The Mind Screen

Identification Desire and Its Cinematic Arena

by Georg Schmid (Author)
©2016 Monographs 329 Pages


For well over a century cinema has exerted enormous influence, yet many questions regarding its fascination remain unanswered. Films work so well because the viewers tend to unconsciously identify with the actors/actresses. The desire to become another, substituting identity by identification, can be traced to the illusion that the filmic heroes/heroines are immortal – identifying with them raises the possibility of gaining «deathlessness.» Viewers can, without real life risks, experiment with the existential drafts presented; the power of imagination is mobilized. Based on a multidisciplinary approach (semiotics, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, plus a healthy dose of film history), this book presents prolegomena of a philosophy of cinema.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • 1 On Both Sides of the Looking-Glass
  • 2 The Real Groucho
  • 3 “I” Is Another
  • 4 Wanting to Be Another
  • 5 Being John Malkovich. Or Michael Douglas. Or Richard Gere. Or Bill Pullman. Or Someone Younger, Maybe Someone of the Other Sex/Gender
  • 6 Stunt Doubles, Stand-Ins, Spectators. And the Doctors
  • 7 The Doctors (Continued)–and Those Who Need to See Them
  • 8 “The Big Show Is Going on in My Head”
  • 9 “It’s All in Your Head”
  • 10 Introductory Remarks on the Mind’s “Chambers”
  • 11 Wanting to Be Cary Grant
  • 12 Wanting to Be: …… (Insert Name)
  • 13 Who’d You Actually Identify With?
  • 14 Why “Desire”?
  • 15 Allo- or Xeno-Experiences
  • 16 The Yearning for a Happy End
  • 17 Receivers and Senders
  • 18 The Likeliness of an Unhappy End
  • 19 Films’ Dream Work
  • 20 Dispositive. Apparatus. Instrumentality
  • 21 Activating the Mind’s Potential
  • 22 Multiple Identifications
  • 23 Faking Reality
  • 24 The Confines of Reality, Storytelling, and the Force Majeur of Temporality
  • 25 Attempting to Change Minds
  • 26 What to Do about Erroneous Perception?
  • 27 What Could Be, What Could Have Been
  • 28 Corrective Action
  • 29 Identity with Oneself?
  • 30 Come on in, Take Part in My Fiction
  • 31 Precision and Persuasion
  • 32 There Are Alternatives
  • 33 Complexity
  • 34 Uncertainty and Indecision
  • 35 Particularities of Identification
  • 36 Identity or Identification
  • 37 The Business of Comparing
  • 38 Using the Escape Hatch
  • 39 Getaways and Great Escapes
  • 40 Identification versus Identity and the Susceptibility of Schizophreniform Conduct
  • 41 Plurality and Its Menus
  • 42 The Axes of Identification
  • 43 Perspectives, Prises de Vue, Position, Perception
  • 44 Limits of Identification
  • 45 The “Omnivoyeuristic World”
  • 46 A Mind Bridge
  • 47 Inject and Evacuate
  • 48 Mobilizers, Enablers, Utensils and Other Wherewithals
  • 49 On Some Specific Motivating Forces of Identification
  • 50 Typologies of Identification
  • 51 What if…
  • 52 Einfühlung and Nachvollzug
  • 53 A Matter of Untranslatability
  • 54 “Evacuation” and Narcissism
  • 55 Eros and Thanatos. And the Lives of Others
  • 56 On Some More Special Inducements to Identification
  • 57 Commonalities and Discrepancies
  • 58 And My Personal Movie?
  • References and Notes
  • Index

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Cinema is an antidote against death. Heroes and heroines die in a film; in another one, some time later, there they are again. At least it is a resurrection, kind of. And even if the real actors and actresses who played in some specific movie are actually dead, their performance is never over: there can be reprises at the theatre or the multiplex, or you can reinsert a DVD or some stick (or whatever), and by doing so you recall them to life.

Obviously that’s an illusion–it is a matter of having a false (if comprehensible) idea: namely, of immortality. There is a fitting façon de parler: that some artist is “immortal.” A metaphor, no doubt. Metaphors often express deep-seated desires (normally rather well concealed in our unconscious). This type of immortality is not something religious about “raising someone from the death.” It is, on the contrary, very much about life, about living, the wish to remain alive.

The moving pictures move us (in the sense of “to affect with emotion”): they are emotive pictures. In the course of this book a large number of problems will be discussed, among them the fact that, parallel to the emotions they expose, films also strongly challenge our intellect. By proposing that everybody wants to escape or circumnavigate death, I prepare the terrain for a number of psychoanalytically motivated questions. (Thanatos, you might say, is a bit disclaimed by the movies.)

