Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 26, September 2003

 

 

Rebecca M. Gordon

 

Waiting for Dawn to Break:

On _Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories_

 

 

_Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories_

Edited by Janet Bergstrom

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999

ISBN 0-520-20747-5 (hbk); 0-520-20748-3 (pbk)

307 pp.

 

_Endless Night_ developed from a conference titled 'Cinema and Psychoanalysis: Parallel Histories' that took place at UCLA in 1993. The event brought together practicing psychoanalysts and film theorists working from psychoanalytic perspectives in order to provide a forum for the exchange of views between the two disciplines. The aim was to see whether cinema and psychoanalysis, having developed along parallel historical lines, might be induced to 'speak' to one another; or even better, inform one another conceptually. Alas, it did not happen. As Bergstrom writes, 'one came away from the conference with the strong impression of nonconvergence, on the whole, [with] the sense that these 'parallel histories' of cinema and of psychoanalysis were very far apart indeed and were likely to remain so' (1). _Endless Night_ seemed an apt name for the collection, explains Bergstrom, since psychoanalysis and film theory are both 'drawn to the darkness in their quest for logics of meaning' (1). The title also seems a bit hopeless, suggesting that the dawn that failed to break over the course of the conference might not come for some time.

 

The lack of an easy correspondence between these two disciplines, however, compelled the conferences' contributors to confront blind spots long ignored by psychoanalytic theorists. _Endless Night_ thus emphasizes the history of psychoanalytic theory and demonstrates not only that 'history' and 'theory' have a strong bearing on each other, 'but that film theory must be written with a strong sense of historical consciousness, curiosity, and archeological craft' (4). The essays in this collection are wide-ranging, and difficult to categorize. The strongest and most interesting pay keen attention to historical context and/or to the aims of clinical psychoanalysis (that is, to an actual person's mental well-being). As one would expect, the underlying philosophy of the volume is based on a Continental critique of epistemology and a familiar theory of the subject constructed through language and dominant forms of representation. In several of the essays, the authors identify moments when absolute knowledge or mastery of a situation is unavailable, because such perfection is technologically, psychologically, or logically impossible. More specifically, many of the essays demonstrate a fascination with perception versus representation, and how the gap between the two threatens 'truth' when the perceptible is accidentally or purposefully elided in favor of a less credible, but more desirable, representation. Ironically, this problem was one Freud perceived in cinema from the beginning.

 

Stephen Heath's essay, 'Cinema and Psychoanalysis: Parallel Histories', opens the collection and poses the volume's primary questions: What should film analysis do and what does psychoanalysis have to do with it? Encounters between the two disciplines have historically failed because each has explored the other reductively. Critiquing the imprecise, repetitive nature of much psychoanalytic film writing, Heath situates film studies' appropriation of psychoanalysis in the 1970s as a political manoeuvre that no longer produces new ideas. Psychoanalysis itself, however, has also 'resisted' cinema at the expense of gaining insight into its own practices (27, 35-36). From its earliest days, cinema's appeal as an analogy for mental processes concerned psychoanalysts who perceived that cinema could seriously misrepresent the analytic situation, and in turn misconstrue the aims of psychoanalysis; hence, a tradition of disdain for cinema. If the relationship between 'cinema and psychoanalysis' is to be something more than a missed encounter, Heath argues, then just as film theorists must re-evaluate their 'use' of psychoanalysis, so psychoanalysts ought to consider more carefully the way film functions in the analytic session, for cinema is part of the sociality that creates the patient on the couch. Such 'mid-range' questions deserve inquiry, and the resulting work would be quite different from the psychoanalytic film studies we currently recognize.

