Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.

The Visionary Movie

The Visionary Movie: A Manifesto

Over the past forty years the dominant art form in America has shifted from the novel to the movie. Yet for the most part, the movie–and the popular movie, in particular–is not addressed with the same level of critical analysis as the novel. The purpose of this site is to remedy that lack.

As the Russian literary theorist Bakhtin noted, the novel is the youngest of all literary media, the only literary form, in fact, that has arisen within the context of literate civilization, for all the others–the epic, the lyric and the dramatic–are pre-literate in origin. If we take a moment to survey the evolution of Western literature, it becomes evident that each of its literary media have evolved through a three-phase cycle of formative, dominant and climactic stages. Pausing here to survey this overall evolution will give us a larger sense of perspective within which to characterize the place of cinema as a medium that has evolved out of the Western literary tradition.

First, a glance at the three phases of the Northern European Epic (as opposed to the Classical Hellenic): the formative phase is that of the great anonymous works like the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, The Song of Roland or the Icelandic Sagas. These works express the voices of entire peoples, the very tribes who will later manifest their characteristic worldviews as European nation states. Then, with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins the dominant phase in which, not nation states, but learned individuals will begin to articulate their idiosyncratic cosmologies. Dante’s opus, for example, is a synthesis of Christian, Islamic and Hellenic styles of thought, the product of eclectic twelfth century Spain displaced to Italy. This Italian phase of the epic is simultaneously beginning and end, however, for Dante’s work completes the early Medieval phase of the European epic and begins that of the great Italian epics, for after him comes Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato , Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered . Then, with Spenser’s Faerie Queene at the end of the sixteenth century and Milton’s Paradise Lost at the end of the seventeenth, the epic achieves its final, climactic phase, in which the Christian and Arthurian cosmologies could be developed no further, for the conditions of society had, by the seventeenth century, changed to such a degree that the environment which had made the Medieval epic possible had vanished. As Ortega y Gassett has shown, the maturation of Western science put an end to the epic ecology of dragons and wizards, giants and trolls (not to be resumed until Tolkien, centuries later, almost single-handedly invents the genre of fantasy literature by returning to the Medieval world through a pretence that the scientific achievements of the intervening centuries never happened).

A new, formative phase of another literary medium had by then already begun, namely that of the novel, for Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel , Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Tirant Lo Blanc and Lazarillo de Tormes are all annunciations of the death of the Epic, for the ancient, dragon-slaying hero was no longer plausible in a world governed by the inorganic forces of Newtonian equations and the laws of falling bodies. Henceforth, with Rabelais and Cervantes, the epic cavalier becomes the object of mockery and ridicule, displaced by the new hero emerging out of the formative phase of the novel’s second great cycle (its invention during Hellenistic times being the first). The new hero is no longer a character out of myth and legend, but a real three-dimensional human protagonist created out of the spirit of Spanish and French satire and refined by Eigtheenth Century English journalists.

So, just as the Epic was a product of an Iron Age based upon swords and sorcery, and the novel of an Industrial Society in which the territorial nation state wed to capitalism was the primary economic modality, so now, the cinema has arisen in a post-capitalist Electronic Society in which mythic forms catalyze the shapes of information overload into a new tribal tectonic rhythm. And just as the novel emerged as a pop art form during ancient Hellenistic civilization, and then again in the Carnival atmosphere of the sixteenth century, so too, the cinema has its origins in the nineteenth century popular culture of France, where it emerged out of the very same Megalopolitan milieu that gave rise to the panorama, photography, the arcades and the department store. Cinema is, therefore, like the novel–in origin, at least–born out of the atmosphere of Carnival culture, of festivals and circuses, of the country fair and the P.T. Barnum-type spectacle. The novel, by contrast, at the moment of its climactic phase–i.e. the period of Joyce, Mann, Musil and Proust–was so far removed from this carnival world that the very idea of the Modernist novel is synonymous with unreadability.

Movies, unlike the novel–at least up until the nineteenth century, when contact with the new media of the newspaper and the telegraph caused it to explode into a panoply of genre fiction–have always been polygeneric; they have functioned, in other words, as a kind of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk capable of drawing upon and including all the other arts. Painting, theater, the novel, poetry, photography, music: all have been pulled into the shambling gravitation of its multi-media orbit. In terms, furthermore, of whether the emphasis of the material that it digests has been either more highbrow or lowbrow, the history of the medium has tended to be schizophrenically split between two camps. The first, that of elite high culture, sees cinema as “film,” which implies a realist aesthetic in which film is seen as carrying on the realist drama that began with Buchner, Hebbel and Ibsen and continued with Shaw, Strindberg, and Hauptmann. In contrast to this idea of cinema as “film,” we at Cinema Discourse are focused more on the second camp, that which popular culture calls “movies.” Thus, it is the “Visionary” movie, in contrast to “realist” films, that we regard as the vehicle for the artistic sensibility of our time.

At the dawn of cinema these two tendencies were already evident in the split between the brothers Lumiere and George Melies, for whereas the former concerned themselves with realist spectacles such as the arrival of a train at a station or people sitting around playing cards, Melies invented the special effect as a tool by means of which he was able to render spaceships, robots and dragons in a way that would be convincing, at least, to the average theater goer.

