Psychoanalysis and Cinema

Sarah Nechamkin

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 2)

Transference Love (and Lack Thereof) in Moonlight

Moonlight (2016) is a film about transference. It follows a three-act structure, focusing on three different stages of a man’s life. The structure allows for the protagonist to be treated as three separate characters – with distinct names and identities for each phase – while also presenting the viewer with the ability to track his behavior as a psychoanalyst would, by examining the present in light of the past. Barry Jenkins’ treatment of the film’s final scene lends itself to a Freudian lens of analysis in its portrayal of the influence of childhood on adult life, especially as it concerns relationships. In a moment of vulnerability that seems to break down his hyper-masculine facade, Black admits to Kevin that he hasn’t touched or been touched by anyone since their tryst on the beach. Black’s revelation is shocking to Kevin and to the viewer precisely due to the fact of transference love that Freud articulates: “Transference-love is characterized by certain features which ensure it a special position…it is lacking to a high degree in a regard for reality, is less sensible, less concerned about consequences and more blind in its valuation of the loved person than we are prepared to admit in the case of normal love. We should not forget, however, that these departures from the norm constitute precisely what is essential about being in love.” Since our conceptions of relationships derive from our relationships to our mothers and fathers, all love is effectively transference love – an effort to reconstruct the power dynamic latent in infantile-parental relations.

Chiron’s libidinal investment in Kevin as a love interest is a transference of his relationship with Juan as a child. Both assume hyper-masculine presentations, yet offer Chiron a sense of guidance, whether teaching him how to swim or how to kiss. Juan himself serves as a replacement for Chiron’s absent father, and in a sense also his drug-addicted mother. While Chiron may have found love in the figure of Kevin as a teenager, the social structure mandates that he move on in his adulthood as Black, finding another object of desire on which to displace that libidinal investment. Black’s vulnerability comes from his resistance to transference, the guiding principle of interpersonal love. In repressing his sexuality, Black has clung to the past and reconstructed it phantasmatically, refusing to reproduce the intimate moment with Kevin for fear of tainting its memory. For Chiron, the only way to salvage the memory and its associated emotions is to reunite with Kevin, yet he is proven incorrect when he meets with Kevin and realizes that he has transferred his love to a woman.

Black and Kevin share an intimate moment but never kiss onscreen. This is a defiance of the norm for classical Hollywood cinema, in which films often conclude with a kiss between the protagonist and their love interest, offering an artificial sense of a satisfying resolution. The absence of the kiss in Moonlight is a mode of presenting the void of Black’s desire, the result of his attempt to conquer transference. While he may expect the reunion with Kevin to bring him back to the moment on the beach, binding them in intimacy again, he is confronted with reality: that love is often not sustainable, and that transference is required for the satisfaction of libidinous desires. Black’s repression is a result of his internalization of society’s rigid attitudes toward homosexuality and race that manifests as his superego. It is this repression and naive desire to conquer transference that prevents Black from finding love and intimacy again, rather than the mere absence of Kevin. Black’s inability to enact transference love can be seen in conjunction with his near silence throughout the film. Like Elisabet in Persona (1966), Little/Black/Chiron attempts to reject the symbolic order by avoiding language. He attempts to resolve the fundamental disconnect between his desires (id) and the environment in which he is raised, where his sexual desires are taboo and his race marks him an other to greater American society, by distancing himself from the Symbolic in an attempt to arrive at the Real. But of course, clutching onto an object of desire and eschewing language does not allow one to arrive at the Real; Chiron only becomes more alienated, as he is unable to physically and emotionally act out his drives.

The film concludes with a shot of young Black as Little facing the ocean, bathed in blue moonlight. The shot is a visual allusion to the play that the film is based on called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It connects the notion of blackness and blueness – of childhood and adulthood, and of the sorrow that results from being systematically marginalized in America (“the blues of being black”). Most importantly, the shot connects Black and his intimacy gap to his state not only as Chiron on the beach with Kevin, but as Little on the beach with Juan, learning how to love another man and cope with the ambivalence at the core of the transferential relationship. When Little looks back toward the camera, it is as if he is looking forward at his life; the shot suggests a circularity to Little/Chiron/Black’s life, rooted in nonlinear memory rather than forward progress. As in the scene I discussed in Eve’s Bayou (1997), the backdrop of water recalls connotations of birth and the womb; the imagery permeates the film, connecting Chiron to his primal state even as he ages and changes his name and appearance. The film’s ambiguous ending, rare for an American production, unlocks more questions than answers. Little’s stare at the ocean evokes the impenetrable nature of the Real and the role of film as an imaginary signifier. As Nietzsche said, “When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” The more Little stares at the ocean seeking answers, the more he is confronted by his own projections rather than any clear sense of meaning. This parallels the ambiguity of the film itself, which challenges the viewer’s expectations and forces them to face their own biases. The ending begs the viewer to reflect upon the various phases of our protagonist’s life and the multiple identities he takes on, suggesting that they are chained together in fundamental ways. Yet rather than a resolution or an eternal truth, the film offers only images, fragments of memory that continue to challenge and provoke thought long after the credits roll. Is a true psychoanalytic film possible? Moonlight comes pretty close.