 

Mary Ann Doane approaches 'cinema and psychoanalysis' historically, investigating the importance of 'time' to both. Doane describes how, at the turn of the century, new recording technologies (cinema, phonograph) held out the promise of preserving and representing time in an undifferentiated flow of images and sounds. This ability threatened not only sensory overload but the banalization of meaning itself, for which of these moments ought to be 'stored' or remembered? Doane compares Freud's description of the unconscious as a 'Mystic Writing Pad', a perfect repository for memory, with Etienne-Jules Marey's attempts to photograph movement, as two efforts to control the problem of representing and storing 'time'. She further theorizes that cinema's turn to narrative was in part an attempt to structure time and retrieve meaning from total representation (84). Doane's essay is ultimately about 'the subject' -- in particular the subject's anxiety in the face of an ongoing archivalization of life.

 

'The subject' also figures, though less historically, in essays by Marc Vernet and Slavoj Zizek. Vernet, as director of the Bibliotheque du Film, is, like Doane, fascinated by storage, memory, and the archive. Untroubled by the subject's anxiety, however, Vernet's essay emphasizes the fetishistic pleasure inherent in the film researcher's quest for 'the real thing'. Zizek's essay, definitely the most theoretically dense of the collection, celebrates the 'pure subjectlessness' offered by Virtual Reality. As Heath states in his own essay, this is brilliant as a performance of 'Zizek' but does little to clarify connections between cinema and psychoanalysis.

 

David James Fisher's and Peter Wollen's articles investigate the creative context of John Huston's _Freud_ (1962) and Jean-Paul Sartre's screenplay for the film. Fisher relates how, in the course of researching the script, Sartre became aware of Freud's struggle against Viennese anti-Semitism, his discovery of the intersubjective relationship between analyst and analysand, and his bond with his father. Fisher further suggests that Sartre's philosophical need to understand 'the other' -- here, Freud -- led him to write a script that demonstrates a combination of theoretical and practical work, namely Sartrean dialectical analysis and Freudian psychoanalytic intersubjectivity (150). Peter Wollen, using a rich array of letters and other documents, discovers that Freud, Sartre, and Huston shared a parallel fascination with adventure, and a parallel hostility toward 'the paternal bond'. Wollen argues that 'Freud as adventurer' is the Freud that attracted both Sartre and Huston. That same desire to see themselves as adventurers unburdened by filial piety, however, led Sartre and Huston to distort their evidence in order to retain Freud as a filmic hero.

 

The essays by Copjec, Bergstrom, Walker, and Saito offer textual analyses of specific films in order to explain how cinematic genres or structures can be understood in psychoanalytic terms. They are the most 'traditional' examples of psychoanalytic film studies in the volume, but Bergstrom's and Walker's essays move beyond theory to consider the real consequences of psychic trauma and the ways it is, or isn't, depicted on the screen.

 

Concerned above all with psychoanalysis's emphasis on sexual difference, Copjec moves rather sweepingly from eighteenth-century discourse on sensibility to 1940s women's films, arguing that melodrama operates structurally as a feminine mode of discourse, creating an indeterminate reality 'not constructed through the imposition of a limit' (257). She offers an interpretation of _Stella Dallas_, a film open to conflicting feminist readings, that considers the possibility of a woman (Stella) belonging to and knowing herself as belonging to, the society she has helped create, as opposed to being hysterically separated from it.

 

Walker and Bergstrom are likewise concerned about sexual difference and psychoanalysis, but more than the other contributors to the volume, they are also interested in the ways that a film's structure can reveal or conceal instances of psychic trauma. The operations of personal or institutional censorship, they suggest, can trouble not only the depiction but possibly the treatment of psychic trauma in real life. Bergstrom's essay focuses on Chantal Akerman's films. She suggests that their singular style expresses Akerman's experience of being the child of Holocaust survivors. Though Akerman avoids speaking about her personal experience -- as does her mother -- Bergstrom finds multiple instances of miscommunication between mothers and children in Akerman's films, which echo both the autobiographical moments Akerman *has* discussed publicly, and psychoanalyst Andre Green's description of the 'dead mother' phenomenon. Janet Walker argues that Freud's repudiation of seduction theory as a way to account for his patients' tales of childhood sexual abuse has haunted the way psychoanalysis -- and Hollywood -- approach incest. Using theories of dissociation, Walker traces the way incest was repressed from the final versions John Huston's _Freud_ and the Warner Brothers film _King's Row_ (1942) but still exists, displaced, in screenplay drafts, movie trailers, and censorship documents. Such dislocations are important to Walker because they demonstrate how incest can be invoked or suggested by a text, or otherwise remain 'present' without being demonstrated directly. In Walker's view, the body of 'incest survivor' literature that emerged in the 1980s was received in psychoanalytic circles and in the popular press as a crisis of 'false memory' in part because no viable psychoanalytic theory of childhood sexual trauma existed to account for it otherwise. In essence, Freud's insistence on fantasy seems to have contributed to the repression of incest as a reality.

