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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Movies As Depth Psychological Praxis


From my first day of class at Pacifica, film has been used to help illuminate different depth psychological concepts—Fly Away Home (Ballard, 1996, motion picture), Enchanted April (Newell, 1992, motion picture), The Day The Earth Stood Still (Wise, 1951, motion picture) and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off (Hughes, 1986, motion picture), spring immediately to mind. Slater (2001), in his dissertation, used science fiction movies as a way to gain insight into the hubris of our present technological age. Slater (2001) notes:


painting, poetry and literature all reflect soulful preoccupations that extend beyond individual vision and address the mythos of people. However, none of these mediums affect the populous in the way of the cinematic arts. Attending film is one of the great ritual activities of modern life. On the big screen we find ourselves drawn into worlds beyond the small world we inhabit. More than any other medium, on film we assimilate the past, mythologize the present, and dream the future. The cinema provides a major portal into the cultural imagination. (p. 294)

Throughout my coursework, too, I have often turned to movies to explore depth psychological concepts. Among the movies or videos that I have reflected upon have been Chocolat (Hallström, 2000, motion picture), Chicago (Marshall, 2002, motion picture), Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (Rankin & Bass, 1964, televison production), Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964, motion picture), and The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939, motion picture). As previously mentioned, for a research class I made my own video, a compilation of movie clips featuring different dragons in the cultural imagination, as an accompaniment to a presentation about dragons and depression. I playfully dreamed “Puff the Magic Dragon” (Yarrow, 1962, online) onwards in this way and thus, it no surprise that movies are a depth psychological praxis for me.


Movies enjoy a long tradition in depth psychology. Although Freud was not personally interested in film and turned down a position to consult in Hollywood (Gabbard, 2001b), psychoanalysis has had a significant effect upon film and film study. In 1916, Muntsberg was the first to write about film in relation to psychology. He notes:


The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us. (Anderson, 1996, p. 1)

There are entire schools of film theory based on psychoanalyic and Lacanian interpretations (Gabbard, 2001b). Kleinian and Jungian interpretations are not as prevalent yet, but there are several books on the topic (Hauke and Alister, 2001; Hockley, 2001; Izod, 2001). Synchronistically perhaps, Izod writes an interesting essay on the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968, motion picture), which is contained in both his book and the one by Hauke and Alister. Izod’s essay is a good example of a depth psychological amplification, and, among other things, he discusses the monolith as a god-image. Berry (2001; 2003, online) recently reflected upon the “metabletic moment” at the turn of the last century when both film and depth psychology began.


As previously mentioned, depth psychology has had a major effect on movies. Vogler (1995, cassette) tells us that George Lucas may not have so successfully taken us (and the industry) “long long ago in a galaxy far far away” (Lucas, 1977, motion picture) without the influence of Campbell’s (1968) The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which has depth psychological roots. Vogler (1998), who wrote the now infamous “seven page memo,” summarizing the hero’s journey, further explicates depth psychologically important topics in his book The Writer’s Journey. When working for Disney, Vogler saw archetypes as fixed roles that characters would play throughout a story. Later, Vogler came to regard archetypes as “flexible character functions,” that could temporarily be performed, enabling a character to manifest the qualities of more than one archetype, reflecting different facets of their personality. He also notes that movies rely heavily on synchronicities—“a string of accidents or coincidences—coincidental occurrence of words, idea, or events can take on meaning and draw attention to the need for action and change” (p. 100). Slater (2005), in an essay about archetypes and cinema, discusses the depth and underworld dimensions of American cinema; Slater notes:


Seeing a film of any significance is not a passive activity; it requires from the beginning a kind of descent. As the theater darkens so does our daylight consciousness. We enter a realm closer to the dream than to waking life, a place where the raw, subversive, and sublime can come to light, where the “sympathy of all things” is more manifest. The screen may capture images but those images release the imagination, involving us in a series of interiorizing moves that submits on-screen events to timeless, universal stories running in the background of life. All depth experience ultimately points us in the direction of these universals. These factors make film-going a form of ritual. And when we cross over into this ritual space we start salivating for archetypal food. (p. 2)

Movies, dreams, and myths have much in common. Movies can be interpreted in a manner similar to how depth psychology would analyze a dream or other imaginal creation. In 1920s, movie theaters were called “dream palaces” and the Hollywood studios were known as “dream factories.” Hill (1992) explains that in England, theaters were originally called bioscopes, “signifying the viewing of life. The cinema is the theatre of life, the screen of human existence casting illuminating shadows onto the wall of tribal participation” (p. 15). In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (1968) writes that “dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche” (p. 19). At Pacifica’s recent conference celebrating Campbell’s 100th birthday, Phil Cousineau (2004a, cassette), in a day-long preconference workshop on the movies, quoted David Thomson: “A movie is about a wall that becomes alive with an overwhelming myth couched in the semblance of reality and propelled by the momentum of narrative.” Hill (1992) maintains that modern people, through literature and movies, may unconsciously be sharing dreams, which is a common practice in aboriginal cultures. Hill notes that myths are, and have been, perpetually recreated throughout history, finding their way into many aspects of culture, from film and literature to foreign policy. Discussing the significance of this collective cultural dreaming, Kittelson (1998) writes:


