Naked Man: Documenting Male Vulnerability in Let There Be Light and The Work

One of the most important procedures is group psychotherapy. … As one of a group, [the patient] learns to understand that his inner conflicts are, with variations, common to all men.” -Narrator, Let There Be Light (1946)

Let There Be Light (1946) and The Work (2017) are essential records of male honesty and vulnerability, in large part due to the indexical nature of their modes as documentaries. These films — both observations of men in therapy — provide real-world evidence of healthy masculinity, or at least models of male healing, to their audience.

Directed by John Huston, Let There Be Light is about U.S. soldiers in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from World War II — but more broadly, it is about “casualties of the human spirit”, as the film describes them — injuries invisible to the eye, but destructive nonetheless. In its focus on men left raw and jittery by warfare — men in need of help, and unable to manage on their own — the film reveals a side to men that has been historically hidden from view.

Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s The Work performs a similar function, only with prison therapy as its subject. It focuses on the Inside Circle Foundation, a therapy program founded by McLeary’s father, James. In The Work, three men from the “outside” — Charles, Chris and Brian — are welcomed into the prison to participate in the sessions. Despite their different lived experiences, the similarities between the men from the outside and those on the inside are striking. As in Let There Be Light, the commonality of feeling revealed in these group therapy sessions reveals that each man’s “inner conflicts are, with variations, common to all men.”

In both films, the indexical quality of documentary is vital to their power. Fighting against the Let There Be Light ban, distributor Arthur Mayer was told: “If you think it such a fine and useful picture, Mr. Mayer, why not have it re-enacted in Hollywood by regular, well-known performers?” Such a suggestion belies ignorance of the documentary’s purpose. As a 1980 Daily Variety review observes, the power of this film lies not just in the fact that its men are vulnerable, but that its vulnerable men really exist: “the authenticity of seeing an actual soldier revealing his deepest feelings under Huston’s compassionate but unsparing gaze gives the film a resonance beyond any fictional accounts of the war”. Likewise, a quality of “realness” is essential to The Work — its vérité style contributes further to the rawness of its subject matter, handheld camera immersing us in the kinetic and fraught environment of the Inside Circle program.

Unlike other therapy documentaries, such as Warrendale (1967), these two films are unique in that they are records of male trauma, specifically. Soldiers and ‘hardened’ criminals, especially, are held up as paradigms of ‘toughness’, and are expected to internalise, or deny, their distress at the highly traumatic environments of war-zones and prisons. Violence seems to be the only self-expression expected from them. The subjects of Let There Be Light and The Work contradict these prevailing sentiments.

Let There Be Light was banned by the U.S. Army over concerns that it would dissuade men from participating in the violent horrors of war. There was some outrage over the film’s suppression — critic James Agee hailed the film as “intelligent, noble, [and] incredibly moving”, urging for the decision to be overturned — but it remained buried for 30 years. Reflecting on this censorship, Huston said, “I think it boils down to the fact that they wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth, which said that our American soldiers went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience”.

This “warrior” myth is not reserved for soldiers. It permeates our society and our expectations of masculinity as a whole. In an interview with Topic Magazine, James McLeary echoes Huston’s statement: “This patriarchal, traditional way that men are brought up, especially in Western culture, is sort of in a warrior point of view in which there’s a stoicism you’re supposed to project.”

The nervous U.S. army’s decades-long censorship of Let There Be Light points to an institutional desire to maintain this mythology of masculine stoicism and smother the pain beneath. The Work brings these decades of trauma to light in stark and unflinching fashion, and the effect of both films is ultimately cathartic.

Where the films differ is in their framing of the power and purpose of therapy itself. Let There Be Light is optimistic to the point of being unrealistic — a clean-cut, government-sanctioned representation of therapy as a linear and almost miraculous process. The film tries to suggest that the men’s trauma has been permanently “fixed”, resolved, or erased by the therapy process, and that they have now reverted to the men they were before the war. This, of course, is untrue: recovered or not, they will never be the men they were before they left.

