Psychoanalysis is an approach to the cinema which really came to the fore in the 1970s, in particular with Laura Mulvey's article 'Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema' (1975), perhaps one of the most significant pieces of film theory from the last thirty years. Psychoanalytic theory builds upon the ideas of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and his followers, such as Carl Jung (1875-1961), Ernest Jones (1879-1958), Melanie Klein (1882-1960), Joan Riviere (1883-1962) and, most importantly, Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). It can be used to analyse the characters within the film as if they are real people or case studies, to analyse the personality of the director (although this puts rather too much weight upon the director's personality at the expense of the rest of the crew) and to examine the mechanisms of cinema itself. This is clearly too much material to deal with here, so I will focus on Freud, Lacan and Mulvey, and will return to some of these ideas in the chapter on feminism.
The theory is not without its critics, of course, most notably from those of the left who argue that it is the impact of society on the individual that matters in determining behaviour, rather than inner psychic conflicts. Freud's analysis of human sexuality can be considered sexist and homophobic, although that has not stopped feminist critics from drawing on his ideas. Further, it often seems to be contradicted by the last century of scientific examination of the brain and personal experience - and the influence of middle-class patriarchal Vienna upon Freud's thinking should not be underestimated. After all, how accurate can a theory of human behaviour be if it is based upon the actions of those who are identified as mentally ill or sick? Nevertheless, psychoanalytic structures do seem to describe a surprising number of films.
The Return of the Repressed
For Freud (for most of his career), all human behaviour came down to the need for gratification - this is the Pleasure Principle, with desires arising from the unconscious mind. The unconscious is part of the mind that determines what we do and feel, although we have no direct access to it -otherwise it wouldn't be unconscious. If we acted upon every unconscious desire then anarchy would result: no work would get done, no food would be grown or produced, rape would be endemic and, well, we'd all be exhausted. The pressures of society therefore frown upon such sexual excess and so the individual represses desires - this is the Reality Principle.
Simply because a desire is repressed, however, doesn't mean that it goes away. Think of the desire as a flow of water, and the repression as a dam built across it. The water doesn't stop flowing: pressure builds up, and so the water will find a way round, over or eventually through the blockage. Therefore there needs to be some kind of sluice to regulate the pressure. Repressed desires will emerge in the forms of dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue (parapraxes), hallucinations and even physical symptoms. This becomes evident in Fight Club (1999). In moments when the narrator loses control of his body and it is apparently beyond his control, he beats himself up.
The return of the repressed is central to the understanding of much horror film, in particular variants on the slasher movie such as Halloween (1978), A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) and / Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). In these films a crime has happened in the past, and has been forgotten about by the community; many years later someone comes back to seek revenge, usually on nubile young teenagers. Anyone who has had extramarital sex is marked out for death - at the end of the movie a plucky female virgin faces down the villain alone. A society's fear - about sexuality in general, about female and child sexuality, about race and about class - is projected onto a villainous other, who proceeds to attempt to destroy that society. There is more about the slasher film in the chapter on genre.
The Oedipus Complex
Freud argues that the child goes through different sexualities before settling down as an adult. Initially there is the oral phase, where pleasure derives from suckling at the breast; arguably there is a distinction between child and parent barely being maintained at this point. Next, the anal phase enables the child to explore its bodily boundaries; the control of the flow of faeces and urine causes degrees of pleasure and displeasure, in particular with the delayed discharge of faeces. Then the child discovers that pleasure can be obtained from playing with their sexual organs. Parents, on the whole, try to put a stop to such behaviour. After this point there is a latent period before so-called proper genital sexuality can commence.
In the meantime, the child is desirous of the mother, as primary source of pleasure, but is threatened with castration either directly by the father, threatened by the mother on his behalf ("wait until your father gets home") or otherwise, perhaps, just feels threatened. The male child has to disengage from the relationship with the mother and, having perhaps squared off with the father, can only hope to find power and happiness by finding a woman to replace his mother. This process is all part of the -Oedipus complex, which Freud draws from the Greek myth of the man who married his mother and killed his father.
The position of the female is much more controversial - Freud quickly abandoned ah Electra Complex which attempted to reverse the sexes but never quite settled on a final explanation. The female child is still in this relationship with the mother and is threatened with castration. Ah, but as the female lacks a penis she is either castrated or - having a clitoris -comparatively underendowed. The female then will perhaps attempt to seduce the father, to gain access to his penis (or, rather, because we're as much talking about notions of power as of anatomy, his phallus). The incest taboo prevents the father-daughter relationship from developing sexually, and so she has to turn to other men, perhaps in hope of gaining a phallus through having a child of her own.
(I have to note that I've always found that men are anxious about castration, whereas women deny their penis envy. Clearly they are repressing it.)
The successful negotiation of the Oedipus complex results in a healthy heterosexual identity - its failure might result in bisexuality, homosexuality or other medical conditions. Neither the narrator nor Tyler Durden in Fight Club seem particularly well adjusted, and both of them have had problematic relationships with their fathers. They have both been raised by their mothers, and therefore may not have successfully negotiated the complex. Both have trouble with authority figures, resulting in violent actions on their parts.
Id, Ego and Superego
In the 1920s Freud began to write of a three-part structure to the mind, although it had at least five parts. There was the conscious Perception System, the Preconscious consisting of things forgotten, the Ego (part preconscious, part unconscious), the entirely unconscious Id, and 'between' the last two, the Superego.
The Id is formed from the desires of the individual and perhaps can be seen in the untrammelled behaviour of Tyler Durden - who steals, screws and hurts what he wants. When he has a desire he acts upon it, even if this causes pain or inconvenience to others. This should be contrasted with the Ego as represented by the unnamed narrator, who noticeably fails to take advantage of Maria when he is examining her breasts for cancer, who has to be cajoled into hitting Tyler and who has a reasonably comfortable lifestyle courtesy of the IKEA catalogue. Between the two of them, presumably, is the real Tyler Durden, who has been traumatised by some event into having a split personality - one half entirely Ego, the other Id.
This leaves the Superego to account for, which is formed out of the wreckage of the Oedipus complex and is in a sense formed by introjecting patriarchal power into the psyche. The Superego is the regulator of pleasure - it will censor the Id, but it will also license it. In Fight Club the Superego occurs in a number of forms; initially the self-help groups (which allow him some sleep), then the fight clubs (which allow acts of aggression) and Project Mayhem. The Superego may also be identified with the police, who i enter the narrative at various moments of crisis.
Fetishism, Voyeurism and Scopophilia
And thus to another controversial point: castration and the fetish. At some point the male child realises that his mother, and women in general, are castrated. Okay, clearly on anything other than a symbolic level women aren't, but I'm not saying the child is correct. The woman's castration is a constant reminder to the male child of the possibility of castration which is, to say the least, disturbing. In some situations, the male will latch onto some item to act as a substitute phallus, which simultaneously will disavow the possibility of castration, and act as a reminder that it might happen.
The object might be a part of somebody else's body (breast, legs, even a shiny nose), a piece of clothing (often shoes, underwear, less commonly gloves) or even objects. If the narrator of Fight Club is a fetishist, then it's for his material lifestyle, his yin and yang table and so forth. He overcomes his fetish by destroying these objects only to plunge into a deeper split of personality.
Presumably given that women in Freud's theories are already castrated, they cannot become fetishists - something that feminist critics of the 1990s disputed. If this structure is too followed, then cinema, built up from shots which fetishize the human body, is gendered masculine. This is something I will return to later in my discussion of Laura Mulvey.
The act of looking can itself be perverse - as voyeurism or scopophilia. If all that is looked at is the genitals (and note the flashframes of genitals that Tyler smuggles into films), if looking is part of overcoming nausea or if it replaces intercourse as a source of pleasure then this looking should be considered as perverse. Voyeurism is thus a kind of sexuality derived from looking at things or people, but scopophilia takes it a stage further and takes in sadism. Scopophilia treats the people being looked at as objects, ideally under our control, and it is even better for the person looking at them if they are suffering. In Fight Club there is at least one moment when the narrator shifts into scopophilia, for example when he attacks the blonde boy in the basement and takes pleasure in seeing him hurt. His connection to the act stops it from being scopophilia but if we've begun to identify with him then we are the voyeurs.
Cinema, after all, is obsessed with cinema and many hundreds of films draw attention to the act of looking. Fight Club with its moment of the narrator talking directly to the camera and pointing out the cigarette burns which mark a reel changeover is no exception. The classic study of scopophilia (or scoptophilia as it calls it) is the Michael Powell film Peeping Tom (1960), complete with a scopophile who gets his kicks from watching the footage of himself murdering women. Because it is a substitute for the sexual act, it can never be enough to satisfy him and he is driven to repeat his crimes.
Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who felt that Freud had been misinterpreted by his followers. In his return to Freud he was to be influenced by the ideas of structuralism, partly the anthropology of Levi-Strauss and the signifier/signified split. It is traditional to point out that Lacan is difficult and that some of the translations of his work are poor but in the transcriptions of his seminars he also emerges as a witty person.
Lacan solves one criticism that can be aimed at Freud's versions of the Oedipus complex: what about single parent families or same sex families who seem to be able to produce well-adjusted individuals? The father is here replaced by the phallus - also a signifier for our patriarchal society -and the Name of the Father, which functions with the threat of castration. Anyone - an uncle, a stepfather, a woman, even perhaps the mother - can function as the phallus.