Silence of the Lambs: Subverting or Preserving the Male Gaze?

It is impossible to watch Silence of the Lambs (1991) and not feel the burden of male surveillance, the persistent discomfort of being watched. And yet, can we confidently say that the film occupies a “female gaze,” an inversion of Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze where the spectator occupies the role of the female protagonist? Mary Ann Doane argues in “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator” that such a thing cannot exist – that in the presumed binary system of gender, a female protagonist will always be put in the position of the male and the female spectator is inseparable from the intrinsically male fetishism of the cinematic apparatus: “Spectatorial desire, in contemporary film theory, is generally delineated as either voyeurism or fetishism, as precisely a pleasure in seeing what is prohibited in relation to the female body. The image orchestrates a gaze, a limit, and its pleasurable transgression. The woman’s beauty, her very desirability, becomes a function of certain practices of imaging – framing, lighting, camera movement, angle. She is thus, as Doane points out, “more closely associated with the surface of the image than its illusory depths, its constructed 3-dimensional space which the man is destined to inhabit and hence control.” Many female characters in film subvert their objecthood through deliberate performance of their femininity, or as Doane calls it, “masquerade.” In resisting conventional femininity and her “to-be-looked-at-ness,” Clarice Starling, the protagonist of Silence of the Lambs, occupies a traditionally male role, thus forcing the female viewer who identifies with her to hold the position of the “transvestite gaze;” she both masochistically identifies with Clarice and desires her. While the transgenderism in the narrative of the film seen through Buffalo Bill is played for horror (or potentially laughter), Clarice’s gender fluidity reaffirms her as an object of desire, according to Doane’s argument.

However, I want to push back against this idea of the impossibility of the female perspective in film. In my view, the camerawork and dialogue of Silence of the Lambs subverts the predatory nature of hegemonic cinema a la Peeping Tom by forcing the viewer to confront the discomfort of the male gaze. Though surveillance is a thread throughout the film, the notion is especially evident in the scene in which Clarice first meets Hannibal Lecter in prison. When Clarice first enters the basement, the camera pans around the room to show several men staring directly at the camera. This echoes prior scenes in the film that put the viewer in the position of being watched and here reflects Clarice’s discomfort as the only woman in the setting. The camera stops on a direct close-up of the guard as he explains to her, with a slightly condescending tone, to not get too close to the glass. The close-up is positioned from a slight low angle, positioning the viewer directly in Clarice’s view. He emphasizes the film’s relations to spectatorship and the gaze when he tells Clarice, “I’ll be watching.”

As she walks down the corridor toward Hannibal’s cell, the camera cuts to a tracking shot from Clarice’s point of view, so the men calling at her from their cells are positioned looking at and taunting the viewer. The shot moves away quickly from the first man, mimicking how Clarice shields her own gaze from him in an effort to preserve her dignity. The next man the viewer sees from her perspective says, “I can smell your cunt.” This emphasizes the particularly gendered mode in which Starling is watched, and the predatory relations between man and woman in this context (see my discussion on The Dangerous Game and the relationship between hunter and hunted). The corridor becomes akin to a runway, where Clarice is the object that exists to be seen. When Starling approaches Hannibal Lecter’s cell, however, he is distanced from the barrier and framed by the wooden panels, standing in a manner that seems less predatory but is perhaps more chilling in its unexpectedness; flanked by the panels, he can be seen as either the spectator or the object being looked at. He asks Clarice if she is “one of Jack Crawford’s,” establishing her identity in relation to men. The shot reverse shots between Hannibal and Clarice, both positioned in tight close up looking directly at the camera, continue to create a sense of discomfort in the viewer. Hannibal’s winking and challenging Clarice’s credentials imbues the scene with a flirtatious and condescending tone, as if Clarice were the object of desire rather than a legitimate professional (though of course, she is only a student). Hannibal insists he cannot in fact smell her vagina, but evaluates her scent and guesses she uses Evian skin cream, and sometimes L’Air du Temps – a tongue-in-cheek projection of her femininity. He also asks if she thinks Crawford is sexually attracted to her. Hannibal’s unique mixture of flirtatiousness, intellect, and cannibalistic desire allows the scene to be read as somewhat of a courtship of Starling. She is simultaneously bothered by it and fascinated; she is caught between the position of feminine and masculine in a binary symbolic order of gender.

