Cinema distinguishes itself by simultaneously being an experience and an object. The combination of these two states of being allows cinema to become the best medium for expressing the psyche and our obsessions. By employing images as a vehicle for memory, film is an experience of other peoples’ obsessions, and by acting as an object to be possessed, film is the obsession turned external. Therefore, cinema is inherently an object of obsession, an experience turned into a tangible expression of our internal world.
No other form of art is capable of matching cinema’s ability to express one’s psyche. Theatre is an experience, but unlike cinema, its live performance cannot be possessed by any one individual nor be replayed. Painting or any other two-dimensional art can be possessed, but it employs the action of observing rather than experiencing. The only form of art that may pose as a viable match is music–-it can be an experience, such as at a concert, or a possession, such as the music we store in our phones. However, music fails to employ the visual, and when it comes to the formation of obsession, the image plays a crucial role.
It is through image that cinema is capable of becoming a medium for obsession. This is because image itself is innately tied to the recollection of memory. Film is often mistaken for being an imitation of the way in which we perceive the world, because the camera is thought to be an “eye” objectively capturing our physical reality. However, though the camera may be objective in the formation of the image itself, the images that are produced and then connected together are extremely subjective. As Susan Sontag wrote, “the distinctive unit of films is not the image but the principle of connection between the images, the relation of a ‘shot’ to the one that receded it and the one that comes after.” This connection of images, and the resulting sequences of images that constitute the film, is much like the flickering of memories within our own mind. When we try to recollect a specific person or event, we see image after image of, perhaps, the person’s face, a certain chair, or some isolated action. Our memories are montages of specific images, and film also being a montage of images, speaks using the internal language of our consciousness. Film is not an imitation of how we see the world but rather of how we process the world internally.
To add to its effect, the filmic image is felt as being the most realistic when compared to the images of other arts. This is not just due to the camera’s ability to capture “life as is” but due to the way in which film characterizes its subjects. If we were to only focus on the realism of form, theatre would far surpass cinema due to its employment of live, physical subjects. However, because film is a psychological experience, the weight of its effects lie on the characterization of the subject, in the use of a technique called “off-centering.” When watching a character on screen, we are most drawn to the small details that creates the summation of a character. As an example, Sontag describes “the pingpong toy the schoolmaster toys with in Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah" as being the most potent detail regarding the character. When briefly considered, the inclusion of such details may seem insignificant, but they provide a depth to the characters that, if missing, immediately cause the viewers to perceive the characters as “flat” or “poorly written.” Allardyce Nicoll wrote on the difference between theatre and film, saying, “Practically all effectively drawn stage characters are types [while] in cinema we demand individualization…and impute greater power of independent life to the figures on the screen.” Because theatre employs characters that act as archetypes, each given a specific role that must be fulfilled by the end of the play, the characters are perceived as self-contained “parts” of a larger story, rather than as people whom we can actively relate to. The characters of theatre live and die on the stage, but the characters of film do not. Instead, they remain preserved in the film, in an intimately real world of their own that exists as long as the film remains intact.
Given film’s effect of imitating human memory and its heightened realism, it is unsurprising that film best captures obsession and almost always involves some element of obsession, whether it be a repeated visual motif or a topic addressing the filmmaker's own personal obsession. Obsession is not an activity reserved for those with obsessive psychoses (because after all, aren’t most mental illnesses an over-exaggeration of the mental processes already present in a “healthy” mind?), but an activity that we partake daily, through the conscious or subconscious contemplation of certain reoccurring objects. Therefore, by turning the obsession into the external, an object that we can grasp and better understand, film may be one of our best sources of psychological catharsis or best defense mechanism. Michel Foucault wrote on madness that, "one can escape the present only by putting something in its place" and by the repetition of "the factitious, imaginary past of substitutions." What better substitute exists than film, an art which speaks directly to our inward mind?
In some films, the presence of obsession is more obvious than in others: Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of the recent Killing of a Sacred Deer, creates in all of his films a specific set of rules which are inevitably broken by a character, who is then punished. For example, in his film The Lobster, a man is caught masturbating, which is strictly forbidden, and therefore punished by being forced to stick his hand in a toaster. In reduced terms, one could argue that this reoccurring theme of punishment is Lanthimos’s obsession brought to life on screen.
However, in other films, the presence of obsession has been given more poignant roles. The most striking example is The Film of Her, a found footage short film made by Bill Morrison. A protagonist of the film is a Library of Congress clerk who, fixated on a specific woman he saw in a porn film as a young boy, is compelled to save a vault full of early cinema paper reels from the incinerator. The film is a montage of the paper reel films, thereby acting as a direct embodiment of the clerk's obsession, while also telling the story of his obsession. His obsession has become its own entity, the film, and even more strikingly, his obsession is with the beauty of images. The images are beautiful, not only because they are being reborn, but also because they are transient. We are reminded that, although film does not fade and revise itself as our memories do, it is a tangible vessel for memories (ours, the filmmakers', the subjects') that when breached, suffers a demise not much different from our own.