A constant argument will be–as the subtitle lets you assume–that there exists a desire to identify. That is to say, to identify with someone. Movie personages magnificently lend themselves to consummate that. Why do people want to be another? (Rimbaud’s Je est un autre is here provided with a varied meaning: I want to be another.) Once you are (have become) another, you “multiply” your existence, making many lives out of just one life. You might also secretly hope to cheat death. What I have in mind is a story related by Borges, in Cuentos Breves y Extraordinarios, about someone to whom death makes a menacing gesture in Bagdad whereupon the threatened man is granted leave by his sovereign and flees to Isfahan. When the latter comes across death soon afterwards he asks him why he threatened his magistrate. Death answers that his gesture expressed only surprise at seeing him here in Bagdad as he is supposed to get him later on in Isfahan.

If you succeed in “evacuating” your ego into a movie personage, you’d hardly have such a problem. I shall show that the desire to identify with someone quasi immortal is central to the fascination with cinema. “I’ll be back” is given an additional meaning. Of course, it is an illusion, wishful thinking, a day-dream. That’s ← 13 | 14 → exactly what the dream factory provides. Its products lure you into playing mind games. Not the least of those is about fantasizing of becoming another–or, preferably, many others, and every time you feel threatened (or just bored) you can escape into another role.

Cinema accomodates and permits many things, not just escapes (by means of “escape hatches”). It can be demonstrated that by slipping into others’ shoes, you enable yourself to experiment with alternate drafts for your own life, “theoretically” only, needless to say. Better a bird in the hand than two in the bush. In your mind, you can, however vaguely (and by approximation), get “a feel” for matters normally out of reach. A rather pedestrian saying has it that it’s all in your head. Indeed, one’s fantasy life, empowered by the enormous force of cinematic fiction, can enrich your real life. If handled properly, fictions can help you rehearse life by providing you with what Barthes called praxis sans sanctions.

Films are here posited not least as facilitators. They activate and energize the audiences’ imaginative faculties by impelling each viewer to adjust the respective movie to his or her needs, wishes, desires. It’s not just about what is shown on the screen; rather it is about what’s going on in our minds. Movies, in that sense, play out in one’s head. That justifies the title Mind Screen.

Films, it is argued in this book, prompt people to exercize their brains. The cinema is an institution to teach people to get a grip on their emotional and intellectual potential. I wouldn’t mind speaking of a sanitarium (consciously running the risk of making readers associate a mental home: many among us are less balanced than we care to admit). In the event, I prefer the term mind over the term brain. I am not well versed in neurobiology and brain research; conversely, I am interested in the detectable effects of what is going on in the brain. In other words, I analyze how (and why) things are seen and felt, how they are thought about, stored and remembered and how they can be made useful in what is called everyday life. (Finally, emotions may forever remain so private that even the most refined scientific explanations fall short of being useful for the person in question.)

To that extent, I have to throw in my lot with psychoanalysis which here, however, is refashioned as socio-psychoanalysis. The arguments I shall present concern the interplay of individuals and their socio-cultural programming, the inquiries are chiefly about the interface individual/surrounding field. Everybody is very strongly influenced, even predetermined, by the socio-culture she or he originates from. You see what you are able, allowed, trained to see and by no means only what you think you see (or imagine to perceive).

Therefore any free play of identification transporting you out of these finally rather narrow confines must be seen as positive. Only then can you compare, really judge, define an ethical framework or just gain truly personal, private ← 14 | 15 → pleasure (nothing to be frowned upon: it’s what keeps us going). Perhaps the central hypothesis of this book is that one’s (supposed) identity can be, so to speak, taken over, temporarily substituted by identifications. You want to be, at least now and then, someone else. Preferably many elses. This is understandable, and certainly not in any way “of unsound mind.” You try to enrich your existence. It’s in many ways a survival strategy. Life is drab and grey and saddening enough, why not embellish it–in your (day-)dreams?

Once this point is conceded, there is no difficulty to comprehend why movies have become so popular. They provide alternates and additions, chances to observe yourself in different roles and functions (by virtue of identification), relaxation and amusement, ultimately much more than what is usually referred to quite foolishly as escapist. By comparing certain existential drafts, you can even get your moral house in order (what better way than to measure yourself against a true hero/heroine?). Your fantasy life, and thus your creativity, is getting teased, tempted, stimulated (thus showing you hitherto unacknowledged potential). You can learn to make better use of your hidden talents in everyday life. And you can soothe possible apprehensions concerning schizoid fits which may well be nothing else than the “obstetrics” of additional (and maybe substitutive) character traits.

