Cinematic Apparatus, Brain, and the Psyche as Fantasy Machines

Film Theatre

Freud calls the content of the unconscious the latent dream-thoughts.[1] That which one sees in a dream is already a translation of this primal scene. The images in a dream stand in for the gap in the symbolic order; they symbolize the latent content of the dream, which are the unconscious drives. A dream turns these unconscious drives into the manifestations of the subject’s objects of desire. The subject’s dream is already a semi-symbolized form of the unnameable traumatic kernel, the Real of the subject’s desire. In the unconscious there is no desire, but only an oscillation between the life-drive and the death drive. What the dream does is to supply the unconscious with objects to which it can attach its drives, give them a meaning and turn the unconscious drives into conscious desire. Dreams keep the natural and the cultural separate but contiguous to one another. Dream language is closer to the dynamics of the unconscious than the logic of fantasies. Fantasies are more social than dreams and are the supports of the symbolic order, they are the products of a desire to fill the gap between the Real and the social reality. So the objects of desire, with which the subject finds itself bombarded by, shape the subject’s unconscious drives and determine what the subject will desire, what it will not.

The object of one’s desire plays a dominant role in the subject’s identification processes. But there remains a gap between the object of desire and the object of identification. This split between the subject’s objects of desire and objects of identification, the choice the subject makes at this very moment determines the subject’s identity, and yet the subject is not conscious enough to make the simplest choices, so this choice always turns out to be a forced choice.


We can see an example of this forced choice in Levity directed by Ed Solomon (2002). It is a film about a murderer who kills a young cashier and consequently gets jailed for life. He is released on good behaviour but when it comes to getting out of the prison he refuses to do so. They tell him that he has no choice but to choose freedom, the life outside the prison. He unwillingly leaves the prison. This man was feeling so guilty that being in prison was his only way of surviving the anxiety caused by his aggressive behaviour in the past. He believed he deserved this punishment and was happy to participate in its execution. He was, if not his own persecutor, at least his own executor. He became his own crime and punishment at the same time. It was his free choice to be in prison, that way he fantasized he was being redeemed. And with this phantasm he was cutting himself off from carrying the burden of his crime as a free man. With the jury telling him that he is now free, he does not have to be punished anymore, his fantasy collapses. He realizes that redemption requires an external source. That by believing he was being redeemed didn’t mean that he was really being redeemed. He has to be redeemed in the eyes of another, in the eyes of the ones who suffered the most because of his crime.

In a standard process of development the subject is expected to choose the objects of desire from the opposite sex and the objects of identification from the same sex. The subject introjects the objects of the same sex as objects of identification and the objects of the opposite sex as objects of desire. In turn the subject projects his introjected objects of identification onto his objects of desire, the other sex, strengthening his image of self in the eyes of the objects of the same sex who are his/her objects of identification.


What turns the latent content into the manifest-content and manifest-content into symbols is called the transference mechanism, or the dream-work. The analyst becomes the machine interpreting the patient’s free associations, which is what the dream-work does to the unconscious drives and turns them into metaphors.

For, owing to the fact that dream-interpretation traces the course taken by the dream-work, follows the paths which lead from the latent thoughts to the dream-elements, reveals the way in which verbal ambiguities have been exploited, and points out the verbal bridges between different groups of material—owing to all this, we get an impression now of a joke, now of schizophrenia, and are apt to forget that for a dream all operations with words are no more than a preparation for a regression to things.[2]

Freud’s technique of interpretation aims at a reversed metamorphosis; the analytical process tries to reach the hidden-content through the manifest-content. So Freud has to retranslate the manifest content as close to the hidden content as possible. The hidden content is unattainable, and yet the reversed metamorphosis at least makes some progress in the way of initiating a backward motion, a regressive process. To initiate this regressive process Freud uses the technique of free association. Free association is used to make hitherto unmade connections between the manifestations of the unconscious in the way of translating the unconscious into conscious or semi-conscious terms. Repression produces the hidden content of the unconscious. Free association aims at making the hidden content manifest itself in and through metaphorical constructions of reality. If the therapeutic process is successful the subject begins to use metonymies.

From cinema we have the example of a pair of black leather shoes stepping up the stairs. In this context “the black leather shoes” is a metonymy, and signifies that the murderer is approaching. Murderer’s shoes stand in for the murderer as a whole person. This is also how Klein’s partial-object takes the place of the object as a whole. Or, the body without organs turns into an organ without a body. The objet petit a stands in for the master-signifier, just like the breast stands in for the whole of mother. The operation at work is similar but objet petit a and the partial-object are not the same thing. Object petit a is the fantasy of something that is considered to be lost and/but which actually no one has ever had. Whereas the partial-object is the fantasy of the part as the whole, the subject does not yet know that the wholeness is lost, it feels that the part is the whole. In the fantasy of the objet petit a there is less consciousness than there is in the fantasy of the partial-object.

