Inside Inside Out, a review of sorts

In a culture that imagines a sharp mind-body split, it isn’t surprising to see images of a smart inner being controlling our physical “machinery.” Inside Out gives us a committee at the helm. Among feature length movies, it is unique in this respect, as far as I know.

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There are many points to ponder during the film’s 90 spectacular minutes of Pixar 3D animation, but given my background, I was especially caught by the movie’s alignment with a key post-Jungian view of the structure of the psyche.

Michael Ventura, a journalist who has written at length upon archetypal themes, and who co-authored We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse (1993) with James Hillman, said “There may be no more important project for our time than displacing the…fiction of monopersonality.” 

In Jung’s theory of archetypes, pre-eminent place goes to “The Self,” at once, the center of the psyche and it’s totality. The Self, for Jung, was the god image within us. The problem, according to both Ventura and Hillman, is that none of us ever experience ourselves this way. The idea of a unified, “monotheistic” Self is a longing rather than day to day reality, in Ventura’s words, “the longing of all the selves within the psyche that are starving because they are not recognized.”

Buddha came to a similar conclusion 2600 years ago, but Hillman, chose to rely on western models, and drew from Greek mythology to illustrate his conclusion that the psyche is “polytheistic,” with many archetypal centers.  A contemporary of Jung named these centers, “sub-personalities,” a term I have heard at least one Zen teacher use to illustrate the concept.

The Greek pantheon

The Greek pantheon

Thirty years ago, Michael Ventura wrote,  “It is crucial to every form of human effort that we forge a model of the psyche that is closer to our hour-to-hour experience, because, in the long run, as a society, we can share only what we can express.” (published in Shadow Dancing in the USA, 1985, now out of print but available used).

In the interim, nothing was actually forged – rather, a growing awareness of our “hour-to-hour” experience has emerged. How often do we say or hear others say, “Part of me wants to go left, but another part wants to go right?”

This awareness is now pervasive enough that it’s central to a summer blockbuster, aimed at a PG audience. Even if we don’t spend time studying differing models of the psyche, we understand Ventura perfectly when he says, “If you are alone in the room, it is still a crowded room.”

Thomas Hardy – take two

Let’s try this again…last time I pulled a classic not-paying-attention trick – I hit “Publish” instead of “Save,” and then trashed the previous draft.

So as I was I was saying….

A movie trailer for a new version of Far From the Madding Crowd got me thinking of Thomas Hardy. This is the fourth movie based on Hardy’s fourth novel and the first one that brought him critical acclaim and commercial success. The 1967 film version, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and Terrance Stamp, launched me on a long Thomas Hardy reading jag.

This version of Far From the Madding Crowd is the movie I most clearly remember from my teenage years. Not only did Hardy’s melancholia mesh with my teenage angst, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only teenage boy to fall in love with Julie Christie.  Observe her gaping audience as she sings “Bushes and Briars:”

You can’t read Thomas Hardy without noting his stark vision of tragic fate in human affairs. The simplest act or coincidence can trigger chains of events that lead to disastrous outcomes. In Far From the Madding Crowd, an anonymous valentine, sent as a joke, leads to heartbreak, murder, and a hanging.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, also made into four movies, a snatch of conversation overheard at a crossroads by Tess’s drunken father leads to heartbreak, murder, and a hanging.

Gemma Arterton as the doomed Tess, 2008.

Gemma Arterton as the doomed Tess, 2008.

In Return of the Native, Hardy’s sixth novel, the beautiful Eustacia Vye, who longs for greater life than she can find on a remote heath, suffers the fate of a Greek tragic heroine. Her moves to escape her fate bring it upon her. Eustacia and her husband’s mother drown. In grief and despair, the husband becomes a preacher.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustachian Vye in "Return of the Native," 1994

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustachian Vye in “Return of the Native,” 1994

With recurrent themes of the conflicting demands of culture versus nature for the individual, as well as liberal doses of illicit sexuality, Hardy’s 19th century works were popular with 20th century readers. Seeming to contrast with that is a tragic vision more purely classical than any other novelist I can think of.

