Preface. Sucked In By A Persona
The persona is a complicated system of relations
between individual consciousness and society,
fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand
to make a definite impression upon others,
and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.
-- C.G. Jung, "The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious" (1928) --
While preparing our March 23-post on Jihadi John, the terrorist henchman "star" in ISIS beheading videos, I came to realize that the phenomenon of the persona -- what it is and how it operates -- is the object of widespread ignorance.(Footnote 1)
Dressed entirely in black against a desert backdrop; a mask covering his face except for the eyes of a glum mollusk; pistol at the ready; muffled voice with a discombobulating British accent; knife in hand: Jihadi John was a persona if there ever was one. More than Osama bin Laden, he persona-fied terrorism.(2)
No clearer example of ignorance of the persona can be found than in the FBI´s handling of Jihadi John.
On September 25, FBI Director James Comey announced he knew the identity of the man behind the mask but was keeping it secret.
Our position: by maintaining silence, the FBI was playing the terrorists´ game. The agency were relating to a video persona; worse, they were relating to it on its terms, not theirs.
They got sucked in.
For nearly five months we badgered, pestered, defied, needled, prodded and goaded the FBI to change course and do what for it was unthinkable: break the seal of silence, fear, mystery and horror -- the terms ISIS set. Our post of December 29, 2014 ("A New Perspective on Terrorism"):
"Assuming the FBI is not lying [about knowing Jihadi John´s identity], in terms of strategy and tactics the FBI´s position is complete nonsense. To tear off Jihadi John´s mask would instantly strip him of his mystique. He would become what he was before he joined ISIS: Wally or Billy, son of the saccharine couple two doors down -- the boy the other boys used to beat up in the bathroom between classes."
Did the FBI listen?
Two months later, Jihadi John was publicly revealed to be Mohammed Emwazi, a shy middle class youngster bullied by boys and girls alike, who became a computer scientist.
As for what happens next ...
Don´t be surprised if ISIS cancels the Mohammed Emwazi Show. Deflated, Jihadi John vanishes. Puffed up personas do that; no real live human can live up to them
Not being in show business, the FBI´s ignorance of the persona is understandable. Hollywood, on the other hand, is in the business of producing, maintaining and distributing personas, so it should know about them. Once upon a time, it did.
A classic persona deflation was presented in "The Wizard of Oz." Watch it here. When exposed by Toto the dog to be a short guy manipulating a control panel, the grandiose wizard persona thundered: "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"
"Oz" was made in 1939, when boatloads of brilliant emigres were working in Hollywood (among them, Noel Langley who wrote the "Oz" screenplay) and long before the Second American Political Revolution occurred (see below). Back then, you could put certain things on the page and on the stage.
Today, in more ways than one, Hollywood is as ignorant as the FBI about the persona. Hollywood does it but does not know it. This post will show that incompetence and deceit are not good explanations; rather, the problem is the nature of the beast. Besides, there´s gold in them thar hills.
Which brings me to "Birdman" directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. The movie attempted to do something different and to come to grips with the beast.
Or did it?
* * *
Dear Alejandro González Iñárritu:
I am addressing this open letter to you -- not to Alejandro The Oscar-Winning Movie Director. The latter is your persona. Echo chamber stuff.
Actually, it makes no difference. Whether in or out of your Hollywood director persona, you have plenty of people around you who will make sure you never read what follows.
Which gives me certain liberties ...
Normally, people like us don´t meet. You have been transformed into The Greatest Good the United States has to offer the world: not democracy, but a commodity.
Jean-Paul Sartre would have called you an oxymoron -- a freedom-thing.(3) In contemporary words: a phenomenon.
The relationship between personas and commodities is tight, unbreakable. You may think this or that about yourself; we all do it. However, it is the persona that makes the money.
As a commodity worth cold hard cash, Alejandro, you are unapproachable -- an object isolated by your legions of lawyers, aides, agent, and studio. Who can talk with an object?
The result is, money does the talking. A timeless question: does it have anything to say?
I think so.
Like it or not, Alejandro, you have become, to a significant extent, the movie star superhero Birdman persona in your movie. A costume sticks to your skin; you must now try to live up to it or ... we´ll get to the or later.
C.G. Jung was right. If your famous Hollywood director persona makes a definite impression on others, it also conceals the true nature of the individual. To-a-significant-extent-persona is not 100% persona; therein, Alejandro, lie your personal dilemma and drama. If that were not true, you would not have made the movie.
I know what you just read is not reverse Polish to you. Here are your words:
"To become a celebrity, a name — and I’ve actually met some that speak of themselves in the third person — it’s scary. They become an object, not a human complex, questioning thing where the cells are always changing."
At best, then, this open letter will say things you already know, but are not aware of.
Also, people like us normally do not talk because we are headed in opposite directions. We share many of life´s basic themes, but we do not share the same values; we do not have the same agenda. In fact, I may represent the very thing you want to get away from. The elephant in the room.
I will say it again. Behind all the Oscar hoopla, the parties and perks -- famous personas have no problem getting tables in restaurants -- there is a man with, in your words, cells that are constantly changing.
Alejandro, I think that man is capable of making far better movies than your Hollywood director persona. To wit:
"Birdman" is inadvertently contributing to something you denounced -- "poison, this cultural genocide." That poison has been analyzed elsewhere in depth, viz., cultural rape, symbol drain, trivialization. Neil Postman wrote about the dominance of technology, or "Technopoly":
"[S]omewhere near the core of Technopoly is a vast industry with license to use all available symbols to further the interests of commerce, by devouring the psyches of consumers. Although estimates vary, a conservative guess is that the average American will have seen close to two million television commercials by age sixty-five. If we add to this the number of radio commercials, newspaper and magazine ads, and billboards, the extent of symbol overload and therefore symbol drain is unprecedented in human history. Of course, not all the images and words used have been cannibalized from serious or sacred contexts, and one must admit that as things stand at the moment it is quite unthinkable for the image of Jesus to be used to sell wine ... On the other hand, his birthday is used as an occasion for commerce to exhaust nearly the entire repertoire of Christian symbology. The constraints are so few that we may call this a form of cultural rape, sanctioned by an ideology that gives boundless supremacy to technological progress and is indifferent to the unraveling of tradition." (p. 170)
When it comes to movies, dear reader, you don´t have to look far to see cultural genocide in action. It is the dead puppet show now playing at a theater near you, churning out an audience of perfect soldiers.
Cultural genocide is what money has to say. Nothing more -- and nothing less.
In your analytic comments on "Birdman," Alejandro, you identify its core theme as the danger of egotism. Flying through the air, the lead character is literally on an ego trip. If only he had been less self-centered ... Vanity, nothing more; ballgame over; case closed; over and out. Have a nice day.
The persona, the social mask interfacing the inner and outer worlds, and the ego are not the same thing. Our view of your movie centers on the persona, not the ego. The result is, our viewpoint and yours are worlds apart.
The concept of the persona is not unknown to you. On leaving the theater, the Edward Norton character in "Birdman" explains that an audience does not know an actor, only the image an actor makes.
Unfortunately, that observation remained an observation; it was not integrated into the text of "Birdman." They say there are no absolutes; however, a patch will always remain a patch. We will identify two more patches below.
Here at the outset I want to say, Alejandro, your motives are not in question. I have the definite impression from your work and interviews that your true nature is this: a decent human being. The problem simply is that your director persona is sometimes à côté de la plaque -- off base.
What follows, then, is a cut and dry matter of consequences, not intentions. If they always coincided, we would have a perfect world.
* * *
Alejandro, your focus -- obsession? -- on egotism means our perceptions of the persona differ enormously.
To understand mine -- where I am coming from -- requires a flashback.
I was singularly fortunate in two respects. They were entirely circumstantial, not of my making, and beyond my control. We will encounter that same correlation of external factors later.
(1) I grew up around famous artists. My father consulted writers and directors on the characters they wanted to portray.
One of my earliest memories is of William Inge in St. Louis. He and Dad were on the faculty at Washington University. I can´t watch "Splendor in The Grass" without recalling things I heard at the dinner table.
Ditto Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan. I remember them in 1955-6, sitting in the living room of our home on Siesta Key, dressed to the nines -- make that tens -- patiently waiting their turn. They were working on "A Face in The Crowd." I never discussed the movie with my father; I didn´t have to. Key dialogue and human responses are 100% Dad.
Joe Hayes ("The Desperate Hours"), Jan de Hartog ("The Fourposter" and "The Key"), Irving Vendig ("The Edge of Night") were among writers who later became family friends. It was a tremendous privilege and honor to know them; they set me straight very early about a number of things. Among them, the persona. (Irving Vendig gave me as a present for my thirteenth birthday this line: "Success only lasts 15 seconds. Then it´s back to work.")
Looking back, what strikes me the hardest about those people:
They were people. Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan could have passed for insurance salesmen. No coterie of aides and agents to hold their hands, cut them off. No magic carpet ride. No Birdman in the living room.
Back in those days, before the TV revolution converted movies into 95% sensations (explosions, car chases), it was customary for show business people to invest time, effort and money researching and developing their characters´ personalities. From what I saw, they were bound and determined to get their creations psychoanalytically right.
That discipline is no longer the rule in our reinvented movie era for the Action!-no philosophical bullshit! reason your costumed Birdman gave and which I analyzed in economic and demographic terms in "Stupid Movies Explained: One Cylinder Hollywood."
(2) In addition to writers and directors, somebody else developed my perception of the famous persona. I grew up -- in more ways than one -- with circus performers.
Alejandro, to inspire your actors in "Birdman," you gave them photos of Philippe Petit walking a high wire in 1974 between the Twin Towers. We will return to his remarkable feat. A similar performance inspired me.
For now, to keep things in perspective: a 15-year-old circus classmate did a flip on the high wire. I guess it was too easy for him; he moved on to the slack wire. Name available on request.
Besides being world class at what they did, my classmates shared something else:
If you didn´t know they were circus people, you would not know they were circus people. Eating lunch with them in the high school cafeteria, not once did any world-renowned, circus persona come up because in the cafeteria that persona did not exist.
Two reasons why to my knowledge no Birdman ever devoured a Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey star:
(i) By fifth grade, circus people are fully aware of their performer persona. They grow up in, around and in spite of it -- unlike many people in Hollywood. To mention one: Alejandro, you didn´t direct your first full-length film until you were over 30.
(ii) A circus persona is confined in time and space -- a performance of a few minutes under the big top. Both are unambiguously demarcated.
To show how strict the limits are:
In Hollywood, you are to a significant extent who you know. In the circus, you are what you do. And what you do is manifestly, extraordinarily difficult. "Networking" -- cocktail party chitchat, being Jane Fonda Junior -- means nothing. There is no reflected glory; no rubbing off. If you can stand on one finger or do a 100 consecutive one-arm flanges on the rings, there is a job for you. Otherwise... I knew a top Ringling Brothers tumbler trainer who, if you told him you needed a job and winked you were George Clooney´s friend, would haul off and bust your nose. I can hear him now: "There -- tell George Clooney to fix it."
The narrow limits placed on a circus performer´s persona have two causes:
(i) A circus act is primarily physical. Special props are needed. Usually danger too -- incredible danger. Without them, there is no performance, hence, no circus persona.
The Great Unus could not perform -- to watch him, click here -- on your dining room table. La Toria (Vicky Unus) could not perform -- watch her here -- in your living room.
