Bad Timing

15/05/2024

  Bad Timing offers about as disorienting an opening six minutes as narrative cinema is likely to provide by giving us five timelines. It manages to offer a gallery visit, a woman rushed to hospital, a person crossing the border, an elegant house party, and a woman apparently drunk and drugged making a cry for help. The woman in all five scenes turns out to be Milena (Theresa Russell), and the film is an exploration of the affair she has had with Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), a psychoanalyst who lectures at the University in Vienna. Later we can work out that the scenes in consecutive order show Milena leaving Czechoslovakia, meeting Alex at a party, going to the gallery when they are newly coupled, Milena contacting Alex when they’ve broken up, and Milena taken to hospital after an overdose. The director, Nicolas Roeg was by 1980 well-known for his fractured take on plot, but while the cross-cutting that opens PerformanceWalkabout and Don’t Look Now was fragmentary, it wasn’t quite disorienting. In both Walkabout and Don’t Look Now the openings might have been disjunctive but it wasn’t too difficult to work out that the people shown in the opening sequences were members of the same family, just in different locations. In Bad Timing, the cuts are between timelines rather than spaces, and the viewer is left wondering how they fit together.  

     In the late sixties and early seventies, psychoanalysis became central to understanding cinema, with theorists drawing on Freud but more especially the structuralist-inflected Jacques Lacan, who was useful for film partly because of the idea of misrecognition. In Lacan’s formulation, the child during what he calls the mirror stage (six to eighteen months old) looks at itself and sees a false unity as “Lacan insisted on the element of delusion which structures the act of self-recognition: for the image is only an image, external to the perceiving subject even if it is a replica of the subject.” (The Cinema Book) Many theorists saw similarities between Hollywood cinema and this misrecognition; that Hollywood was infantilising viewers by creating a false sense of coherence that could even be seen as a form of imprisonment. Jean-Lous Baudry insisted that “…the darkened room…no exchange, no circulation, no communication with any outside. Projection and reflection take place in a closed space, and those who remain there, whether they know it or not (but they do not) find themselves chained, captured, or captivated.” (The Cinema Book) Baudry is clearly invoking Plato’s famous example of the prisoners and the cave, with the prisoners confusing reality and the shadows, a notion he explored more fully in another article, but the link between Plato, Lacan and ideology permeated much of the theoretical film writing of this period. The question for many was how to free the viewer from filmic tyranny, from the false gods of narrative and the formally predictable.

    A key term was suture: theorised differently according to the given thinker, with Jean-Pierre Oudart’s take more complex than Daniel Dayan’s, and Jean-Louis Baudry’s approach to the cinematic apparatus different again. It was deemed an extreme position that led to attacks by William Rothman, Noel Carroll and others. All we need to extract from this elaborate argument and heated debate is suture as a way of stitching the viewer into the material on the screen. Baudry may exaggerate his case but that doesn’t mean he is without one. Viewers will often admit to being captivated by a film and we might wonder how such a captivation takes place, as though films are a little like prisons and that a cinema based on creating a different visual language might seem instead like an open prison. If people rarely walk out of a Hollywood film even though they will often retrospectively insist it was a waste of time, what keeps them in their chairs? There is no forceful incarceration but there is surely on the filmmakers’ part more than a little coercion. According to Apparatus theorists (Oudart, Dayan, Jean-Louis Baudry; Jean Louis Commoli, Laura Mulvey), film doesn’t only manipulate us with its content and its form, with the story it tells and the style in which it tells it. Mainstream cinema also creates what seems like an ideological coherence, one that gives the viewer an impression of the film’s style, its narrative and its meaning all coming together to appear seamless. From one perspective this seamlessness is central to its polish and its craft; from another it can lull the viewer into a false sense of purposefulness that retrospectively leads them to realise they have been temporally pickpocketed.  

