- Seeing, Sensing, SayingHolding Patterns in The Homesman (2014)
As we well know, early psychoanalytic film theorists sought to draw attention to the deceptive quality of cinematic narratives and their corresponding images. Authors from Jean-Louis Baudry to Christian Metz to Laura Mulvey, among many others, relied on a range of psychoanalytic concepts, first, to identify how the cinematic screen seduces viewers with fantasmatic lures, and, second, to conceive alternative paths that might rescue viewers from the lies projected before them. More recently, however, Lacanian thinkers have offered a revised—and significantly more complex—account of cinematic spectatorship and its relation to fantasy. As Todd McGowan has argued, for instance, deception does not always inhibit the truth but rather may function as the very fictive means by which truth, as such, becomes accessible to speaking beings in the first place. "When we lie," McGowan writes, "we create a distinction between how we appear to others and how we appear to ourselves, and we thereby establish an interior space of freedom from the demands of the external world. In this way, lying functions as an assertion of one's subjectivity."1 In the essay that follows, I similarly contend that fantasy may provide the means for a subject's access to freedom and that cinematic style can offer precise formulations to illustrate and enact this curious feature of subjectivity. More specifically, and rather than taking for granted the function of fantasy—as if the experience of self-deception is a given or a capacity possessed by any and all subjects—I want to consider how the very capacity for fantasy may emerge through the creative exchanges [End Page 67] that occasionally occur between subjects and thereby provide the positive means for intersubjective care.
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Before going further, let me draw from a relatively recognizable cinematic example to offer a point of clarification in advance. In an iconic shot from Unforgiven (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 1992), William Munny (Eastwood) sits behind Delilah (Annah Thomson) and lies to her (Figure 1). She has just offered him a "free one"; that is, she has volunteered her body to him at no charge as an advance on the bounty she and her fellow prostitutes have offered to avenge her assault at the hands of a drunken cowboy earlier in the film. Munny declines, but he realizes immediately that his refusal comes at an emotional cost for Delilah, who suspects he is repulsed by the conspicuous scars on her face in the aftermath of the assault.
Positioned in a manner not unlike an analytic setting, Munny offers an explanation: "I can't on account of my wife … She's watching over my young ones." The story he tells has its intended effect: Delilah is relieved to learn his abstinence is not a rejection of her but an act of loyalty to his wife. At the same time, the cinematic audience realizes that Munny's gesture of matrimonial commitment is metaphorical; his wife died several years ago, and his reference to her "watching over" his children carries a generically religious connotation of the dead looking down on the living from heaven. To be sure, Munny's lie works in the service of intersubjective care—it makes Delilah feel better—but it likewise maintains the [End Page 68] deceiver in a privileged place of authority. In other words, Delilah recovers emotionally from the perceived rejection but only because her ego receives validation from an outside source. Unforgiven, like several other contemporary films directed by Eastwood, positions the white masculine hero as the only character with the strength to hold the emotional excesses of the characters around them.2 Here, even though the lie is offered with the intent to mend the woman's wounds, and perhaps even does so immediately, it also maintains the status quo of the intersubjective hierarchy, preserving the established power dynamic; the character positioned in the place of the analyst remains the (only) one able to appropriate the creative power of the signifier. In other words, fantasy, as it is deployed here, preserves the status quo, maintains a safe distance between subjects, and thereby...