June 29, 2010

Is There Life After Birth?

[Some time ago I was asked by the Mexican actor, Diego Luna, to write an analysis of his first film as director, Abel, which won an award at the Sundance Festival and was recently released in Mexico. The essay was subsequently published in a book on the film, also entitled Abel. Text as follows:]

It is generally accepted that the author of any creative work is only half conscious of what he or she is doing. Indeed, without this sort of "vagueness," or indeterminacy, multiple interpretations of a novel, poem, or screenplay--which are the norm--would not be possible. And if the author objects, says, "but that's not what I meant," it isn't completely arrogant for the critic to reply, "no--at least not consciously." So let me put aside any false modesty here and say what I think this strange and remarkable film is "really" about.

Although it is not as popular today as it was forty years ago (give or take), there is a mode of treating psychological disturbances known as "family systems therapy," in which the therapist regards the pathology displayed by an individual as symptomatic of a larger problem--usually, a secret--that is woven into the fabric of the person's familial relationships. Within the family, there is an unspoken agreement that this thing, whatever it is, will never be mentioned. What the supposedly disturbed individual--say, a sixteen-year-old boy--is trying to do when he steals a car and gets caught, is bring attention to the family secret; to flush it out. (In psychological jargon this is called "acting out.") Therapy that focuses only on the adolescent and his criminal activity--makes him the "Identified Patient," so to speak--is missing the boat, on this interpretation. In truth, the kid is a healing agent, trying to expose the rot in the system, if only the family would be willing to stop playing an elaborate game of self-deception. In fact, if the son cleans up his act, stops stealing cars, and starts getting good grades in school, what happens? The fifteen-year-old daughter, previously a paragon of virtue, suddenly shows up pregnant. If she has the baby, gives it up for adoption, stops sleeping around, and manages to work out a healthy adolescent life, the father, amazingly enough, starts to drink. If he then goes to Alcoholics Anonymous and quits drinking, the mother becomes schizophrenic and is committed to a mental institution. Or perhaps hangs herself. You get the idea. The one thing the family does not want to do is address the Big Secret, the pathology that lies underneath the pathology. So like Hegel's zeitgeist, the ghost, the energy, keeps moving from person to person, making it look as though each successive "Identified Patient" is the problem, when it is actually the family dynamic that is the real problem.

In many ways, Abel is a quintessentially Mexican film. As a foreigner who has lived in Mexico for four years now, and has been visiting the place for more than thirty, I have been acutely aware of the juxtaposition of socioeconomic poverty and sensual intensity. In keeping with this, the action of the film takes place in a shabby, rundown area of an unnamed city (in fact, Aguascalientes), and this contrasts sharply with the exquisite photography of the film, which gives the movie an incredible texture, at once tactile and visual. But beyond that, the theme seems universal, for the story can very well be analyzed in terms of family systems therapy. In fact, what came to mind for me when I was watching it was a British tale of family dysfunction written around four hundred years ago--King Lear, by William Shakespeare--and a short story written nearly fifty years ago by the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, "Facing the Forests." In all three of these works--the film, the play, the story--the Identified Patient is depressed/autistic (the child in Abel), supposedly mad (the Fool in Lear), or unable to speak (an old Arab who had his tongue cut out). In each case, their particular version of silence is witness to the Big Secret, and represents it metaphorically.

Interested in flattery, the king commits a fatal error, believing the false declarations of love given to him by his two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, and failing to realize that it is his youngest, Cordelia, who really loves him for who he is. Worse, he disowns her for not flattering him. Meanwhile, the Fool keeps babbling his "nonsense," which is actually insight into what is really going on, if only Lear would listen. Instead, the king eventually goes mad; at that point, the Fool disappears--he is no longer needed. But had Lear come to terms with the Big Secret, confronted the family dynamic, the Fool would not have been needed in the first place, and the insanity never have happened. (Also, there would have been no play!) Unfortunately, as any family systems therapist can tell you, health is the rare exception to the rule, which can be summarized as, "Let the charade continue!"

