Apocalypse Then and Now: The Superimposition of Kurtz and Willard

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Francis Ford Coppola’s wartime masterpiece Apocalypse Now explores humanity’s ambivalent relationship toward taming the id and servicing the superego through the fraught relationship between the aimlessly “civil” Willard and the object of his mission, the brutish rogue General Kurtz. “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own,” Willard recalls in deadpan voiceover. In the opening and closing scenes, Coppola further proves that these two are inexorably linked. The film is framed with repeated images of the idol, Willard’s face looking directly into the camera, and the helicopter – underscored by “This is the End” by The Doors.  The recurrence of these images implies that the animalistic, basic instincts of the id that Kurtz celebrates in his refusal of a higher order was always indelibly printed on Willard’s psyche – perhaps before the two even met, as Freud’s death drive and theory of innate aggression suggest. Willard says, “I felt I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren’t in the dossier,” proving that there is something inexplicable, of almost divine providence that links these men together. Like the yin and yang, one cannot exist without the other, yet as the film progresses the distinction blurs until only one can exist. Willard is this one, yet with the caveat that he will forever live with the echo of Kurtz’s “horror.”

Freudian theories expressed in Civilization and its Discontents and Totem and Taboo illuminate Coppola’s purpose in superimposing images of Kurtz’s transgressive world on Willard’s psyche. Freud uses the example of Roman archaeological sites to show the layers of the psyche, and the ways in which multiple views can be present at one time, such as the ambivalence felt by sons towards their fathers. This ambivalence is shown in the final scene, as Willard both rejects Kurtz’s behavior, as the band of brothers do, and retroactively obeys when he turns off the radio in deferred obedience to the ritually sacrificed totemic figure. Superimposed images similarly allow the viewer to see more than one image at a time, a visual reinforcement of Willard’s ambivalence. Finally, the audience is allied with Willard throughout the film through exclusively his point of view accompanied by an intimate voiceover. We don’t know much about him, and he remains passive throughout most of the film.  Perhaps his superimposed face looking directly at us proves that the confession is not only his, but ours as well. The horror lies in us.

The Great Perhaps: Subjectivity in Eve’s Bayou

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             “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain.” So begins Kasi Lemmons’ transgressive, inventive, and bold depiction of doubt and desire in her debut film Eve’s Bayou. In this opening line we are introduced to a fundamental theme that threads throughout the film: the unreliability of memory, both as a result of selection and imposition. The notion of selection is of particular interest, as it harkens back to the psychoanalytic session in which the analysand filters their memories and chooses words to signify their dreams and experiences to the analyst. The voice that opens the film is of an older Eve, adding a layer of temporal distance and further unreliability. As Keeling suggests, the adult Eve “frames images of her childhood,” occupying a set of images or experiences. Yet “there is always a larger set,” the unseen which this film draws attention to by virtue of exclusion. The notion of imposition is also discussed by Freud in his assertion that sexuality originates from without, staining the brain and memory as the primal scene of sexual trauma. We see this very scene depicted within the first few seconds of the film.

In addition to narration, Lemmons draws attention to the doubt and subjectivity that surrounds the primal scene through camera and sound. This opening scene is framed in a very tight shot, in which it is almost impossible to discern the image. It is also shot in slow motion, further muddling the action of the vision. The use of black and white, which formerly colored the bayou in Eve’s description of its history, further disrupts the temporality of the scene. Ambiguity is underscored in the audio track as well, with indiscernible sounds accompanying the image – perhaps primal, animalistic noises, perhaps a gasp or moan? The answer lies in the perhaps.

Tic, Tac, Toe: The Three Women of Pressure Point and the Man Behind Them

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Hubert Cornfield’s socially conscious film Pressure Point follows an African American psychiatrist, played by Sydney Portiere, as he treats a racist and Anti-Semitic prisoner, played by Bobby Darin. He recalls the case as a failure, yet affirms that he never quit. While there is overt attention paid to the roots of Darin’s prejudice toward people of color and Jewish people, Portiere does not equally consider his relationships with women. Three women have prominent roles in the film: his mother, the woman at the bar, and the Jewish woman who catches his eye on the street. How do these women reflect Darin’s Oedipal desires – or otherwise? Do his feelings toward women inform or supplant his racism and Anti-Semitism?

Darin’s primal female relationship is with his mother, who he constantly protects from his belligerent father. Yet rather than fostering an Oedipal relationship to her, he finds her weak and overly-available for his love. She repeatedly tells him that he is “the only one.” Without the challenge of his father, he is not inclined to win her affection. From what we know of the formation of the superego through prescribed parental and societal morals, we can assume that his mother imposed the very disgust he feels toward her on him as an infant. This disgust manifests itself in the form of a fantasy in which he orders her execution. This disgust for women permeates into his adult life, as seen in the incident with the woman at the bar. When he disrobes her to mark her with his stain, the harassment is not sexual in nature. He sees her as merely an object, a surface to be tainted. Here, he attempts to reclaim the power his father took away from him by becoming his father, the abuser. Yet he fails to maintain this power, as evidenced through the encounter with the Jewish woman who asks for his help with the bags of apples. He feels more warmly towards her than the other woman, yet he is rejected as a romantic prospect by her father – a stand-in for his own. In this way, his father is still controlling his relationship to women and has been the prominent figure in all three connections.

