Psychopaths in Film

The power of ambivalence. How is it I am repelled and drawn to stories about the psychopath? Do you believe there’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inside all of us? Perhaps that’s the allure of this anti-hero–his cleverness and seductive power. If one focuses upon the horror story which centers around a psychopath, there are plenty of great examples in film over the years. Can you narrow him/her to one?

The term itself has a complicated definition and certainly Hollywood and television has distorted the clinical concept of what is a psychopath. I read a fascinating article about Misrepresenting the Psychopath in Hollywood here. It has been easy to sweep up characters who portray abnormal characteristics such as: manic-depression, schizophrenia, bestiality, extreme violence, and egomania and dump them into the giant box labeled “psychotic”. If you enjoy thrillers or suspense, chances are there’s a character, whether protagonist or antagonist, and he or she is “psychotic”. Consider the films Wall Street or The Wolf of Wall Street. Clinical definitions would categorize both protagonists as psychotic with huge appetites for greed and experts at manipulation. They are passionate but not disturbed like Norman Bates or Hannibal Lector. Still, when one thinks of psychotic characters in film, these two “crazy” characters pop into most people’s minds.

There are quiet monsters and loud monsters. There are characters who do not complete violent acts but enjoy manipulation and never kill anyone. Most all have high intelligences and are charismatic and exude power. Based on that definition, here are my favorite character psychopaths:

Halloween is upon us–which psychopath is your favorite in film?

Danse Macabre

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_WolgemutMichael Wolgemut, 1493

Death personified in art began in the 14th century and swept through European churches and buildings as frescoes, oil and wood paintings and metal engravings. The Dance of Death is a universal theme of humanity seen throughout the centuries visible in artwork, story-telling and pop-culture. Cornell University Library has an outstanding site featuring the history and art behind this human fascination. 295 examples are here including beasts, werewolves, demons here: Cornell University Library, Special Collections

Danse Macabre images from the Middle Ages were a reaction to European catastrophes like the Black Death and Hundred Years’ War between the Plantagenets of England and the Valois of France. Death was a constant companion because life was brief and harsh. These images portray death serving different functions which is a fascinating subject to analyze.

Impartial to human position, Death comes to everyone including the Pope, the noble, and the serf. Those who did survive the plague became richer and stronger. The dance, then, is a sign of human resiliency to “laugh at the face of death”.

You can find more to read about it here:  Death Reference

Michael Jackson‘s 1996 short film Ghosts is a Danse Macabre with help from the story by Stephen King and the visual effects of the late great Stan Winston. Here’s a trailer:

Danse Macabre and the Grim Reaper have a long history in pop-culture films, music, books, and comics.

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My favorite Danse Macabre painting by Peter the Elder, The Triumph of Death.

What about Grim Reapers in film?

We’ve laughed and cringed at the face of death for hundreds of years.  What are your favorite examples of Grim Reapers and Danse Macabre?    Happy Halloween.

Film Spotlight: Hitchcock’s Marnie

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What’s so great about Marnie? After all, many disliked the film when it was first released in 1964. Hitchcock had just completed The Birds and couldn’t sign on Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, so he offered the complicated role to Tippi Hedron and she accepted–it was her finest role. The plot of Marnie openly dealt with taboo topics such as sexual abuse, rape, and murder by unlikely sources.

Hitchcock seemed obsessed with abnormal psychology and searched the papers for crime stories of deviant behavior like Psycho (1960) where the real Ed Hein had an unhealthy relationship with his mother and committed barbaric crimes against women. Ed Hein inspired future scripts of horror classics like the monster Buffalo-Bill in Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The script for Marnie was inspired by the 1961 based-on-a-true-story, crime-mystery by Winston Graham.

Joel Gunz is a Hitchcock expert and dissects Tony Lee Moral‘s 2005 book The Making of Marnie.This excellent book review can be found here: A fine post of the making of Marnie

Hitchcock had a vision. The shot to shock his audience–what would it be like to be raped and the shot of the accuser is above you?

What if your rapist was your husband and what if he were Sean Connery?

The story-line is preposterous. Yet, “true” stories usually are. Sometimes in the translation, the fiction seems too unbelievable to sustain the narrative journey. A man falls for a beautiful thief and liar? Sure. Does he black-mail her to marry him? And then try to “help” her overcome her sexual inhibitions by raping her? Oh, rape is such a strong word. How about tough love, a 60s patriarchical need to control and change his wife? That happened. So the plot is not that far-fetched.

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In the last half of the film, the pace accelerates and the mystery behind Marnie’s past becomes the central thrust of  suspense. I thought the best acting performance went to Louise Latham as Marnie’s mother, Bernice Edgar. The last sequence was engrossing, Marnie with expressive eyes and baby voice, while the pseudo doctor, her husband, coaxed the past out of her.

The use of color as a trigger–in Vertigo it was green for jealousy–here it’s red–adds to the tension and mystery. Hitchcock’s camera angles are always enjoyable to watch from the wide-screen shot of the safe robbery on one half and the mopping, cleaning woman on the other. What did you think about the horse jumping, chase scene and the cringing fall of rider and horse? The urban landscape shot of Baltimore was memorable.

I enjoyed watching Sean Connery play the respected, affable husband trying to figure out and fix his wife, although his possessive claim on Marnie would drive any woman nuts. Tippi Hedron is detached and cool but warms up and delivers some passionate speeches when they fight. Marnie can’t stand to be touched and her clothes show that. She is constantly covered in material throughout the film and looks stunning. Edith Head dressed her true to character. It was my favorite motif.

The musical score is important to Hitchcock. The repetivitve whine of strings and pounding instruments navigate your emotions and sustain suspense. Bernard Herrmann’s relationship with Hitchcock is long-standing. Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest are magical scores created by Herrmann. Bernard Herrmann’s repertoire includes film greats Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane, and Cape Fear. The score in Marnie has the same feel to it. Sometimes known as one of Hitchcock’s “lesser” films, I wonder what you think of Marnie?

Foreign Film Spotlight: Nowhere in Africa

This contribution is for movie-buff friend, Alex Raphael, who invited me to review a foreign film of my choice. Have you seen the 2002 German Best Foreign film Oscar winner by Caroline Link? Are you craving full-bodied characterizations, an unsentimental saga, and stunning cinematography? How about an amazing autobiography about a Jewish family who finds refuge and culture shock in Kenya? Stefanie Zweig passed away this past April. Give both the book and the film adaptation a go.

Escaping the Nazi regime in 1938, a Jewish family become farmers in remote Kenya. Walter Redlich is a judge and his wife Jettel is fond of her comfortable life-style and resents her barren life. Their five-year-old daughter, Regina, is an inquisitive girl who adapts to the culture of Kenya and a Christian boarding school. Half of the narrative focuses on a girl growing up and the other half focuses on the strained marriage of Walter and Regina.

The film’s strength rests on the acting and the unique plot. Actress Juliane Köhler plays the complicated Jettel Redlich with sophistication. Swaying with coldness and frustration and tenderness, as was her portrayal as Eva Braun in Downfall (2004), in Nowhere in Africa, Juliane Köhler is convincing. A marriage of compromise and frustration with secrets and resolution, it is a worth your time to watch the evolution of their marriage.

Add a parallel plot that twines through the starving marriage to their daughter, Regina. Her friendship with farm cook, Owuor, counter-balances the marriage with heartwarming richness. Owuor functions as nanny and bridge between Europe and Kenyan lifestyles. For Regina, who might have well as been transplanted to Mars as Kenya, Owuor is indispensable as the consistent element, the North Star of her universe. As a coming-of-age story for Regina and Jettel (Mom’s more a child than ner daughter) grow up and handle their plight with satisfying enlightenment. Poor Walter Redlich, played by Merab Ninidze, who endures his tempestuous wife and worries about his parents left in Nazi Germany. Cheers to female director and writer Caroline Link for creating a fine film. Did you see in 2008, A Year Ago in Winter? 

