Family Dynamics

Blue Valentine: What is Love?

The movie Blue Valentine is like a Zen koan, a paradoxical riddle with no answer which encourages us to ponder things in new ways. Ostensibly this particular koan asks us to wonder about what goes wrong in love, but perhaps a more fundamental question is what is love in the first place?

Some of the themes Blue Valentine explores is how much of what we call romantic love is about the reenactment of unmet needs, trauma and role modeling in our family of origin, and the possibility of growing beyond these patterns.

The film moves back and forth through time, showing the beginning and ending of a relationship, inviting us to look closely at our own ideas about love.

Bipolar Disorder

Charlie Sheen and the Allure of Manic Flight

In a post on my blog, After Psychotherapy, I've discussed how Charlie Sheen's behavior and comments in recent interviews illustrate the defenses against shame I've written about in detail.

In yet another interview, this one on ABC's 20/20,  Sheen continues in the same grandiose and contemptuous vein; eventually, however, he gives us some insight into his mania.

The interviewer asks if he ever feels that his wild lifestyle gets "too close" to his kids and might hurt them, referencing the out-of-control party in a New York hotel room last year, with his girls asleep just across the hall.

"You don't normally think about that in the middle of it," he replies.  "Then people remind you of it and of it's 'Oh. SHAME. Oops. Move on.'  I mean, what are you going to do, change it?  Move their room?  Can I go back in time and move their room?  No!"

Because he has no sense of how to make up for what he's done, he can't bear to think or feel anything about it.  In a manner characteristic of

Grief and Mourning

Unbearable Grief in Rabbit Hole (2010)

Rabbit Hole' (2010), starring Aaron Eckhart (Howie Corbett) and Nicole Kidman (Becca Corbett) in her Academy Award-nominated role, tells a story of  devastating grief and the ways we attempt to escape from such unbearable emotions.

Eight months before the film opens, Becca and Howie's young son Danny was killed when he chased their dog into the street and a teenage driver ran him down.   As a couple, Howie and Becca have not yet come to emotional terms with the death of their only child; one of the sobering messages of this film is that there are certain kinds of loss from which one never truly recovers.

Love and Romance

A Realistic Portrait of Married Life: ‘The Kids Are All Right’ (2010)

The primary love relationship in The Kids Are All Right (2010), though between two women, is one of the more realistic cinematic portraits of a successful if flawed "marriage" of long-standing.

Nic (Academy Award nominee Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore) own a home and have reared two kids together, each one bearing a child from the same sperm donor.  The partners bicker and snipe, show affection and resentment, worry together over their children and try to support one another financially and emotionally.  Like every successful marriage, this one has its ups and down, sustained through the most challenging moments by love, loyalty and a satisfying sex life.


‘The King’s Speech’ (2010) and the Psychotherapy Relationship

photo credit: zsoolt

From the beginning of their relationship, when Lionel insists that no child begins to speak with a stammer, asking Bertie what he believes to be the cause of his speech impediment, he makes clear that this treatment at the heart of The King's Speech (2010) will focus on psychological rather than purely mechanical issues.

Based on his experience with shell-shocked World War I vets, Lionel understands that speech impediments usually have psychogenic roots.  Likewise, he understands that improvement in the symptoms depends upon a certain therapeutic relationship, the terms of which he takes pains to establish from the outset.


Violence and Despair in ‘Winter’s Bone’ (2010)

Ree Dolly, heroine of Debra Granik's bleak and moving 'Winter's Bone' (2010), lives at the end of the road, without a car or truck, on the bottom rung of a world where cooking methamphetamine offers one of the few means to earn money and in which even the values of kin and clan have begun to decay.

Personal survival, often ruthless in execution, represents the most universal "value," if we can give it that name, redeemed at moments by muted concern for one's nearest relations.  A hollow code of shame and reputation dominates the men of this world, motivating them to acts of revenge and cruelty.  The women may display more communitarian values, more concern for one another, but they live in constant fear of their violent men, generally controlled and dominated by them.

At the film's opening, we learn that Ree's father Jessup has put up the family home and surrounding lands as collateral for a bail bond, following his arrest (yet again) on suspicion of cooking meth.  A local police officer informs Ree that Jessup has disappeared; if he doesn't return in time for his next court hearing, the collateral will be forfeit.


‘The Social Network’ (2010) and the Power of Narcissistic Injury

In the opening scene of David Fincher's 'The Social Network' (2010) Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend Erika scathingly dumps him after he insults and belittles her.  Not only does she cut him loose, she does so in an intelligent and clever way, playing upon his insecurities in order to wound as deeply as possible.

A close look at this scene, Mark's insecurities and the results of Erika's rejection of him offers some useful insights into the power of narcissistic injury and typical defenses against it.

Family Dynamics

Enmeshed Family Dynamics in ‘The Fighter’ (2010)

If you're searching for a vivid cinematic portrayal of enmeshed and dysfunctional family dynamics, look no further than David O. Russell's The Fighter (2010), with Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo in a knock-out performance as Alice, matriarch of a large Irish-American clan.

Early in the movie, we meet the entire family at a bar in Lowell, Massachusetts.  In addition to the two brothers, Dickie and Micky, there's a large number of sisters; I was never clear on the exact number or their names.  While at times, there appear to be five of them, bringing the total number of siblings to seven, Alice later says she has given birth to nine children.  And although this scene supposedly explains the family geneology (children by two different fathers), the exact relationships and identities remain confusing -- an effective symbol for the "undifferentiated family ego mass," as Murray Bowen would have described it. Apart from Alice, no one has a significant other; Dickie and Micky are both divorced while the single daughters function almost as one unit.


‘The Fighter’ (2010) and Hereditary Narcissism

In The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky gave us a protagonist so addicted to the narcissistic feed of public adoration that he destroyed relationships with both his estranged daughter and new girlfriend, eventually putting his own life at risk to get his fix.  Now in The Fighter, David O. Russell shows us a dysfunctional family mired in pathological narcissism, with mother Alice and favorite son Dicky ruthless in their pursuit of attention and admiration.

A passel of obedient, undifferentiated daughters serves as Alice's mirror, mostly echoing her opinions and taking her side in family disputes.  Poor Micky, her other son, is desperately hungry for someone to care about him.

At the opening, it appears that a film crew is making a documentary about Dicky's "comeback" as a boxer (though we later learn the film actually concerns crack addiction, with Dicky in the leading role of self-destructive loser).  Unable to bear the truth about his failed life, Dicky conceals the actual subject of this documentary and Alice buys into his lies, showing up to one film session at the gym all dolled up and carrying her scrapbooks.


‘Avatar’ and Your Ideal Self

At the opening of the movie Avatar, Jake Sully has suffered a severe spinal chord injury that leaves him a paraplegic. No longer able to perform as a combat marine, and because the military won't pay for an operation to restore the use of his legs -- that is, to return him to his former self -- Jake volunteers for a specialized military mission to the planet Pandora.