MIND THE SCREEN - Essay about Film and Consciousness
Dream and desire as subconscious creative drives in filmmaking, in the context of Phenomenology and Jungian Film Studies. Surrealism, Magic Realism and Fantastic Realism, as cinematic tools for expressing inner content, bridging fantasy with reality.
1. DEFINING CONSCIOUSNESS:
Despite having truly become an academic area of interest, scientists typically steer away from the study of consciousness. It is still a very slippery subject not only in terms of its scientific grasping, but even in terms of pinning down what it means, semantically. While psychology usually defines as consciousness, only the aware processes of the mind – calling the remaining processes, the Unconscious or Subconscious – Science and Philosophy, often consider consciousness as synonym of the overall Mind (or Psyche), regardless of its many layers and states of awareness.
Defining and most of all, understanding consciousness, has been the so called “hard problem” of science. While neuroscience might still argue that consciousness is an epiphenomena arising from neuronal electrochemical correlations in the brain, that was never able to account for what consciousness is and much less, for how it comes about. Deriving or explaining phenomena like self-awareness or the experience of subjective meaning, from mere electrochemical brain activity, requires a true leap of faith.
Some new models of reality based on digital information systems, define consciousness as a fundamental non-local and non-spatial, a priori condition for our experience of reality. Space, time and causality are presented themselves as being structures of consciousness that need to be in place, in order for the experience of reality to be even possible. The roots of these theories date from as far back as Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and are themselves forms of Transcendental Idealism.
These new reality models metaphorically compare consciousness, its structures and our experience of reality, with a computer, it’s OS and executing a program. They depart from the undeniable premise that consciousness exists (I think therefore I am) and explain all physical phenomena as information interpreted by consciousness. Such Theories of Everything are apparently compatible both with Quantum Mechanics and Relativity and present consciousness at the very core of all phenomena and reality as we experience it. In fact, philosophically or scientifically speaking we can never be sure that reality exists outside of our experience of it. We can nevertheless be sure that we do experience reality... And such experience, is the very object of Phenomenology
2. DEFINING PHENOMENOLOGY:
René Descartes: cogito ergo sum – If I'm conscious, then I exist. I can doubt everything except that I exist (in terms of being aware). This relevantly cements subjectivity as the point of departure for philosophical reflection.
David Hume said that all of our knowledge about the world comes from our experiences (empiricism).
Emmanuel Kant: What we experience in the world, is not IN the world but are rather made possible to experience by a priori (Ideal) structures existing in the mind (Space, Time, Cause, Effect, Unity, Totality). They need to exist before empirical experience is at all possible.
EDMUND HUSSERL: The “father” of Phenomenology. Also disregards whether what we're experiencing is real and just focuses on the features of consciousness that make our subjective experience possible.
Phenomenology: The study about the subjective (from the first person's point of view) experience of phenomena and the transcendental features/structures of consciousness that need to be in place, in order for us to experience phenomena the way we do. Phenomenology studies the nature of the operative relation between consciousness and reality, rather than to explain reality.
Husserl’s ideas exploded with Modernism and all the novelties of this cultural/artistic movement (including Film). He wanted Phenomenology to be a “science of all sciences”. A structure in which all sciences would be grounded, based on something that naturalistic/materialistic sciences don’t take into account: Consciousness.
Husserl coined the term natural attitude for the act of perceiving things with no regard to the operative relation between things themselves and our experience of them. Husserl wanted to avoid the natural attitude and focus on how the structures of consciousness perform this operative translation. For him the definition of phenomena is not an ontological one (not about how they really are), but how we (come to) experience them.
Intentionality/Directionality: We're always conscious OF something (not of everything and not of nothing). Consciousness and our experience of phenomena are always about something or directed at something. Consciousness (subject) and reality (object) are one: No subject without object and no object without subject. Intentionality implies meaning because meaning implies one’s involvement with things.
The content/meaning of a particular experience is provided by a Context of personal past experiences and associations of ideas. These are distinct from the present experiences upon which they cast meaning. In other words, the intentionality of consciousness is mediated by a framework that it's already there (I don't have to think about it) for me and provides meaning/content.
