August 27, 2005

Dear Joseph Campbell: You Stink

The time has come to deal with an issue that's plagued me, cinema, and myriad conversations with my esteemed webmaster for some time. Something that's become commonplace in popular thought about writing and making film, something that has penetrated the industry itself and continues to shape the Hollywood style of narrative. Something that very often gets treated like a foregone conclusion, and accepted as obvious truth, if not holy writ.

Something like the legacy of Joseph Campbell.

Whom I hate.

Joseph Campbell, you'll recall, is the man who boiled down every single culture's mythology into a few simple formulas- his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pretty much announces his assertion that archetype is the same structure repeated over and over again across the world. He then demonstrated that contemporary storytellers- writers, filmmakers, George Lucas- were in fact the myth-makers, shamen and soothsayers of our time. And the upshot of all of this is that if you follow the bare-bones heroic structures laid out in his work, you, too will be a myth-maker, shaman, soothsayer and all-around happenin' cat.

That, at least is what his followers in Hollywood seem to have gotten out of his work. They've taken the hero-overcomes-evil-to-triumph structure and applied it over and over again, to the point where it's taught in screenwriting classes and treated like something more than what it is. You're no longer just writing a movie: you're healing the world with Eternal Truth. And in taking this astonishingly self-regarding rationale, they have ruthlessly attacked everything that makes narrative, filmmaking, and art itself interesting and valuable.

I can accept that the myth structure is actually there; what I can't accept is that the structure is the myth itself. If you said all music had rhythm and notes, would that make all the world's music the same? If you said all food had protein, carbohydrates and fat, would that make every culture's cooking the same? Archetypes mean nothing without the values and quirks a culture invests in them. And they sure don't all look like Hollywood movies. For one thing, Western narrative form is different from other cultures: where the West has the crisis-climax-denouement structure that's a holdover from Aristotle, Japanese narrative (for instance) is episodic, not necessarily moving towards its conclusion in the same methodical way. You'd miss all the action of a movie (and a culture) if you just watched basic archetype- it's the form of how they're deployed that defines a culture's storytelling.

And the quirks aren't just formal. I wrote a paper recently on Cure and Seven for the Reverse Shot website, and said the films used the form of the serial killer drama in culturally specific ways: the killer of Seven responded to transgressions that could only have come out of Western individualism, while the murder-enabler of Cure was releasing his charges from the dictates of Japanese consensus culture. The structure of both was pretty close indeed- but would I have been saying anything by pointing out that the two were using the same cop-and-killer archetypes? No. Better to point out the ways in which the form was used to explore currents in their respective societies, in this case the moral ramifications of committing to a culture while dealing with its frustrating negative side effects. You learn nothing from the structure; you learn from its application. Not the hero, but the thousand faces.

This isn't just academic nitpicking. The Campbell method has been distorted to say that if you have the archetypal structure, that's all you need for a screenplay: you follow the paint-by-numbers and you wind up with a picture of yourself as myth-making shaman. But you aren't a myth-making shaman. You are merely doing THE ABSOLUTE BARE MINIMUM required of a narrative. And so we have films that do the absolute bare minimum required of a movie: films that shoehorn complex information into a precis of a story, shaving off anything extraneous that might give us more understanding beyond the completion of a Herculean task. One task is as good as another in this universe, and so we wind up with all films boiled down to nothing. The pleasures and insights in a film lie in the variations on the theme: mindless repetition is as boring as... well, 95% of Hollywood's output.

There's another, more insidious application to pop Campbellism. We live in a time of intense cultural homogenization, when the Hollywood juggernaut is riding over national cinemas and forcing them to conform to its formal/narrative practices. And so it becomes awfully convenient to have a philosopher king who tells you it's all the same, one myth is as good as another, nothing is really being lost. Peel of one of the Masks of God and you might find Jack Valenti underneath: someone saying that you don't need to make your own culture, you can let the as-good machinations of Tinseltown do the work for you. And this is completely unacceptable.

Joseph Campbell's theories may be absolutely correct. But letting the matter of writing end at a basic structure is absurd. It's like reading the Coles Notes instead of the novel, getting the gist of things while leaching out the felicities that give a story texture, life, and intellectual precision. The measure of a screenwriter is how he can distinguish him or herself- structurally, thematically, formally- from the rest of the pack: Cambpellism says repeat, repeat, repeat what you already know. And so we have lazy filmmakers who don't feel compelled to learn outside information or apply their own understanding, but do once again what's been done a million times before. It's mind-deadening, soul-destroying, culture-corroding and the single most negative influence on filmmaking in the last 30 years.


Bill C said...

We couldn't be more in synch, Trav. But then, you knew that already.

Scott said...

