Movies and the Unconscious: How Films Represent Our Hidden Desires


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Ingmar Bergman once said, “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our soul.” Human beings are filled with repressed desire and an infinite sense of unconscious wanting, so much so that when the psychology that deals with it is presented to us, we are scared at the intensity and complexity of our own selves. Film, many times a visual representation of society, and unlimited in what it can portray, can be thought as a savior, touching our subconscious desires and allowing them to exist vicariously within the safety of a television screen where no one need know and our feelings need not be exposed.

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Freud’s psychoanalytic theory breaks down what our desires are, why we repress them, and how we can release them. First, Freud outlines the mind and its three components, the conscious mind which holds the thoughts and ideas that humans are aware of, it is perceptual awareness. The preconscious mind which hold thoughts that can be accessed but aren’t conscious at the time. Finally the unconscious mind which is the main part where we unconsciously repress thoughts. This is materialized in the analogy of an iceberg in which the tip can be accessed however the unconscious cant. From this it is clear that human beings lack a sense of freedom, we have no autonomy over a vast amount of feelings and thoughts, the meatier, more passionate ones at that. Freud expanded on this with his three parts of the personality, the id, ego and the superego. The id, a part of the unconscious, is the demanding part, full of wants, the ego is the rational area of the personality which tries to give the id what is wanted which is very much a juggling act because of the superego. The superego works on the morality principle and part of the conscious it is given to individuals by their parents, society and the ego ideal, the idea people think they should be like.

Repression is a defense mechanism in which information in the unconscious is inaccessible to the conscious thought, protecting individuals from difficult experiences and defending the ego, maintaining rational thought.

Freud used the idea of “catharsis” as a way of helping people relieve themselves of troubling repressed thoughts. Freud thought that when thoughts of the unconscious are brought to the conscious mind then the emotion these memories and thoughts are also able to be accessed and thus these emotions are released. Energy that was being used up in these repressive thoughts are cleared up and the person is ‘freed’ and purged from such thoughts. Catharsis has been said to be a way of venting aggression. Freud himself used psychoanalysis as a form of catharsis to release these thoughts.

A fundamental way in which we can purge such emotions is by watching them played out on screen. When certain desires are depicted in front of us, it can trigger internal stress and release it into a space where it can be dealt with. However, there are some psychological studies which contradict the cathartic effect, such as Bandura’s Bobo Doll study in which it is evidenced watching someone deal with repressed desires in fact builds it up, (when children watched aggression they reproduced it suggesting they felt more aggressive) here has been a disagreement whether expressing desires such as in watching aggression.

Film, from its very onset, can be shown to have an intense effect on people and empathetic effect where people relate and believe things on screen to be relating to them on a personal level. This is exemplified in the first film ever to be screened, “The arrival of a train into the station” in France 1895, where supposedly the audience got up screaming because they thought the train might hit them. Such a physical reaction gained from mere pixels moving shows how film touches us. Laura Mullvey continues to explain the fascination people have with looking at things, screens and representations and its significance. She mentions scopophilia where there is pleasure gained from an engagement and existing by simply looking. Sexual pleasure is thought to be about touch and tactile, however scopophilia and looking shows that human beings can gain this without touching. Therefore this outlet of being able to look at someone and gain this pleasure, is an example of catharsis. The vicarious effects of watching things and of TV are evident.

Jacques Lacan’s ideas about the mirror stage further explain our vicarious living within the screen. The mirror stage is described as being the critical moment in a child’s life between the ages of six and eighteen months in which they recognize that they are their reflection in the mirror. They misrecognize themselves as being more whole and more perfect than he feels or will grow to feel in his identity. It is somewhat unsettling as it the reflection does not corroborate with how we feel the chaotic and ever-changing people, confused we think we are however we seem like stable entities with composed and symmetrical features which portray nothing of what is going on within, we only have words to bridge the gap. The image in the mirror is one dimensional compared to what we are. Up until that moment we had been filled with a “primary narcissism” in which we didn’t think of ourselves as small and who we are to build on the outer surface but rather that we were the whole world and nothing had meaning associated with identity. It is replaced with “existential negativity” where we realize the sense of loss there is in being different people on the outside then within. This culminates in the anxious state of “the gaze” where we feel as though we have lost a sense of autonomy when we realize we are a visible object. This misrecognition that we conceptualize translates this mirror image and superficial identity as an ideal ego, how we should aim to live up to for others, the person we believe we should be like. Thus we are predetermined for identity issues where we want people to understand us and disregard our outer appearance to get to know who we truly are. The mirror stage brings about a conflict between our previous fascination with looking at things, for example a baby being interested in looking and learning between things, and the adoration and total consuming way of looking at its mother face, and this new association we have when looking at the world which is tainted with judgment, disassociation, superficiality, falsity.

Film and the television screen have the power to reinforce the ego which is itself one of man’s unconscious desires however through it, it open doors to different unconscious desires, companionship, trust, fear, guilt, shame etc. Christopher Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry argued that film is a way in which a person can recognize themselves as an ego that makes sense and is superior. This is because of both primary and secondary identification. Primary identification is the association one makes between themselves and the camera. Identifying with the camera gives viewers perceived control over screen images, though spectators are themselves powerless beings. Film and camera shots angles, techniques captures and exposes everything and is godly and omniscient in that is sees and can portray it all. Spectators become detached from the cinematic experience and instead are entangled in the all-seeing camera lens.

If we look at film and camera techniques the personalization with the camera is obvious. Camera shots, such as close ups/ personal shots undoubtedly lend themselves to the aforementioned association, as they focus on a characters face, allowing spectators to empathize with them as though these fictitious characters are themselves. Extreme long shots establish setting allowing spectators to identify the situation with themselves, despites setting being not where spectators themselves reside, there still remains a sense of familiarity with particular cities, furniture, shops, nature etc. Camera angles position the viewer so that they can understand t more about the characters and their relationship to their exterior, for example high angles make character seem vulnerable and small which are feelings any spectator can remember or feels. Similarly low angles looking up make the character shown seem superior. Shots moving between these angles with different characters can establish the relationship between the two, for example a relationship of an inferior, subservient soldier to a strict, overly confident general. Spectators can empathize with such relationships, they may be a student who categorizes themselves as inferior, relating to the soldier and their strict teacher to the general. Lighting also fuels this identification as it creates the atmosphere, where candles or dim lighting can create a sensual, intimate or serene mood, dark and shadowy lighting can create a scary or mysterious mood. We as people are aware of lights in our world, when the sun is setting and there is dim light we feel peace and at night in the dark we tend o feel more scared and vulnerable.

One film which evidences this is ‘Rear Window’, specifically its introduction. Littered with close up shots of the wheelchair bound protagonist, as an audience we see his curious and serious facial expressions and assume the same position as we would in his situation, as someone staring into other peoples’ lives in the midst of a murder mystery. In addition to this there is a lot of camera movement and the camera moves freely and naturally as though someone is moving towards things. This reinforces the association as it is as though we are living through the eyes of the protagonist himself as he looks out of his window. The lighting is also relatable as it is early morning and establishes a mood of hope and association with getting ready.

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