   But what of a cinema that seems to be wasting our time while we are watching the film; that calls into question the form, the content and the meaning all at once? Films by Godard, the Straubs and Jancso were much admired for their politically radical agendas within a diffusive approach that made meaning an invitation over an expectation. Speaking of Godard and the Straubs’ work, Stephen Heath says “to disturb the achieved relation of sound and image in the apparatus is to disturb the performance, to break the whole coherence of vision.” (Cine-Tracts) The stitching was undone and the viewer could make choices beyond the image while in front of the image. One didn’t lose oneself in the film but found oneself faced by it. As Paul Coates would say of Godard: “One reason why Godard enjoys such critical favour is because his films are machines for transforming viewers into critics.” (The Story of the Lost ReflectionIf psychoanalysis is partly predicated on understanding oneself a little better, to bring to consciousness what was previously latent, then filmmaking that acknowledges this relationship, or theory and criticism that explores it, can be psychoanalytically useful. 

     Bad Timing would not have been seen as an especially radical film even if on its release it was condemned by its production company and, Roeg noted many years later, “it was received for the most part very poorly.” (Guardian) Yet that it could be made as a commercial work showed that film, outside the experimental, the avant-garde and counter cinema, could create a few challenges and if those early scenes offering a hectic timeframe weren’t enough, Roeg exacerbates the dissuasiveness by content that is voyeuristic, sadistic, masochistic and fetishistic — all of course part of psychoanalytic discourse, with Freud speaking of all four in 'Three Essays in the Theory of Sexuality'. This would be material Alex would know well, evident in a lecture he gives when he shows us images of Freud and others, and tells his students that everyone is a spy as he uses two screens and two projectors, forcing the students to turn round rapidly to follow projected image with each click. And there we are watching a film that we might regard as voyeuristic as though some films aren’t. Psychoanalytic film theory would propose we are all voyeurs just as Alex insists likewise, and thus the importance of scopophilia: ancient Greek for the love of looking.

     Psychoanalytic theory seized on this notion because while it as all very well to say film fetishes film actors, leaves us often sadistically forced to watch a villain beating up a hero, and masochistically identifying with the hero as he is beaten, these aspects would be film dependent. Not every film shows characters badly treated. Yet apart from a handful of idiosyncratic exceptions, all films expect us to look at images on the screen: a fundamental element of film viewing is viewing, and hence scopophilia. Some films implicate us in the look more than others, which is why Rear WindowVertigoBody Double, Blue Velvet, A Short Film About Love, and Monsieur Hire, are all great for discussing psychoanalysis — they make looking an active part of the diegesis and not only an implicit fact of the form. Yet it was most apparent as an idea in feminist film theory by among others Mulvey and Joan Copjec, and thus finally more a gender issue over a strictly psychoanalytic one, even if we may feel too while watching Bad Timing how male the gaze happens to be, and how troublesome we find it. It might seem an idle fact, but director Nicolas Roeg embarked on a relationship with the much younger Theresa Russell while making the film, and they would go on to marry and work on several further projects, including EurekaInsignificance and Track 29

   It was just one of many director/actress relationships that conflated the private and the public: Godard/Anna Karina; Antonioni/Monica Vitti; Ingmar Bergman/Liv Ullmann, Leos Carax/Juliette Binoche. In most instances, the man is the one who looks; the woman looked at, or by analogy, the woman is on the couch; the director the analyst asking the questions. Dan Callahan notes that “in interviews, Russell has spoken about not wanting to have “ego” as a performer” (Criterion) and this is the centre of Freud’s triad, the id, the ego and the superego, and can be read through the film’s three main characters thus: Milena is the id, Linden the ego and the inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel), investigating what happened on the night that Milena overdosed, the superego. After all, in simplified form the id can be described as instinctive and unrepressed, the ego as a regulating principle, and the superego as the conscience. The ego in common parlance also means selfishness. This manifestation is apparent in the film as Alex says he cannot stand the idea of Milena being with anyone else. When he asks her to move in with him and later to marry him, this seems all about him and not at all about her. 