With Freud’s free association and Klein’s play therapy, the subject learns to give a voice to the traumatic kernel, the Real of his unsatisfied desires. The subject’s realization of the unnamability of the Real is a sign of progress in the therapeutic process. So in a way the therapeutic process has to fail for progress to take place. The quality and the quantity of gaps, black holes, or white spots within a discourse produced by free association show the extent of loss and dissatisfaction of the subject.

  According to Freud the dream-work deforms the unconscious drives and turns them into a more acceptable form so that the subject can come face to face with them. This is like an actor who changes his costume and appears with a different identity in the second stage of a play. There are two psychic processes involved in the dream-work. These are displacement and condensation. For Freud the process of displacement involves a kind of change of roles between cultural values and libidinal energy. The aim of displacement is to project substitutes for the unnamable and disowned aspects of the self so that the subject can reintroject those split off parts of the self in more acceptable forms. This process of displacement can be clearly observed in fetishism. A fetishist directs his/her desire to an object other than the real object of desire. For instance if the object of desire is the penis the subject of desire replaces the penis with a shoe; the shoe stands in for the real object of desire.

As for condensation, it involves a concentration of secret thoughts at one single point, a kind of movement towards one single object, so all the thoughts intermingle and disappear, they become an unrecognisable multitude of thoughts. Condensation is a kind of unconsciously willed confusion; a defence mechanism to keep the unwanted qualities of the self at bay.

If the film and the daydream are in more direct competition than the film and the dream, if they ceaselessly encroach upon each other, it is because they occur at a point of adaptation to reality – or at a point of regression, to look at it from the other direction – which is nearly the same; it is because they occur at the same moment: the dream belongs to childhood and the night; the film and the daydream are more adult and belong to the day, but not midday – to the evening, rather.[3]

In The Imaginary Signifier Christian Metz emphasizes a very important aspect of the relationship between cinema and the unconscious. The dream belongs to childhood, to the night, to the unconscious, the Real; whereas film and fantasy belong to adulthood, the symbolic, and consciousness; and yet, this consciousness itself belongs to the evening. What Metz actually wants to say is that even though cinema has shown us a lot it has at the same time hidden a lot of things from us; for each film is a veil on the Real, a single beam of light comes out of the projector and in the dimness of the cinematic apparatus one is almost hypnotized, looks semi-consciously at what he is being shown.

Vintage illustration of Nikolai Lutohin, taken from the 70's Yugoslavian sci-fi magazine Galaksija

Imagine yourself sitting in a cinema auditorium on a rather comfortable seat. This is one of the very rare occasions when you would agree to sit quietly in the dark with a crowd of other people. The only source of light is the projector projecting the images onto the white wall. The white wall turns the projected light into motion pictures and you are looking at the pictures in wonderment. On your comfortable seat you are relaxed, passive, and your ability to move is restricted by an external force. This condition of yours is very similar to the condition of a half-asleep person between reality and the dream world. Watching a movie is like a passage from being awake to being asleep. As a spectator you are aware that what you are watching is not real and still you make yourself believe that it is not totally fictional. Watching a movie you are like someone who is just about to wake up or just about to fall asleep.

The dream materials are visual and audio images, just like the matter of cinema. Nevertheless, there are three fundamental and semiological differences between dreams and films. In The Imaginary Signifier Christian Metz distinguishes these three differences between dream and film as follows:

[…]first, the unequal knowledge of the subject with respect to what he is doing; second, the presence or absence of real perceptual material; and third, a characteristic of the textual content itself(text of the film or dream), about which we are now going to speak.[4]

All of these differences are linked to the degree of wakefulness of the subject. In sleep there is total illusion, the subject may play a role in the dream’s text. But in cinema the subject cannot see itself on the screen, unless, of course, he is an actor or an actress who has taken part in the film. In cinema there is a sense of reality which puts a distance between yourself and what you see. When you are awake you are to a certain extent aware of the fact that what you are watching is fictional.

The second difference whichMetzpoints out is concerned with the existence of the matter of perception. The cinematographic image is a real image, an image that is of a material: visual, audio. But in dreaming there is no matter of the dream, dream material is completely illusory, it doesn’t exist as an external object.

The third difference involves the textual content of the film itself. Compared to a dream the fictional film is much more logical. If we keep the likes of David Lynch movies apart the plot of the film mostly develops with a certain order conforming to the expectations of the spectator. But in dreams there is no plot for no one is telling anything to another person. The dream belongs nowhere.