The Fault in Ourselves: Implication Through the Camera’s Eye in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”

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Hitchcock’s romantic psychoanalytic thriller Spellbound is fraught with tension between psychoanalysis and film. While Hitchcock’s claim that it is “just a movie” with no real prerogative to accurately portray psychoanalysis can be supported in many instances throughout the film, I am more interested in the relationship between the guilt complex and identification with the film as an intermediary and catalyst. Freud’s theory of identification proffers that infants identify with their parent’s as their first emotional attachment and develop their superego as they adopt their socialized moral code. As spectators in a film, we identify with the protagonist and form an attachment, and the camera stands as moral surveillance. To put it simply, Freud’s guilt complex is defined as the failure to balance the internal desires of the id and the moralizing rules of the superego. We see guilt manifested in the film through both Ballantine and ourselves as spectators – all captured through the camera’s eye.

The first frame of the film quotes Shakespeare: “the fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” This is not only referring to the characters of the film, but to us as viewers as well. The use of point of view shots throughout the film place the spectator in an identifying position and therefore implicate the viewer in the traumas of its characters. The first point of view shot is when Constance abandons her glasses, the book, and reason and kisses “Dr. Edwards” for the first time. The extreme close up of both Gregory Peck’s and Ingrid Bergman’s eyes encourages the viewer to fettishize and objectify them, a ménage a trois of sorts. We see another point of view shot in the end when Dr. Murchison turns the gun on himself and fires. Murchison is guilty of the murder of his rival, yet we are also brought to justice for our wrongdoing. We are guilty for our voyeurism, our inherent fault or original sin, and the delusion of our innocence.

[Meta]Physical Projections: On Dreams in Huston’s “Freud”

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Huston’s biopic Freud: The Secret Passion looks at its titular character’s journey of self-discovery as he nurses the fledgling psychoanalytic theory that neuroses originate from sexual repression as children. While Freud’s theory is primarily tested on a young woman whose infantile lust for her father leads to hysterical symptoms in her adult life, he also discovers its normative nature in himself. The audience is privy to Freud’s revelation as seen in his dream about his mother. Tied to a patient who he locked in a room rather than listen to his Oedipal desires, Freud is literally and figuratively tethered to his own sexual repression. He is led to his mother and forced to confront his desire, yet chooses to push the patient off of a cliff and out of his mind, taking the fall rather than face the truth. The scene appears to be very telling in the film, and a turning point for Freud as a character. Yet is this a true portrayal of a dream? Has cinema finally depicted the signified, which can never be captured faithfully in a psychoanalytic session?

A closer look at Freud’s essays Interpretations of Dreams and On Dreams offers insight into these questions. Firstly, he emphasizes that psychoanalysis is achieved through the analysand’s language describing the dream, rather than interpreting the dream itself. The so-called “meaning” lies in the signifiers of an unconscious wish rather than the true signified. Does cinema fill the gaps in knowledge through visual projection of dreams? It might seem deceptively so, yet the dream becomes a symptom of the film itself as the audience forms their own associations. The film is not as telling as it seems – film is consisted of segmentation that creates the illusion of continuity for the viewer yet “real” dreams themselves resist continuity. The affected response to the dream and the analysand’s self-editing in their narration is vital, leading purely visual portrayals to fail to fully represent the subjective nature of dreams.

Representations of Cinema in Cinema and their Psychoanalytic Implications in Pabst’s “Secrets of a Soul”

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The first of its kind, G.W. Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul is a psychoanalytic film that delves into the interior symptomatic traumas of its protagonist, Martin, and how they manifest themselves externally. While the film looks at largely unexplored territory in the union of what Stephen Heath deems a “dialectical mismatch,” the moments of particular note lay in the representation of film within the film. The first of which being the image of a passing train that looks like a roll of film, with the perceivably lascivious Hans as conductor. As Hans is the projected embodiment of Martin’s trauma, the act of imprinting him on a body of film implicates the medium as well. As Martin imagines the murder next door, we see the act committed through shadow on a screen as if it were projected on film. This highlights Martin’s helplessness yet also reinforces the erotic and violent desires that cinema allows as what Masud Khan describes as a “good dream.” This scene is immediately preceded by his wife in bed with a series of flashes, as if she is being photographed. This draws a direct parallel to the final so-called “primal” scene where Martin’s father takes his photograph with his beloved as a child.

While we must accept that psychoanalysis does not reduce to sense, we can conjecture about the implications of its cinematic counterpart in both representing and seeking to understand its psychoanalytic antithesis. The question here is, are these self-referential filmic moments a representation of psychoanalysis or not? The answer is unclear, as Heath points out that the truer a piece is to psychoanalysis, the further it gets from cinema. Each of these images occur in formative stages of Martin’s trauma: his irrational jealousy of Hans, the trigger of the murder next door, and finally the childhood distress surrounding the toy doll. These images suggest that cinema and trauma are inexorably linked. As psychoanalysis cannot exist without trauma, it therefore cannot live without cinema.