     As we have noted, psychoanalytic film theory was chiefly concerned with questions of film as analogous to the pychoanalytic, that the theorist would propose “…a potentially exhaustive account of the ‘metapsychology’ of the cinematic ‘apparatus’ — that is, a theory which attempted to describe in general and all-embracing terms the psychological processes provoked and exploited in the experience of film-going.” (The Cinema Book) But it can also be effective in a more direct application, taking ideas by Freud, Lacan, Klein and Jung and seeing how pertinent they happen to be. John Izod for example wrote a book on Roeg relying purely on Jungian analysis. Teresa de Lauritis, writing on Bad Timing in Alice Doesn’t, was more inclined to use Freud. Certainly, when a film focuses on a practitioner (like Bad TimingA Dangerous MethodThrough a Glass Darkly), invokes psychoanalytic problematics (PersonaThe Piano TeacherThe Spider’s Stratagem) or proposes the scopophilic very actively (as we have noted in Rear Window etc.) psychoanalytic criticism can seem very useful indeed. In this sense, Bad Timing is an example as good as any. It has a central character who is a psychoanalyst, deals with voyeurism and masochism, is filmed in the city in which analysis was first explored (Vienna), and alludes constantly to psychoanalytic questions. 

   Yet we should always keep in mind that this doesn’t mean a film needs to show any active signs of psychoanalysis in the content to require exploration through psychoanalysis and film. The theory was an encompassing approach to understanding cinema. It may no longer be fashionable but it can still usefully help us understand aspects of how society works. It is centrally a method and can best be understood within the context of other movements of its time like structuralism, semiotics and the development of gender studies. Psychoanalytic film theory may have been questioned by what has been called cognitive film theory, including by Carroll, who sniffily proposed of one psychoanalytic practitioner: “[Stephen] Heath leaves the presuppositions of his Lacanian-Althusser framework unexamined, responsible readers cannot. I cannot show formulations of the Lacanian-Althusserian line are irretrievably mistaken. But many are questionable enough and their central concepts so ill-defined the burden of their proof can be shifted back to their proponents.” (‘Address to the Heathen’) According to one of cognitivism’s most cogent practitioners, Stephen Prince, “film theory needs to discard the kind of reactive and passive viewers who are built into theories of ‘suture’ and ‘positioning’ and, instead, place viewers with an altogether more rational, flexible and multivalent context.” (Post Theory) To some, psychoanalysis and film was seen as a theoretical wrong-turn, a partial explanation of film’s ability to engage us was taken as a totalising one. Yet as a partial explanation it still remains valid, and Bad Timing, for example, can benefit enormously from its use. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Bad Timing

Bad Timing offers about as disorienting an opening six minutes as narrative cinema is likely to provide by giving us five timelines. It manages to offer a gallery visit, a woman rushed to hospital, a person crossing the border, an elegant house party, and a woman apparently drunk and drugged making a cry for help. The woman in all five scenes turns out to be Milena (Theresa Russell), and the film is an exploration of the affair she has had with Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), a psychoanalyst who lectures at the University in Vienna. Later we can work out that the scenes in consecutive order show Milena leaving Czechoslovakia, meeting Alex at a party, going to the gallery when they are newly coupled, Milena contacting Alex when they've broken up, and Milena taken to hospital after an overdose. The director, Nicolas Roeg was by 1980 well-known for his fractured take on plot, but while the cross-cutting that opens Performance, Walkabout and Don't Look Now was fragmentary, it wasn't quite disorienting. In both Walkabout and Don't Look Now the openings might have been disjunctive but it wasn't too difficult to work out that the people shown in the opening sequences were members of the same family, just in different locations. In Bad Timing, the cuts are between timelines rather than spaces, and the viewer is left wondering how they fit together.

In the late sixties and early seventies, psychoanalysis became central to understanding cinema, with theorists drawing on Freud but more especially the structuralist-inflected Jacques Lacan, who was useful for film partly because of the idea of misrecognition. In Lacan's formulation, the child during what he calls the mirror stage (six to eighteen months old) looks at itself and sees a false unity as "Lacan insisted on the element of delusion which structures the act of self-recognition: for the image is only an image, external to the perceiving subject even if it is a replica of the subject." (The Cinema Book) Many theorists saw similarities between Hollywood cinema and this misrecognition; that Hollywood was infantilising viewers by creating a false sense of coherence that could even be seen as a form of imprisonment. Jean-Lous Baudry insisted that "...the darkened room...no exchange, no circulation, no communication with any outside. Projection and reflection take place in a closed space, and those who remain there, whether they know it or not (but they do not) find themselves chained, captured, or captivated." (The Cinema Book) Baudry is clearly invoking Plato's famous example of the prisoners and the cave, with the prisoners confusing reality and the shadows, a notion he explored more fully in another article, but the link between Plato, Lacan and ideology permeated much of the theoretical film writing of this period. The question for many was how to free the viewer from filmic tyranny, from the false gods of narrative and the formally predictable.

