Cultural Narratives and the Succession Scenario: Slumdog Millionaire and Other Popular Films and Fictions

By Paul, Robert A. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Cultural Narratives and the Succession Scenario: Slumdog Millionaire and Other Popular Films and Fictions


Paul, Robert A., International Journal of Psychoanalysis


An approach to the analysis of cultural narratives is proposed drawing inspiration from Lévi-Strauss's analysis of myths as fantasied resolutions of conflicts and contradictions in culture and of typical dilemmas of human life. An example of such an analysis revolves around contradictions in the Western cultural construction of the succession of generations. The logic of the structural analysis of cultural representations is explicated, the schema of the succession scenario is laid out, and the conflicts that generate it are identified. The movie Slumdog Millionaire is examined in some detail as an illustration of the succession scenario at work, and a comparative analysis shows how the same underlying schema accounts for otherwise obscure aspects of comparable contemporary popular narratives including Harry Potter, The Lion King and Star Wars.

Keywords: applied analysis, film, interpretation

Introduction: The cultural analysis of film (and other) narratives

Psychoanalysis has been since its earliest days a theory of culture as well as of the individual mind. In this paper I offer a contribution to this cultural project using the Academy Award winning movie Slumdog Millionaire and several other contemporary popular fictions to exemplify and illustrate a way of interpreting collective, shared fantasies that shape a cultural milieu, in this case, our own. I ground my argument in Glen Gabbard's (1997) observation that there are several different ways in which psychoanalytic thinkers have approached the analysis of film. These include viewing a film as a reflection of the film-maker's unconscious; as a representative of a developmental moment; using the application of Freudian dream theory; involving the analysis of spectatorship; and through the appropriation of psychoanalytic constructs by the film-maker. Probably the most common approach Gabbard mentions is the analysis of a character, generally the main protagonist, as if he or she were a real person whose psychodynamics can be examined with the same tools one uses with an analysand in clinical work.

In this paper, however, I will employ yet another of the approaches Gabbard proposes, which he calls the 'explication of underlying mythology'. As he writes, early Hollywood producers "unwittingly served as cultural anthropologists"; and he goes on to observe that:

[I]n pleasing the audience, film-makers also articulate the cultural mythology of the era, specifically Lévi-Strauss's [1975] notion that myths are transformations of fundamental conflicts or contradictions that in reality cannot be resolved. Just as dreams function as wish fulfillments (at least in many cases), so do films provide wish-fulfilling solutions to human dilemmas.

(Gabbard, 1997, pp. 429-30)

In his original discussion of the play Oedipus Rex in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud (1900) analyzes neither Sophocles nor the character Oedipus. Instead, he shows that the play resonates with an audience because it presents to them in a public, symbolic form a schematic representation of a dynamic conflict that, Freud assumes, is widely if not universally shared by each of the viewers. In order to accomplish this, the play, like other collective representations available to many individuals at once, but unlike individual dreams, day-dreams, or fantasies, must have a generic or formulaic quality that is suited to addressing what is likely to be common to the audience members rather than what is idiosyncratic or personal, as is the case with individual fantasies.

The analytical approach Gabbard refers to as the analysis of spectatorship, best exemplified in the work of Norman Holland (1968, 2006), represents one way to work with collective representations, by moving from the text to the fantasies evoked by it in individual audience members or readers. My approach in this paper will take a different tack, following on Gabbard's suggestion of looking to Lévi-Strauss's myth analysis as the basis for a method that identifies the resolution of cultural conflicts and contradictions in the structure of the text itself. …

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