Endless Night. – Review – book review
Endless Night Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories
Edited by Janet Bergstrom. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999. $45.00 cloth; $17.95 paper.
The nearly simultaneous creation of psychoanalysis and cinema in fin-de-siecle Europe has been frequently noted; likewise, the nearly concurrent migration of both institutions across the Atlantic, where both became firmly embedded in the American popular imagination within a few decades. Glen and Krin Gabbard mordantly observe that “if (psychoanalytic) psychiatry had not existed, the movies would have had to invent it” (Psychiatry and the Cinema, 1999). From the silent era until today, therapist characters have proven exceptionally useful narrative facilitators–generating flashbacks, spurring dramatic revelations, etc.
Freud, however, did not reciprocate Hollywood’s captivation with his undertaking. He utterly scorned the cinematic representation of psychoanalysis. Despite the abundant film masterpieces produced by the time of his death in 1939, he never deemed a single picture worthy of the “applied analysis” he practiced upon the verbal and other visual arts. For years, most of his clinical inheritors maintained his disaffection, at least in print.
Matters stood otherwise in the cinema scholarship community which evolved on the Continent and migrated to American universities during the 60s and 70s. Psychoanalysis–notably the idiosyncratic Freudianism of Jacques Lacan–dominated film theory for a generation, variably conflated with semiotics, Marxism, feminism, deconstructionism, and so forth. But with psychoanalytic practice withering today under the lash of managed care and Freud everywhere denigrated, movies have finally been deemed worthy of investigation by clinicians. Ironically, “Lacan-analysis” and other more orthodox analytic approaches have lost much of their luster for the academy and have been replaced by archival investigation and other a la page strategies. Some former enthusiasts even insinuate that psychoanalysis has wielded a disproportionate and unhelpful influence upon cinema scholarship. Gross oversimplification, ignorance about industry practice, and the specificity of cinema aesthetics are cited as reasons for the current scholarly disaffection with psychoanalysis.
Into this inauspicious climate–almost as a cri du coeur–comes Endless Night, a collection of essays on the strange bedfellowship between psychoanalysis and cinema (film scholarship implied under the latter category). Judiciously edited by Janet Bergstrom, the articles are uniformly impressive, whether authored by luminaries or less well-known investigators. Some studies interrogate (and reflect) the chronic uneasiness between psychoanalysis and film theory. Elsewhere, psychoanalytic methodology–not exclusively Lacanian–is unambivalently deployed to probe character, directorial intention, and hidden textual operations in mainstream and art cinema. Those new to this recondite field are advised that a fair amount of the material is exceptionally demanding–but fortunately unburdened by obscurantist elitism. Bergstrom’s introduction cogently recapitulates the dilemmas engendered by the encounter between psychoanalysis and film theory. She seconds Christian Metz’s demand for keen awareness of the complexity of the analytic project, implicitly eschewing its oversimplification and deradicalization by the naive in either camp. Film theory should be dynamic and changing, itself subject to inquiry with due awareness of its historical grounding. The rigidly formalized Lacanian conceptual framework of the 70s must be especially reevaluated, to clarify how its prized psychoanalytic tropes (e.g., the “mirror stage”) not only framed but arguably limited its effectiveness.
Stephen Heath’s opening essay elegantly elaborates Bergstrom’s concerns. For Heath, psychoanalysis and cinema uncannily constitute each other’s never fully apprehended Other. He is vexed that psychoanalytic film theory bids to become as drably reductionistic as those clumsy cinematic attempts to portray the analytic milieu which, at least in part, compelled Freud’s enduring distaste for the medium. Heath particularly questions the “pure specularity” of suture theory, in which the viewer is conceived as a mindless robot to be facilely manipulated according to whatever hegemonic ideology is dictated by the “cinematic apparatus.”
Mary Anne Doane explores intriguing analogies and disparities between Freud’s conceptualization of mental topography and the chronophotographic project of his contemporary, Etienne-Jules Marey. Freud famously perceived the unconscious as timeless; time itself as an essentially unrepresentable illusion. On the other hand, Marey was obsessed with capturing time’s diamond-hard, ever more divisible tangibility. But Marey and Freud were also both preoccupied with the possibility of infinite storage as bulwark against the ravages of time–inscription within the psychic apparatus for Freud, or on the photographic plate for Marey. In a daring conceptual leap, Doane theorizes that the unmediated scene of primal “Lumiere” cinema provoked ineluctable angst over the potential of a banal plenitude; time itself then would be rendered contingent, thus essentially meaningless. Under this rubric, the rapid evolution of narrative in early cinema reads as an attempt to produce a “time effect” which protects the subject from the anxieties of a Marey-like “absolute legibility,” the promise (or threat) of total representation latent in the Lumiere project.
Slavoj Zizek, spearcarrier of the New Lacanians, wins the collection’s pride of place for daunting difficulty. He conducts a dizzy tour through the pleasures and pitfalls of virtual reality in “Cyberspace, or the Unbearable Closure of Being.” VR a la Zizek is the ultimate “other place” of the Freudian unconscious, an enticing shuck fabricated from an infinite ludic dance of signification. The wired universe renders an already attenuated postmodern self even more insubstantial: one joyously surrenders to a supreme technological colonization of the body.
Two papers, by Peter Wollen and David James Fisher, address the aborted collaboration between Jean-Paul Sartre and John Huston on the latter’s filmic biography of Signmund Freud. Wollen discovers a fascinating parallelism in the abiding fascination Sartre, Huston, and Freud had for adventure and conquest, as well as a compelling desire for distance from the paternal. For Fisher, Sartre’s script comprises a major event in French intellectual history and the evolution of Sartrean thought. Working on the project provoked Sartre’s most rigorous self-analysis, enabling him to identify with and admire Freud’s striving toward understanding, authentic “intersubjective” dialogue with patients, and courageous boldness about taking on intellectual and moral struggles with the establishment.
Janet Walker’s essay addresses the excision from Freud (1962) and Kings Row (1942) of the references to incest in Huston’s script and Henry Bellamann’s novel. She draws analogies between the dissociative defense mechanisms of incest/rape victims and various “post-traumatic” textual and extra-textual operations in classic Hollywood narratives concerned with incest. These locutions, like their clinical counterparts, both conceal and betray censored material. The “nightmarish disguises” of sexual attack–provoked by a threatened return of material “repressed” by the Hays Office–encompass a curious excessive, irrational quality of the film text and an excess proliferation of “alters” involved with processing the forbidden material: alternate script versions, studio memos, publicity material, etc.
Endless Night concludes with Janet Bergstrom’s penetrating study of Chantal Akerman’s films. Akerman is a child of Polish Holocaust survivors. She avoids speaking of personal experience, but Bergstrom discovers the conflicted signatures of survivorship and its desolating inheritance throughout the director’s oeuvre–including pictures ostensibly unrelated to the Holocaust such as Jeanne Dielman (1975). Akerman creatively mobilizes her position in an exquisitely balanced discourse inflected by meditative solitude. Her Holocaust-related films and installations afford opportunity for communal grieving by filling the void of “not knowing.” Besides recuperating memories of the Nazi trauma, Akerman struggles to redeem a vital, orally transmitted culture which has been tragically gathered into the survivors’ muteness along with traumatic recollection. Her efforts particularly address the loss of traditions “spoken” by mothers to their daughters.
Endless Night is happily devoid of shrill polemics, refreshing for the pluralism of its contributions. The diversity would seem to bode well for the future of this challenging, rewarding endeavor–were it not for one’s doubts that psychoanalytically inflected film criticism has a future.
Harvey Greenberg is the author of Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch (Columbia University Press, 1993).
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