A key term was suture: theorised differently according to the given thinker, with Jean-Pierre Oudart's take more complex than Daniel Dayan's, and Jean-Louis Baudry's approach to the cinematic apparatus different again. It was deemed an extreme position that led to attacks by William Rothman, Noel Carroll and others. All we need to extract from this elaborate argument and heated debate is suture as a way of stitching the viewer into the material on the screen. Baudry may exaggerate his case but that doesn't mean he is without one. Viewers will often admit to being captivated by a film and we might wonder how such a captivation takes place, as though films are a little like prisons and that a cinema based on creating a different visual language might seem instead like an open prison. If people rarely walk out of a Hollywood film even though they will often retrospectively insist it was a waste of time, what keeps them in their chairs? There is no forceful incarceration but there is surely on the filmmakers' part more than a little coercion. According to Apparatus theorists (Oudart, Dayan, Jean-Louis Baudry; Jean Louis Commoli, Laura Mulvey), film doesn't only manipulate us with its content and its form, with the story it tells and the style in which it tells it. Mainstream cinema also creates what seems like an ideological coherence, one that gives the viewer an impression of the film's style, its narrative and its meaning all coming together to appear seamless. From one perspective this seamlessness is central to its polish and its craft; from another it can lull the viewer into a false sense of purposefulness that retrospectively leads them to realise they have been temporally pickpocketed.

But what of a cinema that seems to be wasting our time while we are watching the film; that calls into question the form, the content and the meaning all at once? Films by Godard, the Straubs and Jancso were much admired for their politically radical agendas within a diffusive approach that made meaning an invitation over an expectation. Speaking of Godard and the Straubs' work, Stephen Heath says "to disturb the achieved relation of sound and image in the apparatus is to disturb the performance, to break the whole coherence of vision." (Cine-Tracts) The stitching was undone and the viewer could make choices beyond the image while in front of the image. One didn't lose oneself in the film but found oneself faced by it. As Paul Coates would say of Godard: "One reason why Godard enjoys such critical favour is because his films are machines for transforming viewers into critics." (The Story of the Lost Reflection) If psychoanalysis is partly predicated on understanding oneself a little better, to bring to consciousness what was previously latent, then filmmaking that acknowledges this relationship, or theory and criticism that explores it, can be psychoanalytically useful.

Bad Timing would not have been seen as an especially radical film even if on its release it was condemned by its production company and, Roeg noted many years later, "it was received for the most part very poorly." (Guardian) Yet that it could be made as a commercial work showed that film, outside the experimental, the avant-garde and counter cinema, could create a few challenges and if those early scenes offering a hectic timeframe weren't enough, Roeg exacerbates the dissuasiveness by content that is voyeuristic, sadistic, masochistic and fetishistic all of course part of psychoanalytic discourse, with Freud speaking of all four in 'Three Essays in the Theory of Sexuality'. This would be material Alex would know well, evident in a lecture he gives when he shows us images of Freud and others, and tells his students that everyone is a spy as he uses two screens and two projectors, forcing the students to turn round rapidly to follow projected image with each click. And there we are watching a film that we might regard as voyeuristic as though some films aren't. Psychoanalytic film theory would propose we are all voyeurs just as Alex insists likewise, and thus the importance of scopophilia: ancient Greek for the love of looking.

