Cinema Criticism

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The discipline of psychoanalysis and the art of the cinema evolved in parallel at the beginning of the twentieth century. Psychoanalysts soon began interpreting the appeal and meaning of movies. As early as 1916 Hugo Münsterberg wrote The Film: A Psychological Study, in which he suggested that film transforms the external world into the mechanisms of the mind, including memory, imagination, attention, and emotion.

Although Freud himself had little interest in the cinema, one of his disciples, Hanns Sachs, served as a consultant to George Wilhelm Pabst's 1926 classic, Secrets of a Soul. This German expressionist film was the first serious treatment of psychoanalysis in film history, complete with rather sophisticated use of dream symbolism.

Since these early interdisciplinary efforts, a whole field of psychoanalytic film criticism has evolved. Systematic studies of movies first appeared in the 1950s in the French periodical, Cahiers du Cinèma. The Cahiers theorists subsequently appropriated Italian semiotics as well as the ideas of the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Film scholars influenced by Lacan and Derrida focus on the "deep structures" at work in movies and how meaning is generated in film. Lacan's most important student in the field of film theory has been Christian Metz, whose work has become standard reading in academic cinema studies programs.

The Lacanian approach to film criticism centers on how audiences experience movies. The camera creates a "gaze" or perspective on the events of the film's narrative. A key aspect of the Lacanian discourse is the concept of "lack," both as the phallocentric key to sexual difference and in the symbolic sense of viewing external reality in terms of absence and presence. These ideas have been appropriated by feminist semioticians like Laura Mulvey, who suggested that the woman's body is fetishized because it creates anixiety in men, to whom it represents "lack," i.e., castration. Moreover, the cinema is viewed as historically serving the interests of patriarchy, privileging the gaze of the male hero, while subordinating the female characters as the object of the gaze.

Interpretations of film based on Lacanian ideas have generated a good deal of criticism. Many have objected to the semioticians' methodology as top-heavy with theoretical formulations and too dismissive of the actual content of a film. In addition, a number of critics have pointed out that masculinity is regularly undermined in films and that male viewers often will identify with a female character. Moreover, male bodies are often fetishized in the cinema to the same extent as the female body.

Psychoanalytic film scholars have taken a number of different approaches that part ways with the Lacanian perspective. Bruce Kawin, Marsha Kinder, and Robert Eberwein, for example, have examined films from the perspective of Freudian dreamwork. Robert B. Ray and Krin and Glen Gabbard have taken a pluralistic approach to psychoanalytic film criticism, suggesting that Lacanian interpretations are reductionist and limiting, and that broadening one's theoretical perspective may be more useful when studying film.


See also: Cinema and psychoanalysis; Mannoni, Dominique-Octave; Psyché, revue internationale de psychanalyse et des sciences de l'homme (Psyche, an international review of psychoanalysis and human sciences). Bibliography

   * Gabbard, Krin, and Gabbard, Glen O. (1987), Psychiatry and the cinema. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
   * Metz, Christian. (1982). The imaginary signifier. Psychoanalysis and the cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
   * Mulvey, Laura. (1977). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. In K. Kay, G. Peary (Eds.), Women and the cinema (pp. 412-428). New York: Dutton,.
   * Ray, Robert B. (1985). A certain tendency of the hollywood cinema, 1930-1980. Princeton: Princeton University Press.