“Who is you?” Transference in Moonlight

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Mesmerizing and inimitable, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an honest exploration of ambivalence toward normative and racialized identities and the deviance from the labels that seek to define them. In the penultimate scene of the film, Kevin asks of Black, “who is you?” The film itself rejects its own question, resisting specificity in his response. “I’m me,” he says. And “me” contains multitudes, as detailed throughout the film. “Me” is ever-changing, inhabiting many selves as seen in his three names: Little, Chiron, and Black. In the final scene, Little stares out into the water and turns around to face the camera. Illuminated by the moon, he looks both blue and black – and is both Blue and Black. Blue, the aestheticized racial difference as named by the Cuban woman from Juan’s childhood, the embrace of sameness. And Black, the celebrated difference, the masculine manifestation of Juan’s tutelage and Kevin’s naming. In the moonlight, everyone can be anyone. It is a transgressive, liminal space of both darkness and light where one can be different and perceived as different from who you are in the light of day.

The psychoanalytic core of the film lies in Little/Chiron/Black’s attempt to navigate love relations with his ambivalent identities. These love relations, namely Juan and Kevin, also moonlight as his analysts. And as such, they are objects of transference as “induced by the analytic situation,” as Freud describes in his essay on transference (page 379.) As Little, he transfers an absent parental love to Juan, his mentor in black masculinity. Yet the illusion of closeness is shattered once Juan reveals his own alter-ego as a drug dealer, and Little rejects this attachment. The fragmentation of Juan’s identity triggers Little’s own ambivalence, and a subsequent abreaction.

As Chiron, he engages with Kevin on a profound emotional and physical level. Kevin both opens and closes the question of sexuality when he replaces one tender physical act with a brutal one in an attempt to maintain a hyper-masculine cover. Similar to his Little’s relationship to Juan, this transference is muddled by the clashing identities.  As Black, he must conflate these two relationships as he both inhabits Juan’s masculine power as a drug dealer and maintains his undefined sexuality as seen through his lasting tenderness felt toward Kevin. As Freud argues, Black remains attached to his psychoanalyst, Kevin, through a transference love that stems from his power to help him understand the world. In their final moment together, we witness an infantile embrace that holds the hope for answers to a hostile world. Juan has taught him to swim, now Kevin keeps his head above water. Freud remarks, “can we truly say that the state of being in love which comes manifest in analytic treatment is not a real one?” (page 385.) After all, love is love is love is love.


[Sin]ema: Exorcism in Cat People

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In her essay, “Cinematic Abreaction: Toureur’s Cat People,” Deborah Linderman understands the film through two paradigms: A, the masculine exorcism of the “other” as defined by “the mystery of the cat woman” and B, the construction of the cat fantasy as inherently feminine and evil (page 73.) Linderman associates this masculine paradigm with psychoanalysis, which struggles to control and demystify the feminine mystique of paradigm B, an imaginary signifier like cinema itself. This dialectic sets up an apparent binary of good and evil, but is subverted through the manifestation of both paradigms in Irena herself, who simultaneously embodies salvation and destruction. Irena’s very being reflects this dichotomy – she is both a Christian who attempts to moralize otherness in terms of sin and a panther who indulges in the jouissance of executing her “murderous oral envy,” (page 78.)

This inability of the paradigms to contain Irena is seen on a meta-textual level of the “cinematic phantasy itself,” (page 75.) Like the imaginary, insufficient signifier that is cinema itself, Irena is “like a leopard, but not a leopard.” Language fails to adequately define her. The two elements of Irena are in conflict, producing an abreaction that operates within the cinematic function that is associated with paradigm B. The amalgamation of Irena’s inner dialectic and the filmic function are apparent in the representations of cinema throughout the film. The two most notable of the instances are the shadows on the wall of the pool during the stalking of Alice and the shadows depicting the transformation and attack on Dr. Judd. Like the shadows in Plato’s cave, these images are projections of an illusion that can never be codified. These are both instances of transgression that depict an acquiescence rather than an exclusion of Irena’s inner panther, her inner sin. The conflation of so-called “good” and “bad” is a failure to maintain the “essential phantasy of splitting” as stated by Linderman (page 74.) The final quotation also concludes that “both parts must die.” In this way, the cinematic function aids in the film’s argument, as supported by Linderman and the closing epigraph, that two can live within one, but one cannot live without the other.

Under the Skin: the Cocoon and Abjected Identities in The Silence of the Lambs

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The movie poster of Jonathan Demme’s critically acclaimed thriller The Silence of the Lambs, pictured above, features protagonist Clarice Starling with an evolved moth called the Death’s Head spread across her lips. This image encapsulates many key themes of the film: a silencing, a transformation, a covering or mask, and an invocation of oral desire. Before the deadly beauty of the moth is born, however, the grotesque cocoon must survive. Ugly and deformed, the cocoon is a phobic object that both comes from within and yet is alien to the body. The cocoon is also a propagator of silence. It is stuffed down the throats of Gumb’s victims, obstructing the windpipe. Although this act is conducted after the death of the victims, the emblematic blockage of language is hard to ignore. In this way, the transitive cocoon is incoherent as part of the symbolic. It functions as a state between two states, like the gender difference which Lacan describes as functioning in the real. Zizek summarizes, “for Lacan the Real is inscribed into the very core of human sexuality…sexual difference can be gained only against the background of a fundamental loss,” (“Trouble with the Real.”) In Silence of the Lambs, this loss is manifested in Gumb’s desired transformation.

The transformation lies within Gumb’s obsession with becoming a transsexual, a process through which he believes he can diverge from an abject psychosexual development and change from something monstrous into something he perceives as beautiful. This transformation is attempted through the stitching together of women’s skins obtained through serial murders. This project involves the physical covering up of a lack, the loss that Lacan defines as inherent in gender identification itself. This assembled identity both masks and transforms the person within, like the cocoon itself. In Totem and Taboo, Freud writes that the primitive sons would eat the totem as a ritual to take on its power. He also postulates an infantile fantasy wherein the act of sucking and biting translates into desire. While Bill does not ingest his victims as Hannibal Lecter does, he longs to be swallowed by them through inhabiting their skin. He is also swallowed by placing a part of himself – the cocoon – inside of their throats in order to obtain this totemic power.

This power lies in the attempt to gain mastery of one’s own image, to control perception. The loss, transformation, and oral desire are put in conversation with one another in Silence of the Lambs as manifested through the gaze. We can understand this through Mary Anne Doan’s arguments in “Film and the Masquerade.” She references psychoanalyst Joan Riviere, stating that masquerading woman “assumes the position of the subject of discourse rather than its object,” (page 81.) She entertains the notion that a subject can see itself as object, and compensate for this positionality through “overdoing the gestures of feminine flirtation,” (page 81.) Gumb masquerades as he films himself, creating an image with himself as object. Finally, the gaze is codified as oral desire throughout the film. The elevator scene and funeral scene both include a host of men who exact a ravenous gaze on Clarice, yet none so ravenous as Lecter himself. Dr. Chilton tells her, “I don’t believe Lecter’s even seen a woman in eight years, and boy, are you ever his taste.”


The Thing about Das Ding: Desire and Cinema

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In his essay “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis,” Lacan names what constitutes both the object and cause of desire as Das Ding. This unknowable Thing possesses qualities of an imaginary object but operates in the real, a lost object that can never be found. The mother is the original objet petit a, the [m]other that is prohibited and therefore desirable. The emergence of the father who enacts this proscription through the symbolic “no” sees the emergence of law wherein prohibition dictates desire. This reveals three fundamental things about Das Ding. First, it is a negative subject that encompasses what is not rather than what is. Second, in order to maintain its desirable status, Das Ding must forever remain out of reach. Finally, our whole existence is founded on the pursuit of Das Ding, causing an implosion of purpose and selfhood if it is ever truly found. In this way, desire maketh man.

How is desire manifested in the symbolic realm? Zizek proffers an answer in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, stating that “cinema tells you how to desire.” Just as the law makes us desire by prohibiting Das Ding, cinema causes desire through the cut, a loss of wholeness. The fragmentation of cinema through the camera’s subjectivity and editing produces a selectivity, and therefore fettishization, of the image. Censorship can also operate as a Freudian castration where “the point is to gamble simultaneously on the excitation of desire and its non-fulfilment,” (“The Imaginary Signifier page 77.) As Christian Metz proclaims, cinema is an imaginary signifier that the viewer simultaneously believes in and rejects as reality, and can therefore “sustain their credulousness in all incredulousness” (page 72-73.) In this way, cinema presents superficial desirable objects that are merely representations, or signifiers, of a non-existent signified. It does not show us what we desire, because what we desire does not exist. Cinema tells a story so convincing, part of us believes it as truth. This relates to Lacan’s notion of animorphosis, in which one interprets a signifier as a signified, deriving meaning from an empty representation

Shipwrecks and Doors: Thresholds to the Void in The Most Dangerous Game

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Schoedsack and Pichel’s film adaption of Richard Connell’s famous short story, The Most Dangerous Game, is by no means regarded as a masterpiece, yet its content is rather substantive. It explores various psychanalytic theories, as made salient by Thierry Kuntzel in his essay “The Film-Work 2.” A particular idea of note expressed by Kuntzel is the “threshold to the void” as a “voyage of initiation” (page 9.) There are a number of thresholds apparent throughout the film, all of which operate along boundaries of the symbolic and the real. These transgressive spaces ultimately stage an encounter with the innermost entry to nothingness, like the successive doors in Spellbound and the heart of darkness expressed in Apocalypse Now. The first threshold we encounter is the ominous doorway with the ornate knocker depicting a centaur holding the limp body of a woman. A disembodied, segmented hand reaches out of nowhere to knock on the door. In order to knock, the hand must grasp the woman and bang her against the beast. Even the action required to gain access is of a violent nature. This “initiation” is the gauge of jouissance that deems the aggressor worthy to enter the transgressive space. Yet Theirry also asserts that “pleasure derives from discovering an object yet to be opened, rather than the gift itself” (page 9.) This supposes that what lies beyond the door is inconsequential, a void of sorts.

Another threshold that is crossed in the film is the shipwreck. The ocean itself is a space of transgression, a festive entity where laws do not apply. The ship itself, however, is strict and orderly, following lights to remain on course. The instant Rainsford proclaims that he is a hunter and “nothing can change that,” falsely assuming he is in control or has a grasp of what is true in reality, the ship crashes. The lights are a false guidance, implying that reason is a ruse. The ship is literally fractured, dislocating the contents from the inside to the outside in a physical and logical reversal. As within becomes without, roles are reversed as Rainsford becomes the victim. Kuntzel invokes Desnos, stating that “the theme of shipwreck [describes] the wreck of language” (page 49.) This failure of structure and language signals a brush with the real, or the void, in which the symbolic collapses. As one thing – the ship – invades another – the ocean – one space disseminates into another. Kuntzel expands on this, asking “what name can be given to one and the other?” (page 51.) In the wreckage of language in this way, the shipwreck calls the integrity of the relationship between the signifier and signified into question. What is “hunter,” what is “hunted?” As words fail, meaning is lost.


The Eye as a Window to the Real: The Implications of the Gaze in Peeping Tom

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In addition to making bold statements about the connection of psychoanalysis and cinema, Michael Powell’s controversial masterpiece Peeping Tom is groundbreaking in its address of the medium itself through audio and visual means. In the final scene in which Mark turns his blade on himself, many of the film’s central themes such as displaced castration anxiety and voyeurism vis-a-vis narcissism and exhibitionism come to a head. The mirror apparatus on the camera is revealed to us for the first time. This delayed gratification of sorts attempts to divulge a logic to Mark’s madness, though no such logic exists. The mirror provides a distorted image, partly due to the large hole through which the camera’s eye protrudes. In this way, both the camera and the mirror capture the moments of horror at the image of one’s own death and the realization of who is responsible for it. Is the camera’s eye a mediation or a passage to this encounter with the real? Does this filtered representation dull or amplify it?

