Although Freud’s theory regarding psychoanalysis has gone out of style in the realm of psychology, it persists in other areas of academia, specifically in critical and theoretic studies regarding literature, film and art. Martin M. Winkler’s essay “Oedipus in the Cinema” provides us with an example of such persistence. The essay explores the presence of the myth of Oedipus in films since its conception.
The cinema is an increasingly sexual medium. With each passing year movies present more explicit sex, and it scandalizes society less and less. Freud believed that repressed sexual desires and suppressed childhood memories construct human behavior. The union of these two facts reveals the cinema as the perfect arena for people to express their repressed sexual desires, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Throughout his essay Winkler supplies readers with brief explanations of several of the tenants of psychoanalytical theory. While his focus is the Oedipal complex, he touches on the unconscious, general repression of sexual desire, and fear of castration. I don’t know that readers completely unfamiliar with Freud’s work would glean a full understanding of psychoanalytical theory from this essay, but they would finish reading with definite knowledge of the Oedipal complex.
The Oedipus complex is clearly defined and countless examples provided. From a 1908 film version of the play Oedipus Rex to Laurence Oliver’s 1948 Hamlet to modern movies like The Matrix, Winkler makes sure his audience understands the workings behind Oedipus’ tragedy. In the original play, Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. Freud revived this story with his work.
The complex progresses as follows: between the ages of three and five, a child feels sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and simultaneously wishes to kill the parent of the same sex. This experience centers of the phallus, as it emerges from “castration anxiety” and “penis envy.” A boy resents that his mother is attracted to his father, and he fears castration by his father because of his interest in his mother. When a girl realizes she lacks a penis, she strives for her father’s exclusive attention and affection, and she sees her mother as a competitor. This fixation is considered by Freud to be a normal stage in development, and all adults are believed to maintain these Oedipal desires deep in the unconscious mind.
Outside of blatant depictions of the story, one of the best examples of Oedipus in cinema comes in the form of dialogue spoken by an “overprotective and would-be incestuous” (72) mother in the film Suddenly, Last Summer. Speaking about her gay, sexual-predator son, Violet says, “I know it sounds hopelessly vain to say, but we were a famous couple. People didn’t speak of Sebastian and his mother or Mrs. Venable and her son; no, the said ‘Sebastian and Violet’… My son and I had a rare and wonderful love and trust between us, a sort of contract, a covenant between us…We needed no one but one another” (72). Furthermore, Violet exhibits jealousy towards her son’s wife, Catharine. The relationship between Violet and her son is closer than what is considered normal and, thus, it is Oedipal.
“Oedipus in the Cinema” deviates from psychoanalytical theory in that some of the examples Winkler provides depict film directors who intentionally created films specifically about Oedipus or films with obvious allusions to Sophocles’ play. The intentionality of such films means that their inclusion of the Oedipal complex is not subconscious. However, there are examples of seemingly inadvertent depictions of Oedipus-like characters.
Star Wars, a well-known film, contains a bit of the Oedipal that is, according to Winkler, unintentional. Although Luke Skywalker is motherless for all intensive purposes, he does bang heads with his father, to say the least. At the end of 1980’s Return of the Jedi, “Luke Skywalker and his nemesis Darth Vadar are revealed to be son and father after they have come close to killing each other in a duel” (76). Hence the resounding one-liner, “I am the father.” Luke’s desire to kill his father brings to mind Oedipus’ actual murdering of his father.
Winkler investigates Freudian elements beyond the Oedipal complex, albeit not as in depth. Two Hitchcock films provide readers with insight into the power of the unconscious. Although Psycho (1960) contains obvious Oedipus elements in the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother, it also contains Freudian essentials in the form of dialogue. Norman Bates says to Marion, “We’re all in our private traps…and none of us can ever get out” (79). As Winkler notes in parentheses, “Norman’s statement concisely summarize much of psychoanalysis.” Humans are at the mercy of their unconscious desires. According to Freud, if these desires are not met or overcome, individuals will develop neurosis, behavior marked by anxiety, obsession or phobias.
Marnie, Hitchcock’s 1964 thriller, epitomizes how unremembered childhood experiences haunt our adult life just below the surface of our consciousness. The kleptomaniac character of the film’s title has an unnatural fear of men, thunderstorms and the color red. Later on in the film she discovers that as a child she watched her prostitute mother struggling with a man during a thunderstorm, and then killed the man with a fireplace poker. Although Marnie is unaware of this event until well into her adult life, it explains her fear of men, thunder and the color red (the blood from the murder). After she learns about her past, she decides to improve her future. The plot of Marnie shows readers that humans do not know how their characters form, and that human behavior is determined by “events, relationships, circumstances which we may never be able to drag out from the confusion of our memories” (83). This idea is the basis of Freud’s psychoanalysis. Marnie’s decision to change her ways supports Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis because be believed that by discovering unremembered events that shaped our characters, we can overcome the negative outcomes of those events.
The ideas found in Freud’s text The Interpretation of Dreams are not left out of Winkler’s essay. He explains that in German-made film, Odipussi, a son is constantly infantilized by his mother. One night before bed he knocks over a photograph of his mother and goes to sleep feeling guilty. In his dreams that night, he sees his mother and pulls a hat down over her face, blocking her out. When he wakes up, he calls her immediately to assure himself she is alright. As Winkler points out the dreams reveals the main character’s true feelings towards his mother. It also provides him with “daring inspiration for his real-life revolt against his mother at the end of the film” (88), when the son pulls his mother’s hat over her eyes while she is driving.
Outside of the content of this essay, Freud’s theories are criticized because they lack any scientific proof whatsoever. They are well-developed, but there isn’t any empirical evidence supporting them. Freud’s theory also falls short in its treatment of women, though Freud readily admitted that for him women were an enigma. His explanation of the Oedipal complex as it pertains to girls is markedly more complex than that of boys, and that increased complexity seems suspiciously like a stretch on Freud’s part. For these reasons, Freud’s claims to psychological truths have been for the most part denied. Still Freud’s work is useful in critical theory as it provides a structure with which an individual can approach a critical work. Psychoanalytical theory is a tool.
The most crucial flaw in this essay is that Winkler fails to give an explanation as to why the Oedipus myth has prevailed for so long in the arts. He obviously did his homework, as he goes into great details citing countless examples of the Oedipal complex within filmic history, but he doesn’t answer the most pressing question. And so I will attempt to provide an explanation, if a shoddy one.
Freud’s more reasonable beliefs, for example the idea that an individual’s personality result from the workings of their unconscious, are easy to swallow. Humans are complicated beings, and I would never profess to know what’s going on in my mind, never mind someone else’s mind. However I would also posit that there is a modicum of truth in all of Freud’s bizarre conclusions regarding the story of Oedipus.
Perhaps the Oedipal complex is similar to Jung’s notion of the myth, that transcendental story subconsciously ingrained in the human mind that presents itself from time to time. I don’t doubt that mother-son and father-daughter relationships contain a bit of the uncanny. Perhaps because I grew up without a father, I have always found father-daughter relationships strange. And, as with many stereotypes, the “momma’s boy” typecast exists because there are indeed men who depend on and strive to please their mothers more than what one might consider normal. And children certainly go through phases while growing up where they favor one parent over the other. Now I know Freud’s ideas are for the birds. Still, as silly as it seems, I allow for the possibility that the myth of Oedipus pops up throughout history because some part of the story belongs in the human mind.
Martin M., Winkler. “Oedipus in the Cinema.” Arethusa 41(2008): 67-94.