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American Imago 61.1 (2004) 59-76

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Eighty Years of Dream Sequences:
A Cinematic Journey Down Freud's "Royal Road"

Jerrold R. Brandell
School of Social Work
Wayne State University
4756 Cass Avenue
Detroit, MI 48202

"The secrets of who you are and what has made you run away from yourself—all these secrets are buried in your brain—but you don't want to look at them. The human being very often doesn't want to know the truth about himself because he thinks it will make him sick. So, he makes himself sicker trying to forget. . . . Now, here is where dreams come in. They tell you what you are trying to hide. But they tell it to you all mixed up, like pieces of a puzzle that don't fit. The problem of the analyst is to examine this puzzle, and put the pieces together in the right place, and find out what the devil you are trying to say to yourself."
—Dr. Brulov, in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound

The publication in 1910 of English translations of Freud's 1909 lectures at Clark University and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, as well as of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life four years later, accelerated the diffusion of psychoanalytic ideas throughout American culture in the first quarter of the last century. Indeed, William McDougall, a prominent psychologist, observed in 1926 that "a host of laymen, educators, artists, and dilettanti . . . fascinated by Freudian speculations" had "given them an immense popular vogue," to the point where psychoanalytic terms and concepts became embodied in current slang (22). However, it was above all The Interpretation of Dreams, translated (like the Psychopathology) by A. A. Brill in 1913, that captured the public imagination, receiving wide exposure through newspaper articles, essays, and even detective stories (Hale 1971, 409-11). Not surprisingly, Freud's argument that the universal nocturnal phenomenon of dreaming provided compelling evidence for mental life below the surface of consciousness appealed especially strongly to screen writers and movie directors. [End Page 59]

This paper examines different ways in which dreams have been represented and interpreted in cinematic depictions of psychoanalytic treatment over the past eighty years. Popular film portrayals of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy have often been legitimately criticized for being misleading, distorted, or even pathological: boundary violations and magical cures are so common as to constitute clichés. Although similar criticisms may also be applied to cinematic representations of dreams and their interpretation, that will not be the principal thrust of this paper. Rather, my focus will be on how the rendering of dreams and dream interpretation in movies from different historical epochs reflects alterations in our understanding of either the treatment process or relationship between analyst and analysand or both. I shall also touch on two ancillary themes: first, whether it is possible to identify cultural forces that may have shaped cinematic depictions of dreams and dream interpretation; and second, whether technological advances in cinematography have influenced the manner in which dreams are represented on the screen. To this end, I shall discuss four movies: Secrets of the Soul (1926), a silent film directed by G. W. Pabst; Hitchcock's suspense thriller, Spellbound (1945); David and Lisa (1962), produced and directed by Frank Perry; and Twelve Monkeys (1995), a science-fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam.

As is well known, the concept of wish-fulfillment is the theoretical cornerstone of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), and it became a shibboleth of the "drive/structure" model of classical psychoanalysis (Greenberg and Mitchell 1983). In Freud's view, the dreamer's wishes (which are unacceptable to the conscious mind) form the latent content of dreams. The latent content calls forth opposing forces whose aim is to disguise, repress, or otherwise censor the disturbing wish. This mental conflict leads to the dream work. The operations of the dream work involve modes of primary-process thinking such as displacement, condensation, substitution, and symbolic representation, as well as secondary elaboration. The final result is the dream's manifest content...


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