THE LOVING AND TERRIBLE MOTHER
Ruminations on Patty After New Orleans And the Audience's Relationship to the Archetypal
I should say that the four Q&A sessions we did in at IDFA in Amsterdam last year were mostly positive. A Polish film critic we met at IDFA dubbed the film "complex" and said, "It's about the infernal.” One woman said she thought the film was "important," and another had been inspired to work with the homeless in Amsterdam's inner city. Finally, and most gratifying, the IDFA festival director, Aly Derks, called it "a beautiful film."
And at NOFF this year, just like Amsterdam, there were cross sections of people with widely varying reactions. There were people who really appreciated the film. Like the programmer for the new Baton Rouge Film Festival who called it “brave." And a man who identified as an alcoholic who stayed after and thanked us. Another young couple stayed and asked penetrating questions about each stage of filming.
But...when audiences see the final version to the end, I now believe that because of the intense content, their reactions are similar to people who have been traumatized. While viewing onscreen the traumas of the subjects, some in the audience can take on the subjects' trauma, pump themselves full with indignation, and search for someone or some thing to blame. Which is what happened at the Q&A at the New Orleans Film Festival when a couple filmmakers at the screening voiced their concerns about exploitation (more on that in my article "Ethics in the Immersive Documentary" in Senses of Cinema film journal).
I'm an alcoholic, and Patty was my friend. But try as I might, I couldn't find a solid reason for Patty's painful spiral. No facile clinical explanations seemed to exist (except ones that would please Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil), and my rationalist expectations for answers were always confounded by Patty’s behavior. The medical model of addictions gives the reasons for alcoholism as biochemical and genetic. The recovery industry adds behavioral and sometimes "spiritual" reasons. No explanation exists even from within the moral universe of AA, where we're told by our sponsors that we "don't need to know the reasons," which doesn't seem satisfying either but is where my current thinking ends up: I have to have respect for the mystery.
However, in the time between the final edit, the test screenings, and the festivals, the themes of sexual transgression and incest came to the fore. In fact, they filled filled up the entire space in the screening rooms, sucking up all the air around them, polarizing audiences.
This didn't fully dawn on me until after the film was edited, but I had been drawn to it instinctively. Still, all through the editing process, the film was supposedly just about Patty's family and her alcoholism seen from the author's point of view.
In Amsterdam, one excellent and engaged Q&A moderator stood and talked with me for over an hour about Patty, coming to the conclusion that Patty being a woman made a crucial difference in viewer's judgment of her: She was a fallen woman—the worst thing you could be. If she had been a man going through her travails, audiences would have accepted her more readily. She quizzically asked if I thought Patty should be forgiven for her many transgressions, then answered her own question in the negative.
So, in thinking about Patty, I've come to the conclusion that accepting her actions as the inevitable and organic outgrowth of the pressures of women of her social class and education (just the normal fate of women with alcoholism) shows less respect for her autonomy and personhood than actually holding her responsible.
Her quasi-suicidal spiral may have erupted from a specific time in her life when she'd participated, at the diabolical direction of Darrell’s stepfather Frank, in a coerced, drunken enactment of a deeply archetypal and ancient taboo. When I realized this, I started to notice that, although the people and events in the film can be talked about from many different angles, the one that grabs people from underneath their chairs (though they don't necessarily know it) and holds on is the archetypal angle.
Here's what C.G. Jung himself says about the all-important mother archetype:
"The qualities associated with [the positive Mother archetype] are maternal solicitude and sympathy, the magic authority of the female, the wisdom and spiritual exaltation that transcend reason...all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility..."
And here's what he says about the negative archetype:
“On the negative side, the mother archetype may connote anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable—like fate."
It is clear from the events in the film that Patty cannot escape fate. Patty was surely an outlaw, a train-hopper, a Skid Row bum, yet the role she wanted for herself was as a mother. This made her story, to me, an irreconcilable paradox. It was the intersection of human dreams with what the French existentialists called facticity—the intractable conditions of one's existence that you can't change because you are thrown into them: your birthplace, your parents, your class and race, your infirmities and genetics, your previous bad choices in spouses, your alcoholism. She seems more laden with it than we are. It produces an inertia and a torpor that angers us, makes us want to yell at the screen because this facticity she can't bring herself to escape is affecting the innocents who depended on her.
