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.