Freud and Lacan method Freud

We shall restrict ourselves to a relatively limited number of Freudian themes or tropes, foremost among them the so-called Oedipus complex and - with respect to mainstream films - the Oedipal trajectory of the narrative.

• The Oedipus complex as understood in film studies basically asserts that most mainstream films are stories of the formation of normative identities, and that certain genres, notably the Western, the thriller, and science fiction, are often stories of (male) cultural initiation, answering the question: What does it mean to be/come a man? Most narratives can therefore be generalized or reduced to the 'founding' narrative, the male hero's transformation into a man. The first step in analysing a film narrative as Oedipal is to determine how the main male character channels his sexual desire away from his mother or mother figure (the pre-Oedipal realm of incestuous desire, in which he is in direct competition with his father) towards a 'mother substitute' (in which he becomes like his father). Raymond Bellour argues that the whole of North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959) enacts in its narrative trajectory the formation of a masculine identity - Roger Thornhill's acceptance of his separation from his mother and the fixing of his desire on a substitute woman (Eve Kendall), which leads to the formation of the heterosexual couple (Bellour 2000: 77-105).

• A second point often made by psychoanalytic critics, and following on from the Oedipal trajectory, concerns the gender relation of mainstream cinema. The classical Hollywood narrative, both in its story-line and in the complication it generates, seeks to translate the asymmetry that exists between male and female into a hierarchy. By remarking or un-marking the terms involved in this hierarchy, the films naturalize (i.e. make seem inevitable) the formation of the heterosexual couple, to the exclusion of any other social or emotional bond. The therapeutic function of mainstream Hollywood cinema would be to give play to fantasies of deviancy, disruption, and otherness, before channelling them in such a way as to affirm a single final goal: the establishment and maintenance of a nuclear family, under conditions of bourgeois ideology, capitalism, and patriarchy. The role of women in Oedipal narratives is therefore structural: they are placed as potential objects of the male hero's desire. The second step in analysing a film narrative as Oedipal would be to establish the role women are assigned in relation to the male hero. Teresa de Lauretis writes: 'The work of narrative, then, is a mapping of differences, and specifically, first and foremost, of sexual difference into each text to say that narrative is the production of Oedipus is to say that each reader - male or female - is constrained and defined within the two positions of a sexual difference thus conceived: male-hero-human, on the side of the subject; and female-obstacle-boundary, on the other'

(de Lauretis 1984: 122). In North by Northwest the narrative goes through a series of stages that test Eve Kendall, to ensure that she is suitable object of desire for the hero, Roger Thornhill. Only when the narrative establishes that she is a safe bet - that she is really a bored middle-class woman who wants to be married, rather than a duplicitous manipulating woman - is she ready to be saved by Thornhill and married off to him.

• A third aspect of Freudian analysis concerns the formal (linguistic) and figurative (visual) aspects of a film, where critics have sought to demonstrate the effects of processes analogous to those of Freud's dream-work (e.g. condensation and displacement, metaphor and metonymy, symbolic blockage). This type of analysis is not limited to narrative structure, but refers to the design, composition, and material texture of film images and sequences, often called mise en scène (see Chapter 3). More particularly, it tries to identify the primary rhetoric or driving force that shape a films. In carrying out this type of analysis, the film scholar argues that the rhetorical structure of a film is motivated or governed by unconscious or repressed desires. Thierry Kuntzel, for example, has argued that classical narrative films follow the logic of dreams and the processes of Freud's dream-work (1978; 1980; see also Chapter 2 above).

• A more indirect appeal to Freud is made in the so-called 'symptomatic readings', which probe a film text for its ambivalences and hidden depths, for its gaps and fissures, for its ruptures and contradictions. As indicated, we shall be looking at this aspect separately, when we come to characterize typically Lacanian readings and their consequences for film studies.

A Freudian interpretation therefore seems to be, in the first instance, a variation of a thematic reading, for it reduces a film's narrative to one implicit theme. However, the Oedipal theme is not so much implicit as repressed and unconscious, because it represents the unsayable, the ultimate taboo of society - the incest taboo. In film seminars focused on psychoanalytic interpretation, the very mention of the son's incestuous desire for his mother, and the symbolic punishment of castration that threatens him, typically arouses the suspicion and scepticism of many film students. One reason is because discussing films in terms of incest and castration stretches credibility. The psychoanalyst can reply that students are simply reacting against their primal, repressed incestuous desires or threats of castration. That is, they are in denial when they reject incest and castration as legitimate concepts with which to analyse works of the imagination. In return, the sceptic can reply that the psychoanalytic interpretation is in bad faith, since it mistakenly attributes false beliefs to the sceptic. Such repartee is a symptom of the vicious circle, in which it seems impossible to escape conflicting interpretations and adjudicate on a higher ground. Our pragmatic approach tries to substitute for this vicious circle a 'hermeneutic circle', in which the results of an interpretation can legitimate the procedures that have led to its formulation.

An additional criticism that can be levelled at psychoanalytic interpretation is that it is too reductive. Indeed, it is more reductive than thematic criticism, for it boils all film narratives down to the same 'universal' structure - to Oedipus. Psychoanalytic film critics begin to see Oedipus everywhere.

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