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."
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
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. …