Psychoanalytic Film Theory
How are we stitched into the film or, in psychoanalytic criticism's terms, how are we sutured into the text? One of the questions psychoanalytic criticism wants to address is the formal nature of cinema in relation to the subjective nature of the human mind. For example, the great post-Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would use the term 'lack' to describe a state of desire that cannot be satisfied. Does cinema too often create a cinematic world that denies this lack and generates plenitude - a satisfying, clearly comprehensible cinematic experience?
This isn't only an issue of narrative expectation; that events will end happily, that the baddie will be vanquished, the couple brought together. It also incorporates the manner in which shots are cut to create a seamless world that the viewer can identify with. For example, when we hear a gun going off out of the frame, we expect the camera to move or the film to cut so that we are quickly privy to this new information. If the film offers us an establishing shot of two characters in conversation, we assume that the camera will move into close-ups so that we can see exactly the expression on the characters' faces.
As Rob White proposes in The Cinema Book, commenting on the psychoanalytic dimension to semiotician Christian Metz's work: "As the spectator settles into immobility...the spectator, ignoring the actual situation of film going (being part of a group in an auditorium) as well as the artificiality of cinema's narrative techniques (camera movement, editing, lighting, mise en-scene etc.) succumbs to a lascivious, covetous, furtive belief." This is the belief "in his or her principal role in observing, and by extension in controlling or directing the narrative progression of the film."
To understand why this might be seen as a problem for the psychoanalytically-minded film critic we need to say a little bit about Lacan's idea of the 'mirror stage', and also allude to Plato's famous passage about the cave in The Republic. In the essay 'The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience', Lacan explores how a child recognizes his own image between the age of six and eighteen months. "The child, at an age when he is for a time, however short, outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence, can nevertheless already recognize as such his own image in the mirror." This is nevertheless an illusory recognition, for it gives the infant a false sense of mastery. The ego believes itself to be the centre of the world, and thus there is, in Lacan's words, the "jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity...before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject"
In book seven of The Republic, Plato talks about an underground den full of people who have been chained from birth and cannot even move their heads. There is a wall opposite the cave where, because of a big fire that is blazing in the distance higher up, they can see the shadows of people passing that are thrown against the wall. Plato believes that this is their reality; not flesh and blood people but shadows. "To them I said the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images" When the prisoner will be eventually let out of the cave "he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state had seen the shadows." Plato goes on to say "will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?" "Far truer" comes the reply.
We can see how pertinent Lacan and Plato's comments are for a psychoanalytic criticism concerned with a sub-consciousness segueing into false-consciousness. Does cinema so often give us a false sense of mastery, and keep us in an arrested state of development? Does it as well frequently leave us believing the shadows are more real than the reality? How much of a hold does cinema have over our minds? In 'apparatus theory', proposed by Jean-Louis Baudry amongst others, the cave becomes the cinema. "By asking cinema about the wish it expresses", he says in an article called 'Apparatus', "we are aware of having distorted the allegory of the cave, by making it real, from a considerable historical distance, the approximate construct of the cinematographic apparatus." In another article called 'The Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus', Baudry says "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."
Some critics obviously have a problem with this extreme stance. In the Cinema Book, Rob White says "In order to argue that the film spectator regresses into the world of childhood...Metz and Baudry needed to claim that the faculty of conscious criticism and intuitive interpretation are disabled as part of the workings of the cinematic 'apparatus', while nonetheless employing just this critical faculty to come to this conclusion. David Bordwell believed that though the theory fell out of favour in the eighties, it did so not because many of the positions held were untenable (as he reckoned), but that theory simply moved onto new trends, perhaps equally flawed. Bordwell says in an essay in Post-Theory, "by and large the objections did not seize upon logical flaws" - though Bordwell and others saw plenty.
However, this is not the place to set up theory against theory, to demand that the most logical theory wins the day. We repeat our mantra: theory is use. Can psychoanalytic criticism tell us very much about the way we experience viewing films? Let's explore this through Hitchcock's Rear Window and Vertigo, Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem and Lynch's Blue Velvet. All four are in, some sense, psychoanalytic. The immobile Jeff in Rear Window resembles the prisoners in Plato's cave, while Laura Mulvey, in a famous psychoanalytic essay we will explore in more detail in relation to gender, talks of Vertigoas a film where the "look is central to the plot", after invoking a political use of psychoanalysis. Bertolucci went into psychoanalysis shortly before making The Spider's Stratagem, according to Chris Wigstaff in an article in Sight and Sound, and Michel Chion invokes both Freud and Lacan in his book on David Lynch. These are loosely, at least, all psychoanalytic films.
Hitchcock's Rear Window almost seems a critique of psychoanalysis and cinema before the event: Hitchcock's film was made in 1954, psychoanalytic film criticism didn't take off until the late sixties, yet Hitchcock takes as his subject physical passivity leading to an increased awareness of one's surroundings. While others are getting on with their able-bodied lives, Jefferies' (James Stewart) is reduced to a state not too far removed from the Metz spectator quoted above: he may be seeing reality rather than shadows, but his physical incapacity forces him into a scopophilic (a roughly voyeuristic) relationship with the world, and to make many inferences based on that incapacity. But this needn't lead necessarily to being oblivious to the world; it can create an interesting perspective on the real one. Raymond Durgnat in Sight and Sound has used the term hypochondrial to describe the way in which various critics have read so many different things into Hitchcock's work, but it is also true of the way Hitchcock positions the viewer generally. In Rear Window, Jefferies's immobility leads to active curiosity as he works out the relationship between events taking place in the flats opposite. The combination of perceptual cognition and Hitchcock's gift for pointing up the passive nature of this perceptual cognition leads both to narrative excitement and at the same time a comment on the limitations of watching. Near the end of the film Jefferies's may have set in motion the resolving of the crime, but it requires Lisa (Grace Kelly) to go across to the murderer's apartment. Much of the suspense comes from Lisa's possible vulnerability and Jefferies's inability to do anything about it. Critics like Cahiers du Cinema's Jean Douchet saw the film as a metaphor for cinema, but this is a metaphor that hardly plays into the hands of Metz and Baudry's unthinking viewer.
Yet Mulvey may say that Jefferies's point of view on Lisa is consistent with the male gaze that runs through most mainstream film, and that is especially accentuated in Vertigo, where Scottie's (James Stewart) obsession with Madeleine (Kim Novak) turns the woman into a fetishistic object. But this is nothing if not a problematic example of fetishising. If Jefferies' perceives clearly but cannot act; Scottie perceives badly for all his relative able-bodiedness (we should recall his psychic incapacity when it comes to heights). He's easily, perceptually misled. That he'll fall in love with Madeleine and misapprehend events is central to the film's plot in the first half; and central to its tragedy in the second. It is obvious that the viewer in each film is manipulated by the director, but is that a manipulation that leads to knowledge (to a greater understanding of the world) or to the sort of arrested development implied by the analogy with Lacan's mirror phase and Plato's cave?
Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem would seem to be more formally challenging than either of Hitchcock's acknowledged masterpieces. Clearly influenced by Marx as much as by Freud, and also by the distanciation devices familiar from Brecht, this is a self-conscious adaptation of a Borges short story. Set in a small Italian town, Athos Magnani Jr returns to find out more about his father who was turned into a martyr after apparently dying for the Communist cause during the late thirties, at the height of Fascism. Breaking certain technical rules that disorient the viewer in terms of cinematic space, Bertolucci's film would seem to make clear that shadows are shadows, on the formal level, and that people are not what they seem (shades of Vertigo) on a narrative level. By the end of the film, the viewer should be as disoriented as the central character, as if coming out of the caves oneself, not sure what is real and what is not. (Bertolucci's awareness of the Platonic myth is unequivocal: it's discussed in the film Bertolucci more or less shot back to back with The Spider's Stratagem, The Conformist). Again the psychoanalytic is invoked but hardly unproblematised.
In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey Beaumont enters the underworld rather as if it is the unconscious. When someone says to him that she doesn't know whether he is a detective or a pervert, Jeff, who is strictly neither, but simply curious after finding a missing ear, maybe nevertheless requires a degree of perversity to play detective. It reminds us of a comment by Mulvey, where, talking of Scottie's voyeuristic and sadistic sides in Vertigo, she says "he has chosen (and freely chosen, for he had been a successful lawyer) to be a policeman, with all the attendant possibilities of pursuit and investigation)." In Lynch's film, the pervert and the detective, the unconscious and the underworld, get mixed up as if Lynch wanted to make a thriller that has less to do with thrills (the plot is perfunctory), than with problematic desire, with young Jeffrey unable to articulate the reasons behind his curiosity.
What we have tried to explore is not so much the oppressiveness of the cinematic apparatus, but the ways in which films explore psychoanalytic problematics within a very cinematic framework. There have been more radically distanciated works than the ones mentioned here, but Rear Window, Vertigo, The Spider's Stratagem and Blue Velvet all set in motion thoughts on film and psychoanalysis in a fruitful way that we will hopefully now discuss in more detail.
© Tony McKibbin