A Soldier’s Heart: Let There Be Light

A Soldier’s Heart: Let There Be Light

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the invisible wound that scars war veterans, and some individuals are so afflicted that they die physically or psychologically from this traumatic wound through suicide, homicide or incurable psychosis. In 2012, this disorder is recognized and understood in ways it never was before, making it more possible for traumatized men and women to get the help they need. However, war-related PTSD certainly isn’t new, and when the 20th century and its technological might ushered in massively brutal, worldwide conflicts that buried forever idea of a “gentleman’s war,” it also drastically increased the psychological pressures on combat troops. Motion pictures have been used to document the many aspects of war. Over the years, the United States government has commissioned a number of documentaries that look at soldiers returning from theaters of war, as they attempt to reintegrate into the society they left behind.

Perhaps the most famous documentary about returning soldiers is the 1946 film Let There Be Light by the acclaimed filmmaker John Huston, who considered the film to be one of his best movies. However, its fame derives mainly from being kept hidden for 35 years after it was made, by a War Department uncomfortable with the notion that there is any lasting downside to war for the returning veteran. The War Department was so uneasy about this documentary that it had the film remade as Shades of Gray, a propaganda docudrama based on Let There Be Light, which not only eliminated African-American soldiers from the cast, but also suggested that only soldiers who were disturbed before they went to war broke down upon their return.

Film history isn’t the only context in which to appreciate Huston’s hour-long documentary, his third and final film for the Army Signal Corps. Let There Be Light is also one of the earliest commercial depictions of psychotherapy, in this case the military’s use of it to treat what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The U.S. military now offers a wide array of pre- and post-battle therapies to help soldiers recover from traumatic experiences. In contrast, Let There Be Light’s gruff doctors, who inject sodium amytal and conduct religious group therapy sessions, look prehistoric by comparison.

Nevertheless, Let There Be Light, like its routinely under-appreciated 1946 fictional counterpart, The Best Years of Our Lives, remains essential viewing. Each of the films conveys a sense of compassion toward soldiers; the soldiers presented in these films don’t ask to be called heroes, they only want normalcy. Today’s returning soldiers surely feel the same, and yet their experiences on the battlefield are increasingly abnormal, even unknown, to most people they encounter upon returning.

Seven months after the War Department forcibly prevented Let There Be Light from premiering at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, a disabled Army veteran named Harold Russell became the only man to win two Oscars for the same performance. Russell received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and an Honorary Award for Nonprofessional aActing for his role as a returned soldier in The Best Years of Our Lives. William Wyler’s 168-minute drama concerns the homecomings of three soldiers, and it was showered with awards throughout the winter and spring of 1947, including a Best Picture Oscar and multiple Golden Globes and New York Film Critics Circle citations.

The Best Years of Our Lives and Let There Be Light aren’t cynical or judgmental of American society, but are quietly brave and emotionally devastating. Let There Be Light attempts to shield us with its preentation of hospital interiors that are clean, orderly and positively overstaffed. Nonetheless, the men and their stories are unforgettable. You finish watching the film feeling emotionally drained and deeply grateful that they won’t have to fight again.

To commemorate this past Memorial Day, the National Film Preservation Foundation premiered the film on its website and will run the film through the end of August.

A Soldier’s Heart: Let There Be Light

The Best Years of Our Lives

Read more about Let There Be Light in The Morning News here.

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Adam Phillips: Thinking Aloud on Pleasure and Frustration

Adam Phillips: Thinking Aloud on Pleasure and Frustration

The best lives, like the worst lives, are driven lives.

Adam Phillips, Going Sane (2005)

Thinking Aloud on Pleasure and Frustration is a six-minute documentary short film featuring Adam Phillips, an English psychotherapist/psychoanalyst, literary critic and the author of several well-known books, including: The Beast in the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites; On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored; Going Sane; On Kindness and most recently, On Balance. Phillips has written widely, from a unique psychoanalytic perspective, on a range of themes central to concepts such as the human condition, human suffering, desire, pleasure and the good life. As a practicing psychoanalyst, he offers a refreshingly subtle analysis of these concepts, grounded in the lives of actual persons. Phillips delivers his thoughts here with an unusually open and rich quality of fluid extemporaneous prose.

Adam Phillips: Thinking Aloud on Pleasure and Frustration

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Marwencol: A Tiny Fantasy World, A Place to Heal

After crash landing during WWII, Captain Hogancamp discovers Marwencol.

Hogie marries Anna in front of the SS soldiers who captured him.

Jacqueline, Svetlana, and Anna head toward the Church to save Hogie from the Nazis.

The Nazis rumble down Main Street in Marwencol in a captured American tank.

A medic rescues a wounded major after an ambush by the SS.

Two Nazis are prepped for a hanging in Marwencol Square after causing so much suffering

Marwencol: A Tiny Fantasy World, A Place to Heal

I came flying over in my P40 Warhawk, on fire, and saw a flat field below and I crash-landed in it. And when I walked into town, there was nobody there.” So begins Mark Hogancamp’s story of Marwencol, the small-scale fictional Belgian town and oasis of peace in the midst of the Second World War that he built in his yard.

On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked outside a bar in Kingston, New York, by five men who beat him literally to death. Revived by paramedics, Mark had suffered brain damage and severe physical. After spending nine days in a coma and 40 days in the hospital, Mark was discharged with his memory wiped nearly clean of the details of his life, his early marriage, girlfriends, family, Navy service, thundering alcoholism, homelessness and jail time. He had to relearn how to eat, walk and think at the age of 38.

Unable to afford therapy, Mark decided to create his own. In the yard beside his trailer home near Kingston, he built Marwencol, a 1/6th scale World War II-era town that he populated with dolls representing his friends, family, and even his attackers. Made from scraps of plywood and peopled with a tribe of Barbies and World War II action figures, Marwencol was named after himself and Wendy and Colleen, two women on whom he had crushes. Narratives surrounding a downed American fighter pilot rescued by Marwencol’s all-female population began to unfold against a backdrop that was nominally a World War II setting, in Belgium. The themes, however, were Mr. Hogancamp’s own: the brutality of men, the safe haven of a town of women, the twin demons of rage and fear. Mr. Hogancamp captured his stories with thousands of photographs, shooting on an old Pentax with a broken light meter. The noirish images, complete with blood flecks in the snow, are riveting and emotional.

Mark started documenting his miniature dramas with his camera. Through Mark’s lens, these were no longer dolls. They became living, breathing characters in an epic WWII story full of violence, jealousy, longing, and revenge. And he (or rather his alter ego, Captain Hogancamp) was the hero.

Hogancamp’s work has been shown at Esopus Space in New York and is the subject of a documentary by Jeff Malmberg, which explores the way that Hogancamp’s fantasy world has changed and affected him.

You can read more about Mark Hogancamp and his tiny world of Marwencol in the New York Times here.

Marwencol: The Official Theatrical Trailer

Slide Show: Marwencol/A Tiny Fantasy World, A Place to Heal

(Please Click Image to View Slide Show)

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Six Weeks to Live: Brutal Honesty

Six Weeks to Live: Brutal Honesty

Psychotherapist Dr. Leonard Stern never had time for anyone, his gardener, other physicians, and least of all, his patients. Then, a fateful diagnosis from his doctor of a malignant brain tumor, giving him six weeks to live, led him to reexamine his own life. Dr. Stern adopts a new philosophy towards himself and everyone around him: brutal honesty.

Our Time is Up was nominated for The 2006 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short.

Six Weeks to Live: Brutal Honesty

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