Saturday, August 18, 2007

Film Review: Seraphim Falls

A Bewitching Western

I suppose like many others I have never really been a devotee of the Western genre of films except for those Spaghetti Westerns or any other such with good actors in them like Clint Eastwood. However, the recently released (here in Ireland that is) Seraphim Falls is a brilliant movie and a “must see” for all Western devotees and all good film lovers. I went to see this with my two friends and guests for the last week, Mathew Staunton and his wife Isa. We were all in agreement that this is indeed a splendid film. It keeps your interest the whole way through and you don’t feel the two hours passing.

This is film of epic dimensions magnificently filmed in the grand Western tradition. The cinematography is superb with bewitching scenes from the stunningly beautiful landscape of West Nevada, Oregon and New Mexico. It is a wildly beautiful and inhospitable land – I refer here, of course, to the cold and snowy mountain scenes and the later desert struggles of the two protagonists. It is also wonderful and unique I think that this Western features two marvellous international Irish actors, namely Liam Neeson (Carver in the film and the hunter) and Pierce Brosnan (Gideon in the film and the hunted). They are two enormous presences on the screen and bring this film to life with superb acting. For their acting alone this film is superb.

Unlike a lot of films in this genre, the script is superb and sparse. It was co-authored by Abbey Everett Jaques and David Von Ancken who was also its director. If you are a traditional fan of Westerns and are looking for shootouts and plots that can be boiled down to "good guys" and "bad guys" then you will be disappointed in Seraphim Falls. In fact like all good modern cinema (and indeed literature and drama) it subverts the expected tradition.

This film is a story about revenge. We are immediately introduced to the hunted (Brosnan) and the hunter (Neeson), the tracker and his quarry. However, the director does not allow us to know why exactly Carver is tracking Gideon. But, we know that Gideon must have done something horrific if Carver wishes to track him down. He has a single bullet in his jacket to remind him whom he must kill. However, the director calls the tracked or hunted man Gideon which is a Biblical name from a character who appears as a judge in The Book of Judges in the O.T. Gideon is also named in the Epistle to the Hebrews as an example of a man of faith. In this way we begin to wonder if our Gideon could really be that bad a person. However, the Biblical scholars among us will know that the name Gideon also means means "Destroyer", "Mighty warrior" or "Feller (of trees)".

On the other hand our hunter or tracker is called by his surname, Carver, which is distinctly non-Biblical. However, we see a stern, unmoving and indifferent side to Carver. We know he cannot be all that bad, as he is, after all, the hunter. However, there are traits in him we do not like – his coldness and indifference to the feelings of his paid fellow trackers, his shooting of an innocent horse leaving one of the trackers who deserts him in his quest to walk horseless to the nearest town which is miles away. Also Gideon is portrayed as friendly to the folk he comes upon in the mountain cabin. He treats both the young girl and the little boy well, pays for the horse which he takes, but is robbed during the night by the quiet little boy. Hence we have mixed feelings both towards the hunted and the hunter. Good and Bad or Good and Evil are not so clear in this film at all. I have commented on this as regards other films, especially as regards the just concluded series The Sopranos where we learn to like Tony even though we know he is a murderer. This is what I like about both modern cinema and modern novels - we are not presented with the traditional opposing forces of Good and Evil. Instead we get a mixing of both in almost every main protagonist or antagonist whom we meet through their media. This, as I have pointed out, is the subversion of accepted traditional principles.

A good film like a good novel or a good work of art should make the reader or viewer think. Seraphim Falls manages to do that. I liked especially the encounters both Gideon and Carver make with characters along the way. The encounter of Gideon with the cabin folk in the snowy mountain is realistically and tenderly portrayed. We see a tender side to our quarry and a mischievous side to the little boy. Then there are encounters with Irish and Chinese railroad builders, along with an interesting encounter with some bank robbers. These, we immediately see are selfish criminals, unlike Gideon who is neither selfish nor criminal. But what is his sin we ask? Yes he has sinned, as have we all if I may be permitted to sustain the metaphor. I won’t spoil the film by saying what has been the cause of Carver’s great anger against Gideon. However as the film goes on these encounters become more and more obscurely surreal; the final such encounter seems almost supernatural or fantastic.

Viewers will come to this film expecting a completely realist story; and that's what they seem to be getting at the beginning of the movie. You are not prepared for this realism to slowly and obscurely fall apart – and that may be the reason that the film creates such a powerful and somehow creepy experience by the end.