Don’t forget to check out Alex’s entertaining blog: Alex Raphael Blog

Emeralds: fiction and non-fiction

Non-fiction

Oh, my young and stupid years. When I turned 18 and enlisted in the Navy, I was sent to San Diego, CA for “A” school which back in 1981 meant I learned how to type on a teletypewriter and set up ship-shore communications. I was there for five months and during the course of my stay was courted by a sailor who claimed how wealthy he was and told me fantastic stories about his separated British mom and American father. There was a manorial state in England somewhere, a London school he attended, his chummy butler, and his California father who was a very important but angry man. As an anglophile and thespian, I found his stories entertaining to listen to, but I didn’t believe him for a minute. After all, why would he choose to be a lowly E-1 Seaman Recruit? Why not be an officer if he had a proper London education? If he had a proper London education, why was he in the U.S. Navy walking around the dusty path of Balboa Park with me? Randall told me he enlisted to escape his father.

When we left the base on leave, he would rent a car and take me to Balboa Park or out to dinner. (Remind me to tell you about the time on Halloween night underneath a full moon, we were robbed at gunpoint.) One afternoon, we strolled downtown San Diego and entered an upscale jewelry store. The display case was long with gems within elaborate settings. He said, “Which one do you like best?” I looked over the sapphires and rubies and pearls and went to the emeralds. There was a cocktail ring that reminded me of hill. It contained emeralds and diamonds stacked on top of each other, rising high like a mound found on a corner of the Emerald City. “This one,” I answered, breathless. The price tag: $3,500.00.

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Christmas arrived and Randall collected me at my barracks and we went for a walk, and he presented me a Christmas gift–the emerald cocktail ring. Incredulous!

He asked me to marry him and told me he was gay. He had to hide this fact from his father, so he hoped I’d agree to be his cover. I’d have my set of apartments, I’d want for nothing, and we’d be best friends. I responded the way any romantic would say; I wanted to marry for love, not money. Sigh.

Well, a few days later, I saw him getting out of a black limousine. He was wearing the insignia of ensign. He was suspiciously an officer! What had his father done? We graduated. I got orders to Scotland. Randall got orders to Rome. The ring? Six months later, drunk at a party, the ring slipped off my finger and disappeared down the toilet. I saw neither Randall or the emerald ring again.

Fiction

Inside the Gold Plated Pistol, the first draft is progressing. Up in Jerome, Arizona, it’s 1927 and my taxi-dancer, Sally, is dancing away to the tunes of Hoagie Carmichael, “Stardust” and Jack Smith “Me and my Shadow”. Did you miss my recent post about nickel-hoppers and Barbara Stanwyck? Here it is

Now enters another character, Sally’s mother, Connie Vandenberg, a wealthy woman whose father amassed a fortune mining copper and silver in Arizona. While some women collect spoons and china tea cups, Connie collects unusual weapons, strange artifacts, and paintings.

Can you guess what Connie’s favorite jewel is? Emeralds, of course. This means I have had to research what the mining industry was like in 1920s and specifically, the fascinating world of Gemology.

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In 1920, Fritz Klein, discovered the “Patricia Emerald” from the Chivor Emerald Mine on short-term lease from the Colombian Government and named it for his daughter. He gave it to the New York Museum of Natural History in 1921 as a gift, and I think I’ll have Connie go and visit it. Why not rub shoulders with Fritz since he knew her father? There’s the fun in creating fiction. Why not? The challenge is making the incredulous seem perfectly normal.

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Connie’s passion is emeralds. Should she go to Columbia to acquire some? She could go a shorter distance to the emerald minds in North Carolina. Did you know there were emeralds in North Carolina? I found the Hiddenite Gems, Inc. site which claims it’s the only open-to-the-public mine where you can sluice or dig for over sixty gems. Next time in North Carolina, wouldn’t it be fun to pan for emeralds?  NC Emerald Mine

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How are emeralds rated? Where are they? Are they valuable? I checked out the GIA, Gemological Institute of America Inc.  It’s fascinating. Since emeralds are mined in Columbia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and India, I pray the story for extracting emeralds isn’t the same story told in the film Blood Diamonds.  GIA Emeralds

For now, I’m having fun exploring the world of emeralds and contemplating whether I should relive my history through Sally or Connie. Should they “lose” their emerald cocktail ring in a most ignoble way or can I fix my past and have them produce it thirty years after the fact?

