Monday, February 09, 2009

The Secret Life of Movies (Schizo Cinema)

Here's an interview I did for the upcoming book.

What prompted you to write The Secret Life of Movies?

I started the book back in 2000, and I wanted to write a follow up to The Blood Poets, which was about savagery and violence in American movies. The reason I wrote about violence was simple: I wanted a thesis that would include all my favorite movies, and I soon realized that the common thread running through them was violence, destruction. As I set about writing the book, I found out a lot about why I liked certain movies, and about the basic appeal of vicariously experiencing, via movies, things we would otherwise be careful to avoid in real life. If you narrowed it down to one thing, it would be “intensity.” Movies provide the kind of intensity which we would only experience in real life if we were in crisis, when such experiences tend to be traumatic; but in movies, as in Greek tragedy, they are potentially cathartic. During the process of writing The Blood Poets, then, I discovered a lot about the movies I liked and why I liked them, and therefore about my own psyche. These were movies I had seen many times, and in the process of writing about them, looking for ways to develop my thesis, it opened up a Pandora’s Box. I found out that, by writing about movies, I was able to go into realms of the psyche and of society that I normally wouldn’t have gone into. This gave me a clue: movies were like windows onto the collective psyche. The things I liked about movies at a conscious level were a lot less revealing than what appealed to me at an unconscious level.

That gave me the idea of the occult text. A lot of movies seem to be about fictional scenarios, but actually they are archetypal. Like myths, they allow us to uncover and map areas of the psyche that are otherwise hidden from us. If we scratch the surface of a sci-fi movie or a horror movie, for example, we find that they are using the same archetypes as ancient myths, and that they serve as a kind of psychological blueprint. But movies are unlike myths, in the sense that they are superficially much more sophisticated, more “realistic.” Even sci-fi or horror movies are more realistic than ancient myths, which often aren’t populated by human beings at all, and which are full of impossible possibilities. Even fantasy movies attempt to be realistic, and when they aren’t they are either considered to be kids’ movies or just bad ones. The realism of popular entertainment means that the mythic function of movies is more hidden, it gets suppressed through the process of conceiving and making the movie, to the point that even the filmmakers usually aren’t aware of it. Mythmakers were generally aware of what they were doing, of giving coded information in the form of a narrative so that the average person could enjoy the story, while “initiates” could read it in a more abstract way, as a mythic blueprint. But movies are different.

Movies are like myths at a different stage in our society, a stage when we are more ego-developed beings, when we have a sense of identity that is more rigid, and so our sense of reality is also more rigid. So we require our myths to be more realistic as well. We have disconnected from our subconscious, basically, and so movies have to be more covert in their mythic unfolding. It was only by analyzing movies for The Blood Poets that I found out about this occult text. It intrigued me, because it was like movies themselves had an unconscious. The filmmakers obviously had an unconscious, but unlike mythmakers they were not working from it—to some extent, perhaps, but not entirely. They might be aware of the subtext or they might not, but even if they were aware of it, there would be a still deeper subtext, and that was where the real juice was. Essentially, I was drawn then to look at movies not only that had hidden texts (all movies do), but that dealt with the unconscious in an overt fashion, and with the conflict between the conscious and unconscious mind of the protagonist. That drew me naturally to the idea of madness, and specifically schizophrenia: the idea that there could be a conflict between one’s perception of self and one’s reality, between what one consciously believed was real and what one unconsciously felt was true. Schizophrenia is to do with a splitting of the self from the environment, so that the self doesn’t feel a part of environment. You could even say that the more the ego develops, the deeper schizophrenia becomes; in which case, those diagnosed as schizophrenics and who experience a loss of identity are in a sense less schizophrenic than the rest of us—because they are more acutely aware of their condition. As I looked into the subject more, or rather as I was writing about it, I realized that this state paralleled the act of watching a movie itself: a disconnection from the reality we are seeing (on the screen), as well as from our immediate environment (the theater or living room). That’s the pleasure of movies – to be emotionally involved in a surrogate reality without having to take part in it. So the pleasure of movies—and the reason violent or tragic movies are often cathartic— relates to the schizophrenic nature of watching movies, the possibility of observing our environment without being a part of it. This is the schizophrenic experience: through the act of watching movies, one ceases to exist as a self. 

