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Q&A: Film critic Pietro Bianchi talks psychoanalysis, teaching and Žižek

Pietro Bianchi is a PhD candidate in Romance Studies and a regular film critic for Cineforum, Doppiozero and DinamoPress.
Pietro Bianchi is a PhD candidate in Romance Studies and a regular film critic for Cineforum, Doppiozero and DinamoPress.

Originally from Bergamo, Italy, Pietro Bianchi is as regular film critic for Cineforum, Doppiozero and DinamoPress. In 2014, he joined Duke’s Department of Romance Studies for further graduate study. Most of his publications explore the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and its potential for film studies, which he will present next week at the FHI. The Chronicle spoke with Bianchi about his current projects and the mechanics of film criticism.

The Chronicle: How did you get into film studies? 

Pietro Bianchi: I got into film studies because I started to work for a film festival in my hometown, Bergamo, in Northern Italy, that I had been going to with my mom since I was around 10. At age 15 or 16, I got really into it, so when I started working consistently in academia with theoretical reflections from psychoanalysis and philosophy, I began trying to combine these two passions.

TC: Right now you teach a class on French Black Cinema. Do you encourage your students to watch films in a certain way? 

PB: A lot of current students don’t have a lot of experience seeing movies in theaters. We watch the movies at home, and there we are easily distracted — you check your phone, you prepare food and so on. Although they don’t realize it, these things really change the quality and the experience of absorbing a film a lot. That’s why I try to have us watch at least some films together in class. It matters that you watch it in a dark room and with no breaks. Film is the experience of a certain time and that has to be preserved.

TC: Your dissertation applies psychoanalysis to popular movies. What advantages does this approach have over, say, strict Marxist or feminist readings?

PB: Almost every other approach to film presumes that everyone watching is having the same experience — you try to analyze the “text” of the film, almost assuming that it is an objective thing, regardless of the spectator. Psychoanalysis brings back the experience of vision to a very individual and singular way of looking, because everyone reacts differently according to their personal history and their way of dealing with images. These have been layered in their life, so the experience of vision is very much connected to the unconscious. Even the first theories of film stress this: Being in a dark room alone, watching something, is almost like having a dream.

TC: In the U.S., discussions of psychoanalysis are haunted by the name of Sigmund Freud, but for Lacan, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why do you think that is?

PB: That has to do with the history of psychoanalysis and how it takes shape. In the U.S., the tradition of so-called “ego-psychology” has dominated post-Freudian thought. So Lacan, for some weird reason, became much more widespread and studied in France, Italy and South America, so strangely in Catholic countries. However, it’s getting bigger — there is an increasingly larger community of Lacanian scholars in the United States, but also practitioners. They’re more concentrated in the big cities, but it’s growing.

TC: In that Lacanian community, does the academic tradition outweigh the actually practicing analysts?

PB: That’s a very delicate problem. I strongly believe that psychoanalysis is, first and foremost, a practice and not an academic discipline. The experience of the unconscious is not something that only people who have experienced something traumatic can access, and it really should be accessible to anyone. It has to be done subjectively, and that is why it’s very close to Marxism, as it deals with a concrete subjective engagement. There is no objective way of thinking about social inequalities because we are in them, and we can’t think about the unconscious from an objective, abstract base since we are “in” it, as we are talking. Still, it is also true that the historic appearance of psychoanalysis changed, well, everything. Since Freud, philosophy, literature and the other humanities haven’t been the same, so it’s still very relevant for other disciplines. 

TC: Duke Professor Fredric Jameson is credited with an innovative fusion of Lacanian analysis and Marxism. How does his work inform your own? 

PB: Historically, Fred’s role in trying to revive a certain symptomatic way of analyzing texts, imaginary formations and cinema is very important and needs to be recognized even more than it already is. It’s almost impossible for anyone nowadays to think about the role of psychoanalysis in the visual experience without referring to him. For me personally, his work has been enormously influential and I can’t overstate this. I started to read him when I was 19, with the Italian translation of “Marxism and Form.” However, since coming to Duke, I have to say that it has become even more influential, and all my work is very much indebted to Fred. 

TC: The other public intellectual known in relation to Lacan is Slavoj Žižek. Is he the right place to start for students interested in the topic? 

PB: I think Žižek should be taken more seriously than he probably is. I spent a year in Ljubljana and worked with one of his closest colleagues, Mladen Dolar, and I think that Žižek’s interpretation of Lacan is super important, even if he makes so many dirty jokes. His problem is that he writes a lot, and to take him seriously you really need to read a lot. To start with psychoanalysis, I maybe wouldn’t begin with some of it but some of his early work, e.g. “Looking Awry” or “The Ticklish Subject,” are some of the best explanations of Lacanian concepts you can find. 

TC: As a film critic, how many movies do you watch on average?

PB: Let’s say that I try to watch one per day, but when I’m at a festival I watch even four or five.

TC: Lastly, I’m very sorry I have to ask this, but what are your top five movies? 

PB: I’m not going to answer that, but I’ll give you my list of the most relevant filmmakers right now: Jia Zhangke, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Anurag Kashyap, Paul Thomas Anderson and Pablo Larraín.

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