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Getting a Life

Whose story are you living now?

By Frank Pittman

As we go through our lifetime metamorphoses, we adapt to those whom we like and hate, envy and fear. We fall in and out of love, and emulate and identify with each aggressor and rescuer who comes our way.

Some psychologically ambitious recent films have explored how people shape their identities around those whom they venerate or are obsessed by. Each encounter changes them. The most honored films of last year—The Departed and The Lives of Others—and the best American film so far this year—The Hoax—show us people shaping themselves around one another, merging identities with their heroes and nemeses.

The Departed, which brought Martin Scorsese his long-overdue Oscar, is now out on DVD, with a soundtrack of thick south Boston accents and much-needed English subtitles. The original version of the story was an uncluttered Chinese action film called Infernal Affairs. In any language, in any version, this fascinating story is a psychologically astute exploration of men who may or may not be faking who they are, but spend more energy observing one another than they do observing themselves.

Jack Nicholson is a gang boss who owns Boston, treats it cavalierly, and delights in acting as outrageously as he chooses. Years before, he'd bought a poor kid with a lollypop who's grown into pug-nosed Matt Damon. Smiling Jack guides him into the police department. Damon has an honest-faced harmlessness that lets him move up quickly in the department, even as he secretly works for Nicholson. He sucks up to his superiors and slithers so softly he's soon tapped by earnest police chief Martin Sheen and his shamelessly vulgar lieutenant Mark Wahlberg to root out the spy in their midst (Damon himself).

Meanwhile, undercover cop Leonardo DiCaprio worms his way into Nicholson's gang, working for the bad guys while spying on Nicholson and reporting to Sheen. Juvenile star DiCaprio is being groomed by Scorsese, in The Aviator, Gangs of New York, and The Departed, to be a convincing tough guy, and he's getting there. In this year's thrilling Blood Diamond, he had enough layers to make himself compellingly watchable. Here, he has moments reminiscent of Robert DeNiro before he became a self-parody.

Damon is, in effect, playing DiCaprio and DiCaprio is playing Damon, each searching for their counterpart, the other double agent. As they sneak around, puzzled, Wahlberg, who's unabashedly straightforward and unpolished, steals the movie.

The focus of the story is that the two guys who are faking their own identities begin to lose track of who they are and which side they're on. They long for the chance to be who they really are, and they're in too deep to risk it. They, understandably, both fall in love with the police psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga), who doesn't know who they are either. Toward the end, when the two double agents finally meet, one of the protagonists is crying for the papers that would restore his identity and the other is destroying the computers that would make the restoration.

After the psychological confusion of Scorsese's last two films, with DiCaprio out of his range, it's a relief to see the director dig deep rather than wide. Here, he recaptures the compassion for the "goodfellas" he showed in Mean Streets and Raging Bull. Damon and DiCaprio get mixed up in our heads—which is appropriate, since we're being given an enlightening sense of what it feels like to lose yourself in someone else's identity.

An even more probing film is last year's foreign-language Oscar winner, The Lives of Others, which is just now making the rounds. In this film, West German debutante director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck looks at the misplaced values of the Cold War East German regime, in which dissent, or even truth, are lethal, and no one dares trust anyone else. Two men, a playwright and a wiretapper, may be the last surviving true believers in the totalitarian state. Sebastian Koch, a dashing and popular writer of superficial, patriotic plays, lives with his glamorous star, Martina Gedeck. In the basement of their deteriorating but once stylish old building, intense, joyless Ulrich Muehe leads a secret team of wiretappers who are documenting the lives of the theatrical couple because a repulsive, high party official wants to find Koch to be a traitor so he can gain access to Gedeck.

The wiretapper Muehe, dedicating his minimalist life to studying the couple, falls in love with both Koch and Gedeck, and maybe with their relationship, and begins to protect them, with indirect warnings and by lying to his superiors about their associations and conversations. Koch knows nothing about what's going on around him: he's too trusting and too favored by fate to believe his country would distrust his loyalty, or to think that his beloved partner would betray him. He doesn't suspect that Gedeck has given in to the beastly party official to defuse his power to hurt her or Koch.

Just as happened to Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 wiretapping masterpiece, The Conversation, the burden of secrets becomes oppressive, and the spy feels compelled to rescue his prey. Tension builds for Muehe, who risks much to protect the glamorous couple. Koch, still unaware of the spies in his basement and the traitor in his bed, discovers the danger he's in and reacts no differently to his girlfriend's betrayal than he does to his government's: both shock him and shake his unchallenged sense of security in his world. In time, each man takes off his blinders and loses his trust in what he's held sacred. But what then? What does a guy do after discovering he's been lied to about everything important in his life?