To the contrary, the movie star persona has no limits, physical or otherwise. Alejandro, your astounding scene at the beginning -- I am sure it will enter movie history -- in which the lead character played by Michael Keaton levitates, is the movie´s foundation. Does he or does he not have supernatural powers? The audience is instantly engaged. Later, the Keaton character will (apparently) fly through the air with the greatest of ease without a trapeze -- unlike La Toria. He is on a magic carpet ride to ... ah, that´s the point. We´ll return to it.
(ii) The circus persona is hyperbolized.
Take another look at the top of this post. Top hat, tails: The Great Unus did not go shopping dressed like that. As a ninth grader, I bagged his groceries in Marable´s Market. Feathered plumes, strings of beads: Vicky Unus did not go to school dressed that way. For years, I sat in class with her at SHS.
Because circus performers are often half a football field away from their audience, their persona requires exaggeration. That is not the case in movies; the camera magnifies the smallest facial gesture. Which can create a problem ...
"Birdman" expressly referred to the perennial actors´ quandary of "Too much?" in the "Love" play rehearsal and Macbeth. In those scenes, Alejandro, you made manifest what was latent. Too Much -- inflation -- is a major theme of "Birdman."
Unlike actors, circus performers don´t agonize over Too Much because in their world, Too Much is just right. But the result is that the gestures, makeup and wardrobe of the circus persona are valid only for a narrow time and place. Outside them, they are absurd. For that reason, hyperbole does not beget inflation.
(1) When the circus performance is over, the glamorous circus persona is over. Under the big top, when the applause stops and the curtain closes behind you, no matter how big your name, you´d better get out of the way fast. There may be a 5-ton elephant headed your way.
Movie personas, to the contrary, go on and on. The cultural and physical limits mentioned above don´t apply. George Clooney can´t go to the supermarket without being seen; whether he likes it or not, off-screen he is to a major extent his on-screen persona. (He can, of course, wear a disguise to go shopping, but that is part of the movie star persona).
You, too, Alejandro. You are now, to a significant extent, Alejandro -- the next part follows inexorably -- The Oscar-Winning Movie Director. That´s a classic Jungian persona.
(2) Something else follows inexorably when you become a freedom-thing, a phenomenon -- a commodity:
The thing parasitically saps the freedom, until a hollow shell remains.
After signing hundreds of autographs, a house-hold name actor I recruited to work on a political campaign put it this way:
"Fame is nice. But sometimes you just want to get the hell out of there."
Well, you can´t, Alejandro; you can´t get the hell out of there. The thing in your freedom-thing can neither choose nor let you choose; it doesn´t know how. And even if someday you prove to be an exception, you will thereby only prove the rule. An exception cannot exist without a rule: it´s impossible.
Hollywood exceptions exist, by the way. A movie star with one of the biggest and heaviest personas of all times -- a true living legend; bigger than life -- got out of the way fast. James Cagney talks about it here.
(3) As noted, movies are in a new era. Unlike James Cagney, George Clooney has no exit. Of course there is an exit, but there are plenty of people around him to make sure he won´t find it. They are the owners and operators of the magic carpet ride. They are the echo chamber enclosing him, telling him not who he is but who they think he is. There´s gold in them thar hills.
In the same way, Alejandro, you cannot escape your Hollywood director persona. Egotism is not the issue. The persona is forced on you by the world, i.e., other people´s expectations and economic interests. "Birdman" poignantly presented that reality in all the autograph and selfie seekers in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.
Your movie´s sensitivity to the nice-but dilemma of fame could only be based on personal experience. Your words:
"What [´Birdman´] talks about, I have been through. I have seen and experienced all of it; it’s what I have been living through the last years of my life."
To sum up:
When in Hollywood, do as the Hollywoodians do. Go along or go under. In fact, as we shall see, you can go along and also go under. That is because you don´t control the movie star persona; it controls you, unlike in the circus. The owners and operators of the magic carpet ride didn´t tell you about that part when you signed on, Alejandro. They never do -- not out of malevolence but ignorance.
Besides, there´s gold in them thar hills.
The ultimate demonstration of Hollywood´s ignorance of the persona is not what you or I or anybody else says about it, but in the truckloads of Hollywood kids in drug re-hab. Here again, I am not telling you anything new -- you represented them in "Birdman" with Sam, the Keaton character´s daughter.
Well, such is my background and overall perspective, Alejandro. Basically, where you see ego, I see persona.
I will nuance my position later.
* * *
Cut to the chase.
A chase is what drives "Birdman."
"Birdman" has three major themes: (1) absorption by a persona; (2) possession by the psychological shadow; (3) psychological inflation.
(1) Absorption by a persona
Every calling or profession has its own characteristic persona.
It is easy to study these things nowadays, when the photographs
of public personalities so frequently appear in the press.
A certain kind of behaviour is forced on them by the world,
and professional people endeavour to come up to these expectations.
Only, the danger is that they become identical with their personas -
the professor with his text-book, the tenor with his voice.
Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against
the background of his own biography ... The garment of Deianeira
has grown fast to his skin, and a desperate decision like that of Heracles
is needed if he is to tear this Nessus shirt from his body and
step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality, in order to
transform himself into what he really is. One could say,
with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality
one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.
-- C.G. Jung, "Concerning Rebirth" (1940) --
For readers who have not seen "Birdman," you just saw 70% of it.
Following a war with himself, the Keaton character unconditionally surrenders. He becomes not what he really is but his famous movie persona of yesteryear, the caped superhero Birdman. He is swallowed alive. Sucked in.
As you said, Alejandro, the Keaton character´s drama is your drama. The freedom in your freedom-thing is going ... going ...
We will return to the Deianeira/Nessus/Heracles myth that Jung mentioned. Although far less known, it is far more relevant to persona questions than the Icarus myth which your movie mentions ...
Icarus is the basic reference point; "Birdman" is an exposé of egotism: you said it loud and clear:
"But you can interpret [Birdman] as Icarus. The ego wants to make us fly and that’s when it turns really dangerous.”
Persona or ego? To repeat, Alejandro, we are worlds apart. Balance -- which is what the Icarus myth is really about -- requires more than one object. A one-sided focus on egotism makes balance impossible.
As for what those objects are ...
Separated from its psychic context, the persona is meaningless. That context is shown -- over-simplified, to be sure -- at the top of this post. The persona is the most external part where individual consciousness and the outer world meet. As a mask it impresses, makes money, hides.
We would never suggest that the persona be destroyed. It is indispensable for living in society. It is another matter entirely, however, for someone to identify exclusively with their persona. Alejandro, your movie shows unforgettably what happens when total identification occurs. So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, adieu: the someone flies off to the sounds of music.
I want to conclude this topic on a warning:
The persona is not the totality of the psyche. Alejandro, that viewpoint runs completely contrary to what the costumed Birdman represented and I´m sure your echo chamber is telling you right now.
(2) Possession by the shadow
A movement away from the persona toward the core of the psyche reveals ever-deeper, unconscious elements. One is the shadow, the second major theme in "Birdman."
Here is a summary of Jung´s analysis of the shadow:
"´The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself´ and represents ´a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well´. If and when 'an individual makes an attempt to see his shadow, he becomes aware of (and often ashamed of) those qualities and impulses he denies in himself but can plainly see in others — such things as egotism [sic], mental laziness, and sloppiness; unreal fantasies, schemes, and plots; carelessness and cowardice; inordinate love of money and possessions — ...[a] painful and lengthy work of self-education´".
The psychological shadow is instinctive and irrational. Nevertheless, it is not all "bad."
(i) It contains positive elements -- including the highest ones:
"The unconscious [shadow] is not just evil by nature, it is also the source of the highest good: not only dark but also light, not only bestial, semihuman and demonic but superhuman, spiritual, and, in the classical sense of the word, ´divine.´"
(ii) Given its spiritual and divine aspect, the shadow is basic to art.
"In spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness — or perhaps because of this — the shadow is the seat of creativity."
As does the persona, the shadow presents the danger of total absorption. Our summary of Jung continues:
"The dissolution of the persona and the launch of the individuation process also brings with it 'the danger of falling victim to the shadow ... the black shadow which everybody carries with him, the ... hidden aspect of the personality' — of a merger with the shadow ´...
According to Jung, the shadow sometimes overwhelms a person's actions; for example, when the conscious mind is shocked, confused, or paralyzed by indecision. 'A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps ... living below his own level': hence, in terms of the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 'it must be Jekyll, the conscious personality, who integrates the shadow ... and not vice versa. Otherwise the conscious becomes the slave of the autonomous shadow'."
There it is -- "Birdman" in a second nutshell. Possession by the shadow is a long way from a case of egotism. In fact, I would argue the Keaton character´s problem was not that his ego was too big; rather, it was too small. It could not resist persona demands, much less the flood of unconscious shadow contents.
The Keaton character is aware of his famous Birdman movie persona -- when we meet him he is meditating -- but is undecided what to do, where to go. Confused.
Movies or theater? Mega-bucks or personal validation? Fame or art? On the one hand, on the other. There is the good side and the bad side. The Keaton character is yes-but. Shocked. Paralyzed. Time and again, he traps himself, lives beneath himself.
I think he was on his way to becoming who he really was. His "Love" play was clearly an initial rejection of his movie Birdman persona. A dangerous moment. Because he is filled with ambivalence -- he is resolute only in his irresoluteness -- the autonomous shadow will well up, seize control. The Keaton character becomes enslaved. Mr. Hyde wins. All that is superbly, intuitively foreshadowed in the first few minutes of your movie, Alejandro. The stage is set.
We know Birdman is a persona and not a stand-in for the ego because, like Jihadi John, he wears a mask and costume. Without them, Birdman does not exist. Which is not to say there is nothing inside the suit; we´ll identify what it is shortly.
Look again at the "Birdman" poster at the top of this post. The costumed Birdman movie persona follows the Keaton character around. It haunts him, pursues him.
"I´m not going away," Birdman announces. He is right.
Birdman is not pure persona, however; he is also psychological shadow.
Backing up Birdman is the formidable unconscious shadow, represented as a monster bird atop a crumbling edifice. Your special effects, Alejandro, were very special indeed.
In the psyche, the persona and the unconscious shadow are distinct but not completely separate. In your movie, they are separate but not completely distinct. The shadow is the bird in the bird-man.
The merged persona-shadow which is Birdman is Too Much. It overwhelms the Keaton character. He doesn´t stand a chance. He takes a flying leap.
To repeat, the welling-up of the shadow could not have occurred without ambivalent emotions, many of them unconscious. Now, what would have happened if, instead of seeking relief from his ambivalence by subsuming himself in Birdman´s absoluteness -- the opposite of ambivalence -- the Keaton character had simply acknowledged his ambivalence and worked with it?
But, I am getting ahead of myself.
(3) Psychological inflation
Absorption by the persona, possession by the shadow: we come to the third major theme in "Birdman." Without it, there would be reality, but no drama.
Jung wrote(4) of psychological inflation:
"The term seems to me appropriate in so far as the state we are discussing involves an extension of the personality beyond individual limits, in other words, a state of being puffed up. In such a state a man fills a space which normally he cannot fill. He can only fill it by appropriating to himself contents and qualities which properly exist for themselves alone and should therefore remain outside our bounds. What lies outside ourselves belongs either to someone else, or to everyone, or to no one.…A very common instance is the humourless way in which many men identify themselves with their business or their titles. The office I hold is certainly my special activity; but it is also a collective factor that has come into existence historically through the cooperation of many people and whose dignity rests solely on collective approval. When, therefore, I identify myself with my office or title, I behave as though I myself were the whole complex of social factors of which that office consists, or as though I were not only the bearer of the office, but also and at the same time the approval of society. I have made an extraordinary extension of myself and have usurped qualities which are not in me but outside me. L’état c’est moi is the motto for such people."