And let’s face it, we Yanks love good British period dramas whenever we can get them, whether set in Camelot or on Egdon Heath. So you better believe I’ll be in line to see the new Far From the Madding Crowd when it’s released. It might even prompt me to take another foray into 19th century literature, something I thought I had long left behind. We never know where imagination will turn…

Thoughts on Maleficent and retelling folktales

maleficent

Maleficent opens in a world of beauty, threatened by a greedy human king. The visual contrast between human actors and fantasy animation was great enough to take a few minutes for suspension of disbelief to kick in. After that, I was in for the ride, through an ambitiously re-crafted tale of the Disney arch villainess who gave kids of my generation nightmares in Sleeping Beauty (1959). As the poster implies, this movie belongs to Angelina Jolie, whose performance is gripping.

The Sleeping Beauty themes of love and betrayal remain but they manifest very differently in the two Disney versions of the story. Men betray and women love; implicit in Disney’s previous blockbuster, Frozen, the theme is explicit in Maleficent. For now at least, it’s Disney’s key to box office success.

Retelling fairytales with a modern twist is nothing new. Fantasy authors like Nancy Kress, Jane Yolen, Steven Brust, and Roger Zelazny, to say nothing of Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin have been doing this for decades. I’m currently reading a 1994 collection of short retold fairytales, Black Thorn, White Rose, edited by fantasy writers, Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling. There are two different versions of Sleeping Beauty. In both, it is the prince who needs to be rescued.

I take this as an inevitable pendulum swing from earlier Disney movies where princesses mostly sat around singing, “Someday my prince will come.” We have to remember that no Disney movie, then or now, is “real” folklore, nor is any work fantasy fiction. By “real” folklore, I mean stories shaped by the collective imagination of generations of members of a culture, region, or tribe. Strictly speaking, any talk of folktales now must be in the past tense. Nowadays the events that might spawn new fairytales, over a generation or two, become headlines or tweets, “details at 6:00,” to be forgotten in a day or an hour.

Among other things, the old fairytales were full of hints on wise living for those who knew how to listen. Here is one simple list of some of the lessons they taught:

  • Sorrow is real, and so is joy
  • Joy is freely available to all, just as sorrow comes freely to all, whether rich or poor, and without regard to changes in material fortune
  • The world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger, but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone who has obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed.

Much as I love them, I don’t find that fantasy movies and novels teach lessons like these in a visceral or unforgettable manner, which leaves us sadly impoverished. Dragons have not gone away – any glance at the headlines makes that clear. What is gone is the wisdom to know how to deal with them.

Another note on tricksters

Groucho

I want to argue a paradox…that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on. – Lewis Hyde

It has always made sense to me that the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when times were hard for so many, gave birth to our great movie tricksters: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges. Their send ups of the 1%, among other things, are still hilarious. Where are their equivalents today?

My self-imposed moratorium on negative blog themes has passed. As I caught up on news I had kept at arms length, I found myself thinking often of trickster stories. In part because they are funny, and most of the news is not. And partly because the folly of tricksters has a sacred dimension while the folly of our headline makers is often just foolish.  If you invite the Three Stooges to lunch and serve pie, the outcome is fairly certain. I read that the Georgia legislature voted to allow patrons to carry guns into bars; the result is likely to be just as predictable, but without the catharsis of laughter.

stooges pies

In his introduction to Trickster Makes This World (1998), Lewis Hyde emphasized several key points:

1) Tricksters both make and violate boundaries and live in relationship to them. Where there are no boundaries, trickster creates them, as in several Native American creation myths where Coyote makes the land and separates it from the sea. Where there are cultural boundaries, tricksters blur or invert the distinctions: right and wrong, friend or foe, male or female, living or dead.

