Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Olivia Khoo

 

Lounging with a Big Mac in One Hand and Freud by My Side

 


 

 

Harvey Roy Greenberg

_Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch_

New York: Columbia University Press, 1993

ISBN 0-231-0726-4

277 pages

 

Although this is not explicitly stated, the title of Harvey Roy Greenberg's _Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch_, is obviously a reference to Freud's essay 'Screen Memories' written in 1899. Freud uses the term 'screen memory' to refer to memory's distorting operations, whereby an early memory is used as a screen for a later event. In his book on film and psychoanalytic criticism, however, Greenberg inverts this thesis to refer to a more general (or *popularly*) conceived notion of the screen memory -- whereby an early event is screened by later memories. Greenberg's utilisation of this trope of the 'screen memory' is that which links together the several essays in this collection (some of which have previously been published in psychiatric journals such as the _Psychoanalytic Review_ and _Psychiatric Times_). A particular event which Greenberg is concerned with the *screening* of is the Holocaust as represented in post-World War II films. By ending his book with a discussion of Paul Mazursky's _Enemies: A Love Story_ (1990), a film about concentration camp survivors, there is the invocation, by Greenberg, for film makers and viewers to screen (and *not* to screen) this huge historical event.

 

Despite the serious sentiments underscoring his narrative, Greenberg writes that his book is 'unashamedly intended to entertain as well as instruct' (14). This instruction finds its grounding in the fact of Greenberg's own clinical practice (he is a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst), and in the central role which films play in this practice (as part of their therapy Greenberg's patients are often asked to free associate about why a particular film moves them). In his essay on 'cult cinema' Greenberg analyses Michael Curtiz's _Casablanca_ (1942), in terms of the central conundrum facing viewers -- 'if it's so schmaltzy, why I am weeping?' (30). Greenberg refers to the puzzlement of critics who find the movie appealing despite its unconvincing lines and stock characters types, and suggests that viewers find Hollywood films so appealing precisely because they *are* formulaic. Approaching his analysis of _Casablanca_ psychoanalytically, Greenberg reads the film within an Oedipal paradigm, a theorem which he returns to again and again. Greenberg even goes so far as to quote Roland Barthes from _The Pleasure of the Text_ -- '[d]oesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus?' (223).

 

Establishing himself as an orthodox Freudian analyst (concerned with ego psychology and object-relations theory), Greenberg is avowedly disdainful of Lacanian metapsychology; he finds Lacan's concept of the 'mirror stage' and of a child's entry into the Symbolic Order 'dubious' at best (8). Greenberg suggests that Lacan's psychoanalytic project is 'too cumbersome, too arcane, [and] unsubstantiated by clinical observation' (9), to be applied beneficially, and, consequently, he confines himself to the use of 'ordinary Freud' (9). Despite his clear positioning with respect to Lacan, however, Greenberg's opening essay, 'Reel Significations: An Anatomy of Psychoanalysis', presents, as he himself writes, an 'unpolemical overview' (7) of the history of film analysis -- from its early inception to the semiotics-dominated theories of today. In further pursuing his aim of wanting to satisfy his readers, however, he writes that those who may find such theoretical discussions too abstract can 'skip this essay without compromising his or her understanding of other essays in this collection' (7-8). Indeed, 'Reel Significations' is Greenberg's only theory-dominated essay, the rest of the collection present close readings of particular films within mainly Freudian psychoanalytic frameworks, particularly in relation to issues of conflict and the motivations of characters within films, and, more broadly, to issues of audience reception and identification with these film characters.

 

Following his theoretical discussion in 'Reel Significations' and then his reading of _Casablanca_, Greenberg's next four chapters focus on genre, and the demands of film genres as linked to, or estranged from, the values of the community (Greenberg's projected 'community' is regularly conceived of as being American). His work on genre focuses mainly on what he calls 'weird cinema', which lends itself to psychoanalytic interpretation precisely because of this cinema's often explicit renderings of unconscious manifestations. The first 'genre' which Greenberg explores is that of the detective film, as represented by Dashiell Hammett's _The Maltese Falcon_ (1929). Greenberg's examination of this film is chatty and accessible. His characterisation of Sam Spade becomes condensed into the descriptive exclamation: 'And -- lets face it -- the man has style!' (91). In a more general discussion of the popular genre of the Hollywood detective film, Greenberg suggests that the detective story is able to satisfy its viewers on a number of levels, tied to audience identification with character types. The private eye represents the Superego (the voice of conscience, law and order), while the criminal manifests the primitive impulses of the Id. (Identification with the victim is also possible if, as Greenberg notes, one is masochistic enough!) The pleasure to be obtained from watching the detective film is to have all of these tensions present at the same time.

 

The second of Greenberg's genre essays looks at war movies made since World War II, and typified by _Rambo: First Blood Part II_ (1985) and _Red Dawn_ (1984). Greenberg analyses these films in terms of the 'aesthetics' of wounding and remembering, as well as projection onto the Other as enemy -- structures which are deeply embedded in America's historical psyche. Together with his following essay, on Alfred Hitchcock's _Psycho_ (1960), Greenberg voices his undisguised disapprobation with these films. The chapter on _Psycho_ opens with a quote by Hitchcock -- 'My love of film is far more important to me than any considerations of morality' (111); Greenberg casts the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock within a psychoanalytic frame of obsessionalism, and suggests that Hitchcock cannot simply exonerate himself with a 'big clean up' (132) at the end of a film. This type of criticism echoes that which surrounds the filmmaking of director Quentin Tarantino, particularly in relation to _Pulp Fiction_ (1994), and attempts made to clean up the moral and bodily sprawls created within that movie. Although he does not explicitly explore these concepts, Greenberg does signal towards issues of filmic responsibility, the escalation of violence in (Hollywood) cinema, life imitating art, and the limits of censorship.

