Bruno Bettelheim, one of the few men ever sprung from a German concentration camp, is famous as a child psychologist in the grandest sense of the term, and for years he was professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, but he was a little baffled at the request to deliver the first of a yearly showcase series of lectures to the American Film Institute.
He knows nothing of films, after all, and told the institute so. No matter. His declining of the honor to begin the Patricia Wise lectures did him no good. Jean Firstenberg, director of Afi, simply told him he must address the great topic of films, and at the last Bettelheim agreed.
"I got together 500 books bearing on the subject," he said in the pre-lecture chat, "and while I didn't read every word of all of them, at least I held all of them in my hand."
He spent four months preparing the talk, and if I understood it (you are never quite sure about that at these big prestigious lecture series) he said movies are pretty much mere entertainment for us, not inviting reflection or repeated viewings, whereas movies really should be providing a myth for our time, by which we learn what the world is, who we are, how we ought to get through life.
I was luck to have a talk with him in a Kennedy Center screening room the day before his address, and it was clear he was in some pain. The chairs were absurdly soft, possibly on the theory that most movies are suitable mainly for sleeping though, and Bettelheim peered about to see if there wasn't a civilized chair in theplace, and then made the best of things, stretching his leg forward full length.
"sure it's not the bone? There's a good bone man in town, and if --"
"No, certainly not the bone. Probably neuritis. Never mind, it's not bad," he said resigned to peering sideways at his interviewer for the next hour or two.
"My starting point, preparing for the lecture, is why should anybody go to the movies? What do they do for the soul?"
They are just light entertainment, in other words, not like Richard II" or a masterpiece like a Gothic cathedral. And Bettelheim peered sharply and demanded:
Name one movie that ever changed your life."
"Wuthering Heights," I obliged him, "and Mr. Hulot's Holiday."
He had liked both pictures, but had not, I gathered, found them seminal, catalytic, ultimately revelatory or those other good critical things.
He turned to the Athenian theater of the fifth century, and the medieval church. These were institutions that each embraced many major arts and provided dominant myths for their times.
"A cathedral," he was baited, "was a tremendous community business, focus of community life, with pilgrims coming and going -- the work of endless laborers and guilds for centuries. Money was raised for the great tower of Chartres by a tax on butter for years. But we do not plan and scrimp and dream and sweat for years to see Dorothy Lamour bump into a palm tree, and maybe the lack of community involvement means the analogy of movies and the church is a bad one."
Bettelheim nodded his heavy head, now elegantly decorated with a coronet of white, and assented. Up to a point. I was fairly sure he thought we ought to plan for years for Miss Lamour, or at least ought to reflect profoundly and at length upon her.
"Movies do not invite reflection," he observed. He did not speak of the obvious and primary feature of movies -- their flickering quality, and the cardinal emphasis on light and instability: Things are forever moving about.
Maybe next year's lecture will be on "Movies as an Heraclitean Fire" but I kept feeling, during this lecture, that Bettelheim was pulling a few punches and not saying straight out that films are either trifling amusements to get you out of the rain for an hour, or else ponderous essays aiming to prove the sun rises in the east, or else propaganda. It would not surprise me that since he's spent months thinking of nothing else, we may see after a bit some tremendous Bettelheim analysis of what's wrong with films.
I did ask him about his monumental reflections on "Seven Beauties" which appeared in The New Yorker, and in which he took the film up one side and down the other for what he felt was its falsity or cynicism or fraudulence or general wrongheadedness, and Bettelheim said that was another case in which he said no, he would not write about it. But did.
That film dealt with life in a German concentration camp. The hero was a pig before he entered the camp, a pig after he left, and (Bettelheim agrued) his general piggishness, coarseness, sloth, greed, etc., helped him to survive.
"It 's completely false," he said (and wrote in his criticism). "What led to survival was, obviously, the arrival of Allied troops to free the camps, not some action of the people in the camps. But within the camp, before the liberation, your chances of survival were greatly increased if you cooperated with your fellow inmates and shared with them and felt for them. If you behaved as the hero of "Seven Beauties," you wouldn't survive to the day of liberation."
Bettelheim himself was sent to Buchenwald in 1938 and was in camps almost two years. His crime was that he was a Jew and an intellectual.