Categorical Intuition: Husserl argues that we have intuition of both the essence and meaning of things. We don’t have to deduct it through concepts or representations, but we rather perceive it instantly.
Description: Of things as they appear to me and then of things in terms of how they are present to me (essence). Starts with the process of Reduction, which is laid out in 3 stages:
1. Phenomenological Reduction: Aims to see things as no longer separate, but rather one with me, in order to better understand how they relate to me.
2. Eidetic Reduction: Reducing things to their essence. Achieved by removing successive layers of attributes, and doing variations, until I can no longer remove any attribute without changing its essence.
Note: to know that the essence is lost upon removing an attribute, I must already know what the essence is… Even before finding it through this process. This is contradictory unless we consider Categorical Intuition allows us to detect its essence instinctively. (Related to consciousness both creating and experiencing reality?).
3. Transcendental Reduction: Reduce things back to their source of meaning => the transcendental pure consciousness (Husserl) or Dasein (Heidegger).
Features of Consciousness: Experience depends on a lot of "a priori" structures or features. Some are transcendental while others are accumulated/formatted through our lives. This was the basis for Cognitivism, although Cognitivism is in a way drifting more and more into Neuroscience, in terms of those structures.
Existentialists like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty oppose an “essentialist” or “transcendental idealist” Husserlian view of the subject/consciousness existing somehow apart from the natural world. But this is itself a misinterpretation of Husserl's Phenomenology. Husserl says the mind should avoid the natural attitude in order to do phenomenology... Not avoid the natural world. Husserl doesn't separate the mind from Nature... He actually states mind IS nature and nature IS mind. Even our body and its sensations only exist in the sense that we are aware of them. Only a body focused existentialism separates the mind from the body, not Husserl’s model.
3. DEFINING FILM AUTHORSHIP:
Unlike in literature or fine arts, where there is usually one single author, films are more frequently the result of a collaborative effort, which makes it more difficult to define an author. But if this is true for high end “mainstream” film, on the other hand with arthouse, experimental and avant-garde films, it's fair to say that some films are individually authored.
Therefore the most reasonable position is to say that some films have individual authors and some are collectively authored. Sometimes film authorship may not be attributed to the director but, rather to screenwriters, producers, actors or cinematographers. Some people will talk about the latest Harrison Ford or the John Altman film... And the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture is given to the film producer. But most commonly, the film director is considered the single most responsible person for the look and sound of the finished project. This is obvious in films of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, QuentinTarantino… Saying that a film has multiple collaborators is one thing, but the director is typically responsible for managing the creative process, like a project manager or the conductor of an orchestra. Exceptions would be collaborative authorship in films directed by the Coen Brothers or the Brothers Quay.
Historical Context: In 1954 at the beginning of the French New Wave, François Truffaut coined for the first time the term “La politique des auteurs” ("The policy of the authors"), to express his idea that directors who had control over the realization of the script were the ones who made better films. André Bazin (Truffaut’s mentor) also thought that directors should be authors and not just stagers (“meteurs en scéne”). Later, structuralists like Roland Barthes and Michel Focault, foretold the upcoming end of the author altogether. They defended that it would be better if authorship came to an end, because removing the author factor as meaning maker, would open up the meaning interpretation of art to the public domain. But authorship is not incompatible with interpretive pluralism. André Bazin himself defended that a film should represent a director's personal vision but the interpretation of it should be left to the spectator. It’s arguable how valuable or beneficial proliferation of meaning really is and sometimes limitation and exclusion of meaning can serve specific purposes. The fact is that author theory seems pretty much alive, even if interpretation should be left to the spectator.
Authorship is relevant for:
Author Constructs: Some film theorists argue there is no author, only the author’s effect on the film. Both things coexist: There are both real empirical authors and authors as they are manifest in their works. There are reasons why authorship is not only the author’s effect on the film:
4. FILM PHENOMENOLOGY:
Film and Phenomenlogy were born roughly at the same time and have grown side by side, in particular during the 40s and 50s during the French movement of Filmology. However in the 70s and 80s, the rise of Screen Theory – based on (Post) Structuralism, Semiotics and Psychoanalysis – eclipsed the interest in phenomenological film studies. In the 1990s Film Phenomenology returned, with scholars like Frank P. Tomasulo, Allan Casebier and Vivian Sobchack. Unlike Screen Theory, film Phenomenology might be more interested in understanding how the mind makes meaning out of film, than to explain what that meaning is. In Phenomenology, philosophical arguments should be intuitive insights, not discursive arguments. Likewise, Films show and present, they rarely argue in a formal sense. They "monstrate", don't "demonstrate".
Film Phenomenology (two sub-concepts):
1. Phenomenology of Film: Understanding film in Phenomenological terms. In other words, studying filmmaking or film viewing, employing phenomenological concepts and/or methods.
2. Film as Phenomenology: Filmmaking and film viewing working as an exercise in Phenomenology themselves. When you do Phenomenology simply by making films or watching films.
There is some overlapping between these two concepts so we’ll just talk in terms of Film Phenomenology in general and use numbers 1 and 2 to refer to each type. Film Phenomenology can also be understood from two perspectives:
Spectatorship: (1) The concepts of phenomenology can help us better understand the viewing experience, including the subject-object relations: viewer-as-experiencing-subject and film-as-intentional-object. Study of the invariant structures of the film viewer’s experience when watching films. (2) Film viewing (cinema in particular) disengages us from everyday life and facilitates the conditions for "seeing without reflecting", detaching us from the Natural Attitude and engaging in phenomenological reduction. Film suspends disbelief (which is the natural attitude), but also suspends belief, since we regard films as unreal or dreamy. A film is not thought, it is perceived. Its meaning is in its immediate perception.
Authorship: (1)Through the camera’s choice-making movements of attention and its objects, film mechanically carries out an enactment of what the mind carries out intentionally. Film "echoes" subjectivity and makes manifest the relation between consciousness intentionality and intended objects. The editing process reorganizes the camera’s captured footage, just as we restructure and reorganize our experiences in thoughts and meaning. (2)The Author shares his experience-imagination through film, conducting the experience-perception of the spectator. The fact that films are not thought but rather directly perceived, promotes a bracketing process of the spectator's experience-perception, allowing the author's experience-imagination to be directly communicated, reducing hermeneutical loss.
Film as Phenomenological Reduction: The film is a product of imaginative reconstruction by the author who creates a world of its own. Directors, cinematographers, editors, etc… Shape image, sound and narrative in ways that provide Film with a phenomenological import. The spectator then assumes what Husserl calls the attitude of “fictionalizing experience”, where the world of the natural attitude is captured in images – the “image world” - and recreated for our contemplation in a state of suspended reflection called the phenomenological attitude. In this state, the ego splits in two: The reflecting ego establishing itself as a disinterested onlooker above the naively interested ego. Likewise, the film spectator splits: Part of of him/her doesn’t really believe what is happening in the film is real (suspended belief) but at the same time s/he engages immersively with the film, almost in a dream like state (suspended disbelief). Films that work phenomenologically manipulate and focus our experience, revealing the essential structures of phenomena, in ways akin to phenomenological reduction.
One way of understanding how the mind perceives reality is also through the theory of Gestalt psychology. Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenological philosopher who most wrote about film, went deeply into this subject in his published lecture “Film and the New Psychology”, which Daniel Yacavone (a professor at Edinburgh University) brilliantly reviewed.
Gestalt: The mind perceives reality as an organized whole that is not merely the sum of its parts. It's a unified experience that transcends its building representational blocks. Related to the concept of Holism – the idea that natural systems should be viewed as wholes, not as loose collections of parts. The main laws of Gestalt are:
Individual film Authors provide refined aesthetics, style and temporal gestalt to convey meaning in films, turning them into works of art which transcend the material, technological, and merely reproductive conditions of the film medium. A unified audiovisual structure created by a filmmaker, with expressive and communicative intentions, shape and channel not only the presentation, but also the meaning of its contents. This is a form of cinematic phenomenology: The Gestaltic aesthetic perception of art, allows it to transcend both the literal representation of visual resemblance, and the every day experienced life-world. Film as art provides the experience of meaning.
André Bazin considers editing as a form of abstraction that reduces, or even rules out the ambiguity of reality. But some forms of editing can be considered Temporal Gestalt in the way they synthesize meaning, by organizing the images captured by the camera, in audiovisually rhythmic ways (the choice of shots, their ordering, and the variable length) which allows the spectator to incrementally perceive essence, just as s/he does in the natural world. Two classical examples of temporal Gestalt in editing:
Sergei Einsenstein (Montage of Attractions): Montage cuts and juxtaposes film fragments/shots into a sequence guided by intellectual/conceptual criteria and with an external time rhythmic effect.
Andrei Tarkovsky (Sculpting in Time): Cuts in ways of matching the internal rhythm of the shots, which therefore come together spontaneously to keep constant the "Time-Pressure" (like the blood pressure inside the blood vessels), creating an internal pulse or rhythm throughout the film, like a regular heartbeat... Called the Time-Thrust.
Conclusion: By guiding the spectator's perception using editing and/or camera work, the author conditions the spectator to do Phenomenology. Just as Husserl's “free imaginative variation” allows the UNIVERSAL essence of phenomena to surface (while anything merely contingent drops away), also the film’s concrete images reflect the essential because they have been shaped and distilled by the filmmaker’s art and imagination, creating a richly complex image precisely to present something essential.
Note: I'm not talking here necessarily about that kind of art film, highly symbolic, depicting a pre-reflective, pre-rational form of experience. Although this may also be considered a form of phenomenological reduction in art (including film), in terms of communication, it's like Morse code: only understandable by a selected few.
Therapeutic Value: Film Phenomenology can be regarded as a form of Gestalt Therapy, bringing viewers back to the present moment experience and helping them perceive themselves and reality as a unified coherent whole. Focusing more on the what and how, than on the why, it’s a kind of phenomenological and existential therapy. It develops awareness, integration and self-direction, because people are self-interpreting themselves as one with the world and detecting the gaps in their lives or addressing fracturing issues like unfinished problems.
5. JUNG PSYCHOLOGY:
Psyche: For Jung, the mind or Psyche is the totality of the psychological processes, both conscious and unconscious and it is composed of the Consciousness (in Jungian terms only the conscious part of the mind), the Personal Unconscious and the Collective Unconscious. It is also the totality of the Personality.
The Ego is the subject of consciousness, our sense of “I”, our identity. What we also call the “reflexive consciousness” (acquired at what Lacan called the Mirror Stage). The Ego wants to be perfect so tends to ignore its flaws, projecting them into the part of the Unconscious called the Shadow.
Consciousness: The function/activity which maintains the relation between psychic contents and the ego. Whether contents are sensed or not by the Ego, such contents are conscious or unconscious, respectively.
Personal Unconscious: Consciousness can only deal with so many psychic contents at a time so, contents that are put aside temporarily by the conscious constitute the Personal Unconscious. There are contents like temporarily forgotten information, as well as repressed memories, which may surface and plunge again in the personal unconscious.
Collective Unconscious: Universal ancestral emotions, affects, drives and predispositions from our evolutionary past, regardless of historical, ethnological, or other background differences. Content erupting from obscure centre of the unconscious never becoming wholly conscious or fully assimilated by the Ego. These are composed of "instincts" as well as ancestral latent memories and images called Archetypes. A basic capacity of the unconscious is that of acting compensatively to consciousness based on the totality of the psyche.
Archetypes: Archetypes are a priori/ideal structures of the psyche/mind, like universal, transcendental principles, therefore their origin is a transcendental metaphysical question. The Archetypes lie in the unconscious in a latent state. They are images and thoughts which have universal meanings across cultures and may show up in dreams, literature, art or religion. They represent not "ideas", but potentialities, modes of psychic functioning, or behaviour patterns. Along with various other behavioural phenomena, they manifest in consciousness through symbolic imagery, which needs to be interpreted to understand the archetypal pattern of the human mind. The following are some of the most relevant Jungian Archetypes:
Dream Work: the animus/anima manifests itself in our dreams usually in the form of the opposite sex. Through a meaningful interpretation of our dream life we may develop a direct dialogue with the archetype.
Active Imagination: Based on one's recurring qualities across a lifetime of relationships with the opposite sex (parent, teachers, siblings, romantic interests), constructing an image of the Anima/animus and engaging in a dialogue with it through the imaginative process.
