Thursday, June 26, 2014


del Toro and Amalric

“Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian” is not a movie about Indians.  It is about human beings.  It is also a big lovable mutt of a welter of trauma, forces and questions that are always left by a war, at least the kind of war that WWII was.  This movie explores both the Indian and the psychoanalyst George Devereux, who is sort of inventing his work out of anthropology, philosophy, and ancient Greek assumptions, plus his own issues from a Hungarian Jewish family with a lawyer father and a mother at odds with him.  Edward Teller was his cousin.  His brother committed suicide.  He studied with VERY high level founders of sophisticated thought (Marie Curie!) and was never quite accepted by the Americans except Menninger, always a man with foresight and tolerance, perhaps a precursor to the Third Force psychology of the Sixties and Seventies.  

Devereux wrote 400 manuscripts, not all of them published.  “In "From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioral Sciences" Devereux proposes to rethink the question of the relation between the observer and the observed. Devereux takes his guidance from psychoanalysis. According to him, the classical methodological principle which prescribes to the researcher to make his observations from a strictly objective point of view is not only impossible to put into practice but outrightly counterproductive. Instead the observer should place himself in the middle of the process and keep in mind that whatever he may observe is always influenced by his own activity of observing.”  This is a principle of particle physics, quantum mechanics.

Devereux wasn’t Procrustean (Freud’s dark side), but rather formed himself against the boundary of the person who presented and learned from that.  (Technically transference and countertransference.)  He was wrestling with the scientific requirement of being absolutely objective (impossible) versus the poet’s yearning to inhabit the revelation of another person’s life (dangerous).  But he was able to move successfully in and out of the other person’s experience, using empathy as much as analysis.  Writing everything down helped him to externalize it; long walking talks helped him share Jimmy P’s world, though he never came to the rez as did the film-makers.  He did previously have two years on the Mohave rez.

I agree with Roger Ebert , who said, "the movie offers the most psychologically complex screen portrait of a Native American character in at least twenty years, probably more" and "those who have undergone such treatment will appreciate how accurately the film portrays the process, never simplifying anything, never going for the easy dramatic epiphany, always respecting how analyst and patient circle around and around the edges of meaning". 

Desplechin was active in composing the script, with the help of Julie Peyr and Kent Jones.


Desplechin goes back and forth over his subjective/objective boundary by using an alter ego, Mathieu Amalric, who has been his representative often enough to move into it smoothly.  He also depicts the dreams as they are presented.  The result is a simple, clear, graceful portrayal of the relationship between two very different people. This film is already a classic because of this dimension: that it is accessible but not stupid.  

A few little flourishes from more recent scholarship than what was in the original book are helpful.  Clearly someone read the anthro scholarship about Blackfeet.  (“Manly-hearted women.”  And there’s Cyn Kipp!  Well, Mary Ground has gone on ahead, right?  And a lot of others.  But there are plenty left and they’re getting impatient!)

Hungarian Manly-Hearted Woman?

You should not go to see this movie because you dearly love and idealize Indians, not that they are put down, but because they are not treated as a separate species.  There are no feathers.  But to my heart’s joy, the land that made Siksika into a tribe is well-portrayed.  To my irritation and sometimes amusement, Benicio del Toro is about as Blackfeet as a Taiwanese playing a Korean.  The unfamiliar are not likely to notice much, but to those who know the difference, it will be a bug.  The compensation is that he’s an excellent actor and does a fine job with the dynamics of the character.

Another issue that needs to be acknowledged and then dismissed is del Toro’s attempt to speak in what some call the Indian drawl or brogue.  At your peril say “guttural” because to the unsophisticated it implies “the gutter,” though it really means words pronounced in the back of the throat.  Blackfeet language had a lot of consonants spoken against the soft palate and throat.  (Modern Blackfeet speakers tend to have accents because they can’t make those sounds anymore.) Their singing is falsetto, nasal, almost like throat-singing, but that is changing, too.  Del Toro ends up sort of halfway between Tonto and a Jamaican.

Upham and del Toro

The real Jimmy P. was from a family called “Everybody Talks About Him.”  Usually around here we leave off the “Him.”  Or even just say “Talks About.”  The name is not in the 1907 Blackfeet census but Devereaux is.   No relation.  Jason Devereaux was an art teacher here.  I didn’t know that George Devereux was actually György Dobó, but that clue begins to explain why the lives of Blackfeet would become relevant to him.  Both men had translated names because both had been culturally overrun.  Devereux was evading the Jewish danger (he converted to Christianity in 1933) and Talks About was living out an imposed culture.

Despite the fantasies of some, many tribes were very strict and closely prescribed behavior.  An unfaithful woman could have her nose cut off.  The last “Nosie” in Browning had died only a few years before I came in 1961.  Beatings were approved, a root of present violence.  The people who were friendly to Jesuit Catholicism were the same as those who had derived their sense of themselves from rule-following in the old way, just a matter of reframing the rules a bit.  To be thrown into a chaotic “anything-goes” situation like WWII meant a major change in the most basic assumptions.  

Almaric and McKee

For the Devereux character, it meant accepting a “Swedish” sort of tolerance in which loving someone unavailable (married to someone else) and losing them was simply necessary, a matter of rueful acceptance.  For the Jimmy P. character, faithlessness was intolerable and deserved punishment to the point of death.  He had been a warrior, he had been displaced, he had been robbed -- all of these things brought up unresolved issues from boyhood.  With a harsh mother and tough sister, a dead wife, a deserting wife, the only figure of female reconciliation in the movie that’s possible is the teenaged daughter, who is Catholic, raised by nuns.  Eventually, Jimmy could accept their ceremonies of confession and forgiveness and internalize them, which is what the psychotherapy was anyway.

There are a few loose ends, mostly the other Indians:  Gary Farmer, A. Martinez, Misty Upham, Michael Greyeyes and background extras.  None of their stories are pursued and only Misty is Blackfeet, but they give a sense of “group” which is very important when dealing with tribal people.

This film fits into the brain research issues I’ve been following.  If the level of challenge presented by things like war, esp. when the moral dimension is high enough, it becomes necessary to find a way to rebuild one’s world-view from the deepest, earliest levels.  One way is psychotherapy, but ceremonies can also work.  A previous icon of PTSD recovery has been Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel “Ceremony,” also about WWII.  In that book, the man goes back to his tribe and accepts the old ways.  If this kind of work is not done, either people will be assaulted and even killed, or gentle persons like Jimmy will turn the rage on themselves, blindly, painfully.

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