When Hannibal uncomfortably psychoanalyzes Clarice, she says, “You see a lot, Doctor, but are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself? Why don’t you look at yourself and write down what you see? Maybe you’re afraid to.” Clarice challenges Hannibal’s gaze, forcing him to look back onto himself; in doing so, she challenges the male gaze and the predatory apparatus of the cinematic signifier. This is an instance of the film’s self-awareness, a subversion of female objectification rather than a perpetuation of it. While Clarice is positioned as an object of desire, she – as well as the camera – actively challenges it by engaging the spectator. Hannibal responds, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” He reaffirms his status as the predator, attempting to hold on to the gaze that gives him masculine power. His cannibalism is inherently fetishistic, as he prizes particular body parts and pairs them with fine wines and side dishes, like the high-class man he portrays himself to be. Clarice proves an ideal challenge; though she never comfortably settles into the role of object in the sense of the masquerade, she rises above it, an enduring icon of identification for the female gaze in cinema.

The Freudian Conundrum

The dialectic that permeates Freudian psychoanalysis is a crucial point of Zizek’s in “Troubles with the Real: Lacan as a Viewer of Alien.” Zizek sets up a dichotomy between the hermeneutics of the unconscious, including Freud’s discussions on dreams, slips of the tongue, and symptoms; and the id, or the energetics of the unconscious – a more positivist view that sees the body as a machine for coping with libidinous energy that results from living in social structures. How can Freud see the patient as simultaneously sick and coping, neurotic and libidinous? At what point did Freud’s work move from a therapeutic mechanism to a more inherently philosophical one, explaining not only the pathology of the ill but the nature of the human mind? This I call the Freudian Conundrum.

Zizek compares this dialectic to the fundamental paradox of physics: the existence of both a theory of relativity at the macroscopic/cosmic level and quantum physics on the microscopic, or subatomic, scale. The central issue and goal of modern physicists has been to find a unified theory of everything to bridge the two existing theories.

Zizek mentions the Lacanian notion of le sinthome as a possible solution to the conundrum, stringing together the two poles of the dialectic. The sinthom, as opposed to the symptom, is described as “atoms of enjoyment,” the minimal synthesis of language. It can be described as the purest, elemental unit of joy – a kernel of jouissance. Zizek uses le sinthome to suggest that Lacan tackles both the Freudian Conundrum and the paradox of modern physics, thereby bridging psychoanalysis and modern science. But he cuts himself short, failing to dive into this argument. I will attempt to clarify and support that reading here.

Lacan’s major argument was the twofold structure of the Symbolic and the Real; a Lacanian lens on Freudian psychoanalysis would require a dual reading of each symptom. The manifestation of the symptom is the Symbolic, while the root of the Symptom – what is repressed – is a version of the Real. In this sense, pursuing le sinthome would be a fulfillment of the pleasure principle that Freud describes, an attempt to escape the symbolic order. To conduct therapy with the patient, to rid them of the symptom, would be to continue to exist within and perpetuate the symbolic order. To acknowledge the drives at the root of the symptom, however, would be to brush at the Real. Therapy in its traditional sense can be seen as an outgrowth of the Conundrum rather than a solution to it. Only acceptance of the underlying drives through jouissance can produce relief from repression.

The libido, like the alien in Ripley Scott’s Alien (1979), is a function of pure life – “indivisible, indestructible, and immortal.” It is the positive obverse of castration, the non-castrated remainder of the living body that, unbound by the force of law and the symbolic order, takes on a grotesque quality. The alien is unappealing precisely due to its superfluous body, an emblem of the discomfort of too much. This explains why the notion of therapy relies in part on the Symbolic; as long as humans exist within the symbolic order, it is impossible to achieve full jouissance without consequence. Lacan would also argue, based on his writings in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (specifically “On creation ex nihilo”) that a solution to the paradox of physics exists purely within the symbolic order, as science is predicated on the illusory notion of progress; that is, that through scientific inquiry, based purely on experiments and knowledge of the past, one can grasp at the Real. Lacan would say that the world as we know it is symbolic, and grasping the Real would require total destruction of the world order. While the solution to the Freudian Conundrum may require an attempt at the Real, therapy as we know it, like science and law, is entirely dependent on the Symbolic.

