Symptomatic readings

On one level, the emphasis on looking and its Lacanian elaborations allow us to redefine the plot's overall purpose. No longer aimed at ensuring stable Oedipal identity, Back to the Future's narrative economy of repetitions and variations would serve to ward off 'castration anxiety' (if we describe it in Freudian terms), and to bridge the gap between the look and the gaze (if we use a Lacanian vocabulary). Either way, the film knows that the attempt must necessarily fail, for not even the 'happy ending' can assure a 'proper' submission to the patriarchal law and the restitution of its validity. In the face of the problem it poses so insistently, namely the absence of a credible symbolic (i.e. paternal authority under the universal law of castration), the 'formation of the couple' remains perfunctory. In the comic-grotesque picture of suburban bliss, social respectability, and imminent/instant celebrity that concludes Marty's story, too much remains unresolved, which may explain why there has to be a sequel, as announced by the return of Doc Brown in the final moments of the film.

The jarring notes in the family sitcom resolution, however, also offer an opportunity to ask what it is that the film covers up, and perhaps to recast its knowingness as a resistance, which requires a different hermeneutic strategy. In one sense, what psychoanalytic film analysis is trying to do is to give mainstream Hollywood movies a symptomatic reading. It wants to make these films speak about things they do not actually say explicitly as we watch their narratives unfolding, but which are nonetheless there, encoded in another language, the figurative and formal language of 'symptoms'. Psychoanalytic interpretation can be understood as a 'hermeneutics of suspicion', for it looks for hidden, repressed, or disguised meanings underlying the literal meaning of texts. Moreover, the 'hermeneutics of suspicion' assumes that the hidden meaning is essential to the film - it is the film's structuring absence or blind spot around which the system turns. Only the symptoms of that absent structure are visible. Symptoms require maieutic or interpretive processes to make their meaning apparent.

In another sense, psychoanalytic film theory might be blind to political or historical contradictions. If Back to the Future with its knowingness seems to frustrate a symptomatic reading, because it displays its symptoms so openly and names them psychoanalytically, this may itself be a form of defence and disavowal. But as the moments of excess - both comic and horrific - indicate, Back to the Future has other symptoms as well. These include odd coincidences and repetitions with slight differences; 'funny' incidents that are also dark and ominous; the presence of monstrous figures, such as Biff and the Libyans; Marty's own aggression and cruelty alongside his shame and embarrassment; the recurrence of certain actions and motifs; the presence of unsuspected patterns with respect to certain cultural or ethnic themes. Thus, too much symmetry and patterning may make further symptomatic interpretations necessary.

More broadly, when reading a film symptomatically, one assumes three things:

• that despite a film's clear, classical narrative (within the codes of verisimilitude applicable to a sci-fi fantasy and a family comedy) there is the secondary elaboration of another meaning;

• that the film puts up a certain resistance to this reading: that it tries to hide and disguise its darker sides, e.g. by being a 'comedy' or by deploying the stereotypical clichés of a genre;

• that the film's 'unconscious' refers neither to the author nor the spectator, but to the text, as a certain configuration of contradictory or 'overdetermined' cultural and film-historical signifiers, arranged in ways that can be read in a non-narrative, atemporal way as a kind of 'score' or 'symptomatology'. This has sometimes been called the 'allegorical' mode of reading 'realist' texts, both in literature and in films, and has been made popular by scholars such as Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project (Benjamin (1999) and Fredric Jameson (1981)). As argued earlier, such an allegorical unconscious is not something hidden in the deep structure of the text, which the critic somehow excavates, but is itself an effect of the surface of the text, the vanishing point of any interpretative strategy. It is the result of a reading rather than its premise and precondition, and thus an instance of the hermeneutic circle trying to break the vicious circle.

Symptomatic readings have been crucial in the development of a certain form of cultural analysis. In particular, feminist concerns, issues of ideology, class and patriarchy, and more recently, issues of race and sexual preference have been articulated almost exclusively across the assumptions of such repressed meanings brought to the surface by 'allegorical' readings. In the case of Back to the Future these can highlight, for instance, the issue of politics and ideology. A good example might be the essay by Fred Pfeil comparing and (unflatteringly) contrasting Back to the Future with Terry

Gilliam's Brazil (Pfeil 1990: 227-42). Pfeil gives a lucid and perceptive introduction to several of the themes that also concern us here: for instance, he notes that Back to the Future has a classical double-plot structure of adventure and romance. He also highlights the reason for Marty having to travel in time, namely to be able to enter the Oedipal symbolic of his society, by having a credible father. In this roundabout way Marty attains the self-confidence that is held up (to ridicule and yet re-affirmed?) by the film as the (Benjamin Franklin) ideal of the American male: 'You can achieve anything if you set your mind to it'.

Pfeil also hints at the regime of repetition, and the mirroring function of certain characters when he remarks that the small-town bullies become the Libyan terrorists. In effect, Biff and his gang and the Libyan terrorists are doubles of each other in several respects. Both give chase in cars, both are dangerous, and both are outwitted by McFly in a home-made bricolage vehicle (skateboard/DeLorean), which causes theirs to crash into a derisory obstacle (the manure truck, the photo-booth). These parallels are, of course, clearly crafted by the screenwriters and therefore are in themselves not symptomatic but explicit meanings. Pfeil's main purpose is to delineate a meaning that the film itself does not seem to acknowledge, and which identifies its ideological project: a collusion with Reaganite politics of cynicism and nostalgia, indicated by the coexistence of Doc Brown's jibes against Ronald Reagan in 1955 (one of whose B-westerns, Cattle Queen of Montana, is shown in Hill Valley's only cinema) with the conservative agenda of rewriting the past in order to both justify and prolong the status quo: 'at the apex of the Reagan eighties ... we might well suspect that the film's construction of such a contradictory position, along with its attendant double pleasure of seeing-with-approval/seeing-through [the yuppie family as a put-up job], is a key component of its enormous success' (Pfeil 1990: 232). Pfeil contrasts the 'reactionary' plot of Back to the Future (reactionary in his view because following the standard pattern of Oedipal identity and libidinal renunciation, while not believing in either) with the 'progressive' plot of Brazil (progressive because although similar in respect of time travel - in both films, the hero tries to fix a mistake in the past so that things can change in the present - the latter is self-reflexive, dystopic and its anti-hero is cruelly punished and betrayed). Pfeil's essay is an excellent example of a symptomatic reading, but, as we shall see, it is possible to come to a quite different 'political' interpretation from his, on the basis of a very similar analysis of Back to the Future's key scenes.

There have, however, been fierce critiques of symptomatic readings in general (by e.g. David Bordwell and Noel Carroll), arguing that there is no need to resort to a hermeneutics of suspicion for most issues that might be of interest to a film scholar, and that such readings are vitiated by the analyst's political agenda, like an adolescent distrusting his elders and authority figures on principle. For example, Noel Carroll argues that film theorists should begin with cognitive explanations of filmic phenomena, and should move on to psychoanalytic explanations only if cognitivism is found wanting: 'where we have a convincing cognitivist account, there is no point whatsoever in looking any further for a psychoanalytic account. ... For a psychoanalytic theory to re-enter the debate, it must be demonstrated that there is something about the data of which cognitivist (or organic) explanations can give no adequate account' (Carroll 1996b: 65; see also Bordwell 1985: 30). In this polemical statement Carroll shifts the burden of proof to the psychoanalytic film theorists, as they must explain why they use psychoanalysis as the starting point to theorize filmic phenomena. However, Carroll fails to recognize that psychoanalytic film theorists start from the unconscious because it is here that they locate the problematic core of identity, including that of the cognitivist, whose 'positivist' assertions are in denial of their own contradictory point of enunication or speaking position (see 2izek 2001).

In the case of Pfeil's reading, someone hostile to his conclusions while still sympathetic to the hermeneutics of suspicion might well ask: Why should the comic-realist version of the time travel problem in Back to the Future be reactionary and the more comic-absurdist treatment of the same issue by Gilliam in Brazil be progressive? By calling the latter self-referential, Pfeil applies a 'modernist' schema to his readings, in order to escape 'postmodern' relativism and cynicism. Yet there are ways of conducting readings which might not be called symptomatic, but which fulfil a similar purpose - to make the text speak about its own 'unconscious' or contradictory meaning-effects -that do not run into the same problems. Rather than use a hermeneutics of suspicion, we could for instance turn to a problem-solving routine. Instead of asking what the problem is that the character needs to resolve (the Freudian Oedipal option), or what the problem is that the director wants to solve (the modernist, self-reflexive option), we could ask: What is the problem to which the film thinks it is the answer (the 'cultural studies' and 'social text' option)? In this respect, Pfeil could be accused of not pushing his. own reading nearly far enough. For him, time-travel seems inherently reactionary, because it is committed to leaving things 'exactly as we find them', underwriting the conformism of rewriting the past in the light of the future as the best of all possible worlds.

