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American Imago 62.1 (2005) 137-142
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Nearly everyone goes to the movies. For the most part people go to be entertained, that is, for their "interest and amusement." The entertainment industry likes it this way. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, where various amusements diverted the bourgeoisie from troubling social, political and libidinal realities, Sigmund Freud (1908) speculated on how works of art affect us, and his formulation pretty well explains the entertainment value of contemporary films. Works of art, he thought, contained the disguised satisfaction of forbidden impulses. Artists dress our impulses in aesthetic coverings so that, vicariously and at a safe remove, we can satisfy our sexual and aggressive desires. Art, by this definition, fulfills the rather conservative role of offering partial gratifications to socially unacceptable wishes.
Some years later another Viennese-born psychoanalytic practitioner, Ernst Kris (1952), elaborated on Freud's ideas. According to his understanding, artworks, in order to be useful to the observer, must be optimally distanced both from the impulses and from the ego's defense mechanisms. The just-right film would engage the desires of viewers while at the same time offering sufficient "aesthetic illusion" to spare them from guilt or, even worse, from a traumatic overstimulation (46). James Joyce alluded to something similar when he said that if you pull the artwork toward you too far, the experience becomes pornographic, but if you distance yourself too much, it becomes criticism.
In light of these ideas, what are we to make of Madelon Sprengnether's experience, as related in her memoir, Crying at the Movies, of the convulsive crying that overtook her while watching the closing scenes of the Indian movie, Pather Panchali? Clearly she was "underdistanced" in Kris's sense. Her body spoke, overwhelming her intellect; any sense of control and decorum in a public place was lost as her body did what it had wanted but had been unable to do since she stood on the banks of the Mississippi River as a nine-year-old witness to her father's drowning. She cried wildly, violently, unreservedly. She [End Page 137] was joined in her grief by the woman on the movie screen, a mother releasing her grief over the death of her daughter, as the penetrating sitar music of Ravi Shankar filled the theater.
This was hardly an entertaining experience; it was not about "interest or amusement." It conformed to a different definition of the role that art can play in our lives provided by another subject of the Habsburg Empire during the opening years of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka, who wrote in a 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. . . . We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
Substitute "films" for "books," and I think you have a good statement of the criteria used by Sprengnether to select the films that she includes in Crying at the Movies. Something had been frozen inside of her from age nine. She uses this imagery herself in trying to explain to us what happened to her emotionally at the time of her father's death by water. "One part of me lived in a present devoid of animation, while another remained locked in the past, flash frozen into place by the shock of my father's departure. . . . As a consequence, I was not able to mourn" (10).
Pather Panchali and, twenty-six years later, the film Fearless cut through this frozen sea, releasing torrents of tears and visceral convulsions. These events were far from curative; this is no simplistic cathartic or evacuation model of healing. Crying at the Movies is the story of Sprengnether's reclamation of her emotional self and the...