Scenes from a Film Group

Mary T. Brady

Films, like patients, present analysts with narratives, characters, and dialogues to be emotionally, sensorially, and intellectually associated to. Unlike patients, no lives are at stake, so when a group gathers to discuss a film, red wine and chocolate can be served.

In this vein, six years ago I initiated, along with my erudite and ebullient friend and film scholar Diane Borden, an Adolescence on Film group here in San Francisco. In addition to the two of us, the group included ten psychoanalysts and other psychoanalytically oriented clinicians; the analysts come from both the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California. Several of the inaugural members continued through the first three years, when we grappled with the theme of adolescents on film, then the next two years of Trauma on Film, and now, in our sixth year, for Siblings on Film. We meet monthly after watching the films separately. While we consider the film our primary subject, we also read psychoanalytic papers or sometimes a poem or novel to accompany the film. For instance, when we discussed Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, we read The Waning of the Oedipus Complex by Hans Loewald to examine guilt at the unconscious psychological murder of parents that adolescence entails. (Lonergan jokes he was raised by the New York Freudian Society, as his mother and stepfather are analysts.) When we watched Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, we read DW Winnicott’s The Antisocial Tendency to weigh the potential value of adolescent acting out, but only when the communication in the action is received and understood. For André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, we read Nancy Kulish’s First Loves and Prime Adventures: Adolescent Expressions in Adult Analyses to discuss the impact of first love and initial sexual experience, here, in a gay adolescent.

We consider these films works of art that illustrate—through cinematic technique, image, and narrative — psychoanalytic themes, dynamics, and concepts. The group format is ideal for film discourse in order to allow multiple perspectives. The study of film, like other creative and artistic endeavors, expands our emotional responsiveness and empathy.

Getting to know our group members over the six years through their aesthetic responsiveness to film has been a delight. Members are inevitably sensitive to different elements (e.g., music, colors, lighting) as well as to the numerous themes and subthemes of a film. One’s reactions to a film are enriched by others’ views that are additive or complementary or occasionally challengingly divergent. An intimacy has developed as we have shared the experience of now over forty films, returning to favorite directors and deepening our knowledge of film history. In our era of confronting the racial and economic insularity in psychoanalytic institutes, it is refreshing to immerse ourselves in an international array of films, representing a seemingly endless variety of humanity.

Adolescence on the Screen

It was natural to start with adolescence as our focus. As an analyst, I have long been preoccupied with the treatment of ever-evocative and challenging adolescents. As in life, the adolescent is riveting on film—standing at the crossroads of identity, sexuality, and culture.

In our first year the group watched Thirteen, Margaret, American Beauty, Heavenly Creatures, The Butcher Boy, Carrie, An Education, and Fish Tank. Choosing a film to comment on feels as violent as singling out a favorite child; nevertheless, I want to draw readers’ attention to Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. It is less widely known than some of the other films. I love its gritty realism and the way it captures 15-year-old Mia, ever in motion—experimenting and experiencing, but almost always wordlessly. The film is set in the British housing project where Arnold witnessed teenage Kate Jarvis in a voluble fight with her boyfriend at a tube station and subsequently cast her as Mia. The film also features the amazing Michael Fassbender (who would receive my vote for the best actor of his generation) as Mia’s mother’s boyfriend, an opportunist whose sexual use of Mia sets near-tragic events in motion.

In the second year, we viewed Rebel Without a Cause, The 400 Blows, The Go-Between, The Virgin Suicides, Mustang, L.I.E., The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Being 17. The final scene of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is etched in my mind, as is the fairy tale quality of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. The evocation of a sexual predator, Big John, in L.I.E. is subtly and chillingly drawn. Big John engages Howie, a teenage boy, as sadly no one else seems remotely present: Howie’s mother died in an accident on the Long Island Expressway (L.I.E.) and, as Howie says, “I don’t have a father, I have an asshole.” Big John sees Howie more accurately than others do but with the ominous sense of a shark in the waters.

During our third year, we watched Call Me by Your Name, Wild Reeds, Beguiled, Tess, Osama, The Last Picture Show, Luna, and Skunk. Directed by Annie Silverstein, daughter of psychoanalyst Marsha Silverstein, Skunk won the Premier Prix for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014.

