The Use of a (Cinematic) Object: Emotional Experience with Film

by Kelli Fuery

Psychoanalysis and the field of cinema and media studies have shared a long, if turbulent, history. From the mid 1970s to the late 1980s, both Freudian and Lacanian approaches contributed to the method that became known as psychoanalytic film theory, serving as the cornerstone of cinematic apparatus theory as developed by Jean-Louis Baudry (1974) and Christian Metz (1974, 1982). Cinematic apparatus theory sought specifically to examine the interrelated structures of cinematic space, screen, and spectacle within the predominantly linguistic frame of Lacanian psychoanalysis. During the same period, psychoanalytic film theory expanded to include theories of spectatorship, feminist film theory (de Lauretis 1984, 1987; Doane, 1987, 1991; Mulvey 1975; Penley 1989), and cinematic textual analysis.

Nowadays, multiple modes, or schools, of psychoanalysis ground the study of cinematic experience, including approaches that emerged from the Object Relations school, particularly the British School, sometimes referred to as the Middle or Independent Group. For example, Wilfred Bion’s (1962a) theory of thinking and his book Learning from Experience (1962b) helped foreground relational experience over Freud’s model of drive gratification. Bion’s model offers a way of thinking through our emotional and embodied experience with cinema (Ambrósio Garcia 2016; Fuery 2018). Similarly, the work of Donald Winnicott, which focuses on the intersubjective space of the mother-infant relationship, has been used by film and media scholars (Bainbridge 2019; Lebeau 2009, 2014; Kuhn 2013; Yates 2007) to explore more closely the intermeshed spaces of cinematic and cultural experience. In short, it’s important to recognize the multitude of psychoanalytic approaches within film and media studies, where scholars continue to investigate both conscious and unconscious experience.

My film studies students have enjoyed these varied psychoanalytic approaches, with their focus on cultural and emotional aspects of film spectatorship, and the opportunity to closely question and evaluate the impact of cinema on different audiences, its political potential, and, above all, its sophisticated exploration of human emotions. In my senior “Film Theory and Criticism” course, I spend a certain amount of time introducing and discussing psychoanalytic concepts in relation to the history and theory of spectatorship. But it is in my elective courses, such as “Australian Cinema” and “The Melodrama,” where the application of psychoanalytic concepts tends to be most intensive and rewarding. Here, I’ll be discussing two such courses in order to demonstrate how I combine psychoanalytic and philosophical concepts to think through the film experience. Whether or not one advocates for psychoanalysis as a clinical or therapeutic process, it certainly offers a powerful set of theoretical tools for the consideration and negotiation of the myriad satisfactions and frustrations of our intrapsychic and intersubjective experiences as film viewers.

In my upper division “Australian Cinema” course, I begin with a psychoanalytically inflected question: “Is it possible to recognize the impact of national trauma and its felt legacies through the study of a ‘national cinema’?” Viewers from other parts of the world might not have a strong knowledge of Australian history, so these films also provide a good opportunity to learn how to listen and attend to unfamiliar perspectives. For fourteen weeks, students survey a history of Australian cinema, watching films that navigate a range of perspectives on 1) the trauma of the Stolen Generations and associated unconscious guilt, 2) deconstructing Eurocentric fantasies of Indigenous peoples (e.g. Walkabout, dir. Roeg, 1973), 3) themes of displacement, 4) Jungian archetypes and the Indigenous mythology of “The Dreaming” (e.g., The Last Wave, dir. Weir, 1977), and 5) films by Indigenous filmmakers who use the cinematic sensorium to represent the concrete lived experiences and consequences of their traumas (e.g., Beyond Clouds, dir. Sen, 2002; Samson and Delilah, 2009; Sweet Country, dir. Thornton, 2018).

This course helps students to develop their critical study of aesthetics, in part by moving beyond general discussions of form and content and focusing on the felt, affective resonances of cinematic experience. Many of them come to my course already having taken “Film Theory and Criticism” and are thus familiar with such works as Laura Mulvey’s formative 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which she builds on classical psychoanalytic theory to analyze the experience of watching cinema from variously politicized viewing positions as well as the narrative structures specific to Hollywood films, paying special attention to objectification, gender, sexuality, and agencies of pleasure. Her concept of “the male gaze” became a widely used, if problematic, kind of shorthand for patriarchal modes of viewing—one that continues to resonate with many students, for example, in discussing their own experiences of objectification and the alienation to which it leads. Students’ real-life examples are then compared with cinematic representations of the female body as well as structures of film narrative so that “the male gaze” is recognized as both an act of looking and an unconscious, systemic, and institutionalized perspective. I pair Mulvey’s essay with bell hooks’s (1992) writings on the oppositional gaze—a much more nuanced and politically inclusive conception that incorporates Mulvey’s sense of rebellion and psychoanalytic agencies of pleasure as well as Foucauldian theories of power and resistance pitched for Black female spectatorship. hooks’s concept of the oppositional gaze challenges Mulvey’s heteronormative assumptions and draws further connections between psychoanalysis and feminist, intersectional, and phenomenological perspectives.

The first time I taught this class, I assigned a final research paper. But I found that this didn’t adequately foster sustained thinking about cinematic representations of trauma or foreground student’s own emotional experience of the films. So I introduced a different kind of assignment: weekly responses to each film, in which students were asked to write about their own emotional reactions and the connections they perceived between form, content, and audience reception. Watching the films together turned out to be especially important to their augmented understanding of others’ reactions, as well as their own. These weekly responses helped students develop a much greater awareness of the intersubjective and collective experience of cinema. Student feedback in course evaluations confirmed this:

      • “The journals that we had to write really made you look at the film and connect it to the reading. This was a good way to really reinforce the major themes of the class.”
      • “The reflective film journals were a useful assignment to tie multiple films together. Promoted a strong connection to the course thesis.”

In-class discussions changed as well, as students spoke more and more about the relative success of different films at representing trauma, and they grew more alert to instances of implicit (privileged) bias and avoidance in confronting trauma as well as to instances of narrative attention to experiences of suffering leading to psychological growth. This improved class discussions were a direct result of changing the assessment structure. Knowing they would be assessed on the critical strength of their reflexive journal entries, they were better prepared for each class meeting. And, because they’d already formed detailed thoughts about the films and how they illuminated concepts in the reading, they were more readily able to engage the weekly topic as a group.

I split the journal entries into two submissions. In the first round of submissions, students are required to write weekly responses; they cannot miss an entry. Each film must be discussed in light of that week’s reading and its connection to the weekly topic. They receive detailed feedback on this writing, which also improves their confidence when speaking in class. For the second round, students are given the chance to focus their responses on particular themes or concepts that they saw shared across multiple films. I find that this avoids repetition in the assessment structure and facilitates student agency. Because their second set of journal entries can be more specific—falling in line with their more individuated interests in the class topics—students’ thinking also begins to crystallize with regard to the complex psychoanalytic concepts they’re learning and how these relate to the study of cinematic experience. Their final paper asks them to make use their accumulated responses in order to address the class thesis on trauma. Not only does this assessment structure yield better coursework, it also fosters original undergraduate research, which some students have presented as papers at major conferences, including the annual meetings of the National Council for Undergraduate Research and the undergraduate section of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

In my course on “The Melodrama,” I use the same assignment structure, but the thesis of the course is very different, in part because the course is open to all undergraduates, many of whom have no background in cinema studies. But they enjoy melodrama (and the course sounds like an easy credit!). The thesis is a simple but psychoanalytically-inflected question: “What do we use cinema for?” This is one of my favorite courses to teach, not only because students often react “melodramatically” to the films I screen, but also because the class surveys a range of psychoanalytic models, offering students a comprehensive and plural sense of psychoanalyses rather than a singular or monolithic psychoanalytic methodology.

Students will openly cry during screenings (which is not as common as one might think), becoming very emotional and passionate in class discussion. For example, after a screening of Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood, 2004) students expressed anger over Maggie’s (Hilary Swank) character arc. They recognized the emotional pull of the narrative but saw a paternalism in Frankie (Clint Eastwood) and his behavior. This film was presented in the context of contemporary gender relations (apropos of the male gaze), and students reflected collectively on their own emotional responses—on their “use” of the film, as Winnicott would argue, and their capacity to think with the film. One student commented: “I was angry that I cried because I knew I was being manipulated by the film even though I could clearly see its problematic gender politics.”

Bion, Winnicott, and also Christopher Bollas contribute tremendously useful concepts to the teaching of cinema—including thoughts about transitional and transformational objects, the unthought known, false and true selves and, perhaps most significantly, the capacity to use cinematic (and televisual) objects to think through complex emotional experience with others. Indeed, object-relational concepts often help bring out cinema’s social and political potentials by helping us, for example, to read cinematic style as political action and, even more significantly, to recognize the roles screen objects play in both socio-cultural and emotional negotiations of political events.

Over the course of twenty years teaching psychoanalysis to undergraduates, I’ve continued to find that students respond well to psychoanalytic concepts—especially those foregrounded in object-relational and relational psychoanalysis, which seem to resonate with students’ real-world needs and anxieties. And I’ve learned that the most effective pedagogies focus on students’ embodied emotional and intellectual experiences of cinema and that, by focusing chiefly on psychoanalytic concepts (rather than clinical techniques), I can help students better understand how to connect “theory” with their lived experience. Despite often being stormy, the relationship of psychoanalysis and cinema continues to be immensely generative, both intellectually and emotionally. And it’s been especially gratifying to watch object-relational and relational psychoanalysis enrich film studies by augmenting and complicating classical psychoanalytic film theory and by offering film students better ways to understand and experience themselves as embodied, intersubjective beings.


Works Cited

Ambrósio Garcia, Carla. 2016. Bion in Film Theory and Analysis: The Retreat in Film. London: Routledge.

Bainbridge, Caroline. 2019. “Television as psychical object: Mad Men and the value of psychoanalysis for television scholarship.” Critical Studies in Television 14.3: 289-306.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. 1974. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.” Film Quarterly 28.2: 39-47.

Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht. 1962a. “The Psycho-Analytic Study of Thinking.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 43: 306-10.

—. 1962b. Learning From Experience. London: Tavistock.

Bollas, Christopher. 1987. The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. New York: Columbia University Press.

de Lauretis, Teresa. 1984. Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

—. 1987. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Doane, Mary Ann. 1987. The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940’s. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

—. 1991. Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

Fuery, Kelli. 2018. Wilfred Bion, Thinking, and Emotional Experience with Moving Images: Being Embedded. London: Routledge.

hooks, bell. 1992. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press.

Kuhn, Annette. 2013. Little Madnesses: Winnicott, Transitional Phenomena and Cultural Experience. London: I. B. Tauris.

Lebeau, Vicky Ann. 2009. “The Arts of Looking: D.W. Winnicott and Michael Haneke.” Screen 50.1: 35-44.

—. 2014. “Mirror images: D.W. Winnicott in the Visual Field.” In Embodied Encounters: New Approaches to Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Ed. Agniezska Piotrowska. London: Taylor and Francis.

Metz, Christian. 1974. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Tr. Michael Taylor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—. 1982. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Tr. Celia Britton et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mulvey, Laura 1975. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3: 6-18.

Penley, Constance. 1989. The Future of an Illusion: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Yates, Candida. 2007. Masculine Jealousy and Contemporary Cinema. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *