Double Feature: Discovering Our Hidden Fantasies in Film
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by Herbert H. Stein
Category: General Nonfiction
Description: a) What recent smash hit movie secretly depicted fear of the female breast? b) Name some recent films that were preoccupied with castration anxiety? c) Would you be surprised to know that reliving our childhood Oedipal fixations helps us better to understand adult-themed films? You'll find the answers to these and many similarly intriguing questions in Double Feature: Discovering Our Hidden Fantasies in Film by Herbert Stein, M.D. Dr. Stein, a highly respected Freudian psychiatrist and passionate moviegoer, literally puts our favorite films on the couch and shares his confidential findings with us. In a book that could become a cult classic, he lays bare the truth about unconscious and subconscious themes running through popular culture with fresh, jolting, and often moving insights into some of the most popular films ever made, including "Jurassic Park", "Field of Dreams", "Forrest Gump", "The Sixth Sense", and "The Usual Suspects". However perceptive we may think ourselves, this book reveals how we unconsciously respond to deeply embedded archetypal themes in movies and enables us to re-experience films we love in a completely fresh way. Indeed, Double Feature makes our favorite films even more resonant and enables us to articulate even more deeply what it is we love about them. Dr. Stein helps us to personalize our experiences by describing his own emotional reactions to these movies. Many of the essays in his book have been published in the Bulletin of the Psychoanalytic Association of New York. Stein has also published essays on film in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly and Projections, a magazine put out by the Forum for the Psychoanalytic Study of Film. Double Feature is both a stimulating and entertaining book. It will also enrich Blockbuster Video, because if you're like me, after you finish it you will want to rush out and rent these movies to see them all over again.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 2002
eBookwise Release Date: May 2002
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [450 KB]
Reading time: 302-424 min.
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. We probably saw only about fifteen minutes of 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!"
What is there about a film, in fact a fragment of a film, that can exert such a strong emotional pull? Since most readers have probably not seen The Blue Veil, I'll fill you in on the fragment that we saw. (In fact, I've never seen the rest of the film.) As we came in, a kidnapped boy had just been recovered from a nanny who had loved him and feared for his welfare with a stepmother. The boy went back to his parents, but no charges were pressed against the nanny. The scene shifts, and we see the nanny, now an old woman, going for an eye exam. The doctor who is giving her the exam recognizes her. It turns out that he was one of the children that she had cared for as a nanny. He invites her to visit his home for dinner that Saturday night. When she arrives, there is a surprise for her. The room is filled with the grown children that she had raised. With joy, she embraces each of them. The host then arranges a phone call, and the nanny is able to speak with the boy that she had tried to save. Finally, the host brings out his own two young children and asks her to stay on with them and help raise his children.
Stated like this, the plot sounds syrupy and mawkish, yet it drove two adults to fits of tears, and we were not alone. In writing about Casablanca, the psychoanalytic film reviewer, Harvey Greenberg, wrote, "If I know it's schmaltzy then why am I crying?" (Greenberg, H. Movies on Your Mind) The fact is that films frequently have a deeper emotional effect than we can readily understand because 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.
When we go into a movie theater, we tend to give ourselves over to the experience. The large screen and dark room help prepare us to relax our critical faculties. Watching a film is probably a more passive experience than reading a book. When we read, we must actively create internal images from words. Although we do this relatively automatically, it requires an active role for our imagination. A well made film meets our imagination more than half way. We sit back and watch images created by others, hoping that they will reflect our own inner fantasy world. When they do, the film projects our daydreams onto a large screen and presents them back to us as if they were real. By looking at film, we can reveal our shared daydreams and by looking more closely, we can discern the unconscious fantasies that move those daydreams.
No human being is without unconscious fantasy. Unconscious fantasies are like magical tales begun in early childhood. They have to do with the people who were most important to us at that time, particularly fathers, mothers, siblings and ourselves. They often reflect childhood understandings of the structure and workings of our own bodies. How and where are babies born? Who does Mommy or Daddy love the most? They involve the pleasures of sexual contact or of warmth and nourishment, the violent destructiveness of rage. Fantasies color our entire existence. They help give meaning and direction to our lives and are closely connected to our emotions, emotions that can be tapped by film makers who know how to evoke them.
For several years, I have been writing short articles on "Psychoanalysis and the Cinema" for the Bulletin of the Psychoanalytic Association of New York (PANY Bulletin). That task has pushed me to look for evidence of unconscious fantasy in popular films. One of the additional benefits for me was that in studying and writing about a film, I inevitably discovered aspects of the fantasies they involved that I had not imagined when I started. Most of the film essays in this book come from the articles in the PANY Bulletin. Two were based on short essays published in other psychoanalytic journals. Although originally written for an audience of psychoanalysts, they have proven to be interesting and entertaining to others as well.
