Masochism

Georgia O'Keefe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930
Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930

There’s a secret spot in the brain, an endorphin-rich place many humans try to enter. It is a dangerous location dividing two sides of psychological states: drive and fortitude on the sunny side and the murky, ruinous side of masochism and martyrdom. Whether you are a writer or reader or observer of films, these characters who are on a quest for the ultimate mental escape, catch us, and pull us along for the ride. They have something to share about the human condition. Will they triumph or will they fall? The pleasure/pain principle is human nature’s most fascinating oxymoron. Some live it; almost all of us are entertained by it.

The Artist  
Natalie Portman, The Black Swan, 2010
Natalie Portman in The Black Swan, 2010

I admire the performing arts. The symmetry, the composition, and the spectacular lengths artists make it look and sound effortless garners awe. What’s the price an artist will pay to be the best? The rigors of practice and the dedicated focus to be perfect requires an atypical lifestyle where time and schedule are aligned for one purpose–to exist only for art. The Black Swan is one of my favorite psychological thrillers. The stress Nina Sayers struggles with as she strives to be perfect is an example of masochism. How does she achieve perfection? She has to let go of her bodily self and transcend to that secret spot where she becomes the black swan, Odile, and is no longer Nina, the good white swan, Odette.  Darren Aronofsky told a similar story–opposite societal arena–starring Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008). Both films depict the extent to which an artist will transcend to the art form they worship.

Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2014)
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash (2014) is a tale about the sadomasochistic relationship of character Miles Teller and his mentor, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons who won the Oscar as his manipulative old-school instructor. Miles needed the task-master to push him to greatness. He couldn’t be the next Buddy Rich without the abuse. By the end of the story, the boy transcends into a man and the power struggle shifts to an exciting conclusion. The dynamic duo and the gorgeous jazz easily made Whiplash one of my favorite films of the year.

Transcendence via Sex
Lars Von Trier, 1996,  Breaking the Waves
Lars von Trier, 1996, Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996) is an odd film set in Scotland starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård. Bess is Calvinist and pure of heart while Jan is an atheist oil-rigger. Her love for her husband extends to great limits most of us wouldn’t venture, for he becomes incapacitated and wants her to have sex with others and describe the details to keep their union whole. Her devout relationship with God affects her rationale, and she concedes, convinced it is God’s will to cure Jan. Bess eventually overcomes her repulsion with lovers and transcends to the special spot via sex to a symbolic state of purity by martyrdom. Visionary director Lars von Trier incorporated ten rules in his Dogme 95. The remote Scottish landscape is ancient and stimulating and perfect extension to the film. You can learn more about Lars von Trier’s technique HERE.

Dangerous Jobs 
The Hurt Locker directed by Kathy Bigelow, 2008.
The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 2008.

The threat of imminent death causes an adrenaline surge to create the complete escape. This altered state is foreign to normalcy. War puts you in that heightened state seen in films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper.  How ironic that only when faced with death, do some people feel alive.  

LEOs and FF/EMTs
Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell
Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell

The ER nurse or doctor. The ambulance driver. The firefighter, and the police officer. Surrounded by the threat of death to others and themselves requires control and steady hands. The exposure releases the chemical surge and the instinct for survival kicks in; they are in the zone. They commit to a lifestyle that few of us could stomach. These heroes are in a voluntary, dangerous career, and they take the abuse. It’s their identity.

The Athlete 

Similar to the skater, the dancer, and the musician, the focus to excel and perfect their sport requires one visit the sweet spot in the brain. Extreme sports, extreme results.

The Actor 

What about the craft of the actor? How far will an actor go to alter their state of being? There are few actors who come to mind who are willing to transform their bodies for the sake of their art, but Christian Bale probably does it better than anyone.

Extreme sleep deprivation is as close to the sweet spot as I’ve ever been. This altered state of torpidness is fascinating and dangerous. In the sweet spot, pain is not felt, the world does not hurt. Nothing can touch you. Does pain brings pleasure?

53 thoughts on “Masochism

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  1. Tha Machinist is a very interesting film. In that, and ‘Raging Bull’, we see actors submit their own bodies to the roles, by either losing or gaining huge amounts of weight, taking ‘method’ to a whole new area. Nice theme Cindy, and one to generate comments and interest, I expect.
    Best wishes, Pete.

      1. Yes the post. I’ve thought before that Aronofsky’s characters all seem to be having some kind of battle with their bodies, The Wrestler and Black Swan as you have mentioned but also Requiem for a Dream (various addictions) and The Fountain (cancer). I’ve not seen Pi, so I don’t know about that one.

  2. Fantastic post Cindy. Its a really interesting subject. I like that you included The Hurt Locker, I think it was a great portrayal of someone addicted to danger.

    If you have a really strong stomach I might recommend a French horror called Martyrs which is about transcendence through pain. I have to warn you though its very very disturbing.

      1. Martyrs is a truly amazing film, nothing like Hostel or Saw. It is something almost beyond description, though you will only probably ever watch it once.
        I think everyone interested in film should try to see it.
        Regards from England. Pete.

        1. Hi there, Pete. I think if I ever saw Martyrs, it would be because I stumbled into a room and it was playing. But, if I do stumble into the room, I’ll make sure to sit down and watch.

  3. Cindy, I enjoyed your post but question your definition of masochism. Most of these examples are of people who are obsessive high achievers, willing to make sacrifices or face danger for higher ends, while masochists are (at least as defined by Freud) passive types who choose to delay immediate gratification in order to prolong the tension that precedes an outcome of either pleasure or pain., neither of which they are in a position to control. The drummer in Whiplash does not go to his class with the wish of being tormented by his teacher, but to become a better drummer. He gets no thrill from the teacher’s abusive methods. And the dancer’s goal is not to subject herself to pain, but to gain perfect control over her body. My wife worked as a doctor on an ambulance for one year, and the euphoria she experienced was simply the thrill of being in the center of the action. she had no desire to be injured or killed in an accident. Although I disagree with your definition of masochism, I thought the article was thought-provoking on its own terms, as examples of extreme behavior in obsessive personalities.

    1. Hi Bill, always glad to hear your comments. With regards to Whiplash, I’m going to disagree with you. I think he hardens and gets a thrill from the abuse. He listens to Fletcher tell him about Buddy Rich getting hit by his mentor and teaches Miles if you want to be the best, you have to endure the pain. He seems to be dejected when he’s no longer at the school. He follows Fletcher into the bar–if he were a monster, he’d stay away from him. He feels guilty for having him fired. It’s easy to blame the bully as being ghastly, but there’s also an unconscious pride one has if they can survive the worst of the worst. When Fletcher no longer pushes him, he is lost. With regards to your wife, I’m glad she didn’t cross over to the unhealthy side where she was bored with normalcy and needed the euphoria. Doormats (In my marriage, I was a doormat) would fit yours/Freud’s definition of the passive masochist. I see masochism in another strain, too, pro-active masochism , putting yourself in a dangerous situation because the adrenaline is intoxicating. To me, risking your life for gratification is masochism. Thank you, Bill 🙂

  4. Hitch’s Vertigo (1958) and Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) are two of the most famous studies on the subject. In Hitch’s movie, it is the result of a traumatic event. On the other hand, Lean drops hints that Lawrence’s masochism is rooted in his childhood. Lean’s movie is particularly interesting because we are talking about a real person. Anyhow, the idea interests me because I have obsessive compulsive tendencies that are often mistakenly linked to sadomasochism and paranoia. Anyhow, great post!

    1. Welcome, and thanks for your insightful contribution. You cite two fine examples regarding the theme. To me, it’s a double-edged sword where at any moment the justification for pursuit can turn ugly.