His degree from the University of Vienna was in esthetics and psychology. Even years before, he had become interested in helping autistic children, if indeed anything could be done to help. Autistic children lived in his house. The work took years and vast patience. That work stopped abruptly with his arrest and two years at Dachau and Buchenwald. Many prisoners were released, it has been said, to free Gestapo guards for active duty, but Bettelheim's release is generally credited to the intervention of New York Gov. Hebert Lehman and Eleanor Roosevelt with German authorities. They both were familiar with his work with children.
It was certainly true in Bettelheim's case that compassion, culture, virtuous life, had vast survival value. Even before the war was full-fledged, and before the worst atrocities of the camps, Bettelheim saw such sights as prisoners shoved down by guards in latrines to suffocate, and prisoners ordered to bury other prisoners alive. (Sometimes, for the sake of variety and increased drama, the man being buried was fetched out and ordered to bury the man that had been burying him -- a German exercise in role reversal.)
It has been said there's nothing like a few years in Dachau to turn you against such a Lina Wertmuller film as "Seven Beauties." In any case, Bettelheim objected strongly to what he thought the film was saying, namely, that humans are bestial whether in Dachau or in liberated Naples. He could not decide whether the film was saying, "Therefore, nothing makes any difference," or whether it was saying "Life with concentration camps is no worse than life without them," or just what. But everything in him told him the film was a bad one.
One of his greatest concerns has been the development of a child, from an infantile sea of raging chaotic impulses to a mature human in which conflict is manageable and meaning is both clear and profound.
One thing great art does, he said in his lecture, is to provide a myth -- a shared fantasy of mankind -- which tells us our place in nature and how to live well.
If movies do not do this -- and he cited his own movie-going as a boy in Vienna as a series of rather shabby escapes with or without sexual excitement -- then you might wonder why not. The medium, Bettelheim says, has the same potential for all-embracing myth-making as the Athenian theater of the medieval church. But he did not push this question beyond stating it.
In his book "The Uses of Enchantment," which deals with the splendid value of fairy tales for children, he repeatedly makes several points that seem to shed light on his view of human development, if not specifically his view of movies:
Fairy tales help a child to know who he is. His fears may not be able to be put in words, but symbols in the stories can reach him and he understands them perfectly, and he learns his fears are not something to be ashamed of, that others have the same ones. He learns there are ways (when faced with a giant, say) to overcome seemingly fatal threats. He learns from these stories (without any moralizing, for moralizing might threaten him further) that he can and will go from level to level of development and that things will become increasingly better and happier. Provided he does not shirk the pain of growing to the next level. Unseen, unknown, benevolent powers will come to his aid if he is brave and goes on. But if he stops where he is, refusing to develop further, then that is dangerous indeed.
By and large, Bettelheim insists, fairy tales are endlessly optimistic. And endlessly true.
In the case of adults seeing movies, it could be argued we are no longer little children. I suspect, myself, that what Bettelheim admires so much in the fairy tales is what he would admire in movies, if he could find it. Namely, the trumpet cry to master our fears and cries by developing further as men; to recognize and deal increasingly effectively with our most hostile and dark aspects -- not denying them but harnessing them. Not falling victim to the superego along the way.
Bettelheim is not a Jew in the sense of one who worships at the temple, and has not identified himself with what is sometimes called "Jewish culture," and on occasion he has offended some of the Jewish community by pointing out Anne Frank's diary is "doctored" by adults and is not the child's diary at all; and by saying entirely too many Jews perished under Hitler because they cared too much for their status and wealth and not enough for their dignity and independence as humans.
Religious Jew or not, it is impossible (talking with or reading Bettelheim) not to be reminded of the prophets Micah and Isaiah, and the values of religion.
He distrusts, he says, consciously "artsy" films, accessible "only to elites," and is fond of observing that Sophocles, Shakespeare, etc. (not that it's easy to think of many others of whom this is true) were tremendous box-office favorites as well as heroes to the intellectual establishment.He would like movies to be popular in a mass-consumption way (like his beloved fairy tales?) yet able to stand up under the strictest scrutiny as art and as spiritual explorations (again, like the fairy tales?)
"Movies should affirm the meaning of life, the meanings of lives of quite ordinary men and women. They should affirm it."
"Celebrate? Is that too strong a word?" he was asked.
"Celebrate," he said.