When I present in person to an audience that has just seen the film I am discussing, I tell them, "I see you enjoyed the movie, now I hope you'll like the second feature." The second feature is another hidden story within the fabric of the one we see before us. It usually takes place in early childhood, the actors are parents and siblings, and the props are parts of the body. This is not a new idea. Psychoanalysts have long reveled in seeing what they have discerned in their patients and imagined in their theories revealed ever so subtly in popular films. In many cases, the hidden story is at least as thrilling as the one we see before our eyes. These stories are evoked through metaphor, through images that touch on other images, and through characters with whom we can identify or whose roles in the film evoke memories of people with other roles in our lives.
Why did I weep watching The Blue Veil? Even as we take pleasure in seeing the sharing of love between nanny and child, we also grieve for a sharing of love with our own mothers and caretakers that we will never reexperience in full. The film's happy reunions are faintly reminiscent of idyllic moments in our childhood when our tears were met with the comforting contact of a loving parent.
I have grouped the films in this book into chapters, primarily according to the type of fantasy they use. The first chapter involves films that attempt to use a fantasy of reunion to cope with the loss of a loved one early in life, a theme I have found quite frequently in popular film. The three following chapters deal with fantasies of pregnancy and birth, the Oedipus complex, and the "primal scene," a psychoanalytic concept having to do with the young child observing parental lovemaking. Chapter five compares three films in terms of the way they use fantasy to help us cope with a particular conflict. Chapter six looks at three films that demonstrate fantasies on many levels, but which I have used to elucidate the relationship between psychoanalyst or psychotherapist and patient. Inevitably, there are essays that could have been placed in any of several chapters. I have separated out three such films that offer innovative solutions to trauma with very unlikely heroes. This is not a closed taxonomy of fantasy in film, merely an attempt to begin to organize some of the fantasies more commonly used in film. In fact, you will find that films for which I have focused on the Oedipus complex also may demonstrate primal scene fantasies, that films with fantasies that compensate for early loss also touch on childhood fantasies of pregnancy and birth, and that examples of different types of fantasies can be seen in virtually any of these films, with a greater or lesser emphasis.
A few words about technique. In examining films, I have used an approach that has served me, and others, quite well in treating patients: Start from the surface and work your way beneath it. I begin with what is clear and right in front of me, and I try to clarify that surface, to understand it as best I can before looking for clues as to what may be better hidden. If a film affects us, the themes reflected in its surface should be reflected in its hidden fantasies. To put it another way, we go from what we know to what we don't know, as if we were walking into a dark room whose entrance is illuminated from the doorway, reaching into the darkness to find another light.
In these essays, I use what might be called an audience-centered approach. Since I don't interview members of the film's audience, I make an educated guess as to what affects the audience and how it affects them, generally using myself as a sample of one. This is obviously not foolproof, and I leave it to the readers to judge for themselves. One of the advantages of discussing film as opposed to clinical cases, for instance, is that any reader can put the tape into a VCR and see for himself. I have not tried to understand the motives of the filmmakers. Obviously, most of the effects they produce in us with their films are not accidental, they are the result of the film makers' conscious and unconscious purposes. Nevertheless, even if a film, hypothetically, had an effect upon us which was in no way the intention of the film makers, we could still try to examine the film to see how it achieves that result. It is my own belief that any work of art is ultimately a collaboration between the artist and the audience. Sometimes that collaboration may be accidental. I have touched on that in my examination of my own reactions to the film, Three Came Home.
I could have called this book "Triple Feature" or "Multiple Feature", although those titles are less catchy, because the fantasies described here are not the only ones contained in the fabric of these films. Other fantasies may be expressed as well, both from other psychoanalytic perspectives and perspectives that focus on literature, myth, and the history of film. In a recent paper in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Berman (1997) compared multiple interpretations of a single film, Hitchcock's Vertigo, and argued that each viewer and each reviewer approaches the film from his own perspective and interests and is open to different fantasies inherent in the film that can move us. The point is that a film can move us in many ways. In these essays I have looked at some very basic human fantasies that each of these films evokes. In some way, these fantasies are personal for me, and for the same reasons they are also personal to others. They partly explain how films move us, and, more importantly, they help show us what makes us tick.
I might also have included the word, "trauma," in the title. Virtually every film discussed here evokes in us a sense of a psychological trauma, an overwhelming blow to our integrity and sense of wellbeing, and an attempt to repair the damage through fantasy. I am not prepared to say that this is a ubiquitous pattern in commercial film because I may well have selected these films for discussion because they centered around trauma and fantasied resolution; but it is clear that the attempt to resolve trauma is at the core of a great many popular films.
Berman, E. (1997) Hitchcock's "Vertigo": The collapse of a rescue fantasy,
International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 78, 1997, P. 975--996
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