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Cinema of Anxiety

Cinema of Anxiety
A Psychoanalysis of Italian Neorealism

Vincent F. Rocchio combines Lacanian psychoanalysis with narratology and Marxist critical theory to examine the previously neglected relationship between Italian Neorealist films and the historical spectators they address.

December 1999
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204 pages | 6 x 9 | 10 halftones |

The "new" realism of Italian cinema after World War II represented and in many ways attempted to contain the turmoil of a society struggling to rid itself of Fascism while fighting off the threat of radical egalitarianism at the same time. In this boldly revisionist book, Vincent F. Rocchio combines Lacanian psychoanalysis with narratology and Marxist critical theory to examine the previously neglected relationship between Neorealist films and the historical spectators they address.

Rocchio builds his analysis around case studies of the films Rome: Open City, Bicycle Thieves, La Terra Trema, Bitter Rice, and Senso. Through the lens of psychoanalysis, he challenges the traditional understanding of Neorealism as a progressive cinema and instead reveals the anxieties it encodes: a society in political turmoil, an economic system in collapse, and a national cinema in ruins; while war, occupation, collaboration, and retaliation remain a part of everyday life.

These case studies demonstrate how Lacanian psychoanalysis can play a key role in analyzing the structure of cinematic discourse and its strategies of containment. As one of the first books outside of feminist film theory to bring the ideas of Lacan to theories of cinema, this book offers innovative methods that reinvigorate film analysis. Clear and detailed insights into both Italian culture and the films under investigation will make this engaging reading for anyone interested in film and cultural studies.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Revisiting Psychoanalysis and the Cinema
  • 2. Rome: Open City: Anxiety, Ideology, and Cultural Containment
  • 3. Bicycle Thieves: Identification, Focalization, and Restoration
  • 4. La terra trema: Subverting and Structuring Meaning
  • 5. Bitter Rice: The Return of the Repressed (Diva)
  • 6. Senso: Degenerate Melodrama?
  • 7. Psychoanalysis, Cinematic Representation, and Cultural Studies
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Vincent F. Rocchio is a film scholar and independent filmmaker whose work has been shown in America and Italy.


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At the end of the summer of 1984, one week before I was to begin graduate school, my sister Lisa and I vacationed in Maine with my oldest brother, A. J., and his family. During that time, my nephew Jason went walking with my sister and accidentally fell off a dock and onto the rocks below. Although the tide was out, the surf—in those miraculous coincidences that separate tragedy from normal childhood accidents—surged in just as he landed, cushioning his fall against the rocks and preventing what would have been a skull fracture (as the gash on his forehead testified).

Jason was rushed to a hospital by ambulance, where he was joined by my brother and I. Jason's mother, Kathy, was out at the time with his two-year-old-sister, Lindsey. When they returned, my sister informed them of what happened, and they all waited together in the cabin. Kathy kept Lindsey entertained by playing at getting her to speak. The game essentially consisted of Lindsey, who had noticed her brother's absence, asking, "Where Jason?" From that question, the following ensued.

"Jason's at the hospital."


"He got a boo-boo on his head."


"He fell down."

When, as children are prone to do, Lindsey repeated the pattern for the thirty-seventh time, her mother turned the tables on her, answering her question with the same question. Lindsey was able to respond successfully: "Jason fall down," "Got boo-boo on head," "Go to hospital."

Over a month later I went to visit my brother and his family in their apartment in Brooklyn. Kathy, Jason, and Lindsey were playing in the living room when I arrived. I was saying hello to each of them when Lindsey started speaking what I thought were just random combinations of vowels. Her mother, however, understood her discourse and told me that she was saying, "Jason fall down, got boo-boo on head, go to hospital." Though at the time I thought it remarkable that she clearly remembered me from the cabin, I did not think it a particularly profound occurrence. I was wrong.

What I did not understand then was that Lindsey was in fact demonstrating three of the most significant aspects of language for cultural studies: its arbitrariness, its malleability, and its grounding in recognition. Clearly, her intended communication was more along the lines of "Hello, I remember you" than it was an assessment of Jason, but she lacked the mastery of language and its codes to say it "properly." Despite the lack of such mastery, her statement conveyed meaning more or less along the lines she intended, almost independently of the individual signifiers themselves—note that there is no signifier designating myself in her discourse.

The reason for this lies in a fundamental principle of language that Saussure pointed out: there is no inherent relationship between an individual signifier or sign and that which it represents: the signified. Rather, as Saussure demonstrated, the relationship is arbitrary. Thus, Christopher Norris summarizes this principle by arguing:

There is no self-evident or one-to-one link between "signifier" and "signified," the word as (spoken or written) vehicle and the concept it serves to evoke. Both are caught up in a play of distinctive features where differences of sound and sense are the only markers of meaning . . . Language is in this sense diacritical, or dependent on a structured economy of differences which allow a relatively small range of linguistic elements to signify a vast repertoire of negotiable meanings.