The Dangerous Game: The Joy of the Hunt

Thierry Kuntzel’s “The Film-Work, 2” attempts to deconstruct a film the way Freud’s dream work psychoanalyzed dreams as a series of signifiers, revealing layers of psychic interpretation that lie at the subject’s core. In Kuntzel’s piece, the subject of analysis are Ernest B. Shoedsack and Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932), as well as the wider cinematic-cultural apparatus and its socio-cultural framework. Like Freud, who suggests that word-play and slips of the tongue reveal the workings of the unconscious, Kuntzel makes much of the film’s title and the multiple meanings of the word “game.” He explores the word’s dual meaning – or “duel-istic structure” – as both entertainment and prey, in both a playful context and that of hunting. While they appear unrelated in symbolic language, the nexus between the two domains reveals a fundamental truth of psychoanalysis: that pleasure and aggression are inherently intertwined.

Kuntzel discusses various ways in which the film alludes to hunting and the relations between the hunter and the hunted, both narratively and subliminally. At the beginning of the film, the men engage in a discussion on the nature of hunting, how the game seems to enjoy being hunted equally as much as the hunter enjoys the act of preying. Immediately preceding the ship-wreck, Rainsford says, “I’m a hunter and that will never change.” Of course, the precarious conditions throw that dynamic, so fundamental to Rainsford’s self-identity, literally off balance, forcing him to confront its potential futility. Cinematically, the film points to the hunter-hunted dynamic and the notion of play through the inclusion of a variety of signifiers (the bow and arrow, the hunting horn, the card game on the boat, references to poker and chess). But the image that most notably combines the two is the appearance of a centaur figure on both the door-knocker and the tapestry which decorates the staircase of the house, framed in line with Ivan. The body of the figure embodies the film’s central problematic, hinted at in its title: the relation between man and beast, civilization and savagery, man and woman, camera and subject, hunter and game. The visual association between the centaur and Ivan, the film’s designated “savage,” points to society’s projection of submissive roles onto the racialized other. Though Zaroff is “game,” he assumes the role of hunter, thereby rendering him dangerous. Not only does he murder individuals; he threatens to destroy the hegemonic social order.

How then, does this relate to the notion of the word “game” in its playful context? Though stakes are high, the violence the men engage in in this film is ultimately a game practiced for the pursuit of pleasure. Each figure is bound up in aggression, displacing their destructive impulses (part of Freud’s notion of the death drive) onto “the other,” whether it be deemed Rainsford (the stranger), Ivan (the servant and racial other), Zaroff (also the racial other), or Eve (the woman). As Kuntzel writes, Eve is excluded from the game because she is the game, or “what is at stake; she may not enter into the permutations of the hunt because she is the ultimate prey.” The hunt is both necessity and sport; rather than simply a means to capture an object of desire, it is what creates that very desire. As Lacan describes in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, specifically when he writes of “Courtly love as anamorphosis,” the process of courting a woman is what renders her the object of desire. Likewise, every object of desire stems from the process of pursuit.

The subject of the camera is not immune to this status of game. In Peeping Tom, Mark says, “Whatever I photograph, I lose.” From the first scene these relations are established, with the view behind Mark’s camera showing target marks placed over the woman’s face, rendering her both the object of desire (“to be looked at,” as Mulvey says) and the subject of violence. After all, The Dangerous Game is an adventure film; it creates a sense of thrill for the viewer only because the viewer is not actually threatened by the violence onscreen in the safe confines of a darkened theater. In invoking the complex relations of hunting and being hunted, of civilization and savagery, the film both critically engages in the problematic of aggression and playfully employs it.

Sound and the Unseen in Peeping Tom

The role of sound is often neglected in film analysis. Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier, a paradigm of film theory, focuses on the illusory nature of the cinematic image, while Laura Mulvey’s influential Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema defines the male gaze and the role of women as “to-be-looked-at” in dominant film narratives. However, as Kaja Silverman illustrates in The Acoustic Mirror, the female voice – and its lack – are equally influential in establishing gender relations onscreen. This is played out throughout Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), with the absence of audio in Mark’s documentaries (and the subsequent absence of the female scream for a majority of the film) standing for a sort of castration. As Silverman discusses, this literal silencing of women serves as a projection of Mark’s own castration anxiety, having been subjugated by his father’s camera and thus suffering a traumatic loss of phallic power. Audiovisual separation in cinema is itself a form of castration, producing a sense of disorientation in the viewer in its essential disjunction of sensual experience.

In the sequence in which Mark murders the actress, Powell subverts the structure of the silent woman captured in Mark’s documentaries, creating an interesting new audiovisual form of castration by way of murder. As the actress steps back, away from Mark’s tripod cum weapon, the camera cuts to a shot of her feet edging up against the suitcase. This shot helps establish the fetishistic relations of the scene, with the focus on one body part over the whole serving an inherently castratory function. The camera then cuts back to a side angle shot of Mark behind his camera, capturing him in the throws of the fetishistic male gaze. When Powell cuts back to the actress, he cuts off the top half of her face, with her lips on one edge of the screen and the tip of the tripod on the other. This part-whole dynamic further underscores how Mark’s systematic murder of women serves as a force of castration, a projection of the lack he experienced in his own childhood. The camera, which itself cuts shots in the effort to produce a sense of continuity, also here cuts the woman’s face, asserting its dominance and reproducing a hegemonic narrative of female victimhood.