For an idea of the effect Patty may have had on her children, I found that Jung scholar Neringa Grigutytė perfectly describes the difference between growing up with a positive versus negative mother archetype:
"The positive mother...[archetype] constellates if the child from the very infancy feels that he or she is desirable, beloved, safe and the needs are met. For such persons the life is good and right...[Conversely], people with a negative mother complex have the feeling that both they and the world are bad. They have no sense of an unquestioned right to existence...Such people never really feel a sense of belonging to others, though they strive for it. — "How Does Mothers’ Sexual Abuse Trauma Beget Trauma in Daughters? The Constellation of Mother Complex"
Sadly, he has described some of our subjects, the children of Patty.
NOTES ON AESTHETICS
Doc filmmaking is a process of discovery for the artist and, later, his audience. Any mistakes and imperfections and wrong turns are part of the process. It isn't out of bounds to include these as story and as thematic material...especially in a documentary.
To put it simply, I took the view that art more than often has more unplanned content than planned content. It may consist of mistakes, repeated over and over until it becomes the burnished but paradoxical truth. I didn't think I was omnipotent nor omniscient enough to remain invisible as the narrator; plus, there was my (unproductive) guilt from having presided over the filming of so much human misery.
Three Things This Film Is
1. An experimental documentary about making a documentary. If you want this grounded in some aesthetic theory, I'll put the best face on it and venture that For I Know My Weakness—described as a train wreck by the Q&A critic—is actually a slowly gyrating precession of filmed calamities that can be viewed from many angles, and it's up to the intelligent viewer to juggle them, while keeping his social and moral prejudices in check. After viewing the film, the various POV's of all the subjects, including the filmmaker, should continue to reveal themselves as they continue their orbit around the viewer. If, however, the viewer fixes his/her attention on one interpretation of the people and events and decides on that one to the exclusion of the others, it won't reveal itself as whole; it'll appear shadowy and incomplete, failing to penetrate that viewer's consciousness.
2. A confessional piece of filmmaking. A major theme of the film is the search for ideals and purity in the face of a corrupt world with the eventual loss of innocence. In the film, the idealistic character with a cause is me, and my goal is getting Patty sober and fulfilling an AA 12th step. I just might make a fool of myself in the process, and I just might be capable of doing harm to others or taking a fall. In the editing room, when thinking about my role in the story of Patty and her family, I was thinking of poor Candide, Voltaire's innocent hero who can't be disabused of mentor Pangloss's philosophy that we live in the "best of all possible worlds.” Toward the end of the short book, however, Candide has undergone incredible hardships and ultimately become brutal in battle, plunging his sword "up to the hilt" in a Jesuit Baron's belly. "As he withdrew it, all steaming, he began to weep: 'Alas, dear God!' he said, 'I have killed my former master, my friend, my future brother-in-law; I am the mildest man alive, yet I have now killed three men, two of them priests.'" I was a mild filmmaker who might have exploited his subjects. Don Quixote wanted to model his world on the Romance books he'd read and hallucinated himself slaying enemies and saving damsels when everyone else can see that he is mad. I modeled Patty's world on my own romantic notion that the deepest intractable human problems like Patty's can be easily fixed with twelve steps, and I was wrong. The Polish film critic at IDFA in Amsterdam, after praising the film, told me what he thought of my role in the film: “You’re an idiot!” he said, and I knew he’d gotten the film. But in the end I learned what I had done, and Patty generously turns the tables on me when she sees how depressed I've become. On camera she says, "I just want you to be happy, John."
3. Social Realism. Using a subject like Patty goes back to the Greeks. I'll finish with this article on the statue pictured on this page, called "Drunk Old Woman":
“The subject of the sculpture is a drunk, old woman kneeling over a jug of wine. The subject matter of the sculpture is an excellent example of social realism. Social realism in art was a new concept in the Hellenistic Age, unlike the proper and idealized forms of goddesses and heroes from the Classical Period…Artists depicted unpleasant and deeper emotions, various states of consciousness and more anonymous humans.” —from the “Online Museum of Greek Art & Archaeology”