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Leonard Quart
English: President Barack Obama delivers the 2...
I was moved to hear our normally politically pragmatic president boldly affirm liberal principles in his second inaugural address. No more rhetorical post-partisanship or indulging in outreach to Republicans, who have only bitten and gnawed at rather than grasped his extended hand during the first term.

In his address Obama articulated a commitment to collective action as a basis of preserving individual freedom-affirming, proactive, interventionist government — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — as an assertion of traditional American values: “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” He went on to project a clear liberal vision of advancing gay rights (invoking past struggles for women's and civil rights) showing more tolerance toward illegal immigrants, acting to stop climate change and condemning the efforts to restrict voting.

He may not have directly attacked the corporations and Wall Street, but he acknowledged the value to our society of caring for the poorest and most vulnerable. This was no populist ode to the people versus the vested interests, but a commitment to change linked to the best of American traditional beliefs like equality, altruism and moral responsibility.

If the address wasn't original, it still was an eloquent speech, one that a knowledgeable friend called “the best progressive statement of a president since FDR.” We must wait for Obama's State of the Union address to see how he sees some of these principles being realized through legislation.

I'm not too sanguine about the political future. Republican conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer called the speech an “ode to big government,” and as usual harped on the deficit. Paul Krugman, who points out that David Cameron's austerity policies have thrown gotten Great Britain into a deeper recession, has constantly attacked the Washington debt obsession, which is always used to promote draconian cuts in social spending. He holds:
“Yes, debt matters. But right now, other things matter more. We need more, not less, government spending to get us out of our unemployment trap. And the wrongheaded, ill-informed obsession with debt is standing in the way.”

Others felt the speech divisive and the tone-deaf Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said, “I wasn't surprised that it doesn't sound like he's particularly interested in working with Republicans and actually solving the big problems facing this nation.” Of course, an utter inversion of what occurred during the first term.

I have a feeling there will be some incremental movement on immigration, gun control and even climate change. But when it comes to economic equality and regulation of financial institutions there will be pitched battles and the Republican control of the House and the threat of a filibuster in the Senate will prevent any real change from occurring.

Still, it was a luminous moment, and I loved watching a defiant, unambiguously liberal Obama in action. I hope he can sustain that tone during the next few years and attempt to realize some of the principles he declaimed.
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Eschewing Political Purity

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I have always been troubled by those so pure or on the left politically that in the most recent presidential election they could vote for the Green Party candidate or abstain altogether. These are intelligent people who constantly harp on their disappointment with this or that aspect of Obama’s first term. 

Their disappointments are too lengthy to fully list. But some of the prime ones are the too-small stimulus in the administration’s first year, the unwillingness to rein in the behavior of the banks with more powerful regulatory legislation, the continued use of torture, and the extension of the surveillance society. They have also felt that the president has been too passive, the compromises he was willing to make were too great, and his bargaining skills limited.

I concur with some of these criticisms, but in the scheme of things, it neglects many of Obama’s achievements. I’ll list a few of them: the landmark, imperfect Affordable Care Act, which extends coverage to 30-50 million Americans excluded from or unable to afford health insurance; Pell Grants for low-income college students; endorsement of gay marriage; a modest move by executive fiat towards dealing with illegal immigration by granting deportation waivers for young “illegals” if they can prove strong ties and a clean criminal record; the auto-bailout; and extending the social safety net (e.g., food stamps, unemployment insurance).

So, Obama accomplished more then any one of us thought possible while facing an opposition that was committed to subverting any legislation he proposed. Yes, there are things he probably should have done differently, and he could have espoused more radical positions that would make some of us feel better, but, at the same time, fail. It’s hard to imagine anyone who would have done better, given a polarized Congress and nation, and the power of the filibuster. I know that nobody meets our exacting standards politically, but it seems commonsensical to support a politician like Obama whose balance sheet has more accomplishments than wrongheaded actions and outright failures. 

The political world is just no place for purity; little can be accomplished by decree. Obama must struggle with critics in his own party, the Republicans, the Supreme Court, and public opinion to get anything done. Yes, no radical social transformation will be achieved in Obama's second term, but I have faith that he will be a stronger and more capable politician and President, and that more of his liberal agenda ultimately will be passed.