However, the role of sound most significantly establishes such castratory relations. As the actress begins to scream, the camera tilts up to her face and blurs it out before fading to black, rendering her unseen as the audio of the woman’s scream is heard. In this sequence, the pairing of the image with the absence of sound, as exemplified in Mark’s documentaries, is inverted by Powell’s camera, which pairs sound with the lack of image – rather, darkness with a mere spot of red light. This is another form of audiovisual castration, as the scream is disconnected from the body – a lost or partial object, akin to the floating smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland (1951) that Zizek mentions in A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006). Women’s voices in film are not merely silenced in the literal sense; they can also be amplified at the expense of all else, effectively serving as another form of silencing. It is therefore useful to consider a Mulveyan perspective not only in terms of female “to-be-looked-at-ness,” but also “to-be-heard-ness.” Just as women captured in the male gaze of the camera are looked at rather than seen, they can also be heard rather than listened to, with their voice becoming a fetish object that stands in for the whole being.

The audio in this sequence immediately transitions to the sound of a female newscaster saying, “And that, darling’s, the end of the news, unless you want the football results.” The visual then cuts from the darkness to the direct gaze of Helen’s blind mother. This connection plays on the notion of female “to-be-heard-ness” and the ways in which women can both be heard but not seen and seen but not heard. Helen’s mother herself cannot see, hearing the female voice and looking at the television without seeing it. Perhaps, like the viewer after the actress’ murder, she can only see the void.

In Persona, a Silent Quest for the Real

In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Elisabet’s silence is deafening. For both the viewer and Alma, her supposed caretaker, it is frustratingly disruptive. Deliberately exempting oneself from the realm of language is an affront to the symbolic order, a defiance of all that is known and understood. Beneath this symbolic structure exists only the real – a space that encompasses that which cannot be understood through language. By choosing to remain silent for most of the film, Elisabet rejects the symbolic order in an effort to come closer to the real, perhaps as a result of her encounters with representations of human horrors (the self-immolation of a man during the Vietnam War on television; a photo from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during World War II). However, as Lacan argues, this effort is ultimately futile, as the real – like Freud’s navel of the dream – is impenetrable as long as the individual clings to the notion of the self and continues to exist within the symbolic order.

Elisabet, especially, is indebted to the symbolic; as an actress, she is constantly engaged in the act of self-performance. She also uses her silence to provoke some reaction from Alma With Bergman’s jarring, self-reflexive direction, as noted by Lloyd Michaels in “The Imaginary Signifier in Bergman’s Persona,” the audience is distanced from Elisabet and from the film itself; Liv Ullmann’s acting of Elisabet is exaggerated, her stark black costumes are designed for the camera’s gaze; and the mise-en-scene basks in the psycho-sexual relations between the two women through various sequences of innovative power play. One scene in which this is apparent is on the beach, when Alma tells Elisabet she found her letter and accuses her of betraying her trust. It begins with a shot of Elisabet heading down a cliff, then a close-up from the side of Elisabet looking out for Alma. She is in a thick black headband and a black turtleneck, while her face is cloaked in the perfect shadow of her hand. Right away, her “to-be-looked-at-ness” is established in the Mulveyan framework; she is inevitably a product of the cinematic imagination. She then finds Alma and sits in the foreground of the shot in a wide-brimmed hat with Alma behind her, also in all black with black sunglasses. The effect of doubling through costume and framing, as well as the sheer aesthetic framing of the shot, underscores the film’s awareness of its own cinematic quality. In this sequence, like all others, Bergman forces the viewer to confront how cinema serves as an imaginary signifier in the Metzian sense. Alma says, “I see you’re reading a play,” as if to highlight this notion of theatricality and performance. While Elisabet purports to have escaped the symbolic by eschewing language, she reverts to a dependence on the signifier with her consumption of media. This is a “healthy sign,” as Alma says, because any reversion to the imaginary indicates an inclination to continue living within the paradigm of the symbolic order; near-total escape would render one mentally ill in societal terms. Elisabet shakes her head when Alma asks if she misses the city because for her, the cottage by the sea represents an escape from the hegemony of urban life; however, that very association – a signifier representing a signified – is symptomatic of a symbolic worldview.