Isn’t there a mystic tradition similar to this idea, that of dissociating from objective experience to view one’s life from the outside, i.e., “as a movie”?

That was also what I was looking for, the shamanic dimension of movies, that they shape our perception, which is a shamanic method. And also the parallels between schizophrenia and experiences of other realities. This idea brings it back to myth again, to ancient myths. They all tie in. The violence in a sense related to the symptoms: in Blood Poets, I was analyzing the symptoms and following them to the condition, which led me to a diagnosis, that of schizophrenia, the cut-off of the mind/identity from the physical world, which is schizophrenia in its most basic form. You could say that, having described the symptoms, I wanted to describe the condition itself, and even if possible to find a cure. That became The Secret Life of Movies. It was an attempt to use movies more deliberately, as a way to diagnose a culture. Movies are made by a collective of individuals to meet the demands of a whole population, so what we are seeing is not informed by an individual’s unconscious but by the collective unconscious. Movies are being shaped by collective dreams through the plastic medium of film. They are a shamanic tool that’s being used unconsciously, at least at this time. (There are cases where this tool is being used consciously, films like The Matrix or Fight Club that actually become shamanic experiences because the unconscious and conscious minds of the filmmakers are working together, and so text and subtext are intertwined rather than at odds.) What writing this book entailed, then, was allowing movies their occult function as collective dreams, dreams that, if analyzed, provide information in symbolic form as to the condition of society and of the species. It’s rather like taking a blood sample, a psychic blood sample from the collective unconscious. By looking at movies, we can find out what condition the system, our culture and society, is in. 

So your book presumably draws on the work of Carl Jung?

Not directly no, but it’s certainly informed by it. Jung was a psychologist as a shaman, or vice versa. He entered the field of psychology realizing that it was actually the same field that shamans had worked in for thousands of years. Psychology is a science in that it follows and maps principals, conditions, that to a certain extend are empirical, universal. The shadow, the anima and animus, and suchlike, these are principals that apply to absolutely everyone on the planet, so far as we know at least. So it’s a science, and it can be used like a science; but since it’s the science of the psyche, it’s not a hard science but a soft one. It requires imagination and creativity, both to understand and to apply it. Jung was an alchemist who described his practices in the terms of a budding new science called psychology. 

So although the basic idea of this book can be compared to psychology and dream analysis, that’s really just a way to update it into terms the modern, rational person can understand. A more primitive or “superstitious” mindset could understand this book’s premise more easily, since the “superstitious” mindset is also more open to the realities of the psyche, for example, to the idea that our whole culture could be a sort of collective dream, “the imagination of God,” say, or the perspective of an animistic universe, a living conscious system. These ideas are acceptable to a primitive understanding without resorting to psychological terms. Within that frame of reference, then, what I’m doing predates psychology: it’s a form of scrying, based on the understanding that nothing in nature is random. Whether it’s goat’s entrails, tea leaves floating in a cup, an egg in a glass of water, or whatever, the patterns these things create is a coded language that can be deciphered, according to the present moment, to find out whatever the shaman wants to find out. This is what myths are, except that myths are consciously designed in this way by sorcerers or shamans so that others of their kind will recognize them. Movies are both less and more pure than that. Being shaped by the unconscious makes them more pure, but they are also being shaped by conscious agendas of commerce, propaganda, popular taste, and so forth, agendas which overlay the work, rather like a person who edits their dreams to make them more “wholesome” or entertaining. Movies have been heavily edited and filtered, but the basic components still come from the unconscious , because everything does. So as long as you can sift through the noise and get to the signal, you can still use them to diagnose; and even the noise can be diagnosed, too, because we can see the ways in which we are blocking out our unconscious.

So in writing this book you are acting in the manner of a contemporary shaman?

Well, it’s an armchair shaman, isn’t it, because I’m just watching movies and writing books. So far as I apply what I write to my own life, that would be shamanic.

But presumably one of the functions of the shaman is to steer the community into healthier, more integrated directions?