After distinguishing these differences between cinema and dream Metzintroduces another term. This is what Freud called ‘Tagtarum,’ or the daydream, a conscious fantasy.[5] The daydream is closer to film in that there is a certain degree of consciousness operating within the subject when he/she is daydreaming, or fantasizing. Daydreams too, are experienced when one is awake. The reason why film has a logical structure is that the actors, directors, and spectators are all awake. Making and watching a film involves conscious, pre-conscious, and sub-conscious psychic processes. Fantasizing also involves these three psychic processes, and yet since a film is produced by conscious choices, it has a certain purpose, a certain meaning to convey; what it will become is planned beforehand, its every detail is written down. But fantasizing is a totally psychic process which has gaps and disconnections in it. When we are fantasizing our intention is not to convey a certain meaning to another person. In both processes Metz sees at work a kind of voluntary simulation. Both the daydreamer and the film spectator know that what they are seeing or imagining is not real; but they still make themselves believe that the case is the opposite.

Both the film spectator and the daydreamer replace the reality principle with the pleasure principle. In both cases there is a willed belief in an illusion that what one is seeing or imagining is actually taking place. Without this belief the subject cannot take any pleasure in fantasizing and watching a film. The sole purpose of these activities is to compensate for an unsatisfying reality. Fantasies and films are the supports of social reality, with them the Real is kept at bay, and the gap between the subject and nothingness is maintained. Nothingness is internal to the symbolic order. Just as the dreaming subject is governed by the unconscious the cinema spectator and the fantasizing subject are turning the Real into a source of pleasure, translating it into the symbolic order. The filmmakers try to communicate directly with the unconscious of the spectator. The unconscious is their target and they find images to match the unconscious drives. It is precisely this matching process that forms the unconscious, for there is nothing prior to the naming of the unconscious drives. Cinema turns the object of drives into socially acceptable and symbolically comprehensible forms through metaphor and metonymy.

According to Lacan metaphor is a product of condensation and metonymy is a product of displacement. The reason why these two forms of expression are so effective is that they are closer to the workings of the unconscious than the literal. So Lacan is able to say, “the unconscious is structured a like language.”

You see that by still preserving this “like” (comme), I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say-and I come back to this all the time-that the unconscious is structured by a language.[6]

In this light the concept of metaphor appears as a product of repression and involves the replacement of an image with another image that will have a stronger effect. Metonymy is the product of using a part of the object to stand in for the whole of it. Metaphor and metonymy fill the gap between the unconscious and the social reality. They are the mediators between the two worlds.

“The ordinary reality we know dissolves into the proto-ontological Real of raw flesh and replaceable mask.”[7] Zizek is referring to a film, Face/Off, starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. In this film Travolta and Cage find themselves in a situation where whatever they do they act against themselves. They have each other’s faces. The message is that behind our faces there is the Real, the raw flesh, nothing to identify us as and with ourselves. The gap between the social reality and the Real is opened and two men find themselves playing the role of their enemy. The face becomes the mask veiling the Real. What we have here, is rather than the mask being a metaphor standing in for the Real, is the face as a metonymy standing in for the Real.

Before this unveiling of a lack (we are already close to the cinema signifier), the child, in order to avoid too strong an anxiety, will have to double its belief (another cinematic characteristic) and from then on forever hold two contradictory opinions (proof that in spite of everything the real perception has not been without effect).[8]

In some movies the failure to keep apart two contradictory positions is itself the cause of these movies’ good effect. A process through which the ordinary reality dissolves into the Real can be seen in David Lynch movies. In Mulholland Drive we have a young actress at the beginning of herHollywood career. The movie narrates her process of dispersal. The imaginary, the symbolic, and the real progressively dissolve into one another and she becomes incapable of distinguishing between what is fictional, what is in her mind and what is social. It is only at the end of the film that we understand her real situation, namely, that she has lost the plot of her life, and she has lost it in the fictional world of Hollywood. To fill the space opened by this loss she becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol, and the more drugs she takes the bigger the internal space grows, the more the internal space grows the less she is able to make conscious choices so as to become capable of postponing her eventual demise at least for a while…


Reference Matters

[1] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon Books, 1965), 101-8

[2] Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology, trans. James Strachey, ed. Angela Richards (London: Penguin, 1984), 237

[3] Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzetti (London: Macmillan, 1982), 136-7

[4] Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzetti (London: Macmillan, 1982), 120

[5] Metz, 43-9

[6] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, Book XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge (New York: Norton, 1998), 48

[7] Slavoj Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (London: Verso, 2001), 183

[8] Metz, The Imaginary Signifier, 70

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