New video essays by Ian Magor

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Image: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (dir. Fritz Lang 1922)


In July 2015, the Hidden Persuaders project and the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image hosted a workshop, Brainwash: History, Cinema and the Psy Professions. Birkbeck graduate and video essayist Ian Magor presented several of his recent pieces at the event. These works comment on specific themes and techniques from narrative films that depict contemporary social anxieties about shifting mental states, nefarious influence and ‘disorderly’ behavior. In this post, Ian Magor presents three new video essays composed in response to presentations at the workshop by the well known film scholars, Laura Mulvey and Raymond Bellour.

– Marcie Holmes


Ian Magor writes:


What’s a Mother To Do?

At the recent Hidden Persuaders conference on film and psychoanalysis, Laura Mulvey explored the impact of ‘momism’ on notions of masculinity in 1950s America and its relationship to fears around Communism, homosexuality and brainwashing. Philip Wylie coined the term ‘momism’ in his 1942 publication Generation of Vipers in which he declared:

“Her boy,” having been “protected” by her love, and carefully, even shudderingly, shielded from his logical development through his barbaric period, or childhood…is cushioned against any major step in his progress towards maturity.

The image of the overbearing mother was commonplace in the cinema of the period. Angela Lansbury’s role as Mrs Eleanor Shaw Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, (John Frankenheimer, 1962is probably the most explicit manifestation but this montage shows it was a familiar theme employed by some of the best known filmmakers of the decade, including Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Wylie also remarked:

Possession of the physical person of a man is slavery; possession of the spirit of a man is slavery also, because his body obeys his spirit and his spirit obeys its possessor.

This might be a fitting epigraph for Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960which itself could be seen as the blackly comic culmination of this post-war horror story of ‘the Mother’.


The Curse of Mabuse

With his cycle of Mabuse films, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (Parts 1 & 2) (1922) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), director Fritz Lang set the scene for much subsequent cinematic representation: the notion of the criminal mastermind operating a multi-layered network; the power of new technologies to alter our sense of time and space and thus affect our freedom; the dangers of the demagogue and the volatile mentality of the crowd. At the same time, these films provide a notable and influential exploration of the links between hypnosis, magic and psychoanalysis. It is no accident that some of the key roles acted out by Mabuse in the film are the gambler, who uses a combination of magic and hypnosis to destroy his opponents, and the psychoanalyst Sandor Weltmann, who uses a combination of mass suggestion, psychoanalytic techniques and hypnosis to control his rivals.

During a fascinating talk exploring such links at the recent Hidden Persuaders conference on psychoanalysis and cinema, Raymond Bellour highlighted Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957) as a film that echoed some of Lang’s techniques and explored afresh the relationship of hypnosis and magic.

The montage of films I have assembled here takes up these themes and highlights moments when the mental chaos or imbalance of the protagonist is captured. Sometimes the film shows the moment where signs exceed the thing they are supposed to signify, even quite literally running ahead of the character, pulling the protagonist along.

Within this particular montage I also make use of the musical soundtrack of the Mabuse films as an overlay for the later Tourneur film.


The Analytic Angle

In the Mabuse cycle of films (Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (Parts 1 & 2) (1922) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)), the visual indicator for when a character has fallen victim to the eponymous doctor’s mind control techniques is when he holds his head just between the ear and the back of the neck. It seems to me no coincidence that this site of reception is redolent of the Freudian psychoanalyst, i.e., out of view but within earshot.

Moreover, this technique is connected to hypnotic practices, and reprises the old fear that the ‘talking cure’ itself relies upon unconscious forms of influence and suggestion to work its effects. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) Freud likened the hypnotic state to the feeling of being in love and explored how groups might unite through their common libidinal tie to a leader. He argued that in order for this to happen there is a need to regress to a child-like state and allow the love-object or the hypnotist to take the place of the subject’s ego-ideal.

It is striking how often this ‘analytic/hypnotic’ position is used as a cinematic means of indicating that a character is seeking to seduce, control or brainwash. It is the position that is most often employed by Raymond Shaw’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate when she is indoctrinating him. It would not be a wild reading of Vertigo to regard Scottie (James Stewart) as turning Madeleine/Judy/Carlotta (Kim Novak) into a doll devoid of any real history or emotions into which he can inject his own fantasies. Again, in many of the key scenes where we see Scottie carrying this out he can be seen in the same kind of position.

I have sought in the soundtrack to create an effect that is somewhat haunting, even suggestive of the hypnotic state. This combines in different tempos the opening track from Augustine (Alice Winocour 2012) and O Willow Waly from The Innocents (Jack Clayton 1961).