August 28, 2005

Joseph Campbell Redux

I still hold fast to my suspicions about Joseph Campbell's followers. However, the responses suggested that I wrapped up my discussion too quickly, as Walter and Alex were hot on my heels with implications that I hadn't bothered to deal with. The issue of intentionality and archetype came up: Walter noted "Archetypes happen whether you intend to weild them or not" and Alex followed up with "Artist intentionality means nothing when all is said and done." Which leads me to a few conversation-starters:

First of all, the fact that archetypes happen all on their own exposes the uselessness of the Campbellite project. The main thrust of this school of screenwriting is that you must know and deliberately repeat the archetypal structure- forgetting to mention that for millennia, storytellers managed to repeat those structures without the benefit of someone like Campbell pointing them out. If such structures are latent within the human psyche, then wouldn't it be a better idea to concentrate on something else?

And it is that "something else" that makes narrative art valuable. This is where artist intentionality does mean something: it's where the sum total of the individual meets the biological programming and strikes a compromise. Not everything can be reduced to the collective unconscious- there are external circumstances- personal histories and social machinations that don't necessarily gell with the archetypal gestalt. And to serve the infinitesimal possibilities underserved by mere archetype, you have to be able to say, quite intentionally, these are the things that I believe, and here is a form that adequately represents them. You may not know ALL of what you're doing, but that's different from being entirely on autopilot.

Choice really is the issue here. Campbell isn't just some jerk who annoys me, he's industry standard: screenwriting classes teach him right beside the hated Syd Field, executives tremble at the mention of his name, and people who don't follow the party line don't get their scripts produced. And the reason he's industry standard is that his all-purpose ideology is easily assimilated by the capitalist project. Walter was right when he pointed out that 95% of indie and foreign films have the same marks as the 95% of Hollywood films I hate- but that's because the Hollywood machine has become so pervasive that all other films must adopt its style or be crushed.

Campbellism homogenizes every culture into one, and so does capitalist filmmaking: both state that your individual geography, history and culture are basically immaterial. The problem is not just that this makes movies bad, but that it's part and parcel of a negative social trend that is erasing local identity and collecting culture into the hands of a few megacorportions. Freud and Shakespeare may have their pedantic reductionists, but because of their specificity and insistence on outside referents they can't be used against us quite so easily.

We now have a culture that can't deal with anything really foreign. The Fellinis, Bergmans and Kurosawas of the pre-Campbell world didn't look a damned thing like Hollywood (except for the unconscious archetypes, of course), and were enjoyed by a large audience of specialists and intelligent amateurs alike. The F's, B's and K's of our time- Claire Denis, Edward Yang, Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas, et al- are the province of the hardcore believer and no-one else, because they say that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your simple myths.

None of these people care sweet F.A. about whether they fit the collective unconscious. They've got their corners of the world to define, and they do it quite deliberately. The Hollywood players would like to define you too, just as deliberately- but it can't let you know that, or you wouldn't buy. Thus they internalize Campbell to sell their covert ideology to you and give themselves a personal alibi: I swear, your honour, it was the myths, the myths!

The playwright who's most pertinent here isn't Shakespeare, but Brecht. He taught us we could stand outside our myths and see how they affect us, becoming an active viewer and the hero of our own lives. And while we will never shake the structures, saying we have no control over cultural actions is cowardly at best and irresponsible at worst. There's a part of the process that is our conscious doing, and it's the part that keeps those archetypes are curtailed from attaching themselves to things that might harm us.


Scott said...

'Becoming the hero of our own lives' is an interesting position. Is it one that is even compatible with cinema's shapes and forms, whether they include Campbell's structures or not? Have we all become so immersed in the cinematic realm that finding connections between our 'real' lives and the lives we live in between watching films have no relation to one another?

We go to films because they offer us structure; life does not. Art films and foreign films may offer us a structure that is alien to our own experiences, but the structure is there nevertheless -- conversations and scenes have a point; people have a specific purpose; themes are, if not obvious, at least THERE. (None of which is necessarily true in life.)

Perhaps your disdain for Campbell arises from the fact that the conversations and scenes and people and purposes are simplistic, reductive and repetitive; fair enough. 'Real' cinema, the cinema of the filmmakers you cite, has a complexity and a textured 'reality' that Hollywood's best flicks cannot even approach, let alone attain.

In the end, though, films can only do so much. They can illuminate life, describe life, provide insight into life -- but they are not life. Hardcore cineastes may disagree, but films APPROXIMATE life, and, like it or not, this approximation has to be manipulated, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, but the manipulation is always there. We like films best that seemingly manipulate the least, that have their own internal logic and rhythm, that move us in ways that we cannot explain. These films AFFECT our views of life, yes, but life itself -- our daily interactions, our coversations and interactions with people and the themes we recognize from our own existence -- will always remain a chaotic, unwieldy blob.

I guess I'm saying: It's right to chastise Hollywood for the banality of its Campbell-plundering, but I wonder if art films, if Fellini-Bergman-Wong Kar Wai et al, are just as guilty, in their own, more complex, more palatable way. The shape is different, the flavor is tart, the form is skewed, but we go to ALL films, formula or otherwise, to reassure ourselves that the meaningless of our own existence can somehow be explained by someone more talented and insightful than ourselves, someone who can shine light into darkness, someone whose mastery of the craft creates meaning out of complexity and hope and despair. Films cannot make us become the hero of our own lives (not that I think that that's what you're implying, btw); they can only illuminate the screen to such a degree that, if we're lucky, when the lights go up, we are better prepared, more ready, more human, to confront life on its own terms, away from the structures that cinema (sometimes clumsily, sometimes obliquely) provides.

We go to films for structure, for a frame; when we can see the craftman's fingers on the frame, we are reminded of how life lacks such a rectangular container. Do we then turn against the limits of cinema when we should, instead, be turning against the limits of life?

(Not sure if any of this makes sense, but I appreciate the discussion you, Mr.Chaw and Mr.Chambers have started on this blog, and your allowance for your readers' input -- however rambling --and offtopic?!? it may sometimes be...)

Walter_Chaw said...

it is that "something else" that makes narrative art valuable

Well, I guess I disagree with this kind of absolute in that it's the same kind of absolute attack held by people who look to Campbell for the secrets to masterplotting. Cultural specificity is interesting to a point just as, I guess, anything is potentially interesting to a point (auteurism, style, Freud, Lacan, pretense) - and I don't say this with any hint of elitism, but too much fascination with native cultures begins to smell a little of Noble Savage Syndrome.

As has already been mentioned here or elsewhere, indie fare is bad more than good (same as mainstream same as foreign) - I'm a child of the blockbuster, for god's sake, I still want to wet myself when I see Peter Jackson's King Kong trailer. But I'd challenge you to find a suitably protean definition for "narrative" cinema (as opposed to "avant garde"? who even talks about that shit anymore?) that doesn't, in fact, include everything from Blow-Up (which doesn't really mean a lot without some analysis) to The Blue Lagoon to Last Days. It's a backhanded way to deride folks who follow Campbell as Carlos Castenada mystics when, in fact, there's something about Campbell (insofar as he's Jung for dummies) that touches on ideas that I find to be eloquent and persuasive. Campbell was kind of an ass, especially in his years on Skywalker Ranch when he refused to acknowledge any debt to Jung, but intense exposure to George Lucas can do that to you.

Campbell isn't just some jerk who annoys me

Why is he a jerk that annoys you at all? All Campbell did was suggest that there seem to be constants in the broader tapestry of human mythology. I take your point that people who use Campbell's outlines to the exclusion of all else are mad-libbers engaged in creating what Gregory Peck once called the "endlessly self-replicating screenplay" - but, of course, Peck said that when Freud was in vogue and Jung was, largely, debunked as, yep, mysticism.

It's hard for me to embrace a policy of instructing filmmakers and critics about what one should be focusing or not focusing upon - seems to me that unless you're particularly gifted, you shouldn't be attempting to say anything. That way leads to a lot of embarrassment - there are only so many Godards and Sembenes and Kiorastamis out there, yes?

Campbellism homogenizes every culture into one

Which of course is like saying that Freudianism homogenizes every unconcious into one. It can if it's facile and, again, used as the beginning and the end - but isn't it an interesting place to begin an analysis into a work of art so long as you don't make it the place that you finish, too? What you're on the razor's edge of advocating is a denial that all films are the product of human hands and that all humans have, at the bottom, an identical set of experiences: sex, mother, hunger, fear, sun, moon, dark, light, water, death.

This doesn't say a thing about baskets and clothes and songs and micro regional differences, I understand. And it's altogether possible to go a whole lifetime without once considering the possibility that all humans have a shared well of images - there's no life requirement to be a philosophy 101 grad, after all - but in indicting the dream factory for being married to what works (call to action, conflict with father, belly of the beast, confrontation with the siren, return of the prodigal), I think you've spread your net a little wide.

None of these people care sweet F.A. about whether they fit the collective unconscious

Yeah, nobody does, but all of their art can be deconstructed along archetypal lines. All of them. And a few, like Claire Denis, for instance, especially Beau Geste and Trouble Every Day, take on an amazing power just with her conversance with the Jungian universality of her images. Tsai Ming-Liang speaks often of his attempts at "sublimity" (Romanticism's term for the broaching the collective unconscious) - Kiarostami speaks often of making universal statements about the plight of man - but intentionality aside, archetypes, if you believe in them, just are.

They just are.

Ask David Lynch (or David Cronenberg) about his films and he'll most likely talk to you about his woodcutting. But he has a line, pure and true, into his unconscious and he taps it and lets it flow, baby, and damned if his unconscious, way down deep in there, doesn't look a lot like yours and mine. Try to explain Mulholland Drive to someone who doesn't "get it" and you know what I'm talking about. I mean, what's the "it" after all, that you're trying to get anyhow?

It's connection, touching the face of god. On an animal level.

It's more in the meat than it is in the "soul" and if you've ever felt like you've just been juiced by a car battery while reading a poem, listening to a tune, or watching a picture - you've just got a glimpse into a bigger world courtesy art.

"Campbellism", like any "ism", if it's not abused by the venal and the avaricious, is just one way to tell someone who hasn't about what it's like to eat a peach.