The radical implication of the arbitrary nature of language, and its dependence on structure rather than grounding in external reality for meaning, is the eradication of truth anchored to a claim of inherent meaning. The arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified means that there is no inherent meaning, which then inaugurates a search for what ensures the meaning of the sign and the communications act.

Karl Marx, M. M. Bakhtin, and Antonio Gramsci saw in the process of fixing and ensuring the meaning of the sign an inherently political process: a means by which the world (or, more accurately, social reality) is ordered, organized, and fixed (in the sense of stabilizing social relations). In this sense, language becomes malleable, subject to the needs of the dominant mode of social relations. As Terry Eagleton argues, it is

not simply a matter of asking "what the sign . . . [means] but of investigating its varied history, as conflicting social groups, classes, individuals and discourses . . . [seek] to appropriate it and imbue it with their own meanings." Language, in short . . . [is] a field of ideological contention, not a monolithic system; indeed, signs . . . [are] the very material medium of ideology, since without them, no values or ideas could exist.

Furthermore, what Eagleton makes clear with respect to Bakhtin is that ideology shapes and determines language, not vice versa, even in the specific speech act. Thus he argues that for Bakhtin, "words were 'multi-accentual' rather than frozen in meaning: they were always the words of one particular human subject for another, and this practical context would shape and shift their meaning." This malleability of language, determined as it is by the word's arbitrary relationship to its referent, is a significant site for cultural studies, especially as it relates to analyzing cultures of inequity such as those structured upon capitalism.

Systems of inequity continue to maintain and perpetuate themselves through hegemonic processes and ideological discourses that function to justify, legitimize, and naturalize such inequity, despite the illegitimacy of their claims. Indeed, the truth claims that are made through ideology must be continually reinforced and rearticulated, as well as adapted and restructured. This instability is the direct result of having their foundation in the arbitrary nature of the sign. The cinema, born and developed under industrial capitalism, actively participates in this process, and the timing is not a coincidence.

At a fundamental level, the cinema's production and representation of images at a rate of thirty frames per second (or fourteen to twenty-four, depending on the time period) belies an industrial process long before the sheer volume of cinematic texts and their consumption are examined. In this respect, however, it is important to note that the cinema depends on advanced and complex distribution systems that are also grounded in highly advanced modes of exchange engendered in the later stages of capitalism (industrial and consumer more so than, for example, mercantile capitalism).

The cinema's relationship to industrial capitalism has been examined in several different aspects, as in the work of Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Louis Comolli, Janet Staiger, David Bordwell, and others. As Thomas Elsaesser has pointed out, these were very important studies with respect to the institution cinema, and more such studies are certainly warranted. Elsaesser further argues, however, that the other side of the paradigm is also in need of close examination: the audience which consumes, as it were, the cinematic texts produced in such volume. Here, too, several approaches have been taken, including reception studies, cognitive psychology, and psychoanalysis, particularly Lacanian psychoanalysis starting in the mid 1970's.

Herein lies the significance of the third aspect of Lindsey's discourse—its grounding in recognition. Early appropriations of Lacanian psychoanalysis in the mid 1970's, as discussed more fully in the following chapters, were extremely important for bringing into cinema studies the concept of a desiring spectator, whose specific desire for the cinematic experience (or texts) forms the basis of the means of exchange which makes the institution of cinema possible. At least one limitation of these early appropriations, however, was a tendency to oversimplify the text-subject relationship as it relates to the subject, especially as it relates to the concept of the unified subject.

Jacques Lacan's rather difficult writings, if nothing else, sound a warning that the dialectic of recognition that grounds human discourse is a complex affair. What Lacan's work demonstrates is that the fictive structure of identity, engendering as it does several layers of alienation, requires a continuous process of reaffirmation and recognition of the specific fictions that comprise individual identity. Thus it is that Lacan argues:

The signifier, producing itself in the field of the Other, makes manifest the subject of its signification. But it functions as a signifier only to reduce the subject in question to being no more than a signifier, to petrify the subject in the same movement in which it calls the subject to function, to speak, as subject.

Lacan's description of the relationship between the signifier and identity demonstrates the complex interrelationships at stake in the individual subject: the subject of being introjects the signifier, which in turn shapes and determines individual identity, but only in relationship to prelinguistic identifications (themselves a response to Real conditions and effects). The complex interplay between signification and being creates a demand (in the economic sense) for discourse. The cinema and television are significant sites for ideological study precisely because they provide not only the discourses necessary for Symbolic recognition, but also images—establishing the means for Imaginary (mis)recognition. This study attempts to show that the necessity of Lacanian psychoanalysis for the study of film lies in its ability to examine both these operations as they are conducted in and through the cinematic text.

My niece Lindsey is now a long way from her first forays into the world of language. As I finish this manuscript, however, my nephews James and Pete wait for me to rejoin them in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean off the beaches of Avalon. Across the continent, my other niece, Jessica, and my nephew Forrest wait with anticipation for me, my wife, and our baby, Antonia, to arrive (and go play with them in the surf off Point Reyes), while another nephew, Andrew, and his sister Elise take pleasure in caring for our dog Pasquale (much of which is rooted in giving him commands). The significance of these situations for cultural studies is admittedly more personal than theoretical, but only marginally so.