 

Greenberg's final discussion of genre falls under the category of what he calls 'weird cinema' (referred to also as the 'cruel' horror film genre). Ridley Scott's _Alien_ (1979) is held to be representative of this imprecisely named classifier, which encompasses other popular films such as _The Exorcist_ (1973) and _Texas Chainsaw Massacre_ (1974). Greenberg is interested in why these films *are* so popular, given that, after the screening, 'many viewers . . . undergo a kind of post-traumatic stress; the film acts upon them as a nightmare from which it is difficult to fully awaken after leaving the theatre' (148). As a clinician, Greenberg submits that this trauma 'encourages repeated exposure, not out of masochism, but the very human wish for *mastery*' (148). The melding of Greenberg's clinical background with his interest in psychoanalytic film theory often provides thoughtful insights into the genres of the Hollywood films which he explores. Indeed, in his introduction Greenberg proffers that film theorists would do well to be less dismissive of analytic projects; his suggestion that we could just as well 'skip' the theoretically abstract is indicative of his impatience with those who lack materialist and practical concerns.

 

Situated somewhat awkwardly after these didactic genre essays is a discussion of adaptation (from written text to film), taking, as its example, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay of _The Bostonians_ (1984), based on the Henry James novel of the same name, for Merchant/Ivory Productions. Greenberg returns to the issue of adaptation in a later essay -- on Steven Spielberg's _Always_ (1990), an adaptation of the John Steinbeck book _A Guy Named Joe_ -- but this seemingly out-of-place discussion of _The Bostonians_ appears to be yet another analytico-critical arena for Greenberg to apply his clinical analyses to a film's character(s). He suggests that Stella Tarrant from _The Bostonians_ is a 'minor charismatic sociopath' (174), and that the latent lesbianism between Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant is played up for a modern audience so that the film becomes something like 'soft porn' (171). Greenberg is clearly harrowed by the sensationalist conventions of Hollywood cinema (as he was, also, with the genre of 'weird cinema') and the influence that these films can have on 'American values' (166). He writes that these films can, at best, 'only recommend convenient escapist, individualistic solutions' (168); there is no doubt that Greenberg desires alternative 'escape-routes' for America's collective cinematic society.

 

Continuing this vein of societal concerns (and here Greenberg is at his most *playfully* serious) is a condemnation of what he calls the 'McMovie'. Greenberg uses this term to refer to the 'big, bad filmmaking' (206) of the last two decades, which reached its height during the Reagan adminstration. These films, marked by minimal plotting, inconsistencies in the screenplay, low-level character development, and unchallenging dialogue, are characteristic of a general '[d]ecline in quality' (185) of Hollywood films. Like 'fast food', these packaged movies are speedily replicated, and non-nutritional for their consumers.

 

Greenberg lists the various 'categories' of the McMovie on offer -- from urban vigilante films such as _Rambo_ (1985) and _Sudden Impact_ (1983), to 'splatter' movies such as the _Friday the 13th_ and _Nightmare on Elm Street_ series. He traces the 'aetiology' of the McMovie to the increasing commodification of cinema, and to Hollywood's insatiable pursuit of the 'blockbuster' -- and thus imitation upon filmic imitation which ensures that audiences return. Greenberg also looks *outside* the film text in order to interrogate the materialist bases of film production. In the making of a McMovie Greenberg points to the influences of American television (MTV music videos in particular), as leading to the increasing homogenisation of these films and to their escalating violence. He also suggests that the culture of illicit drug-taking (particularly cocaine), as common practice within the film industry, is also partly responsible for the decline in Hollywood's collective imagination. After portraying such an unbalanced diet, Greenberg forces us to ask: What comes next on the menu?

 

In an attempt to locate the recent efforts of feminist psychoanalytic film theorists, Greenberg reads Mike Nichols's film _Working Girl_ (1988) as 'co-opt cinema' (228); a 'sell-out' (227). He suggests that _Working Girl_, supposedly a film about women's rights, does not go far enough for its cause, and merely becomes appropriated by Hollywood's conservatism and 'Right' ideologies.

 

The final essay in Greenberg's collection is, as I have mentioned, a brief look at _Enemies: A Love Story_ -- a film about the Holocaust. Greenberg had 'promised' us an enjoyable film theory text, and while his film analyses are rendered simply and accessibly, his more serious concerns are obviously being 'screened' by his off-hand style and idiosyncratic genre terms. It is possible to 'lounge around' with Greenberg's _Screen Memories_ (and some suitably unhealthy snacks), until one wakes to find that what she or he has *really* been lounging on is a psychoanalytic couch, where the critical exercise remains that of delving further in order to locate *hidden* meanings. As a somewhat hybrid text, Greenberg's _Screen Memories_ will not change the face of either film theory nor clinical practice, although McMovie viewers (as most of us have been at some stage in our lives), are certainly given food for thought when we are forced to confront the maxim that 'we are what we eat'.

 

 

Melbourne University, Australia

 

 

*******

 

Olivia Khoo, 'Lounging with a Big Mac in One Hand and Freud by My Side',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 18, July 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n18khoo>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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