Monday, October 26, 2009

Hitchcock and Sigmund, strange bedfellows

Freud or Fraud? I am dismayed that this section of the class leans so heavily on the theories of Sigmund Freud. His writings, particularly on developmental psychology and sex, are something of a minor embarrassment to modern psychologists and psychiatrists. Psychoanalysis has come a long way since 1910 Vienna. I will give him his due: he was the icon of psychoanalysis and popularized the study of mind and emotion. However, he was evidently not a fan of Occam's Razor. Instead of looking for simple explanations, he delved into convoluted roundabout answers, almost always involving sexual events or abuse.

Rather than spending a good deal of time observing and studying children (even his own - he had six) he preferred to create his ideas alone with his cigar and cocaine addictions. If people's problems are attributable to sexual mis-development, did Freud believe his own children were perfect? Or, if they had psychological issues, were they instead abused, either by him or without his knowledge? You can see the problem with this lack of logic. He reduced the human mind to the drive of a bacterium, perpetually focused on procreation with no possible altruism or higher thought. Today's patients are disgusted at the Oedipus Complex and most women are rightly offended by Penis Envy.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, was an early critic of Freud and was often himself a target of derision in those days for not praising Freud as a genius as most others did.

From the New York Times, January 30, 1966:

Mr. Nabokov, would you tell us why it is that you detest Dr. Freud?

Nabokov: I think he's crude, I think he's medieval, and I don't want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me. I don't have the dreams that he discusses in his books. I don't see umbrellas in my dreams. Or balloons.

From the Wisconsin Studies, 1967:

Interviewer: Speaking of ideology, you have often expressed your hostility to Freud, most noticeably in the forewords to your translated novels. Some readers have wondered which of Freud's works or theories you were most offended by and why. The parodies of Freud in Lolita and Pale Fire suggest a wider familiarity with the good doctor than you have ever publicly granted. Would you comment on this?

Nabokov: Oh, I am not up to discussing again that figure of fun. He is not worthy of more attention than I have granted him in my novels and in Speak, Memory. Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts. I really do not care.

From Strong Opinions, pages 23-24: Freudism and all it has tainted with its grotesque implications and methods appears to me to be one of the vilest deceits practiced by people on themselves and on others. I reject it utterly, along with a few other medieval items still adored by the ignorant, the conventional, or the very sick.

Of course, this blog is ultimately about Hitchcock, his 1954 film Rear Window, and the concept of the Gaze.

Hitchcock... interesting name. And why is he holding a phallic symbol in his mouth? Does he have an oral fixation? Lack of development at the genital stage? What does the bird represent? A bird resting on the phallic symbol...

Oh sorry, I was channeling Freud for a moment.

Laura Mulvey, in her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, analyzes the inherent pleasure in looking at people and the human form. If people did not have this fascination, visual artwork would be nothing but landscape paintings and portraits of animals. We would have no Greco-Roman statues or photography or movies. Scopophilia is defined as the pleasure in looking, which differs slightly from voyeurism, which is the pleasure is viewing private or forbidden activity. Mulvey writes that there is also a reverse pleasure, that in being looked at (381).

This significance is the basis of Hitchcock's Rear Window, wherein the main character LB is stuck in a wheelchair after an accident at a racing event. Notably, LB is a photographer, which in itself implies a fascination with looking. LB watches the neighbors in his apartment complex across the courtyard through their windows. In particular, he becomes obsessed with a salesman in the opposite building, who LB believes has killed his wife and shipped her body off in a crate. Later, LB draws his nurse and girlfriend into the intrigue. Hitchcock knew very well that the audience would relate to this story, because all of us have been curious about what goes on in another person's home, or glanced (although probably not stared through binoculars) into a window.

Smartly, the film is shot from mainly one location, LB's apartment looking out, and many of the camera shots are from LB's point of view. We, as a viewer of the cinema screen, are a participant. And indeed, what is cinema, but a chance to openly engage in viewing a private world? The screen is a window crafted for the audience. Freud's concept of the gaze, which has a sexual connotation, is not paramount to Rear Window, because LB is mainly trying to solve a murder. There are some scenes, though, where LB watches Miss Torso the pretty dancer or a married couple. You will notice that, inexplicably, the windows in the apartment complex seem to be open and uncovered at all times. As a plot device, the story takes place in a heat wave, justifying this fabricated opportunity to view others at all hours.

Later in her article, Mulvey cites the concept of woman as image and man as bearer of the look. "What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance" (384). Here Mulvey is quoting Budd Boetticher, a noted director of Westerns in the 1940s and 50s.

So what is the significance of the woman-as-object in Hitchcock's work? I don't agree that Rear Window embodies this quote exactly. LB's girlfriend, Lisa, is not a one-dimensional character. She does drive the plot and assist the man, but she is not the reason LB acts the way he does. She chastises him at first for snooping and being so fixated on the theory of murder. LB does have concern for Lisa when she is in danger, but being confined to a wheelchair, he is unable to fight back. In Hitchcock's other films, such as The Birds, women take the central role of strong yet not-masculine figures. Then again, in the case of Rear Window, Hitchcock did cast one the most beautiful starlets of the day, Grace Kelly, later Princess of Monaco. Again, we the audience are able to view their private moments and appreciate aesthetically the image on the screen: the beautiful actress. The woman is not merely an image to drive the male character, but to inspire the viewer as well.