Facing the Forests
Here, the "family" is Israel/Palestine, and the "therapist" is the author of the story, who is trying to heal his society. Yehoshua's novella is about a graduate student in history who takes a job with the forest service, his assignment being to guard against forest fires. The forest consists of trees planted since 1948 to celebrate the state of Israel, most of them being paid for by American Jews. The family mythology, which is partly true, is one of pioneers in a new land, Holocaust survivors determined to make the Zionist dream a reality. The Big Secret is that in the process of doing that, 700,000 Palestinian Arabs, some deliberately and some as an accidental by-product of war, were forced to flee their homes and their land. In Yehoshua's story (and in reality as well, on more than one occasion), an Arab village was bulldozed to make way for the newly planted forest of pine trees. Flitting between the slender pines, a sort of caretaker and his daughter inhabit the premises, haunt them, one might say, like ghosts. But as I already indicated, the old Arab cannot speak--he was apparently tortured, had his tongue cut out. With a little research, the history student pieces together what happened to the village, and manages to communicate with the old Arab about it through gestures. By this time, however, the Arab has had it, and burns down the forest in revenge. The police arrest him and interrogate him, asking him the same questions over and over again, and the student says to himself: “A foul stench rises from the burnt forest, as though a huge carcass were rotting away all around them. The interrogation gains momentum. A big bore. What did he see, what did he hear, what did he do. It’s insulting, this insistence upon the tangible—as though that were the main point, as though there weren’t some idea involved here.”

But the student remains silent. Neither he nor anybody else is going to say out loud what the main point, the large, intangible idea, is, because to do that would blow the lid on the family mythology. Instead of dealing with its past, and the Big Secret, Israel prefers to symbolically make this old Arab without a voice the Identified Patient. That was in 1963, a mere fifteen years after the War of Independence (or the Catastrophe, if you are talking to an Arab). Nearly fifty years later, and despite a growing literature by a number of very talented revisionist historians, the majority of Israelis (judging from how they have voted in recent elections) still can't seem to fathom the violence and "rebelliousness" of these "wayward" Palestinian "children," who could solve the whole problem of the Middle East if they just "behaved themselves" and stopped acting "irrationally." (I've actually heard Israelis talk in these terms.) Yehoshua was trying to shine some light on the Big Secret, but this is largely taboo in Israeli society, and certainly was in 1963. For the most part, then, the charade continues.

On to the film. The plot is something like this: Two years ago, Anselmo, the father in this particular family drama, declared he was going to the U.S. to work, and left. His eight-year-old son, Abel, went into a deep depression as a result and had to be hospitalized. Two years later, his doctor believes he is ready to come home, even though he displays the characteristics of an autistic child. So he returns home, and everyone--mother, sister, brother--sort of walks on eggshells around him, as the doctor has indicated that Abel is not to be upset in any way. The problem is that his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, as he seems to think he is the father of the family and to act accordingly. He puts a ring on his mother's finger, and starts sleeping in her bed. He wears his father's clothes. He also "drops" his autism and begins to talk, mostly giving orders to the other members of the family. He signs his sister's report card from school, and checks her homework. Rather creepy, but everyone plays along with it.

Out of the blue, Anselmo comes back home; but before he can re-assert his role as father, Cecilia, Abel's mother, tells the child that this is her cousin. Soon Anselmo is playing along with this farce as well, even though he (rightly) regards the situation as nuts. By chance, the daughter examines the photographs in her father's digital camera, only to discover that he has another wife (or perhaps it is a girlfriend) and a child by her. It turns out he was only in the United States for two months; the rest of the time he was living a completely separate family life some distance away in the town of Saltillo. One night during this time, i.e. the time of Anselmo's return, Abel climbs on top of his mother and pretends he is having sex with her, then pretends to smoke a post-coital cigarette. The next morning he announces to the family that he and Cecilia have had sex, and that she is pregnant. For Anselmo, this is the last straw, and he confronts Abel with the fact that he is his father. Abel spins out of control and deliberately injures himself; in general, all hell breaks loose. Undaunted, Anselmo finds Abel's doctor and signs him back into the hospital in Mexico City. We then see Anselmo in his truck on the road back to Saltillo, abandoning the family once again, and Cecilia visiting Abel in the hospital, where he is emotionally vacant and has returned to his autistic behavior.

What in the world?

