Finding the Unconscious in Film

September 4th, 2012

judasWhen I was a child visiting Mexico, my grandfather used to take me to the church in his hometown and recount the stories that were depicted in the stained glass windows. The windows became bursting kaleidoscopes of color when the afternoon sunlight illuminated them. I was in awe that my grandfather managed to derive so much information from a still image - such as the names of the characters, their locations, and the events that transpired before and after. Of course, he had studied the Bible and knew all its stories by heart, but it’s clear the windows had a distinct narrative - much the same way, a photograph carries with it its own narrative.

But what exactly is it about a photograph or a window - or even a painting - that allows us to deduce the historical context of both subject and artist? John Steppling has said many times before that we are narrative and the space around us gives us a form in which to exist. Actually, I’ve always believed that a good portrait doesn’t just capture a moment in a person’s life, but rather all of their life in a single moment. A photograph, or a stained glass window, merely provides a form in which our narrative can unfold.


Let’s stick with John Steppling here for a moment.  In a recent post on his blog, he states that unlike theater…   “film has no ‘off stage’, so it must create the uncanny link to history, both collective and individual (and in the end they are probably the same). So I think film is more immediate in the sense that it always erases history somehow. The ruins of history, as [Walter] Benjamin saw it, as a basis for allegory, are missing in film. Film is closer to the photograph, probably.

Again, I’m careful not to take Steppling’s words out of context, but these comments have certainly stuck with me in the last couple of months.  I’ve always felt that film functions on an unconscious level.  It is like a dream that constantly reinterprets personal and cultural histories in order to fulfill our unconscious wishes and desires.  I’ve mentioned before that film operates similarly to dreams in its attempt to preserve the narrative experience: a successful film keeps us engaged with those uncanny links to history much the way a dream tricks us to remain asleep.  We remember films the way we recall certain images in our dreams long after we’ve woken.  In fact, some of us still recall dreams we’ve had as far back as childhood and we hold them under the same scrutiny as the movies that shaped our perspectives in our formative years.  Pinocchio will forever remain a part of my consciousness, and even though I’m not five years old anymore, I still shudder at the scene when the runaway children turn into donkeys.


I agree with Steppling that photography is closer to film than to theater in its links to the uncanny. After all, the cells of cinema, its building blocks, what makes a film film, are photographs or pictures. Moving pictures.  These pictures are representations of people in action, although they’re NOT actual people the way they are in theater, where living and breathing actors perform before a live audience.

There’s one crucial difference between film and photography: its narrative structure.  Film is actually closer to music in this regard.  Both film and music unfold in a temporal space, in a sequence of pre-selected units (photos or musical notes) that create something cohesive.  Essentially, the editing of images is what truly distinguishes film from the photograph.  Sergei Eisenstein understood this when he stipulated his theory of montage.  Editing is what gives film its power.  It’s what elevates film as a separate art.


That said, I believe that cinema does have an unconscious and its discovery lies within the understanding of the properties of editing.  John Steppling mentions that the off-stage in theater constitutes the unconscious and that good stage actors gesture towards the off-stage as a way to allude to it.  Similarly, the unconscious of film lies within the void created between shots, in the shadow of what was once there, in what the film alludes to despite not showing.  The more cuts made to a film, the farther it is removed from real time and the more distorted the narrative space becomes.  When it’s done well, this rhythm creates meaning.  But what happens in the moment between one shot to another?  These moments don’t just disappear, they exist in the negative space. These moments allow the audience to tap into unconscious instincts to construct emotions that dictate the narrative.  Seconds, days, hours, a whole lifetime (!) can pass between these moments, and yet we perceive them as merely temporal changes in perspective.  I think these moments should be regarded much the same way we regard the off-stage in theater.

If you watch most mainstream films or television show, you’ll find that the editing doesn’t call attention to itself.  Most of the time, the cutting actively hides the unconscious by maintaining the verisimilitude of the story.  In these types of movies and shows, the purpose of editing is to sell you something artificial that is trying to pass for reality.  It’s the filmic equivalent of margarine or saccharin.  The seams of the editing process are erased, forbidding you access into anything but the fake world onscreen.

However, in really good films, and some television shows, there are cuts that jolt us into venturing beneath the “plot,” provoking the audience to follow a different story created from the subtext and emotions that aren’t on screen.  And I’m not talking about cuts that border on kitsch (like cutting from a seduction scene to a train entering a tunnel), but rather a collision of seemingly unrelated images or sequences that infringe on the limits of space, time, or psychology.  When this is done well, we will find that it often leads to the uncanny.   The films of Stanley Kubrick are filled with these kinds of cuts.  2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange immediately come to mind, as well as Point Blank by John Boorman, Persona by Ingmar Bergman, and The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci - I can go on and on.



Here’s an experiment - take any of the films mentioned above and start watching them halfway through.  Anyone can pretty much figure out what’s going on at any time, not because the story is clear, but because it doesn’t matter, the film’s unconsciousness fills in the gaps.  It proves that reaching the uncanny is not about following each step of the story, but rather processing the fragments throughout that sustain the weight of the film.


Friedrich Nietzsche has said of dreams that “there persists a primordial part of humanity which cannot be reached by a direct path.”  This applies to art as well.  I’ve often thought of this declaration when I sat down with my editor to edit my last film.  In cinema, the primordial cannot be reached simply by telling the story.  A director must allow the film’s unconscious to materialize from the power of what isn’t there, because actually it is there.  It’s always there.  And if it’s interesting, it’s worth alluding to, or as Steppling would say, to gesture toward it.  But if it’s empty or uninteresting, it’s best to stitch that shit up, slap a pop song over it, maybe a laugh track, and hope that nobody notices if you cross the 180 degree line.

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