I used to be a true believer
Discovering Freudian literary analysis when I finally managed to crawl my way into college as a 28-year-old freshman was like discovering the Holy Grail - or more precisely, the Rosetta Stone. I thought I had found the key to the hidden meaning behind all great works of literature, and could use this as a tool to steal what they knew so I could consciously manipulate language the way William Shakespeare and James Joyce did.
Now, a few decades later (and perhaps only minimally wiser) I realize just how full of shit Freudians are. And I was never so acutely reminded of this fact than when I read "The looking back in ET," by Isla J. Bick - as it appears in a collection of critical essays called "The films of Steven Spielberg."
Freudian analysis comes to literature with preconceived notions, a self-fulfilling fantasy constantly attempting to support its own outmoded and largely disproved theories that life is based solely on sexual repression.
Instead of looking objectively at an art work, most of these literary analysts (the operative syllable is anal) put a Freudian template over the material, and take away from the art whatever aspects come through this artificial filter. This is like taking a stencil of cut out letters and putting them over the text of a copy of Hamlet to claim a great literary accomplishment each time their stencil shows a matching letter of the alphabet.
In the Freudian universe, all symbols are sexual so that ET's glowing finger (which Spielberg likely derived from the good witch's magic wand in Wizard of Oz) becomes a symbol of male potency (a Freudian would also claim the witch's wand was a woman's wish to become a man.).
From all this Bick (what were her parents thinking when they refused to change a last name like that!) cuts open the belly of Spielberg's masterpiece and spills the guts onto our kitchen tables for us to sort through the contents.
There is no magic, no wonder in the Freudian university, there is only frustrated cause and effect. Any attempt to make a Freudian see art in terms other than sex is like asking a blind man to see color, and turning their own analysis back on them, you can legitimately ask why they are so fascinated in peeping through people's bedroom windows.
For Freudians, Gods and ghosts don't exist. So The Bible, Shakespeare, Science Fiction and Fantasy become symptoms of a disease for which only Freudians have a cure.
In the Freudian universe, there is also no hope for the future. We are perpetually bound to a past heavy with animal impulses we have or should have repressed. We have no free will. We cannot improve our position until we have some how (an unlike scenario) resolved all of the dirty thought over which we still feel guilty, many of which have been plaguing our minds since we first emerged from the birth canal.
Science fiction - although there are numerous other equally valid definitions - assumes we can evolve beyond our base passions, make ourselves better by using our brains for more than satisfying hunger, fear of death and sex. The genre paints possibilities to which we might hopeful progress. While this is not totally true of all speculative fiction, most - except the most dour such as Arthur C. Clark - speculate on humanity's ability to transcend.
In Freudian terms SF is largely a fruitless search for wish fulfillment, and for the most part, the only actual resolution to the massive load of guilt dumped upon us since birth, is the grave.
So at odds are the concepts of Freud to what SF stands for that any Freudian analysis is like asking Bin Laden to set up security on the World Trade Center towers prior to 9/11.
A Freudian analysis is of SF is an attack on SF's core beliefs, and so any such study of Spielberg is an attempt to sabotage all he may seek to accomplish in the construction of his mythology.
This is not to say Bick's keen observations are totally without merit. But so bent on deliberately seeking evidence to despoil Spielberg's fiction, she merely misinterprets what is there.
Let's start with the most obvious flaws in Bick's arguments: product placement.
Bick makes some serious over generalizations as to the motive behind why things like Reece's Pieces and Pepsi appear in Spielberg's films.
Giving a diabolical implication, Bick says this is an attempt to blur the line between reality and fiction.
The more real fiction feels the more empathy viewers have with the characters. That is the point of Science Fiction and all fiction, to play out real life problems on a fictional yet reality-like set with the hopes (in great fiction) to find some truth about ourselves or (in lesser fiction) to allow ourselves to escape from the pressures we face in everyday life for a short time.
We, fiction writers, select details to paint as realistic a picture as possible against which our characters can act out this drama. Because ET (as well as Back to the future which she also attacks) are set in modern times (the 1980s), Pepsi, Nike and Pizza Hurt become important reference points that give immediate recognition to our time period. There is a reason why we are called the Pepsi Generation. Set in another time period, Spielberg might have used Ben Franklin's almanac or George Washington's wooden teeth (though Bick might still have found a sexual reference to cling to).
There is, of course, another important reason why Spielberg invented the concept of product placement: his films cost so much to make he bartered this spots with manufacturers in order to generate additional revenue that might keep him from going over budget.
Bick also attacks ET and other Spielberg movies for constantly referring to other movies.
"What this emphasizes is that - for these characters - reality consists of what they see on televisions and movies," she writer, claiming these fictional characters step off the screen and "sit next to the audience."
What utter hogwash. But as with many of Bick's arguments, it has a grain of truth.
Spielberg does constantly make reference to other movies, often part of some inside joke such as references to film in which he played a hand in making, a kind of free product placement he benefits from. But he goes well beyond that, often refereeing to films that inspired him, films out of which his own work evolved. And he does not merely make reference to film, but to fairy tales and other works of art.
Allusion is at the heart of all great art.
Where would most of the Greek dramatist be had they lacked Homer to reference? What would Dante's Inferno be without its abundance of inner references?
Allusion gives greater meaning to a work, allowing more a more solid base of understanding.
Yes, Spielberg references other movies, each having some subtle point to make in the story he is telling.
But as many greater critics than me have noted, each medium celebrates itself.
Homer sang the praises of poets in his verse. Shakespeare gave lessons on stagecraft. Spielberg talks about movies.
For all of Bick's arguments, she fails to make not of the most fundamental truth of art.
Art is not about the world, it is about the process of creation and as often transcribed: art is about art.
Great books are often concerned more about the craft of writing, the shaping of words, the creating of characters and the establishing of motivation than they are about anything else. Most great books make reference to other great books, even imitate the forms such as the linage of Cervantes, Chaucer, Boccicio and DeNarve.
Films constantly reference each other in an ever expanding dialogue. For film defines our generation the way books have other generation. Spielberg and others are creating the literature of contemporary times, daring us to catch the references and to more fully appreciate the craft.
Bick, like many Freudian pundits is guilty of a kind of religious zeal. They blame films like ET for "reshaping and remaking history," when this is the very aim of Freudian analysis. Such critics suffer a God complex and if they could they would quote The Bible and warn us to have no other gods but them.
Instead of looking at a film to see or hear or figure out what a director like Spielberg is trying to say, Bick takes the film apart, redefining its elements to suit her own purpose, not in the pursuit of truth or in an effort at objectivity, but an effort that the Germans once defined as propaganda.