The child desires to be desired by the mother but the mother desires the phallus. The child therefore attempts to become a phallus for the mother and to become the centre of her world. The child fails and the result differs according to sex. The male is reassured that even if he's failed now, one day all this will be his, he may yet become the phallus. In the meantime, he has the compensation of language, which Lacan calls the symbolic order. The female cannot fully access the symbolic order (which is patriarchal) and can only console herself with thoughts of a time before she was castrated.... But this, perhaps, is to get ahead of ourselves.
The Mirror Phase and the Imaginary
For Lacan, we are born too soon. We can't walk, we can't see very well, we certainly can't talk. We begin as broken people. At some point, however, we encounter an image of ourselves in a mirror and begin to identify ourselves as a distinct person in the world, separate from others. The image of us seems better than us and is external to ourselves, so this identification is problematic in itself. This process is the Mirror Phase and it allows us to enter into the realm of the Imaginary - with the emphasis being on the idea of the image.
This Mirror Phase can act as a metaphor for what we do in the cinema -and this is an idea developed by Christian Metz. We sit in the dark, quietly (Metz clearly doesn't go to your average multiplex) and don't move, whilst watching an image of a person who is much bigger, stronger, intelligent, braver and more resourceful than ourselves. The mirror of the cinema screen doesn't reflect us back but shows whom we'd like to be. I'm no Brad Pitt, but I wouldn't mind being him (well, aside from in Meet Joe Black (1998)).
The Symbolic Order and the Real
As part of the Mirror Phase the individual becomes anchored in language - he or she is spoken to or spoken of, and is located in time, space and language. This language is to be understood in terms of Saussure's network of signifiers and signifieds, as explored in the last chapter. Signifiers can be exchanged for other signifiers in an endless chain of signification. (To understand this try looking a word up in the dictionary - any word will do. The definition will offer you more words, which need to be defined, and so on. Either you will get stuck in a loop of definitions, or end up chasing meanings through the whole dictionary.)
After the child has gone through the Mirror Phase, the Oedipus complex follows and the child faces the signifier of the phallus or Name of the Father. The male child emerges from this and can enter the Symbolic Order - one day he will be associated with the phallus but in the meantime he must make do with the system of exchange that includes the patriarchal social system. In contrast, the female child can only console herself with the (fake) memory of the time before she was castrated, when she was associated with the phallus, and cannot fully enter into the Symbolic Order.
Clearly this is as problematic as Freud's analysis, from a feminist point of view, but some feminists such as Julia Kristeva have argued that women must find their own, non-patriarchal order or language of babble, which she calls the semiotic. Most films follow a masculine structure, a linear narrative with begins with a disruption to the social order, and then various attempts to successfully reinstate it. A feminine structure might be different
- see for example the works of Sally Potter and Jane Campion, or perhaps even Derek Jarman, where episode outweighs the entire story.
Aside from the Imaginary and the Symbolic, Lacan posits the dimension of the Real, which is that which exists before and beyond language, and cannot be symbolised. The Real might occur during sex, or after death, or before birth. The Real is perhaps the moment when Tyler Durden is a unified whole, before his breakdown, or the flashframes which intervene in the first half of the film, or the moment when you appear to see the edges of the film.
Laura Mulvey and the Gaze
Lacan's ideas are important to film studies in part because they inform much feminist thought, but also because Laura Mulvey's influential essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' draws upon them. Mulvey takes the idea of the member of the audience watching a film, and argues that what begins as an identificatory gaze slides into something more sadistic. Yes, we identify with Brad Pitt in the fight club but we also want to see him being beaten up by the gangster boss. In order for there to be a narrative -and most of us want a narrative in our movies - people must suffer, including the hero. Durden must suffer, the narrator must suffer.
At the same time there is a sense of discomfort at looking at the woman on screen - in this case Maria, as played by Helena Bonham Carter. Woman is castrated and so looking at woman reminds the viewer of the possibility of being castrated. Maria's attendance at a testicular cancer support group, her constant smoking, put her as being beyond the control of Norton's character, and his life is disrupted by her until he finds something to substitute for the therapy groups. Somehow the hero's dealings with the castrated female are meant to allay the viewer's fears.
Mulvey argues that there are three kinds of look associated with the cinema: a diegetic one between the characters, an extradiegetic one of the audience watching the film, and then the look of the crew filming the events played out before the camera. All three kinds of gaze are predominantly masculine, or associated with the male, something which did not seem to be problematic to Mulvey in 1975. Since then she has written an after word which notes this gendering of cinema but in my opinion she doesn't get much beyond the idea of a male gaze. A female gaze should, of course, be possible.