Musings and reflections on contemporary and not-so-contemporary psychoanalysis.

​The Importance of Film for Psychoanalysis


This is a chapter in the recently published book, Pedro Almodóvar: A Cinema of Desire, Passion and Compulsion edited by Arlene Kramer Richards and Lucille Spira with Merle Molofsky. (IP Books)

"... say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveler sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you see outside." (Freud, 1913, p. 135)

These are Freud's famous recommended instructions to his patient at the beginning of psychoanalysis. The patient is lying on a couch, reflecting inward and describing what passes before that inward gaze. The psychoanalyst attentively listens to the patient's words, forming her own thoughts, associations and images to what is being said. But what if the analyst could directly experience that inward gaze?

When we enter a movie theater, we sit down, lean back and try to relax. As the lights are dimmed, our focus is on the screen and we expect what we see and hear there to be the central focus of our minds. We don't completely shut out the rest of our world, but if the film is good, we hope to enter a different world, the world of the film.

If we are in the proper frame of mind to watch a film, we are prepared to allow our minds to enter into this manufactured world, hoping that it will engage us and knowing that at the end, we should be able to return to our daily lives, moved and perhaps enlightened.

In both settings, the movie theater and the analytic office, we are expected to experience the emotions and thoughts that come to us in a relatively free-floating way. If the film is effective, we will enter a somewhat altered state of mind. If it is particularly effective, we are absorbed by the lives of the people on the screen. We do not forget our own lives, of course, but in the moment, our lives recede into the background, except, of course as aspects of them are mirrored or evoked on the screen.

Watching a film is like listening to someone on the couch, but with a direct view of that train window that Freud described, that inward gaze. It is as if we were seeing, hearing and experiencing the world through someone else's mind.

For this to work, there must be a successful collaboration between the people who made the film and the people who watch the film. To accomplish that, the filmmakers must enlist our emotions. They must entice us to give up our own lives temporarily, and enter into the lives we see before us.

The psychoanalyst hopes to help patients transcend the superficial layers of personal experience in order to experience the inner workings of their minds. The filmmaker provides a template to help us enter into an alternate world, while the analyst attempts to help us find our own inner world. But the film, by creating the illusion of actual, immediate experience also creates a free flow of internal reactions, emotions and thoughts that must move quickly to respond to the stimulating events set before us. In that respect, we might say that a good film is somewhat like a good psychoanalytic hour.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City has a permanent film exhibit at which they regularly show old films in a small theater.Many years ago, my wife and I happened into that theater when they were showing the closing scenes of The Blue Veil (1951) about a nanny being reunited with her "children". We probably saw only about fifteen minutes of the film, but when it ended, we stood in puddles of our tears. The teenage girl who served as an usher looked at my wife's eyes as we were leaving and said, "Oh, you liked it!"(Stein, 2002) Similarly, in his classic book on psychoanalysis and film, Harvey Greenberg (1975), wrote about Casablanca (1941), "If I know it's schmaltzy then why am I crying?" Why indeed?

How do filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar enlist our emotions and our attentions so that our minds are both drawn into another world and freed to come into contact with emotions, thoughts, images that are usually far from our awareness? Within the answer to that question lies the importance of film for psychoanalysis.

One answer to this question is that they touch upon unconscious fantasies that many of us share.We often don't understand why we react as we do, and we may even try to fight it, but we are responding to a hidden image evoked silently in ourselves that has deeper and more personal meaning than the image we see on the screen.

Fantasy holds a central role in psychoanalytic thinking. Our perception of the world and our reactions to it are continually influenced by personal fantasies that go back as far as early childhood. These fantasies are particularly evocative of emotions. At any given time, they may be more or less available to consciousness. Jacob Arlow, who wrote about the constant influence of fantasy on our perception, memory, and thinking (Arlow, 1969a, 1969b), used the 1966 film, Blowup in a paper about primal scene fantasies, fantasies having to do with the child's experience of witnessing parental intercourse. (Arlow, 1980) It provides a striking example of how film can reinforce and bring to life expressions of fantasy. I became interested in film and psychoanalysis, myself, after being impressed by a similar use of images suggestive of primal scene fantasies in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970). (Stein, 1997)