2) Tricksters are usually on the road, and this makes them outsiders.
Through most of human history, solitary travelers have been rare. Until the last century, most people lived and died close to the area where they were born. Nomadic people travelled as tribes or clans, but Hyde says trickster is “the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town. He is the spirit of the road of dusk,” who may pass through city and town but only to “enliven it with his mischief.”

charlie chaplin and dog

Hyde points out that although there is an abundance of clever women who know how to be deceptive in world mythology, they are seldom full-time tricksters. Once the evil is vanquished, the curse lifted, they tend to settle down. Coyote and Loki do not domesticate, and the older cultures who gave us these stories would have had trouble imagining a woman who opted for a solo life on the road.

3) Tricksters are liars and thieves, but they are not petty criminals.
Tricksters steal things like fire and cattle, and according to Hyde, are often honored as creators of civilization. “They are imagined not only to have stolen certain essential goods from heaven and given them to the race but to have gone on and helped shape this world so as to make it a hospitable place for human life.”

We cannot be too doctrinaire about these things, for there is a distinction between “large” stories, like creation myths, and “small” folktales, where trickster sometimes steals cattle for himself. When he does so, however, in tales like “The Little Peasant” from Grimm, it is usually a case of swindling a swindler, or people who are dishonest and greedy to start with.

For obvious reasons, trickster isn’t welcome in corporate boardrooms. Like Robin Hood, he is into redistribution of wealth. He’s the patron of whistle blowers everywhere, and will gladly gum up the machine when it is no longer serving the greater good.

Perhaps that is why we need him now more than ever. We don’t even have to do anything. Hermes travels as fast as thought. For good and for ill, trickster is already here.

Chaplin modern times

Words cannot express… A very… I don’t know what image of an Easter in Hollywood. Large rabbit with Jean Parker and Mary Carlisle

Just in case you’ve had too much of cutesy bunnies this season, Ms Vickie Lester, who blogs at Beguiling Hollywood, can fix that. Stop by to learn why Monty Python didn’t really know the first thing about scary rabbits. When I was a kid, I was terrified of lambs. My parents thought it was weird, but Vickie shows that there’s more going on than we think with these seemingly “harmless” creatures.

BEGUILING HOLLYWOOD

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A spring break medley

medley (med-lē) n., 1 a mixture of things not usually placed together; heterogeneous collection; hodgepodge.

A quiet week, with many ideas wandering through my mind without quite attaining blog post velocity. Sitting here, with a cup of coffee and the windows open to a fine spring morning, I decided to scoop up some of these notions, not necessarily in order of importance, and present them to you as a medley, or hodgepodge as the case may be.

On Mickey Rooney: I wish I had known that last Sunday, all day, Turner Classic Movies was  hosting a day of Mickey Rooney movies. I tuned in late, but did get to see Boy’s Town (1938) and The Human Comedy (1943), both notable for their idealistic and almost too sentimental presentation of American life. Boys Town tells the story of Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy), who founded a home for abused and delinquent boys in Nebraska. Rooney plays Henry Hull, the tough kid who tests Flanagan’s belief that there is “no such thing as a bad boy.”

Tracy and Rooney in "Boys Town," 1938

Tracy and Rooney in “Boys Town,” 1938

In addition to the real life humanity of Flanagan, whose Boys Town still exists in the Midwest, the film reflects 1930s progressive ideals, as well as an older, deeper, American romanticism, the belief that by nature, we are noble beings, corrupted only by cultural dysfunction. Watching Boys Town, I thought of the next great eruption of that ideal in the ’60s and remembered a line from Crosby, Stills & Nash that almost stands as an epitaph for that era: “It’s been a long time coming / it’s gonna be a long time gone.” The album came out in 1969, the year Charles Manson called optimism like Father Flanagan’s into serious question.   

Mother Nature on the run: Now that I’m thinking of Crosby, Stills & Nash, that phrase popped to mind as title for this subsection, though it’s really about animals on the run. An editorial in yesterday morning’s paper, The case for banning wildlife-killing contests by Camillia H. Fox, outlines the common practice of for profit, recreational predator hunting contests.