  5. Another thought-provoking post Cindy! Lots to ponder here… I certainly can’t imagine having the occupation of most ppl here, esp doctors and nurses. Good thing some people can handle such professions, otherwise where would we be? As far as actors tackling extreme roles, you’re right Bale does it better than most.

    1. Hi Ruth. Workaholics need that constant stimulation, generally speaking. To sit and do nothing is torture. (That’s me) Yes, to the service careers. There’s a lot of responsibility there with no room for mistake. Noble!

      1. I’m w/ you Cindy, to sit & do nothing is torture for me too! In fact, I’m one of those people who can’t imagine sitting at the beach for hours on vacation, I’d rather do sightseeing and explore! As for those in the service career, hats off to them!

  6. Hi, I’m a first time reader of your blog. I thought this was an excellent little piece. I’ve always been pretty astounded by level of committment shown by some actors to perform. Most notably Christian Bale (as you point out). I probably think Daniel Day Lewis is the strongest actor when it comes to immersing oneself in a character. I don’t think I even know what the man is actually like! I can only ever recall his different characters. Anyway, great post – I’ll be reading many more!
    Harry.

    1. Welcome, Harry! I appreciate your comments. I thought of DDLewis, but when I think of Bale’s performance in The Fighter and The Machinist for physical transformations, heck, add the plumper version in American Hustle, Bale wins the external contest. DDL is an anomaly, isn’t he? I think of him as a shell with alternate selves but I have wondered, too, who is the real man?

  7. Another great and interesting post, Cindy.

    You should consider a monthly (or bi-monthly) GROUP VIEWING feature. Suggest a film you particularly like and alert readers that you’ll discuss it and ask those interested in participating to join in an after-viewing posting discussion. Might be fun. I know I’d enjoy it! You are my Siskel & Ebert!

    1. Well, you are the cat’s meow. 🙂 It’s a great idea! As soon as I get the first draft of novel 2 completed (hopefully by Aug 1) and it’s sent off to the editors, and I have some time, this would be a fun way to enrich the blog.

  8. Hi, Cindy:

    Interesting, intriguing, well laid out and defended topic.

    Actors and artists will endure a lot for their craft. De Niro and Bale do a LOT physically to attain and maintain their characters. I’ll add Bale’s naturalized Navy pilot and POW, Dieter Dengler in ‘Rescue Dawn’. And Vincent D’Onfrio taking on 80 pounds for his role as Pvt. Lawrence/Gomer Pyle in ‘Full Metal Jacket’.

    Though, ‘Backdraft’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’ are more about adrenaline and adoration addiction and taking unnecessary risks than getting the job done. Having endured a few more than 24 hours days during military exercises. The last thing you want to do is take risks after the first 12 hours. Your body clock, dexterity, coordination and decision making start going out the window. And you crash for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, afterwards,

    Could also add ‘The Paper Chase’ for what students have to endure to maintain and pass courses in college. Many don’t make it, due to the sudden change in maintaining grades, competing and the addition of pressure from all sides.

    ‘Whiplash’ still rocks out loud for J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. Who is going to be the super nerdy Reed Richards in the next, iffy at best, ‘Fantastic Four’.

    1. Hi Kevin! Oh, you added a couple great examples which never occurred to me. The Paper Chase–yes–I haven’t watched that one in decades. I was not aware that Vincent D’Onfrio gained 80 pounds for the role! I’m so embarrassed. How on earth did I miss Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn? Wow. What was I doing? I am thankful and will rent it right away. It looks great. Thanks for that 🙂

  9. Fantastic post Cindy, I remember being emotionally devastated by the end of Breaking the Waves. Just something about the love of one women knowing no bounds and sending her down the path of martyrdom made it so difficult but emotionally draining to watch. Plus Emily Watson is so riveting and just invest every last inch of her soul into the part.

  10. Good stuff Cindy. As much as I have tried Black Swan just didn’t work for me. I do see what a lot of people are getting at when they speak so highly of the film, but for whatever reason I wasn’t won over by Aronofsky’s project. But I do see where it fits nicely into this discussion.