Compelling argument, but I'm not so sure that the blame should be entirely placed on the screenwriters and filmmakers. We sometimes tend to forget that movies are funded by companies, and these companies require their money back, and the surest way to get their money back is to provide enertainment that is palatable to the masses as a whole -- which usually results in generic pablum. Not to say that there aren't 'hack' directors out there -- but given that very, very few directors have 'final cut', let alone screenwriters, and that most filmmakers are 'artists-for-hire', it seems fair to say that until the majority of mainstream movies stop costing millions and millions of dollars, thereby requiring major corporations to fund them, it will be harder and harder to allow the quirks and nuances of life to seep through into a studios' scripts, since the 'men in black' in the boardroom will surely favor homogenity over eccentricity every time when it's their company's money (and their own fragile jobs) on the line.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I don't think it's the filmmakers or the companies... it's the people. Most people after their monotonous day as worker bees, go to the "movies" to reassure themselves that somehow their non self-exploratory days are going to add up to some magically logical conclusion. And watching the mind numbing repetition of old archetypes and cliches gives them self-congratulatory pleasure of having an insight into existential absurdity of life. That somehow deconstructing everything that is beautiful and chaotic in the world to some dumbed-down, simplistic and idiotic cliche would just make their lives so much easier and the world so much more logical, which it does for them. For the rest of us who know their is more to it then what appears to be, who pine for emotional release through knowledge of the fact that someone like us is out their who felt what we feel, it gives us reassurance of the fact that maybe just the mere knowledge of our ultimate demise may make our actions inconsequential and absurd, but we are in it together. For us, art acts as mirror of our lives, for the rest (who watch hollywood trite and believe that eating pork or beef and masturabating would book them a seat in hell), entertainment becomes the concave mirror.

So don't blame the money man for selling his soul to the devil 'coz he was born without one and don't blame their pet little recent USC-grad asswhores. Blame the John and the Jane who prefer momentary pleasure over etrnal existetial enlightenment.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I just wish those fucking movie tickets would stop costing 13.99 and I won't have to pay 5 fucking dollars for soda. What in the blue hell do they do with 80 mil ???? Primer got made for 7 Gs. 7 Gs !!! I mean for christ's sake ! They would rather remake a fucking sitcom from 1953 because it worked with an audience back then, then try something original and new. IT MAKES NO SENSE !! Why in the hell do we need a "Bewitched" or "Honeymooners" movie ?

Walter_Chaw said...

I think what has to be at the heart of any sort of application of Jung to the film criticism process is that archetypes happen whether you intend to wield them or not. That's what makes it a collective unconscious, natch. Point's well taken of course, Travis, that lots of people just use formula for their formula entertainments (I think I use the word "formula" more than any other single word in my stuff) but are they copying Campbell or are they just copying one another? (I'd say that 95% of Hollywood is maybe high, but not entirely unfair - but I would extend that to 95% of all film, Hollywood, Indie, Foreign, and so on.)

I do understand that you're not really attacking Campbell, but rather unimaginative - pretentious - people who use the Journey of the Hero as the end of the conversation where it should be the beginning - but by that token, couldn't we be attacking Die Hard and Speed with the same tactic? Or, more to the point, Freud and Shakespeare?

I'm not married to Campbell, but I confess your title got my hackles up until I read your thoughts. Who can disagree, after all, with the idea that a lot of people misuse ideology to excuse, or obscure or edify their own shortcomings as writers, critics, filmmakers, people. . . ? So, I'm with you, but I think you're identifying just one diseased corner of a giant pox blanket - not that that's a bad thing.

Alex Jackson said...

I pretty much agree with Walter down the line. I liked the post when I actually read it, but overall I think that I disagree with the sentiment.

I'm working from a premise that art is not an active endeavor; and so artist intentionality really means less than nothing when all is said and done.

Maybe it's again that I haven't seen enough movies but The Matrix, Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, and Conan the Barbarian are all look very different to me. Structurally similiar sure, but the concept of "evil" takes on very different specifics and the specifics are really the important part. The Hero of a Thousand Journeys model then becomes a mere vehicle.

In other words, a filmmaker may consciously work with this existing structure but in doing so cannot help but reflect somethhing in the unique dominant culture that he is inhabiting.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Films like Blow-up, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver... infact the whole concept of anti-hero that was dominant between 67 and 80 falsifies the notion that everything can be broken down to same archetypes. if anything, the above movies contrast that notion. it maybe true for pop culture or "popular" culture" but then is it art ? or is entertainment ? to say that art is not an active endeavor is BS in my opinion because art is what protects a culture from stagnation. without it we would still be in medivial ages. if your reasoning does appply, then that makes everyone from philosphers, theologians, intellects; inactive. Just because you are not a plumber or a politican doesn't make you inactive.

Alex Jackson said...

Uh, Taxi Driver is a partial remake of The Searchers and Apocalypse Now is a partial adaptation of Heart of Darkness. They weren't works that spontaneously manifested themselves from the great black void. There was an existing structure that they inhabited, if not specifically a Joseph Campbell one certainly something in the same general direction. That they were anti-heroes is simply a variation in the detail. Plug B into the formula instead of A.

By active endeavor, I'm meaning in terms of the artistic process and not as much it's fallout. The artist stays true to a certain idea, image, or even story and then the analysis happens after the fact.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

True about AN and TD, I didn't think of that. But I still believe a lot of art is inspired by life then formulas created from previous art. said...

RE: Joseph Campbell's myth structure, template, pattern,whatever. ...Slamming it from some venue of "hate" doesn't make it any less valid.

...worked for George Lucas. ...Worked for many, if not every, ancient culture.

...true, reading the results of Campbell's lifelong study of world mythology won't make anyone a modern-day shaman, guru, or master of mythology, but to not read his works is to remain ignorant of timeless truths of spirit shared by the world, since the beginning (big bang, if you will).