Hubert Cornfield’s socially conscious film Pressure Point follows an African American psychiatrist, played by Sydney Poitier, as he treats a racist and Anti-Semitic prisoner, played by Bobby Darin. Poitier recalls the case as a failure, yet affirms that he never quit. While there is significant attention paid to the roots of Darin’s prejudice toward people of color and Jewish people, Poitier 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 primary relationship to a female is with his mother, who he constantly protects him 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.” As Lacan argues in his Ethics of Psychoanalysis, the incestuous irrevocable object, the [m]other, is the original objet petit a. Otherwise known as Das Ding, the mother is the object and cause of desire that one pursues throughout life. If one gets too close, Das Ding is no longer desired and becomes something monstrous. Freud agrees that desire is essential to existence, and Lacan elaborates that “without the Law the Thing is dead,” (page 83.) There is no desire without prohibition. Without the challenge of his father, Darin is not inclined to win his mother’s affection. This disgust manifests itself in the form of a fantasy in which he orders her execution.
This abhorrence 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 as he was by the meat in his father’s butcher shop as a boy. Here, he attempts to reclaim the power his father took away from him by becoming his father, the abuser. He forms a perverse ego ideal of sorts in which the lost narcissism of childhood is fundamentally linked to power exerted by his father over his mother. 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. The Jewish woman’s rejection spurs Darin’s Anti-Semitism, a displacement of the disgust felt for his mother. Furthermore, the woman’s father who deliberately states “no” is a stand-in for his own. In this way, Darin’s father is still controlling his relationship to women and is the prominent figure in all three connections.
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 parents as their first emotional attachment and develop their superego as they adopt their socialized moral code. He simplifies this in his essay “The Dissection of the Psychical Personality,” stating identification is the “assimilation of one ego to another one,” (page 62.) As spectators of a film, we identify with the protagonist and form an attachment, and the camera stands as moral surveillance. 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 Spellbound through both Ballantine and ourselves as spectators – all captured through the camera’s eye.
The opening epigraph of the film quotes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “the fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” This is not only referring to the characters of the film, but to the 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 fetishize and objectify them, a ménage a trois of sorts. Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” looks at the implications of such voyeurism. She states, “voyeurism has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt, asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment,” (page 5.) This sadism is apparent in narrative itself, and especially in Spellbound with regard to the subjective camera. The final point of view shot occurs when Dr. Murchison turns the gun on himself and fires. The camera occupies his perspective, putting the viewer directly on trial and in his line of fire. Murchison is guilty of the murder of his rival, yet we are also brought to justice for our wrongdoing. We are guilty of our voyeurism, our inherent fault or original sin, and the delusion of our innocence.
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. In the dream, Freud is tied with a rope to a patient who he locked in a room rather than listen to his Oedipal desires. In this way, 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 along with him rather than face the truth. The scene appears to be 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 events of 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 its own associations with the images presented to them. Freud elaborates, “We are incapable of seeing a series of unfamiliar signs or of hearing a succession of unknown words, without at once falsifying perception from considerations of intelligibility, on the basis of something already known to us,” (page 161.) In Freud’s dream sequence, we can conjecture the dream content based on context and the visual cues presented to us. For example, the audience could read Freud’s failure to cut the rope as hysteria while he could describe it as impotence.
Freud describes three types of dreams, the third being those which are “disconnected, confused and meaningless,” (page 149.) This third group most closely resembles film. Film consists of segmentation that creates the illusion of continuity for the viewer yet “real” dreams resist continuity or sense, leading Freud to describe them as “hopelessly confused,” (page 162.) The affective 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.
One of 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. The film unites psychoanalysis and cinema, two entities that Stephen Heath deems a “dialectical mismatch” that share a “constant and necessary misencounter,” (page 49.) This misencounter is exacerbated by the meta moments in which film is represented within the film itself. The first representation of cinema is seen in an 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” (page 32.) This scene is immediately preceded by his wife in bed, an image illuminated by 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? Zizek will deem the psychoanalytic film an explication of psychoanalysis itself as it both confronts and translates the psychoanalytic session. The answer is unclear, as Heath points out that the truer a piece is to psychoanalysis, the further it gets from cinema (page 36.) The superimposition of the roll of film onto the scene featuring Hans as conductor further invokes the layers of suffering in Martin’s psyche. More importantly, it depicts the prevention of discovering the primal trauma by cinema, and therefore by representation itself. The imaginary signifier both produces and rejects the psychoanalytic narrative in this sense, lacking the plasticity that Freud maintains as essential. And yet the film also rejects the psychoanalytic when not aligned with 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.