A couple of months ago I had the great pleasure of taking two classes from two different schools on field trips to see movies in the theater. My “World of Cinema” class from Harold Washington College, which focused primarily on westerns and films noir, went to see a screening of Arnaud Desplechin’s 2013 film Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) at Facets Multimedia. A week later my “Intro to Film” class from Oakton Community College went to a 35mm revival of Robert Rossen’s boxing drama Body and Soul (1947) at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema — a screening that was introduced by the esteemed critic and author J. Hoberman. Both titles ended up fitting perfectly into my curricula even though I had never seen either of them before. These experiences reminded me again of why teaching is the best job in the world: it gives one the opportunity to learn along with one’s students.
Writing about Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) was the midterm assignment for my “World of Cinema” class. Because the students had at that point spent most of the semester studying the western, I told them I wanted them to write essays illustrating how the movie, although not technically a western, still might be seen as engaging the core concerns of the genre. I knew before going in that Jimmy P. was a drama about a Native American undergoing psychoanalysis in the late 1940s and that Desplechin had said he thought about John Ford every day while making the film, but this still turned out to be a more profitable exercise for them than I could have imagined. While the western has long been predicated on depicting culture clashes that result in physical violence, Jimmy P. depicts a similar culture clash but one that results in psychological violence: it tells the story of James Picard (Benicio Del Toro in his finest performance to date), a Blackfoot Indian and World War II veteran who, much like Robert Taylor’s Shoshone character in Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway, has trouble readjusting to civilian life upon being discharged from military service.
At the film’s beginning, Picard is suffering from headaches and bouts of blindness that cause him to seek help at a Topeka military hospital. The doctors there can find nothing physically wrong with him and recruit Georges Devereux (Mathieu Amalric at his most exuberant), a Hungarian-Jewish psychotherapist/anthropologist who has spent time with Native Americans, for assistance. What follows is a series of extended rap sessions between the two men that shows the process of psychoanalysis in great detail. It soon becomes apparent that Picard is suffering from trauma stemming from events in his early childhood combined with a lifetime of facing casual racism. Picard, whose Blackfoot name means “Everybody Talks About Him,” also faces an identity crisis: he’s a practicing Catholic with his feet planted in two separate worlds, both of which he feels alienated from. Desplechin’s formidable achievement here is to not only realistically show how one can be healed through the process of psychotherapy but also to depict a beautiful and unlikely friendship between two very different men (though one gets the impression that Devereux was well-equipped to treat Picard precisely because he was as much of an “outsider” to mainstream American society as his patient). Jimmy P. is a genuinely optimistic movie that never resorts to sentimentality — and that’s a rare thing indeed.
Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) rating: 8.6
The screening of Body and Soul at Block Cinema, about which my “Intro to Film” students had to write a brief screening report, marked the final episode in an intriguingly programmed series entitled “Red Hollywood.” According to J. Hoberman’s lecture, this blue-collar epic was the most explicitly leftist of a crop of post-World War II era Hollywood movies that would soon draw the ire of Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (director Robert Rossen, screenwriter Abraham Polonsky and lead actor John Garfield were all eventually blacklisted or graylisted). Body and Soul centers on Charley Davis (Garfield), a tough street kid who is taken under the wing of an unscrupulous promoter (Lloyd Goff) after winning an amateur boxing match. He eventually becomes a champion fighter but loses his soul in the process. While Rossen is not generally regarded as an auteur (there’s a reason why I had never seen this before), he and legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe undeniably worked cinematic magic in the boxing sequences — the final of which saw Howe using a handheld camera while being pushed around the ring on rollerskates. (Body and Soul‘s influence, aesthetically and narratively, on both Rocky and Raging Bull is plain to see.)
J. Hoberman’s pre and post-screening remarks focused heavily on one shot, containing just 20 words of dialogue, that was cut from some release prints (and even, probably by accident, the film’s first DVD release) — a Jewish grocer making a delivery to Charley’s mother says: “Over in Europe the Nazis are killing people like us just because of their religion. But here Charley Davis is champion.” Arguably more interesting, however, is the overall contempt the film expresses for money and its corrupting power. This is perhaps best exemplified by an emotionally charged scene where the villainous promoter drops money on the floor in front of a brain-damaged African-American boxer (Canada Lee) who subsequently refuses to pick it up. Body and Soul‘s message about the importance of integrity and not selling out (in a neat twist, Davis knowingly loses a huge sum of money by winning his final fight) is arguably more vital and poignant today, in an era when most contemporary Hollywood movies — with the notable and ironic exception of The Wolf of Wall Street — seem to do nothing but worship the acquisition of wealth and fame.
You can check out the trailer for Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) via YouTube below: