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Got Freud?

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

By Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2000



LOS ANGELES

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."

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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."

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.