Seal and sniper training, and marriage. When the sequence concludes, Kyle is back atop the roof in Fallujah. The grenade-wielding boy moves toward the Marine Company and Kyle has to shoot and kill him as well as the woman when she picks up the grenade. Though Kyle’s radio crackles with congratulations from the Company Commander and another officer, he appears sickened by what he has had to do.

americansniperKyle experiences many tests and challenges over the course of the film with the most overt of these being his desire to stop a Syrian sniper named Mustafa. He also has to learn to adapt to life both in the battlefield and back home. The latter re-entry proves particularly difficult, but by the end of the film he discovers that emotional attunement, presence, and empowerment are by-products of helping others in need whether those others are wounded war vets or his own wife, son, and daughter.

Kyle’s transformation from a hardened sniper with one hundred and sixty confirmed kills to a warm and engaged family and community member is moving and irrefutable. It is also at odds with the traditional masculine hero found in most Hollywood films or for that matter American society. As Jung noted in his interview “You have in America the wooden face […], because you’re trying so hard to hide your emotions and your instincts.” Hauke alludes to this same face as “a type of male stoicism and flattening of emotional expression” (59). Almost any film with Eastwood in a starring role reveals such a stoic flat expression – which makes his late-in-life helming of American Sniper all the more noteworthy.

Current events around the time of the wide release of Eastwood’s film suggest that the American heroic ideal is in extremis. News anchor Brian Williams and political commentator Bill O’Reilly came under fire for telling tall tales about their own supposed heroic exploits. Alex Rodriguez returned to baseball spring training after a year-long ban caused by his use of performance enhancing drugs, and in a failed attempt to remain out of the public eye Lance Armstrong let his wife take the blame for driving into parked cars near their home. The hero most definitely is in the cross hairs. Even Chris Kyle has not been immune from such criticism.

Eastwood’s American Sniper shows the way past such bravado to the heroism needed in the new millennium, i.e., the heroic choice to become emotionally vulnerable and attentive to physical and psychological wounding. Additionally, near the end of the film the scenes of Kyle reconnecting with his family suggest that an instinctive love for and play with others is also of great import. Horsing around at home with his wife before leaving on his final fateful outing, Kyle is living proof that laughter shared with another human being can be restorative and healing.

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Deep Realism, Part II: The Upper World of Cinema

Cave and Cosmos Cover

In this and the prior post the comparison of cinema and shamanism is not meant to arrive at a precise one-to-one correspondence. Neither experience is reducible in meaning or import to the other. Rather, I am comparing shamanism to cinema analogically so that something known and well elucidated helps us understand something else which is less well known. The world of shamanism as detailed in the books referenced here is brought to bear on the mysterious power of cinema to fascinate us through image and narrative.

In Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality Michael Harner outlines the Upper World of the shamanic cosmos in ways that prove quite revealing when applied to certain films. For example, Harner relates that with the aid of steady drumming, or auditory driving, shamanic practitioners often depart for the Upper World from a raised platform located in the Middle World. Ascending through clouds into the sky or sometimes flying along what is called the trail of heaven, practitioners often are accompanied by a bird such as an eagle or themselves transform into a bird or man-bird deity. Such magical flight and transformation brings feelings of out-of-body levitation, love, beauty, and ecstatic spiritual union.

During the journey shamanic practitioners also often hear celestial music such as heavenly choirs, and they meet famous figures from history and religious tradition. From such figures they learn answers to hitherto unanswered questions. Finally, the advice or wisdom gained from such answers helps move them and others further down the path of spiritual, psychological, and physical healing once they have returned to the Middle World.

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The opening images of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) alert viewers that they are about to accompany protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) on a cine-shamanic journey. That is to say, as the film’s title sequence begins so does a steady drumbeat. Then a strand of ominous music briefly joins the drums, and the first visual image of the film, a bright light shooting across a darkened sky, fills the screen. A comet, Icarus falling to his fiery death, or perhaps Birdman himself, the light (pictured above) also resembles an apocalyptic trail arcing down out of heaven.

This image gives way to one of Riggan alone in his dressing room on an upper floor of a Broadway theater. Legs crossed in front of him, Riggan levitates a couple feet off the ground. He meditates on the question that comprises the first spoken lines of the film: “How did we end up here? This place is horrible. We don’t belong in this s—thole.”

Virtually every scene in the film provides the answer to the question just posed. It is “that little prick called ego”—to quote Iñárritu in accepting the Oscar for Best Director. Or, as I noted in my earlier post on Birdman it is inflation, arrogance, grandiosity, and a sense of entitlement. On a collective level it is what Jung called the spirit of this time. No wonder that when I left the theater after seeing the film the phrase from Wordsworth “the world is too much with us” popped into my head.