The subjects of Let There Be Light are far more passive participants in their own healing than those of The Work. The healing is done to them, so to speak, rather than something they do themselves. They are treated like cases to be fixed, and the solutions are one-size-fits-all. In The Work, however, therapy is shown for what it is — an active, ongoing process, one that (like an AA meeting) encourages its participants to keep coming back. Many of them have been participating in the program for years, and are still working through their problems. One inmate tells Brian: “These are steps. You’ve taken one. It doesn’t get fixed here like a light-switch being flipped.” It is not easy. There is no miracle cure; no instant-fix injection; no (let there be) light-switch. The film’s title is the program’s essence: it is work.

Brian is one of the most volatile figures in The Work — and he is not an inmate, but a teacher’s assistant. He seems to carry more anger than the rest of the men — or, perhaps more precisely, he is less equipped to handle it. He has not done “the work”. He acts as a kind of “before” picture for Inside Circle — indeed, there is the suggestion that many of the men in Folsom used to behave just like Brian. One inmate, Rick, admits that he initially “did not like [Brian]” before realizing that Brian was “a lot like [himself]”; while another, Eldra, says meeting Brian is “like looking in a mirror”.

Brian initially distances himself from the sessions by passing judgement on the other men and their vulnerabilities. When he finally breaks down, he reveals a barely-controlled violence under the surface. Brian’s statements — “I just wanna fucking kill people when I feel disrespected… in my mind I’m a fucking prince” — are all the more unsettling with the knowledge that he has been living on the “outside” with these thoughts and feelings inside of him. “As long as you keep biting this down, it’s not going anywhere,” Eldra tells him.

While the Folsom inmates have been doing “the work”, Brian’s anger has remained unaddressed and unresolved, making him a far more dangerous figure to the public than the men on the inside. During therapy with Brian, one of the inmates comments on this, observing that Brian needs therapy not just for his own well-being, but to protect others: “I don’t want the innocent bystanders you haven’t even met yet to feel this.”

One can imagine that this inmate is speaking from experience — many of the people on the inside did harm innocent people before realizing they needed therapy. By recognizing their past selves in Brian (“It’s like looking in a mirror”), the inmates can also see where he’s headed, and try prevent him from heading down the same path. Again, the fact that this is a documentary scene reminds the audience that there are men like Brian all around us, minds crowded with wrath and unresolved or misdirected resentments — and that the “innocent bystanders”, hypothetical potential victims of unchecked rage, are all around us too.

During an interview, a soldier in Let There Be Light says he is “aware of the fact that [he is] not the same boy that [he was] when [he] went over”. When asked how he has changed, he responds, “I used to always like to have fun. I used to always be going places. I don’t like to do nothing no more.”

Coming out of a session in The Work in which the men are asked to reflect on their childhood selves, Chris echoes the soldier’s statement. “I just remembered how happy I was,” he says, wiping his eyes. “I was such a happy kid.” But Chris is not a traumatized soldier — he is a museum worker. However, the erosion and repression of one’s connection to their emotions is a feeling universal to men from all walks of life.

Sadly, when viewing these films side-by-side, attitudes towards male vulnerability across the past 70 years don’t appear to have changed drastically. In both films, there are men who seem almost confused at their own sensitivity, unfamiliar with the sensation of public displays of emotion. One of the most memorable figures in Let There Be Light is a soldier who begins crying at the thought of his girlfriend, then apologizes for doing so. “I’m not doing this deliberately, sir,” he says. He is told it is normal and healthy to cry — “a display of emotion is sometimes very helpful”. “I hope so,” he responds, uncertain.

Likewise, in The Work, Chris breaks down when remembering a hurtful childhood memory, then laughs at himself: “I don’t even know why I’m crying.” Watching another man grieve his sister, Charles, too, starts crying. “It’s fucked up,” he tells Rick. “I feel him.” Rick’s response, however, sums up the message of The Work. “It’s not fucked up,” he replies. “Charles, it’s fucked up if you don’t.”

The act of documenting is a means of revealing a hidden side of masculinity, providing a record of the truth of male trauma in the face of a pervasive ‘warrior’ mythology. These films matter because the men in them existed, and exist. As Roland Barthes wrote: “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here… the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.”


by Ivana Brehas

Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is not one of your Greenwich Village friends. She lives in Melbourne, makes stuff on Vimeo, and tweets at @ivanabrehas. Drop her a line.

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