You just saw, dear reader, Alejandro´s movie in a third nutshell.
"This is where you belong," Birdman informs the flying Keaton -- "Above them all." As noted, that type of inflation is endemic to movie stars more than circus performers whose persona does not allow much inflation outside the big top. Inside it either, for that matter. Potentially or actually, there is always an elephant there to remind them.
Before continuing, I need to address two points:
(i) Is psychological inflation another term for egotism?
Any element of the psyche, including the ego, can be inflated; however, the inflation process and its object are not coterminous. Here, a basic distinction must be made:
The persona and the ego constantly interact; however, they are different entities. In Jungian terms, the ego is a bridge between the persona and the shadow, between consciousness and the unconscious. From that standpoint, Alejandro, you mistook the ego for the shadow in your answer to the question:
[Answer] You catch what you're not aware of, how the ego works, how sometimes it misleads you … this dictator, tyrant, this subconscious voice that all of us have …"
An explanation of "Birdman" entirely in terms of the ego does not give other elements of the psyche -- notably the shadow, the seat of creativity -- their due place. I would say, Alejandro, that your analysis of the problem has been contaminated by the problem.
We will encounter more thinking problems below. They sapped your cinematographic work.
(ii) Alejandro, I need to counter a widespread misunderstanding that you share.
For Jung, as with the persona, the ego is not all "bad." On the contrary; the ego is essential for survival. It "constitutes the centre of my field of consciousness and appears to possess a high degree of continuity and identity.” Without an ego, nothing would be consciously perceived, remembered. Without an ego, Philippe Petit -- your inspiration -- could not possibly have done what he did on a high wire a quarter mile up. His classic meta-metaphor would never have happened.
There is a potential danger posed by the ego, however. It is the same danger posed by the persona and the shadow. When an individual identifies exclusively with his ego, other elements of the psyche are minimized, marginalized. Jung wrote:
"An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead."
To put Birdman-style psychological inflation in perspective:
Russel Crowe, winner of the Academy Award for best actor in 2000 for his role in “Gladiator,”
"dedicated his Oscar to those who, like himself, had grown up in the working-class suburb of a big city and dreamed of winning such an award. ´To anybody who’s on the downside of advantage,´ he said, ´it’s possible.´”(5)
Sorry, Russel, you are hypnotized. It is not possible for anybody to win an Oscar:
First, movie credits demonstrate that to make a movie requires numerous professions and functions for which no Oscar is awarded.
Secondly, a Hollywood movie is a commodity. There are inherent relationships -- Jung´s whole complex of social factors -- in commodity production. They mean that, contrary to a popular belief -- which you, Russel, propagate -- not everybody can be a Henry Ford.
Ford lived in Michigan; he had a big family, a big house. He also had assembly lines on which workers put cars together. If everybody is a Henry Ford, who is going to be on the assembly lines?
Third and finally, even if the prior two conditions did not exist, the idea that anybody with talent, hard work, etc., can win an Oscar is numerically absurd. In all, about 3,000 Oscars have been awarded. Thousands and thousands of people have been employed in the film industry since 1929, the first year Oscars were awarded. Even if they were all geniuses, simple arithmetic tells the story.
Compare the Academy Award inflation -- I Did It My Way And So Can You -- with the presentation of Danis Tanovic, the Bosnian director, of his film “No Man’s Land” at Cannes in 2001:
"I had a beautiful crew, professionally and humanly. Making a movie depends on 300 people. If you have one bad actor or the wrong person in charge of continuity, it can destroy your movie. So when you see my film in Cannes, it’s not about me, it’s about the 300 people behind me.”(6)
In "Birdman," inflation surrounds the Keaton character. He can´t leave home or stay home without it. Reader Take Note: the Birdman persona appropriates entirely for himself -- le movie, c´est moi -- all the efforts of 300 people who made Birdman films. Unlike Danis Tanovic, Birdman also seizes for his own private property very inch of the social approval given by millions and millions of fans produced by those efforts. In case you fall into the usual trap and think Birdman is solely responsible for them, many if not most of those productive relationships surely predated Birdman by decades and thousands of miles.
Alejandro, when you allow Birdman, a persona, to absorb the Keaton character and the latter lives happily ever after in the heavens, you are not only condoning but exalting that type of misappropriation, i.e., stealing. I don´t think you wanted to do it -- but you did.
Hollywood does it but does not know it.
Let´s go ahead and say it:
Like The Great and Powerful Oz, Birdman needed to be deflated. He never was. In the end, the Keaton character literally went along with him. That means the audience -- a major part of it, anyway -- also went along with Birdman.
Given the extraordinary psychological inflation going on, the Keaton character gives his crew for his "Love" play short shrift. They are only, more or less, in the way. At best, they serve to bum cigarettes off. Nowhere are they pictured as contributing meaningfully to the play in which the Keaton character stars; after all, the play is presumably the product of his personal talent; god-given gift; supernatural abilities; immortal destiny; his individual genius in tune with the wheels of the universe; etc.; etc., helped along by a few supporting actors.
In a consummatory gesture, the crew actually, "accidentally" locks him out of the theater. I put accidentally in quotes because I see it as retaliation by the unconscious which was attempting to balance inflation. Things were getting out of hand. The guilty crew member, by the way, was perfectly named: Jimmy, a short crowbar. More on trickster machinations in a moment.
Alejandro, all the above is extremely well done. For reasons given below, I believe it was the outcome of intuition more than of thought.
To sum up the three major themes in "Birdman":
The persona and psychological shadow confounded, then extraordinarily inflated: no wonder cocaine is big in Hollywood. Anybody who wants to live up to all that is going to need nothing short of a change in chemistry. Poor kids ...
We come to the not so hidden agenda that you, Alejandro, are unintentionally supporting.
* * *
Intentions Versus Consequences
The two paragraphs you are about to read are censored. You will only find them here.
In 2008-9, the Second American Revolution took place.
The polity -- the oligarchy/democracy hybrid system created by the Founding Fathers in 1789 -- was replaced by the oligarchical system governing America today. The polity´s democratic component has been reduced to a residue; ornamentation; accessory hats and gloves.(7)
Again, Alejandro, I doubt we are saying something you don´t already know. Here are your words:
"The corporation and the hedge funds have a hold on Hollywood and they all want to make money on anything that signifies cinema ... You tell them, you will put in $20 million and you will get $80 million. Now, that is a fucking amazing business, but they say, ´$80 million? I want $800 million.´ Basically, the room to exhibit good nice films is over. [Superhero films] are taking the place of all those things."
Corporations, hedge funds: the cultural genocide agenda is who runs it. The Lowest Uncommon Denominator.
Alejandro, what is your place in the brave new world of poison, trivialization, symbol drain -- of cultural genocide? Of retinal junk food? What role -- like it or not -- is your director persona objectively playing?
The rebel is careful to keep intact the abuses he suffers
so that he can rebel against them. He always has elements
of a bad conscience and something resembling
a sentiment of guilt. He does not want to destroy or transcend,
but rather only to protest against the existing order.
The more he attacks it, the more he obscurely respects it.
-- Jean-Paul Sartre(8) --
Just as the FBI inadvertently assisted Jihadi John, "Birdman" inadvertently assisted the genocide agenda.
I will address this subject by anticipating two pleadings of your echo chamber, and by giving our rebuttals.
(1) Even if a few pages in the cultural genocide agenda, i.e., the end of reason by the total victory of a Nietzschean übermensch or caped superhero, are present in "Birdman," that does not automatically mean that you, Alejandro, approve of them. Your echo chamber will reverberate, "Those stages were present in order to be denounced."
Only one problem ...
The last scene shows Sam looking out a hospital window. She looks down; angst fills her face. Her look is ambiguous; the argument can be made she does not see her dad´s cadaver on the ground. Where did he go? She then looks around, and gazes up into the heavens. Joy replaces angst.
Dad died, but not really. He lives on as Birdman. Flying high/higher/highest, the inflated persona-shadow amalgamation that absorbed him is now somewhere over the rainbow. The king is dead; long live the king. Men like him don´t die; they disappear.
What you just saw, dear reader, is what is on the stage.
Alejandro, you said the final scene "just came in a dream. And when I woke up, I knew that I had it. I hope people can feel attached to the emotion that the character feels. There can obviously be so many endings, but I'm glad about this one. I like it."
Dreams come from the unconscious, i.e., the shadow -- not from the ego. As Jung noted, the shadow is the source of the divine as well as the demonic.
You are convinced your dream was heaven-sent. My interpretation is different.
You were had by The Trickster Figure, the unconscious archetype of the prankster posing as savior.
Like the shadow out of which he springs, the trickster is not entirely "bad." Sometimes, as we saw in the theater lock-out, he attempts to provide a missing balance. In this case, however, the trickster was a pusher for the inflated persona-shadow merger, the superhero Birdman -- in other words, cultural genocide. You, Alejandro, acknowledged such a possibility ... sometimes misleads you.
The same thing but viewed another way: "Birdman´s" ending is basically intuitive. Intuition has its wellspring in the unconscious, not in the ego. Here, a problem appears: the unconscious does not distinguish between symbols and reality. That means, when it comes to living and working in the daily world, intuition can be right; it can also be wrong.
So, which is it?
The final score card: if intuition were even usually right, there would be no lotteries or casinos.
Alejandro, your echo chamber will reverberate "Sam´s reaction is only in keeping with her character."
I entirely agree. Her persona-obsessed reaction -- for Sam, not to be on Facebook is not to exist -- is perfect. The problem is its placement.
You give Twitter-brained Sam the last word -- literally. In so doing, you put your stamp of approval on what she shows. You can proclaim and defame to the stars above "it just ain´t so." But it is. It is the perfection of the iconography that counts, not ex post facto rationalizations in Internet interviews.
Anybody is of course free to deny the old theater adage, "If it ain´t on the page, it ain´t on the stage." Here is what I meant; this is my interpretation; what I wanted to show was ... and so forth. If that is your recourse, Alejandro, I wish you the best of luck.
The iconography Sam manifests on the stage is a key component of the cultural genocide agenda:
(i) The persona is The Greatest Good. If inflated enough, its bearer becomes immortal and lives in heaven. Corollary:
(ii) The more confounded the persona is with the shadow and its divine qualities, the better. I will explore this subject in a future post. We are staring in the face an evil unparalleled in human history and which is the ultimate goal of the cultural genocide agenda: control of the unconscious.
The operational approval in "Birdman" of the genocide agenda was underscored by the subtitle of the movie: the unexpected virtue of ignorance.
Your co-writer Alexander Dinelaris made clear what that subtitle means:
"[T]here is innocence there that compels you to try to climb mountains that you could never climb. There’s something nice about that."
In other words, dear reader, had you not been ignorant you never would have attempted something difficult -- even seemingly impossible -- that was virtuous. Thank God, you didn´t know better.
I italicized virtuous because that something difficult achieved must be virtuous; otherwise the saying is nonsense. (ISIS is ignorant, but it is difficult to see that ignorance as a virtue.)
Now, what was achieved in "Birdman" that was difficult and also virtuous?
My guess is, Alejandro, you would say that the "Love" play was an artistic, critical and commercial success. Well, that success meant little to the Keaton character who -- if we look at what he did in unglossed terms -- killed himself.
Rather, Sam´s gaze told the tale, delivered the decisive blow. The difficult virtue achieved was the supernatural status of her father.
Supernatural = superhero. Alejandro, the very thing you say you are fighting -- and I think you truly want to fight it -- you end up exalting.
Hollywood does it but does not know it.
Realistically, it would have been hard -- very hard -- for you to have done otherwise:
Hollywood is in the business of making personas, not destroying them. Had "Birdman" deflated Birdman -- had Toto appeared -- not only would your movie not have received four Oscars, it likely would never have received necessary financing.
Nonetheless, very hard is not impossible. Likely is not definitely. Toto? Talk about the unexpected virtue of ignorance.
(2) Your echo chamber will protest: "We are in the front line of those who fight cultural genocide." After all, is not "Birdman" an unabashed, unabridged attack on superhero movies and their attempt to capsize thinking? An all-out war against Action!-no philosophical bullshit movies?
Again, I couldn´t agree with you more. Your frontal assault on cultural genocide is, unfortunately, precisely the problem.
Jung: "You always become the thing you fight the most." That becoming is exactly what happened; what is happening still.
Your essential dilemma, Alejandro, is summed up in a college sophomore dorm discussion:
Who awards Oscars?
Answer: the same people who are making the superhero movies you denounce -- the ladies and gentlemen who are producing the poison, the culture rape, the cultural genocide.
Among the agenda pushers, movie reviewers are outliers. Viewed politically, rave reviews are nothing to rave about. Ditto the scads of awards won by "Birdman." Given the new oligarchic system ruling America, it is healthy to ask why -- to view with suspicion things which before the Second American Revolution in 2008-9 meant one thing, now mean another.
Before proceeding, I need to shine a light on something not hiding in the background:
When it comes to the cultural genocide agenda, dear reader, don´t waste your time looking for a conspiracy in emails and iPhones; in golf cart chats; in secret midnight meetings of weasels in tweed suits. There is no conspiracy because none is needed. They do it but they do not know it. To repeat, we are in the realm of how things work -- of consequences, not intentions. Because it relies on motives, the legal system is lost here.
Alejandro, if you truly, really, unambiguously oppose sanctification of a puffed up persona, i.e., a superhero, you should not have ended with Sam gazing radiantly upward.
To avoid any confusion, a post-Sam anti-climax scene would have strung a few beads, that is to say, put it on the stage. Nothing new there -- the Simon Oakland character in Hitchcock´s "Psycho" did it famously.
A few options: the Keaton character´s ex-wife and/or director could (i) talk internally or (ii) with each other at a grave site. Maybe, show two unidentified tombstones. For that matter, (iii) Sam could have looked up, then down, reversing the order of her reactions.
Unlike books which can undergo new editions, dear reader, movies cannot be changed after they are released. Alejandro, after watching numerous post-release interviews with you and your co-writers, I have the impression you attempted to string beads that were not in the movie but should have been. These days -- which are Sam´s days -- if it isn´t on the stage, it´s on the Internet page.
Long before the Internet or Sam came along, Marcel Duchamp foretold the inevitable result:
"Explanations don´t explain anything."(9)
Our two-pronged argument that "Birdman" ended up supporting the very thing you wanted to oppose, comes down to this:
There were clear, unambiguous alternatives to promoting and legitimizing the inflated persona-shadow merger -- the caped Birdman superhero, the Oz without Toto, the genocide agenda. You didn´t take them, Alejandro. That is why, after handing you four Oscars, kings and queens went home and slept peacefully in their palaces. We said they were ignorant; we never said they were stupid.
The role which the genocide agenda has allocated to you, Alejandro, was spelled out 60 years ago by Hollywood no less, back when a different political system was in place and movies could say certain things:
"Marsha, you know what you are? You´re the locker room where he eases up after the fight, win or lose. You´re the shock absorber for collisions … " Walter Matthau character, "A Face in The Crowd." Incidentally, I have never seen that movie on TV.
Why, then, apart from a perceived financial -- industrial -- necessity, did "Birdman" not string certain beads? Why were certain things not on the stage?
Was it personal ambivalence about the Birdman? About the persona?
* * *
Three Thinking Errors
One of C.G. Jung´s central premises is the human psyche functions in four different ways: thinking, intuition, feeling, and sensation.
Due to DNA and life experiences, all four functions cannot be equally developed in an individual. One function will dominate.
In addition to "Birdman," Alejandro, your movies "Babel" and "Biutiful" make something self-evident. Your dominant function is feeling, followed closely by intuition. The tool shed and I-am-not-pregnant dialogues in "Birdman" are two examples. Powerfully written and delivered, they stick to the ribs.
In order to counter a reductio ad absurdum I know my following words will invite ...
Alejandro, readers: you did things when you were 20 years old that I could not do in three lifetimes. The opposite is also true; that´s what makes the world go round.
There was a $16.5 million dollar budget for "Birdman." That is sufficient to bring people aboard who could do things you cannot, Alejandro. In one area, it didn´t happen.
In the thinking function, "Birdman" made shocking amateurish errors. I would not bring up this subject were mental laziness and sloppiness (Jung) not endemic to cultural genocide.
(1) The Edward Norton character rephrases P.T. Barnum´s famous quote, "There´s a sucker born every minute." Only one problem ...
Barnum never said it, any more than James Cagney said "You dirty rat." I know, most people think Barnum said it, and that means we are looking at the persona of Barnum, not Barnum the man.
Alejandro, somebody on your team got sucked in by a persona -- exactly what the cultural genocide agenda is calling for and "Birdman" ends up approving. 30 seconds of research on the Internet would have avoided the error.
What Barnum actually said: "Every crowd has a silver lining."
Contrary to what your echo chamber will tell you, Barnum´s comment did not come from his persona. Creative, it could only have come from his shadow, the origin of art.
The persona cannot create. It follows necessarily that when a persona and the shadow are mixed, creativity will be diluted. Prettified, petrified.
That leads us directly to something else that goes directly against the basic message "Birdman" sends and your echo chamber is telling you, Alejandro. The persona cannot validate. Dear reader, if you think a persona can validate -- click here. Still not convinced? Then -- click here.
Still believe, as does "Birdman," in ultimate salvation by a famous persona? Perhaps a case study will clarify things:
I never met a Frenchman who didn´t know who Mike Brant was; I never met an American who did. Sshh ... here´s why.
A singing sensation in France and Israel in the 1970s, Moshe Brand was brought to despair by his show business star persona. I don´t want to be Mike Brant any longer.
Burned by the shirt hung on him by other people, anxious, depressed, unable to find a way out, Moshe opened a window, jumped to his death. He was 28 years old.
Say what you will, Alejandro, Moshe Brand´s problem was not egotism.
(2) Other thinking function errors in "Birdman" revolve around mythology.
As noted, your movie refers directly to the Greek myth of Icarus. A summary:
"Icarus and his father attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus's father warns him first of complacency and then of hubris, asking that he fly neither too low nor too high, because the sea's dampness would clog his wings or the sun's heat would melt them. Icarus ignored his father's instructions not to fly too close to the sun, whereupon the wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea. This tragic theme of failure at the hands of hubris contains similarities to that of Phaëthon."
Alejandro, we noted above your belief that your movie´s message was that of Icarus. The Keaton character flew too high. His egotism destroyed him. But did it? Sam´s reaction in the last scene tells the opposite tale.
Maybe, and contrary to everything you say in interviews ... egotism is good ... We are in Adam Smith´s invisible hand territory. Assuming such reckoning is wrong, it is nevertheless encouraged by your movie´s ambiguity and lack of clarity. If you wanted to attack egotism, why didn´t you just put it on the stage?
Of course the Keaton character flew too high. But there is a subtle point here I don´t want passed over:
The cultural genocide agenda seeks to destroy the Icarus myth´s two options -- too high and too low are both deadly -- by presenting only the too-high danger. Complacency, the clogged wings -- the millions of perfect soldiers the agenda is manufacturing in front of the TV set -- is nurtured by that omission which is a textbook example of symbol drain. This post will present shortly another attempt by the genocide agenda to smother a vital paradox by minimizing one of its terms.
The fact is nowhere in its 91 minutes does "Birdman" meaningfully bring up the danger of complacency. Birdman lectures the Keaton character about how stupid the masses are -- "They eat this shit up"; he appeals to them while denying their values. How could it be otherwise? Birdman only exists in their eyes, millions of them. They are the mirror in which he lives -- and dies.
In not dealing with the complacency danger, your movie plays ball with the genocide agenda in much the same way the FBI played ball with Jihadi John. There is no other way to put it.
Alejandro, as mentioned, I think your Icarus reference is off base, that is to say, it has less explanatory power than another Greek myth for addressing the persona phenomenon.
Jung referred (see above) to the myth of Deianeira/Nessus/Heracles. The alternative to being burned alive by a persona -- to jumping out a window -- is to become who you really are. That alternative, however, requires trial by a different fire, and it must be self-imposed.
Here is a summary of the Deianeira/Nessus/Heracles myth:
"Soon after they wed, Heracles and Deianira had to cross a river, and a centaur named Nessus offered to help Deianira across but then attempted to rape her. Enraged, Heracles shot the centaur from the opposite shore with a poisoned arrow (tipped with the Lernaean Hydra's blood) and killed him. As he lay dying, Nessus plotted revenge, told Deianira to gather up his blood and spilled semen and, if she ever wanted to prevent Heracles from having affairs with other women, she should apply them to his vestments. Nessus knew that his blood had become tainted by the poisonous blood of the Hydra, and would burn through the skin of anyone it touched.
Later, when Deianira suspected that Heracles was fond of Iole, she soaked a shirt of his in the mixture, creating the poisoned shirt of Nessus. Heracles' servant, Lichas, brought him the shirt and he put it on. Instantly he was in agony, the cloth burning into him. As he tried to remove it, the flesh ripped from his bones. Heracles chose a voluntary death, asking that a pyre be built for him to end his suffering. After death, the gods transformed him into an immortal, or alternatively, the fire burned away the mortal part of the demigod, so that only the god remained."
There is far more there than we can explore here. I think that had you known about the Heracles myth (see below), "Birdman" would have had a different, stronger ending. Your Great and Powerful Birdman, like The Great and Powerful Oz, could have been brought down to earth in a manner that would not have been vetoed by investors. Your movie, Alejandro, would still have been made.
Two other points regarding Greek mythology illustrate our adage that, when it comes to the persona, Hollywood does it but does not know it.
(i) Alejandro, in an interview you related the following incident. It pertains to the writer Raymond Carver to whom you dedicated "Birdman":
"I knew that Tess Gallagher, the poet and widow of Carver, she was very tough with Robert Altman, and it took two years to get the rights for Short Cuts. I sent her the script, with a letter, and we knew that if she said no, we would be fucked. We could have another play, but it wouldn’t have been the same. She loved it, and now she has become a great friend of mine. She’s this beautiful 70-year-old woman, and at the premiere in L.A., she gave me the last shirt that Raymond Carver wore. I treasure it. She said that Raymond Carver would be laughing about this."
Loved it; great friend; beautiful: Alejandro, your words show you are 200% aware of the effervescent director persona that Hollywood demands; you play the role superbly; you say all the requisite things. As long as you do so, money, respect and power will flow your way.
Now comes the but.
You appear to be unaware of the Heracles story and the symbolic significance of the shirt. Carver and Tess Gallagher, both of whom both taught writing in universities, no doubt knew about it.
Laughing is right ...
Was Tess Gallagher sending you a message? Is it that your echo chamber and the genocide agenda want their famous Hollywood director persona shirt to cling? Do they fear you will try on other shirts, hence see them for what really they are -- shirts?
(ii) Alejandro, ignorance of ancient mythology is also manifested in your dig at superhero action movies:
"I sometimes enjoy them because they are basic and simple and go well with popcorn. The problem is that sometimes they purport to be profound, based on some Greek mythological kind of thing."
I will pass over the obvious retort by superhero producers that your own reference to Icarus is a vain attempt at profundity. Instead, let´s go back to the mid-1970s, when a different political system existed in America ...
I was employed on a governor´s staff. One afternoon, I got an anxious call from his receptionist:
"There´s a crazy guy out here in the lobby. Claims he helped invent Superman. Wants our assistance to get legal recognition. Can you handle it?"
I glanced at a secret process to call security guards, then talked with him. He was wearing a mortician-black suit. Hmmm ... We met again.
I subsequently met with the governor´s legal staff. Conclusion?
"He´s telling the truth."
Their jaws hit the floor. How could I say such a thing?
"Anybody can fake honesty, power or wealth," I answered: "Nobody can fake creativity. That man is creative."
The clincher was a discussion he and I had about Icelandic mythology. He was really into it. He showed me it was where Superman came from. No scammer would spend years mastering such myths and legends; any risk-benefit analysis will show the effort isn´t worth it. I was into the mythology of another culture (see below). We traded stories, heroes and anti-heroes, plots, scholarly references.
Today, there is no doubt whatsoever that Joe Shuster, along with Jerry Siegel, invented Superman. Joe passed away in 1992. I hope we contributed our two cents worth to get him the credit he truly deserved.
Don´t thank me -- thank him.
(3) A third blatant thinking function error in "Birdman" involved a French connection.
Your movie mentioned Roland Barthes.
Barthes (1915-1980) was the quintessential French intellectual. I happened to be watching "Birdman" with a French professor. When Barthes´ name came up we looked at each other.
Oh, oh ...
Apparently, Alejandro, I am not the first person to mention thinking function problems in your movies. It seems somebody else noticed them, then proposed a "cure" by inserting Roland Barthes. I applaud you for doing so. In these days of cultural genocide, anything that bolsters thinking -- even if that anything is wrong -- is right.
That said, the Barthes reference was slab-dab. I say that because Barthes was not integrated organically into the movie ...
In "Birdman," the rave review by the unladylike lady critic of the "Love" play declared that a "new form" of drama was created by the real blood spilled by the Keaton character who attempted suicide on stage.
Sorry. It doesn´t work that way.
Barthes took pains to note in his mid-1950´s analysis of professional wrestling -- the dominant dramaturgy of our world, it is most manifest today is superhero movies -- that audiences do not want to see real blood but rather stylized, phony blood. To be precise, wrestling fans know the blood is fake but come anyway. Why?
"The inertia of the vanquished allows the (temporary) victor to settle in his cruelty and to convey to the public this terrifying slowness of the torturer who is certain about the outcome of his actions; to grind the face of one's powerless adversary or to scrape his spine with one's fist with a deep and regular movement, or at least to produce the superficial appearance of such gestures: wrestling is the only sport which gives such an externalized image of torture. But here again, only the image is involved in the game, [my emphasis] and the spectator does not wish for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a sadistic spectacle: it is only an intelligible spectacle."
Barthes´ analysis ("Mythologies") is a mouse-click away. He is easily proved right. If the audience wanted real blood, the video made by soldiers of their torture and dismemberment of Samuel Doe, President of Liberia, would be the most visited site on the Internet. I´ll bet you can´t even find the video.
When you get down to it, people won´t pay (much) to see real blood for the same reason they won´t pay (much) to see ambivalence. They get enough at home for free.
Picky, picky ... Alejandro, to a man the owners and operators of your magic carpet ride will protest that the points just raised are unknown to 99.9% of the audience. Therefore, they make no difference.
Well, they do make a difference. Combined with other thinking function errors, they leave a haze, odor, sour taste: naive, clumsy -- professional dilettantism. Sure, the audience cannot locate the source, but they sense something is wrong. That indiscernible something takes a viewer out of the movie´s magic; he looks around -- he´s sitting in a drafty, darkened theater with strangers. There´s chewing gum on his shoe. Up front, the exit sign seems brighter.
The feeling-tone left behind by thinking errors gives rise to a word found over and over in negative reviews of "Birdman": pretentious.
Your audience deserves better, Alejandro. You do too.
* * *
Alejandro, you insist "Birdman" is a comedy, not a Greek tragedy.
With one proviso, I agree with you.
Aristotle gave an excellent definition of tragedy in Poetics (pp. 45-7). Written 2,000 years ago, dear reader, it is still studied and followed by dramatists worldwide. Briefly:
(i) A tragedy goes from good to bad. "Birdman" went from bad to good. The Keaton character and his superhero Birdman persona are together at last. They are living Birdman´s words: "It´s always we, brother!" Right now, their amalgamation is flying somewhere high above the chimney tops. Yes or no, Alejandro?
(ii) A tragedy excites pity and fear. In "Birdman," both of them literally flew out the window in the final scene in which Sam smiles at the heavens where Dad lives happily ever after. He is immortal. He is realizing The Impossible Dream.
Nonetheless, "Birdman" has the sine qua non of a Greek tragedy.
The hero of a tragedy, Aristotle wrote, is neither "eminently good" nor an "utter villain." Rather, he is someone between those extremes
"whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty [hamarthia]."
Hamartia (ἁμαρτία) has been translated as fatal flaw, frailty, sin, trespass, mistake, miscalculation, error of judgment. It seems that the more the meaning is investigated, the more it slips away. That is always the case when a word refers to something deeply rooted in the unconscious. Scholars agree, however, that the most basic sense is missing the mark. À côté de la plaque -- off base.
The Keaton character had a clear and present hamarthia. It was the same as Hamlet´s. We mentioned it above.
Movies or theater? Fame or art? Big money or validation? On the one hand; on the other. Yes-but. It was ambivalence that allowed the unconscious shadow to well up, seize control.
Viewed that way, ambivalence -- not hubris (insolence) or egotism -- was the Keaton character´s hamarthia, i.e., the ultimate source of his downfall.
Alejandro, we cited above your comment that "Birdman" was based on your own life. As will be discussed shortly, given a huge, very real, ambiguous life circumstance, there is no way you can escape ambivalent emotions worthy of Hamlet.
I believe ambivalence weakened your movie which is ultimately about the evils not of egotism but of ambivalence itself. Like a virus, the problem infected the solution to the problem. I don´t like to encapsulate movies in one-liners; however, "Birdman" ended up as an ambivalent movie about ambivalence.
One example of how ambivalence sapped your work:
The hospital mask the Keaton character wears only moments from the end is neither the plaster cast in which the "Love" play husband was encased after an auto accident and couldn´t see his wife, nor is it the Birdman mask. The dressing is both: a hospital bandage -- not a plastic mask -- with a beak formation.
Watching the movie, I thought you would do something with the lover´s hospital cast; "Birdman" presented the same dialogue about it twice. Had the Keaton character unambiguously worn the lover´s dressing, a number of interesting options would have opened up. To cite one: he rips off the dressing, sees his Birdman face, leaps to his death. Sam looks down, then up: albeit too late, Dad learned something. To mention another: the hospital bandage could unequivocally form the Birdman mask. The Keaton character tries to rip it off, fails, leaps. Sam looks down, then up, then starts to look down. She has come to understand something.
The important thing: numerous alternatives instantly emerge. For a classic, dramatic treatment coupled with a deep psychological understanding of a hospital bandage-as-mask: Rod Serling, "The Eye of The Beholder," Twilight Zone, 1960. Reader Take Note: Serling´s program was written and aired almost 50 years before the Second American Revolution took place -- the change of, not in, political systems in America.
On the one hand; on the other. The hospital bandage/mask in "Birdman" is ambiguous. Alejandro, is it that you couldn´t decide which way to go, lover or Birdman, hence decided on both? You and your co-writers may have figured, that way, you could cover both bases. In truth, the hybrid mask was neither here nor there; it fell through the cracks; it satisfied neither side.
I see it as a wasted opportunity. You prepared the foundation for a magnificent statement about the mask, the persona. The moment came ... and went.
I believe ambivalence was present from the outset of "Birdman"; it was unconsciously controlling things. In the opening scene a rocket is heading toward outer space. Or is it? In the last seconds of the scene, the camera angle of the rocket´s arc is ambiguous; the rocket is headed toward the bottom of the screen. Is the rocket going up or is it coming down?
I wish ambivalence that was counter-productive stopped there.
* * *
The Grand Finale
Alejandro, you stated in an interview: " At the ending of the film, (it) can be interpreted as many ways as there are seats in the theater."
I sincerely applaud your tip of the hat to democracy. However, given your movie´s deficit in the thinking function, I wonder if your ex post facto rationalization in terms of ambiguity is not, in reality, an excuse for not having thought things through; for not knowing where you were going; for not having your act together. For being ambivalent about the persona in general and the Birdman in particular.
Given the physical and dangerous nature of their work, among circus performers a lack of discipline -- being half-baked -- is singularly rare. Ambivalent high wire walkers are in the same league as mediocre helicopter pilots, sometimes friendly tigers, a little bit pregnant. They don´t last.
Alejandro, apparently you and your team of "Birdman" writers remain unconvinced by your own post-release rationalizations, hence, are compelled to explain further ... once more ... again ...
Your co-writer Alexander Dinelaris said of the closing scene, "If we defined it, it would be that ...The last moment is inexplicable."
There it is. "Birdman" is ultimately mysterious, unknowable.
Given the thinking function deficit noted above, many readers will view that summation as a gigantic cop-out.
"Inexplicable" is too often an excuse for results that are simply sloppy. If that is what happened in "Birdman," it would not be the first time mental laziness threw up its hands and appealed to mystification. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben:
“To say that Auschwitz is ‘undecipherable’ or ‘incomprehensible,’ comes down to euphēmein, to adore it in silence as though it were a god; that means, in spite of one’s good intentions, one contributes to its glory.”(10)
Only one thing is truly inexplicable: God. By association, you want us to glorify "Birdman" as a supernatural production. Talk about being puffed up. Along with the Keaton character, you, too, were ultimately sucked in by Birdman as a secular god. I say sucked in because, when push comes to shove, the plastic-costumed creature is nothing more than one more commodity mystification on a never-ending assembly line of commodity mystifications.
For a straightforward, as well as dramatic presentation, of that overall conclusion, I appeal to Walt Disney. Inside the Big Mouth Small Brain Birdman costume lurks The Eighth Dwarf: Greedy.
Alejandro, I don´t think for a moment that when you turn out the lights and straighten your pillow, you want to minimize and marginalize thinking; that you favor symbol drain, trivialization, infantilism, culture rape; that you agree with Birdman´s narrow focus on Acktion -- on sensations to the exclusion of the other three psychic functions; that you equate philosophy with bullshit; that you want to support the cultural genocide agenda that is using Birdman superheroes to prefabricate perfect soldiers -- but you did. An intention-consequence separation, if there ever was one.
All of it, I believe, is ultimately the consequence of an obvious but profound ambiguity identified below. The elephant in the room.
But first ...
The following wrap-up strings the beads of our "Birdman" analysis. I thought two weeks before including it.
(i) For readers who saw the movie and believe it is ultimately mysterious and inexplicable, what follows will deflate "Birdman" much faster and harder than the FBI deflated Jihadi John. If you wish to preserve the rosy glow of mystification and sanctification, please skip immediately to the next and final section of this post. (ii) For readers who have not yet seen the movie, the following eight paragraphs spoil the drama. If you read them now you will leave the theater scratching your head: "I don´t get it. What´s the big deal? Neurotic." I want you to see "Birdman" and enjoy it -- there are many good things about it -- therefore, I strongly encourage you to go directly to the next section of this post.
