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Saturday, March 16, 2013

PTSD and the Movies

Film, theater, literature, and poetry are among the forms of expression that allow the artist to explore the compelling issues of their lives.  At it's most fundamental level, these art forms are windows into the emotions, feelings, and impulses that fill up the landscape of both our conscious and unconscious human experiences.  In addition, art in its creation, development, performance, and enjoyment, can be just as healing to the human psyche as are psychotherapy or holistic-based life training programs.  Films, in particular, reach a wider audience, and have the power to affect change and the healing of deeply rooted issues that have troubled humanity for centuries.  With movies, great movies, we're able to see stories unfold before our eyes, watch as the hero or heroine is confronted with a challenge that needs to be fixed, they face an antagonist, sometimes its a person, sometimes its a condition like PTSD or schizophrenia, or it could be nature or technology or society.  The drama unfolds with an inciting incident, the protagonist goes through a series of conflicts which increase in danger and suspension until the final climax and subsequent resolution.  At the end of the movie, there is a reclamation of character, the protagonist has undergone a profound change, he or she is better for the experience, and there has been an advancement in the understanding of the human experience for both the character on the screen and the audience watching it.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has been among the issues films have brought to light to reflect back to society the human impact this dis-connective disorder does to human beings faced with life-threatening, dangerous, or emotionally traumatizing events.  Although sometimes sensationalized and exaggerated, the point of these films was to look at these problems from all angles in order to understand it more clearly, and communicate the profound impact it has on the lives of those it touches and how it can positively or negatively affect them.

The Vietnam-era produced a number of memorable films that dealt with this issue.  Two of my favorites are 'Apocalypse Now' and 'The Deer Hunter.'  In 'Apocalypse Now', a movie based on the novella 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad,  Marlon Brando's character, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, suffers from an extreme case of PTSD in which he had become so numb to the horrors of the war he's witnessed and been apart of, he no longer is able to feel any compassion or empathy for the people around him.  The sheer brutality of war, - the killing, the torturing, the maiming, - destroyed in this man his humanity.  He was a model officer, one of the best, and yet, the darkness of the soul had consumed him, numbed him.  He became ruthless, cold, and killed without a conscience.  In one of the films most famous scenes, he extols the strengths of being able to kill without a conscience:
     "You have to have men who are moral...and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling...without passion...without judgment...without judgment!  Because its judgment that defeats us."
I find it ironic that this monologue was one of the first monologues I chose to do when I first started studying to become a professional actor.  This particular film demonstrated vividly the moral ambiguities of war and how it unleashes all that is dark within man.  Many consider this to be the best film of the Vietnam era about the Vietnam war.  That's debate-able,  but it certainly shined a mirror back to society about the truths of war we would be happy never to have discovered.

'The Deer Hunter' showed another side of the emotional and psychological impact war has on combat veterans and the people that love them.  Whereas 'Apocalypse Now' is surreal, 'The Deer Hunter' is more of a parable.  It shows how three different men are affected with PTSD and how they respond after the trauma they experienced in war.  The film stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, and George Dzundza.  De Niro, Walken, and Savage play the trio of Russian immigrant steel workers (Michael, Nick, and Steven) from Clariton, Pennsylvania who get sent to Vietnam and are captured by the North Vietnamese and held prisoner in a riverside prisoner of war camp.  Each of the men are forced to play Russian roulette for the entertainment of the sadistic guards.  In one of the most intense scenes ever filmed (my opinion), Michael and Nick are matched up against one another with three bullets in the gun.  The performances are absolutely brilliant.  To me, the roulette game symbolized in such an extreme circumstance the horror, senselessness, and brutality of war; it's deliberate and random acts of violence; how sane men are forced to play it, some by choice, some not; and finally, it reflected the tremendous psychological damage war cruelly inflicts on the individual.

After this extraordinarily traumatic event, none of the men are ever the same, and all three suffer from PTSD.  Michael (De Niro's character), returned home, maintained a low profile, avoided the party being thrown by his friends in the town, and told the cab driver to take him to a motel.  The scene where De Niro is all alone in the motel, squatting down with his hands between his legs, to me, is so powerful.  Whenever I watch this film, this scene always moves me to tears, and now, after my own experience with PTSD, I can relate to it more than ever.  I can feel De Niro's character Michael struggling with his feelings.  He's all alone, isolated, disconnected, alienated from the rest of the world, and tormented about what happened to his friends (he doesn't know at this point if his friends are alive or missing).  Later in the movie, Michael goes hunting with his friends from the town.  After a long hike up in the mountains by himself, he comes up upon this beautiful buck, has him in his sights, but at the last minute, pulls up and fires in the air.  He screams out "OK!", and the sound echoes throughout the valley.  Michael can no longer take another innocent life.  At the end of the movie, the tragedy reaches its climax, as Michael is back in Vietnam, right before it falls in 1975, to bring Nick back home.  When Michael finds him in a crowded Russian roulette club where men take bets to see who will die first from the gunshot, Nick's mind is completely gone, he has no recollection of his former self. He's a pawn in these men's games for money, he can no longer feel pain, grief, joy, etc., and he has become emotionally numb to death, both for others and himself.  Michael sets up a game with him, in a last ditch effort to entice Nick to remember who he was, and to come back home to his friends and family.  You can see the love Michael has for Nick, how he's willing to sacrifice his own life to save him, and, at the same time, it is so painful to see Nick totally, completely disconnected mentally and emotionally from his friend.  At the very end of the scene, Nick, as he's about to raise the gun to his head, is stopped by Michael, who pleads one last time not to do this.  Michael desperately tries to jog Nick's memory about home, and Nick recalls "one shot."  There is a brief moment where the two connect, there is a remembrance on the part of Nick of a distant, innocent past long forgotten and you see it in his eyes.  But its too late.  Neither the love of his family and friends back home waiting for him, or the golden memories of his youthful, innocent past, or the woman waiting for him back home, or the best friend who came back for him against all odds is enough to prevent him from pushing off Michael's arm, raising the gun to his temple, and blowing his head off.      