Bearing the theories of Freud, Metz, and Silverman in mind, we are able to parse out the camera’s relation to the mind and perchance the real. In his book The Imaginary Signifier, Christian Metz proposes the idea that film is always a product of the symbolic due to its representational nature. It is “the signifier itself…a little rolled up perforated strip which ‘contains’…whole life-times,” (page 43-44.) Conflating this with Freud’s notion that the mind is like the camera in that it takes in information and processes it through signifiers and perceived meaning, brings an interesting point to light. The fact that this encounter with the real is mediated by the camera itself discounts it as the real, and enters it into the symbolic.

Does naming the trauma, or representing it as such make it less effective? Perhaps not. The reveal of the mirror on the camera is a physical manifestation of Kaja Silverman’s notion that “cinema is a mirror with a delayed reflection” (page 35.) This mirror shines a light on the viewer just as Mark was illuminated by the projector lamp when he failed to perfectly capture the murder.  Powell draws attention to the spectator’s perverse gaze. Though it is mediated by Powell’s camera, we are still left with a blank screen and nothing but “goodnight, Daddy, hold my hand” to leave us dangling on in a dark abyss before the lights come on, and we return to “reality.” Depictions of the real are never the real itself, and cinema can never capture it despite its attempts through the hole of a distorted mirror.

More than Meets the Eye: Problematizing Identity and the Gaze of the Other

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Joan Copjec’s essay, “The Orthospychic Subject” explores the ways in which Foucault and Lacan differ in regard to the gaze, apparatus, and the subject in addition to addressing many common misconceptions about film theory and psychoanalysis. One such difference lies in the construction of “I” in relation to the “Other.” According to film theory, there is the “impression of reality” in which the subject believes they are being accurately represented on screen and are therefore satisfied with the depiction of their “real” selves (page 292.) Lacanian theory pushes back on this idea, accounting for the ambiguity of the image and spectator relationship. This imaginary relation is manifested in the idea that “the subject reconceptualizes as its own concepts already constructed by the Other,” (page 292.) In this way, the self is defined through the gaze of the Other. Yet Lacan would argue that one can never truly understand another person, therefore we can never truly understand ourselves. To remedy this brush with the indescribable real, we try to derive meaning through these constructions of representation.

Who is the Other in cinema, and more specifically, in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona? Bergman himself is a viable option. As director, he constructs the concepts of meaning in the film that the spectator perceives. The most salient example of Bergman’s power as manipulator of meaning is his use of montage. The opening sequence includes images of film, an old cartoon, a spider, the bloodletting of a lamb, and a nail being pounded into a hand in rapid succession. The simultaneous fragmentation and unification of these images disorient the viewer in their attempt to relate them to one another. Bergman relies on the Kuleshov Effect, through which the spectator attempts to make sense of the relationships and concepts inside and outside of the world of the film.

While her existence is suspect, the Other is also manifested in Elisabet. Alma tries in vain, through her ubiquitous traversal through the symbolic and excessive language, to reach the silent Elisabet. We see this in the following exchange:

Alma: Is it really important not to lie, to speak so that everything rings true? Can one live without lying and quibbling and making excuses? Isn’t it better to be lazy and lax and deceitful? Perhaps you even improve by staying as you are.

Elisabet: (No response)

Alma: My words mean nothing to you. People like you can’t be reached. I wonder whether your madness isn’t the worst kind. You act healthy, act it so well that everyone believes you–everyone except me, because I know how rotten you are.

As Alma unloads her innermost secrets and desires, she feels as though her identity is contingent upon Elisabet’s validation as the Other. She later calls herself “rotten” and attempts to separate herself from Elisabet. Yet the validation she seeks is unattainable. In this way, the Other is as illusory as meaning itself.

The Third Pill: Triangulating Reality in A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

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In this thought-provoking, innovative, and at times bizarre documentary, philosopher Slavoj Zizek explores the ways in which cinema is the “ultimate pervert art,” citing various examples from classic films. One such film is the popular science fiction staple, the Wachowski’s The Matrix, which Zizek uses as a framework to discuss the relationship between illusion and so-called reality. In the film, Neo is offered a blue pill that will cause him to awake to “reality” or a red pill that will submerge him into the fantasy forever. The film suggests that there is a distinct dichotomy between reality and fantasy. Moreover, it suggests that there is a reality to wake up to at all. The film is attempting to construct a reality in which binary codes of understanding exist, yet this is not the case. Zizek proposes a third pill, one that “enables me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself.”

