The Visionary Movie: A Manifesto
Over the past forty years the dominant art form in America has shifted from the novel to the movie. Yet for the most part, the movie–and the popular movie, in particular–is not addressed with the same level of critical analysis as the novel. The purpose of this site is to remedy that lack.
As the Russian literary theorist Bakhtin noted, the novel is the youngest of all literary media, the only literary form, in fact, that has arisen within the context of literate civilization, for all the others–the epic, the lyric and the dramatic–are pre-literate in origin. If we take a moment to survey the evolution of Western literature, it becomes evident that each of its literary media have evolved through a three-phase cycle of formative, dominant and climactic stages. Pausing here to survey this overall evolution will give us a larger sense of perspective within which to characterize the place of cinema as a medium that has evolved out of the Western literary tradition.
First, a glance at the three phases of the Northern European Epic (as opposed to the Classical Hellenic): the formative phase is that of the great anonymous works like the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, The Song of Roland or the Icelandic Sagas. These works express the voices of entire peoples, the very tribes who will later manifest their characteristic worldviews as European nation states. Then, with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins the dominant phase in which, not nation states, but learned individuals will begin to articulate their idiosyncratic cosmologies. Dante’s opus, for example, is a synthesis of Christian, Islamic and Hellenic styles of thought, the product of eclectic twelfth century Spain displaced to Italy. This Italian phase of the epic is simultaneously beginning and end, however, for Dante’s work completes the early Medieval phase of the European epic and begins that of the great Italian epics, for after him comes Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato , Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered . Then, with Spenser’s Faerie Queene at the end of the sixteenth century and Milton’s Paradise Lost at the end of the seventeenth, the epic achieves its final, climactic phase, in which the Christian and Arthurian cosmologies could be developed no further, for the conditions of society had, by the seventeenth century, changed to such a degree that the environment which had made the Medieval epic possible had vanished. As Ortega y Gassett has shown, the maturation of Western science put an end to the epic ecology of dragons and wizards, giants and trolls (not to be resumed until Tolkien, centuries later, almost single-handedly invents the genre of fantasy literature by returning to the Medieval world through a pretence that the scientific achievements of the intervening centuries never happened).
A new, formative phase of another literary medium had by then already begun, namely that of the novel, for Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel , Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Tirant Lo Blanc and Lazarillo de Tormes are all annunciations of the death of the Epic, for the ancient, dragon-slaying hero was no longer plausible in a world governed by the inorganic forces of Newtonian equations and the laws of falling bodies. Henceforth, with Rabelais and Cervantes, the epic cavalier becomes the object of mockery and ridicule, displaced by the new hero emerging out of the formative phase of the novel’s second great cycle (its invention during Hellenistic times being the first). The new hero is no longer a character out of myth and legend, but a real three-dimensional human protagonist created out of the spirit of Spanish and French satire and refined by Eigtheenth Century English journalists.
So, just as the Epic was a product of an Iron Age based upon swords and sorcery, and the novel of an Industrial Society in which the territorial nation state wed to capitalism was the primary economic modality, so now, the cinema has arisen in a post-capitalist Electronic Society in which mythic forms catalyze the shapes of information overload into a new tribal tectonic rhythm. And just as the novel emerged as a pop art form during ancient Hellenistic civilization, and then again in the Carnival atmosphere of the sixteenth century, so too, the cinema has its origins in the nineteenth century popular culture of France, where it emerged out of the very same Megalopolitan milieu that gave rise to the panorama, photography, the arcades and the department store. Cinema is, therefore, like the novel–in origin, at least–born out of the atmosphere of Carnival culture, of festivals and circuses, of the country fair and the P.T. Barnum-type spectacle. The novel, by contrast, at the moment of its climactic phase–i.e. the period of Joyce, Mann, Musil and Proust–was so far removed from this carnival world that the very idea of the Modernist novel is synonymous with unreadability.
Movies, unlike the novel–at least up until the nineteenth century, when contact with the new media of the newspaper and the telegraph caused it to explode into a panoply of genre fiction–have always been polygeneric; they have functioned, in other words, as a kind of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk capable of drawing upon and including all the other arts. Painting, theater, the novel, poetry, photography, music: all have been pulled into the shambling gravitation of its multi-media orbit. In terms, furthermore, of whether the emphasis of the material that it digests has been either more highbrow or lowbrow, the history of the medium has tended to be schizophrenically split between two camps. The first, that of elite high culture, sees cinema as “film,” which implies a realist aesthetic in which film is seen as carrying on the realist drama that began with Buchner, Hebbel and Ibsen and continued with Shaw, Strindberg, and Hauptmann. In contrast to this idea of cinema as “film,” we at Cinema Discourse are focused more on the second camp, that which popular culture calls “movies.” Thus, it is the “Visionary” movie, in contrast to “realist” films, that we regard as the vehicle for the artistic sensibility of our time.
At the dawn of cinema these two tendencies were already evident in the split between the brothers Lumiere and George Melies, for whereas the former concerned themselves with realist spectacles such as the arrival of a train at a station or people sitting around playing cards, Melies invented the special effect as a tool by means of which he was able to render spaceships, robots and dragons in a way that would be convincing, at least, to the average theater goer.
It was precisely Melies’s concern with what we refer to as the “Visionary” tendency in cinema–its Carnival cultural residue–to be the true and proper use of the medium. In this sense, film is closer to the spirit of the delighted rabble depicted watching The Magic Flute in Milos Forman’s Amadeus , than to the stiff-necked upper classes shown patronizing The Marriage of Figaro. For it is in the Visionary modality that myth functions as the telescope for viewing into the deepest reaches of the human soul, ironically transforming the movie camera from a mere optical device for recording consensus reality to a pulsing organic machine capable of peering with its intrusive Eye into our dreaming skulls.
Lord of the Rings was the first Visionary movie to win Best Picture, and perhaps this signifies a benchmark in the history of cinema, demarcating the point at which realism begins to fade back into the industrial flotsam of the nineteenth century which gave rise to it, while the Visionary mode–the mode of directors as diverse as Andrei Tarkovsky, David Lynch, Tim Burton or Francis Ford Coppola–will flourish and develop. In terms of our three-stage development of formative, dominant and climactic, we may say that the cinema, especially since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, has entered the period of its dominant phase as a mature art form. For whether we are discoursing on the latest film by Steven Spielberg, Werner Herzog, or David Cronenberg, we are but occupying that mental space pioneered by Plato in his cavern, in which myth becomes the favored instrument for illuminating the soul’s deepest, murkiest reservoirs.
Coda on Archetypes
This site distinguishes Visionary movies, for the most part, from both genre movies (westerns, noirs, spy thrillers, musicals, etc.) and realistic movies. The distinctions are not always black and white but more often a matter of degree, tone and emphasis, though Visionary movies are almost always concerned with myth in some way, even if the myths are covert, operating under the surface as deep structures organizing an apparently realist narrative, as in The Godfather or Cameron’s Titanic . The latter, for instance, is a replay of Tristan and Isolde, while The Godfather is a reworking of the myth of the death of the king and the transfer of his power to the son.
Here we are using the term “archetypal” in the sense in which it has been used traditionally in myth studies, as universal patterns that are manifest with local inflections through the guise of a particular culture, or in our case, a particular movie.
In his theory of mythology, Joseph Campbell refers to “elementary forms” and “ethnic forms,” or what we might call “archetypes” and their particular manifestations. We see a related approach by Carl Jung in his concept of archetypes. An example of this approach is found in comparative religious studies, in which an exemplar archetype might be that of the dying and resurrecting god, born miraculously and associated with an axis mundi. In concrete manifestation, this might be Christ for the Christians, Osiris for the Egyptians, Dumuzi for the Sumerians, Orpheus or Dionysus for the Greeks, Krishna for the Indians, or Quetzalcoatl for the Meso-Americans. Thus the archetype is a pattern that stands outside of time and culture, while its manifestation occurs within a given historical nexus.
While the Visionary movie privileges the archetypal point of view, the realistic film denies the archetypal, asserting that experience is either socially determined or random. The realistic movie can be very powerful in exploring the human response to fate, but it lacks the luminosity of the Visionary movie. The genre movie, incidentally, substitutes the formulaic for the archetypal, although, of course, Westerns and film noir are also loaded with archetypes, though they tend to be archetypes of a nature which are genre specific rather than universal.
Contemporary critical studies, with its poststructuralist viewpoint, takes Locke’s “tabula rasa” position and is profoundly anti-essentialist, vehemently denying transcendence and archetypal patterns in history, culture, and human nature. It is often the position of critical studies that mythological and archetypal patterns are fabricated by the Establishment in order to maintain its power. This nihilistic position makes it difficult for critical studies to address contemporary movies, which is perhaps why it seldom does so in a way that is accessible and useful for the average intelligent reader. Cinema Discourse attempts, through eschewing jargon and making use of plain English and good writing, to redress this lack.
Erik Syverson says
John David Ebert-
I’ve only recently become aware of your work and that of Wm. Irwin Thompson, but I must say that for me you two have become living beacons for my intellectual energies, which I hope to refine into some sort of career. Over the past year I’ve been researching grad schools in the humanities that offer interdisciplinary degrees, yet which are oriented more toward the perennial philosophy and the archetypes than post-structuralism and identity politics. Alas, I’ve not found many academic depts. that are not dominated by what you called “the nihilistic position” of the establishment. Any recommendations?
I noticed on your wikipedia entry it said you did some editing on a few J. Campbell titles after your BA, but it didn’t mention any further education. If you managed to garner the learning you’ve displayed in your numerous youtube lectures on visionary thinkers without capitulating to social forces by going to grad school, then I salute you!
Anyways, if you’ve taken the time to read this, then thank you very much, I really appreciate it. Although I may be wrong, it seems like a conspicuous absence on this site and your reviews of movies featured on youtube are the films of the Coen Bros. After reading your “Visionary Movies: A Manifesto,” it occurred to me that the Coens’ films could perhaps be interpreted as of the realist films representing high culture (as I referenced their work as “films” above, eg), as opposed to the more visionary “movies” that you guys write about here. Is this the case? And if so, my proposal for a piece would be a review of a movie or two of theirs that would argue otherwise.
Anyways, thanks for giving hope to me and the rest of the “masses”,
Helen Branton says
At 3am I woke up and felt a nudge to look at Spengler’s Decline of the West. I am home schooling my son and we are at around the 1500’s. As I have a personal feel of an echo for the time of the first world war I was fascinated with when Decline was written and published. So many brilliant people some who wrote about each other.
This morning I googled Steiner and Spengler and of course found your lectures. I have only watched the ones on Spengler and felt as though I had found a missing piece to a puzzle. Curiously I had not felt this since I read W. Irwin Thompson years twenty five years ago, which probably was a huge push to delving into Steiner more.
So I agree with Erik comments above.
My daughter, nearly 17, has just seen Inception and wants me to go and see it with her, she obviously wants to see in again and soon. As I was taken to the cinema and theatre with my parents as I child I have vivid memories of European, Indian and Russian film. My memory of 2001 being quite a strong memory of consciousness of myself the world and the ideas people have of the world. I was ten, having recently turned 50, I have felt an information overload even with my love of reading Steiner. I wonder if Inception is that moment for my daughter who is another generation and has not yet seen 2001, or the Matrix or Blade Runner.
I have a background in film, radio and media studies and recently began a Masters of Writing, which is quite academic in its specialisation. I keep hoping they have a hidden Goethean approach it giving insights and observations into different forms but I think this is just wishful thinking.
Your lectures and this site have shifted the axis significantly. Spengler in 30 minutes means I can approach an abridged version with some framework of understanding.
I hope to create a site about being or perhaps having been a bookseller in this time of change, (could someone explain how Book Depository sell some of their books at those prices). As I am about to move house again and my beloved books I know and sense these changes reflect so much more.
I thank you for your work and its accesibility. You work has pulled together threads not only the themes I am working with but the events around my life at this time.
Lovely when this happens and I in keeping with the coming phase I raise my eyes to the heavens in thanks, or perhaps that should the horizon of the Steeps of Russia.
kind regards to you and John Lobell for this site
John David Ebert says
Thanks, Helen, for your kind words. I’m always glad that my work has found its way toward being useful for someone.
Good luck on your studies.
Do you have precedents for your definition of the visionary as chiefly archetypal? Could you point us toward some contextualizing documents for this visionary modality? Because seems as though when I read critics who use the word “visionary” about a director, for instance, they most often mean “breaks with established or popular methods of narrative storytelling” a la “Synecdoche, New York” or “Metropolis.” It’s more “how” than the “what”, if devided the “plot” from its “filming/editing”.