The Artist, Hollywood and Change

There are two themes I’ve been returning to in my research these days: Disney and myth-in-transition. The Disney research is paying off; my chair has given his seal of approval on the completed draft. The myth-in-transition question arose as I was writing the dissertation. 2012 is a year full of potential change, and after researching the Cold War for my dissertation, it makes sense that we’ve been in a period of transition that is hopefully reaching its climax. So when a movie comes a long that speaks to this transition, I recommend sitting up and noticing.

The Artist is a film for film buffs, but I’m not going to spend this post describing the film. It’s beautiful, and deserving of all the awards it has won and is sure to win as the cinema award season comes to an end. The two themes that stand out are: finding your voice when it has been taken away from you and coping with transition.

The film is set in the shift from silent film to sound. The main character, George Valentin, found his voice silenced. He was a prominent actor, resembling Douglas Fairbanks, and found himself shut out of the studio because he didn’t want to easily convert to sound. This makes sense. He’s a silent film actor who has made his entire career speaking through his body language. We learn in the last lines of the film that he has a French accent, which is likely part of the reason he is unwilling to convert to sound. His story is not unique to Hollywood’s history. Several actors found themselves unemployed after the switch to sound because they had unpleasant voices for the film technology of the time. Singin’ in the Rain brings this issue to life, with the blonde silent beauty facing public humiliation because her voice is nasal with a thick New York accent. But, when you love something so much, how do you just walk away? George falls into ruin and depression. The two things keeping him going are his loyal dog and his unrequited love for the film’s heroine, Peppy, which he isn’t even willing to admit to himself for most of the film. Peppy helps him find a new voice through dance. The underlying message is that a lost voice can be refound, and likely it’s resting right under your nose requiring a change in perspective of what your voice looks/sounds like.

For all the study I’ve put into early Hollywood history, I failed to link the switch to sound as coinciding with the stock market crash that launched the Great Depression (but I did catch the themes of cinema during the Great Depression). The switch to sound was a major turning point in Hollywood because it involved embracing new technology and changed the face of cinema permanently. The stock market crash and the Great Depression were both major turning points in American history. Rather than change the face of the culture permanently, as we saw with sound technology, what we see with the Great Depression is an indicator of how slowly a paradigm shift can occur (and how much faster this shift has been compared to those of 2000 years ago!). The 15 years of the Depression brought the optimism of the Roaring Twenties to an end. The events of the Depression helped create government policies to prevent such a major depression from happening again. Americans are understandably frightened of economic depressions, though we tend to forget that depressions are part of the natural cycle of economics. The Depression made the events of the World War II possible—not in the sense of causality, certainly, but that the Depression primed the cultural psyche for the American involvement in the war to happen, and was punctuated with a blast of technology that changed the American temperament and relationship to war permanently. War is a cultural cathartic release. Von Franz notes that war is the confrontation with culture’s shadow, but war is also an expression of the culture’s shadow. Notice the last 10 years, the acceleration of America’s mythic transition, war has been a cultural release, as opposed to a full-on confrontation with the shadow. We’ve been fighting an ideology, not an easily identifiable enemy.

Where am I going with this? It’s not about the end of the world or any kind of apocalypse, but it’s about change. Change is inevitable. Films and other myths such as The Artist remind us that we can pull through, individually and culturally.

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A Dangerous Method

In short, this is a film about psychologist C.G. Jung. Jung is underrepresented in American culture, even with all the publicity he gets in the academic circles. This is one of the first films I’m aware of that portrays Jung at all, beyond documentaries of course.

