Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" is a sprawling epic, the kind of film I wish was being made more often these days.

On one hand it is pure Hollywoood - in the sense of classic Hollywood. A lot of characters, an intricate plot, room for war, drama, humor, magic realism, love, and whatever else you might want in a good film.

On the other hand, it is extremely artful. From the opening titles, I knew there was something special coming. Lee did not let me down. I would consider this one of the best films I have seen this year, and a film worth multiple screenings. There were some problems. I tend to look at reviews after I see a film to see what the "experts" have to say. In this case, there were a lot of different complaints. They included: editing, cinematography choices, music, acting ability, mise-en-scene and actual scene choices. I will admit I noticed scenes in which each of these was a problem. But it was always a small problem. The narrative and the story immediately told me to forget it - move along with us. This is what classic Hollywood does better than anything - make you trust the film and go with it. I did, and I am glad I did. My gut tells me that on a second view, these inconsistencies will have a better place in the vision of this film than they did on the intial watch.

Spike Lee has made a major film here. It is about race. War. Love. Loyalty. What really comes to mind takes me back to the first lee film I saw at the theater. "Do the Right Thing". Damn it. Just do the right thing. When you reflect on what the Miracle actually is, do the right thing may become your mantra.

What pains me is that "Miracle at St. Anna" was only number nine on the weekend movie charts. I don't usually care about this, but had to look after I saw "Eagle Eye" the next day. "Eagle Eye" was number one, by a wide margin. EE was a fun film - evoking Hal from 2001 in ways that I really enjoyed - but fun was all it was. Thrills, spills and chills. But no art. And no heart. I guess that is why so few films like "Miracle" get made.

After "Miracle at St. Anna" ended, the woman behind me quietly said, "That's right, Spike. That's right." I agree with her.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


What follows is simply a lot of my thoughts on a lot of issues, mostly being brought up from my new graduate mythology classes. If you have any thoughts on any of it, please let me know.

1) I am trying to work through whether stories - specifically the stories that would be classified in the fantasy genre - can be considered myths. There is such a wide variance on what myth is that for me the question bears examination.

For instance - in a Newberry Library class on Welsh Mythology last night, the instructor defined myth, in a nutshell, as a narrative, set in sacred time and sacred space, with divine (immortal or superhuman) actors, often associated with a particular ritual performance. Big nutshell, I guess. In my Graduate program at Pacifica, another component of myth would be the use of symbols from the unconscious to tell that narrative.

Now - I don't know the stories of Welsh Mythology, but the instructor made it clear that after so many years, they are rather literary by now. I can't wait to learn about the rituals they were part of originally. And my unconscious is getting a work out in my readings for Grad School, which also emphasize ritual as an important part of myth.

So, in moshing all these ideas together - Fantasy is a narrative. You could say set in sacred time and space. Often with divine actors - and if you consider anyone in touch with these divine actors, or with their unconscious, as divine also, I think that provides more evidence for Fantasy as myth. Additionally, Fantasy definitely uses symbols in telling the story. Are they the symbols of the unconscious? Not necessarily. And is there any sort of ritual content that follows from, or by, reading these stories? On first thought, probably not. There are fannish activities, and there may be studies relating fanac to ritual, but that's beyond my knowledge right now. In general, the type of ritual usually involved with myth is missing from these stories.

However, on second thought, my whole premise is that the content of Fantasy can often change reader's attitudes towards their real lives. The views written into the fantasy narratives of so many of todays genre authors are views of how the world could, and maybe, should, be. On a personal level, do these stories change lives? Maybe. I think they can. Is there any aspect of ritual in a reader who seriously relates to these texts and uses them to look at life in a new way?

2) On a different tack, if myths are stories using the symbols from our unconscious, is a thought-out story any less mythical? OK, perhaps it is not a myth simply because it uses symbols. It might only be an allegory. However, the definition of myth is rather fluid, both academically and in general usage. Doesn't the very act of thinking involve, on some level, those unconscious symbols? Thinking is formulating ideas by working with, or pulling out, the symbols from our unconscious. Consciously or not. Thinking is similar to dreaming, but with rational rules - not symbols any more, but thoughts. If the intent is to explore a different kind of landscape, or any aspect of ourselves, but still tell about real lives in some way, I think we are close to myth and the Fantasy story having the same function.

3) One of the aspects being left out is the religious component to mythology. I have already expressed my views that religion is myth and that the traditional use of religion makes me nervous. Specifically, our world has changed, yet most religions try to force us, and everyone else, into a box of similar belief. Conversion as a goal is dangerous. Will there ever be a time when the major religious texts lose their holy power and become, like the Welsh Myth texts, more literary? They already can be read that way, but the organized powers behind them don't like that much.

4) The Archetypes of the unconscious led to myth, religion and philosophy. Science followed. We can probably assume that unconscious archetypes are leading to new ideas in scientific fields, right?

5) On a personal level, what do we do with archetypes now? What is being created with these symbols? Is this only for artists to wrestle with? Does the average muggle just get neuroses because they ignore their internal archetypes?

