Consider the Fugue: The Sleeping Detective

James King

2 Aug 2013
In the first of a series of blogs on the upcoming ICA Cinematheque season Consider the Fugue (6 - 27 August).

In the first of a series of blogs on the upcoming ICA Cinematheque season Consider the Fugue (6 - 27 August), our Film & Cinema Co-ordinator James King introduces the theme of the season and the opening film Laura (1944).

At the mid-point of Otto Preminger’s noir classic Laura there exists an enigmatic sequence that opens up the potential for a radical reading of the entire second-half of the film as fantasy-construction.

Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), assigned to solve the murder of glamorous Manhattan advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), wanders through the deceased’s apartment late at night, thumbing through her clothes drawers, smelling her perfume – it has already been suggested that the young detective has developed an infatuation with the dead girl and here his obsession becomes manifest. The detective then fixes himself a series of stiff drinks, stares at the painted portrait of Laura that hangs on the wall and slouches down into an armchair.

At this point Preminger tracks the camera into a tight close-up of McPherson’s face: he closes his eyes as if sliding into an inebriated sleep or conjuring some image in his mind’s eye – then, in the very next shot, the deceased woman enters the room, miraculously resurrected, standing next to her picture on the wall as if willed into existence by McPherson. The somewhat improbable narrative that follows explains away Laura’s death as a case of mistaken identities and concludes with the inevitable romantic union of the detective and his object of desire. Yet the sheer visual emphasis Preminger places on the detective’s falling asleep leaves a lingering uncertainty as to the reality of the events that follow, begging the question: is this all a sexual fantasy constructed by the sleeping detective?

Although perhaps a radical interpretation of the text, such extended hallucinations being extremely rare in classical Hollywood cinema – the notable exception being, of course, The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) – it is this extraordinary commitment to the cinematic portrayal of fantasy-construction that characterizes the fugue narrative and will form the subject of this ICA Cinematheque season.

To clarify the term: a fugue is a dissociative break from reality, a unique form of amnesia where an individual can lose all sense of the Self, often for extensive periods of time, and even construct an entirely new personality. Of particular relevance is that scenario in which a subject, when faced with an unbearable traumatic situation, retreats into a fictional narrative, a fantasy of their mind’s creation, to escape the horrors of their reality. Unlike a dream - which occurs in an involuntary, unconscious state - this fugue-fantasy is a deliberate, conscious construction; it’s a psychological coping mechanism, limited only by the subject’s imagination. The protagonists in each of the films featured in this season undergo some form of fugue, and we are invited to experience their complex and often heartbreaking flights of fantasy first-hand, from within their perspective, as the fantasies are being constructed – the effect is like reading a novel as it is being written, the creative process unfolding before one’s eyes.

For the most part, these fantasies are doomed to disintegrate and reality creeps back in: Dorothy returns to Kansas; Betty Elms confronts her real identity; Jacob realizes the truth behind his experiences in Vietnam – yet it is through this process of seeing their fantasy crumble away that these characters are able to process their respective traumas and find some kind of enlightenment. The exception to this catharsis being Detective McPherson in Laura – as the film closes his fantasy remains intact, the truth is never confronted as he clings on to the deluded narrative he has constructed for himself, which makes this film such a stark and daring portrait of male sexual obsession.

ICA Cinematheque: Consider the Fugue starts on 6 August with Laura, and continues on every Tuesday evening in August at 7pm.

Attendees can take advantage of our Tuesday cinema ticket offer: £6 / £3 ICA Members (limited to one per member).

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