Psychoanalytic theory seized on this notion because while it as all very well to say film fetishes film actors, leaves us often sadistically forced to watch a villain beating up a hero, and masochistically identifying with the hero as he is beaten, these aspects would be film dependent. Not every film shows characters badly treated. Yet apart from a handful of idiosyncratic exceptions, all films expect us to look at images on the screen: a fundamental element of film viewing is viewing, and hence scopophilia. Some films implicate us in the look more than others, which is why Rear Window, Vertigo, Body Double, Blue Velvet, A Short Film About Love, and Monsieur Hire, are all great for discussing psychoanalysis they make looking an active part of the diegesis and not only an implicit fact of the form. Yet it was most apparent as an idea in feminist film theory by among others Mulvey and Joan Copjec, and thus finally more a gender issue over a strictly psychoanalytic one, even if we may feel too while watching Bad Timing how male the gaze happens to be, and how troublesome we find it. It might seem an idle fact, but director Nicolas Roeg embarked on a relationship with the much younger Theresa Russell while making the film, and they would go on to marry and work on several further projects, including Eureka, Insignificance and Track 29.

It was just one of many director/actress relationships that conflated the private and the public: Godard/Anna Karina; Antonioni/Monica Vitti; Ingmar Bergman/Liv Ullmann, Leos Carax/Juliette Binoche. In most instances, the man is the one who looks; the woman looked at, or by analogy, the woman is on the couch; the director the analyst asking the questions. Dan Callahan notes that "in interviews, Russell has spoken about not wanting to have "ego" as a performer" (Criterion) and this is the centre of Freud's triad, the id, the ego and the superego, and can be read through the film's three main characters thus: Milena is the id, Linden the ego and the inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel), investigating what happened on the night that Milena overdosed, the superego. After all, in simplified form the id can be described as instinctive and unrepressed, the ego as a regulating principle, and the superego as the conscience. The ego in common parlance also means selfishness. This manifestation is apparent in the film as Alex says he cannot stand the idea of Milena being with anyone else. When he asks her to move in with him and later to marry him, this seems all about him and not at all about her.

As we have noted, psychoanalytic film theory was chiefly concerned with questions of film as analogous to the pychoanalytic, that the theorist would propose "...a potentially exhaustive account of the 'metapsychology' of the cinematic 'apparatus' that is, a theory which attempted to describe in general and all-embracing terms the psychological processes provoked and exploited in the experience of film-going." (The Cinema Book) But it can also be effective in a more direct application, taking ideas by Freud, Lacan, Klein and Jung and seeing how pertinent they happen to be. John Izod for example wrote a book on Roeg relying purely on Jungian analysis. Teresa de Lauritis, writing on Bad Timing in Alice Doesn't, was more inclined to use Freud. Certainly, when a film focuses on a practitioner (like Bad Timing, A Dangerous Method, Through a Glass Darkly), invokes psychoanalytic problematics (Persona, The Piano Teacher, The Spider's Stratagem) or proposes the scopophilic very actively (as we have noted in Rear Window etc.) psychoanalytic criticism can seem very useful indeed. In this sense, Bad Timing is an example as good as any. It has a central character who is a psychoanalyst, deals with voyeurism and masochism, is filmed in the city in which analysis was first explored (Vienna), and alludes constantly to psychoanalytic questions.

Yet we should always keep in mind that this doesn't mean a film needs to show any active signs of psychoanalysis in the content to require exploration through psychoanalysis and film. The theory was an encompassing approach to understanding cinema. It may no longer be fashionable but it can still usefully help us understand aspects of how society works. It is centrally a method and can best be understood within the context of other movements of its time like structuralism, semiotics and the development of gender studies. Psychoanalytic film theory may have been questioned by what has been called cognitive film theory, including by Carroll, who sniffily proposed of one psychoanalytic practitioner: "[Stephen] Heath leaves the presuppositions of his Lacanian-Althusser framework unexamined, responsible readers cannot. I cannot show formulations of the Lacanian-Althusserian line are irretrievably mistaken. But many are questionable enough and their central concepts so ill-defined the burden of their proof can be shifted back to their proponents." ('Address to the Heathen') According to one of cognitivism's most cogent practitioners, Stephen Prince, "film theory needs to discard the kind of reactive and passive viewers who are built into theories of 'suture' and 'positioning' and, instead, place viewers with an altogether more rational, flexible and multivalent context." (Post Theory) To some, psychoanalysis and film was seen as a theoretical wrong-turn, a partial explanation of film's ability to engage us was taken as a totalising one. Yet as a partial explanation it still remains valid, and Bad Timing, for example, can benefit enormously from its use.


© Tony McKibbin