Nov 06

“Experimenter”: About Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study

In a college psychology class over 40 years ago I learned about Stanley Milgram, the titular Experimenter of a new film by Michael Almereyda. But I’m hardly unique, of course, in having been introduced to his work. John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “Readers who’ve heard of only one psychology experiment in their lives probably know Milgram’s…”

Some pertinent background: “An American-born Jew of Romanian-Hungarian extraction,” states Scott Foundas, Variety, “Milgram was obsessed by the origins of genocide and the human capacity to rationalize violent behavior…”

Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap, sets up “Experimenter”:

In response to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) set out to study obedience, particularly the willingness of experiment participants to inflict ‘punishment’ on another person simply because the conductor of the experiment instructed them to do so. Milgram’s casual polls of colleagues as well as his students at Yale before the trials began predicted that very few would follow through to the end of the experiment, which involved the person shocking another participant three times with 450 volts.

Turns out they had too much faith in the good of mankind: Out of 40 test subjects, 26 administered every shock as instructed by a man in a gray lab coat (white would be ‘too medical,’ Milgram reasoned), though they all expressed concern about the other participant — who was actually an actor (Jim Gaffigan) and didn’t receive any shocks at all — and displayed physical signs of stress and emotional upset.

Some of the film’s other eventualities, says Foundas, include “…his overnight celebrity, the ensuing accusations of ethical impropriety, and the general unwillingness of people to believe what Milgram was saying: that most people, relieved of direct responsibility for their own actions, might be capable of almost any atrocity.”

Other Research and Film Conclusions 

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

As he ages and suffers through countless shallow readings of his work, Milgram takes to pointing out a chapter of his book few people got around to. There he defines the ‘agentic state,’ in which a person sees his role in an interaction as not human but purely functional. ‘That’s store policy,’ such a person might say, or ‘that’s out of my control.’ Spend a couple of hours trying to get satisfaction on a company’s toll-free ‘customer service’ line, and you might conclude that a version of Milgram’s famous experiment is still being conducted on a massive scale.

David Edelstein, Vulture: “The movie ends with Milgram asserting we can be puppets but still have free will — which would be even freer if we could learn to ‘see the strings’ on us.”

The trailer for Experimenter shows many of the other players. Besides Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife, a few of the research participants are Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, and Taryn Manning.

Selected Reviews

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “In ‘Experimenter,’ an aesthetically and intellectually playful portrait of the social psychologist Stanley Milgram, the director…turns a biopic into a mind game. It’s an appropriate take on a figure who’s best remembered for his experiments in which subjects delivered punishing electric shocks on command.”

Godfrey Cheshire, rogerebert.com: “…(I)f this is a biopic, it’s hardly a conventional one. It seems not at all interested in probing Milgram’s psychology, to wonder why he would undertake this type of work. And, in effect, the film’s wife-and-family parts have a basically negative function in that, rather than explaining anything, simply tell us he was a fairly ordinary guy.”

Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap(A) largely engrossing sit, even during an unfortunate moment when Sarsgaard sings and the film threatens to become a musical. But as interesting as the developments are, they’re too inscrutable to stay with you for very long.”

Nov 04

“Kinsey”: Human Sexuality Research Before Masters and Johnson

Before Masters and Johnson (see last week’s post on Masters of Sex) was sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who wrote both Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).

Although I can’t personally vouch for the new series now on Showtime, I can for Bill Condon‘s biopic Kinsey (2004), in which the famous sex researcher is played by Liam Neeson and wife/colleague Clara by Laura Linney. She’s “Mac” to him; he’s “Prok” to her.

Kinsey’s first line in the movie, “I’ve been reading up on gall wasps,” clues us in that he was an insect academic at Indiana University before veering into the study of human sexual practices. Why’d he make this transition? One reason is that he was bugged (pun intended) by what passed as sex education in those days.

Too, having been raised by a moralizing father (John Lithgow), Kinsey had no use for judgmentalism. David Edelstein, Slate: “The movie boils down, for me, to a single, endlessly reverberating phrase: ‘Morality disguised as fact,’ which is what Kinsey thinks of sex education in the late 1930s.”

So, from gall wasps to a course on sexuality in marriage he goes—and it’s a big hit with the students. The university president (Oliver Platt) then supports Kinsey in his plans to study men’s sexuality, which is aided by several male assistants (Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, and Chris O’Donnell).

Below you can see the trailer:

THE ERA

As noted by critic Roger Ebert, in Kinsey’s era “it was more or less universally agreed that masturbation would make you go blind or insane, that homosexuality was an extremely rare deviation, that most sex was within marriage and most married couples limited themselves to the missionary position.” He continues:

Kinsey interviewed thousands of Americans over a period of years, and concluded: Just about everybody masturbates, 37 percent of men have had at least one homosexual experience, there is a lot of premarital and extramarital sex, and the techniques of many couples venture well beyond the traditional male-superior position.

THE MAN

Roger Ebertrogerebert.com:

…Kinsey was an impossible man. He studied human behavior but knew almost nothing about human nature, and was often not aware that he was hurting feelings, offending people, making enemies or behaving strangely. He had tunnel vision, and it led him heedlessly toward his research goals without prudent regard for his image, his family and associates, and even the sources of his funding.

While he’s advocating freshness, freedom and sense in the public arena, Kinsey is mired in moral questions at home. He explores his homosexual side with one of his assistants, much to the shock of Clara, and he encourages sexual experimentation among his followers. Is he the liberated man he asks others to be? What exactly is liberation? Kinsey finds himself caught in the endless conundrum of life.

THE COUPLE

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times:

Ultimately, ‘Kinsey’ comes down to Prok and Mac, a prickly, not-always-likable but profoundly believable couple going through their own sexual revolution and living to tell the tale. In the end, they walk in the woods, still enthralled by the natural world that first drew them together. ‘It’s impossible to measure love,’ the man who helped America understand sex tells his wife. ‘When it comes to love, we’re all in the dark.’

ONE CONCLUSION

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

I can’t think of another movie that has dealt with sex so knowledgeably and, at the same time, made the pursuit of knowledge seem so sexy. There are some explicit images and provocative scenes, but it is your intellect that is most likely to be aroused…

In undertaking his sex research, Kinsey set out to document what was normal, and discovered a universe of variation. In publishing his findings, he horrified some readers and titillated others, but the implications of his work, as presented in this humane and serious film, go far beyond mammalian physiology or human behavior. Each of us is different, and none of us is alone.

Aug 19

“Blue Jasmine” Updates “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Just out is the new character-driven film written and directed by Woody AllenBlue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett as a New York City woman in crisis who reconnects with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Watch the trailer here:

MORE ABOUT THE PLOT

Everyone agrees—Blue Jasmine is Allen’s modernized version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News, offers further info about the plot:

In a series of flashbacks, Jasmine’s investment broker ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is revealed as a philandering sneak. His Hamptons home and Park Avenue life were paid for via Bernie Madoff-style schemes.

After Hal commits suicide in prison, Jasmine, who’s been wandering the streets, winds up at Ginger’s. But Ginger’s fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a speak-the-truth mechanic with a rough persona, sees Jasmine for what she is, throwing her even deeper into her mental crisis.

JASMINE’S MENTAL HEALTH: CRITICS WEIGH IN

Rex ReedNew York Observer:

Like Blanche in Streetcar, Jasmine is a mystic combination of purloined innocence and Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis—exasperatingly manipulative but meltingly vulnerable, always waiting for someone to save her…

…Cate Blanchett dominates this film from start to finish. As a mortgaged soul in the gradual stages of a nervous breakdown, she is heartbreaking and hypnotic. From black-belt shopping, window-gazing at Cartier and matinees on Broadway to anxiety, depression and shock treatments, she runs the gamut of psychiatric forensics. Jasmine is blue, all right, but she remains trim and stylish, a real Bergdorf mannequin, until she winds up talking to herself on street corners.

Dana StevensSlate:

Washing down her Xanaxes with a vodka martini (or in a pinch—and Jasmine gets into a lot of pinches—a straight shot of vodka) as she narrates her constant, anxious inner monologue to whoever will listen, Jasmine attains the paradoxical state of being fascinatingly tiresome…

Jasmine’s various pathological behavior patterns are on ample display—in scene after scene, we watch in squirming half-sympathy as she traps herself with self-aggrandizing lies…She disintegrates beautifully before our eyes…

Claudia Puig, USA Today:

She lies incessantly, recasting situations to put herself in the best possible light. She pops fistfuls of Xanax and tosses back vodka to numb her pain.

‘She’s cuckoo, baby,’ says Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Ginger’s boyfriend.

Allen’s well-structured, deftly written story centers on a complex character struggling with mental illness. Blanchett gives Jasmine dimension. She’s entitled, egocentric and unsympathetic. But she’s also a victim of a devious spouse, heartless friends and a culture whose materialistic values have encouraged her vapidity.

SISTERS JASMINE AND GINGER (AND SUPPORTING CHARACTERS)

Andrew O’HehirSalon:

…Ginger and Jasmine are both adopted and not biological sisters, but despite their drastically different personalities, both are stuck in a repeated cycle of domineering and borderline abusive men. Both meet white knights who offer the promise of redemption and are way too good to be true. Ginger has a torrid fling with a sound engineer named Al (comedian Louis C.K.), while Jasmine meets a smooth-talking, well-dressed diplomat named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who moves with startling speed toward a marriage proposal and promising Jasmine a future as a politician’s wife, smiling beside the lectern.

Stephanie ZacharekVillage Voice: “Only Andrew Dice Clay, in a small role as Ginger’s Low-Class™ onetime husband, pierces the movie’s highly polished bubble world; he comes off as a person whose veins run with blood rather than some liquefied director’s conceit.”

Richard CorlissTime: “If the film has a vital, complex character, that would be Ginger…This congenital optimist does the best with the scraps life offers her: a sister she has little in common with and, cross your fingers, a kindly new beau, Al (Louis C.K.). Her affair with Al summons Blue Jasmine’s most plausible, affecting scenes.”

SHOULD YOU SEE IT?

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “…(T)here’s something cathartic about a contemporary film that’s willing to explore madness as an expression of who a person really is. Blue Jasmine is about what happens when one lost soul meets the cruel real world.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “Richly chronicled characters, sharp dialogue and that stupendous centerpiece performance by Cate Blanchett are contributing factors in the best summer movie of 2013 and one of the most memorable Woody Allen movies ever.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

I haven’t even brought up Tennessee Williams’ ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ or the doomed character of Blanche DuBois (whom Blanchett has played on Broadway), for a couple of reasons. If the specter of Blanche hangs over this whole movie like a combination of San Francisco fog with New Orleans humidity, it’s also the ultimate invidious comparison. On one side, we have one of the greatest works of American drama, whose tormented and self-deluded central character stands for so many inexpressible things about women and sexuality and the painful cost of pretend normalcy and the divided soul of the South. On the other, we have this pallid imitation, a freak show whose alternately compelling and repulsive heroine can’t disguise the fact that it’s a movie by a sour old guy who no longer likes anything or anyone and who also, more damningly, just isn’t interested.