6. JUNG & FILM:
Introduction: Through Phenomenology we’ve tried to understand how Film can be both mentally therapeutic and an effective representational tool to share the experience of phenomena in terms of perception and meaning, between filmmaker and film viewer. Jung on the other hand, through his highly complex model of the mind/psyche, provides interesting insights on how both Film and the Unconscious express content in terms of images (Ex: archetypal images in Dreams). So film might well be a unique tool to unlock and share unconscious content and meaning, with therapeutic value both at a personal and social level.
Jung & Symbols: Although in semiotic terms Symbol is one of the three types of Signs, in Jungian terms a Symbol is something different from a Sign.
A Symbol in semiotic terms is a Sign (word, shape or object) with a single universal and fixed meaning established by convention, and it stands for something known and objective. Freud had a more semiotic literal and reductive approach to the meaning of unconscious images: An apple or a banana would always have the same meaning.
A Symbol in Jungian terms is a visual representation of Archetypes, that shows up in Dreams, Fantasies and Visions. Symbols have both a personal subjective meaning and a more objective universal Archetypal meaning. Symbol interpretation consists of cross referencing the multiple personal and universal meanings, transcending the sum of the Symbol’s partial meanings and providing an insight of its unique meaning for the individial in the world.
Analogy with Gestalt: Just as Gestalt meaning is different and more than the sum of its parts, so the Archetype is none nor the sum of all its symbolic manifestations. The Archetype is rather the latent content that finds expression in all of them, yet remains unknown to the intellect. It is timeless knowledge transformed into pictures.
Meaning Interpretation as Individuation: A Jungian approach to Film suggests that being particularly apt for the use of image symbols and symbolic meaning, both film making and film viewing should be open to the wisdom of personal interpretation. A film Author can benefit from not only passively depicting, but also actively confronting his unconscious image symbols, developing his work without and within, throughout the creative process. Film should also challenge the audience to actively seek meaning, rather than passively entertain. By doing so the Spectator taps into and integrates unconscious content, in the process of interpreting film symbols. Film can catalyse the individuation process both for Author and Spectators alike.
Accessing Unconscious content: If the Author can find ways of tapping into Archetypal content of the Collective Unconscious and symbolically represent its universal meaning with film images, this will not only share unconscious content with the spectator, but also promote an individuation process, both in the Author, and in the Spectator. Archetypal contents can be accessed:
Amplification: The metaphorical meaning of dreams, visions, fantasy or active imagination content, shouldn’t be standardized or interpreted literally. Through an Amplification process, subjective interpretation is broadened and embedded in the more ancestral, universal, and cultural context of the Collective Unconscious, yet staying with the personal associations that grips one’s attention, to avoid becoming too generic. A more archetypal collective meaning can be extracted/interpreted from these symbolic images without losing touch with their personal meaning.
Individuation: The resulting content to be represented in film images, now bears a more collective, archetypal and universal meaning the audiences can relate to. This amplification of the Author’s unconscious content for the purpose of symbolic cinematic representation, is in itself a process of individuation, through the differentiation/integration of such contents in the Author’s consciousness. Then, when sharing these archetypal images on film, Filmmakers can invite audiences to tap into the collective unconscious too and trigger their own individuation process, through the extraction of personal subjective meaning.
Collective Individuation: Cinematic representation has the potential of expanding the personal individuation to a collective individuation. The Film Author shares and elevates that which he treats out of the individual and transitory into the sphere of the collective and eternal. A fluidity of meaning between author, viewer and culture, may lead to a shared broadening of the field of consciousness and ultimately, to collective consciousness and cultural phenomena.
Dynamic Matrix of Meaning: Meaning is in the author and in the spectator; in the conscious and in the unconscious; in thought and in feeling; in the individual and in the society/culture. Film questions the very idea of an independent/isolated individual. Film’s structures and meanings reflect the blurred line between conscious and unconscious as well as individual and social.
7. DESIRE – FREUD & LACAN:
Freud – Drives: While an Instinct is physiological, a Drive is Psychic. Sexual drives cannot be stereotyped, considering the infinite variety of sexual fantasies, perversions, etc.
