Home Movies on Freud's Couch

Mark Neumann
Professor, Cultural and Media Studies, Documentary, American Culture
School of Communication, University of Northern Arizona 


*Not for citation without written permission of the author.

Excerpts from a paper presented at Northeast Historic Film's symposium on Home Movies and Privacy on July 25, 2001. An extended version of the presentation appeared in 2002 in the Association of Moving Image Archivists journal
The Moving Image, 2:1, 24-46. Footnotes appear at the end of the article.

Manifest Content and Latent Meanings

…I found myself returning to some of Freud's ideas after taking a trip to the Northeast Historic Film (NHF) archive in Bucksport, Maine a year ago. I spent two weeks perusing their archive, barely scratching the surface of their vast collection of amateur films. I left with a pile of notes and head full of images that kept reappearing in those most mindless and empty times--driving to work, walking the dogs, making coffee on the stove--and conjured them over and over, dislodging what I suppose would be my own mundane musings and daydreams. When I returned from my trip to Bucksport, my wife asked me what I had learned. I told her about some of the films I'd seen in the NHF collection and said it was "a vault full of dreams," and I meant this literally.

For instance, a clip from NHF's Archie Stewart Collection offers a good example of this dreamy quality I'd found during my research. The clip is 14 seconds of 16mm black and white film stock exposed on a sunny afternoon in Newburgh, New York in 1926. On the screen, Archie Stewart is standing a few yards in front of the camera. He's wearing a sport coat and a bow tie. He always seems to be wearing a bow tie in his films. A lake is behind him. He's holding a new Model 33, lever-action, Winchester rifle at his side; it's a birthday gift from his mother. Archie is at attention, looking like a soldier in a neighborhood militia unit. Suddenly, he picks up the rifle; cocks open the chamber, and puts in a shell. He turns to his right, aims the gun, and fires. The Winchester throws a little kick, but not enough to move Archie from his mechanical motions. He immediately discharges the shell casing and kisses it. With the rifle cradled across his chest, he stands proud and looks right into the camera; he looks me right in the eyes. In an instant, he disappears. In my notebook, I jotted down a description of this scene and noted, "I wonder what Freud would make of this?"

Stewart titled this brief sequence "First Shot with Mother's Birthday Present. Model Thirty-Three Winchester." My notation about Freud was really just an off-the-cuff remark, a little joke to myself, during a flurry of scribbling down ideas. Yet, the scene itself seems to be the stuff one of Freud's patients might speak of when conveying their dreams during a session. Now, as far as I know, Archie Stewart was much too busy making his amateur films to ever lie down on Freud's couch and spill his guts. But if we can imagine, for a moment, this piece of film as a dream, it's not difficult to conjure how the professor might report the account:

The patient describes seeing himself standing on the edge of a lake. He is dressed for a special occasion, wearing a blazer and tie. He holds a rifle. He knows his mother has given him the rifle. He loads the weapon with a single shell, and fires. He removes the spent cartridge and kisses it. Obviously, we have here a clear case of the dream as wish fulfillment. However, we may also note how the patient dreams in a realm of potent symbols. The rifle is a gift from his mother, which is unusual and contradicts the traditional rites whereby his father, or some other significant male figure in the family gives such a gift to a male child. In addition, the rifle is itself a symbol of phallic proportion. It is clear that raising the weapon and discharging its single shell is how the dream functions as a "disguised fulfillment of a suppressed or repressed wish,"(1) one that is culminated with a kiss to the empty cartridge upon its completion. However, the patient also recognizes that the bullet has never reached its destination. The rifle is merely fired. It is a scene that suggests both the desire to perform the action of using his rifle but unable to direct it toward a specific target.

