Introduced by Vivian Sky Rehberg
HD video, color, sound, 28'
Starring Sigmund Freud is a video memento for Sigmund Freud’s little-known film career. The video collects the over 50 appearances that the character of Freud has made on films and television programs. After the 1950s, when pill vials replaced analytic couches, the father of psychoanalysis found a second career impersonating himself in everything, from a John Huston clunker to a Star Trek episode, which are gathered in this video compendium.
Vivian Sky Rehberg: Prior to releasing Starring Sigmund Freud, you published in frieze your text, “Dream Factory,” on Sigmund Freud as a fictional movie character. What is the relationship between the text and the film? Or rather, in retrospect, how do you see the relationship between the two?
John Menick: As usual, other people did the hard work. I got the material from a strange page on the Internet Movie Database: a page listing over seventy films and TV shows in which Sigmund Freud appears as a character. (IMDB has pages not just for crewmembers and films, but also for fictitious characters—or, in this case, a fictitious character based on a historical person.) Only a swarm of anonymous busybodies could have come up with this data: most of the films are obscure and unavailable, but I managed to find and watch about twenty of them and wrote the essay.
A few months later, dOCUMENTA(13) commissioned me to make a new video, so I decided to “adapt” the frieze essay. Here, unfortunately, “adapting” meant using the essay as an almost word-for-word voice-over. In that first (deleted) version I repeated just about every video-related mistake I’d previous made: too obvious relations between voice and image; using the voice of the All Knowing Critical Theorist; using the text to dictate the editing rather than the image, etc. It was depressing, really. So I decided to scrap the voice-over and let the clips do the talking instead. That, I hope, was a better way to go.
VSR: Once you abandoned the text as the template for structuring the film how did you go about editing the visual material you gathered?
JM: I watched two films while cutting Starring Sigmund Freud: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010) by Andrei Ujica, and And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) by Steven Soderbergh. They’re both biographical documentaries—one is about Ceausescu and the other about Spalding Gray. Both are made up of film clips without voice-over commentary, and they are arranged in chronological order, starting from the subject’s birth to his death. I thought it might be nice to do the same thing with the fictional Freud: start with his birth, run through his life, then through his death, and finally show his afterlife as a ghost (as he often appears in film). For a lot of reasons, the final video turned out differently, though. Instead, it’s framed by a hypnotic session, or maybe a death dream.
VSR: Starring Sigmund Freud reveals a lot about mass-cultural representations of psychoanalysis, via the iconic figure of Freud, yet I find it is difficult to read it as a critique of psychoanalysis or as an homage to Freud. Why is that?
JM: Because it’s neither. What’s happening in the video is a kind of play: a play between scenes, between genres, styles, texts, etc. The same play that might be at work in a joke. The material is often extremely condensed, with odd juxtapositions, moves that owe something to surrealism, but are not surrealism per se. For me, the entire project, the editing, was driven by a sense of surprise. It had to feel as if someone else had made it, maybe a little like a possession. Not like the free speech of analysis, exactly—that would be unwatchable—but something where the audio-visual material leads, rather than a text or a script.
VSR: The therapeutic value of ‘the talking cure’ has been repeatedly questioned since its invention. What makes it topical for a writer and artist today?
JM: What’s interesting is how few films, if any, show the psychoanalytic session accurately or compellingly. Maybe it’s because there is only meant to be two people in the room during analysis, at least in classical analysis. Two authors who are also two audience members. There’s no third wall, no spectators other than the fifty-minute pair. Maybe that’s why psychoanalysis is so difficult to portray: there never was room for a matinee crowd. Feature films need more people, more situations, more times, more subjects. And maybe the gap, the problem, is between the two: between the searching couple in analysis and the threatening strangers outside.
Produced by the Kadist Foundation and commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13).