Lacan: Drives are structured to remain inherently and perennially dissatisfied/unfulfilled. The drive, constantly compels us to be in an uncomfortable state of anxiety/desire, in which nevertheless we enjoy the anticipation of pleasure. The unconscious drive sustains itself by disallowing the conscious desire to fulfil its goal. The apparent masochism of the drive-desire dissonance reflects a lack of internal transparency, honesty and cohesion, indicative of the split between the conscious and unconscious registers of the psyche. We inflate the pleasure anticipation at a conscious level upon things that either can never be achieved or are not that pleasurable once achieved. Then people often feel miserable about feeling miserable, because they feel both frustrated and deceived, as they really thought the desire would be at least momentarily fulfilled. To stop playing the drive-desire game, we must let go of our desires. Without this unfulfilled desire, the inner tension and conflict subside. The drive no longer realizes the affective response that sustains it and the individual will experience relief and liberation. if you are, through whatever means, able to release yourself from the tyrannising desire you will effectively interrupt the drive and neurosis, freeing up libido that can be used for creativity and individuation. This is when you have tamed your desire. You control it... It doesn’t control you. Often our desires are imposed upon us by others and sometimes based on a flawed premises. One should not be convinced something is right, simply because you want it. Consider carefully the merits of the justification for your desire. But ultimately liberate yourself from expectations.
Note: We become addicted to the feeling of increment of happiness. Since happiness cannot be indefinitely incremented, what we do is create a cycle of removal and restoration of happiness. We create a desire to feel unhappy and then we enjoy the momentary happiness of returning to the normal neutral state, in which we stay happy until we create the next desire to make us feel unhappy again, so we can experience another momentary happiness, etc... What we mistake for happiness is the momentary release from the anxiety. But on the other hand, what we enjoy is precisely this anxiety/anticipation of becoming fulfilled... Which we never do because, we don't want to be fulfilled, but rather to remain in masochistic anticipation for the ephemeral thrill of momentary euphoric relief. What we enjoy is the relief of unhappiness but the unhappiness is the state of desire, so while happiness should be the absence of desire... It isn't as long as we're addicted to the very masochistic anticipation we call desire. I wouldn't say desires are unfulfillable. I'd say we are addicted to the anxiety state of desiring and this addiction is our drive. One of the ways we identify ourselves is through our hopes, dreams and aspirations. Consequently, I mitigate my brokenness through the fiction of my desire and thereby perpetuate the drive.
8. DESIRE – JUNG: Jung understands this drive/desire inner conflict is important for creativity, but suggests a way of taming it through turning it into a contextualised experience of the mystery of otherness, represented in the Archetypes of the Anima and Animus which bridge between our Conscious(ness) and the Unconscious, with their capacity to deeply reach inspirational, creative and intuitive images from the Archetypes in the collective subconscious. It has therefore also a fundamental role in creativity. and through that to potential processes of growth and change.
ANIMA: Being an Archetype, has an a priori origin in the collective unconscious but is also developed through life relationships with the opposite sex – Mother and later, mature romantic relationships. A man will generally project his Anima onto a single woman at a time, whereas a woman frequently has more than one animus projections in her life.
Stages of the Anima: These not only define the development stage of one’s contra sexuality, as it also defines our ideal about the opposite gender.
1. Eve - Parental pre-sexual feminine. Nourishment, security and love.
ANIMUS: Being an Archetype, has an a priori origin in the collective unconscious but is also developed through life relationships with the opposite sex – Father and later, mature romantic relationships. Whereas the Anima tends to have a singular reference at a time, the Animus tends to stem from multiple simultaneous references.
Stages of the Animus: These not only define the development stage of one’s contra sexuality, as it also defines our ideal about the opposite gender.
1. Unconscious primitive but physically vital masculine.
Conclusion: The Anima/Animus are one’s Archetypal representations of Desire but they are also privileged agents in the Individuation process and sources of creative inspiration. A Jungian approach to Film shows us that Desire can be a strong creative drive, leading to psychic equilibrium rather than to perennial unfulfilment, as suggested by Lacan.
9. FROM ART TO CINEMA:
To release and raise Archetypal projections from the unconscious into consciousness, becomes the very meaning of our existence. Access to unconscious contents is provided by dreams, visions and fantasies. Film can perhaps draw from three main artistic movements that were concerned with expressing these unconscious contents: