Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Frames of Mind

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Frames of Mind

Article excerpt

Two famous social psychology experiments have reached the silver screen. Antonio Melechi examines the relationship between the discipline and Hollywood, and the psychological reach of the cinema

In 1925, the Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn announced that he was about to embark on a trip to Vienna, in the hope of securing a meeting with Sigmund Freud. The motor-mouthed impresario - whose personal formula for the ideal movie was to begin with an earthquake and build to a climax - expected psychoanalysis to provide studio writers, actors and directors with a blueprint for bringing "genuine emotional motivation and suppressed desires" on to the screen, and he hoped to lure Freud, "the greatest love specialist in the world", to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with an offer of $100,000.

Sadly, Goldwyn never secured an invitation to Vienna's 19 Bergasse. Besides having little to no interest in film, Freud was deeply unhappy about the way in which his work had been bowdlerised and stripped of its sexual components by American purveyors of popular psychology. "FREUD REBUFFS GOLDWYN" lamented The New York Times, after Goldwyn's overtures were rejected.

Film and psychology were already deeply connected. When the first motion pictures were projected at the Grand Café in Paris, in 1895 by the Lumière brothers, American and European universities were equipping their psychological laboratories with a raft of instruments to study the mechanics of perception and visual recall. A decade on, the American cinema found itself at the vanguard of what an early history of film by Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights, called the "simple, primitive and universal language of the pictures". A chorus of commentators began to wonder if the movie industry was becoming, in the words of the critic and novelist Francis Hackett, "the greatest instrument of popular suggestion that has ever been devised". Even more worryingly, German opponents of early cinema warned that, as one prominent psychiatrist had it, "mere habituation to the darting, convulsive, twitching images of the flickering screen slowly and surely corrodes man's mental and, ultimately, moral strength". Vertigo, insomnia and most of the symptoms associated with hysteria and neurasthenia had, apparently, already found a home in the half-light of the movie theatre.

As questions over the social and psychological impact of the cinema intensified in the early 1900s, Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg (inset, right) was encouraged to give his thoughts on the medium. Having previously dismissed "the pictures" as no more than cheap entertainment, Münsterberg, at this time America's leading academic psychologist, had a change of heart. The working-class Americans whose five cents granted them admission to The Great Train Robbery (1903), the mobs of unruly youngsters who raised the roof at the knockabout comedy Catch the Kid (1907), were, he believed, engaging with a technology that had grasped the means of controlling their memories, perceptions and emotions. Film's great breakthrough was, Münsterberg contended in his 1916 book The Photoplay, to make the inner workings of the mind visible; it was a new way of thinking - about thinking.

Münsterberg's ruminations earned him an invitation to Paramount, where he would develop a series of psychological features for its "virtual motion picture university": its short-lived venture into educational releases, which was to have been a kind of Open University minus coursework and qualifications. But the major studios were not destined to maintain a lasting relationship with academic psychology. Goldwyn's promise to bring psychoanalysis to the screen was eventually made good by a raft of thrillers and dramas - such as Now, Voyager (1942), starring Bette Davis, and Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), which provided many Americans with their first introduction to the vagaries of dream analysis and the talking cure. …

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