Freud was well known for his bold and breath-taking ability to make "associative links" between the fragmented and disjointed contents of dreams, and their potential to reveal a range of symbols that were symptomatic of unexpressed (and inexpressible) emotions and inhibitions. And it was precisely this kind of virtuosity-that I have taken the liberty to parody here-that also left critics, as well as some of Freud's own patients, skeptical of his approach. There are numerous examples in Freud's work of how his patients resisted his notion of "the dream as wish-fulfillment." For Freud, this was merely another challenge, and one that resulted in a rather hermetically sealed, self-referential, and somewhat paranoia-inducing elaboration of his exposition on the meaning of the dream life. If one resisted his interpretation, he argued that it was merely symptomatic of another layer of one's repression, another mechanism put in place to disguise or defer one's own inhibitions. In the scenario I just concocted, this would mean, quite simply, that if you resist seeing Archie's rifle as phallic, then you are likely to be only projecting your own anxieties about the possibility of interpreting the dream as conveying a larger desire for an incestuous relationship between a mother and a son. In other words, it seems that with Freud's interpretative method, the burden is constantly on the patient to show his or her willingness to appropriate the underlying premise of his interpretation. With Freudian dream analysis, as Ken Kesey said in another context of psychological (or psychotropic) consensus, "You're either on the bus, or you're off the bus."

I have to confess that I had seen Archie Stewart's home movies long before I ever found my way to the Freud archives in the Motion Picture department at the Library of Congress. In fact, when I learned of the existence of "Freud's home movies," it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for thinking about some of the things I saw in the films I viewed in Bucksport. In other words, it was the idea of "Freud's home movies" that most intrigued me. Eventually, I went to the Library of Congress and viewed several hours of home movies in their Freud archive. Apart from a film made by Dr. Philip Lehrman, an American psychoanalyst who studied with Freud in 1928, it was a fairly boring experience. I sat in my viewing carrel watching numerous scenes of Freud sitting in a garden having conversations with different guests, or walking in and out of the house, or--in his more animated moments-playing with his dogs or his grandchildren. I suppose if you want to see how Freud carried himself, or what he looked like when he talked with friends and family, these are the films you are looking for. They offer the proverbial private glimpse of a public figure, albeit a public figure who was not only shy of the media, but one whose claim to fame lay primarily in his capacity to think and write-neither of which make for interesting footage.

Instead, I clung to the notion of "Freud's Home Movies" as something else. To me, it is an idea that suggested home movies were something more than historical documents, representations of life as it was lived, or as a mechanism for seeing into the past as one might do in a fantasy of time travel. What I found to be interesting footage were those amateur films that seemed to beg for a psychoanalytic interpretation. The suggestion here is not that making home movies is particularly pathological or neurotic. Rather, the home movie is a vehicle for exploring something else that is both revealed and disguised by the making of the film. There is more going on here than what appears on the screen and we must look more deeply at this. This is, in many ways, consistent with Freud's approach to interpreting dreams.

To some extent this is what I was trying to suggest with my off-the-cuff caricature of a Freudian analysis of Archie Stewart's film of himself with his new rifle. I chose this example, in large part, because of its simplicity and innocence. Obviously, asking you to imagine home movies as dreams is a self-serving act. But the analogy goes a bit deeper, I think. What some home movies share with Freud's approach to dreams is that they are instances of self-observation. As is often the case in dreams, the subject is watching himself act, and this is true at both the moment the film is being created as well as after the fact when he or she is viewing the film (reporting and analyzing the dream). For example, Archie is undoubtedly performing for the camera when he loads his rifle and fires it into the air. The camera captures him doing so, but it is also an instance when he is fully aware of himself acting for the camera's lens and this how it is a moment of self-observation. Furthermore, he is observing himself acting in a manner that doesn't necessarily correspond with how he would conduct himself in a less self-conscious setting, one where no camera was in place. The temporal dimension of the scene is ambiguous. The scene is neither entirely contained in the present flow of "real life" (it is a projection toward a future moment, which is what he is also "aiming" for, so to speak…attempting to capture this singular moment for some future occasion), but it is also a very real and immediate moment (the camera is mechanically recording light as it falls off of subject on a specific day-a sunny afternoon, near this lake, in 1926) that is, in fact, really a part of his life.

