Jacques Lacan

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America – A Lacanian Perspective

by Mark Norton

Sergio Leone's film Once Upon a Time in America was an ambitious project in that it dispensed with a strictly linear narrative structure. Avoiding even the use of flashbacks, he created a film that transcended the limitations of time as a storyteller, to create an omnipresent moment of consciousness - an omnitemporality.

Lacan's analysis of subjectivity in 'The Mirror Stage' applied to cinema.


In this essay I will be examining the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's essay 'The Mirror Stage' , and applying the ideas in this essay to the way in which the cinematic subject, the spectator, relates to film and the cinema. I will begin the essay by unpacking some of Lacan's main ideas on subject formation. I will then go on to describe the parallels between this primary process with the secondary verisimilitude of cinema-going and the spectator's relation to film and filmic process. The final part of this essay will briefly explore Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, which I will examine with reference to the preceding two sections.

For Lacan, the sight of an infant child who sees its reflection in a mirror was of prime significance in understanding the formation of the subject. In his essay 'The Mirror Stage' [1] Lacan points out that although the child is still unable to carry out most of its physical functions, such as walking, talking, even standing, it nevertheless deduces that the image reflected back at it is, somehow, itself. This cognition comes about through play, and Lacan notes the excitement that ensues, evidenced by the leaning forward posture in its trotte bèbè, a fascinated gaze fixed onto its 'specular image'. Lacan calls this the 'jubilant assumption' - of the image - the child 'assumes' the position. It forms an imago, an imago of the self. It identifies with this self-image, the Ideal-I, its pre-Oedipal, primordial form, before it is constituted into language. It is positioned on the cusp of the realm of signification, the world of the other.

Lacan points out that this pushes the ego in a fictional direction, that is, in the direction of its reflection - the source of the perceived unity of itself as a subject. The subject forms a Gestalt, a 'statue' onto which it projects itself and positions the ego, finding completion in the image. Lacan suggests that the efficacy of a Gestalt can be observed in pigeons: the gonad of a female pigeon will not mature until the subject has seen another pigeon. This effect can, however, be initiated merely by the placing of a mirror in front of a pigeon, described by Lacan as homeomorphic identification. In heteromorphic identification, subject positioning is not restricted to a single constituting image, the subject experiences desire in a heterogeneity of 'Others'. It is this multiplicity of (imagined) imagos that reveals the fictional direction of human subjectivity. Lacan calls the virtuality of the mirror-stage the 'little reality', human knowledge being contained and framed within this 'spacial captation'.

The child is captivated by the image of completeness which its reflected image brings back to it, which is in contrast to the fragmentation that it experiences in reality. The human organism in the neo-natal months experiences a lack of mechanical integrity; its biological existence is reduced to a number of disparate bodily functions - anal, oral etc - and as yet there is no effective motor control. For Lacan, this is evidence of the premature foreclosure of the human gestation period; quite literally we are born prematurely. To counteract this physical lack, the 'alienating identity' is assumed, and the ego is marked out as a 'rigid structure', the origin of the 'fortress of the Id'.

Lacan suggests that many psycho-pathological symptoms have their origins in that part of human development when the 'specular I' is deflected into the 'social I', the phase of alienation and splitting off that a child undergoes in entering meaning, in becoming constituted as a social being. This is brought about by the vitality of the Oedipal conflict.

The individual psychic cell has already experienced its first split, when it recognised itself as an 'Other' in the simultaneous differentiation and unity that came with its reflected image, or by gradual awareness that it is being 'hailed' by an 'Other', (usually the mother), bringing it into existence. Awareness of the Other (mother, or mirror) recognising it, (the subject) is proof that it itself is an Other. The desire of the 'secondary' Other, the Mother (the reflection of the subject itself being the primary identification), who completes the disunity the subject feels, is the first social move the subject makes after the mirror-stage, and the mechanism of the Oedipus complex is initiated. A dialectic is set in motion between subject and Other that is now irreversible.

Each stage of this instinctual thrust, Lacan says, is a process of natural maturation, but it is perceived as a danger by the subject. The 'fortress of the Id' is felt to be constantly under attack as the subject enters signification, becoming a signifier only for another signifier; first the mother, then the father, have presence - as 'reflections' of the subject - then absence, as separate subjects. The originary lack, before the illusion of completeness in 'The Mirror Stage' , is perceived as a constant threat to the sense of self. As each stage of signification is revealed to be transitory and hollow, a short-lived victory for the Id, there is a constant fear that the subject will come to pieces. Consequently, there is a perpetual and ultimately futile search for the Other, what Lacan has termed the l'object petit a. Each finding of l'object petit a (object little a) is only a re-finding of primordial feelings of wholeness, a fleeting and illusory confirmation of the I, proof that I exists, is not in pieces, is not an illusion of its own reflection - that it is not simply "a hole surrounded by something". [2]

Lacan and the cinema

When applying Lacan's psychoanalytic theories to cinema, the most obvious point of similarity is that of the screen to the cinema. The subject reacts to the screen in a similar way to the child in the mirror-stage, in that it feels pleasure in its identification with a fictional space, there is similar jouissance. The most obvious difference is that the subject of the cinema does not see his body reflected by the screen as the child does by the mirror. On the other hand, the mirror-stage, for the child, entails receiving information about its existence and about itself from the Other, therefore the mirror-stage is not dependent on the existence of a mirror with which to initiate its processes. The Other exists, for the child, in everything outside itself, (which includes its own image, its Imago) with which it identifies in a bid to create continuity and unified presence as a subject.