Yet for all the ubiquity of news and marketing images, it is the movies which most clearly portray our cultural dreams. . . . In a striking way, movies are like the collective culture dreaming: we assemble in darkened spaces, experiencing together an intense world of images. More directly than any other cultural phenomenon, the movies invite us to experience and ponder our lives and culture. But movies are also the culture dreaming while partially awake and indeed, the culture dreaming itself awake. Whether their quality is good or poor, movies are playing out the various levels of consciousness before our eyes, offering us insights as we step into another world and then back out to our own lives. These flickering images of light and dark are bringing something necessary for our psychic health. They make us think and feel, in great cultural waves, in a way nothing else can . . . . help us see and understand our problems, often from a different angle. (pp. 3-4)

By exploring the movies Chicago (Marshall, 2002, motion picture) and Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964, motion picture) we can see both ourselves and play from different angles, which will perhaps enable us to dream ourselves more awake.


Prior to movies, there were other important ways in which humans came together to experience collective cultural dreaming. The Attic Tragedies, performed in Greece “long long ago, and far far away” (from California at least), provided a powerful cathartic function for spectators (Downing, 2002, lecture). Although they are classics to us, at the time the Attic Tragedies were written they were popular culture—in effect the precursor of movies. As we have seen, one of these plays—Oedipus Tyrannos by Sophocles—was the very same Oedipus that led to Freud’s realization of his complex and the beginnings of depth psychology.


The mythic affinity and participatory nature of movies are worth delving into more deeply. The mythic realm is timeless, the realm of illo tempore. Hill (1992) notes that the movie theater in our modern world has become the “collective cathedral of primitive participation mystique. It is the tribal dream house of modern civilization.” Hill relates that “Northrup Frye says that mythological thinking cannot be superseded, because it forms the framework and context for all thinking (Frye, 1990, p; xvi).” (p. 4)


Film scholar Robert Ray credits the Hollywood film industry’s enormous success to its becoming “intuitively Lévi-Straussian: the American film industry discovered and used the existing body of mythic oppositions provided it by the local culture. In effect, the great Hollywood czars became naïve, prodigious anthropologists” (Hill, 1992, p. 19). Whether intentional or not, it remains true that film is an excellent medium for conveying myth. Marshall McLuhan (2003) points out that when viewing film we are transported to another world, because we have a natural tendency to participate in the mythic process. Hill also points out that in secular societies, the function of religion may be filled by something that is not traditionally thought to be sacred or religious, such as football or film:


following Lucien Levy-Bruhl’s concept of participation mystique, we can view the filmgoer as one who intimately and spiritually involves himself or herself in the magic of cinema. We can say that the cinema is actually a modern form of shamanism. While the primitives have their rituals, possessions, medicines, and incantations (which we also have in various forms) we as moderns have our movie house. (p. 18)

McLuhan (Hill, 1992) argues that film is participatory; an “incessant response” is called for without time for reflection. Film, for McLuhan, is totally plastic. McLuhan sees electronic media, such as film, as acoustic and immediate, as opposed to print media which he sees as visual, detached, and reflective. Hill (1992), discussing McLuhan writes that:


If Marshall McLuhan is correct in arguing that each of our media is an extension of ourselves, and that the medium is the message, then his argument would support the contention that film is but an extension of our most inner and ancient consciousness. After epochs of civilization, through film, and the spiritual element endemic in film conveys human expression at its most primitive state, in spite of the various media of highly sophisticated technology. (p. 19)

In The Reality of Illusion, Joseph Anderson (1996), a cognitive psychologist, discusses how we enter into the magic of the movie:


The short answer is that we enter directly in a way that is neither abstract, nor intellectual, nor linguistically based. A motion picture engages our capacity to participate in the diegesis [narrative] through its capacity to present surrogate arrays to our visual and auditory systems, and at another level but nested within the first, through its capacity to present characters interacting in a time and place. (p. 111)

Anderson informs us that film plays on the paradoxical nature of our senses, our ability to perceive both veridicality and illusion. Although our usual perceptual systems are organized around veridicality, the notion that our perception of the world closely approximates the world, we are able both in ordinary waking and nonordinary states of consciousness to access the non-veridical as well. In order to participate in the world of the movie, we need access to the fictional world as well as being able to access the fictional. Our capacity to pretend or play, gives us access to the fictional, as we set apart or frame activities from the normal flow of events in the world. Our ability to experience illusion, or non-veridical perception, allows us access to the fictional world. (The term illusion has its roots in the Latin, ludere meaning play.) By combining the ability to play with the ability to perceive illusion, we can, as Coleridge said, “willingly suspend disbelief” and go to the movies. Play is thus central to the movie experience, but Anderson goes further:


A motion picture is a framed event, and we enter into its space and time by stepping through the frame, by playing “Lets Pretend.” Watching a movie is not like play and it is not a metaphor for play; it is play. (p. 126)

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