Of course, I may be deluding myself, but my belief no longer feels quixotic.
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I have fond memories of WBAI, the non-commercial listener-supported New
Bob Fass in WBAI's Master Control (Photograph ...

Bob Fass in WBAI's Master Control (Photograph by Bernie Samuels). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

York radio station — having listened to it in the 60s and 70s, and briefly co-hosted an interview show with film directors in the late 70s. But over the last thirty years, when I want news and analysis of a variety of political and social issues or probing interviews with writers and artists, I listen to the more professional, less polemical and sectarian WNYC. That may say as much about my no longer being politically reflexive and becoming more balanced politically and psychically than about the nature of WBAI. The station clearly has less political and cultural resonance today and whenever I dip into its programming, most of it seems hectoring in style and devoid of nuance.

The documentary film “Radio Unnameable” doesn't try to cover all the internecine conflicts and ideological shifts the station has gone through over the years. It centers on Bob Fass, an engaging-voiced disc jockey, who hosted a “free form” midnight show where spontaneity was the rule, and on any given night totally unpredictable things could and would occur. Fass began at the station in the 60s, and at 79 still does a show a week. He is unpaid, and struggles financially, but it's a calling that he loves and can't give up. Fass is a low-key thoughtful figure respected by most of his radio colleagues like Steve Post and Larry Josephson, though the film's directors, Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson never attempt to get to the heart of who he is. In its heyday Fass' program discussed international, national, and local issues with listeners, giving every voice — especially insomniacs, night workers, and people with idiosyncratic theories — an opportunity to be heard. Fass had on-air conversations with Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Yoko Ono, and Timothy Leary among others. Arlo Guthrie sang “Alice's Restaurant” for the first time on his program. Fass also organized peaceful be-ins at JFK Airport and Grand Central Station (which turned into a riot when the police brutally attacked the participants) and an East Village street “sweep-in” during a garbage strike.

The film vividly depicts WBAI's role as the movement's voice in New York (e.g., Fass reporting from Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention police riot). It was an unabashedly left-wing station — supporting anti-war demonstrations and other political causes — but it never felt solemn or dogmatic. It wasn't solely dedicated to political and social programming, but also produced original radio dramas and a critically applauded four and a half-day round-the-clock reading of Tolstoy's War and Peace. And a bit later became one of the voices of New York's avant-garde arts scene.

The film uses a mix of interviews and vivid WBAI archival material. At times the images are directly related to the voices, but at other times the images are more abstract or unrelated. The film is far from the last word on WBAI. But it strikingly conjures up a time when there was a critical mass of people who rebelled against the political and cultural status quo with a mixture of idealism, wit, and inchoate — and often infantile — passion. In 60s New York, WBAI was the station we turned to, to convey that welter of beliefs and emotions.
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Polisse: Hard Labor

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David Simon’s brilliant TV series, “The Wire,” ran for five seasons receiving only modest ratings and predictably never winning a major television award. But critics exulted in the power and social acuity of the series. Just like great American urban, naturalistic novels (e.g., Dreiser’s Sister Carrie) “The Wire” richly explored the structure and ethos of urban institutions. Each season it evoked the deeply flawed nature of a Baltimore social or political institution —labor unions, the schools, municipal politics and the press. But running throughout and dominating the program were the drug gangs who dominate and despoil the inner city’s streets and the police unit of flawed characters that attempts to bring them down with limited success. In “The Wire,” every member of the police unit is individualized —not one is stereotypical — and the actors work seamlessly as an ensemble.

French Writer-director-actress Maiwenn’s third film, Polisse, attempts to do for Paris’ Child Protection Unit what “The Wire” did for Baltimore’s narcotics unit. The film was based on Maïwenn’s experiences being embedded in the unit, and the screenplay’s cases were true rather than fictional. The film won the Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and in 2012, was nominated for 13 Cesar Awards (the French version of the Academy Awards).

Despite the awards, “Polisse” is not in the same league as “The Wire.” It’s similar in its episodic structure, in its neo-documentary, hand-held camera style, and in granting screen time to a great many characters. But it doesn’t have five television seasons to expand on and illuminate this immense canvas. So “Polisse” can feel overloaded with sub-plots and characters, which remain undeveloped, and the film also contains a few scenes, like the screaming match between female partners, that tend to histrionic excess.

What it does have is a first-class cast who, in the main, convincingly play working-class Parisian cops, and a genuine feeling for the stresses of a difficult job that can be all consuming. “Polisse” holds one’s attention as the cops handle agonizing cases ranging from child abuse and abduction, to a pickpocketing ring of Gypsy children, a rape of young girl, and pedophilia (handled with restraint). The film also does not shy away from the complexities involved in distinguishing truth from speculation in child sex abuse cases, especially when children and parents offer conflicting testimonies. Much of what transpires seems believably part of their everyday work.

We never do see any of the cases brought to conclusion in the film — its narrative is very loose and fragmented — for what’s most important to Maiwenn is how the daily traumas they encounter impact on the psyches of the members of this tight-knit unit. The policemen and women, married or not, prime social and personal relationships are with the other members of the unit. They have lunch and gossip together, celebrate at night at a disco after a child who is close to death survives, and even indulge in an animated game of charades after a group dinner. And the work does help to make their marriages problematic, since the unit, who shares the intensity, pain and exhilaration of the job, tend to be more intimate with each other, their surrogate family, than with their spouses.

The most striking character in the film is Fred (volatile rapper Joeystarr from Martinique), who is the most rebellious and tempestuous of the unit (he’s angrily at odds with his chief, who tends to accommodate those in power). Fred takes every case to heart, especially where he tries to help a homeless African immigrant mother and her wailing, emotionally bereft son find shelter. It’s a poignant and powerful scene, and it’s clear that Fred’s emotional identification with the boy in this situation is heightened by his inability to see the daughter he dotes on very often. Still, Fred, like the other cops in the unit, wants to be of help but has no illusions that he can make the world a better place.

Fred also has an affair with Zaia (lifelessly played by the director), a meek photographer who is assigned to document the CPU day to day. Her assignment seems pointless, and her main function in the film is to have an utterly banal affair with Fred. The film also tends to bump up the shock and action in some scenes, the director feeling that the film’s gritty authenticity is insufficient to attract a large audience. So she provides us with a rape victim giving birth to a dead baby, a special ops unit stakeout in a shopping mall that is irrelevant to the film and ends in violence, and the unexpected suicide of one of the policewoman to provide an added jolt.

The film doesn’t aim at being a portrait of contemporary Paris, but the image of the city that is projected is one whose streets are filled with immigrants and is devoid of beauty. In fact, a number of the cases they deal with involve immigrant cultures whose norms are at odds with the French legal system. It’s clearly a very different city from the one that graced the films of the French New Wave of Godard, Chabrol and Truffaut almost a half a century ago. No, “Polisse” isn’t “The Wire,” but despite its sketchy characterizations, and its straining to reach a mass audience, it’s true to the hard reality of doing police work that deals with the horrific — the exploitation of children.

Psychological Conflict: A Dangerous Method

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The trademarks of David Cronenberg’s films have been stunningly imagined violence (Eastern Promises) and intense psychological horror, especially of the fetishistic, bodily, and carnal varieties (Crash, The Fly, Dead Ringers). In Spider (2002) he explored the schizophrenic mind through the eyes of a man given a room in a house for emotionally disturbed people after being released from a mental institution.

Though Cronenberg’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, does depict pathological behavior, its style is much less edgy and volatile than his past work. Christopher Hampton, screenwriter of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The Philanthropist, adapted the script from his own play, A Talking Cure, and from John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Freud, Jung, and Sabina Spielrein. Consequently, the film is filled with literate dialogue between the two major intellectual figures, keeping under control Cronenberg’s more anarchic visual imagination. A Dangerous Method looks more like a well-mounted, decorous, and sometimes static Masterpiece Theater production.

A Dangerous Method is mostly Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) story, delving beneath his haute bourgeois, restrained, Protestant surface to other, more unconventional parts of his self. The film charts his relationships with Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the impact of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young Russian-Jewish woman, on both of them.