It was precisely Melies’s concern with what we refer to as the “Visionary” tendency in cinema–its Carnival cultural residue–to be the true and proper use of the medium. In this sense, film is closer to the spirit of the delighted rabble depicted watching The Magic Flute in Milos Forman’s Amadeus , than to the stiff-necked upper classes shown patronizing The Marriage of Figaro. For it is in the Visionary modality that myth functions as the telescope for viewing into the deepest reaches of the human soul, ironically transforming the movie camera from a mere optical device for recording consensus reality to a pulsing organic machine capable of peering with its intrusive Eye into our dreaming skulls.

Lord of the Rings was the first Visionary movie to win Best Picture, and perhaps this signifies a benchmark in the history of cinema, demarcating the point at which realism begins to fade back into the industrial flotsam of the nineteenth century which gave rise to it, while the Visionary mode–the mode of directors as diverse as Andrei Tarkovsky, David Lynch, Tim Burton or Francis Ford Coppola–will flourish and develop. In terms of our three-stage development of formative, dominant and climactic, we may say that the cinema, especially since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, has entered the period of its dominant phase as a mature art form. For whether we are discoursing on the latest film by Steven Spielberg, Werner Herzog, or David Cronenberg, we are but occupying that mental space pioneered by Plato in his cavern, in which myth becomes the favored instrument for illuminating the soul’s deepest, murkiest reservoirs.

Coda on Archetypes

This site distinguishes Visionary movies, for the most part, from both genre movies (westerns, noirs, spy thrillers, musicals, etc.) and realistic movies. The distinctions are not always black and white but more often a matter of degree, tone and emphasis, though Visionary movies are almost always concerned with myth in some way, even if the myths are covert, operating under the surface as deep structures organizing an apparently realist narrative, as in The Godfather or Cameron’s Titanic . The latter, for instance, is a replay of Tristan and Isolde, while The Godfather is a reworking of the myth of the death of the king and the transfer of his power to the son.

Here we are using the term “archetypal” in the sense in which it has been used traditionally in myth studies, as universal patterns that are manifest with local inflections through the guise of a particular culture, or in our case, a particular movie.

In his theory of mythology, Joseph Campbell refers to “elementary forms” and “ethnic forms,” or what we might call “archetypes” and their particular manifestations. We see a related approach by Carl Jung in his concept of archetypes. An example of this approach is found in comparative religious studies, in which an exemplar archetype might be that of the dying and resurrecting god, born miraculously and associated with an axis mundi. In concrete manifestation, this might be Christ for the Christians, Osiris for the Egyptians, Dumuzi for the Sumerians, Orpheus or Dionysus for the Greeks, Krishna for the Indians, or Quetzalcoatl for the Meso-Americans. Thus the archetype is a pattern that stands outside of time and culture, while its manifestation occurs within a given historical nexus.

While the Visionary movie privileges the archetypal point of view, the realistic film denies the archetypal, asserting that experience is either socially determined or random. The realistic movie can be very powerful in exploring the human response to fate, but it lacks the luminosity of the Visionary movie. The genre movie, incidentally, substitutes the formulaic for the archetypal, although, of course, Westerns and film noir are also loaded with archetypes, though they tend to be archetypes of a nature which are genre specific rather than universal.

Contemporary critical studies, with its poststructuralist viewpoint, takes Locke’s “tabula rasa” position and is profoundly anti-essentialist, vehemently denying transcendence and archetypal patterns in history, culture, and human nature. It is often the position of critical studies that mythological and archetypal patterns are fabricated by the Establishment in order to maintain its power. This nihilistic position makes it difficult for critical studies to address contemporary movies, which is perhaps why it seldom does so in a way that is accessible and useful for the average intelligent reader. Cinema Discourse attempts, through eschewing jargon and making use of plain English and good writing, to redress this lack.

There are currently 2 responses to “The Visionary Movie”

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  1. 1 On October 8th, 2010, Michael Rectenwald said:

    Hi John,

    Here here. And again I say, here, here. I can’t begin to express the frustration I am going through to study literature and film through the lens of archetypal studies. It hadn’t occurred to me until reading this essay that the problem is that current theorists, and hence University departments are just not recognizing the value (or denying it) in this kind of approach. I ask myself everyday why there are not departments dedicated to Mythological/Archetypal Studies (of contemporary works such as you’ve reviewed here).

    While I’ve always been an archetypal critic to some degree (undergrad and Masters level), I’ve just recently (as of 6 months ago) discovered the Jungian and Campbellian school as my point of interest.

    Can you offer some texts and/or insight into where this school of thought is in the Academy (or lack of presence)? Where can someone like myself pursue a PhD in this kind of criticism without having to wade through the poststructuralist, etc. legions of thinkers?

    (I know if the Pacifica Graduate Institute, but alas they are quite far away and there are little chances for financial aid in the traditional sense.) If one wants to study mythology and archetypal studies alone…does one simply have to join the ranks of English departments and (possibly) go it alone?

    Keep up the great work! I am utterly baffled that there aren’t more comments on the site!

  2. 2 On October 9th, 2010, John David Ebert said:

    Hi Michael,
    I can recommend plenty of books, but not many programs at schools or universities. The ones who do teach this sort of thing, Pacifica Graduate, like you mention, or California Institute of Integral Studies, are extremely expensive and churn out worthless “pretend” degrees that will only get you laughed at when applying for a job.

    You’re better off just going it alone, as I have, and laying down a path in walking instead of walking on someone else’s already paved road.

    If this is too risky for you — in my case, for instance, this path has led me to joblessness and pauperism — and you absolutely must go via an institution, then you could either do it through a Religious Studies program at a university like, say, UC Berkeley, or through a Folkloric studies program, which latter school also provides.

    –John Ebert

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