Freud and cinema -- some basics

1. Freud's work on psychoanalysis is best introduced via the notion of the unconscious and the psychic apparatus. After several earlier attempts, Freud settled on a basic model of the psyche that featured three 'agencies' (id, ego, superego) and, later, three systems (unconscious, preconscious and perception/conscious). These models arose out of lengthy practice as a psychoanalyst - psychic phenomena (jncluding 'illnesses' as well as 'normal events like dreams and parapraxes) are to be seen as symptoms of the workings of these different systems and agencies.

2. Let's take dreams. Despite their apparent irrationality and oddness, they can be grasped rationally, as symptoms. They represent unconscious wishes, for example (in fact they all do, for Freud, even the ones that involve anxiety etc). Despite pop versions, though, Freud insists that dreams are not easy to interpret immediately, and that careful, concrete, detailed and patient analysis is required (which should also fully involve the cooperation of the dreamer):

a. the wishes represented are simple often infantile ones, often antisocial - and so they are usually repressed and censored

b. the dreamwork operates on material that can be personal and idiosyncratic, gathered during the day,or lodged deep in the unconscious memory

c. dreamwork features three major activities - condensation (several wishes and other elements 'overdetermine' a dream), displacement (dreams rearrange and disguise their elements) and representation (contents do not appear directly but as symbols - common ones include buildings symbolising the human body, mud symbolising excrement etc., but not everyone dreams in these cliches, and there are puns, metaphors, metonyms, ironic reversals, resonances, assonances and other linguistic tropes detectable in many dreams,)

d. dreamwork gives us a clue to the workings of the whole human psyche - many of our waking actions can be described in terms of these processes too.

3. As the word representation should suggest, Freudian theory has been used to analyse the complex meanings condensed and displaced in films too. Cook gives an example of the work of Elsaessar (pp74-75) on melodrama which applies the processes of dreamwork pretty literally. There is an awful lot of vulgar Feudianism about , though - as in critics who see phallic objects or Oedipal scenes in every Hollywood classic. There is also a lot of rather special Freudian theory, deriving from the peculiar reading of Freud in J. Lacan (see Cook again pp170 ff). This reading sees close connections with Freud on the unconscious and structuralist/marxist theory ('semiology' you might know it as), and redirects enquiry to the processes underlying the symbolic order (including patriarchal domination). Among the more popular concrete applications is the work on the 'mirror phase' and one offshoot - Mulvey on scopophilia and the male look. The review of Lacanian theory by Luscombe and others in the Screen Reader is approachable and critical. Recent Freudian work includes feminist appropriations by the likes of Kristeva (connecting the pre mirror-phase ego with non-patriarchal creativity and hence the decidedly non-conventionally symbolic avant-garde), and post-Lacanians like Deleuze and Guattari who have re-read Freud to ground a more general theory of desiring which overcomes some of the stern orthodoxies of Lacanian centred readings. Future handouts on these topics will have to wait.

4. Surrealists in the 1930s in a way which sometimes made Freud cross with them, revelled in the anarchic possibilities of illustrating the unconscious and its processes at work. That the bourgeoisie (or for Svankmajer the Czech CP) were likely to be especially resistant to these illustrations added a vague humanist marxism to the cultural politics, we have argued. At a more concrete level, consider the following as examples:

a. The fades between scenes of outward respectability and underlying lust or rage in L'Age D'Or (or lots of Bunuel).

b. The ease with which unconscious anxieties (over bodies, eyes or insects) or repressed desires (including desires to kill kids or kick dogs) can be awakened in us.

c. In terms of processes, the strange displacements of time in Un Chien... the overdetermination of condensed images like the dead donkeys and the priests and the pianos in the poor overburdened (sic) 'hero' of Chien, or the excessive obsessions of Dali (ants, rotting flesh, buttocks). Processes of representation are also illustrated - my personal favourite (pretty easy one this) concerns the way in which a bandaged finger comes to represent masturbation in L'Age.., and, once established, the symbol is used to thoroughly debunk the bourgeoisie at their soiree. Naturally, they are not all as easy to decode as this,and will include some personal (eg biographical) or even unconscious elements - why the striped box in Chien...? why the giraffe thrown out of the window in L'Age...?

d. More complex is the way in which 'found objects' or random lists function in surrealism -apparently meaningless on their own, our unconscious creates meaning when they are arranged or interacted with: every find is a wish too. I think this is what Dali means by the creative aspects of paranoia too - a paranoid can find deep personal significance (eg threats) for her/him and the universe in the way the milkman leaves the bottles on the step.


Cook P The Cinema Book
Freud S New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
Freud S The Interpretation of Dreams
Luscombe E et al in Screen Reader on Sexuality
Moi T(ed) The Kristeva Reader
Wollheim R Freud