The story concentrates on Jung and his patient Sabina Spielrein. Without knowing too much about my history of Jung – I haven’t read a biography, I stay away from discussions such as The Aryan Christ because I believe all thinkers are the product of their times and environments, and I haven’t read Memories, Dreams, Reflections all the way through because I was frustrated by Jung’s arrogance – Spielrein is portrayed as Jung’s first psychoanalytic patient and the “guinea pig” for him to solidify his theories. Her analysis inspires Jung to meet Sigmund Freud, who was already published in the field of psychoanalysis, and their relationship becomes one of mentoring father to curious son and is one that fueled the fire for the psychoanalytic revolution of the last century. Jung makes the mistake of falling for Spielrien and launches into a sexual relationship with her after sending her to university at the prompting of a patient Freud sends to Jung. At this point, the story begins to follow two storylines. One is Jung’s relationship to Spielrein and the other his his relationship to Freud. Through Spielrein, Jung finds release, freedom, and an outlet for his growing theories. And in Freud, he finds a friendly face in a burgeoning field. The tensions between Freud and Jung are made evident from their first meeting. Some are economic – Jung is nonchalant about his wealth, which annoys Freud, who struggles with his status – and some are a matter of transference. Freud makes it clear that he sees Jung as his intellectual heir, while Jung doesn’t return the sentiments. It is in this last point that I feel the movie advertisements are misleading. The movie shows Spielrein as a catalyst for the separation between Freud and Jung, but not as the sole cause as the ads inform us: “Sabina Spielrein, the beautiful but disturbed young woman who comes between them.” What comes between the two thinkers is Jung’s willingness to embrace unscientific approaches in his psychology, whereas Freud held firm that only proven science was acceptable. I suspect that Freud’s adherence to science is the product of his Jewish heritage and a constant life-battle to be accepted.

Had this film, directed by David Cronenberg, not been about historical figures, based on historical facts, it could easily have fallen into cliché. But because this figures are so important, it adds a dimension to the film that only films “based on true events” can.

A little about the actors: As someone who is not a Freudian, I appreciated Viggo Mortenson’s portrayal of Freud. He made him human. Authentic. Kiera Knightly offered one of her best portrayals, and I would be disappointed if she didn’t get some nod from the award circuit. Occasionally “Kiera Knightly” leaked through her characterization, but she was able to bring Spielrein to life. Spielrien, it should be noted, was sent to university by Jung as part of her treatment. In an era when women were discouraged from going to school, she wanted to be a doctor and became a contributor to psychoanalysis in her own right. I can only imagine that if she had survived World War II, her contributions to the field would have greatly influenced psychology. And there’s Michael Fassbender as Jung. I’m not too familiar with Fassbender as an actor, but I did enjoy his performance in Jane Eyre. His portrayal of Jung captures Jung’s introverted awkwardness, his curiosity, and his internal struggles with his theories and his passions. In short, he came across less like the arrogant jerk I interpreted him to be in MDR, and more human.

This film is based on a play, “The Talking Cure” and a book, A Most Dangerous Game. It is interesting to note that in the acknowledgments at the end of the film, the Freud archives are thanked, but nothing with Jung.

I think that this film is a valuable contribution to the study of Jung. It makes the suggestion that Spielrein influenced his theories, especially the animus/anima, which I understand may not be wholly accurate, but we can forgive a little Hollywood license. The film is reverential in nature, not critical, but it does allow you, the viewer, to be the judge. There is some S&M sex in there, but it is portrayed discreetly. From the advertisements about S&M, I was half expecting this film to be comparable to Eyes Wide Shut. Jung and psychology are the focus, not the sex. We are even given hints that the sex is what fueled Jung’s theories to go in directions away from Freud and his sexual theories.

One last note, the film ends on the eve of World War I. In the obligatory “what happened next” notes at the end of the film, we are informed that Freud died from cancer after being forced out of Austria by the Nazis. Spielrein worked as a psychologist for Communist Russia, but died a widow, assassinated by Nazis in the war (she was Jewish). Jung lived a full life, died peacefully, outliving his wife, Emma Jung, and mistress, Toni Wolff. The note makes reference to his nervous breakdown in World War I, which is hinted by the end of the movie. This nervous breakdown, we know, sparked Jung’s theories into new directions.

Copyrighting our Dreams

Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman among other wonderful stories that make Jungians giddy with excitement, posted a link to this blog post yesterday that considers the significance of some elements in The Kindly Ones from the Sandman. The author, Matthew Cheney, concludes his post with this observation:

People have made the case that television and movies and comic books are our contemporary myths, that popular mass culture provides our societies with the sort of sustenance provided to ancient societies by their stories. I am not experienced enough with myths and legends, either themselves or their histories, to venture an opinion on whether this is so, but certainly we cannot deny the effect of all the various media on our imaginations. From childhood on, we dream through Bugs Bunny and Harry Potter, we visit the shrine of Disneyworld, we chronicle the legendary exploits of celebrities through tabloids and TMZ.

Neil Gaiman is especially aware of this, as not only The Sandman but many of his writings, especially American Gods, show. What becomes of old gods, old beliefs, old myths? Where do they go when no-one is left to believe in them, when they are forgotten?

I’m not sure if that’s the direction The Sandman is taking, but its mélange of comic book culture and thousands of years of human belief and storytelling implies the question.

What happens when all our dreams get copyrighted? When belief is little more than an accumulation of Twitter stats? Should Dream get a Facebook page?

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, then you know that I fully agree with the first part of this observation. Popular culture is the transmission of cultural mythology, and has been since the dawn of history. An important distinction, however, should be made here: “popular culture” has come to refer to the aspects of culture that are popular or embody the post-modernist pop style, but “popular culture” has long meant the aspects of culture that are distinct from either the culture of the elite (“high culture”) or religious bodies (“sacred culture”). I also contend that since ancient cultures did not distinguish between these aspects of culture, it is an error to treat their mythologies as more sacred, real or correct than today’s popular culture. I’m not going to spend my time arguing that the separation of culture is a product of our history, blah blah blah, but I would argue that we in America have swung the cultural pendulum into the popular realm, not to diminish the high or sacred culture, but to emphasize that a large portion of American myth is now transmitted through popular culture. To understand what is going on with our cultural mythos, one only needs to turn on the television (which reflects what Cheney was discussing in his post).

He concludes with that fabulously juicy question: “What happens when all our dreams get copyrighted?” In the context of his post, “dream” has a double meaning, since the Sandman centers around Dream, or the “god” of dream. (One of my post-doc blog projects is to blog my way through the Sandman; the stories are so rich!)

Anyway, this question is a valid question to ask. With the boom of the Internet, fan culture has gone in new, creative directions. Fan culture has long been influenced by popular culture, but the Internet revealed that those who write fan fiction or produce fan art are not alone, creating a community of people who are in copyright violation. Some companies have tired to shut down fan expressions, whereas some have reached a compromise seeing the fan community as potential free marketing (which worked well for Harry Potter).

I haven’t surveyed people about their dreams, but I have chatted with fans. That the myths of popular culture are so potent that people feel the need to create their own versions of it (iconography) suggests that they are speaking to some unconscious level, likely tapping into the stuff that dreams are made of. Indeed, I can testify to having Disney dreams when I sleep at night, and feeling a strong connection to the Disney mythos when I am awake – this is how dreams work. I do wonder what happens when our dream imagery is tied so firmly with established stories (I call them “prefabricated mythologies”). Given the number of regurgitated story motifs, I’d say that there is some creative stagnation, but then I wonder if this is part of the transition and the dying of the old ways.

I understand and respect copyright laws. They protect the interests of the company and/or the artist, but these laws also entitle these entities to a certain amount of control over the people. In the apocalyptic scenario, copyrighted dreams will eventually lead to the shut-down of creativity, which also leads to the shut-down of the people. I doubt it will go that direction, because human nature is human nature, and humans are inherently creative.

Reflections: Hello 2012!

I was able to finish 2011 on a positive note. My dissertation is completely drafted and in the hands of my chair. Now begins those agonizing few weeks of waiting to see if my draft will be approved. My conclusion opened a few conceptual doors for me, and I’m a little nervous that my chair is going to ask me to flesh out that tiny chapter. Since we’re entering 2012, the popularly declared year of the apocalypse, the question of mythic change is becoming ever important, especially for American culture. The growing problem is a conflict between America’s nostalgic utopianism and the realization that this dream really isn’t sustainable. Whether you want to blame is conflict on capitalism, democrats, feminists, Communists (etc.) is immaterial. All groups and “-isms” are pawns in this transition.

America has been in transition easily since the end of World War Ii. While there were plenty of events in the first half of the 20th century that shook the foundations of American myth, World War II marked a major tipping point. The world was brought under a global banner for the first real time in human history, the world population grew to the highest proportions known, and war technology reached a destructive peak. It’s no accident that the Cold War years were filled with fear, paranoia, youth rallies, civil rights, and the shift from homogeneity to diversity. Nor is it any accident that as the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War officially came to an end that Americans turned those same issues into updated versions under the banner of Terrorism. As our fear is projected onto matters more and more elusive, culture becomes unstable.

So I do not believe that the world is going to end in 12 months, but something is going to have to change. My inner hippie would like to see the change come without violence, but this probably won’t happen if what the media reports is true. 2011 revealed that this transition is a global event, and this is the message of Walt DIsney’s Cold War myth: It’s a Small World. Those four words have probably already evoked the theme song and it will be stuck in your head all day. But consider this as you hum this catchy tune: It’s a Small World reminds us that we are all fundamentally the same. It’s okay to embrace cultural differences, but not to overlook humanity.