6) The archetype of the hero is well known. Is there an anti-hero archetype? As the lead character in much (too much in my opinion) of modern story, it would seem there must be. Was this archetype always in existence, or is this something new we have created? As I undersatnd it, new archetypes are not really created. I think I have a problem believing that.

7) Modernity is an endless parade of visuals and symbols. We either reflect on their meaning or are conditioned to soak them in. My film class called Visual Analysis was great, because their premise was that in the onslaught of images being thrown at us, we have a responsibility to filter them and understand them. I took that class twice! Now, my myth classes are very concerned with the analysis of the images our unconscious is barraging us with. Similar processes; utterly different material.

8) We used to have our actions animated by our internal symbols and we lived them. When did this stop exactly? Can we trace when mythic and religious thought began to be drowned out by rationality? Not that I mean this is a completely good thing. Symbolic and religious thought can make life easier to live, though not necessarily squaring up against our rational thoughts. The problem rises in the global sphere when religions clash. They promote division. Where do we find the religious thought that makes life easier for everyone, that promotes unity?

If you read through all that, you must have some thoughts. Leave a comment. Thanks!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Are Animals the Children of Men? (A Look into Film Analysis)

I have been working on a paper about the film "Children of Men". While watching the film, I realized I was seeing animals in many scenes. After watching it closer, for a dystopian science fiction film, I found it interesting that animals were featured in 97 scenes in a 109 minute film. Pets and working animals, with a few exotics, are the kinds of animals shown, represented, heard or spoken about almost constantly in the film. Though not really the main focus, they are the type of details in the mise-en-scene that provide the substance of a film.

I begin work on a paper when I want to explore the text of a film or story, to see what is contained in it and to then unpack that container: to see why someone has put these things into it. My initial interest in "Children of Men" was that it extrapolated some of our current social conditions, and attitudes, into the future. It was grim enough to spur my thoughts and seemed worthy of a detailed inquiry. All of these animals being superimposed into this story is the sort of textual detail that should be examined, not for answers, but for possibilities.

I started with the premise that the film is science fiction, though I found later that this was fatal premise. I began my research with the current issue of Science Fiction Studies. It explores animal studies in literary science fiction. I wanted to see if current SF literary themes were at all relevant to this film. But literary science fiction is often about contact between species - alien or extraterrestrial, but increasingly animals. As Sheryl Vint reviews, current literary interests are human-animal relations: communications, usage in our technological pursuits, including slaughter for use as food, land use and wild life issues, and the status of animals as feeling beings. The question persists of the status of animals in comparison to humans. Vint's summary is a thorough review of the issue's contents.

These ideas represented a wide-ranging discourse on the question of animals and their relation to the human animal. Science fiction is an arena that explores current practices with an eye as to how they may develop in the future. However, these topics fell flat for me when I looked at "Children of Men" through their lens. Other than three scenes that show burning or dead cattle, which could possibly be related to land use issues, none of these themes seemed comelling enough as an explanation for the use of animals in the film. Even the dead cattle scenes seem to be more about the aftermath of human war and medical condition of the land than about the actual animal shown.

The animals are all shown as pets, working in security or on farms - all directly in a relation with humans. Even a zebra and a camel are shown as pets being walked in a park. The only wild animal seen is a deer. It comes out of an abandoned school house. As one instance out of 97, it holds undertones of land use/habitat themes, but I didn't feel it could be used as the main argument. It was one scene only. Perhaps the reasoning for the widespread use of animals in the film is simply to show that wildlife is dependent on a balancing act against humans, a balancing act this film seems to say has tipped irrevocably toward the human side. Is that it?

I moved to sources on animal studies in film analysis. While literature on documentary and real-life nature film is readily available, the use of animals in narrative film is less well-represented. Jonathan Burt's Animals in Film from 2002 appears to be the seminal work. Burt points out that we have an emotional response to animals on film - is there something natural in our reaction to animals, or is the emotional response developed by film technique? Burt explains that the diversity and quantity of animal images in films, and elsewhere, makes it hard to pin down meanings for animal symbols.

He also points out that too often these days, our only knowledge of animals comes from film. There are few wild animals left for us to encounter in reality. Does film contribute to animal loss? Burt sums his book up somewhat by showing that "In film, the animal so often presides over disorder but also in some sense shapes it towards some form of reunion or resolution,..." (Burt, p. 78). In other words, animals are often used as the plot point the film revolves around.

But in "Children of Men", the film does not revolve around the animals shown. They are not focused on. They are marginal, seen quickly before the camera or edit moves us on. Are the animals being filmed to produce a response in us? Certainly the scene in which a kitten trys to climb the protagonist's leg and we get a high close up of it, seems to want to lead us to think the kitten is cute. But, is the importance that animals are dependent on humans? That pets are doing well, but not other animals? Or not us?

