Taking a couch trip through junctions of movies and the mind

January 16, 1994|By George Grella

Title: "Hollywood on the Couch: A Candid Look at the Overheated Love Affair Between Psychiatrists and Moviemakers"

Author: Stephen Farber and Marc Green

Publisher: Morrow

Length, price: 352 pages, $23


Title: "The Phantom Empire"

Author: Geoffrey O'Brien

Publisher: Norton

-! Length, price: 281 pages, $20

Hollywood, that city of dreams, whose single great industry is the manufacture of a million fantasies, is the capital of the American state of mind. After 100 years of sitting in the dark watching the hypnotic flickering of light and shadow, we have learned from the movies how to dream in unison -- cinema constructs a whole world of illusion we can enter together, a shared, communal experience.

The movies have become the object example of that derided concept, the racial unconscious, and inevitably provoke what might be called psychological speculation.

Film's magical and illusionary power accounts for all sorts of approaches and commentary, some of which employ strange methods to account for the uniqueness of the art. Two very good new books suggest some ways that Hollywood has confronted the subjects of dream, imagination and the psyche itself.

One is a more or less orthodox history of the long relationship between the film industry and psychiatry; the other is an extended meditation on the ways the movies exist within the mind of the audience.

In the informative and entertaining "Hollywood on the Couch," Stephen Farber and Marc Green examine just about every possible link between filmmaking and psychological therapy, which at times come to seem virtually the same thing.

The two endeavors, which rose to prominence almost contemporaneously, have enjoyed some remarkable connections, not the least of which was their early development in Europe and their subsequent rapid growth in the fertile climate of Southern California, where both artistic illusions and nutty cures flourished like the orange trees.

Both the film industry and the therapy industry began with strict Freudianism, then branched out into the panoply of possibilities we all know only too well -- orgone boxes, crystals, Gestalt therapy, Rolfing, Esalen, est, groups, primal scream, you name it -- with almost every method becoming the subject of motion pictures.

Despite its excessive subtitle, "Hollywood on the Couch" takes a generally responsible and workmanlike approach to its subject, casting light on an important corner of film history. Richly anecdotal, it tends to hop around through time and space, dealing with the various therapies practiced upon actors, writers and directors, and also with the appearance of psychiatrists and psychiatry on screen.

It balances the personal and professional histories of a number of well-known Hollywood therapists, along with those of their more famous analysands, which include Moss Hart, David O. Selznick, Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchell, Paul Mazursky, Woody Allen and countless others.

Although they maintain a certain lightness of tone, the authors direct serious attention to the influence of psychiatry and psychiatrists on the art of film. They discuss its ambiguous application, for example, in Lee Strasberg's interpretation of the Stanislavski Method in his Actors Studio, which trained a whole generation of quirky, moody, introspective and often brilliant artists. They point out numerous films, including works as different as Hitchcock's "Spellbound," and Mr. Allen's "Annie Hall," John Cassavetes' "Husbands" and Mr. Mazursky's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice."

In "The Phantom Empire," Geoffrey O'Brien also explores the overlapping territories of the movies and the mind, but his book otherwise bears almost no resemblance to "Hollywood on the Couch." It provides something like a history of the movies, for example, and concentrates deeply on their psychological effect, but it is like no other existing study of the cinema.

It is a remarkable book, really a work of art in itself, in which film constitutes not only the subject but the method, and almost every page offers a new and startling revelation.

Beginning with some artfully described (and arty) establishing shots of a spectator -- who is both author and reader -- watching a movie on late-night television, the book proceeds with a cinematic impressionism and a dizzying series of imaginative leaps to consider what seems like every possible meaning of film. With a dazzling, epigrammatic concision, the author exhibits a solid knowledge of film technology, history and criticism, which he considers not only for themselves but to support his investigation of film's power to remake our world. With wit, insight and a profound passion for the art, he shows how movies have created our perceptions, our reactions to life, and even other movies.

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