At the bottom of the Keaton character´s drama -- which is your personal drama, Alejandro -- you will find not egotism but standard persona realities identified by Jungian publisher and analyst Daryl Sharp:
"A psychological understanding of the persona as a function of relationship to the outside world makes it possible to assume and drop one at will. But by rewarding a particular persona, the outside world invites identification with it. Money, respect and power come to those who can perform single-mindedly and well in a social role. From being a useful convenience, therefore, the persona may become a trap and a source of neurosis."
The practical approach of take it or leave it, of put a shirt on and take it off, of a useful convenience to get a table in a restaurant -- not ignorance of, ambivalence about, or total identification with a persona -- is nowhere hinted at in "Birdman." Why?
The simple, straightforward, instrumental approach requires an understanding of the persona that differentiates it from the ego, from the shadow, and from psychological inflation. But, well, the price isn´t right. There´s no gold in them thar hills. Actually, there are tons of gold -- more than 95% of what Hollywood movies bring in, but I won´t waste my time or yours, dear reader, discussing it here.(11)
In the meantime, dear reader, while "Waiting for Toto," look for more Moshe Brands.
To illustrate Sharp´s pragmatic approach to the persona, I offer this anecdote:
Lee Goodman, a close family friend and former head of Filmways, and I were sitting in his home on Phillippi Creek, listening to his cacatua Paco sing along with a Pete Johnson recording, and enjoying a bottle of Lécheneaut Les Pruliers. A movie that Lee produced, "The Cincinnati Kid," (1965) staring Steve McQueen, came up. I asked him what crossed his mind after so many years. Lee shrugged:
"That´s just something we did."
* * *
The Unexpected Virtue of Ambivalence
But ambiguity is a richness.
"[P]ero la ambigüedad es una riqueza."
-- Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" --
Is there an alternative to promoting, albeit inadvertently, the cultural genocide agenda? Is there anything the agenda cannot co-opt?
And did the Joe Shuster incident reveal it?
Given what´s playing right now on TV or at a theater near you, if such an alternative exists, it can only be extra-ordinary.
"And now, bordering on the supernatural."
The circus ring master got it exactly right. What I witnessed was not supernatural but bordered on it.
On the one hand; on the other. To be or not to be. Shakespeare would say ambivalence is your hamarthia, Alejandro. I think you would dispute that conclusion. However, the source of the inspiration you gave your actors in "Birdman" is the telltale heart of the matter.
As with the ego, the shadow, and the trickster figure, ambivalence is not all "bad." Indeed, we ask: is ambivalence necessarily a hamarthia? A frailty? Is a reverse jujutsu possible in which not an opponent´s strength is turned into his weakness, but rather our own frailty becomes a strength? A richness?
In certain ways, our world is a long way from ancient Greece. Back then, consciousness and unconsciousness were far less differentiated. Without that differentiation, the following idea is impossible:
The way to deal with unconscious ambivalence is to make it conscious. That way, you can control it instead of it controlling you.
Once that transformation occurs, the unexpected virtue of ambivalence appears. That virtue is an alternative to cultural genocide.
I say that because ambivalence is a source of tension. Where there is tension, there is art.
Art is the opposite of cultural genocide which is at bottom an ideology:
"The ultimate goal of any ideology is to render all words predictable, and to control any unpredictable words by images. That goal will not be realized until ideology replaces the unconscious." (The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion, p. 155)
The source of your inspiration for the "Birdman" actors, Alejandro, was tension incarnate ...
I think in the life of every pre-adolescent child there comes a moment when a popular artist makes an impact that seldom occurs later. From the outer persona to the innermost self, an all-embracing cord is magically struck. The show stops. An inspiration is produced, a quasi-religious sentiment. Watching the artist, the child feels there is something in there that has to do with what he or she was meant to do in life.
For Bob Dylan, James Brown and Muhammad Ali, that popular artist was Gorgeous George, a professional wrestler. If wrestling is the dramaturgy of our world, Gorgeous George set it on its axis. As a kid, I watched him on TV, giving out chocolate-covered cherries. Man, how I wanted one of those cherries.
For me, inspiration came from another performer. When I was 9 years old, the circus came to town. I saw The Great Unus.
James Cagney revealed the goal of Vaudeville where he learned his craft: "You try to give the audience something to go home with." The Great Unus gave me that something in spades.
Somebody else was inspired by The Great Unus.
Watching her father in Madison Square Garden, Vicky decided then and there she would become a circus performer. She achieved it. I, too, resolved to do something worthy of The Great Unus, only in different circles (note to Vicky: no pun intended).
Alejandro, for "Birdman" you drew inspiration from another, quasi-supernatural balancing act. It was performed in 1974, when you were 11 years old:
"I gave every actor a photograph of Philippe Petit crossing between the Twin Towers on a high wire, and I said, ´We are doing that. I will not be able to hide your performances. I will not be able to hide my mistakes. I will not be able to fake anything. I will not be able to polish or manipulate ... ´"
I think I know why Petit inspired you. It is the same reason The Great Unus inspired me. Only years later did I realize what it was.
The Great Unus came as close as anyone to zero ambivalence.
The smallest doubt, the remotest hesitation -- he crashed. No distraction, no daydreaming, no shadow allowed -- only pure consciousness and definitive gestures. No faking. The Great Unus knew where he was every microsecond. When you break his act down into its movements -- the equivalent of scenes in a movie -- he knew what he was doing to within millimeters.
Philippe Petit experienced the same extra-ordinary awareness. He later said of his World Trade Center walk: "I wasn´t afraid ... I was just looking at what I had in front of me." Once he stepped onto the wire, there was no place for fear; no time for indecision. No place to hide. No doubts, no questions. Otherwise ...
Petit´s lack of ambivalence did what all art does. It stirred your unconscious, Alejandro.
The incredible level of danger and difficulty of The Great Unus and Philippe Petit performances requires a supreme manifestation of the ego, the center of consciousness. There is nothing to conceal or explain away, much less feel guilty about. 99.99% ego with zero egotism; after all, egotism would only be a distraction. A living in the present -- all of it -- that is so real as to be almost other worldly.
Petit acknowledges that
"maybe I had a little absence of focus for a quarter of a second ... My focus on the wire is the result of a lifetime of training. And at the beginning I decided to put on blinders. Because the only thing important is the wire. That was a mistake. That focus is dangerous. Because when you are on the wire, the universe that is around can be aggressive and actually deadly. So then I started creating a focus which now I would describe as: I only focus on the wire while I completely listen to my surroundings."
Your "Birdman" actors put on wonderful performances, Alejandro. The photo of Petit clearly inspired them. Although they didn´t have to, there was simply no way they could match him.
To do what Petit did requires, in his words, a lifetime of training. He offhandedly discusses it here. I suspect he felt he had to mention it because the average person knows nothing of such things. Countless mistakes, injuries. Frustration, rage, despair. Above all, discipline, most of it self-imposed; Petit still walks the wire three hours a day. To arrive at the supernatural border ... well ... I witnessed circus training sessions that nowadays would be classified as child abuse.
In The Great Unus and Philippe Petit, we are seeing an endangered species. Today, bordering on the supernatural is bordering on the nonexistent.
The result of the inspiration Vicky Unus drew from her father is on the Internet (see above). The result of the inspiration he gave me is also on the Internet -- a screenplay, "Pillars of The Sea." I posted it on November 17, 2013, with two Expositions ("Pillars of The Sea: The World´s Greatest Lost Treasure Story" and "Pillars of The Sea (II): Exposition.")
It took me 20+ years to write 120 pages. That seems like an extraordinary amount of time, but when you have The Great Unus as a model, two decades are about right to create the performance I demanded. If it didn´t border on the supernatural, I didn´t want it.
No, this is not a sales pitch. When I finished the first draft in 1985, I knew "Pillars" could not be produced in my lifetime. Yours either, Alejandro. The reasons are given in the expositions. One of them sums up how "Pillars" runs counter to cultural genocide:
"Pillars of The Sea" is an imminently democratic movie out of step with our preeminently oligarchic times. Symbol drain; cultural rape; trivialization; postmodernism´s legitimization of the reigning oligarchy; constant reinforcement of Latin America´s ambivalence toward and rejection of its Indian origins, which perpetuate its condition of political and cultural dependency; the threat to oligarchs´ monetary self-interests by a political economy of reordered values: the reasons for not producing ´Pillars´ today are overwhelming. The plate is full."
Plainly speaking, it is presently not possible to obtain financing for "Pillars." But, as the expositions discuss, present political and economic circumstances will not last forever. The on-going evolution of capitalism -- not good intentions or economics treaties, much less socialism -- will change them. My estate will handle the rest.
I mentioned at the top of this post, Alejandro, that you and I are headed in different directions, that although we share many interests, we do not share the same values.
Your "Birdman" themes of commerce versus art, the chase, personal destiny, friendship, love, the meaning of life, and ambivalence are also themes of "Pillars." However, they are dealt with differently.
You and I both came to Jung´s either-or junction but went opposite ways. The Keaton character kept his shirt on. He became one with his fashionable, profitable and manipulable persona.
The alternative -- the or -- entails stepping voluntarily into another fire in order to become who you really are. "Pillars" portrayed that outcome, after which the shirt was sent to the cleaners.
In order to tell the or convincingly, three gears of dramaturgy, archaeology, and psychology had to mesh. The four functions of the psyche -- thinking, intuition, feeling, and sensation -- had to be balanced. Over two decades of training and rehearsals, "Pillars" was calculated to within millimeters. No compromise with authenticity. No cannibalization. No symbol drain. No faking. No ambivalence in the final performance. No doubts. No turning back. No voting "maybe."
I mentioned that a fundamental ambivalence, Alejandro, is forced upon you by a huge ambiguity in your objective circumstances. It is beyond your control and not of your making. I think you know what is coming ...
On awarding you an Oscar, Sean Penn joked, "Who gave this son-of-a-bitch his green card?" Along with a statuette, he presented the elephant in the room.
The torrent of criticism Sean Penn unleashed showed it isn´t an elephant; it´s a mammoth. I will skip over the polemic about inappropriateness, about fighting xenophobia with xenophobia. Whether those criticisms are right or wrong, the unmentionable still needs to be mentioned.
Starting with Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Sean Penn has played the role of The Trickster Figure. The final proof: he is not backing down from his Oscar joke. There are many types of tricksters, but no trickster apologizes.
There are thousands of actors worldwide. Alejandro, you picked Sean Penn to star in your movie "21 Grams" (2003) for a reason. Likewise, Penn brought up the green card for a reason. That reason was not a reason in the rational sense; rather, it was the unconscious seeking to balance something that was out of equilibrium.
Alejandro, you live in two worlds, Mexico and the United States. On the one hand; on the other. You have to balance them constantly. To help you, you mastered the Hollywood director persona; you speak with elegance and grace; you say and do the appropriate things. For playing your role so well, you are handsomely rewarded. You have every reason to glorify your director persona. And, to be ambivalent about it.
You are dependent on that persona for your livelihood. A condition of dependency always creates ambivalent feelings. They are piled on top of the ambivalence you and every person feels who lives outside his native land.