I don’t know if that’s one of their functions. Shamans tend to live on the outskirts of town and work one-on-one with sick people. I don’t think they tend to go and preach to the community. They might give them guidance if there was a catastrophe or some such, but I think that they are generally marginalized even by the culture that depends on them for healing. I would say that they only have the influence that you are referring to when people are desperate enough to actively seek them out, and the same probably applies to what I’m doing.

So how do you prevent your subjective perception of films from interfering with your objective analysis of the culture?

I don’t. The more wholly subjective you can be, the more objective you are.

That seems counter-intuitive.

It’s counter-rational, perhaps, but not counter-intuitive. But it would be impossible to explain rationally without going into shamanic terms, or at least Jungian psychology, which academics are not generally open to.

But surely filmmakers are?

Some of them perhaps. If you think of a collective unconscious, by definition it is shared, so that means our own unconscious is part of the collective. So anything that communicates from the unconscious, even though in the process of writing a book or making a film it passes through the conscious mind and is shaped by it, it is still sourced in the collective unconscious. This means it has a dimension, an under layer, of universal or so-called “objective” reality. So if we allow ourselves to be fully in our subjective experience, both of reality and of ourselves, then we are not blocking it to the same extent with futile attempts to be “objective.” We are dropping into the unconscious state, and so objectifying the subjective, as it were. By allowing our subjective experience of conscious reality to deepen, we are allowing it to overlap with our unconscious, which is collectively subjective, let’s say, and therefore is “objective.”

Like a herd of cats?

There’s no such thing as a herd of cats.


Yes, well. The idea is to surrender one’s subjective point of view rather than surrendering to it. But to surrender it, you have to surrender to it first of all. But it must be consciously. If it's done unconsciously, it leads to ego inflation. Consciously surrendering to the subjective experience is alchemy, Jung’s individuation, which is recognizing that one’s conscious mind is only a small, superficial aspect of one’s whole psyche. If you consciously surrender to your subjective view of things, it’s like going into dream while awake, like lucid dreaming. In ordinary dreams, you forget you are dreaming and your dream takes over, your whole environment becomes you and you become your environment, there’s no split-off. Again, it’s schizophrenia, loss of self. In lucid dreaming, you enter your environment consciously so you are aware there’s a separation, and yet it’s not like ordinary consensus because you are aware that you are creating your reality. At that point, you can take responsibility for it and start to read the images, the symbols of your dream life, and to use them alchemically, for individuation. If you are unconsciously surrendering, then you don’t have that option.

So what you’ve done is you’ve viewed these films in the manner of lucid dreaming?

Well, the dreams are somebody else’s dreams, so I can’t do that. I view the films as a Jungian analyst would listen to a patient’s dreams. The lucid dreaming element comes in when I am using the information of these collective dreams—the movies— in my own daily life.

So if you continue on this course, ultimately you will arrive at a project that would be more or less incomprehensible to the rational mind?

Like James Joyce? I hope not. (pause) Life as theatre is the end to which we are evolving, at which point we would become playwrights and play actors and directors in our own lives, alchemists. We will become that, we will turn ourselves into fiction. It’s inevitable. We will eventually allow ourselves to realize ourselves as narratives, seeing as that is what we already are, and cease to cling to the illusion of being a leading player in the narrative. It’s a paradox, but by insisting on being the lead player, we become puppets. By allowing ourselves to become the story, we can attain a level of surrender and begin co-authoring our stories. In our present culture, this is a religious or mystical perspective, and hasn’t evolved into one that is scientific or shamanic, and therefore practicable. It can only be talked about under the rather flimsy guise of “faith.” 

We are stories, that’s all we are. Every narrative that we are not surrendered to as a co-creator, that hasn’t been specifically shaped by our perception, or that hasn’t shaped who we are from birth, all of these narratives must be discarded. That means every narrative save our own. Everything that has come from elsewhere, our social, cultural, racial and religious conditioning, is just crust, other people’s imposed narratives. Unless we can turn these other narratives into an element of our own narrative, an integral part of it just as our mother and father are an integral part of it, unless we can live the truth rather than simply pay lip service to it, these external narratives are all equally worthless to us. 