The solution or cure to the “too much-ness” of ego and world is found in another exquisite and much lauded film of the past year: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Like Birdman, Boyhood also begins with an image of the sky and as such signals that we are about to take a journey into the Upper World of cinema. We are about to encounter teachers and wisdom figures—some of whom through their behavior instruct us how not to lead our lives. In the case of Boyhood, the second and third husbands of Olivia (Patricia Arquette) come to mind in this regard.

Love, beauty, and ecstatic spiritual union are also evident in Boyhood, perhaps most noticeably in the film’s concluding scene. I look more closely at the wisdom contained in this scene and in the film in its entirety in a future post. For the moment, however, what is important to note is this: whereas the cine-shamanic journeyer returns from the Lower World of cinema better able to meet the demands of his or her material existence, the journeyer to cinema’s Upper World having received an answer to one or more of life’s hitherto unanswered questions returns ready to face his or her spiritual existence.

In the context of the two films discussed, if Birdman asks and answers “How did we get here?” the question at the heart of Boyhood is “Where do we go next?” The presence of “we” in both questions reveals a final tantalizing possibility. The lessons learned or wisdom imparted in cinema’s Upper World have collective implications not found in the Lower World’s emphasis on individual adaptation and empowerment.

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Deep Realism, Part I: The Lower World of Cinema

The World of ShamanismMentioned at the close of my December post, the concept of deep realism owes a substantial debt to the time-honored practice of shamanism. The present post outlines a few ways in which the cinematic and shamanic experiences overlap and is drawn from a lecture I gave last year entitled “The Cave of Cinematic Dreams: Film & Shamanism.” This initial description of deep realism concludes next month with reference to my February 20, 2015, lectureBoyhood: Richard Linklater and the Sensitive Soul.”

According to Roger Walsh in The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition, “Shamanism can be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) interacting with other entities, often by traveling to other realms, in order to serve their community” (15). Although the present post focuses on spectators as shamanic practitioners, filmmakers themselves are the first to undergo and then make possible this journey to other realms. In other words a writer-director like Linklater is something of a modern-day shaman as is anyone else, e.g., cinematographer, editor, film score composer, et al., who helps facilitate the spectator’s own cine-shamanic journey.

Walsh and other writers such as Michael Harner note that a natural cave often serves as the point of departure from this world into shamanic worlds or realms. The trip down into and time spent within the cave is characterized by sensory deprivation, severe exertion including movement through narrow passageways, and darkness. The darkness however does not remain. Once seated practitioners fortunate enough to enter into an altered state of consciousness find that the darkness is replaced by a most luminous inner and/or outer revelation.

As the shamanic cosmos is often divided into three realms or worlds and the ordinary world in which most of us live is called the Middle World, the revelation experienced by the journeyer takes him or her out of the Middle World to one of the two remaining realms. One of these realms, i.e., the Lower World, affords the journeyer an experience characterized by tests and challenges ideally leading to transformation, adaptation, and empowerment. Once all is said and done, the shamanic journeyer returns from the Lower to the Middle World better equipped to handle the demands of his or her material existence.

Parallels between the shamanic and cinematic experiences may already be apparent after reading the above description. For spectators, the trip from their home or point of origin to the movie theater sometimes can be an ordeal unto itself. After parking the car, making their way up and down escalators, standing in line to buy tickets and refreshments, using the restroom, et cetera, they walk through the narrow entrance leading into the theater’s main hall toward the comfort of their seats. Sitting down, they await the cinematic journey before them and as lights dim sink further into a relaxed state characterized by what Coleridge called a voluntary or willing suspension of disbelief. As the curtain parts they are primed for inner and outer revelation.

nibiruEntrance into the Lower World of cinema is often marked in the dialogue or camera-work at the very beginning of a film. The descent out of the night sky to the streets of Paris in Hugo and the daytime descent to a city bench in Forrest Gump signal to spectators that they are entering another realm in which they will experience tests and challenges through identification with one or more on-screen characters. Similar descents also can be found at the start of Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness, the opening image of which is pictured above.

One film in which descent into the Lower World is noted through dialogue is The Graduate with its memorable opening line: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are about to begin our descent into Los Angeles.” Over the course of the film spectators follow Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as he ventures out into a very uncertain post-graduation world. He faces numerous tests and challenges such as those posed to him by the seductive Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Benjamin’s story is all about personal transformation and adaptation to the new world he finds himself in, and yet it is an adaptation that ultimately is empowering and victorious especially over the expectations of others around him.

The impact on spectators of their journey into the Lower World of cinema varies in accordance with the degree of conscious reflection they bring to that journey. In Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams circusman-turned-archaeologist Julien Monney remarks that he experienced such an emotional shock from viewing the ancient cave paintings in France’s Chauvet caves that he had to leave the cave, relax, and take time to “absorb” what he saw. He experienced something deeply real and such an experience that lasts long after the film is over is a hallmark of what I call deep realism. Next month’s post continues the exploration of deep realism in the context of cinema’s Upper World.

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Update: For another trip into the Lower World of cinema, click here.

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