This is also a film about the “desert experience.” In symbolic terms, and equally in psychological terms, the pursuit through the desert is an outer portrayal of the inward struggle. We get the sense of both hunted and hunter being challenged by their consciences. It would seem that they each want to do the right thing. I’m reminded of T.S. Eliot’s powerful little play, Murder in the Cathedral where Tomas a Beckett says that he wishes to do the right thing for the right reason. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason, while good as regards its result, is certainly not healing for the actor’s (in this case the protagonist’s) soul. Hence we have two marvellous surreal meetings by two, that is both Gideon and Carver meet the native Indian philosopher at the watering hole – this is very Biblical indeed, undertones of Jesus at the well here. Then they both meet Madame Louise Fair, the woman peddling tonics for good health.

The words spoken by the Indian philosopher, called Water Man in the script, are Zen-like quotations. Take this one, for example:

“Go as you wish.
That which is yours will always return to you.
That which you take will always be taken from you.”

Here we get the sense of the wise old man,one of Jung's archetypes, which really is the outer symbol of the conscience of our two protagonists. Then we meet Madame Louise Fair which is itself a pun on Lu-ci-fer, Satan or the fallen angel. Immediately we are reminded of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert and his temptation by the Devil. The conscience of both men, therefore, is offered both a good resolution to their internal conflict and a bad resolution to their struggle. Here’s a brief quote from the interaction between Gideon and Madame Louise Fair, who is brilliantly played by Anjelica Huston:

Madame Louise Fair: Spoken like a true sinner.
Gideon: Well, hell, don't matter much out here.
Madame Louise Fair: Man's got to do what a man's got to do, right?

I was also bewitched by the offbeat missionaries on pilgrimage through these desert regions. They were almost too welcoming of the strangers into their midst. Their innocence and purity make you almost think they belong to a band of lunatic musicians with a peace agenda. However, they also know how to entertain their guests with song and music (Irish Traditional Music at that) as well as some whiskey if my memory serves me well. Here is some of the dialogue between Hayes and Carver in the pilgrims’ camp:

Hayes: Reckon we ought to camp somewheres else?
Carver: Afraid the word of God will spoil your digestion?
Hayes: I never was much for scripture.
Carver: Nothing to fear, Mr. Hayes. Them's just words. Ain't no God out here.

Yet again we have the inner debate that’s going on in these men’s minds – Is there or isn’t there a God? Is there a right and just action or is there not? Is revenge right? The simplicity and pacifism of the pilgrims seem to suggest that revenge is very wrong indeed. They welcome all and do not judge. However, Carver finds that these now not-so-innocent pilgrims have emptied their guns of ammunition while they slept, but to our surprise he puts his hand in his pocket and takes out the one bullet which he knows is enough to dispatch his quarry from this world.

Another quote from Carver early in this film is interesting, and goes thus: “Nobody can protect nobody in this world.” I am here reminded of that beautiful song by Christy Dignam, “How can I protect you in this crazy world?” Maybe the answer is that we have to try to protect ourselves and then attempt to protect the ones we love. The film seems to suggest that such a protection of our loved ones is well nigh impossible. Maybe the real theme of this film is humankind’s inevitable contingency and his inevitable mortality. I won’t give the ending away, except to say that the powerful performances of both actors make such an ending credible at least. Finally just a few words of advice: - while viewing pay attention to the theme of loss, and how various possessions of the characters are lost.

To my mind, I’d score this film 10 out of 10.

A Little More Mythology

Courting Campbell

In my last post I spoke about humankind’s basic need for order; it’s fundamental thrust towards meaning. Within this human drive, mythology presents a cohesion of symbols and values that works to our psychological and social wellbeing. Immediately I thought of three luminaries in the firmament of mythologies and symbolism, viz., Sir James G. Frazer (1854-1941) (The Golden Bough), Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), and, of course, that wonderful popularizer of these subjects, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). Looking through my shelves I found two books, the one mentioned above by Frazer and a recently bought (2000) copy of Joseph Campbell’s wonderful book Myths To Live By (Souvenir Press, 2000).

Needless to say I took Campbell down and began perusing and reading this marvellously passionate little volume. What struck me was his profound analysis of present day society. A poet friend of mine, Pádraig Daly, always contends that the reason there is so much destruction in modern society is because human beings are alienated from their own basic innate creative impulses. Campbell appears to be arguing along parallel lines with Pádraig, though his emphases are different.

Campbell argues cogently that all societies, not just marvellously evolved civilizations, need the cohesive powers of mythologies and symbols. He goes on to point out, with well-marshalled historical examples, that once symbols and taboos have been broken (iconoclasm) that shortly thereafter the society itself begins to crumble away and disappear. Again, Campbell writes like an angel. One could expect no less from such a passionately cultured scholar. I will quote here an extended piece from this scholar as I believe it is relevant to my thesis that mythology and story are essential not alone to the very fabric of society and civilization, but also necessary for our psychological wellbeing. Before quoting this passage I should like to point out that Campbell does not advocate the literal acceptance of symbols and mythology. Rather he accepts their metaphoric thrust to meaning and their sheer necessity to the positive mental health of all humankind.