Perhaps the most difficult part of extending the analogy of dreams and home movies lay in the question of interpretation. This is what prompted me to re-read Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, which was first published in German in 1900. At the heart of Freud's theory of the dream as wish fulfillment, he describes the elements of manifest content and latent content. These are contradictory and somewhat conflicting principles that essentially fuel the process of his interpretive model. "Manifest content," to put it simply, is what appears in the dream. This is the "narrative" of what the patient dreams, and eventually reports after the fact during the process of analysis. "Manifest content" supplies the symbolic material that becomes the jumping off point for revealing the "latent content," of the dream, or the "real" narrative that is being suppressed or inhibited for some reason. The "manifest content," in effect, conceals the latent meaning of the dream because it is somehow unacceptable to have such thoughts in the real world. In this way, the manifest content of the dream is a form of indirect expression of some suppressed emotion or inhibited desire that is lurking in the psychic life of the patient. Freud argued that at the heart of dreams there were "two psychic forces (tendencies or systems), one of which forms the wish expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship over this dream-wish."(2) To return to our analogy of the dream with the home movie, we might see these concepts as playing out in the previous example from Archie Stewart's film-or, more precisely, in my hypothetical example of Freud interpreting that film as a dream. In this case, the film we see would be the "manifest content" of the dream, and the Oedipal interpretation of such symbols as the rifle and the empty cartridge he kisses would be the "latent content."

But my intention is not to merely transpose Freud's concepts of dream interpretation to the realm of home movies. This does not require a great leap of faith, and to some extent we can see the notion of home-movies as a form of "wish-fulfillment" already present in some of the literature on home movies. If anything, the recognition that cameras prompt us to put our best face forward is one that reminds us how home movies often show us how might idealize ourselves, or how we might "wish" we could be. That recognition, of course, is one that is often comparable to a kind of dream. Cultural critics of amateur film have been quick to point out how the democratization of the home movie camera was accompanied by a vast array of instructions for how to script the events and occasions of one's life for the movie camera. In a way, "how-to" guides for the amateur filmmaker are nothing less than instruction for how families might dream themselves in their family outings. And, as Patricia Zimmerman has so thoroughly documented in her book, Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film, such instructions often carried with them a standard of "professionalism" that subscribed to the larger cinematic dream being spun out in Hollywood.(3) In large part, the amateur film maker was left confronting his own celluloid dreams of family and friends as borne out of a desire to capture life, but facing the harsh light of flickering images that perhaps merely suggested a degree of cinematic inadequacy or envy.

To see home movies as wish fulfillments and as dreams is not particularly difficult. Yet, what interests me most is the extent to which particular films come to parallel a model of psychic forces at work that become exteriorized in the process of making and seeing the films themselves. Dreams are private affairs; they are interior realms of consciousness that remain private. Everyone knows the difficulty of reporting his or her own dreams to a spouse or a friend, and how those accounts usually fail to convey the proportion of anxiety or thrill that one experienced in the moment of being in the dream. I suppose it is merely part and parcel of Freud's legacy that we feel compelled to report our dreams to others-either at the kitchen table or on the analysts couch-- and seek out an interpretation we might live with. And I assume that I am not the only one who has had the experience of waking from a disturbing dream, and being unable to shake its hold over me during the course of the morning. But if we consider the prospect of home-movies as sharing some of the qualities of dreams, what is different is that they are potentially material externalizations of the psychic life...

Something Else is Happening in Mag the Hag

…Even Freud was somewhat disinterested, however, in the notion of wish fulfillment in the most obvious sense of the idea. He was more interested in the nature of wish-fulfillment dreams when there was something at stake, when there was some potential conflict. And it is in this realm that I continue to be drawn toward the notion of how home movies materially manifest a set of performances that suggest something else is going on, and that we know something else is going on because we find evidence of that in the film itself. Apart from the overt dramatization manifested on the screen, we find some clue that there is some latent story being told, or disguised, in the process of making the film.

A good example of what I'm driving at is found in an amateur film called Mag The Hag from the Hiram Percy Maxim Collection. Made by Hiram Maxim and his family in July 1925, the film is a fairytale of sorts. It's a case of a homemade, self-described "dripping melodrama" featuring four young women playing all the roles. The filmmakers use intertitles to move the story along, and the plot is relatively simple.