In 2009, The New York Times ran a story about you, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro:
“´These guys are Mexican through and through and embrace their heritage and everything that comes with that,´ David Linde, a chairman of Universal Pictures, said of the Three Amigos. ´But they have a global perspective, much as I hate that phrase. It fascinates them to tell stories in Mexico, Spain, the U.K. and the United States because what drives them, quite simply, is an interest in what it means to be human.´
That flexibility doesn’t always sit well with Latin American critics, intellectuals and even some filmmakers working in the local system, which often relies on government rather than private funds. Here [in Mexico], for example, [the three directors], while often praised as examples of how Mexicans can succeed on the world stage, have also found themselves accused of selling out to Hollywood and Europe and toning down or even sacrificing what is specifically and distinctly Mexican in their work.
´That’s an infantile argument, a really simplistic concept that is often used to defend limits and mediocrity,´ Mr. González Iñárritu said. ´Yes, I am a Mexican, and I have a past and a culture. But what matters is the film itself, not where it was financed or cast. Cinema is universal, beyond flags and borders and passports.´”
Your director persona´s comments, Alejandro, need two qualifiers.
(1) National versus universal is a false dichotomy.
Whenever national cultures invoke archetypes in the collective unconscious of mankind, the results are universal. Art is the better for it. C.G. Jung:
"Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever enduring. He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and to outlive the longest night."
Alejandro, your culture and past come together in the pre-Columbian civilization of the Valley of Mexico. Planet earth has no better fountain of primordial images anywhere that speak with a thousand voices.
I said you and I are headed in opposite directions. What you went away from, I went to. "Pillars of The Sea" was formed out of pre-Columbian images from your valley.
The false national-universal dichotomy is readily understandable because the connections between them are not always obvious. Each culture develops universal archetypes differently. A culture calls out contents from the unconscious and puts a name on them. Maybe, culture can be defined as such.
(2) Our second qualifier derives from the first.
In another interview, your director persona criticized "industrial movies" as works that appeal to everybody -- "that comfortably satisfy the masses."
When universal unconscious archetypes are carefully selected and creatively presented, the result truly has something for everybody. From Chile to China and Indiana to India, Kenya to Kioto, Germany to Georgia, Togo to Tunisia. For Ph.D.´s and illiterates; retirees and teenagers; females and males; doctors and fruit pickers; rich, poor, middle class. One movie that achieved universal status: "The Wizard of Oz."
Art that invokes universal archetypes effectively appeals to everybody without being industrial. How can that be? Because of the extraordinary time and effort required to create it, when viewed strictly in economic -- industrial -- terms, such art is nonsense; no risk-benefit analysis will justify it. It is something else.
Whatever that something may be, it borders on the supernatural. The audience -- all of it -- takes something home.
A specific example of a universal archetype follows. It is the archaeological, dramaturgical and psychological core of "Pillars":
The Greek myth of Deianira/Nessus/Heracles was cited above. Because of a poisoned shirt that made his life unbearable, Heracles ordered that he be burned. In Jungian terms, in order to become his true self, a part of him had to die.
Here is an Aztec counterpart myth. It features the god Nanahuatzin:
"In this legend, ... there had been four creations. In each one, one god has taken on the task of serving as the sun: Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl,Tlaloc, and Chalchiuhtlicue. Each age ended because the gods were not satisfied with the human beings that they had created. Finally, Quetzalcoatl retrieves the sacred bones of their ancestors, mixes them with corn and his own blood, and manages to make acceptable human beings. However, no other god wants the task of being the sun.
- The gods decide that the fifth, and possibly last, sun must offer up his life as a sacrifice in fire. Two gods are chosen: Tecciztecatl and Nanahuatzin. The former is chosen to serve as the sun because he is wealthy and strong, while the latter will serve as the moon because he is poor and ill. Tecciztecatl, who is proud, sees his impending sacrifice and transformation as an opportunity to gain immortality. The humble Nanahuatzin accepts because he sees it as his duty. During the days before the sacrifice, both gods undergo purification. Tecciztecatl makes offerings of rich gifts and coral. Nanahuatzin offers his blood and performs acts of penance.
- The gods prepare a large bonfire that burns for four days, and construct a platform high above it from which the two chosen gods must leap into the flames. On the appointed day, Tecciztecatl and Nanahuatzin seat themselves upon the platform, awaiting the moment of sacrifice. The gods call upon Tecciztecatl to immolate himself first. After four attempts to throw himself onto the pyre, which is giving off extremely strong heat by this time, his courage fails him and he desists. Disgusted at Tecciztecatl's cowardice, the gods call upon Nanahuatzin, who rises from his seat and steps calmly to the edge of the platform. Closing his eyes, he leaps from the edge, landing in the very center of the fire. His pride wounded upon seeing that Nanahuatzin had the courage that he lacked, Tecciztecatl jumps upon the burning pyre after him.
Nothing happens at first, but eventually two suns appear in the sky. One of the gods, angry over Tecciztecatl's lack of courage, takes a rabbit and throws it in Tecciztecatl's face, causing him to lose his brilliance. Tecciztecatl thus becomes the moon, which bears the impression of a rabbit to this very day. Yet the sun remains unmoving in the sky, parching and burning all the ground beneath. Finally the gods realize that they, too, must allow themselves to be sacrificed so that human beings may live. They present themselves to the god Ehecatl, who offers them up one by one. Then, with the powerful wind that arises as a result of their sacrifice, Ehecatl makes the sun move through the sky, nourishing the earth rather than scorching it."
A library shelf of books and thesis could be written about the Nanahuatzin myth. Indeed, numerous psychoanalysts including Sigmund Freud, C.G. Jung, Bruno Bettelheim, and Marie-Louise von Franz are renowned for their interpretations of myths, legends, fairy tales.
I think, Alejandro, something deep inside you sensed the total victory of Birdman was Too Much. It simply was not right that the Keaton character -- and along with him the audience -- be sucked in by a movie star persona. Equilibrium was called for.
I also think you looked consciously and unconsciously for deflation of Birdman in a way that would not jeopardize your movie from being made. You attempted that deflation by presenting a theme: existence is brief. By implication, like everything else, Birdman´s victory is fleeting.
"Birdman" openly addressed life´s brevity in Shakespeare´s "Tomorrow" soliloquy and in Sam´s toilet-paper assignment from rehab. This subject obviously touches you deeply, Alejandro. You stated
"Our participation in reality is just a little flash that means nothing to the cosmic reality of time."
I do not believe your attempt to balance Birdman was successful, and for the same reason the mention of Roland Barthes did not solve the thinking function deficit. The theme of the transitory nature of life was not integrated into the text. Another patch, then. I would further contend that the fact you gave the theme to Sam not once but twice -- she lectures her dad "You´re not important! Get used to it!" -- not only does not balance Birdman´s conquest but on the contrary, via Sam´s gaze into the heavens, heightens it by contrast.
Whether it ultimately succeeded or failed, your sensitivity to the temporal nature of things resonates not Hollywood(12) but your indigenous heritage.
The pre-Columbian world was highly aware of the brevity of existence; it drove things. How could it be otherwise? -- the average life span in the Andes was 21 years.(13) Despite that fact -- or maybe because of it -- indigenous peoples managed to create mythology, legends, stories and poems that rival Shakespeare and Cervantes. Many of them center on the transience of life, indeed of planet earth.
What follows is a haunting 1400s poem attributed to the king, warrior, philosopher and architect Netzahualcóyotl, ruler of the city-state of Texcoco. It forms the backdrop of "Pillars":
"LIFE IS EPHEMERAL
AND SINKS INTO THE PIT;
THE WHOLE EARTH BELLY
IS A GRAVE;
THERE IS NOTHING
IT CAN SUSTAIN;
THE WATER COURSE, THE RIVER,
THE STREAM, THE SPRING:
Over 90% of pre-Columbian art remains diamonds in the rough. The cause is found among the blackest pages of human history. In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors ruthlessly destroyed Aztec, Inca, Maya and other indigenous civilizations, thereby curtailing the fuller evolution and integration of cultural works that took place in the Christian world and elsewhere.
The pre-Columbian myths and legends that "Pillars" brought together to form a treasure story set in 1969, is not even a thousandth of what is possible. Further compilation and evolution -- a return to the source of primordial images not just of Latin America but of humanity -- awaits painters, writers, sculptors, musicians, photographers and movie-makers around the world.
Alejandro, there is no way you could have accomplished what you did had you been raised in the United States. From Hollywood´s earliest days to the present, the contributions of foreigners to American movies have been monumental. Who can doubt they experienced ambivalent emotions -- culture shock -- while living and working in sunny California? One need only look at what they achieved, however, to see that they used their ambivalence as a source of energy, light, creativity. They followed what Albert Camus saw -- "a difficult path where contradictions may exist and thrive."(14)
Where there is ambivalence, there is tension; where there is tension, there is art. Where there is art, there is an alternative to cultural genocide.
The title of "Pillars of The Sea" comes from the engraving on the famous silver reales coin of pirate legends. That coin is known in numismatic circles as "Dos Mundos" -- Two Worlds. The reference is not gratuitous:
Cultural genocide destroys dynamic contradictions. It inserts for the real world of ambiguity an as-if world in which vital paradoxes are smoothed down, paved over. As if America were one big happy family. As if green cards didn´t exist.(15)
In reality, the agenda manufactures solutions only to create bigger problems; desires, solely to satisfy them momentarily. Sensation is substituted for perfection; sameness, for otherness. All for a price.
Cultural genocide threatens to rob you, Alejandro -- all of us -- of richness.
For a contradiction to exist and flourish, both of its opposites are required. Balancing -- as in a high wire act -- is impossible without each of them.
Mexico-United States contradictions need to be more fully recognized -- not explained away; not plastered over with contentless abstractions such as "global perspective"; not denied by vacuous claims that movies are beyond passports and national borders; not dismissed with a wave of a moralizing hand; not shouted down by a guilty audience.
That means, not just the United States but Mexico, too -- both sides -- of fundamental paradoxes need to be constellated and related. Perhaps now more than ever.
Phillippe Petit says the same thing. The secret inner essence of his performance is no secret at all. His high wire unites two opposites.
"I love my profession because what I do actually is I link things with my walk. And when you link things ... imagine two mountains, a village here a village [there], imagine that they are enemies -- actually, it did happen -- when I did my walk, for the time of walking those two villages are linked together, they become one, so it´s a beautiful profession.
I think I should finish with that."
APPENDIX (May 19, 2015). Art and Abduction Versus Cultural Genocide.
This post is attracting far more visitors than anticipated. Readers are asking challenging questions. I will answer the vast majority this way ...
What follows is for individuals who want to write a screenplay or other work of fiction, but fear they may unwittingly foster symbol drain, cannibalization, culture rape.
How, then, can someone avoid being co-opted by the cultural genocide agenda? Can the agenda be transcended, defeated and not merely protested?
Being ideological in nature, cultural genocide has roots in the unconscious. That means at present there is no vaccine, no antidote. No silver bullet.
Art is an alternative to the genocide agenda that ultimately seeks not to work with the unconscious but to control it. It is true that inroads have been made; equally true, the agenda has not yet accomplished its goal.
As discussed above, art has its origin in the unconscious shadow. The problem is, ideology, too, has roots in the unconscious. How is it possible to know, then, if a given creation is art or an ideological dictation posing as art?
(i) In and of itself, asking that question is over 50% of the solution.
(ii) Time provides the answer. Simply put: if after 5-10 years something looks O.K., it probably is. Perhaps less time is required, but watch out.