The subject as spectator then - a sort of primary identification with itself as a spectator, and a secondary identification with object little a, the activities taking place on the screen.

It could be argued that the subject must identify with a character on the screen for mirror-stage mechanism to be correspondent to the process of viewing film. However, the pleasure in viewing cinematic montage such as Koyaanosqatsi, for example, or the pleasure we receive from the gaze of a camera on geographical scenes of outstanding natural beauty indicate that there is deep pleasure in the viewing itself.

Christian Metz (1982) argues that the ego of the cinematic subject identifies not primarily with the cinematic signifiers, but "with himself as a pure act of perception..." [3] In this way we are like the child in its "sub-motor" state, existing in the realm of the imaginary, which annuls lack by identification with the other in attempt to eradicate division. He says that the nature of the photographic image has similarities with a mirror in that what is seen is at once present and absent, present as a specular image, but with no corporeal reality. The relationship can only ever be cerebral, symbolic.

In an inevitably and almost exclusively quattrocento cinematic world, the spectator is positioned as the bearer of the gaze, so identification with the world of signifiers 'reflected back' at the spectator is equally inevitable. The spectator identifies the image as reflecting himself, his view, as he takes the place of the camera and produces the meaning by his act of perceiving, which as we have discussed is analogous to mirror-stage identification of his specular image, which is accompanied by scopophilic jouissance. This illusion of completeness between spectator and meaning of the film is a reproduction of the mechanism which creates the illusion of unity in the mirror-stage. This is, of course, a mis-recognition, and opens up a discussion on ideology and the cinema, but one which will not be entered into in this essay.

It is of interest and relevance, however, to point out that cinema relies on this misrecognition to ensure a steady and regular supply of consumers in an industry that is an enormous economic resource. The pursuit of object little a is the inevitable result of the lack opened up in the mirror-stage. The mechanism of cinema, which sets up, as discussed earlier, a simultaneous presence and absence, hence feelings of 'lack', has verisimilitude with the subject's pursuit of pleasure in the realm of the symbolic, the subject's specular universe, the 'outside world'.

In the same way that Lacan talks of the Id being like a fortress, a 'paranoiac structure', that must defend itself against all threats to its imaginary unity, cinema takes steps to ensure integrity of structure. It works to maintain the 'unity' of film and spectator, the illusion that is the source of pleasure for the spectator. Mirror-stage plenitude and jouissance turns to lack and uneasiness when (the image of) specular unity is fragmented by the reality of absence from that image. Subject and object (spectator and film) relations are constantly under threat as fiction threatens to give way to reality, for example, in the camera shot, which must continue to 'belong' to a fictional character (which may include the spectator as an illusory presence in the film's dramatic events, even if only as an observer). The spectator does not wish to be torn away from immersion in the imaginary reality of the fiction to be reminded of his reality as a ticket-buying viewer of a technical production, containing actors pretending to do real things. Anything that threatens to expose the artifice of the film is re-appropriated into the unity of the imaginary world. A talented director may often be able to explore the parameters of presence and absence of a film, creating a credibility gap that never quite results in loss of presence. Sergio Leone is one such example, examined in the next section.

Once Upon a Time in America

The Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in America was an ambitious project in that it dispensed with a strictly linear narrative structure. Avoiding even the use of flashbacks, he created a film that transcended the limitations of time as a storyteller, to create an omnipresent moment of consciousness - an omnitemporality.

The film takes place across three generations in the life of David Aaronson - 'Noodles' - a New York gangster, his friend Max and their three compatriots, and the object of his desire, who remains forever out of reach - Deborah. The film begins in 1933, jumps to 1968, then back in time to 1924 for the story of the gangster's formative years. The story then jumps to 1968 to 1933, 1968 to 1933, back to 1968 for the dramatics of the plot to unfold, ending with a final few frames from 1933, the nature of which creates an enigmatic and disorienting textual flourish.

Although this sounds like a blunt and self-consciously experimental narrative technique, the spectator is able to appropriate the form seamlessly into the content of the film, which explores a life in fragments. We realise that Noodles is a broken man - the passage of time means little to him, the broken fragments of his psyche lay scattered across the three generations. In this way his periods of absence are periods without meaning, for him and for the spectator. For the missing thirty-five years he has been "going to bed early". Although this seems a convenient and throwaway explanation, his Opium habit revealed later in the film is a significant indicator of his psychic disposition, which I will examine later. The spectator, far from becoming alienated from this film, is seduced into piecing back together the meaning of the protagonist's life, and the film's meaning.

