Looping psychoanalysis into film

Our life-world of film, a domain of reality that is an intimate part of our society of the spectacle, has in some respects been shrunken down during this latest pandemic. Film is now not only an intimate part of the spectacle, but intimate to us; the forms of subjectivity it rolls in front of our eyes quickly unspool behind them, inside us, becoming part of our own subjectivity. Psychoanalysis has always had something to say about the big screen, and now, of course, it has more to say, it has an even more richly elaborated array of discursive devices to speak to us about who we become in the more intimate space of our own home, when the screen is smaller. But we need to ask why that is, why it is that psychoanalysis speaks to us about film almost as deeply as film itself does.

Contented form

First, there is a question of content, of the feeding of psychoanalytic motifs into film, so that film criticism becomes an exercise in unravelling what has been spooled into the object being examined. This happens in US and then globalised film culture remarkably early on, and film then becomes one of the virtual microbial cultures of psychoanalysis. Take Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, for example, from 1941, in which characters refer explicitly to ‘psychoanalytical’ explanations of the message unwittingly or covertly, it is not clear which, passed from Barbara Stanwyck to Gary Cooper. This box office hit also sent a message to the audience that marked significant interpersonal, and, by implication, intra-personal messages as being in some way ‘psychoanalytical’.

Second, more potent still is the question of form, of how it is that the texture of film, flickering snapshots of reality are chained together to fabricate the illusion that there is a moving image on the screen that is more vibrant, charged with affect; this so that the plot money-shot injects not only a sense that there is something cathartic about the compression and conclusion of a narrative, but also another message about the nature of reality and subjectivity itself. Directors have often struggled to portray dreams in film precisely because film already harnesses and reconfigures reality as if it were a dream fragment that, at some point, will yield its meaning. The Dalí sequence in Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound is a notorious case in point. The critic and academic are hooked into this game as surely as is the viewer, but they draw on a specific kind of language to pin it down, a language that is often structured as if it is psychoanalytic.

Then, as we learn to speak about film, those of us who are not critics or academics, the uncanny and unsatisfying, the realistic and moving character of what we have watched together in the cinema also become, bit by bit, structured by the same range of psychoanalytic rhetorical devices. Psychoanalytic discourse now inhabits everyday life, appearing to give access to hidden depths while repeatedly structuring the sense that there are hidden depths – in the film and in ourselves as we respond to it – in the working over of content and in the replication of form. In both cases, to be able to convey to someone else who has seen the same film that one ‘understands’ it requires that the meanings be grasped and moulded; the meaning of film always lies in its use. Filmic discourse does not only describe the world but creates affiliation, identification even, among those who employ that discourse, identification that often also requires disjunction, disagreement, the idea that the film is not completely exhausted of meaning. Film is, in this sense, constituted as if it were a subject, never fully able to reveal itself to us.

One of the effects of the streaming into the home of film, and of the blurring of boundaries between cinema and television, is that this enigmatic and inexhaustible character of the filmic narrative is intensified. The box-sets we glut on take on even more the character of a dream, extended, fragmented and inconclusive. In contrast to the apparently rounded out delimited vignette that a classic mass-market film usually is, the box-set narrative usually begins with a premise, a promise and then by series four, say, a lingering unsatisfying trailing off. This is then less triumphant finish than ruined orgasm, something closer to what it is to shy away from impossible enjoyment, and in that case the teasing and failing is a function of viewing figures and advertising revenue. The drivers are economic, but the drives are privatised, and the excitement and disappointment located inside each individual viewer.

The time-compression and sense of personal control of what streaming into the home brings are new questions for psychoanalysis. Or rather, an intensification of the old questions about how we are positioned as subjects in relation to a symbolic medium that seems to express what we want while impressing on us a complex contradictory series of wants from somewhere beyond us. Now it is as if the Other is with us inside our homes asking us what we want while instructing us about the permissible parameters of what we can want and tantalising us about the prospect of there being something more. It was ever thus, but now, in the context of the Pandemic, the small screen reminds us that there is a big screen to which we might one day return, should want to return to.

Looping

This is what ‘looping’ is, with psychoanalysis as one of the looping effects of film and television, and now the more intensely privatised experience of streaming the moving image into our own homes. Psychoanalysis is very well able to comment on what is happening here precisely because it is woven into the phenomenon itself. A looping effect is a particular kind of feedback in which we are subjectively implicated in what is described such that what we describe to ourselves becomes the stuff of our subjectivity. In the case of psychoanalysis, this looping is tantalisingly incomplete; it must be so for psychoanalysis to work, for film re-activates the discourse and the experience of there being something unsaid, something unconscious. One of the indications that the psychoanalytic looping effect is at work is when phenomena specific to the clinic, specific to the strange artificial relationship between analyst and analysand, spill out into everyday life. Then we resonate with them onscreen because we assume that what we see resonates with the kind of beings we are.

I have one TV example. The CEO of Netflix tell us that their only competition is sleep, but this example is from the dream-world laid out by Amazon Prime Video. Take episode three of the 2015 mini-series Mr Robot, for example. Mr Robot, played by Christian Slater, masterfully incites and manipulates what we might quite understandably take to be ‘transference’ to him on the part of Elliot Alderson, the neurotic hacker played by Rami Malek. Mr Robot, the master, goads Elliot about his relationship with his father and repeatedly ‘interprets’ this failed relationship as also concerning him, Robot; he thereby structures the choices Elliot must make, not so much as the way in, but as if the way out of his prison, and that means Elliot must choose to work with Mr Robot. It is as if Christian Slater is also simultaneously playing the part of a stereotypical IPA-analyst from hell, provoking, constituting the transference so that it can be put to work, as if what drives it comes from inside his victim. Never underestimate the canny ability of the writers to pop in to the box-set what we then imagine we are so clever in detecting there. What should be noticed here is not merely the framing of the relationship, but its own internal looping effects within the narrative of the series, and then, of course, the questions it raises about why it would be that someone should carry on watching the thing.

We carry on watching this stuff because we enjoy it, but it is the patterning of that enjoyment that is the issue here. Of course we then enjoy excavating new meaning, mastering what is unresolved in the narrative. Rather like this particular pandemic itself, which is a narrative with an uncertain beginning and even more uncertain ending, every attempt to create a metalanguage that will master film must fail. We can then be sure that the parasitic industry of professional academic criticism, including journals and conferences devoted to psychoanalytic discourse, will find confirmation of underlying psychoanalytic assumptions that they make. The work of interpretation here is unending because there is nothing to be done save plugging and unplugging the gaps in subjectivity that film plays its own part in creating and re-creating.

This is part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements