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Freud on Film: John Menick Explores Sigmund Freud

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As famed medicine men go, few figures are more iconic than Sigmund Freud -- the man with the cigar, the snow-white beard, and the Viennese voice discussing sex, dreams, and the nature of man's unconscious mind. Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, has in many ways remained more culturally relevant than his practices, a fact that's been keeping him in the spotlight in movie houses and on TV screens around the world for decades beyond his death.

Now, New York-based artist John Menick has compiled an array of the many character appearances of Sigmund Freud on the big and small screens and strung them together into a video memento he calls Starring Sigmund Freud, a work that will screen at Soho Beach House in Miami Beach tonight.

Though this screening marks Menick's first showing of his work in Miami, his involvement with the subject of Sigmund Freud is long-running. "I always had an interest in psychoanalysis," Menick says. "I think it's kind of hard nowadays to be a true believer in psychoanalysis, to take it as doctrine, but I've always been fascinated by Sigmund Freud as a thinker and a writer."

Eventually, this general interest became a more guided fascination that looked at various representations and reinterpretations of Freud on film, especially when Menick discovered just how many there were.

"IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, has pages for characters in movies, not just actors," Menick explains, "and they have a page that I sort of stumbled upon for Sigmund Freud and his appearances in movies, and there were something like 70 or so appearances."

"I had no idea he had been in so many movies," he says. "I only really knew about the sort of top-shelf appearances, like the John Huston film and the David Cronenberg film which was about to come out at the time. I just started watching all these movies, and I decided I wanted to write about it."

Before the video collage was even a concept, Menick put the idea to pen in an essay titled "Dream Factory," which was published in an issue of Frieze magazine. In the essay, Menick refers to Freud as a living, timeless entity, a being that is at least partially detached from the historical figure, disembodied and maintained as a living memory through these character parts from film to film. The essay follows Freud's reactions and responses to the different reiterations of the same character and gives the reader a sense of connection to Freud as something of an evolving idea, rather than simply a long-dead psychoanalyst with dozens of onscreen credits.

"When I finished the essay," Menick notes, "I thought, This would make a pretty good video, because there was so much visual material... so I thought, OK, I'll do a video.

"So I proposed it as a project for dOCUMENTA," Menick continues, "and I made the mistake of trying to do a straight adaptation and having a voiceover in Freud's voice, and it was a really boneheaded move. It just didn't work at all, so I threw it out and decided no voiceover, only the cinematic clips and any of Freud's voice we have has to come from the source material. It's a very different piece, kind of a dreamlike, free-association experience, and I think that's a good way to have this -- the book over here and the video over there."

The video and the essay -- disparate yet complementary works -- are now up on Menick's website. Each does a fine job of informing the other and giving the reader/viewer a wholly satisfying experience.

Together, the projects add up to an incisive look at how pop culture has revisited, revised, and revered Freud over the years.

"The interesting thing is," he says with genuine fascination, "the less seriously science took psychoanalysis, the more Sigmund Freud appeared as a character. So right around the 1950s, when in the United States psychoanalysis' popularity is peaking, he doesn't appear in any movies. Then in 1962, he's in John Huston's Freud, and then 40 years later, he's appearing in five to ten movies a year, when psychoanalysis is at its worst in terms of the scientific community."

And while Freud's onscreen depictions range from the sternly serious end of the spectrum -- in films such as Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, to the strictly ridiculous, as seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which a holodeck version of Freud informs the gold-skinned android Data that he is a "polymorphously perverse individual" -- Menick finds the diverse renditions rewardingly entertaining, even if their respective films might not be.

"Despite many of the films not being particularly good," Menick admits, "there was a real pleasure and joy in seeing how Freud was being used, whether he was the butt of a joke or a gag of some sort. For instance, Alan Arkin's camp portrayal of him in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is kind of nuts, and I felt that if my video and the essay didn't at least have some of that, then it would have been a complete failure."

The screening at Soho Beach House tonight (July 25) is presented by the Miami Rail. It begins at 9 p.m. and is free, but RSVP to hunter@miamirail.org is required.

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