© Michelle Fornasier

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Sex, War, and TV Advertising

Part One of an excerpt from The Blood Poets, Chapter 6, "Crime & Censorship," about the Cronenberg film Videodrome. (Just to keep this blog happening, while i organize the next project--watch this space!)

Sex and death have commingled—one inseparable impulse. Risk feeds sensation—sensation makes risk acceptable. We’re headed towards . . . something we’d perhaps do better to avoid.
—Frank Black, in the understatement of the “Millennium”

 In his essay, “Hollywood’s Four Big Lies,”29 Michael Medved cites “Epidemiologist Brando Centerwall of the University of Washington,” and his “exhaustive studies for the American Medical Association,” which assert that “without TV there would be 10,000 fewer murders per year in the U.S., 70,000 fewer rapes and 700,000 fewer assaults.” Medved is an old-style hysteria-monger with little respect for the finer points of debate, but I am personally inclined to accept the implications of these figures (if not the figures themselves, which are obviously impossible to gauge). The basic claim seems perfectly feasible to me, if not actually certain. The statement states, however, “without TV,” and not “without TV violence,” and my inclination—or intuition—is to accept that TV itself, as a psychological tool for social control, has a profound effect upon the individual, and on society at large. It may be, then, that part of this effect includes an augmentation of aggressive behaviour and antisocial activity (in a word, violence). As to whether a “Faces of Death” documentary, an episode of “Millennium,” or a thirty-second commercial for Budweiser is more or less responsible for this “effect,” that is something that is more open to question. My feeling is that TV itself—simply by being switched on (but most especially when the material emitted is by nature numbing, repetitive, and of such a low standard of intelligence and artistry that it serves as little more than an insult to the individual)—creates in the viewer a kind of funk, a trancelike state, which in turn makes him or her susceptible to all kinds of conditioning; such conditioning may include conditioning towards aggressive or violent behavior. Hence, scenes of murder, rape, mutilation etc, may indeed have a harmful effect upon the TV viewer, but only because they are part of a general conditioning process performed by television itself. 

 It seems to me that viewing violence, per se, even the crude, exploitative violence of TV shows or Hollywood action pictures, does not actually cause the viewer to become worked up or in any way more aggressive. On the contrary, it is likely to serve vicariously as a release or outlet for his or her feelings of anger and aggression.30 On the other hand, asinine commercials that deliberately arouse the viewer’s sexual desires simply in order to sell some worthless product or another, simultaneously frustrate these desires (after all we can’t, like Max Renn in Videodrome, fuck the TV) while causing the viewer to feel inadequate or impotent for lacking the various products that would make us attractive to the opposite sex. All this I think is almost bound to have a negative effect upon the viewer. Feelings of frustration, resentment, contempt, hostility, and outright rage, are likely to be aroused in us for being so ruthlessly and cynically manipulated. If this viewer is then bombarded with images of rape and torture and what-have-you, then it becomes altogether less fanciful to imagine that he might just (if already somewhat inclined in this direction) put two and two together and come up with five, begin to get “ideas”—ideas that, like poor Max’s “hallucinations,” do not originate in his own head. 

 Joseph Natoli writes—in his study of postmodernism and the movies Speeding to the Millennium (p. 96)—how, “in a culture working hard to link personal identity with consumption, people will enact this connection by any means, fair or foul.” He argues that, seeing as the greater part of the populace is, and must be, incapable of attaining the consumer dream dangled under their noses, at least a portion of them will inevitably resort to any means at all to make a grab for their rightful piece of the pie. “Frustrated, with violence looming, an anger sets in that is itself without mind. . . That undiagnosed anger . . . is there to be directed, to be given a ‘mind.’. . . Under this light, we are all distracted to the staging of nightmares of depravity.”
 With slightly less of an alarmist tone, over thirty years earlier, Norman Mailer discussed the subject with Playboy magazine (December 1961, “Petty Notes on Some Sex in America”):

There’s a subterranean impetus towards pornography so powerful that half the business word is juiced by the sort of half sex that one finds in advertisements. . . . I think this bad “art” that one gets in the mass media, on television, in the movies, does the nation far more harm than if one were to remove all controls from pornogrpahy and obscenity. Being half excited and half frustrated leads to violence. Whenever one is aroused sexually and doesn’t find a consummation, the sex in one’s veins turns literally to violence. 

 The links between sex and violence have been more or less established I think, and anyone who has ever lived in a big city knows that late Saturday night is not generally a good time to be out and about on your own. Drunken kids coming home without a “score” will express their libidinous frustration any way they can, and violence, in such circumtances, is clearly an “alternative” means of expression to sex. If pornography—and especially soft-porn advertising—arouses primal desires (latent energy) in young men who have no way to satisfy these desires, then there’s a good chance this latent energy will find some other way of getting out. So, it stands to reason that excess exposure to pornography, and to sexually provocative imagery in advertising and the like, without the corresponding outlet being available, can only engender sexual frustration. And in the era of AIDS the gulf between demand and supply is growing ever wider: You can look but you can’t touch is the message on the hot lips of most every “babe” whose luscious form adorns subway walls and billboards throughout the urban world. All this false stimulation leads inevitably to an excess of undirected, hence frustrated, male sexual energy. And what do you do with all that energy? You go to war. 

 All this is of course an unpardonable diversion from the basic point, which is that certain imagery has a powerful capacity to invoke emotions in the viewer, and that once these emotions are invoked, subsequent imagery might serve to direct the release of these emotions (and they will be released: one way or another boiling water has to let off steam). And although it’s far-fetched to say that this movie or that TV show caused that crime or this tragedy, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest that TV in general, and a large majority of factory-line movies—is of such execrably low quality that it does invoke a feeling of anger and disgust in the public, however unconscious such feelings may be. This disgust and contempt and unacknowledged hostility may even be directly (if only partially) related to the ever-increasing demand for more screen violence, such violence being the only way to satisfy—or release—this growing sense of hostility against the medium itself. 

 Everybody knows that TV is addictive; few people bother to ask just why, considering that it is also practically unwatchable. Obviously the standard of TV programs has nothing to do with their popularity—it’s not the programs that are addictive (even people who watch a lot of TV will often admit to feeling contempt it), it is the act of watching itself that somehow hooks us. The reason is—I believe—that TV quite literally casts a kind of spell upon us.33 And if watching television (and, to a lesser extent, movies) is roughly equivalent to falling into a hypnotic trance, it begins to make a scary kind of sense—TV is the ultimate drug (or penultimate perhaps, with virtual reality just around the corner) to which we are all hooked. It sucks us into its world and makes us forget about everything else outside it, and as such, TV (as Gus van Sant’s To Die For satirizes) has indeed become a new kind of reality for us. And in the world of TV, which is after all a make-believe world (not myth- but kitsch-making)—anything goes. Sensation is the only real requisite, and even there the sensation doesn’t necessarily have to be ours: if the laughtrack is loud enough, we may not even notice that we’re not laughing ourselves (or else, we laugh despite ourselves, even though nothing funny is going on). If TV tells us rape and mutilation is “cool,” the latest thing—hell, that’s OK! It’s only entertainment. Our responses are becoming as much a part of the “package” as everything else; we’re lost on a laugh-track, running on an infinity loop to nowhere. So when Max Renn gets hooked on the snuff torture movies coming out of his TV set, he’s no different from the rest of us. He’s curious to know where they’re coming from, sure, but only so he can buy shares in the business. He is ready and eager to be seduced, because the TV he’s been getting just can’t cut it for him anymore—he needs a new sensation: we all need a new sensation. “Millennium” has answered this demand to some extent, just as “Twin Peaks” did before it, and “The X-Files,” but the thing about sensation for sensation’s sake—it’s a desensitizing process. We need always a little more just to feel anything at all.

 Max Renn is too jaded to question the moral implications of what he’s getting into—he knows he’s going too deep, but he doesn’t care. Humanity’s lost its allure anyhow, so he doesn’t really have anything else to lose. And when “the new flesh” takes over (and he becomes an organic video recorder), it’s like reverse possession—the machine is in the beast, and a new race of TV babies is already in the can. It might be something we’d have done better to avoid.