It is clear that Elisabet’s attempted escape from the symbolic and subsequent search for the real has at this point disrupted her relationship with Alma. When Alma begs her to talk, the camera cuts back to Elisabet from Alma’s point of view, seeing only the back of her hat as her head turns slightly to continue reading. While the hat hides her from certain angles, it also helps create a certain shadowy aesthetic for the film; Elisabet attempts to hide from the outside world, yet cannot avoid being part of its game of images. When the camera cuts back to her, she is then shown cutting the back of her book with a knife. This separation of the book’s pages echoes the various cuts and disruptions throughout the film, or syntagmas, that Michaels argues are associated with the cinematic signifier and the inevitable absence of the lost cinematic object. When Alma rips off her glasses in frustration, saying “and these glasses!” the viewer is again reminded of the very craft of the film’s mise-en-scene and the ways in which Bergman possesses the power to create apparent meaning through representative objects, like glasses, a hat, or a knife. When Alma subsequently reaches for Elisabet to fight, Elisabet is at first positioned offscreen and the camera occupies a low angle. This choice underscores how Alma, for most of the film, is constantly grasping at something that is not there – at the imaginary, at language, at the illusory kinship between the two women based on an imagined sense of trust, intimacy, and perhaps eroticism. Only when Elisabet is threatened with boiling water does she finally speak. Though violence in the film forces Elisabet to confront the real, it also forces her to confront her reliance on the symbolic. She must come to terms with the fact that living requires a conscious submission to the world of language. The reality principle dictates we cannot escape the symbolic order lest we upset the force of law and contribute to our own self-destruction.

Fade to Black: The Cinematic Mirror Stage

In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), Zizek makes a Lacanian argument for the illusion of cinema – that it tells you not only what to desire, but how to desire. Zizek invokes Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifer in asserting the cinema as the site of the imaginary, with the spectator falsely aligning themselves with the images portrayed onscreen. Zizek calls for the perception of reality not behind the illusion but within the illusion itself, breaking through the symbolic order through film. This philosophic framework breaks through the notion of reality, asserting that our conception of reality relies on the symbolic order. In this sense, the filmic screen acts as a sort of mirror (as in Lacan’s mirror stage concept), providing the spectator with an idealized, cohesive version of the self. Zizek discusses this in terms of autonomous partial objects, giving examples from Mulholland Drive (2001) and Alice in Wonderland (1951) to illustrate the discrepancy between reality and the real, the part existing outside of the whole. He also discusses the Freudian concept of the divided psyche as it manifests in films like Hitchcock’s Psycho, among other philosophical and psychoanalytic principles in relation to cinema.

What Zizek fails to address, however, is the role of tropes in film, at once reflecting and sculpting the identity of the spectator and the culture at large. When films employ common tropes, they give us a greater sense of cohesion, providing us with the illusion of consistent selfhood. For example, filmmakers often ascribe villainous characters with traits associated with ‘the other,’ effectively associating antagonists with queerness. For example, Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) is portrayed with traditionally feminine characteristics and is uncomfortably close with his mother. Likewise, the villain ofThe Lion King (1994), Scar, is portrayed as feminine, with a flamboyant voice and stride. Both characters’ jealousy leads them to murder the films’ father figures. Another example of a common filmic trope is the damsel in distress; from King Kong (1933) to the Star Wars franchise toTaken (2008), films have repeated the time-old trope of a beautiful woman in need of a male savior to escape a dire situation. These, among countless other tropes, help provide neat parameters for human behavior. They allow us to define and identify versions of the self, aligning with certain characters to help shape our conception of our own imagos.

Each time we watch a film, as Metz argues, we are experiencing a version of the mirror stage again. The cinematic screen is merely a tabula rasa onto which we project fantasies, illusions, and desires. When turned off, we are reminded that it is merely a blank slate, and we are forced to confront its utter nothingness, akin to the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Confronting the blank screen, according to Zizek, is a version of confronting the real – inherently traumatic in its absence of the image.

Apocalypse Now: American Civilization and Its Discontents

The opening scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is quintessentially Freudian, its use of superimposition both revealing and creating meaning for the viewer from the film’s outset. Coppola’s employment of the dissolve, which effectively superimposes images atop one another, mimics the psychic process of free association that psychoanalysis aims to bring forth. The film begins with a static shot of a Vietnam landscape, rows of palm trees accompanied by the faint sound of a helicopter approaching. The sound immediately establishes a sense of anxiety, interrupting the peaceful stasis of the palm trees. A helicopter then crosses the screen before wafts of napalm rise, signaling the onset of the film’s signature song, The Doors’ “The End.” The napalm becomes cloudier as the music builds, the anxiety-inducing helicopter noise lingering in the background. When the lyrics begin with “This is the end,” the trees immediately blow up and the camera begins panning to the right. The use of “The End” in the opening sequence – also picked up in the film’s final scene – creates a circular logic mimicking the cyclical nature of wartime violence.