This last scene is so powerful and agonizing to watch.  The masterful performances of both De Niro and Walken is heartbreaking.  Although it's view point is one-sided, 'The Deer Hunter' exposed brilliantly the psychological and emotional consequences of combat PTSD, and how it destroys and disfigures the lives of those it touches.  It is an emotionally shattering film.  

These two movies, along with several others like 'Coming Home' (1978), 'Return of the Soldier' (1982), and 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989), really grapple with the complex inner mindset of combat veterans who've experienced the trauma of war and are doing their best to cope with it.  Characters in all these movies clearly exhibit the classical symptoms of PTSD such as: uncontrollable anger, emotional distancing and numbing; hyperarousal responses; denial; isolation and avoidance; substance abuse; and an interest in recreating traumatic events in their own lives.  But these are not the only movies which deal with PTSD.  There are others that show how PTSD can affect and destroy the lives of those affected by family traumas, emotional and/or physical abuse, or horrible accidents.  'Ordinary People' (1980) clearly and most heartrendingly showed how the unexpected death of a loved one brought about the total disintegration of a family.  The son who survived a boating accident where the older brother was killed, suffered from extreme PTSD and survivor's guilt, and the audience gets to painfully see how a person can become so haunted by the past because he blames himself for what happened, that his present life can be very difficult to manage and navigate.  I most certainly related to this one.  Other films of importance that have dealt with PTSD: 'Good Will Hunting (1998), 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998),  'White Oleander' (2002), 'Mystic River' (2003), and 'Reign Over Me' (2007).

Another film was brought to my attention as I was doing my research whose central character suffered from PTSD at an early age, and later turned that tragedy into his calling to serve others.  The movie is 'Batman Begins'.  Surprised?  I was.  Bruce Wayne was motivated by the tragic death of his parents that he witnessed as a child to take the law into his own hands and seek the means to fight injustice.  He studied the arts of stealth and fear, and then used what he learned to turn it around for good.  In fact, most of the characters in Batman, both heroes and villains, have experienced great tragedies in their lives which has turned them all into these freaks.  But what separates the heroes from the villains is what they did with the trauma they experienced and how it would direct their lives. The heroes chose to make their traumas as motivation to become champions of humanity, whereas the villains used their traumas as motivation to become bitter, angry, and to seek revenge against humanity.  So, even our beloved comic book heroes have to overcome great challenges like PTSD in order to become who they eventually become.

As an actor, not only do I look at all these amazing films and recognize the tremendous impact they have had on our society, but I also recognize the tremendous gift my experience with PTSD has given me.  Roles I might not have been able to play, I can play now, roles that require an experience and understanding of deep anguish, trauma, and pain.  I can now go to those raw, brutal, agonizing places which tears out the heart and crushes the human spirit, and do it with aplomb.   I can now connect to the truth of the experience of any character who has experienced any of the traumas I described in the films above, and also the one's I didn't, and play those roles truthfully, authentically, and convincingly.  Great pain can often lead to great works of art, whether you are an actor, writer, painter, musician, sculptor, or whatever your particular art form.  It lends itself to beauty, as the pain can be transformed into something beautiful.  An actor, a great actor, must have access to all the emotions and feelings that encompass human existence, and be able to translate those emotions and feelings into the character he portrays, with ease and effortlessness.  Without the full experience of those feelings and emotions, it is difficult to authentically connect to your character in his situation and circumstances, and the performances can lack depth, subtlety, and vulnerability.  But those who can, leave us with memorable performances that stay with us for a lifetime, and impact society in ways that transforms and inspires.  As a consequence of my intimate, lengthy, and excruciatingly painful experience with PTSD, I now have access to all my emotions and feelings, the light and the dark, and can play heroes, villains, and all those in between with a sense of love and compassion for whatever situations they are in.  I know how paralyzing traumas can be, how it negatively impacts every area of your life, and how it corrupts and disfigures the person who experiences it.  I understand the rage of pain, and the extreme vulnerability that lies underneath.  I understand when faced with a choice, to turn the pain into something good, or to choose to go the other way, I know what that moment, what that feeling is like, and that will certainly influence my work in profound ways.  Does that mean I'll put in a performance as memorable as Brando or De Niro?  Not necessarily.  Just because I've experienced PTSD to its fullest doesn't guarantee a brilliant performance, and as any actor knows, you have to be the right person in the right place at the right time.  My job is to be ready when the roles come, and when they do come, whether in movies, tv series', or plays, I will have an infinite well to draw from.