The beginning of the film is featured by absence, absence of meaning, primarily. There is visual absence, (the screen starts off in darkness) there is just the foreboding sound of approaching footsteps juxtaposed with the song 'God bless America', the implication being that God will actually be absent from this particular part of America. A woman enters a room and is shot when she cannot reveal the whereabouts of the man (Noodles) in the photograph. Another man (Fat Moe) is beaten to a pulp, and is only saved by telling them where he is. A cut to an opium den reveals Noodles smoking, in a manner that resembles suckling, on an Opium pipe. A telephone rings, and continues ringing over a succession of scenes. Various phones are presented to us, but the one we hear is completely absent, in fact it doesn't exist. The presence and absence of the phone is also experienced by Noodles as well as the film's spectator. The ringing dissolves into a metallic shriek which calls Noodles to reality, and he exits the building at the rear as the gunmen arrive by the front. The effect of all these disparate images is to deny meaning and to invite production of meaning. The fragmentation of spectator and film's meaning creates a need to find presence in the film's absence.

A comprehensive exposition of a film of this length and complexity is impossible in this essay, but it may be worthwhile to draw attention to some of Sergio Leone's apparently covert use of mirror-stage analogy. A sense of tragedy is evident in the scenes with the gangsters as young boys, which is accompanied by the judicious use of an elegiac soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. A scene where the boys examine their reflection in a mirror, when Noodles has just been told to "go look at yourself" by Deborah, his object little a, is especially telling. The youngest and smallest of the four friends searches vainly for a recognition of himself in the mirror, the confusion over the division of self and image evident in his worried expression. The same haunting soundtrack is used to cast a psychological shadow over a scene of otherwise comic potential. Patsy buys a Charlotte Russe with which to buy the sexual favours of Peggy. While waiting for her, he stares at the cake, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a female breast. The haunting, portentous music starts up as he stares at the cake, which he then devours hungrily. The child is already constituted in the realm of the symbolic, and the cake can be seen to symbolise for the young boy the absence he feels. The cake in this case represents l'object petit a, of which the "most obvious prototype is the breast." [4] The anomalous juxtaposition of comic interlude with music that evokes tragic destiny lends weight to a scene that may otherwise have been lost in comic exposition, or steeped in intrusive meta-psychology.

The closing scenes of the film reveal the extent to which Noodles has been betrayed by those around him, and the sight of a garbage truck's blades churning and slicing the refuse suggests a dismembered life; Noodles' memories of anything that ever meant anything to him is carried away with the truck, as is the film.

The final scene shows the Noodles of 1933 climbing into what significantly looks like a child's cot to smoke Opium. The significance of this enigmatic time-cut is equivocal. The use of Opiates is less so; the effect of Opiates on the central nervous system creates a sense of euphoric well-being and illusory unity, but their absence creates an intolerable lack.


In conclusion, there is much of worth in Lacan's 'The Mirror Stage' when applied to cinema. I hope to have shown how the subject's reaction to the cinema screen parallels the primary and secondary identification of the subject to primarily its reflected specular image of unity, and secondarily to the l'object petit a, of which the desire of and unity with will overcome the sense of lack opened up by the division of the subject. This is achieved by a fictional identification with the self as the producer of meaning, creating an illusory unity with what takes place on the screen - object little a. Cinematic techniques usually strive to maintain this illusory unity, as the primary reason for viewing film is scopophilic. The presence and absence of the screen, presence of image, absence of subject, is an illusion similar to that enjoyed by the subject before the awareness of division opened up in 'The Mirror Stage' , before the feeling of lack takes hold. Cinematic technique is primarily concerned with the maintenance of the illusion, which is necessary in order to avoid disappointing the spectator by exposing the artifice too overtly, and damaging what is a hugely profitable industry.

I have shown how Sergio Leone fulfills this process, while at the same time experimenting with the process of absence and presence in the film's structure. In addition, he allows the psychic processes involved in 'The Mirror Stage' to be explored within the text of the film, the produced meaning of the text suggests mirror-stage activity at work in his protagonists, and additionally, it indicates the constellational nature of this remarkable theory with many diverse areas of human activity.

1. LACAN, JAQUES. 'Écrits: A Selection', trans. Alan Sheridan. (London: Tavistock, 1977) in EASTHOPE, ANTONY. Contemporary Film Theory. (Longman, 1993)
2. EASTHOPE, ANTONY & MCGOWAN, KATE. A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. (Open University, 1992) p.243
3. METZ, CHRISTIAN. Psychoanalysis and Cinema. (Macmillan, 1977) p.83
4. LAPSLEY AND WESTLAKE. Film Theory: An Introduction. (Manchester University Press: 1988) p.68

© June 1996, Mark Norton
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