The Lives of Others is dark and tense, practically colorless. It's filmed in shabby, crowded spaces occupied by scared, silent people, as if everyone except Koch knows the world is treacherous.

The plot hinges on the relationship between Koch and Muehe, who change each other's lives, though they never meet. Koch's glamour shakes Muehe from his selflessness, so he acts not to save himself, but to save the man who values his life more, who seems to have more to live for. See this movie. It'll explain much of what happens to depressed therapists who prefer to live their clients' lives rather than their own. The naХve Koch meanwhile is nudged by Muehe's subtle intrusions into awareness, disillusionment, and radicalization. If his country doesn't trust him, he can't trust it. After years of floating on a cloud of optimism, he no longer trusts his hopefulness about anything.

The latest film about the loss and exchange of identity is The Hoax, directed by Lasse (My Life as a Dog) Hallstrom from Clifford Irving's unpublished ersatz autobiography of Howard Hughes and his bestselling, non-fiction account of his grand literary hoax. Irving, played with a delicious twinkle by Richard Gere, is a failed writer of unpublishable books until he hits upon the scheme of faking an autobiography of the mysterious, weird-as-hell billionaire Howard Hughes. He's blown his last advance on his latest unreadable novel (on riotous living), so he needs the money to support himself and his philandering. He's mostly maintained by his flaky wife, Marcia Gay Harden, who's in and out of the marriage.

Alfred Molina, who played Diego Rivera in Frida, plays Gere's sidekick, proofreader, fact-checker, and Sancho Panza. Molina hangs in there with him, drooling over his audaciousness.

With help from Molina, Gere convinces his gullible agent (big-eyed Hope Davis) and everyone at his publishing house that he's been anointed official autobiographer by Hughes. The lie is so big and outrageous and irrefutable that everyone succumbs to the hoax, which soon turns into a series of near encounters with disaster that scare the bejeesus out of Hobbitian Molina but just invigorate Gere's Irving. When the money starts almost rolling in, just out of reach, the stakes grow higher and the risks greater. Gere pretends to be Hughes, faking his handwriting and even his telephone voice. And he gets people to believe him.

Gere has the charm of a man who's outgrown reliance on his beauty, but reminds us it's still there. In his youth, in such films as Days of Heaven, Pretty Woman, and American Gigolo, he was dreamy. Now he's gray and pudgy and almost cuddly. He invites us to trust him, and it would seem pointless to resist such outrageous confidence.

Gere will go to any length. He gets the totally married Molina drunk and laid. Molina rushes home to tell his wife and thus save his marriage, while truth-telling, on any subject, seems to be against Gere's religion.

The Hoax is as much fun as any film in years, perhaps because it's not only true, but offers an adventure we might, back in our Huck Finn, bad-little-kid years, have yearned to share. We don't have to disapprove of Gere: we know his scheme will never work, but we don't tire of watching the risks that come with his audacity. While Molina is identifying with Gere, at least up to a point (he'll never learn to lie effectively), the grandiose Gere is modeling himself after the bigger-than-life Hughes.

Howard Hughes has become the stuff of myths because he could have everything in the world he wanted, yet lived a miserable little life no one could envy. Movies about him, like Melvin and Howard and The Aviator, inspire not emulation, but pity. It would take someone as grandiose as Clifford Irving to aspire to the life of Howard Hughes.

A faint touch of magical realism has turned Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom's films like Chocolat, Cider House Rules, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? into fairy tales for grown-ups. In The Hoax, he understands that Gere's Irving is just a child acting out a child's fantasy of glory, and he invites us in to play the game of make-believe.

Both Damon and DiCaprio aspire to Nicholson's power, just as Gere is dazzled by Hughes's wealth and Muehe lusts after Koch's glamour. We all seem to want whatever we don't have, and our hunger for what others have eats us up and makes us lose touch with who we are. When we immerse ourselves too deeply in other people's lives, we leave no designated driver for our own lives, which easily run off the road. We must constantly beware what or who we hunger for, and how strongly.

Frank Pittman, M.D., is a contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and is in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia. Contact: Fsp3md@aol.com. Letters to the Editor about this department can be e-mailed to Letters@psychnetworker.org.

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