In short, films activate your mind’s inherent potential. Our mental maps are provided largely by the outside world, but it is our mind screen which reworks them in a specific way. The point is that these maps come in the form of images. And that is where there is a short-circuit between the moving images provided free house by the cinema and the–really separate?–images we construct for ourselves, using our own wherewithals, supposedly autonomous, the utensils of free agents. Is the Self really just that–or but a puzzle, an amalgam, an assemblage or compound of external stimuli and their conversion by and in a mind?

Antonio Damasio noted that “One entire century of movie viewing has certainly had an impact on the human self […]”. He sees consciousness as a mind endowed with subjectivity. And yet this subjectivity is constantly fed from the outside, often unnoticed, not subtracting from the Self but rather improving upon it, expanding it, equipping it with ever more paths from which to choose. The neurosciences are not on very safe ground when they attempt to show conclusively and convincingly in which ways emotional needs materialize and are then treated by an individual psyche. And in an individual’s mind there may always remain residues of something incommunicable.

Feeling, sensing, perceiving take place in a mind, in one mind, which (however much it is shaped by its surroundings) has its proper set of wishes and longings, needs and desires. One of these is the wish to construct a good life (in the sense of Ronald Dworkin). That’s what this book sets out to contribute to. It ← 15 | 16 → is an exploration of the mind. And that means in the first place–inevitably–the author’s mind. And this mind’s screen, by definition, cannot be so atypical as not to be of value to the readers.

This book is modeled after the structure of a classic (or classical) symphony. Themes and motives are getting developed, they are dropped, after some time picked up again. There are major variations and quite a number of parenthetical digressions. Yet there is a main key, and while other keys appear, the principal key is never left out of sight (or hearing); time and again it is approached from different perspectives and put into different contexts, but it is always regained after having been enriched by a number of detours.

Three points remain to be made. I do not posit that there is a hierarchy of films, indeed I do not accept the very idea. My argumentation will quickly present evidence why it is nonsensical to a priori categorize films in qualitative respects (artistically superlative versus mainstream, avant-garde versus classicism, etc). Films are either excellent, good, borderline, or bad–and to a very large extent such judgments are personal, have to be answered for by the one who judges, cannot be imparted by critics (because it is just their private opinion, too). There is much less “objectivity” than routinely assumed, and subjective impressions should clearly be expressed as such.

As to my use of the English language, a word of warning. While I mostly adhere to the American standard, I quite intentionally mix in British components–e.g., I usually don’t put commas before ands whereas I (reluctantly) put punctuation marks inside inverted commas. My sentences are sometimes, but by no means always, long (or longish) which is not due to the fact that my mother tongue is German but is the consequence of careful consideration in terms of what you could call rhetoric rhythm. Anyway, I try to position languages (and their variants) close to one another; I am all for métissage, and I am willing to risk some disgruntlement on the part of purist readers for that.

I also did not follow well-meaning exhortations to write–and thus present arguments–in the simplest way imaginable. This is a trap: complicated matters require a degree of intricateness of exposition, otherwise the simplicity for its own sake leads to simplification of the very matter one tries to elucidate. Moreover, one can still allow for competent readers; there is no real need not to expect some effort on behalf of the readers. Writing in a rigorous (“complicated”) way cannot least be seen as an implicit compliment for exactly those readers.

Finally, I express my profound thanks to Gloria Withalm, a well-known semiotician (and a superb movie expert) from the Universität für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna, who has read the original draft of this book with the utmost meticulousness and a lot of sympathy. My wife, the philologist Sigrid Schmid-Bortenschlager, ← 16 | 17 → has to be considered nearly a co-author of this book: while the weaknesses of it are mine (and I naturally take sole responsibility for the book), many of the ideas expressed and explained in it must be traced to her input; after a very long time of living and working together nothing less may, perhaps, be expected. But what seems logical, what seems to go by itself, is sometimes more than can be properly expressed. So–as a very filmic saying has it: I owe you.

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1 On Both Sides of the Looking-Glass

Facing the screen, silver or lcd or whatever, watching a movie, a startling question is imminent. What I am seeing, is it nothing but an impersonal unfolding of a visually told story, distracting, amusing, thrilling–or is there more to it? Shut off the screen, and you’ll probably perceive a vague likeness of yourself: your mirror image. Turn it on again and the looking-glass becomes the aperture to a fictitious universe once more.

Likeness of the beholder versus the adventure provided by a movie. But is the membrane (or diaphragm) really just a sort of revolving door? A door leading either to a redundant (pseudo) mirror image or to the cinematographic quest for pleasure and excitement? The screen is, of course, not intended to serve as a (disfiguring and quite inefficient) mirror; it is nearly permanently active, customarily showing the trivia of one of the ruling media: ads, so-called news, supposedly entertaining shows.

The receiver, then, supplying the screen itself with all that trash is hardly ever turned off. One must suppose, movies aren’t all that frequently shown on those screens. Movies seem to become somewhat outdated. Up to date, maybe even more so than the telly of old, are the omnipresent i-phones and other hand-held devices. Historically, the screen, the silver screen, was intended mainly to allow the projection of films. The cinema, significantly not seldom an adapted theatre, was neither the improbable (and involuntary) looking-glass I have just evoked, nor was it the i-phones’ narcissistic mini-screen or the (conveniently?) larger screen of the “Jesus tablets.” Historical processes, largely substitutive, have led from presentations–screenings–, at first in theatres of impressive dimensions, a thousand spectators or even more, then in “multiplexes,” to the nearly synchronous home cinema. And now to the wide-spread substitution of the portable mini- or midi-devices. (Sensation: a new i-phone’s generation is a little bigger than the previous one. A previous sensation: a new i-phone’s generation was distinctly smaller than the previous one.)

The audiences’ character has changed fundamentally, and so has the corresponding experience (as they like to say). Imagine the early stages of the showing of movies: often coarse masses, habitually loudly commenting what was going on on-screen, coming and going, smoking (smoking!); later, the habits became, if you will, somewhat more civilized (and, though definitely preferable, that in turn could become caricatural, too: the devotional attitude in view of “art films”). Roughly, things got to be less rowdy, more dandy. It remained, in some ways, a ← 18 | 19 → collective experience. And all things considered, we might just have passed a golden age: we had both the cinema and the home cinema–plus an astonishing availability–; all that is likely to quickly become a thing of the past. Experience en groupe or alone at home? That may well be a fundamental question, and from time to time we will devote our attention to it.

In most important ways experience–the term taken seriously–is an intensely personal matter; it can be shared only to an extent. Imagine, then, the following blissful situation: you are in front of a screen, you are going to indulge in watching a movie. There are very few intellectual and emotional operations providing kicks coming even close to what such experiences generate. The respective acts of decoding, savoring and storing up make us dive into the fictions’ offers. We are getting a chance of expanding our personalities–and in rare cases, at least for some time, to become another.

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2 The Real Groucho

According to Alice, the mirror’s surface is not something impenetrable. It is a kind of a membrane. In a way a door, making it is easy enough to step through to the other side. You can be mistaken about the mirror image, however. Even an ordinary window pane can present your likeness, it just depends on the lighting conditions. There are, in principle, residual (and reasonable) doubts: is, what I see on the other side of the glass, myself, mirror-inverted, or someone else altogether? In practice, to be sure, there is hardly any uneasiness about that. It still serves well to remember the mirror stage: regardless of whether the theory holds up, it is valuable as a starting point for reflections about the “I” and its imaginable “counter-Is” and doppelgängers.

In the Marx Brothers’ legendary Duck Soup (1933) the mirror–when Groucho already in some doubt, supposes to simply regard himself–is missing. Harpo, in order to delude Groucho, matches his moves, including the most absurd and over-elaborated ones. One of the most hilarious sequences ever shot, it only comes to an end when Chico, also disguised as Firefly (the “original” person) enters the frame, colliding with both Fireflys already on scene. Groucho’s doubts about this likeness–whether it is that or something, someone else–can easily be interpreted as uncertainty in regard to one’s own identity. (Let us nonetheless note in passing that all such analyses must not detract us from the enormously amusing character of the sequence itself.)

Is the mirror and the image it provides truthful or does it arrange reality wrongly, in an–exactly–deranged way? In case it were the question of identical twins, both would have to ask themselves who the real “one” is: we are all too sure that there is only one, the one and only I. Apart from the fact that the mirror image is laterally inverted, it can never show us how the others see us, there is more to that than just that inversion. In a sense, we are perceived somewhat like movie actors/actresses: even they can nowadays be seen in 3-D (and already could several decades ago).

As to Groucho, his real self escapes us even more than the screen figures he has played. Certainly, we know some things about him, not least that he apparently has been a amiable and sharp fellow. Yet his roles that seem to digest his character quite well are of more interest. It is a strange fact indeed that more often than not the real person is of less interest than the roles played. The actors’ curse? (Should we only use “actor” and not “actress?” Does actress sound pejorative? Think of Falling Down wherein the neo-Nazi sneers at the “inspectoress.” But I think not. ← 20 | 21 → Despite the unwieldy quality of repeating practically the same word for reasons of “p.c.” there is, all things considered, hardly a way around it.)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Film Cinema identification roles identity
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 329 pp.

Biographical notes

Georg Schmid (Author)

Georg Schmid has taught modern and contemporary history, mainly at the University of Salzburg.


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