The fogging effect of the napalm induces a sense of ambiguity as the camera dissolves into Willard’s face, shown upside down. Right away, it is clear to the viewer that this is not a typical war film, but one marked with a concern for the psychic implications of trauma, brutality, and the military apparatus. With the landscape panning across Willard’s eyes, Coppola creates a subjective framework in which Willard sees the scene in his mind, reliving the primal trauma of war. The positioning of Willard, upside down and seemingly lying down, renders him a sort of analysand; he could easily be on Freud’s couch, reflecting on his past in Vietnam. The circular motion of the ceiling fan echoes that of the helicopter, as well as the overall circular logic of the film. The superimposition of the images of Willard’s face, the moving ceiling fan, and the helicopter create a visual parallel between these objects and their representational value, associating memory with fantasy. The hallucinatory, vibrantly hued images of the palm trees clouded in napalm – repeated in various forms throughout the film – reflexively underscore the ability of art and cinema to hide the grotesque nature of reality with beauty, inducing voyeuristic pleasure from images of violence.

Civilization, as Freud contends in his work “Civilization and Its Discontents,” is inherently brutal, prone to worship of demagogues and systems of constraint. Freud argues that the individual’s relation to civilization and its framework is inherently fraught, becoming one major source of discontent. He argued that social structures are based upon the suppression of instincts (or the id), becoming the vehicle by which the superego emerges in the individual. The superimposition of Willard’s face and the Vietnam landscape, torn apart by the American military apparatus, produces a visual representation of this relation between the individual and civilization. Western civilization establishes a sense of collective morality that frowns upon murder, yet the American military apparatus imposes systematic murder. Therefore, American civilization acts as a collective superego, its hypocrisy inducing neurosis in the divided psyches of its citizens.

The sequence continues with the overlaying of various moving images, a patchwork only achievable through cinema. The image of the taboo calls to mind Freud’s “Totem and Taboo,” which discusses the significance of totem objects in ancient cultures. Freud postulated that the totem object, held as sacred in these communities, was the site of displacement of the individual’s Oedipal desire for the mother that would result in the murder of the father. The camera then switches to Willard’s environment, panning across letters (later revealed to belong to Captain Kurtz) until it arrives at close-ups of Willard’s body and face. We then see a glass and a bottle of whiskey, superimposed with a cigarette dangling from between Willard’s fingers. The images suggest a relationship between the realities of war and Willard’s presumed current state, dependent on drugs and alcohol. The seemingly seamless juxtaposition points to deeper psychoanalytic notions of the divided psyche; here, not only does the ego battle the id, but the reality principle of the ego actually fuels more desire to fulfill the pleasure principle and satisfy the id. The pleasure principle is, of course, illusory, as it does not provide real pleasure as much as a transitory Band-Aid for the inevitable void that comes when confronting the Real, according to Lacan. The final shots of the sequence are that of the gun and the ceiling fan superimposed, before the shot of Willard’s face crystallizes, half-cloaked in shadow. The gun is highly significant in a Freudian framework, as it signifies phallic power through its function of assault and murder. The gun epitomizes the paradox of civilization as a supposed beacon of morality through law enforcement while ultimately serving as an instrument of brutality. As the camera moves to focus on Willard and his psychic state, this is the dichotomy that looms over Coppola’s film as he continually explores the effect of society on the individual and the collective psyche of civilization.

Eve’s Bayou and the Anatomy of a Primal Scene

The scene in Eve’s Bayou (1997) in which Eve is exposed to her father’s philandering is set up as the Freudian primal scene, both thematically and cinematically. Eve sees her father Louis engaging in sexual relations with Maddie, instantly traumatized by both his infidelity and the shocking violence of the sex act. The scene is repeated throughout the film, as the primal scene is repeated in the psyche, either directly or through phantasms.

The cinematic language presented in the scene supports this notion with its fragmented shots mimicking the free associative nature of psychic interpretation. When Eve enters the basement, she is seen with an oversized flashlight, peaking through wooden structures and stepping past various knickknacks, almost as if with suspicion. Eve’s flashlight brings to mind illumination, discovery, and sight, as the primal scene is a source of a host of discomfiting realizations regarding human nature and the self. According to Freud in his Three Essays, the child is unable to cope with the overstimulating introduction to the world of sexuality and perceives intercourse as sadistic. Aside from its phallic connotation, the heavy flashlight could suggest the weight of the impending scene that will supposedly, in the logic of the film, shape the rest of Eve’s life. At this ripe age, she is unable to handle the complexities of sexuality.