The film begins this way: "Nestled among the hills of southern Connecticut, Percy Proudfoot, the aimless scion of a wealthy city family, finds happiness in the pure love of a simple country lass." Percy is a wealthy dandy who wears knickers, a straw brimmer, and carries a cane. With a cigarette dangling from his lips, and an air of self-confidence, he sits in the garden telling his aristocratic sister about the country girl he loves. She is angered by this-thinking she's below their station in life-and Percy storms off. While he is out driving in the country, his car breaks down. Even though he is rich, Percy is utterly incompetent. He doesn't know how to get the car started. Then Mag the Hag, an old witch who lives in a shack and is the keeper of a magic talisman, comes hobbling down the road. She passes by Percy, and then she stumbles and falls down. Percy rushes over to help her, and because she has so much gratitude for his kindness, she uses the talisman to get his car started again. In fact, she gives the talisman to Percy who quickly learns how to use its magic. Later, we see him back at their estate, standing in the garden, using the talisman to transform objects into other objects. For instance, he transforms a loaf of bread into a big squash or zucchini-it's hard to tell exactly. Elizabeth shows up and sits down in the garden and reads a book. She says something to Percy that upsets him, so he takes off to find comfort in the arms of Peg, the country lass, whom he loves.

In the final scenes of the film, we find Percy returning to the garden with Peg and showing her and Elizabeth some of his hocus-pocus.

Even though we may chafe at the class implications of the narrative, this is a familiar fairy-tale…but with a somewhat harsh twist. Now that Percy possesses the power to transform the world, he uses that magic to bring Peg into his aristocratic fold. The girl he treasured for her simple innocence becomes a sassy modern woman in an up-to-date dress. Perhaps this is a testament to the class interests of the filmmakers. They take the Cinderella story, and put their own face on it. In his work on dreams, Freud had noted the symbolism of folklore, myths, legends, and proverbs were reappeared generation after generation in a set of transforming symbols and narrative structure. As Stephen Wilson points out, Freud wanted "merely to expand the list to include dreams….All the tropes and conceits familiar to the literary imagination, Freud [also] attributes to the language of dreams."(4) In "Mag the Hag," the dream of class mobility is depicted as a kind of redemption that restores harmony to the relationship between Percy and his sister.

But I can't watch this film without making note of another story, a subtext that appears in these scenes at the end of the film. It's difficult to overlook the moments when the actors are kissing. The first time this happens we see Percy bringing Peg and Elizabeth face to face, and they kiss on the lips. There is really no reason for this given the narrative. In the final scene, after "The Great Miracle," we find Peg and Percy linked in a kiss so passionate that they literally fall out of the camera's frame. Considering that I know little about Percy Maxim or the other women who appear in this film, I'm not sure what to make of these scenes. But I cannot deny what it suggests. Here we have young women who may in fact be using the disguise of the film to explore some dimension of their sexuality. As in what Freud called the "wish-fulfillment dream", we have a case where the manifest narrative involves a set of disguises that beckon us to read beyond them, to remove the masks and try to understand what else may be going on here.

Perhaps the nature of consciously constructed narratives is an obvious place to look for dream-like fantasies being played with, and played out. Like the commercial films of Hollywood-which we often refer to as the "Dream Factory"-these amateur scenarios are clearly created to tell a fantasy story. But what about other home movies? What evidence of manifest narratives and latent meanings can we discover in them?

Against the backdrop of self-conscious performances that so often populate home movies, I find it interesting that there are sometimes momentary performances that seem to erupt on the screen that suggest something of deeper significance is taking place. Amateur film does, indeed, offer us a record of everyday life. The presence of the movie camera in recording the events of daily life can offer revelatory images that are neither fact nor fantasy, but a unique blend of both. But I also think that the presence of the home movie camera can offer us a glimpse of the world that people live in that is not often visible to us. There we may find the evidence for latent conflicts or anxieties appearing suddenly and without notice. The presence of the camera sometimes records such images and makes visible what is otherwise subjective, interior, and not always revealed in the flow of daily life. These "invisible-made-visible" moments are what I want to call "spontaneous" performances as compared with those amateur films that are consciously constructed as moments of fiction and fantasy.

