Got Freud?

From movies to sitcoms to advertising, his legacy permeates our popular culture.

By

As you enter the hall, a heavily accented man's voice floats through the air, and stays with you as you move through several large rooms. The traveling exhibition is "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture," and the voice is the founder of modern psychoanalysis himself, reading a defense of his life work, concluding with the words, "The struggle is not over yet."

The purpose of this is simple.

"Whether you know it or not," says curator Michael Roth of the Getty Research Institute here, "Freud is in the air." Roth laughs, acknowledging that more than one exhibit guest has found the omnipresent voice of the Austrian psychoanalyst (1856-1939) vaguely irritating. "That's the whole point," he says. No matter what you think of Freud, "you have to figure out what to do with him."

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The theories of one of the towering figures of the early 20th century have quietly slipped into our daily lives.

Indeed, in everything from TV sitcoms to movies and advertising, Freud's legacy permeates our popular culture, either directly or indirectly. Terms connected with him - Freudian slips, Oedipal complexes, defense mechanisms - are routinely used in casual conversation, describing everyday behavior.

Over the decades, Freud's work has been debated, revised, updated, debunked, and reviled by everyone from feminist leaders to MTV GenXers.

Yet his influence remains.

"My bottom line is that any trip to a movie theater, any conversation with someone at work, seems to make clear that the influence, the impact, of Freud is still alive and well in the year 2000," says Robert Thompson, director of the center for the study of popular television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "In spite of the fact that most people have no idea that he is humming so loudly in the background of everything from their 'pickup lines' to their talk about the weather, the 21st century begins as one in which we know a cigar is never just a cigar, and that's an important thing to know."

In the final analysis, says the media pundit, the Freud that's made the biggest contribution is not the scientific man but the writer who posed the questions that have come to frame our time. These are fundamental inquiries, says curator Roth, whose exhibition on Freud is currently at the Skirball Cultural Center here in Los Angeles, such as:

*"Why, when we try to overthrow false oppressive authority, do we seem to reproduce it?

*"Why, when we have the resources for great happiness, do we find an increase in human pain and guilt?

*"Why, in society, do we see these violent explosions?"

Beyond these sorts of philosophical or even religious questions, Freud made a great contribution to popular storytelling.

"Freud allowed us to take the drama that was inside our heads and put it on stage," Dr. Thompson says. The therapist-patient device frames the drama of hundreds of films, such as the recent hits "The Thomas Crown Affair," "Analyze This," and "Good Will Hunting." And where would Woody Allen be without his therapist?

"This was an important moment in the history of dramatic storytelling, because it created a device to tell a story about the inside of people's heads," Thompson says.

Before this, performers resorted to more traditional techniques such as the soliloquy (think Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech), or the voice-over narration, but with far less dramatic effect.

"You want somebody facing off with someone who can help them, and you want an interior monologue played out dramatically," Thompson says. "That's what Freud gave to popular culture."

His interest in dreams has also been fertile ground for the entertainment industry. His signature work, "The Interpretation of Dreams," was widely read in Hollywood during the 1930s and '40s. Sets for the 1945 Hitchcock film, "Spellbound," one of the first to explore overtly Freud's theories, were designed by the famous surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

Dali's work revolved around the exploration of dreams and their symbols. Movies, arguably the collective dreams of today's culture, have traded heavily in dream imagery over the years, according to Glen Gabbard, author of "Psychiatry and the Cinema."

"Dream imagery is part of the way we tell stories in our culture," says Dr. Gabbard, a professor at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan.

Madison Avenue has understood and mined the power of dreams. What Freud did in exploring issues such as neuroses, sublimation, and hidden desires, says show curator Roth, was to create a model for advertisers to cash in on people's deeper motivations. And while the average modern American, raised on irony and post-Freudian repudiations of the past, might think himself too hip to be taken in, Roth says "buyer beware."

Ad campaigns from the overtly sexual (Calvin Klein's perfume, "Desire") to the humorous (Got Milk?) appeal to so-called latent desires and motivations.

Freud, Thompson adds, was interested in helping people function better as human beings. Advertisers want to use psychology to move consumers to action, mostly, he says, to buy things they don't even know they want - and probably won't want when they get them home.

One of Freud's most valuable contributions is the rebuttal he generated from thoughtful critics of his theories.

"Freud has to be killed off every year or two," Gabbard says. "There is a basic feeling of anathema to the idea that we are unconsciously controlled. People hate the idea that they aren't in control of their lives."

"He opened doors and windows into interesting topics and interpretive frameworks," says magician Eugene Burger, who takes his act around the globe. The theme of Mr. Burger's show is the power of dreams, and how their interpretation can be used to healing effect. "For [our] time, he's just a symbol of that [inquiry], nothing more."

In many ways, Freud's work was as much a function of its time, essentially a Victorian Europe. His real contribution was in opening up new avenues of thought.

As with many of the issues Freud investigated, dream interpretation is as old as Western civilization itself. But he managed to pull many strands together at a time when the concept of self-examination was "in the air," exhibition curator Roth says. "He brought together certain concepts and gave narrative energy to a group of things that dealt with the notion that our automatic actions, the things we do without thinking, the stuff that doesn't seem to have any intention behind it, these are the things that carry enormous amounts of meaning." It is our secrets, he says, the things we keep hidden from ourselves, that turn out to be the most important.

Many of Freud's themes, deeply imbedded in popular culture, serve to remind us that there are unconscious forces acting beyond our awareness that make us behave in certain ways. Gabbard suggests that while Freud may be wrong about many things, the destructive events throughout human history remind us of the importance of examining our motives, either as individuals or as a whole.

These examinations serve as a counterbalance to a peculiarly American desire to shake off the past. "The basic American theme is the joyous destruction of history," says media professor Thompson. "The way to the future is to annihilate the past." The carnage of this century alone suggests history has a few lessons left to teach. "Freud could've made the argument, 'If only I could've gotten Hitler on my couch, World War II would never have happened,' " Thompson says.

Whether the psychoanalyst could've changed the course of history is beside the point, he adds. What's important are the enduring questions Freud posed to our culture.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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