And I realized that what I was watching wasn't really science fiction at all. Yes, the social implications of our world in the future were extrapolated in interesting ways. However, the main plot of this film is that humans can no longer reproduce. There are baby kittens and animals shown in almost every scene that don't have the same problem. Possible? Yes. Probable? No. Animals are the first to go. Problems show up in them first. The canary in the coalmine test. So really we are watching a fantasy. As fantasy, it speaks more to what our world is like now than having an interest in the future. The trappings of SF are present, but the heart of the film is in the fantastic.

A big budget fantasy. In Wheeler Winston Dixon's Visions of the Apocalypse, he writes, “In contrast, the paint-by-numbers movies of the majors sell quickly and then burn out, becoming texts without a function. The more bloated the spectacle, the more divorced it is from the culture that created it and the less it has to offer us as scholars and historians.” (p. 117). And in this statement, in which he was suggesting that such films as the low-budget exploitation movies of Troma have more to tell us about our culture than almost any Hollywood product, I seemed to have found my answer. Many films are empty texts.

There is an overwhelming use of the animals, but seemingly no over-arching context for them. They have little function. The text of this film makes animals seem relevant because of the number of scenes they are used in, but in analysis seem devoid of a lot of meaning. If 97 instances of animals are there to tell us that pets and wildlife depend on us, it seems a bit of overkill.

In an essay about the use of the forest in the Fantastic and exactly how that is changing due to the loss of actual forested land, Ruth Padel asks, "So as the woods, fens, and heath which evolved the wildlife of our intense little island turn into fenced-off archipelagos between the suburb and the motorway, what's the state of play with native British wildlife in the new millenium?" She is writing about the British landscape of classic fantasy literature and how it can be seen today. "Children of Men" takes place in just that same landscape.

The deer in the abandoned school house is probably the scene that works the best for the animals in the film. It relates to the history of British fantasy in which wildlife was, as Padel points out, just outside your door. The scene achieves a sense of the fantastic, the one time this big-budget fantasy delivers any hesitation, any sense that what we are seeing is relevant to both us and the film.

We must truly examine what we are seeing. This film fooled me into thinking there was a puzzle at the heart of it, but when its text opened to me, I found a Hollywood fantasy, in which the action and explosions took on a greater meaning, but the issues I believed were there at first dissipated rapidly.

Note: Just as I finished my analysis and research, I read Jonathan Rosenbaum's excellent inquiry into Carl Dreyer's "Day of Wrath". This 1943 film that is filled with text, subtext and possibility of relevant inquiry 65 years later. Check it out.

Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2002.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Visions of the Apocalypse. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.
Mitman, Gregg. Reel Nature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Padel, Ruth. Into the Woods: On British Forests, Myth and Now. 2000.
Science Fiction Studies March (2008) 35.
Vint, Sherryl. “‘The Animals in That Country’: Science Fiction and Animal Studies” Science Fiction Studies March (2008) 35.

Children of Men, dir. Alfonso CuarĂ³n (2006)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Why Mythology?

I have been asked many times in the last few weeks why I am about to enter a Mythological Studies program. People ask me what I am going to do when it's completed. "How much does a mythologist get paid?" some chortle. My answers have been evasive. We don't like to be chortled at usually. For those that were sincere, it was hard to give a clear answer. My reasons are there, but have been bubbling up, still out of reach.

But clarity has struck me. My thoughts became a bit clearer as I have delved into my school readings, been away from the corporate world for a while and watched the political conventions over the last week and a half.

Mythology is the study of the stories humans tell to explain their world. They are stories filled with the archetypes and symbols of humans throughout the ages. Even when a story is outdated for how it tells us to lead our lives, those archetypes and symbols still pull us in. Our minds are able to play with them and use them, figuring out our own lives.

The archetypes and symbols are used in our films and stories. Our artists use this mythological world to express the inner life that we all have, even if we struggle to express it. Even if we repress it. Artists help us to figure out how to use it.

And I am interested in these things because I really believe that paying attention to our unconscious, the place where these archetypes lie, and our dreams, where they are expressed, and our sudden insights and thoughts, where they finally come out and become useful to us, are the only way we can be fully human. We have to use everything we have, and too often we ignore this part of ourselves. But too often these internal, personal issues are used as public tools.

Religion is mythology. As such, it is a personal interplay with your unconscious. Personal. The stories of all religions are reflections of someone's unconscious. They should be used as internal meditations of your own personal possibilities. You have a responsibility to listen to yourself and figure out what you are about. But as myth, no religion should ever be forced on anyone else. It is inhuman to do that. Your faith in something should be kept to yourself if you don't realize that everyone in the world has different ways of getting to know themselves.

The corporate culture is about money. Nothing else. The political culture is often about producing a show that will put you in power so you and your friends can get money. Sort of a corporation also.

I am about to study mythology because I want to explore how we can change this culture. I want the creative power we all hold in ourselves to be the strength of the people of the world, not guns and money. Our political leaders use religion to lure voters to them. Religion should never be used as a ruse. God - or gods - unless they are the God or gods in you - do not make decisions for you.