Jokes, The Subconscious and the Play of the Deer Hunters

…Jokes offer a moment when the "the unconscious is allowed to bubble up without restraint, hence the sense of enjoyment and freedom," writes anthropologist Mary Douglas. The amount of energy expended "monitoring our subconscious" appeals to formalized perceptions of social order and control. In comparison, the "joke, because it breaks down the control, gives the monitoring system a holiday." Clearly, Douglas's understanding of jokes is grounded in a Freudian vision of that subdued underworld lurking inside us. Jokes release energy, she says, "for they allow the subconscious to be expressed…Something which might have been repressed has been allowed to appear, an new improbable form of life has been glimpsed."(5) In this sense, jokes are performances that ignite little sparks energizing a borderline separating a world of order and expectation from another world where the unpredictable is recovered as a gesture toward freedom from all of it, to be taken in stride, and sanctioned by laughter.

Douglas' comments are instructive because the helps us to think about how moments of joking on camera can, in fact, offer another view. The camera and the performances they call forth help to reveal the contours of conflict and the ambiguities of experience. Such performances seem to virtually erupt on the film and in them we can find evidence that invites us to draw out an (albeit "speculative") interpretation. In this next example [from a third collection] we are watching a piece of 16mm film shot on a hunting trip sometime during the 1950s. In this clip, the men have returned from a deer hunt and are proudly displaying their trophies for the camera. But the lingering eye of the camera's lens seems to draw something more from the men who are celebrating the bounty of their hunt:

The men returning from their hunt are called by the presence of the camera to engage in a form of play. Clearly, they are engaged in making a joke. Yet, what emerges in the joke is interesting because it so bizarre. They seem to be re-enacting the hunt itself, except this time, they are not using a gun but a knife to kill the animal. At another point in the film, they seem to be either riding the dead animal as if it were a horse, or having sex with it. And then, there are the somewhat morbid scenes where they re-animate the dead animal, bring out a pile of venison steaks and pretend that the animal is eating the meat of its own species. I wouldn't say there is any particularly recognizable sense of "wish-fulfillment" at work here. If there is, I couldn't tell what it is. But what this film suggests to me is a strange dramatization of masculinity, one that beckons back to a kind of primitive relationship with man and animal and, perhaps, a more modern sense of discomfort and unease of men being with other men.

Freud was particularly interested in the aspects of dreams that seemed "unintelligible," the things that appeared as "logical impossibilities" and "bizarre happenings." This is what he aimed to explain, but all of it he saw emerging from an unbalanced compromise between desire and social order, internal yearnings and self-censorship. "Like Plato, he saw mental life as a struggle between 'the beast' in man and some higher moderating influence," notes Wilson.(6) As we watch these hunters, I would argue that the camera allows for a moment of revelation. Perhaps we could say that the camera is a kind of key that unlocks the cage for a moment, and lets the animal run wild.

None of what takes place with the hunters seems rehearsed. In fact, it all seems improvisational and spontaneous. It is a momentary eruption in what anthropologist Kathleen Stewart might call, "the naturalized order of things."(7) This footage is clearly unlike daily life, but it also unlike a hunting trip. What makes the difference, what drives a wedge in between those two spheres of everyday life and leisure, is the record made by the movie camera…a piece of film that seems to straddle both the real and the unreal. It is neither truth nor fiction, but it is a record of something that happened for a moment and disappeared, and left only these traces that we might ponder…as if waking from a dream.


(1) This is the language Freud uses, for example, on p. 68 of The Interpretation of Dreams (New York: Wordsworth, 1997) originally translated by A.A. Brill in 1932. The text is the third edition of the original German edition, published in 1900.
(2) The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 53.
(3) See, Patricia R. Zimmerman, Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995) Pp. 64-89.
(4) Stephen Wilson, "Introduction" to The Interpretation of Dreams, p. xi.
(5) Mary Douglas, "Jokes," in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies, ed. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 294.
(6) Wilson, p. viii.
(7) See Kathleen Stewart, A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an "Other" America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)