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Arthur, P. (2007). The Moving Picture Cure: Self-Therapy Documentaries. Psychoanal. Rev., 94(6):865-885.

(2007). Psychoanalytic Review, 94(6):865-885

The Moving Picture Cure: Self-Therapy Documentaries

Paul Arthur


For more than a century, the question of why we go to the movies has been associated with notions of diversion or distraction. Even now,“Hollywood” and “escapism” are routinely linked in popular imagination—the latter term was coined in 1933, the same year the infamous Production Code began regulating content deemed too graphic, racy, or controversial for American audiences. While mechanisms of on-screen beguilement are readily apparent—a darkened theater, illusionistic properties of the film image, fantasy narratives enacted by glamorous stars— what viewers are supposedly avoiding in their zeal for Dream Factory fare gets lumped into a catchall Real, a category encompassing potentially disturbing topics either individual or communal in scope. To be sure, a niche is reserved for ostensibly unvarnished representations of actuality. Its name is “documentary” and, allowing for a handful of exceptions, it is regarded by average moviegoers as historically marginal, thus inherently noncommercial.

The twilight of obscurity into which the American documentary is habitually cast has been pierced at several volatile historical junctures. Regardless, however, of the fleeting national leverage wielded by earlier documentaries, the eruption in the last fifteen years of a popular nonfiction cinema is simply without precedent. Aside from expanding technological and economic options, the still-cresting documentary wave has benefited from a set of newly minted or radically revised formal approaches.

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