The Death of Adolescence in American Culture, Part I

 

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Last September chief film critic for The New York Times A. O. Scott wrote a long and wide-ranging review of American culture as reflected in television and cinema. He called his piece “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” In his review Scott argues that the decline of patriarchy and the adult male in American society as depicted in “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men,” has created a vacuum largely now filled by infantile escapism, i.e. the refusal of American citizens to grow up and enter the world of relationships and responsibility.

This refusal is evident in such male-driven cinematic fare as the innumerable comic-book movies which endlessly play on our movie screens or the equally ubiquitous bro-mance comedies like “The Hangover,” “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin,” and “Knocked Up.” But the boys are not alone; female-centric TV shows such as “Girls” and “Broad City,” are rebellious in their own right. Scott states that these latter shows are characterized by “a freedom to be idiotic, selfish and immature as well as sexually adventurous and emotionally reckless.”

Young Adult fiction receives a similarly generous dose of Scott’s ire. Toward the beginning of his essay he writes:

“I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games.’ I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.”

Finally, toward the end of his critique he adds:

“Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content.” “It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young.”

Perhaps unknown to Scott is the fact that this concept of adulthood as the state of being forever young is not new to the rank and file of analytical psychology. As early as the winter of 1959-1960 Marie-Louise von Franz gave twelve lectures which were published together a decade later as her seminal text The Problem of the Puer Aeternus, the problem of the eternal youth. At the outset of her book von Franz writes, “In general, the man who is identified with the archetype of the puer aeternus remains too long in adolescent psychology; that is, all those characteristics that are normal in a youth of seventeen or eighteen are continued into later life […]” (7). Characteristics like riding skateboards and wearing plastic butterfly barrettes. A. O. Scott would do his unsuspecting co-workers a favor, then, were he to secretly replace their dog-eared volumes of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games with von Franz’s attractively packaged and undeniably incisive Puer Aeternus.

Or would he? In fact the present post argues that such books as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games—as well as their cinematic adaptations—provide the very solution to the problem under discussion, i.e., the youth who remains forever young and immature. Indeed, careful consideration of the narrative and imagery of these works yields a potential cure for “The Hangover” and “The 40-year-old Virgin,” a possible path to womanhood for the “Girls” of “Broad City.”

katniss3The distinction made here between problem and cure with reference to specific films and shows owes a debt both to the 6th century Roman philosopher Boethius and the archetypal psychologist James Hillman. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius writes “But it is rather time,” saith she, “to apply remedies, than to make complaintes.” This statement is the first of three epigraphs to Hillman’s essay “Senex and Puer: An Aspect of the Historical and Psychological Present.” Originally presented and published in 1967 and now found in Volume 3 of his Uniform Edition (pictured at top), Hillman’s essay marks his first of multiple important writings on the subject of the puer. Scott and von Franz may lodge the complaint about the youth who remains forever young, but Hillman provides the remedy.

Essential to the application of this remedy is Hillman’s distinction between the archetypal background and the neurotic foreground of the puer. The archetypal background of the puer shines through such recent film series as The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner, all of which have captured the public imagination precisely because they communicate timely and transcendent, or archetypal, “messages from the spirit.” Hillman also refers to these messages as “calls to the spirit” (50-51).

These messages or calls, however, are obscured by and in the puerile films and shows criticized by Scott. Such stories of arrested development concern parental complexes of the personal unconscious rather than healing messages from the collective unconscious or spirit. See Adam Sandler. The tics, twitches, and tomfoolery of his many characters, their temper tantrums, reveal little more than their place front and center in the neurotic foreground of the puer. Such characters may be funny in a sophomoric way but rarely if ever do they graduate to a higher, or deeper, meaning and significance.

Seeing through the foreground of the puer to its healing archetypal background begins with the recognition that the puer is one half of what originally comprised a single bipolar archetype, the puer senex or puer senilis. The youth-age polarity (35). Hillman notes that these two poles or faces of the same puer senex archetype are evident in Jewish mysticism via The Holy Old Man as Attik and in Roman mythology via Saturn, both of whom sometimes conceal themselves as if with a hood. Or as we might say today, “The Holy Old Man in a hoodie.” These and other examples given by Hillman demonstrate a degree of original identity shared by the two poles, an identity he refers to as “a union of sames” (60-61).

Today these two poles are split. The ego or willful mind has separated the puer senex archetype into the puer and senex. The union of sames has become a conflict of extremes (61). In The Hunger Games (shown above), Divergent, and The Maze Runner—as in our own world—this conflict of extremes manifests as extreme conflict, one side pitted against the other. Not utopia but dystopia, i.e., the dystopia of Panem, post-apocalyptic Chicago, and the wasted world outside the Maze…

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Note: The above represents the first part of a twenty minute presentation I gave July 10th in Connecticut. In Los Angeles on July 24th, I expanded this material into a two hour lecture.

