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Film studies: In Hollywood, everyone likes hearing you scream

Over the next few months, the British Psycho-Analytical Society is offering a couple of Sunday-morning series of movies and discussion. They've shown Pabst's Secrets of a Soul already, but still to come are John Huston's Freud, Hitchcock's Spellbound and Hugh Brody's Nineteen Nineteen. That quartet falls under the rubric "Films on the Couch", and the (mis)representation of psycho-analysis in movies. Then, in the spring, class resumes, with a concentration on voyeurism, and screenings of Hitchcock's Rear Window, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Jaime Hermosillo's Homework and Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love.

I won't vouch for all the movies: Rear Window and Peeping Tom are masterpieces, but John Huston was the last person to feel sympathy for neurotic behaviour (as witness his cruelty towards Montgomery Clift, the actor he cast as Sigmund Freud). Still, I'm drawn to the plan because it's such a fruitful way of approaching the outrage and wonder of film.

The circumstances of cinema had an unnatural air from the beginning. In the dark, the audience (that pack of strangers) was subjected to a version of the life-like that in many ways was bereft of life. The "actors" were not there. The show was mechanical - the audience can intervene in theatre, but even if they rip down the movie screen, the blithe image keeps playing on their struggling backs. The image could separate bodies from heads; it could leap across time and space quicker than a blink or the rapid eye movement of sleep (that sign of dreaming); it could show us lopped-off heads and naked women, such as few people had enough chance to study in ordinary life.

There was something mad, or maddening, in the show. When the Lumiere brothers' train chugged towards the camera, some Parisian sophisticates ran from the salon in panic. How comic! Yet horror films still make us jump or scream, as if a spasm has escaped the flat picture and attacked us. From early on, some teachers condemned the movies; they believed the cult might detach us from reality, and breed desperate fantasists. Just because we've survived a hundred years doesn't mean they were wrong - or that we are safe. We have become a hushed mob of voyeurs, watching taboos and perils, as if we did not exist. To be a movie audience is to prepare us for real states in which we seem to have no function or substance - just the cover of darkness.

How does such danger fit with film's astonishing beauty? I don't only mean the light of photography and the shiver of movement (and if you begin to forget the thrill of forward movement, just run the film backwards to rediscover the phenomenon of motion). I refer to the secret of the medium (which is a key for analysts), that the real things seen are also metaphors. Is that just an ear Kyle McLachlan finds in Blue Velvet, or the discovery of the body? When King Kong blows on Fay Wray after her bath, is he drying her, wooing her, or raping her? And when the camera tracks in and zooms out in Vertigo, is that an evocation of nausea, or the suck of inner meaning? When hands reach out in a Bresson film, are they plain hands - or the wings of the soul? In Bunuel' s great works, how do we distinguish humdrum dream from startling ordinariness?

There's another approach to the subject - less rhapsodic, more mundane. It happened that several European analysts went to Los Angeles in the late 1930s and early 1940s, chased there by Hitler. It is a large generalisation, but into the late 1930s, American films tended to be unaware of the metaphor within every image. Business-like film-makers supposed they were telling stories, rather than exploring fantasies. Maybe only that innocence let the movies be so revealing - though censorship's pressure helped, too.

Then analysis hit town. Rich, neurotic and even self-dramatising people had long sustained the profession, and in Hollywood there were throngs obsessed with motivation and image - writers, actors and directors (plus their spouses, lawyers and hairdressers). Many film people plunged into therapy, and took to the couch (most Hollywood offices had one already). None more eagerly than David O Selznick. He had a special need: he wanted to believe he could love both his wife and his discovery, Jennifer Jones, without giving anything up. He recruited a smart but movie-mad woman, Russian and Jewish, Dr May Romm, and had her treat nearly everyone he met.

That was unprofessional, but then he asked the doctor to read scripts. For Selznick was so enthused by analysis - which struck him as another kind of story-conferencing - that he wanted to make a movie about doctors, dreams and sweet healing. Spellbound was the result, and May Romm had a credit on it as adviser. She was rebuked by her professional colleagues, but she was star-struck. The film has spectacular set-pieces, a dream sequence by Salvador Dali, and Ingrid Bergman as a saintly doctor, but it is hokum, and part of the stupid cliche about analysis in which movies have conspired. No matter, Dr Romm flourished. For, as she told her daughter (who became an analyst, too) there was a secure career in the movie world doing psycho-analysis - so long as you never threatened the disturbed minds and world-famous children of Beverly Hills with cure or maturity.

For details, contact Ann Glynn at the British Psycho-Analytical Society (0171 580 4952).