Exercising Vixen the fox while a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1996. She was a sweetheart, though a bit of a drama queen. Is this the enemy?

Exercising Vixen the fox while a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1996. She was a sweetheart, though a bit of a drama queen. Is this the enemy?

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” said Mahatma Gandhi. It is heartening to learn that pushback is growing, both from citizens and state Fish and Game Commissions. In California, commission president, Michael Sutton said:

“I’ve been concerned about these killing contests for some time. They seem inconsistent both with ethical standards of hunting and our current understanding of the important role predators play in ecosystems.”

The way we treat the animals seems increasingly to be like the way we treat each other. Witness the case cited in the article, of the organizer of one of these killing contests, who (allegedly) pushed a 73 year old man to the ground for trying to photograph the event. We have to say, “allegedly” because, although the older man’s spine was fractured, the perpetrator has yet to be charged. This is not what our founding fathers meant when they spoke of a “well ordered militia.”

Of Jungians and Tibetans: I’ve recently started, with keen interest, The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra (2012) by Rob Preece, an in depth practitioner of both Jungian psychology and Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan iconography is striking and vivid, almost begging for Jungian analysis, but most western commentators, including Jung himself, have written about it as outsiders looking in.

Not Preece, who studied with Lama Thubten Yeshe, one of the greatest 20th century Tibetan teachers to come to America. Lama Yeshe understood Jung and understood that Buddhist practice has always undergone change when crossing geographic and cultural boundaries.

Preece writes of Col. Francis Younghusband, who visited Tibet in 1904. Seeing pictures of wrathful deities, Younghusband concluded that this was a culture that worshiped demons. Jungians may pounce on the concept of shadow, but that too, will often be wide of the mark. Although Tibetans and Jungians both understand such imagery as depicting internal qualities, in this case, it is wrathful energy in the service of compassion. It’s the energy of, “This shit’s gotta stop!” The energy that led Camilla Fox to start a foundation to stop the slaughter of animals.

Two large gatherings: Over the last two weekends, I took part in two separate events which drew hundreds of people. Both were immensely satisfying days of harmonious groups, drawn together by shared interest, working cooperatively and having a lot of fun doing so. It’s almost enough to make you believe in no such thing as a bad boy or girl, in Mickey Rooney’s America.

That fundamental goodness is precisely what the Tibetans and Buddhists in general believe, even with their finely honed awareness of both relative truth, here in the trenches, and ultimate truth. Our ultimate nature, they say, the ground of our being is pure, unstained by any event, the way the sky is unstained by pollution. The bad news is, it can take eons for us to figure this out; a weekend at Woodstock is clearly not enough.

Still, I always feel energized after such gatherings, even as that wrathful energy rises at the thought of all the artificial barriers that divide us in our day to day lives. That’s something everyone has to work out for themselves. Meanwhile, I felt like listening again to Crosby, Stills & Nash. I hope they’re right in this song: that it’s always darkest before the dawn.

The Dark Crystal: a movie review

Dark_Crystal_Film_Poster

“Another world, another time. In the age of wonder.”

So begins The Dark Crystal (1982), a movie that pushed the limits of what was possible in animation when it was released 32 years ago. That was the year the Commodore 64 hit the market, becoming the best selling personal computer. Ms Pac-man was the hot new item in digital animation. Pixar, as we know it, was more than a decade away. Jim Henson, who wrote, produced, and co-directed the movie with Frank Oz, used models, puppets, and costumes for human actors to make this extraordinary film, which has largely been forgotten now that we’ve come to take sophisticated animation for granted.

Dark Crystal is a hero’s quest. A thousand earlier, when the three suns of the planet, Thra, came into alignment, the Dark Crystal shattered. At that moment two new races appeared, the evil skeksis and gentle mystics. Jen is the last of the gelflings (or so he thinks), a race wiped out by the skeksis for fear of a prophesy that one of them would be their undoing. As the thousand year alignment nears, Jen’s master, a dying mystic gives him a quest – find the missing shard and heal the crystal before the suns line up, or the skeksis will rule forever.

Dark Crystal: Jen's master gives him a quest

Dark Crystal: Jen’s master gives him a quest

Jen reacts like any fledgling hero at the start of a quest – “But master, I am only a gelfling “ he says. “I am not ready to go alone.” But go alone he does, aided by the ancient seeress, Aughra, who helps him find the shard, and Kira, last of the female gelflings, who joins his quest. In a moment of despair, Jen flings the crystal shard away. Unable to sleep, he mutters, “Master, nothing is simple anymore.” Kira helps him find the shard at “The House of the Old Ones,” where they are confronted by a treacherous skeksis.

The Dark Crystal: Jen and Kira confront a Skeksis at The House of the Old Ones

The Dark Crystal: Jen and Kira confront a Skeksis at The House of the Old Ones

They flee, but the treacherous one surprises them at the Dark Castle where the crystal is housed. He captures Kira and the skeksis begin to drain her life essence, which will prolong their own lives and leave Kira in the state of their other slaves, a mindless automaton. Jen and Aughra help Kira to save herself, the mystics arrive at the castle, the three suns’ come into alignment, and the final confrontation begins.

Prior to Dark Crystal, animation involved full length cartoons, claymation shorts, and The Muppet Show, which ran on TV from 1976-1981. I’m not aware of another full length feature involving such detailed world-building animation before this movie. It feels a little dated now, but then so do movies like Casablanca which stand as classics in their genre. That’s how I think of Dark Crystal. I think it’s required viewing for lovers of animation and fantasy in the movies.

Thor: The Dark World

Thor-The-Dark-World-Poster

Sometimes the movies surprise you. On Friday, I saw The Muppets Most Wanted and wished I had waited for the DVD. Sunday I watched Thor: The Dark World on DVD, and was sorry I hadn’t caught it on the big screen.

As “the Convergence” approaches, a once every 5000 year alignment of the nine realms of the universe, portals between the worlds start to open at random.  Exploring one near London, Dr. Jane Foster, Thor’s mortal honey, is infected with the Aether, an ancient, indestructible weapon of evil that the gods of Asgard had hidden away.  The Dark Elf, Malekith, hopes to use the Aether to plunge the universe into darkness when the worlds align.

At the critical moment, Thor and his half-brother, Loki, the usual suspect in all things nefarious, team up to save the world and avenge the death of Frigga, their mother. Loki’s trickery fools Malekith into withdrawing the Aether from Jane and saving her life.  The movie has lots of explosions, and moments that echo both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (though admittedly without the depth).  The forbidden love of immortal Thor and mortal Jane also parallels Superman and Lois, but for me, the character of Loki made the movie.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Loki the Trickster, has fascinated me since I read a book of Norse mythology as a kid.  Sometimes an ally and sometimes a nemesis of the gods, in the old stories, Loki was finally imprisoned under the earth for killing Baldr, the golden boy of Asgard, where he will remain until the final battle when this world will be destroyed.

Loki, from 18th c. Icelandic manuscript. Public domain.

Loki, from 18th c. Icelandic manuscript. Public domain.

The movie Loki is far more nuanced; he and Thor compliment each other.  Thor is ready to charge ahead, swinging his hammer against an invincible foe, while Loki embodies consummate strategy.

Loki and Thor plot their next move

Loki and Thor plot their next move

Loki, rejected by the Father of the gods and always subordinate to Thor, though he is older and smarter, is more the existential Outsider than any other movie superhero. Peter Parker may pine for Mary Jane, in a malt shop kind of way, and Clark gets tongue-tied near Lois, but Loki portrays the adult experience of not fitting in.

If you know what that’s like (and if not, why are you writing and reading blogs), you’ll enjoy this portrayal of Loki. The next time you’re in the mood for heroes, aided by Natalie Portman, saving the world, with help from a professor who runs around naked at Stonehenge, grab some popcorn and consider renting Thor.  It’s a fun ride.