When Eve drifts off to sleep, the camera shifts to a view of the bayou, the lens gliding over the water’s ripples, evoking a sense of calm and sensuality. The shot is ‘the calm before the storm,’ portraying a familiar environment to Eve before it is corrupted with the stain of sexuality. Perhaps this extraneous shot is designed to connote Eve’s dream, a fluid stream of a naive child’s memories, recalling the wet warmth of the womb. The camera’s panning dissolve connects the bayou to Eve herself; the bayou belongs to Eve as our protagonist but also to her namesake, the matriarch of the Batiste clan. Though the narrative conflict is centered around the father, the repeated water imagery supports the notion of the matriarchal struggle for power, as the women fight to reclaim the land and the family.

Eve arises from her sleep, looking confused before shifting to an expression of utter shock. We are presented with the reverse-shot of Louis and Maddie, with the camera zooming in quickly to evoke Eve’s sudden panic at the sight. The camera cuts back to Eve, zooming in on her horrified face. It then cuts to a series of slowed down detail shots, illustrating the associative way in which Eve processes the scene. These shots will be repeated throughout the film as to underscore its importance for Eve’s psychic development and relation to her father. The camera shows a shot of a wine bottle as it is knocked to the ground, possibly connoting the shattering of Eve’s innocence. When Louis becomes aware of Eve’s presence, he turns toward the camera from the shadows and turns on the lightbulb, a recurrence of the flashlight image from the beginning of the scene. The light here is associated with realization for both Louis and Eve that the damage of sight has been done. Louis’ face is positioned half in shadow, perhaps, in the camera’s subjective framework, illustrating Eve’s conflicting view of her father in the moment. This duality carries through the entire film as the primal scene is replayed and reenacted, as Eve comes closer to the decision to order her father’s murder.

The Stain of Repression: Racism and Misogyny in Pressure Point

The analysand’s recounting of his experience at the bar in Pressure Point (1962) which he defiles with X’s and O’s is a telling illustration of his relations to others, particularly women and minorities. Having suffered an abusive childhood and a lifetime of repression, as Freud describes in “Repression” and other works, Bobby Darin’s character projects his own anxieties toward women onto the women in the film, treating them as objects which he must dominate in order to assert his own phallic power. He is threatened by the force of women, whom he associates with his constraining mother. This episode helps the viewer understand that the character’s racism, like his misogyny, is a symptom of his repression, as revealed in the primal scene in which he is seen peering into the bedroom where his father taunts his mother in bed with another woman.

When Darin’s character describes his memory at the bar to the analyst (played by Sydney Poitier), he opens by saying it was a “nothing bar with nothing people.” Immediately, he establishes his lack of respect for others, as he displaces his own loss of joussaince, or pleasure, onto those around him, establishing them as other. He constantly feels the need to assert his own superiority, culminating in his physical defilement of the foreign space. The analysand’s violent Tic-Tac-Toe game is an effort to physically mark his territory in an attempt to assert phallic power, a result of his repression and castration anxiety. With blackness representing a stain or loss of purity for Darin’s character, he marks the bar with paint to displace that fear and disgust onto others.

The visuals of the scene are striking. The choice of Tic-Tac-Toe for the analysand’s graffiti is an interesting one; the simplistic cross marks cover the walls of the bar, rendering the set an Expressionistic reflection of the inner turmoil and anxious rage of Darin’s character. The marks also represent a sort of proto-Swastika, underscoring the role that the scene plays in the film’s narrative, which is to provide a backstory to help the analyst and viewer understand the roots of the character’s racism and anti-Semitism. The X’s and O’s as signifiers also maintain a sexual connotation, with the patriarchal understanding of the phallus as the male penis and the O standing in for the absence of the phallus in the form of the vaginal opening. The bar owner’s wife is framed as the object of desire in the scene, depicted as both alluring and helpless. In one shot, she is seen through the legs of a chair atop the bar, nervously anticipating Darin’s character’s approach. Her entanglement in the chair’s legs anticipate the assault, when he literally places her between his own legs. The framing of the woman situates her as a sexual object, emphasizing her Mulveyan “to-be-looked-at-ness” in the eyes of Darin’s character, the epitome of the objectifying male spectator.

The most disturbing part of the scene, however, comes when Darin’s character paints a Tic-Tac-Toe board onto the woman’s face with lipstick, now creating an epidermal stain akin to the stain of non-whiteness. His use of lipstick, which resembles a phallic object, can be associated with a grasp on male power. He takes her instrument of beauty into his own hands, denying her phallic agency, and uses it to project onto her and render her an object of disgust. The shot is framed over the shoulder of Darin’s character, with the woman in deep focus; she is the figure being penetrated with the lipstick, as well as with his actual phallus. The camera slowly zooms in to her face, revealing her frozen expression of fear. When the camera reverses positions and she turns, the scene’s effect of violation is crystallized. The viewer gets the sense of how deeply dehumanizing the actions of Darin’s character are as an extension of his deep-seated repression.

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