If we try to decode this bizarre tale by means of family systems therapy, it seems fairly obvious that the family mythology in this case is that there actually is a family. But the truth, the Big Secret, is that the father has another family, and doesn't really give a damn about this one. He returns momentarily, and claims to be the father of this family, which he is biologically; but the truth is that he has no legitimacy. On some level, Abel knows all this, in the uncanny way that children typically do. And so, in a parody of the family lie, he takes over the function of the father. He is not quite acting; he really seems to believe it. And yet it is a charade, one that has two crucial systemic functions. First, it cancels out the abandonment: if the family now has a father, even if it is Abel himself, then Abel has not been abandoned and in fact feels (and acts) healthy and strong, for his world has been sewn back together. He is alive as the "father," dead as the abandoned son. Second, as the Identified Patient, Abel is unconsciously trying to send a signal to the family that this situation is fucked up beyond belief; in a word, he's trying to repair the mess in some weird sort of way. Yet the family dynamic, as before, is to pretend that nothing is amiss, or more precisely, that it is only Abel that is the problem. The "crazy" behavior of the child is in fact a type of intuitive wisdom, for it is the entire situation that is crazy. Focusing on Abel's apparent insanity, and not willing (or able) to admit that if anyone precipitated this situation it was himself, Anselmo blows the whistle and has Abel sent back to the hospital. And then, asshole that he is, he abandons the boy, and the family, as he did two years before. So this "solution" solves nothing, because the Big Secret, the fact that this family is in no way a family, never gets dealt with. Thus we are back to Square One, with Anselmo having gone AWOL and the kid in the hospital, once again emotionally dead. As in the case of the hypothetical family I described earlier, or the family of King Lear, or the "family" of Israel/Palestine, the temptation to focus on the Identified Patient rather than get to the heart of the matter is too powerful to resist, because getting to the heart of the matter is inevitably terrifying. Not to put too fine a point on it, Abel is nothing less than a work of genius. It is at once a Mexican tragedy, a Shakespearean tragedy, a Middle Eastern tragedy, and a universal tragedy, which can be summarized in the words of the British poet W.H. Auden: "We would rather be ruined than changed." Great stories generally don't have happy endings, what can I tell you.

©Morris Berman, 2010


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We would rather be ruined than changed"

The question that comes to mind is whether or not civilization is a doomed project from the get-go. Are we collectively barking up the wrong tree? Are our aspirations too grand? Is sedentary life "wrong"?

I don't expect an answer to these questions. I merely enjoy the forum that you provide for broaching these kinds of deep, systemic issues. Conversations like this need to happen, period. Day-to-day life in America is suffocating. There is little to no room for a real discussion about the issues plaguing contemporary American life. To the extent that these conversations do take place, they are whispered among friends behind closed doors. It's baffling. It's a censorship that's propagated without the threat of punishment. Why are we so docile? How does this system succeed so efficiently?

I'm simply at a loss for words. Maybe i'll move south of the border like you Dr. B.

2:34 AM  
Blogger Professor Zero said...

Great reading. Minor quibble: wasn't it the mother who insisted Abel come home, and the doctor who wasn't sure it was a good idea? (I was exhausted when I saw the film so I may not be remembering right, but I think this supports your reading.)

The scene that most amazed me was when the doctor and father met and turned out to be old school friends, and the doctor totally dropped his professional perspective.

Other things that struck me:
- that the mother and daughter so fell into line when Abel took the father role;
- that I felt relief on behalf of the father and I guess on my own behalf as a viewer when, in that near final scene, he was back on the road to Saltillo (yes, he was abandoning the family again, but at the same time he, and so we, were out of that weird scene).

2:56 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


Another fine piece, which is what I've come to expect from this blog.

Here you're striking right to the core of our cultural problem. We don't want to see or acknowledge, much less deal with, our own Big Secrets. We want to pretend everything's OK, the only problems are a handful of troublemakers who just need to be neutralized somehow, and then everything will be real swell, you betcha.

What about Oprah? All the endless confessionals flooding the media? Aren't we facing up to our secrets?

I don't think so. All of that seems more like a glossy way of avoiding any genuine work, which is painful & agonizing & demands deep-down change, not X number of steps, or some magic formula, or a pseudo-psychological mantra. We avoid the hard work by a superficial ritual of supposed self-examination, which somehow always ends with affirmations & "vibrant solutions." We trivialize away the raw, gaping wounds & call them scratches, easily repaired by a little cosmetic surgery.

By coincidence, I've been re-reading a lot of Neil Postman's work, and I came across his mention of a moment on "The Vidal Sassoon Show," another vapid talk show long gone down the TV rat hole. Specifically, he mentions Sassoon cutting to commercial & saying, "Come right back for some new hair styling tips and a quick look at incest!"

Say no more ... sigh ...

And yet, there are artists like the ones in your post, who not only face the secrets, but demand that we grapple with them. The truth IS out there, as they say ... but too many people prefer to look the other way & whistle an increasingly hollow merry tune.

But I guess you know that better than most, considering the cultural secrets you hold up to the light.

A blog like this is a beacon to a lot of us -- especially because you don't spoonfeed us pre-digested answers, but present us with uncomfortable truths, and rightly expect us to make our lives a response to them. It's up to us, which is as it should be. For this reader, and I suspect for many others, it's much appreciated.

9:03 AM  
Blogger ryan kloostra said...

Great review. What is the big secret of the U.S. "family?" Massive debt? Unsound money? Myth of glory? Divine right? All of these are ready to (have?) burst at the seams because we'd rather ruin ourselves than change.

Thanks again for turning me on to Chris Hedges. I just finished "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning." Fantastic.

9:56 AM  

Hola Mauricio, I like your point of view, but I can see it in another way, a tricky way:

I feel the zeitgeist sometimes, is another ghost that tells me: “If you don’t change, you will be ruined”. In these terms “Rather be ruined than changed” can sound like a noble and skeptic resistance rather than a shared collective pathology that can’t be able to see genius individual manifestations that try “acting it out”.

I feel that the need to make us believe that thing’s must change is also a trap, that denies the simple existence of things, and that things are just what they are meant to be. I really understand your point, but how can we distinguish a real call for change (not deluded messianic), from a mass-media one (mostly deluded messianic)? Are we destined before birth to a death without real life? Can we live without feeling we are puppets in this continuous and unbreakable charade? If everyone plays along silent and blinded to witness, it seems things flow (move) even when they really don’t? Could that be the “magic” of rationality, synchronized good behavior without irrationality mentioned, solves the problems as long as it seems something “logical or even bizarre” is being done? Could this “change” be a constant simulation, that rather than ruin us, avoids that we “take hand” on the real emergence of things we finally ignore? Are parallel worlds (one seen and one not kept under) perpetuated in time and seem coherent as we just see one? Maybe the real emergence could actually reveal the paradox of life that is exactly what we really don’t want to see, something like the juxtaposition of poverty and sensuality you mention that seems so incoherentes but yet magic?

Life and experience need intensity and not a intensity twisted into a “tension” that needs to be in eternal process of reconciliation. Machines need adjustments when they tend to a perfect function, fortunately we don’t need perfect functions (the obsession of progress), but just honest hearts able to see our existential contradiction and share it with others without fear of becoming a lonely “looney-tune” for the show that must go-on.

Abrazos my friend, and again “le agradezco su oxigeno”.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Thanks again everybody for your support. Just a couple of notes: Anon, you might possibly get something out of my book, "Wandering God." Tim, suggest u have a look at Janice Peck, "The Age of Oprah." Gotta run, amigos...

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Honesty and courage have always been in short supply whether on a personal level or national. The protagonists have these qualities in common as well as dealing with overwhelming odds to get anyone to face reality and change rather than be ruined. But so it will be until change isn't an option but a necessity. But I guess we'll continue to "hope" that the oceans won't be poisoned, our demands for cheap, plentiful energy will always be accommodated and technology will save us. It's almost funny to hear people rail at Obama for not plugging the hole in the Gulf---talk about magical thinking. We want salvation on the cheap with no sacrifices or acknowledgment of our own participation in disaster. Like the father getting in the truck and driving off to his new life leaving wrecked lives in the rear view mirror. His freedom was purchased at the cost of his son's sanity and the blighted lives of his deserted family.

The facts are there for anyone to see who wishes to look but, you're right, it's just too frightening. Politicans want to keep their jobs so they won't tell people the truth; people sense something's wrong but crave reassuring lies; the messenger who delivers an honest assessment of reality is silenced.

10:27 AM  
OpenID profacero said...

Susan - yes.

So, also: the mother wanted the son out of the institution at the beginning of the film, a gesture towards putting the family back together

It happens in this distorted way

The appearance of the father is on the one hand a reality check, and welcome to that degree, but then again isn't quite a reality check since he's really there to assert paternal authority and presume, not to actually be there

The doctors on the one hand are right, the kid has serious problems

But on the other hand, professionalism goes by the wayside due to male bonding between the doctor and the father

And so in the end we are back to the initial situation, except kind of worse for the wear

Very interesting, I think this film should go classic and have a lot written about it

I haven't got it all figured out yet, but patriarchy, the authority of institutions, etc., are all currents in it


"Why are we so docile?" I'm not sure but sometimes I think one element is the traditional US anti-intellectualism and also the compulsion to be "happy" (understood as maintaining a jolly mood). I note Americans do get mad, but don't like to look at the roots of a problem or face a problem that doesn't have a solution you can put a short deadline to. And it's a personal failing not to be pleased with things. These factors lead to docility (despite all the yelling).

I also keep noticing something odd about the way we understand free speech. One has the right to one's opinion, it is said; then, opinions compete, and the most popular one is voted in. That's different from actual debate, and I also notice that what passes for debate is often a kind of coercive consensus building. None of that is actual communication, and I think people get really cowed although they wouldn't call it that.

Don't know for sure.

3:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Profacero says it in a nutshell: the overwhelming attitude that political discussion is a game. No listening, no parleying, just be out there to win.

10:31 AM  

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