We can best understand Zizek’s assertion in terms of Lacan’s mirror stage theory. In short, the theory suggests that the “I” is created through an identification when a child recognizes oneself in the mirror. This is the first moment of “reality” because it is the first construction of a symbolic structure in which an individual must operate and “resolve as I his discordance with his own reality,” (page 503.) This discordance is borne from the discrepancy between self and the “Ideal I,” a fiction that is just as illusory as reality itself. This is further developed once language is introduced, creating a mandated, equivocal infliction of signifiers that attempt to define an undefinable world.

Zizek’s third pill suggests that once you take away the symbolic structures of reality that regulate it, reality ceases to exist. The third pill opens the possibility of recognizing reality as an illusion. The binary framework of the red and blue pill is one of the child and [m]other, one without symbolic constraints. The introduction of the third pill forces us to confront the triangular force of the father, and therefore language and law, that create disorder and cause “reality” to disintegrate.


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 relation to the id and 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 declares in deadpan voiceover. In the opening and closing scenes, Coppola shows us how these two are inexorably linked. The film is framed by images of the idol shown in relation to Willard’s face looking directly into the camera and the sound of a helicopter, all underscored by “This is the End” by The Doors.  This repetition implies that the aggressive instincts of the id manifest in Kurtz’s violence were always imprinted on Willard’s psyche before the two even met. Freud’s theory of the death drive argues that men are “creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness” (Freud Reader 749.) According to Freud, humans are predisposed towards destruction, as are both Willard and Kurtz. Willard says, “I felt I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren’t in the dossier,” suggesting that there is something inexplicable 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 survives to live forever with the echo of Kurtz’s “horror.” The blurring of the morality and individuality of these two men is represented through the superimposed images that frame the film.

Freud’s theories, as expressed in Civilization and its Discontents and Totem and Taboo, illuminate Coppola’s purpose in superimposing images of Kurtz’s transgressive world onto Willard’s psyche. Freud uses the example of Roman archaeological sites to evoke the layers of the psyche. The mind contains remnants of the past that are “preserved, not destroyed” like the Pantheon built on Agrippa’s edifice along with the church of Santa Maria all in one space (pg 726-727.) Multiple views can be present at one time, such as the ambivalence felt by sons towards their fathers in Totem and Taboo. This ambivalence is shown in the final scene of Apocalypse Now as well. Willard both rejects Kurtz’s behavior, as the band of brothers do, and retroactively obeys him when he turns off the radio in deferred obedience to him as the ritually sacrificed totemic figure. This “burning sense of guilt to bring about a kind of reconciliation with the father” is seen in the images imprinted in Willard’s psyche (pg 502.) Superimposed images allow the viewer to see more than one image at a time, allowing us visual access to Willard’s conflicting thoughts.

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. Willard is essentially a blank slate with which the viewer can identify. 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 of the film: the unreliability of memory, both as a result of selection and imposition. The notion of selection is of particular interest, as it connects to the psychoanalytic session in which the analysand filters her memories and chooses words to signify their dreams and experiences to the analyst. The voice that opens the film is from an older Eve, adding a layer of temporal distance, an invasion of the present into the past, and further unreliability. As Kara Keeling suggests in “Reflections on Black Femme,” the adult Eve “frames images from her childhood,” which occupy a specific set of images or experiences (page 141.) Yet as Deleuze elaborates, “there is always a larger set,” the unseen which this film draws attention to by virtue of exclusion (page 142.)

The notion of imposition is also discussed by Freud in his assertion that sexuality originates from without, staining one’s memory as the primal scene of sexual trauma. We see this scene depicted within the first few seconds of the film. This scene operates in a transgressive and spiritual space, a radical elsewhere that is only accessed through the black femme functions. Keeling describes it as full of “grooves that remain irrational and ignored – invisible,” (page 158.) The ambiguity of the scene characterizes the liminality of the black femme function and the invisible grooves to which Keeling refers.

In addition to the 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.