Psychoanalysis and Film (Book Review)

Author:  Gabbard, Glen O. (Editor)
Publisher: Karnac, 2001
Reviewed By: Armond Aserinsky, Spring 2003, 31-32

“Unless something happens, [Rose] (Kate Winslet) will marry…live comfortably, and suffer the long, slow death of the soul. The something is Jack [Leonardo DiCaprio], of course, who rescues a despairing Rose as she stands at the stern, red silk shoes on the railing, and prepares to jump. He hauls her back, they fall in love, he draws her nude, they make out in the cargo hold, and then the ship, in a touching display of erotic sympathy, rears up on end and goes down.” (Lane, 2002. pp.205-206. This is Anthony Lane writing for the New Yorker.)

“The moment of the accident is crucial here: it occurs directly after the sexual act, as if the crash is a punishment for the (sexually and socially) transgressive act. … Thus it is as if the iceberg hits the ship and the catastrophe occurs in order to prevent/occlude the much stronger libidinal catastrophe/disappointment of two lovers happily being together and then seeing their union degenerate.”
(Zizek, 2000. in Gabbard, 2001, p.162)

If the term “Film Criticism” reminds you of thumbs and witty jabs at cinematic incompetence or excess, as in the first excerpt, welcome to Psychoanalysis & Film, a look at the “deeper,” and never-televised, serious side of the business. Glen Gabbard, psychiatry’s answer to Michael Caine for versatility and ubiquity, provides both a selection of psychoanalytic essays concerning 26 sundry commercial films, and a short but ambitious introduction to the volume and its subject matter. (All the contributions, including the two written by the editor himself, are taken from the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1997-2000.)

Since literary criticism is a close relative, perhaps even a parent, of the film version, it shares the family duality of purpose. On the one hand, it can be a consumer guide to the virtues and defects of the product so that the emptor is adequately caveated. On the other paw, the critique is actually a method of investigation, pulling from the manifest content ideas and meanings that may be unknown even to the author or film auteur.

Unless the reader is familiar with this second, investigatory, type of criticism, many of the essays in the present collection may be off-putting and incomprehensible. The term “Psychoanalysis” in the title encompasses numerous “schools,” including those used mainly in academic studies of the humanities and derived from the metapsychology of Jacques Lacan, the Semiotics of Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida’s “Deconstruction”.

One may not rely on Gabbard’s introduction as a Rosetta stone to these arcane epistemologies unless text such as the following seems reasonably clear:

In Adrienne Harris’ chapter on…Reservoir Dogs (1991), she ingeniously melds different approaches, …a mixed model drawing on an evolving feminist theory… reception theory, which is a psychoanalytically driven theory of how meaning is evolved and managed... and a psychoanalytic reading of film as the expression of underlying, often unconscious cultural tensions and contradictions… (Gabbard, 2001, p. 13.)

Fortunately, the editor is much more lucid when writing in the kind of psychoanalytic language that is his native tongue. His own essays are clear, down-to-earth, experience-near, and based on the “facts of the movie.” It seems however that he wishes to cover the broad territory of “post-modern” analytic criticism in the essays he has gathered for us. While his shortcomings as a guide to such material keep its appeal and usefulness limited to “insiders,” that does not invalidate his selection rationale.

That’s a different question: are the essays themselves “good” examples of any line of psychoanalytic film criticism? The limitations of my knowledge of the postmodern make it impossible for me to offer an evaluation of essays of that stripe. I would say, however, that for others who find themselves in my position, ignorant but curious and willing to learn, the best primer might be found in a standard film-school book of “readings” such as Film Theory and Criticism (Mast, Cohen, Braudy, 1992, —unfortunately just out of print). This reference provides excerpts and short pieces by accepted leaders and originators in the field.

Interestingly, none of the authors whose works are in the Gabbard anthology show up in the very large Mast collection, and none of the authors in Mast appear in Gabbard’s table of contents. Eight of the critics cited by Gabbard in his exposition on critical methodology have contributed to Mast. (If that doesn’t confuse the reader, she is ready to proceed to the Consumer Report on this year’s crop of digital cameras.) Finally, having provided the kind of film criticism that involves one of my thumbs, I offer the following brief foray into the more interpretive realm, which requires use of more insightful digits. What can we see in this book that is not sitting on the surface of the text?

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world ... she walks into mine.” Coincidence: I don’t think so! Let’s accept the fact that Casablanca is filmdom’s greatest B-Movie, made on the cheap and on the fly, with an absurd plot and dialogue. Only in such a work do we close our eyes to the infinite unlikelihood of Rick and Ilsa’s meeting. Usually, we are more skeptical.

What is the probability that strictly by chance two medical analysts writing books on the subject of psychoanalysis and movies will both shoehorn a mention of Hugo Munsterberg into their brief surveys of the history of analysis and film, considering that such an interpretation of Munsterberg’s work is rather forced. Psychologists know this name as one of the real old-timers, an early president of our APA, and a disciple of Wundt and William James.

Both introductions also make mention of Freud’s view of movies, and their take on the subject is that Freud probably had a negative opinion of the medium. The authors choose the same questionable evidence, which centers on Freud’s refusal to serve as a consultant to Louie B. Mayer, who proposed a project in which psychoanalysis would be presented to the lay public in a series of films. But such an undertaking would be terribly difficult prior to the advent of “talkies”; Analysis at that time was even called “the talking cure.” And then, of course, one ought to know that Mr. Meyer was a notoriously crude and imperious fellow, so that even if one were to think that the proposal was interesting, it might be best to keep one’s distance.

The point in all this is not that Gabbard has borrowed from his colleague, but rather that both authors may have relied upon the same source for the historical background of psychoanalytic film criticism and an explanation of the newer (“postmodern”) forms. Greenberg thanks Krin Gabbard, professor of literature, for his help. Krin is Glen’s brother, and occasional co-author. His provocative essay on Saving Private Ryan appears in the present volume.

There are not a great many “standard” analysts writing in this field. The current leaders seem to have read the same books and shared a tutor. In terms of sheer quantity of critical “product,” Glen Gabbard is the informal Dean of the College, and though his writings are usually clear and engaging, the present book does little to advance this still immature discipline.


Greenberg, H.R. (1993), Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch. New York: Columbia University Press.
Mast, G., Cohen, M., Braudy, L., eds. (1992), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Leuers, T., zizek.htm#Introdution, (note: this internet address is no longer valid)

Reviewer Note

Armond Aserinsky is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in suburban Philadelphia. On leave from his clinical practice, he devotes his time to teaching and consulting in the field of film and psychology and to directing the non-profit organization, PHCentral, INC. Access more information through


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