What Pfeil does not discuss is why time-travel should be necessary, or why rewriting should become such a political issue. If we ask which is the problem that time-travel is asked to 'resolve' (for instance, so that 'life can go on'), then another hermeneutic presumption would connect time-travel to a particular sense of history and of causality. For the film to think that the time-travel paradox can settle it, the problem must be located in history and, more specifically, in American history. Once primed in this direction, one might ask: what does the film have to say about race, and how does the issue of masculinity - Marty's entry into the symbolic - interact or intersect with the race issue, so prominent in recent discussions of America's historical identity? We shall be offering an argument that links the theme of damaged masculinity with that of race, and show how one discourse can substitute for the other, superimpose itself on the other, and indeed offer an 'imaginary solution' to the other. In this reading, the fact that the Oedipal trajectory is both inverted and foregrounded illustrates how it can serve as the 'mechanism' that allows another 'symptom' to both appear and disappear, and why time-travel can serve not only as a code of disturbed temporality but also as the (grammatical) mode of the hypothetical ('what if) and the optative ('if only').

The scene we want to focus on is the one where Marty is at the 'Enchantment under the Sea' dance and has to go on stage to play the guitar, because the band's lead guitarist has injured his hand while trying to help Marty get out of the trunk of his car, into which Biff s buddies had bundled him. More anxious about how to make sure he is being fathered than afraid of Biff, Marty hits on the idea of playing a Chuck Berry number, 'Johnny B Goode', slyly realizing that neither the audience nor the band had heard of this rock'n'roll classic. In fact, while Marty is playing, the injured lead guitarist, who happens to be Marvin Berry, picks up the phone to talk to his cousin Chuck, so that Chuck Berry can hear Marty's rendition of 'Johnny B Goode' and with it 'the sound' that Chuck 'has been looking for'.

As Marvin thrusts the phone at the camera, representing the space where the music is coming from, we cut to the stage, where one cannot but notice that Marty is also doing Chuck Berry's famous 'duck-walk' stage act. While we hear what Chuck Berry hears (via the phone), we also see (indeed, 'recognize') what Berry does not see (since he is miles away), allowing us, the spectators, along with Marty, to stay one step ahead in the game. But consider what is going on: at the height of Marty's plight about making his father into a man, so he can make a son, another substitution occurs, at once an inversion of and a parallel to the patrilineal passage of the main plot. Something passes between the father of rock'n'roll and a son who - in the present of the 1980s - plays a particularly 'white' suburban rock, that of Huey Lewis (another piece of knowingness, in that the teacher who turns Marty down at the audition is played by Lewis). So for Marty to be 'teaching' rock'n'roll to one of the black fathers of rock would be sweet revenge on both his white fathers. However, the film is more careful and circuitous, in that the scene introduces another modality: the 'son' remembers rock'n'roll which, however, perfectly matches the symbolic father's anticipation of rock'n'roll

('the sound you've been looking for'). In other words, Marty is able to assume Chuck Berry's patrimony, which is nothing less than the body language, the music culture, and with it much of the male ideal that was to define the essential features of American masculinity for the second half of the twentieth century - but only on condition that he doesn't become aware of it, i.e. that the 'true' or historical origins of this masculinity remain disguised and unacknowledged.

In other words, it would seem that covering the fictional-generic reason (Doc Brown's flux capacitor) and the Oedipal reason (making his parents meet) for Marty McFly's time-travel is a historical ideological reason, different from that given by Pfeil in his political critique. It is at once specifically American and deeply implicated in questions of race and otherness, for Marty's mission would now be to 'redeem' and 'reclaim' (black) rock'n'roll for the white all-American male, by fathering (or 'inventing') it a second time, in a gesture of appropriation narratively disguised as a double last-minute rescue: he saves the honour of the band, being the stand-in for the injured Marvin, and he makes his father take his mother home from the dance (and thus bond as a future nuclear family).

The perfect formal match of the temporal categories 'remembering' and 'anticipation' hides thus an equally perfect mismatch, perfect because inverting an ethical relationship (the debt owed by white masculinity to black culture), while at the same time repressing a history (the history of race). To this extent, the scene could serve as the very example of the formation of a trauma, insofar as trauma always requires two events, one apparently neutral, which nonetheless, by virtue of some isomorphic or parallel aspect of the experience, serves to activate the originary, repressed occurrence. The question therefore arises: What could be the event to which the repeated, 'inverted' invention of rock'n'roll corresponds, in order for the two to map themselves onto each other, and what could be the feature they have in common? To answer this we need to radicalize our notion of the 'symptomatic' reading and turn to the New Lacanians, who offer a different analysis of the symptom and of trauma.

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