In the late 19th century, film as a technology, art form and social phenomenon and psychoanalysis as theoretical and practical working with untamed parts of the psyche thus labeled “the unconscious”, coincided. Both were allied to dreams as the presentation of sometimes enigmatic, frequently enchanting, visual stimuli. So it is not surprising that psychoanalysis was quickly drafted in as a core research methodology for cinema and television studies. Nor it is entirely remarkable that film language infiltrated psychoanalysis in the notion of “screen memories”, etc.
Such a sibling relationship exposes the epistemological issues surrounding the hermeneutical study of both film texts and dream works. Should one be used to “explain” the other with all the risks of reductionism implied? If Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, is employed to diagnose the pathology of film narratives, uncovering multiple occasions of Oedipal themes, then what justifies this implicit elevation of Freud’s theories as a superior mode of investigating to that of film/television itself? To do justice to Freud and Freudians, psychoanalysis from the start had an uneasy sense of recognising its intertextuality with art. For centering the core notion of infantile sexuality and seduction on a work of art, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, is at least a partial accommodation of the problematic interrelation of structural human desires and imaginative texts of all kinds.
As mainstream psychoanalytic theory, based on the writings of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, works its way through postmodern challenges to the valuing of different kind of knowledge, recent Jungian film studies, of which Terrie Waddell’s Wild/Lives: Trickster, Place and Liminality on Screen, is a superb example, have been able to modify some of the epistemological challenges. Three aspects of Jungian psychoanalysis make Jungian film studies a uniquely rich resource. First of all, Jung’s underlying proposition that the very existence of the unconscious undermines all claims to absolute knowing opens up the theory to exist more on a par with imaginative works themselves. Jungian concepts are re-framed as pragmatic tools to work with aspects of the psyche rather than restrictive definitions of them.
Secondly, Jung’s stress on the primacy of the unconscious other in making meaning also opens up the screen image to be regarded as possessing something more than the ego can easily comprehend. Not only does this provide a starting point for thinking about the sheer fascination of cinema, but it also offers a platform for other kinds of knowing to play a significant role. A final advantage for the Jungian perspective draws upon the first two in the way that Jung’s own writing is hospitable to ideas and structures that have been rejected or marginalised by modernity’s emphasis on rationality and logos as the sole legitimations of knowledge. Able to credit, explore and learn from forgotten modes of research such as alchemy, myth from ancient and contemporary non-western cultures, Eastern religions and ritual practices, Jung’s writing can “frame” just the kind of rich, interdisciplinary and multicultural research offered in Wild/Lives.
Above all, Waddell focuses here on the irrational potency of certain media texts. Her innate framework is “liminality”, an experience of intense non-being that could be a prelude to psychic and social transformation. The liminal is a threshold space. Liminality is hypnotically depicted in the works treated here such as the US television series Deadwood and Lost, Australian popular “reality” TV (The Biggest Loser), fiction films Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002), Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch, Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000), Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965) and documentary, Grizzly Man (werner Herzog, 2005), and describes the viewer’s bonding to the screen. With several series considered, Waddell astutely explores the failure to escape psychological liminality. After all, a narrative arc predicated upon figures entering an initiatory space that undoes social codes of identity, will come to an abrupt conclusion when the initiation does. Getting a series re-commissioned depends upon keeping characters in their place of trial or, as brilliantly exposed in the reading of The Biggest Loser provided by Waddell, providing such a limited form of escape from imprisoning bodies that the public retains an appetite for more, in the form of new “liminars”. New sacrifices are demanded if transformation remains psychically incomplete.
The “Trickster” provides the narrative trope for Wild/Lives in that he/she is employed, true to Jungian conceptions, as a figure of boundary crossing and convention breaking. Crucially trickster surmounts cultural and epistemological divisions so that he/she presides over a postcolonial and multicultural learning about the psyche. Hence Waddell, like Jung, draws upon practices such as Yoga, Eastern deities, particularly in the film Solaris, and a wealth of anthropological and sociological research. What this all adds up to is a fine film scholar using a Jungian methodology to add material and perspectives to the reading of media texts. By drawing upon cross-cultural mythology, Waddell is sometimes elucidating deliberate practices by filmmakers such as Soderbergh and Polanski. More often she is using these tropes as a way of representing psychic energies and connections both on-screen and with the screen.
The notion of “place” in the volume’s title is intriguingly teased out. Liminality tends to infer a place to be liminal in/with. Even if liminality occurs in a non-place, it is that very absence of material and cultural signifiers that powerfully partners the psychic transformation of the initiate. For protagonist Chris in Solaris the relatively sterile spaceship Prometheus exposes him to the rich unknown and (literally) brooding presence of the planet Solaris. The mythical name of the vessel channels our expectation of narrative momentum towards a transforming experience that does in fact occur in a death/rebirth ritual. By contrast Deadwood, town of the eponymous series, is never able to itself arise from a condition of bestial and excremental origins, let alone allow the inhabitants to do so. Meanwhile, The Biggest Loser incarcerates its contestants in “the white house”, a place without social or familial ties that progressively reveals their imprisonment in codings of their unwanted flesh.
Is the audience fascinated by these texts because we crave the liminal experienced repeatedly by immersion in screen narrative? If so, what will allow the audience to have a positive transforming encounter with trickster energy? What Wild/Lives reveals so potently is how native trickster is to the human psyche and the persistent trickiness of our images! I recommend this book to anyone who has experienced the horrified fascination engendered by our “wild lives” in film and on television.
Terrie Waddell, Wild/Lives: Trickster, Place and Liminality on Screen, Routledge, London and New York, 2010.