Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Equus" (1977 film): how important it is to us to be right, sometimes


It isn’t that often that a “Hollywood” (or London-wood or Toronto-wood) film approximates a major episode of my life, but Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film (for MGM-United Artists) of Brit Peter Shaffer’s famous play “Equus” (1977) does recall my own period, after my college expulsion, as an “m.p.” in 1962, dealing with cigarette-smoking psychiatrists (right out of X-Files), and six months on the “mental health” experimental ward at N.I.H., in the same building that would be a center for AIDS research 25 years later.

In the play and film, Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist played by an aging Richard Burton, treats a mental hospital teenage patient Alan Strang (Peter Firth), who has blinded six horses in a brutal act that sounds like an act of relativistic compulsion. The film is given to long existential soliloquies and discussions to punctuate the progress of Alan’s treatment and the solution of his mystery.

Dysart does engage the parents, who set up a religious conflict within the home. He exploits the divisions between them over religion that help set up the boy’s belief system and conflicts. I did not undergo hypnosis (I did once in a dorm but not in treatment) and fake truth serums, something that leads to the film’s horrifying (and NC-17) climax and violence (imdb categorizes the film as “horror” among other things). In my case, the therapist would ask, “how did you see yourself …?” In the play and movie, there is a definite solution to the mystery; in my real life case, it is much more subtle.

The story makes the psychiatrist deal with his own potential demons (in fact, in real life psychiatrists have to deal with it – just consider “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)). Alan at one critical point asks-back why Dysart hasn’t had kids himself (he is nominally if heterosexually married), as if to anticipate Phillip Longman’s (or even Allan Carlson’s) idea of a “social contract” and “demographic winter” thirty years later.

In fact, to me, the notion of a “social contract” seems critical: one needs a belief system, and to “believe” that one’s world is somehow “right” (that doesn’t always mean “just”) before one’s own capacity to love (or to exude power) can be released. For many people, that means that the family is an intermediate unit of identity through which need sharing is really experienced, as part of a bigger idea of “rightness” (as well as “righteousness”, with which both psychiatrist and patient confuse it). For others, it is the idea that one’s erotic attractions express an idea of “rightness” in those who are chosen. (My own therapy got into this; the therapists wrote in their typewritten reports on me – which I got through FOIA – that I tended to extend the visible evidence of the “external trappings of manhood” in my contemporaries as mapped to evidence of moral superiority, as if Nietzche were keeping score. (The psychiatrists made the disturbing allusion to 1930s Germany, not me.) The most important line in the film is something like, you kill a man if you “take away his worship.”

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