We first see Sabina as a hysterical patient of Jung’s—body contorted, tic-ridden, barely able to get her words out, as if they are locked in her jaw. Her convulsing is over the top, but it’s generally convincing—though her acting looks strained and outsized next to Fassbender’s and Mortensen’s plain and constrained performances. Through talk therapy based on Freud’s premise that most neuroses are sexual in origin, Jung is able to eliminate her seizures and hysteria. But it seems to unlock Spielrein’s psyche too rapidly. The therapy reveals a self-hating masochist enveloped in guilt because of erotic inclinations shaped by beatings from her father, which he began dispensing when she was only four.

Jung soon enters into a passionate and obsessive affair with her. Their ferocious sexual relationship has a perverse element (Cronenberg’s forte): Sabina needs to be whipped before sex, both to excite her and in some way purge her of guilt. Jung, meanwhile, continues to have children with his wealthy, sweet, proper wife, whom he is devoted to and will never leave.

He is prodded to have the affair with Sabina by another patient—a psychoanalyst and early disciple of Freud’s, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), in whom Jung “discovered many aspects of my own nature, so that he often seemed like my twin brother,” as John Kerr writes. Gross championed an early form of anti-psychiatry and sexual liberation. He believed in sleeping with his patients and developed an anarchist form of depth psychology, rejecting Freud’s idea of the necessity of psychological repression for civilizing purposes. Cronenberg’s Gross is striking and articulate, but also self-destructive and addicted to cocaine. His role in the film is sensational, but does not shed much light on Jung’s psyche or his development as a thinker.

It’s Jung’s relationship with Freud himself that is at the film’s center. The much younger Jung starts out as Freud’s disciple, but a rift grows between them as Jung begins to explore a different kind of psychoanalysis. Their conflict is not explored in detail, but the film suggests that Jung began to see the human psyche in more religious terms and argued for the power of the irrational, the significance of coincidence, and the parapsychological. When they interpreted dreams, for example, Freud looked for symptoms of sexual significance while Jung looked for archetypal symbols.

Viggo Mortensen skillfully embodies Freud, as a cigar-chomping, self-possessed, urbane, virile, and controlling figure. He finds Jung’s deviations from psychoanalytic practice threatening; their profession and the emotionally explosive “talking cure” was already under siege (partially because it was a Jewish profession in anti-Semitic Vienna) and couldn’t afford what he viewed as Jung’s turn to the spiritual. For Freud psychoanalysis was a science.

Freud was inordinately sensitive to rejection and couldn’t bear other analysts leaving the fold. He wanted disciples who deferred, not peers who challenged him. The fact that Jung was an Aryan Protestant increased the strain. In the film Freud warns Spielrein, once her affair with Jung has ended, “Put not your trust in Aryans. We’re Jews, and we’ll always be Jews.”

Spielrein plays a significant role in the Freud–Jung relationship. We see them discuss her case, and we see that Jung’s feelings for her are more than sexual: he respects her intellectually, and they bond over their commitment to psychoanalysis. When she leaves Jung, she departs Zurich for Vienna and ultimately becomes only the second female doctor to be elected a member Vienna Psychoanalytic Society—a rarity in an overwhelmingly male and sexist profession. Freud even sent her patients. She continued a correspondence with Jung until at least 1919 and with Freud until 1923.

Spielrein is not often given more than a footnote in the history of the development of psychoanalysis, but her conception of the sex drive as both destructive and transformative, which she presented to the Society in 1912, anticipated Freud’s “death wish” and Jung’s views on “transformation.” But while Knightley’s Spielrein does talk to Jung about the theory of the sex drive and tries hard to establish her intellectual bona fides, she never quite convinces us that she could publish thirty psychoanalytic papers, in French and German, and be a major psychoanalytic figure.

That’s one of the problems with this intelligent but generally tepid film. There is a fair amount of sophisticated intellectual talk, but we never get at the essence of the theoretical differences between Freud and Jung. More importantly, the complex nature of Jung’s psyche—his need to break from a sexually repressed existence and look at the world from a different vantage point—is never illuminated. Cronenberg has a capacity for subversive imagery, which could have helped paint a better picture of Jung’s mind, but he is too restrained and faithful to Hampton’s script. One needs much more than smart dialogue to tell this story.

Originally published by Dissent Online on December 9, 2011.

Leonard Quart is a contributing editor at Cineaste, and the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945.

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