“For not only has it always been the way of multitudes to interpret their symbols literally, but such literally read symbolic forms have always been – and still are, in fact – the supports of their civilizations, the supports of their moral orders, their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers. With the loss of them there follows uncertainty, and with uncertainty disequilibrium, since life, as both Nietzsche and Ibsen knew, requires life-supporting illusions; and where these have been dispelled, there is nothing secure to hold onto, no moral law, nothing firm. We have seen what has happened to, for example, primitive communities unsettled by the white man’s civilization. With their old taboos discredited, they immediately go to pieces, disintegrate, and become resorts of vice and disease.

Today the same thing is happening to us. With our old mythologically founded taboos unsettled by our own modern sciences, there is everywhere in the civilized world a rapidly rising incidence of vice and crime, mental disorders, suicides and dope addictions, shattered homes, impudent children, violence, murder, and despair.” (op.cit., pp. 10-11)

Such, then, is the price we may for own disregard of symbols and mythologies – more so, the above list of troubles represents not alone our disregard for, but our sheer contempt for and disrespect for the same. We shatter these mythologies at our peril. Of course, like Campbell, I am no flat-earthist, I am no long lost geocentrist, and I am no Luddite. I am not suggesting a literalist or fundamentalist understanding of these same symbols or even newly invented ones. What I am arguing for is a mature assimilation of the necessity of symbols and mythologies metaphorically and ritualistically to maintain our sanity in an increasingly insane and inhospitable world.

Above I have placed another image of Navan Fort, or Eamhain Macha, from my phone. This was taken last Tuesday also.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Mixing Our Myths

Our Need for Myth

I have long been convinced of humankind’s need for myth. Traditionally a myth (mythos) may be described a sacred story concerning the origins of the world or how the world and the creatures in it came to have their present form. Who has not heard of the Greek and Roman myths or even our very our Celtic and Gaelic myths? Anyone who has studied academic Theology and Scripture (as opposed to learning fundamentalist dogma or reading the Bible as a quarry for one’s already formed and hardened presuppositions and religious biases) will be aware of the mythology of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. These accounts, scholars have informed us, are further based on older Sumerian myths like those of Gilgamesh (who as a Sumerian king is supposed to have reigned about 2,700 B.C.) Obviously these myths are not meant to be taken literally – they tell a story, and as I have said in these posts already stories are important in the making and shaping of human identity and meaning.

One does not have to be either an Einstein or a brain surgeon to be aware of the innate thrust to meaning that lies at the heart of the human condition. Everything that we do is involved in this thrust. I’m sure I have alluded before in these pages to Vicktor Frankl’s marvellous little book, Man’s Search for Meaning which really is the foundational text upon which he was to base his own particular brand of psychotherapy called “logotherapy.” This particular therapy is based on each person’s unique desire to give meaning to his or her particular life. Frankl showed that such a desire for meaning can even be found and used in the most hellish and in the gravest of human predicaments like that of being an inmate in a concentration camp. He noticed that the strongest physically and even the most educated of the inmates would perish if only once they gave up on the quest for meaning. It was those strong individuals, not necessarily the strongest physically or intellectually, who had that resilience of spirit to persist in the pursuit of meaning even in the worst of all possible hells who lived to walk out of the camps.

Now back to the place of mythology in our own lives. We need to give order and meaning to our lives. In that way we make it livable and habitable. Without myths and stories we are only shells of human beings. Now, as I’ll explain later in these lines, I count science as partaking in the construction of new myths and new stories. A story or a myth is not a falsehood or a lie contrary to some sloppy modern thinking which some scientists and some humanists would have the credulous among us believe. The person who first uttered the words “once upon a time” set out upon the journey of the quest for meaning. What father or mother would refuse to tell their children bedtime stories? What father or mother, brother or sister, uncle or aunt is not captivated by a child’s sheer wonder and innocence of imagination? I’m a teacher and it’s often important when teaching children, and I mean children of all ages and I include myself in that, to create a story which will captivate the imagination of the audience, to make things come alive. If you are a literalist, of course such stories are false; of course such stories are lies. What you are lacking is a breadth of appreciation as to what truth is or can be. You are a thinker who thinks within too narrow a range of parameters.

Ans so to tell a story or to weave a myth is to tell, not a lie, but rather a different type of truth – in other words, you are giving another angle on the truth. I love the stories of the Creation Accounts in Genesis because I believe they are metaphorical and symbolic stories which seek to explain our universe. They tell a different type of truth but a truth nonetheless. The authors are saying to us readers, and to all his pre-scientific listeners that this is how our world came to be so full of innocent suffering etc. And to tell this deep human truth they made up a story. Now I admit that they probably believed in the literal truth of their story then. Most modern scripture scholars worth their salt don’t accept the literal truth of the Genesis stories now. The Bible is after all Good Literature and it is possible to be a believer and to hold this point of view as many do. Now I also love the story of the scientific origins of the universe, namely that of The Big Bang, the fact that whatever was there “originally” in that fascinatingly beautiful term, in that “primordial singularity”, that initial indescribable intensity that exploded outwards to form our ever-expanding universe and our little puny earth (which we have magnified out of all proportions – I might even say that we have done this by our propensity for myth-making or giving ourselves meaning!).

