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MINDGAMES: Mulholland Drive

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By Jeremiah Tessier and William Sharp

Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and its impact on our daily lives brought the science of dreams into popular discussion beyond simply the spiritual and mystical.

Mulholland Drive 2

In the book, Down the Rabbit Hole, Gregory (2016) writes, “As we move downward [from consciousness to unconsciousness] we experience an affective charge—thoughts become feelings. We approach the dream in its own realm. Here the surety of signs gives way to the ambiguity of symbols. Literalism gives way to metaphorical thinking. The rational, causal view of the world breaks down, and we are left to experience the awe of uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt. We have begun the journey. The dream is the ticket. The price of the ticket is uncertainty” (p. ix). Nowhere in my recent experience do we get a chance to see the dream work as clearly as we do in David Lynch’s (2001) Mulholland Drive.

BGSP’s movie series this spring 2016 was created around the theme of MINDGAMES.  To kick off the season, Professor Emily Kales of Northeastern University, who helped organize the series, spoke on the structure of the film and (SPOILER!) established that the first 90 minutes is a dream.  Whose dream? That can be debated and was as part of the March 18th event. Drs. Mara Wagner (BGSP Faculty member) and William Sharp (also of Northeastern—both last minute substitutes for Dr. Danielle Egan of St. Lawrence University)—assisted to bring the psychoanalytic notions of dreams and psychosis into the discourse.

For Freud, dreams served as a way to preserve sleep when the conscious mind was not working. Dreams are both wishes and fears and represent inner conflicts.  Freud (1900) writes in The Interpretation of Dreams, “If I eat […] highly salted food in the evening, I develop thirst during the night which wakes me up. But my waking is preceded by a dream […]. I dream I am swallowing down water in great gulps and it has the delicious taste that nothing can equal but a cool drink when one is parched with thirst. [But] I am a good sleeper and not accustomed to be woken by any physical need. If I can succeed in appeasing my thirst by dreaming that I am drinking, then I need not wake up in order to quench it. This, then, is a dream of convenience. Dreaming has taken the place of action, as it often does elsewhere in life.”

Jeremiah Tessier, BGSP Master’s candidate, was first to verbalize how Mulholland Drive can be interpreted as a dream which fails to contain the conflict, and the dreamer is faced with the “return of the repressed.” If we assume the dreamer to be Diane in this scenario, (SPOILER) we assume Betty, the naive and innocent one, and Rita, the amnesic woman who seems to be in a lot of trouble—she barely escaped her own death at the start, and a purse full of cash—are parts of Diane. Diane’s conflict centers on taking out a hit on her love interest, Camilla.

Once the full conscious mind comes back online—the last sixty minutes of the movie— the psychic conflict overwhelms Diane. The once “scarily happy” elderly couple from the start of the film, who wish Betty luck, come back. They cross over from the dream world into the real world as taunting pint-sized versions of themselves. When it is impossible to tell the real from the dream, we have entered psychosis.  As is sometimes an action brought on by entering a psychotic state, Diane shoots herself as the source of the conflict seems to be coming from within her own head (not the monster-couple). The ultimate way to quiet the mind, the ultimate “silencio,” is where the film ends–suicide.

For clinicians with a psychoanalytic lens, the movie can also be viewed as a first session. The beginning of the movie simultaneously makes sense and is utterly incomprehensible. Like a first session, all of the material the clinician will come to know quite well through treatment is presented; however, we just don’t know how to make sense of it. Only after “taking the journey down the rabbit hole” does our vision becomes clear and we can frame our otherwise disorienting experience.

It would be an understatement to say that Mulholland Drive is unsettling. Lynch masterfully plays with the viewer’s expectations around symbols we have come to think of as pre-loaded with certain values and associations. Old folks (as pictured above) – must they be friendly? One may think of the colloquialism, “sweet little old lady” and its diametric opposite “cranky old man,” but Lynch goes beyond this binary pair, or perhaps it is not that he goes beyond, but that he goes through. The elderly couple seemed to shift quickly, to always be on the move oscillating between a series of points on a grid. Are they friendly? Are they dangerous? Could it be both? Do they know something we don’t? Are they conspiring against our heroine? Dr. Wagner remarked about their scene in the limo, “This is the scariest scene yet.” Dr. Sharp agreed. The elderly couple goes through a series of positions, eliciting various feelings along the way. (See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s ideas for more on grids, points, and shifting identity.) This dynamic is ripe for the psychoanalytic approach, as the symbolic meaning the viewer may derive from the elderly couple in the dream is not inscribed for us or immediately available as a convention. Rather it is determined, very much like unconscious content within a session, by the phrases, images, or events that appear before and after the appearance of the elderly couple in the film, or associations in the session.

Watching the film, being in the process so to speak, adds to the disorienting quality of the movie. This is in part because as the viewer, we can’t immediately put a finger on “it,” so to speak. We can’t fit “it” into what developmental psychologists might call a schema. Thus the experience could be said to fall into what our contemporary sociological field calls a discursive gap. Regardless, the viewer knows something is off; something is not quite right here.

It may very well be the case that we cannot initially grasp the strange forms presented in Mulholland Drive precisely because we cannot afford to and we don’t want to. We have a vested interest in not grasping it—what is called resistance in psychoanalysis. Like the conflicts hidden in dreams, however, we also want to talk about them.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: A Psychoanalytic Review Or How a Kids’ Show Can Teach Analysis

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By Dr. Carol Panetta

“It’s time for you to look inward, and begin asking yourself the big questions:  who are you, and what do you want?”  It’s not exactly the stuff of your average American cartoon program, but this quote captures the essence of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated TV series aimed at 6-to-11 year olds that aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008.  The series wonderfully combines elements of Chinese martial arts such as kung fu and tai chi, which provide the action and excitement, with Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.  More surprisingly, it presents the audience with an unexpected level of character development, revealing a psychoanalytic process of unconscious conflict, repetition, and emotional resolution through relationship.

In the series, the primary lessons in psychoanalysis reside in the relationship between the antagonist, the young and impetuous Prince Zuko, and his uncle, the staid but clever Uncle Iroh.  As the viewers come to know Prince Zuko, they learn about the internal, unconscious conflicts that bedevil him.  They watch him fight the same inner battles over and over in a colossal repetition compulsion.  Zuko’s Uncle Iroh demonstrates a psychoanalytic posture with Zuko, refraining from passing judgment while Zuko rejects his uncle’s guidance and projects his conflicts onto Uncle Iroh.  Through the relationship between nephew and uncle, Prince Zuko gradually comes to internalize his uncle’s guidance and face his inner demons, demonstrating an analytic process of transference, resistance, and working through his conflicts.

Avatar Airbender Iroh Four Nations

Read the rest of this entry »

What Use is Free Speech If Nobody Listens?

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By Dr. Carol Panetta

I was perusing a recent copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education over lunch, as I often do, and I stumbled on Jason Stanley’s article, “The Free Speech Fallacy.”  Stanley is responding to a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that, in criticizing a controversial critique of Israeli policy towards Palestinians, in his view, portrays “left-wing social justice as a threat to free speech.”  According to Stanley, this theme “dates back to the fall, when nationwide campus protests calling for racial justice were represented as threats to free speech.”

Dr. Carol Panetta.jpg
Carol Panetta, Psy.D

As a graduate of Amherst College, where anti-racism protests rocked the campus during the fall wave, I was intrigued by the debate.  When is it right to tell someone not to say something that is offensive?  Stanley asks, “If I tell you that you shouldn’t say racist things, am I really denying you the right to say those things?  I told my mother the other day that she shouldn’t tell me that I am overweight.  Was I challenging her freedom of speech?”

On the flip side, many of us have experienced the feeling of political correctness inhibiting free speech.  Is it really anti-Semitic to challenge an Israeli policy that doesn’t seem right?  How should whites talk about racism, given their privilege?  The phenomenon of political correctness does give me pause before I speak.

But so what?  Read the rest of this entry »

Freud, Trump, and the Terrible Deliciousness of Hate

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We are committed to advancing psychoanalytic understanding of and dialog about important social phenomena. We therefore welcome psychoanalytically-informed submissions expressing varied perspectives on the current political campaigns.
By Dr. Mary Shepherd

Mary Shepherd, Psya.D., Faculty

I had dinner the other night with an 87-year-old friend of mine, a poet and member of the Hungarian aristocracy, who had fled in 1987 with her husband, who had survived three years in the Gulag, and landed here with only the clothes on her back. “I like to watch my Trumpy on TV,” she said with a wry grin. “Why?” I asked. “Because in Hungary I couldn’t say “I hate”. I couldn’t say I hate Stalin, I hate Lenin, I hate the Communists. I would have gone to jail.” “So, ‘Trumpy’ can say everything that political correctness prohibits, and it’s fun?” “Right,” she says. “Hitler was elected by popular vote you know.” Like the poet she is, my friend quickly juxtaposed her admission of a profound truth about human nature with her abhorrence of demagogy, vulgarity, and xenophobia. Human nature elected Hitler and may elect Trump: it’s really fun to just let fly with all our most destructive, primitive urges; out of fear of the unknown, out of our terror of the “other”, or out of our wishes to be superior and omnipotent. Nobody wants to admit that this is really how we are. But now a candidate for president legitimizes this, celebrates it, even glories in it. Now we can hate ’til our hearts content.   Read the rest of this entry »

Working with Negative Feelings

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BGSP alumni demonstrate the importance of recognizing and learning how to navigate negative feelings when working on the front line in mental health institutions.

Negative feelings, such as anger, envy, hopelessness, fear and disgust, are part of being human, but they often present the biggest challenge when working with patients, colleagues, or institutions. This is especially true for frontline mental health workers who work with complicated and challenging cases. This Fall, a panel of BGSP alumni presented examples of dealing with difficult feelings in a variety of mental health settings, including a hospital diversion program, a group home and a home-based treatment program. Read the rest of this entry »