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Boyhood, Part II: Another Look at Richard Linklater’s Non-Millennial Millennial Film

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Toward the end of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood protagonist Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) drives alone in his pick-up through a desert landscape. He is on his way to college for the first time. At a gas station mid-trip Mason pulls out his camera and takes pictures of objects around him: a rusty lantern; a red fire hydrant; a broken traffic signal. The song “Hero” plays over top the sequence: “Let me go. I don’t wanna be your hero. I don’t wanna be a big man.”

This song by Family of the Year provides a moving and melancholic contrast to an otherwise annoying thematic refrain on heroism that appears throughout the film. In particular the heroic traits of responsibility and ambition are trumpeted by numerous characters—and not always in a positive manner. Early in the film Olivia (Patricia Arquette) complains about the fact that responsibility to her children necessitates the sacrifice of her own personal desires. She has taken the difficult and often unpleasant path forsaken by the kids’ irresponsible absentee father (Ethan Hawke). Other characters that harp to Mason on responsibility, ambition, duty, and discipline include Olivia’s second husband Bill (Marco Perella), her third husband Jim (Brad Hawkins), Mason’s photography teacher Mr. Turlington (Tom McTigue), and Mason’s boss at the restaurant Mr. Wood (Richard Robichaux).

Mason, however, marches to a different and perhaps less ambitious or disciplined drummer. His is an artistic sensibility which lives in the moment and values the experience of beauty over self-advancement and muscular achievement. In other words, the dictates by which he lives are those of his heart and not those of heroes or “big men.”

His orientation toward life, then, is marked by a natural preference for being over doing. This preference is most evident in the closing lines of the film. Foregoing freshman orientation Mason sits outside in Big Bend National Park next to Nicole (Jessi Mechler, pictured above) who as a dancer shares Mason’s artistic sensibility. She says to him, “You know how everyone’s always saying ‘seize the moment?’ I don’t know—I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like, the moment seizes us.” Mason looks at the beautiful landscape around them and replies, “Yeah. Yeah I know. It’s constant. The moment—it’s like it’s always right now.” How the present moment contributes to future gain is not their concern. For Mason and Nicole the one true gain can only be found here and now.

Their shared philosophic rapture is matched by the ecstatic union experienced by their companions Dalton (Maximillian McNamara) and Barb (Taylor Weaver). The latter couple stands off at a distance howling like coyotes toward the heavens. For the four friends the beauty of the moment has unfolded into an experience of wholeness and harmony with nature.

Psychologically, the innate preference of Mason and his friends for introspection, creativity, harmony, and openness to the present moment corresponds to the INFP typological designation in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Evolving out of Jung’s writing on typology, MBTI often takes the form of a computer questionnaire given in a manner similar to that described in the scene from Boyhood mentioned last month. INFP stands for introverted intuitive feeling perceiving.

In Compass of the Soul: Archetypal Guides to a Fuller Life Jungian analyst John Giannini also characterizes INFP as right-brained, feminine, and tender-minded or tender-hearted. He calls the INFP the sensitive soul. These qualities are evident in Mason’s tendency to daydream, his hairstyle and fingernail polish, his photographs centered on feelings and the feminine, and his sometimes gloomy disposition. What is described above as artistic sensibility is his soulful sensitivity.

Opposite INFP is ESTJ, or extraverted sensing thinking judging. People who identify with this type tend to be outwardly assertive, value hard facts and concrete reality over imagination, and possess a black-and-white sense of right and wrong. They are task-oriented, disciplined, and duty-bound. Their soul is that of the warrior or hero. The examples from Boyhood noted in the second paragraph exhibit ESTJ traits which Giannini also describes as left-brained, masculine, and tough-minded.

The juxtaposition between ESTJ and INFP energies in the film brings to mind the following statement from Jung: “Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking.” (CW 15: 130). With Boyhood Richard Linklater beautifully educates the spirit of this age. As evidenced by bullying, performance enhancing drugs, substance abuse, and religious and cultural fundamentalism, our collective temperament has become overbearing and even pathological in its heroism. What the hero lacks and most desperately needs is not more or better heroism but the healing presence of the sensitive soul.

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Note: The above two-part post expands on ideas found in my film review of Boyhood published in Psychological Perspectives: a quarterly journal of Jungian thought, Vol 58: Issue 2, 2015. Deeper exploration of this material has taken the form of two-hour lectures given here and here.