For years now, despite being a fairly competent interpreter of Lacan, I have never been able to give a clear answer to the question, "Why Lacanian psychoanalysis?" Now, however, the answer is to be found in the joyous sense of wonder and awe that I see in the faces of my nieces and nephews as they negotiate their existence in a complex world that is ofttimes foreboding, frequently enticing, and almost always mysterious. Socialization into consumer-capitalist societies is a process of effectively draining out that mystery and sacredness of the world, replacing it with an empty materialism, and persuading us of the "inevitability" of this process.

The necessity of Lacanian psychoanalysis lies in its ability to effectively confront that process in a manner that Marxist critical theory cannot do on its own. In its essence, the Lacanian framework is a fundamental commitment to a dialectical model of the individual that can take full account of the social/cultural realm and its relationship to the individual. The key term here is dialectical. Lacan's theories transcend overly simplistic binary oppositions like nature/nurture and individual/social, insisting that, in terms of the psyche, not only is it both, but in such a complex manner that the balance cannot be isolated. The result is that audiences and individuals can never (or should never) be reduced to either biology or culture, but likewise should not be limited to their own "individuality" either, since the concept is fictive. Lacan's work demonstrates that theories which line up at either pole in binary oppositions not only are grossly inaccurate, but also have grave consequences in terms of their social implications.

Lacan's return to Sigmund Freud focused on The Interpretations of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious, and The Ego and the Id, finding continuity there where others did not. This was especially the case in terms of the field of psychoanalysis overemphasizing the synthesizing function of the ego. Lacan saw in ego psychology the dissolution of the dialectic of identity, and with it the enthronement of the ego. As Theresa Brennan points out, this can have disastrous results for a social system and the very environment it exists within.

The fundamental Freudian text that these conclusions point to is, of course, Civilization and Its Discontents. Here Freud sounds a grave warning that few heard clearly enough: repression is a necessary part and function of human identity, but can become too much a part of social systems. Lacan was one of the few who took up these pronouncements of Freud and advanced them further, making clear that failure to introject the "No" of the father leads to the prison house of psychosis. As Ellie Ragland-Sullivan demonstrates, the ego itself has no limits; rather, it is structured around a "propensity for grandiosity, narcissism, and aggressiveness. In this sense, the phallic super-ego saves the individual from psychosis, and society from genocide, while also imposing tyranny and alienation on being." The fundamentally dialectal structure of the individual that Ragland-Sullivan discusses is extremely important for social transformation.

This is particularly the case for a social system as complex, cunning, and (seemingly) complete as capitalism, which depends on the exploitation of individuals for its very existence. The implications of the Lacanian model are such that overly simplistic demands to eliminate repression and revolutionary programs that cannot meaningfully address issues of authority and limits are ultimately bound for failure. In the mainstream discourses of the 1990's, cultural commentators are quick to denigrate the 1960's in just such a manner: focusing in on its excesses and characterizing its revolutionary movements as naïve (ignoring, as they do, the incredibly reactionary effects of 1970's stagnation). At least one lasting, positive effect of the 1960's for contemporary American culture, however, is a quick suspicion of illegitimate authority, if not a ready cynicism toward all authority.

The problem for contemporary American society, though, is that no other kind of social model has found wide acceptance as a viable replacement for reverence and obedience to authority. In this respect, there are very strong parallels between contemporary American culture and postwar Italian culture. The critical difference between the two is that for postwar Italian culture there were visible other models competing with patriarchal capitalism: the cooperation and unity of the Resistance became the most hallowed example.

Despite the dissolution of its government and the resulting social upheaval, postwar Italy did not become a revolutionary society. Patriarchal capitalism, while battered, nonetheless maintained itself, with not a little help from American intervention in the economic and political life of postwar Italy. Bald economic and political acts do not occur in a vacuum, however; Gramsci's concept of hegemony demonstrates that they operate through and with ideological discourse. In postwar Italy patriarchal capitalism was made to seem "inevitable," even by those discourses which hoped for a more enlightened transformation of Italian society. In the end, not even the legacy of the Resistance or its revolutionary potential could stand against this "inevitability."

This study of Lacanian psychoanalysis and film looks at Neorealism precisely because a period with such potential for social transformation was effectively contained. What this study attempts to demonstrate is the manner in which ideological containment is—or can be—conducted through narrative. Indeed, as the following chapters demonstrate, narrative itself engenders containment, but does not inherently exercise ideological containment. Lacanian psychoanalysis provides the study of film with the means by which to analyze the ideological functioning of narrative as it intersects the spectator through the dynamics of desire and pleasure (though, admittedly, it has not always done this successfully). In this respect, it offers a valuable tool—especially as a beginning—for confronting the hegemonic processes that conduct themselves through ideology in order to maintain and perpetuate systems of inequity that, in addition to their human toll, are devouring the means of our very existence.


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