  11. Is the passion there? Without the passion – the desire – the sincerity … What can we achieve? Not much. The passion that opens us and moves us into ‘the Zone’ (I call it). As a write you know what I mean. That place where the words flow so quickly you cannot get them on the paper fast enough. And you lose some of them. An awesome – and excruciating place – all at the same time.
    And we don’t even know where those words come from – though others give us credit.
    For some, once they’ve experienced the Zone, it’s a consuming narcotic.
    “I wish I had your passion Ray.”
    So does it really matter what that passion may be for?

  12. You’ve opened up an interesting door into film that I’ve not been drawn to of late, Cindy. Apart from the Hurt Locker–which was a brilliant film–I’ve not seen any of the rest. I INTEND to see Whiplash, as it reminds me very much of the days I used to work in entertainment and how horrifically cruel some of my mentors were to me, and it would be interesting to see the film with a nice chunk of space from when I felt like I experienced much of it. But after reading your post and all the well-crafted comments, I may have to buckle down and watch a few more of these films–if for no other reason than to understand the lack of appeal I find with the storylines and characters. It might be quite revealing, and no doubt I’ll likely find it worthy of the time spent.
    I’m never disappointed with your suggestions.
    Cheers, Cindy.

    1. Howdy, my friend! When I watched the trailer for Whiplash, I stalled because I have issues with confrontation. To watch two hours of someone bullying another did not seem like a good way to spend my time. But everyone seemed to praise it — a wide variety of folks with varying interests– and I relented. Boy, am I glad I did. First, the music is delicious and adds a huge amount to the satisfaction of the film. The two characters and their relationship reminded me of my first marriage. Gulp. J.K. Simmons was fantastic showing the bi-polar charm and his rationalization of the abuse of power. It was great to consider the story from his point of view. Then, there’s Miles, the wanna-be “artist” and watching him grow as a character (really it’s a coming-of-age story) and the final scene is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s full of complexity and exactly what I love to see in a film. It’s beautiful, good and dark, well acted, and absorbing through the entire viewing. You won’t be disappointed.

  13. Wow, what a post. I love how you dig into these various themes so well, and the way you explore them in so many different genres or facets of film. Bale is a madman in the way he shifts his physicality for a role. I didn’t love Black Swan, but I see where it plays in here. Breaking the Waves blew me away…and I think it perfectly portrays how masochism and martyrdom are intricately related.

    Awesome post!

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for your kind words and comments! I like to make connections and I’m glad you appreciate the ones I come up with! They are not an all-inclusive list. I love it when readers remind me of other great choices. 🙂

      1. You have trouble with Blogger? I can’t ‘follow you’, but I have added you to my blog roll, so I will make it a point to pop in and comment more. I’ve loved reading your work but for some reason have not commented as much as I should have. Hope to see you in my neck of the woods sometime 😀

  14. Really interesting post Cindy. I liked it a lot.

    “Extreme sleep deprivation is as close to the sweet spot as I’ve ever been. This altered state of torpidness is fascinating and dangerous. In the sweet spot, pain is not felt, the world does not hurt. Nothing can touch you. Does pain brings pleasure?”

    Its funny you say that, cos i’m bipolar I often end up spending nights awake on end and I know what you mean there. For me though, there is real danger cos the higher I go, the worse I will eventually crash. if that makes sense.

    But yeah, fascinating read!

      1. Nahh thats all in the past, that was the case years ago but now I’m pretty level headed for the most part, don’t have mood swings to worry about. For some reason though reading your post reminded me of when I’d have these hypomanic outbursts

  15. Black Swan sounds most interesting. The lengths we will go to to achieve, the human drive for excellence (and greatness), obeisance to art are all fascinating questions I have explored in the writing and will likely come back to. Hubby’s been wanting to watch Whiplash with me – you know our boy is a drummer. I hope to soon. =)

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