I have always loved popular science since my teens. Two of my favourite science books are Stardust (Penguin, 2000) and Almost Everyone’s Guide To Science (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998) by the brilliantly clear author John Gribbin. I simple fell head over heels in love with these books, not alone because of their content, but because of their lucid style. The first two lines of the first of these books read like the beginning of a myth or of a story, which indeed it is. These two lines are: “Life begins with the process of star formation. We are made of stardust.” (Op.cit., p.2) Sure, Gribbin is a great astrophysicist and a great astronomer, but he is also a great storyteller. Sure his knowledge is scientific and much indeed of that provable in the laboratory or by observation of the night skies, but there is also a fairly substantial body of science which is hypothetical still because either not yet proved conclusively or the individual theories have not yet been replaced with more comprehensive or more exact ones. Then there are basic scientific axioms, in virtue of being axioms, that must remain unproved. This I among many others call the scientific mythology. Man makes many mythologies e.g., religious mythology, literary mythology, psychological mythology and scientific mythology among many others. To say, therefore, that mythology partakes of falsehood is simply stupid. As an agnostic I do not know whether God exists or not, and actually could not really care less. I remember in my student days reading Russell who dismissed contemporary metaphysics as stupid and ridiculous and meaningless. I loved the way he put it and I quote from memory here. He said we may as well say we believe that there is a tea pot orbiting the moon (or was it the earth, I forget) as to say we believe in God. Okay, it’s a silly statement but a funny one I think. I’d like to tell a bedtime story based on this teapot to a very young child. It has promise as a story does it not? "Once upon a time there was a teapot, and a very handsome teapot he was, too!..." There’s a certain truth in this story – the truth of the possibilities of the human imagination, an artistic truth because we might be able to draw it etc. What I’m saying is that if I’m a literalist obviously the whole thing is ridiculous. I think the same applies to religions in my book. If you’re a literalist or fundamentalist the whole thing becomes as silly as a literal teapot orbiting the moon or earth.

Humankind needs myths and dreams. I remember reading in Storr yet again that the great professor Kekulé at the University of Ghent discovered the structure of the Benzene ring by dreaming of the symbol of the Uroborus, i.e., the snake eating its own tail. On one level this mythological symbol of creativity is meaningless in a fundamentalist scientific sense but in a broader creative context it is very meaningful indeed.

In short what I am arguing for here is against a literalist take on life and indeed against any fundamentalist take on life whether it be from the Religious Camp or from the Scientific Camp. We have come a long way since those famous debates about evolution between Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. In a rather scoffing tone, apparently, the reverend gentleman had said words to the effect: “Is it through your grandfather or your grandmother, Mr. Huxley, that you claim your descent from a monkey?" We all remember Huxley’s famous retort, which many say led to a greater acceptance of the theory of evolution in the Oxford of the 1860s, “I am not ashamed to have a monkey for my ancestor; but I would be ashamed to be connected with a man such as you who uses great intellectual gifts to obscure the truth.” I think we owe a lot to Huxley, because whatever the truth is, and indeed I think and feel it is not written in stone but can be shaped and reshaped to fit the evolution of knowledge, it needs to be pursued relentlessly and never atrophied into dogma of whatever type be it religious or scientific.

In arguing against literalism I’m aware that I am very much a relativist or perspectivist even, but I am happy with either of these attributions because obscurantism will lead us nowhere. In my book we need our mythologies of all types, but we must not be literalist, fundamentalist or evangelical believers in our own mythologies seeking to push our angle on the truth down another’s throat. To my mind that’s where I find, with many others, Richard Dawkins hard to take because not alone is he guilty of pushing his viewpoint down our throats but it is obvious that he dislikes and ridicules his opponents. He is a Bishop Wilberforce of the scientific type. Let’s listen to all mythologies and give them a fair hearing. Let’s not swallow our own shibboleths and be deaf to the beliefs of others. Above all, let us respect the stories of others, and not alone that, listen to them and try to understand them. If we fail to understand them at least let us try to respect them. Then, we might someday be able to listen to not alone the extreme Muslims but even those of a moderate vision of what humankind is and maybe, just maybe, we might have a little peace, yes even a little.

Above I have placed a rather poor picture I took of Navan Fort (Eamhain Macha) in the rain on last Tuesday. I brought my visitors Mat and Isa there on a visit.