Fleeing the Unconscious
On the contents page of issue 68 of Bright Lights magazine (brightlightsfilm.com), the summary of an article by Joseph Jon Lanthier catches me: "shutter island might be the only psychological thriller abetted by a lack of interest in the psyche". A similarly gripping assertion was made on Facebook by US scholar Corey Creekmur concerning the most recent current talk-fest film, inception: its cagey view of dreams, Creekmur thought, showed little interest in or knowledge of Freudian dream-interpretation.
This is not only a cinematic phenomenon or trend. In Melbourne recently, the famous Lacanian expert Renata Saleci spoke about the movement in social fields such as criminology and pharmacology towards a certain, often quite banal form of neuroscience: the kind that pores over images of parts of the brain lighting up in different colours, as if in proof that 'psychological deviations' (like juvenile delinquency) can be seen, charted and quantified this way. Saleci summed up the problem by throwing her hands up in despair: "No psychoanalysis! They see no difference between the brain and the mind!"
And the mind, lest we forget, has an unconscious. And the unconscious is not so easily retrieved or narrativised as we are seeing in these recent, ambitious 'mind game' movies (as Thomas Elsaesser and others have called them). More than ever, people like to take the soft option and replace Freud's term with 'subconscious' — implying that there is something (a thought or feeling) just out of reach, just below the surface, something ultimately easy to fish out into full and mastered consciousness.
But the unconscious is the negation of the consciousness, its true shadow realm, not some adjacent room one can simply enter and ransack. The unconscious is what cannot be ever entirely mastered, the zone that eludes us — at the same moment that it drives us. The unconscious is the space of denial, of fantasy, of distortion, the elaborate revision and transformation of all that is easily viewable or knowable.
For a while, films such as Lynch's mulholland drive and Ferrara's the blackout were alive to this tricky, shifting reality of the unconscious. However, it was populist-art movies like memento (by inception's Christopher Nolan) that predicted the way in which mainstream cinema would ruthlessly iron out the kinks of the unconscious into a divertingly screwy but ultimately coherent surface pattern: it's all a matter of sorting out the time chronology, or the arrangement of the layers.
Curiously, but following a perfect logic, fanciful movies about memory, and especially about time travel, have also joined in this trend towards hyperconsciousness. "Experience is the product less of facts firmly anchored in memory than of accumulated and frequently unconscious data that flow together in memory", wrote Walter Benjamin sixty-five years ago (in "Some Motifs in Baudelaire"). Films such as John Woo's zany paycheck (2004), however, found it handier to imagine that the brain contains isolatable parcels of memory which, when accessed, can be played back and forward, complete with camera angles, editing and special effects. Just as time (in defiance of all modern physics) is portrayed as a simple ribbon, the mind is accessed and manipulated just like a film!
This turn from the dark unconscious to the bright conscious today also finds its echo in the academic study of cinema. Cognitive psychology has been on the rise within the same time frame as the mind-game films and, while it isolates and explores many fascinating aspects of the viewing experience, it too prefers to flee the realm of psychic mystery. Again, characteristic of our computer age, it is only the issues of accessing and managing information, of streamlining perception and putting it to work, that really seem to matter. But the Fritz Lang who once reveled in the melodramatic and Gothic Freudianism of secret beyond the door (1948) could never have flourished in such in a drearily straightforward scene!