Films have tapped into commonly held fantasies from the beginning. In that, they are no different from other forms of literature and art. By connecting us with a basic fantasy, a film can capture our interest and link up with our most basic emotions. I would think that the most obvious of these are Oedipal fantasies that have to do with love and more pointedly rivalry between father and son, mother and daughter. Obviously, Freud took the name for the early father/son rivalry from Sophocles' play, which Freud clearly saw as a means to tapping the emotional life of most people. If you want a relatively early example in film, what better one exists than the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), with a young Errol Flynn fighting the authority of the evil Prince John and his minions, Guy of Gisbourne and the Sheriff of Nottingham while idolizing the almost godlike King Richard, the loved and idealized father.

I'll cite another example from a classic film that most readers have probably seen, High Noon (1952). In that film, Gary Cooper's Marshal Will Kane faces the arrival on his wedding day of a gang of murderers to the town he protects. Throughout the film, we experience his struggle to be faithful to his bride and to the town. The film's theme song repeats over and over, reminding us of the central words, "Do not forsake me, oh, my darling, on this our wedding day."

Even a cursory glance opens up possibilities for complex fantasies around mostly Oedipal themes, but I want to make my point with one striking image. Throughout the film, we are reminded through glances at clocks, scenes at the train station and images of a moving train along with the dramatic music that accompanies all of this that the murderer Frank Miller is arriving on the noon train, hence the title. You don't have to be a psychoanalyst or a hyper-Freudian to connect the image of the train heading into the town to deposit Frank Miller and Will Kane contemplating his wedding night with his young, innocent bride.

Made and shown in the 1950's, High Noon makes no conscious reference to the anxieties this older toughened man (Gary Cooper) and his young innocent bride (Grace Kelly) face as they approach the coitus of their wedding night; but, the filmmakers give us an image that captures that anxiety in the "phallic" train plunging into the town to deposit the dangerous murderer. When we first see it, we don't make the conscious connection, but the image must work at some level. That is the power of film!

Recently, on hearing about someone who appears to lack empathy, with no real sense of what other people are thinking and feeling, I found myself wondering if she goes to the movies, where we are continually thrust into experiencing the world through others. Part of the success of many films comes from their ability to pull us into the perspective of the characters on the screen.

This form of empathic identification is not unique to film. We probably come closest to it when we read a good book. There, we are back to using words as an intermediary. Film is the best vehicle for it, especially when we see it on the "big screen." Unlike a stage play, film can put us directly into the perspective of the character. This is most easily seen in action sequences. In the film, Gravity (2013), we see the emptiness of space and almost have to experience the fright of being untethered and drifting in the vastness along with Sandra Bullock.

In fact, from early childhood we are trained to experience empathy through film. Filmmakers are adept at creating images that have universal appeal. Have you ever been in a theater watching the Disney cartoon, Bambi (1942)? There is a certain moment when it becomes apparent that Bambi's mother has died. First we hear one or two children crying, then it spreads as the young audience breaks out into a wave of distress. It is obvious that those small children identify with Bambi as she sees her mother shot to death, and in identifying with Bambi, they are experiencing empathy for another creature who is experiencing something that evokes fear and sadness.

I have chosen this simplest of examples, but we can move up to adult movies which pull us into a visceral experience. Horror movies provide a good example of this. Most people seeing the film Psycho (1960) for the first time will experience a fright when a knife-wielding figure suddenly appears accompanied by a high-pitched repetitive alarm sound. Here the sound is designed to reinforce the sense of shock along with the accompanying physiological reactions. If we don't have time to feel the heart pounding, we will nevertheless be certain that the pulse is rapid.

Almodóvar's films frequently bring us into the world of sudden and tragic loss and grief, much like Bambi does, but at an adult level. Through Almodóvar, we experience the world through a mother who has suddenly lost her teenage son, a doctor who has similarly lost the love of his life changing the nature of his work, a man blinded in an accident which also cost the life of the woman he loved, a nurse tending to a comatose patient. These films do not simply deal with normal grief. They take us to the limits of what people do to overcome tragic loss; and, in doing that, they bring to life fantasies and emotions of reparation and revenge that analysts hear as part of the inner working of their patients' minds.

As we examine films that evoke intense identification and empathy in many viewers, we can shine a light on the patterns of emotions and how they affect us. This allows us to both see and demonstrate these important motivational factors.

In an essay concerning Pedro Almodóvar's film, Talk to Her (2002), William Fried (2017) compares the four-year continual monologue of a male nurse directed at his seemingly comatose patient with an analytic patient on the couch free associating to his analyst

"... the relative absence of cueing from the other makes it possible for the speaker to project aspects of her (his) inner world onto the other ... ." (Fried, 2017, p. 81)

Fried's comatose "analyst" is an extreme representation of the so-called silent analyst who allows the patient to wander on his own reaching out to an unknown listener. Watching films, we are not put off by such extremes. We expect, even delight in the unusual. These curious looks at the patient/analyst relationship may reveal peculiar aspects of that dialogue.

I am thinking of such films as The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Sixth Sense (1999), each of which depicts an analyst at work under highly unusual conditions and reveals something about the inevitable inter-connectedness of analyst and patient.

In The Silence of the Lambs, we see a psychopathic psychiatrist confined to a high security prison turning an interview by a young FBI agent into a therapy session. Hannibal Lector appears to be drawn by curiosity and a strange sense of therapeutic zeal into trying to help his interrogator, Starling, with her disturbing nightmares about the slaughter of sheep. But it goes awry at one point when his cannibalistic tendencies intervene, driving her away for the moment. What we learn if we look closely is that the film is shining a light on the link between this analyst's desire to understand, to take in as much as he can about his patients and his more overt cannibalistic obsession, the desire to literally devour people. It is a reminder that the analyst has unconscious reasons for taking pleasure in understanding her patients (hopefully not so gruesome as Lector's).

Similarly, The Sixth Sense (1999), a film about a disturbed boy who can "see dead people," gives us a therapist who slowly discovers as he treats his child patient that he, himself, is dead, a ghost. The therapy gives insight to both patient and therapist, and can allow us to see that both of them must overcome resistances to learning the truth.

By drawing us into logically impossible situations, these films can provide us with insight and evidence concerning the more subtle realities of psychoanalytic therapy. We don't have to be cannibals to have unconscious motives for wanting to get into the minds of our patients and we don't have to be dead to have personal reasons for not wanting to see the truth. Films surprise us with insights into the workings of the mind and the therapeutic situation, but more importantly, they provide us with vivid demonstrations of these processes, ripe for the picking.

We see this ability of film to draw the audience into the give and take of psychoanalytically oriented therapy in more conventional depictions as well, such as Good Will Hunting (1998) or The King's Speech[1] (2010).

An old friend and colleague told me that in reading my essays on psychoanalysis and film he assumed that I had written them with the idea of using them for teaching about psychoanalysis. I can't say that I wrote them with that in mind, but I clearly understood what he was saying.

Films, I should emphasize "good films," offer us a unique opportunity to teach psychoanalytic concepts. The opportunity is unique in that the film can bring those ideas to life in a way that is rivaled only by going through detailed clinical reports of what patients say in analysis. With film, of course, we need not worry about confidentiality. With film, we can use material that has already been seen by a large audience and has already made an impact on them. We can show portions of the film as we use it to bring to life the particular psychoanalytic concepts.

With a well-crafted film, otherwise abstract soundingtheoretical ideas feel immediate and meaningful. It is a central purpose of those making a film to evoke emotional responses and to do that they must at some points turn to the conflicts, fantasies and identifications that we all share. As psychoanalysts and students of the mind, we may readily tap this goldmine of living theory to demonstrate it to others.

In doing so, we may also enrich our own appreciation of the complex, meaningful working of the human mind. Looking at a film through a psychoanalytic lens often opens up new insights and perspectives that come as a surprise to even the seasoned clinician.

What does that mean about the people who make the films? Does it mean that they know about unconscious fantasy, that they are experts in psychoanalytic theory?

I think not. And I also think yes. I suspect that although some directors have famously been in analysis and have an interest in psychoanalysis, that that is not at all a pre-requisite. And yet, they give these wonderful demonstrations of what we work for years to understand.

Psychoanalysts and filmmakers[2] approach the problem from opposite directions. The psychoanalyst is confronted with a patient who has problems. She listens to her patient and attempts to understand the internal workings of the patient's mind in order to discover what is contributing to those problems. The term, "psychoanalysis" implies an analysis, a deconstruction, a search for complex patterns of mind that bring the patient to this point. The analyst takes a living, breathing human being and attempts to figure out the internal workings of the mind.

The filmmakers2 approach it from the opposite direction. It is their job to construct a whole person, a whole living situation, in some cases an entire world that is comprehensible, meaningful and evocative. To do that they must use those "parts" that the analyst tries to uncover. If the people they put on the screen are going to pass the test, they must exhibit those qualities that the analyst seeks. They must demonstrate the wishes, conflicts and fantasies that are the internal makeup of every one of us. And they must do it believably, so that we feel the emotions as we watch.

I used the ambiguous term, "pass the test." What does that mean? Passing the test doesn't necessarily mean passing the test of appearing real. For the film's characters, world and plot to pass the test it must do more than have them appear real. It must make us want them to be real. And to do that, the filmmakers must have an intuitive sense of what will engage us. They need not know the precise concepts they are invoking. They need not know the specific unconscious fantasies they evoke. They need only know that the audience will want to experience it as real, at least for that short space of time that we sit in the theater. Remember, the patient in the office doesn't understand all those concepts, but that doesn't stop the patient from embodying them.

So how is film important for psychoanalysis? We might say it brings the concepts that psychoanalysts use to understand people into living color. Film is useful in teaching, demonstrating, and even expanding our understanding. It does all of this jargon free and with immediacy.

To further understand it, I suggest you read this book. And then go to the movies.

Arlow, J.A. (1969a) UnconsciousFantasyandDisturbancesofConsciousExperience.PsychoanalyticQuarterly 38:1-27.

Arlow, J.A. (1969b) Fantasy, Memory, andReality Testing. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 38:28-51.

Arlow, J.A.(1980) Revenge Motive in the Primal Scene. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 28: 519-541.

Bambi (1942) David D. Hand (Director) Walt Disney Studios

Blowup (1966) Michelangelo Antonioni (Director) Bridge Films

Casablanca (1942) Michael Curtiz (Director) Warner Bros.

Fried, W.(2017) Critical Flicker Fusion. London, Karnac 160 pp.

Freud, S. (1913) On beginning the treatment (Further recommendations on the technique of psychoanalysis 1) SE: 12: 121-144.

Good Will Hunting (1998) Gus Van Sant (Director) Miramax Films

Gravity (2013) Alfonso Cuarón (Director) Esperanto Filmoj

Greenberg, H. (1975) The Movies On Your

Mind: Film Classics On the Couch From Fellini to Frankenstein. New York: Saturday Review Press/E.P. Dutton 273 pp.

High Noon (1952) Fred Zinneman (Director) Paramount Pictures

Psycho (1960) Alfred Hitchcock (Director) Paramount Pictures

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Michael Curtiz, William Keighley (Directors) Warner Bros.

The Blue Veil (1951) Curtis Bernhardt, Busby Berkeley (Directors)

The Conformist (1970) Bernardo Bertolucci (Director) Mars Film

Tbe Kings's Speech (2010) Tom Hooper (Director) See-Saw Films

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Jonathan Demme (Director)Orion Pictures

Tbe Sixth Sense (1999) M. Night Shyamalan (Director) Hollywood Pictures

Stein, H.H. (1997) Hidden in the imagery: an unconscious scene in The Conformist. International Journal of Psychoanalysis: 78:1031-1033.

Stein, H. H. (2002) Double Feature: Finding Our Childhood Fantasies in Film. New York: EReads 264pp.

[1]. The King's Speech is about a treatment by a speech therapist, but it has many qualities of an insight-oriented psychotherapy as depicted in the film.

2. I am using the general term filmmakers because I am looking at the creation of the film as the work of many. Obviously, the director, like Almodóvar, is usually the subject of our scrutiny.

2013 Interview of Professor Mark Solms, Neuropsych...


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May 24, 2024

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