Four Life Principles: Thanks, Eleanor Roosevelt


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At the request of my school, I gave a speech today. My audience included parents, students, and community members at an assembly, and Eleanor Roosevelt stood by my side and helped me through it. Are you are feeling lowly today? Maybe a reminder is all you need. Let her wisdom lift you. Here was what I said:

Thank you, school board members, administrators, students, and the faculty for whom I represent for allowing me to address you today. I’d like to begin with a quote given by First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who advocated for human rights and became an essential advisor for her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She said, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

Whenever I face an anxious situation, like speaking on this stage in front of you, I like to pretend Eleanor is standing next to me. Her maxims are great ideas, life principles to follow, and there are four I’d like to share.

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1. Goal Oriented 

“I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.”

Come up with a strategy. Then try it. Students, today you are commended for improving your grade point average over the course of a semester or a year. You are here today because you tried. Creating a goal is the first step. To execute the strategy requires focus. Remember, you are not competing against the person next to you. You are in a marathon race with yourself and your success first depends on a course of action.

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2. Self-Reflection

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly make them all yourself.”

How did your strategy work? What can I do differently to achieve a better result? Life is about tweaking, modifying, and scheduling your time. If you manage your time well, efficiency will catapult your goals and results easier to achieve. Ever notice how true experts, athletes, and artists make it look so easy? It’s because they are efficient, focused, and tweaked their “performance” over time.

You change. Don’t be passive. Don’t wait for someone to suggest what you should do. This is your education, your life. Decide what worked and what didn’t; create a new strategy and try again. It is all about you.

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3. Be Positive

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

This is the hardest principle to live by and it truly makes all the difference, for it is a choice, happiness, and it starts with positive thinking.

Insecurity. Fear. Labels others give you. Mountains to climb, Hardships. Loneliness. These are your companions for the rest of your life. What helps you achieve your goals, your dreams, is your attitude. Avoid succumbing to the negative by discovering strategies for dealing with these sap-sucking companions. People surround you who want to help you bypass your obstacles. Seek out the advice from those who have succeeded. You are never alone. A positive attitude takes practice, it is akin to hope, and worth the effort.

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“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

How do you acquire strong self-esteem? How do you become confident? Self-reliant? Surround yourself with people who are positive. Allow them to fill the hours of your day and you will gain courage to face all those who only see the negative–the whiners, the complainers–those who want you to be miserable with them. Can’t find anyone positive? Then be your own best friend. Let the positive people from the past be your inspiration and your friends. Like Eleanor Roosevelt. They will give you courage. Let them be your teachers.

4. Reinvent Yourself

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 There’s an old film I’ve made a personal connection with and that’s Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. Here was a story about a negative, obnoxious man who, stuck in a time glitch, relived his day over and over. He disgusts the girl of his dreams and can’t figure out why she doesn’t like him. Every day he learned something new. He discarded selfishness and cultivated a positive attitude. He became philanthropic. He became a leader in the community and devoted his time to learn something new, motivated to win the love of his dream girl. What if every day was the same day and you chose to reinvent yourself? What an opportunity! What would you do? What if you were the leader and positive role model for someone else? What do you think would happen to you? Give it a try.

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Practice. Try. Read all about it. Imitate. and remember a Cindy Bruchman adage: “Follow the Good, and lead yourself.” Thank you. No, thank you, Eleanor. It’s easy to be wise when you adopt the wisdom of others.

The Final Shot in Film

It’s psychologically proven the last piece in a sequence is what you will remember. Applying that to film, even mediocre films are elevated with the superb final shot. A great film? Probably because it ended perfectly.

Is your hero going out in a blaze of glory? Is it “The horror, the horror” captured in a glance? A new beginning? Here are several of my favorite final shots; do you recognize them all?

All is not lost; Chief becomes a man.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978

And yours?