Trauma in Film

In our fourth year, we decided to turn to the theme of trauma. Trauma overwhelms the psyche, while both psychoanalysis and art allow us to grapple with it. In particular, we considered trauma from a Bionian view. Bion was heavily influenced by his experiences in the First World War, which he entered at age 19. The devastation of combat affected him for a lifetime. Additionally, his first wife died in childbirth. After he married his second wife, Bion had a remarkably fertile period, during which he developed many of his seminal ideas, such as container/contained, a theory of thinking, and attacks on linking. This period of theoretical development seems related to the safety his relationship with his wife accorded him, allowing his return to the horror of his war experience (L.J. Brown, “Bion’s discovery of alpha function: Thinking under fire on the battlefield and in the consulting room,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 2012). The standout films for our fourth year were: The Deer Hunter, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Fanny and Alexander, Criá Cuervos, The White Ribbon, The Sweet Hereafter, Un Secret, and A Christmas Tale. Widely known, The Deer Hunter and Fanny and Alexander are two of my favorite films.

Carlos Saura’s 1976 masterpiece Cría Cuervos is less known to American audiences. It explores the interpenetration of the past and the present when time has been fractured by a traumatic loss. Cría’s subject is eight-year-old Ana who believes she killed her dead father and is frequently visited by hallucinations of her mother. The interpenetration of reality and fantasy is brilliantly played out in the opening sequence. In a white nightdress, Ana descends a dark staircase. As the camera focuses on her pale, expressionless face, urgently whispered adult words—”I love you; I can’t breathe”—are heard from behind a closed door. A half-dressed woman runs from the room. On entering the now silent room, Ana finds her father in bed, apparently dead. Impassive, she takes a glass to the kitchen and washes it in the sink. As she opens the refrigerator, her mother comes into the shot and addresses her tenderly. Only later do we learn her mother, too, is dead.

The psychological and the political are inextricable in this film. The title refers to a Spanish proverb meaning “keep ravens and they will tear your eyes out.” Ana’s father was a Fascist military officer, so the title implies a legacy of political and personal violence. Saura shot Cría Cuervos in the summer of 1975 as Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lay dying. The film premiered in Madrid in 1976, forty years after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and received the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Saura vividly depicts the way children’s fragile psyches are frozen in time by trauma.

In our era of confronting the racial and economic insularity in psychoanalytic institutes, it is refreshing to immerse ourselves in an international array of films, representing a seemingly endless variety of humanity.

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon also cannot escape mention for its chilling depiction of intergenerational transmission of sadism in a northern German village just before World War I. One is left asking how a child can imagine something different when a surrounding culture is so steeped in perverse domination. Thankfully, the character of the teacher yields a glimpse of a kinder, more reflective quality.

In spring of our fourth year, an international epidemic affected our group, along with the rest of the world. Having happily gathered in my living room since fall of 2016, we retreated to a Zoom format. I was not at all sure how our prior intimate yet intellectually stimulating gathering would translate. However, I was surprised. The continued vitality of the group was due, in part, to the cohort being well established. In addition, there was something precious about sharing an aesthetic experience when we have been deprived of that opportunity during the pandemic. One can watch a great film with a spouse or partner, but we have missed the opportunity for larger shared cultural experiences during the pandemic. I sense we were only more eager to be together, though I look forward to our return to in-person sociability, as well as the Barolo and dark chocolate, soon.

Continuing the trauma theme in our fifth year, we watched Manchester by the Sea, Blue, All About My Mother, Exotica, Vertigo, Last Black Man in San Francisco, Of Time and the City, and Yi Yi. Anyone who has not seen Last Black Man should run, not walk, to see it. The film stars Jimmie Fails who plays a version of himself. The story revolves around Fails and his friendship with Mont. In real life, the friendship is between Fails and the film’s director Joe Talbot, played in the film by Jonathan Majors. The quality of the male friendship is subtle, sensitive, and exceptional. I can’t remember a male friendship like it depicted in film. The story reveals the experience of Blackness in our gentrified city of San Francisco. Many Black people can no longer afford to live here and have seen their neighborhoods erased by gentrification. The film poses the question: How do you know who you are when you can’t see yourself in the place you came from? Our group discussion of this film took on a near spiritual quality. We all live in the moral quandary of this city or in locations nearby. One member spoke of having to move from the city when faced with the costs of raising children. My son is a friend of Jimmie Fails from their high school times here in San Francisco. It is truly remarkable that Fails and Talbott, while in their early twenties, made a film that channels these depths and insights.

Siblings on Film

Finally, we have begun our current year of Siblings on Film with the bracing Shame, again with the vivid Michael Fassbender. I will leave commentary on our current films for another time. TAP Editor Lyn Yonack has kindly invited me to serve as editor for a series of pieces from our film group. Diane Borden, film scholar and group co-leader, will contribute a piece for a subsequent issue of TAP, to be followed by film reviews from members of our group. APSAA

Mary Brady, Ph.D., psychoanalyst in San Francisco, is editor of Braving the Erotic Field in the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Children and Adolescents upcoming from Routledge, 2022 and author of Analytic Engagements with Adolescents, 2018 and The Body in Adolescence, 2016.