 

Ayako Saito's essay on Hitchcock's 'trilogy' -- Vertigo_ (1958), _North by Northwest_ (1959), and _Psycho_ (1960) -- is the most traditional 'applied theory' essay in the volume, examining the psychopathological structures of affect inherent in the films' styles. Saito attempts to analyze the trilogy's affective structures as distinct from the affective responses of spectators, but part of why these films' affective structures can be distinguished at all is because the films evoke these same affects in their audiences -- and, as Saito herself suggests, were deliberately intended to do so (201). To some extent Saito positions herself as both analyst and ideal spectator, unwittingly performing some of the problems of transference. The essay would perhaps be more persuasive if the slipperiness of these distinctions were acknowledged further, and if Saito had considered recent cognitive and philosophical inquiries into emotion/affect, the better to clarify her reasons for remaining within a psychoanalytic paradigm. (Though Saito turns to Andre Green's work for a meatier discussion of affect than Lacan provides, Green was himself trained as a Lacanian.) Nonetheless, by addressing affect, Saito also specifically critiques psychoanalytic film theory's emphasis on language and the gaze at the expense of other questions, laying open a part of the history of psychoanalysis that was long ignored because it *didn't* fit the Lacanian paradigm.

 

Significantly, the conference that gave rise to this volume took place two years before the conference that led to Bordwell and Carroll's _Post-Theory_, showing that film theorists committed to psychoanalysis were cognizant of the problems inherent in this approach to film well before anthologies of 'alternative' approaches became commonplace (_Post-Theory_, _Passionate Views_, _Film Theory and Philosophy_, etc). Though many of the essays in _Endless Night_ do participate in the kind of messy Continental philosophizing that film scholars have been critiquing for some time, the book also demonstrates a serious attempt by psychoanalytic film theorists to confront the blind spots and limitations of their own theoretical history, something that 'cognitivists' will likely find themselves doing someday as cognitive science, philosophy, and psychology continue to pursue questions of affect, emotion, embodied memory, and empathy.

 

Bergstrom claims that the consequences of this work do not necessarily hold only for film, 'rather, they provide a firm grounding from which those reflecting on other media or in other disciplines may take measure of how any number of issues raised in these pages might translate to their own spheres of activity' (5). This seems dangerously broad, and an effect of the way the original conference managed not to converge into clearer lines of thought. The statement also seems to indicate a desire on the part of academics steeped in the narrative-rich fields of cinema and psychoanalysis to come to 'An Answer', and ignore the lesson of psychoanalysis: that analysis is interminable. (It remains unclear to me, exactly, what the conference was intended to do for psychoanalysts; the volume itself is more heavily populated by articles by cultural and film theorists than practicing psychoanalysts).

 

Of course, psychoanalysis is by no means dependent upon cinema, and neither are film theory nor film studies dependent upon psychoanalysis. What this volume makes evident is that psychoanalytic film theory and psychoanalysis, which do share a history of theory, each also have 'unfinished business' in their theoretical pasts, which makes further historical, or 'archaeological' research an interesting prospect. Whether we would still call such work 'psychoanalytic film studies', however, is debatable.

 

Indiana University

Bloomington, Indiana, USA

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Rebecca M. Gordon, 'Waiting for Dawn to Break: On _Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 26, September 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n26gordon>.

 

 

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