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Boyhood: Another Look at Richard Linklater’s Non-Millennial Millennial Film

roadtripThe conventional wisdom surrounding last year’s much lauded film Boyhood is that its theme and subject matter concern the early life experience of the millennial generation. For instance, regarding the film and its director Richard Linklater, Tribecafilm.com writer Andrew Bell states that, “From ‘Harry Potter’ to Facebook to ‘Twilight’ to Wii, Richard Linklater captures the millennial generation in his latest masterpiece.” Bell’s comment notwithstanding, what is curious about Linklater’s film is the key ways in which it is anti-millennial or at the very least not limited in scope or meaning to one single generation. Indeed, a case can be made that the meaning and import of this justly celebrated film is multi-generational.

According to Pew Research the term millennial is a sociological designation referring to the generation of individuals born between 1981 and 1996. The use of technology is the chief characteristic uniting these individuals followed by education, politics, and economic outlook. Millennials have “taken the lead in seizing on the new platforms of the digital era—the internet, mobile technology, social media—to construct personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups.” In short, millennials are “digital natives.” They are able to navigate their way through these platforms and networks with an ease unmatched by members of prior generations.

With this description in mind, the thematic tone of Boyhood takes a decidedly anti-millennial turn in one scene in particular. While on a road trip to Austin, Texas, Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) discuss the former’s desire to delete his Facebook page. [See above image]. Instead, Mason wants to “try and not live [his] life through a screen.” He wants “some kind of actual interaction. A real person…” He also makes fun of the significance given to email and cell phone messaging. He clearly no longer wants to be a digital native.

Analysis of a later scene suggests that to find the film’s theme viewers not only must turn away from millennial considerations but the sociology of generations entirely. Here sociology gives way to psychology, specifically the psychology of types. As Mason readies to leave home for college for the first time he tells his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) that a computer program has placed him with his new roommate based on their shared interests and traits. His anti-millennial bent still showing, Mason exclaims “…Isn’t that kind of crazy though, that a computer knows who you are from just twenty questions off a form? I guess there are really only like eight types of people in the world.” He then mentions the existence of “subsets” to these types as well as the incredible 100% success rate of the computer program.

Mason’s words in this scene mirror those found in a passage on typology in Sonu Shamdasani’s Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science. Writing about Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung, Shamdasani states, “Jung developed a schema of eight main types. These fell into two main groups – introverts and extraverts. Each of these was further subdivided into four sub groups, characterized by the main function of the individual” (p. 77). The functions alluded to here are thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation. Placing the words introverted or extraverted in front of these functions yields the eight main types.

Introduced into the narrative near the end of Boyhood this scene involving typology is the third prominent reference to psychology in the film. The first reference concerns the classical conditioning theory of Ivan Pavlov and occurs in a university lecture given by Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella) who becomes Olivia’s second husband. The second reference is given by Olivia herself while teaching a class on John Bowlby’s attachment theory. As in the prior scene, a future love interest for Olivia is introduced, this time in the form of her student Jim (Brad Hawkins).

What is interesting about these three references is the manner in which the characters involved unsuccessfully embody the psychological principles discussed. Bill succumbs to a Pavlovian-like instinct to satisfy his need and desire for alcohol while Olivia fails to establish a healthy lasting bond with Jim. Also, her exclamation that her life is over now that Mason is leaving for college possibly points to an all-too-strong maternal bond with her son.

In contrast to Bill and Olivia Mason quite admirably manages his instinctual desires for physical and emotional satisfaction. Again, he knows better than to give into the constant urge to check email and social media outlets. He also has established a healthy bond with his parents, survives his break-up with Sheena with his self-esteem intact, and at film’s end appears on his way toward establishing a healthy intimate relationship with his new friend Nicole (Jessi Mechler).

A similar progression can be seen in Mason’s father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). An absentee parent in the early stages of the film, Mason Sr. gets a degree and a job as an actuary, remarries, and settles down with his new wife and child. Whereas other characters in the film represent the type of wisdom figures who through their own example impart the wisdom of how not to act, Mason Sr. conveys to his son through word and deed the rewards gained in pursuit of an excellent life. Such excellence depends upon the cultivation, realization, and sharing of one’s own innate talents and calling—a fact he makes known by singing the individual praises of John, Paul, George, Ringo, and, yes, Mason Jr.

The cultivation, realization, and sharing of one’s unique talents and calling comprise a key aspect of what in Jungian parlance is called individuation. The first English translation of Jung’s Psychological Types was given the subtitle “The Psychology of Individuation” out of the awareness that typology and individuation are inextricably linked. What Boyhood suggests through the characters of Mason Sr. and Jr., then, is that in addition to learning to relate to one’s instinctual and emotional needs in a healthy manner individuals also need to develop and follow their innate typological compass. This holds true regardless of the generation to which they belong. Next month’s post delves more deeply into the specific typological argument at the heart of Linklater’s multi-generational film.

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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 the real life 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. In time such sharing may also help lead to the more humane race predicted by Jung.

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Deep Realism, Part II: The Upper World of Cinema

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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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