(iii) Cross-cultural experiences can be singularly revealing of one´s own basic assumptions and values. Firmly-held beliefs -- socioeconomic class is unimportant, the United States has a democracy -- reveal themselves as ideological in origin. In the painful process of self-discovery via culture shock, the pre-Columbian world belongs in the center ring. It is a foreign land indeed; for starters, its economy was not capitalist.
As for art, given its unconscious origin, nobody knows what "works." All I can relate is what worked for me. In particular, people who want to take inspiration from pre-Columbian art hopefully will find this Appendix useful.
Inspired by The Great Unus, in 1985 I started to write "Pillars of The Sea." I have no idea why I wanted to do it, any more than Philippe Petit knew why he wanted to walk a wire between the Twin Towers. My guess is, if he could tell you why he did it, he wouldn´t have done it.
I love movies; I hate movies. Fed up with what I was seeing on TV and around town, I went in search of what was newest. I found it in what was oldest.
I wanted to create something for everyone; no "art film" was ever considered. The standard American approach to writing fiction for a general audience is spelled out in books such as Writing The Blockbuster Novel and Writing to Sell. Both were written by top literary agents.
Their method: you prepare a road map and follow fixed, well-traveled routes. The logic is both inductive and deductive.
Frankly, I am not temperamentally suited for that approach. You know exactly from the start where you are going and how you are going to get there. Once the map is prepared, where is the fun? The unexpected? The spontaneity? The art?
I once worked as a tool and die maker. For me the idea of facing another blueprint was as exciting as a wet tortilla.
To start "Pillars" moving, I relied on neither induction nor deduction, but abduction -- a leap of logic. Best guessing. Intuition modified by reason. Revelatory common sense.
Here is how abduction worked in practice:
The basic creative technique used by "Pillars" originated in Dadaism.
That technique in its purest form uses chance as a compass. It was presented in 1920 by Dadaist leader Tristan Tzara in his poem, “To make a Dadaist poem”:
"Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then carefully cut out each of the words that make up
this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other.
in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are -- an infinitely original writer with a charming sensibility,
even more so if it includes vulgarity."(16)
Tzara´s technique will instantly sweep you out of the world of convention, prejudice, habit. Doors open which you didn´t know existed. The final result is as strange as it is fresh. It is not as consciously, unconsciously or ideologically dictated as results created by customary creative processes. An outcome produced by chance is something else.
Occasionally, what chance creates will knock your eyes out.
Tzara believed Random Is Right. However, if you actually use his technique you will quickly see that with some changes you can improve the result. Therefore ...
Although chance entered the "Pillars" writing process, it was not allowed to dictate it. An incident involving the Dadaist artist Hans Arp reveals the general flow. I wrote about it in The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion (p. 185):
"In a conversation with William S. Rubin regarding his collage series entitled ´According to the Laws of Chance´ -- which some art historians had taken literally, describing Arp as dropping pieces of paper and then pasting them on cardboard exactly as they had fallen ... Rubin wrote, ´One glance at these collages is enough to suggest the unlikelihood of this procedure, and Arp has since confirmed that he had used chance in these works only as a point of departure for images that were afterward consciously rearranged.´”(17)
Randomness as a point of departure. Like Arp, I did not leave chance entirely to chance. The painter Joan Miro cogently summed it up: he said that, when he painted, the first stage “is free, unconscious.” The second stage, however, “is carefully calculated.”(18)
Obviously, once pure chance is excluded, ideology can infiltrate the process. (I would argue that the belief that Random Is Right is itself ideological, but won´t pursue that point here). Cultural genocide can germinate, grow, sap, contaminate, dominate. Constant awareness of that possibility is necessary, but not sufficient, to prevent the genocide agenda from seizing control of a project.
But where was Tzara´s "newspaper" I was going to work with? Where were the pieces I was going to put in a bag, shake gently, remove, copy conscientiously?
The process that follows can be used on any artwork. Illustration: you want to write something Shakespearean and have his collected works. Via a random number generator -- click here for one -- you select (i) the page number, then (ii) the paragraph, subsequently (iii) the line, and finally (iv) word or phrase. You copy each result onto a separate piece of paper. Put the pieces in a hat, withdraw them, and copy the results in the order in which they appear.
Back to what I did for "Pillars":
(1) I started with The Florentine Codex, the most thorough presentation of Aztec myths, customs and legends. I went through all 12 volumes one line at a time. If an item caught my eye -- "Time to go out. With masks!"; "The color of war in sunless mirrors" -- I copied it in a notebook in the order in which it appeared.
I had no idea what a given item meant or how or even if I would use it. All I knew was that it grabbed my attention. That grabbing meant the unconscious was engaged; hence, the random selection of the puzzle pieces was not entirely random. Was the fact that I was attracted to it due to art or ideology? Again, both time and vigilance were called for.
I would compare this stage to stream of consciousness writing. That stream is one step down from pure randomness for countering cultural genocide; however, since art is in the stream, it should not to be excluded. In sum: a classic baby/bath dilemma.
The pre-Columbian items that intrigued me filled hundreds of pages. Reading them straight through for the first time, I knew intuitively I had collected pieces of a magnificent puzzle that was second to none.
However, I had no idea of the picture on the box. Comedy? Tragedy? Horror? I had a vague feeling, nothing more, that it was an adventure story.
(2) The unconscious started bringing pieces to the foreground and piecing them together one-by-one. This process took place in dreams; in bolts from the blue; even Freudian slips. Not to be left out is a phenomenon Jung defined as synchronicity; two events appear to be pure coincidence but they are not. (Example: while in the state library researching one item, I "happened" to run across another -- a photo of the silver reales coin). For years, I carried around another notebook in which I wrote down -- it must be done immediately -- all unconscious upwellings. 9 out of 10 were eventually discarded as misleading or inappropriate. Clearly, rational processes, both inductive and deductive, started to manifest themselves, however, this stage was still 90% abduction. Intuition + logic + common sense.
Pursuing the puzzle metaphor: with time, the four corners emerged; they were the most important pieces (example: the final scene). Likewise, pieces with straight edges appeared; they, plus the corner pieces, showed the shape of things to come. I grouped other pieces by color and design. Some pieces had odd shapes; I looked for the missing adjoining pieces. To repeat: we are looking at a process that took place over years, in fact decades.
(3) Assemblies of assemblies occurred both abductively and unconsciously. Again, most of them were false leads; perhaps, they were parts of other stories. I was certain of one thing: they didn´t belong in "Pillars." That certainty meant calculation was being added to spontaneity; I was on the border between them.
More and more frequently, inductive and deductive logical processes asserted themselves.
Simply because something occurs in a dream or crosses your mind while walking down the street, does not automatically mean it should be included in a screenplay or other artwork. Such emanations must always be evaluated critically in the cold light of day. Not only will many of them turn out to be ideological tricks and traps, there is an aesthetic problem:
Upwellings from the unconscious can come from the personal unconscious, not from the collective unconscious. That means they will be highly meaningful to you but not to other people. These items should not to be included in artwork destined for a general audience. Time and effort will sort each item on a case by case basis.
(4) The assemblies started to drive themselves, and congealed into scenes. One thing followed on the heels of another. I was becoming more and more aware of what was happening, particularly the general direction the story was taking. Gobs of structure appeared. In its later phases, the congealing process sped up, sometimes in logarithmic spurts.
Prior to 1985, I had never seen a script. I took a seminar on screenplay writing and studied the traditional movie skeleton as presented by Syd Field, David Trottier and other authors. You can count on a minimum of two months to master the screenplay technique. To create a "spec script," which is what you want initially, the process is highly intuitive.
I spent years playing around with the screenplay structure -- plot points at 20 minutes and 90 minutes, etc. I was unable to improve it. When it comes to existing audience expectations, what is given is given; there is little or nothing you can do about them. In the end, "Pillars," a nontraditional movie, followed rigorously the traditional two-hour movie format.
(5) Some pieces of the puzzle were missing. Here, the dangerous part of the project appeared. I had to create them.
For "Pillars" the creation of missing pieces was complicated by my insistence on balancing the four functions of thinking, intuition, feeling and sensation. In addition, I insisted that three large gears meshed: archaeology, dramaturgy and psychology. The overall feeling I wanted to create for the audience was being caught in a magnificent clock.
To create/develop the missing pieces, I had to imbue myself with the four functions and three mechanisms. Ideally, each piece fulfilled all seven requirements. This part of the project took the most time and effort. For example, the plot point 90 minutes into "Pillars" had to be an emotional turning point of extra-ordinary proportions. To be convincing it had to provoke a sense of horror exceeding anything that ever came out of Hollywood. After two years of research, it presented itself in a synchronistic (Jung) manner.
Abduction proved to be a superb training ground for inventing/developing missing plots, dialogues, and character changes. Many if not most of the new puzzle pieces turned out to be abductive extensions of old ones.
Abductive logic slowly but surely supplies answers. The problem is, most of them are not answers you can use, at least in the project immediately in front of you. You have to be ready, willing and able to discard them. Be especially suspicious of anything you created and are glad about. "In writing, you must kill your darlings," William Faulkner advised. We presented a case study in "Birdman" where that advice was not followed; as a result, the genocide agenda surged, took over.
(6) In the final stages I had three separate Hollywood movie script professionals critique "Pillars." You must obtain professional, independent advice for scripts. Do not waste your time asking your friends and family to review your work. Good professionals, by the way, do not charge an arm and a leg.
What inter-subjectivity will reveal -- and it will do so in cold-blooded terms -- are elements which you overlooked or are weak. Above all else, professional script consultants will make you see errors in continuity, e.g., in one scene you show a character is a dwarf; in another scene he does something only a six-footer could do.
I also had two psychoanalysts as well as an anthropologist at the New School of American Research, the first U.S. publisher of The Florentine Codex, go over "Pillars." Changes; changes; more changes.
In working with critics and consultants, I encountered a "15-15-70 Rule":
15% of what they tell you is right on target. You will readily agree with it, adopt it. This part is the easiest.
Another 15% widely misses the mark. You will completely disagree with it, reject it. Again, little or no problem.
We come to the remaining 70%. It consists of criticisms and comments you are not sure about. It takes laborious review to resolve them.
In summary, as Miró would say, the first phase of writing "Pillars" was spontaneous; the second was carefully calculated.
To speak of something bordering on the supernatural is, ultimately, to speak of inspiration. The drops of it the abductive method produced made "Pillars" worth every minute.
Most creative projects are not rejected, must less killed; they are abandoned. There were periods in writing "Pillars" in which nothing happened, or what did happen was irrelevant if not downright wrong. What, then, kept me going?
(i) The spoonful of pure inspiration.
(ii) In the course of discovering and sorting the puzzle pieces, I realized I was working with hundreds of great artists. The comfort was real but cold: every one of them was anonymous, deceased.
(iii) The pre-Columbian creations I was working with had already withstood the test of time, at least 500 years.
Those three facts gave me faith to go to the end.
That end, of course, was what mattered. With hundreds of incredible co-writers, it was hard for "Pillars" to go wrong.
(1)The world ignorance has an insulting connotation; however, in our discussion it is a synonym for not knowing.
Einstein surely did not speak a word of Burmese. However, that does not mean he was stupid or uneducated. It means: in terms of the Burmese language, Einstein was ignorant.
(2)(i) There is no mystery about what was happening in ISIS beheading videos. In semiotic terms (as developed by Charles Peirce), the Jihadi John persona was icon, indice and symbol rolled into one.
(ii) The conceptual framework for this post is from C.G. Jung because his analysis of the persona provides more meaningful distinctions than Freudian analysis. For other questions, the opposite is true -- see our post of April 8, 2014 "Freud -- On Obama."
(3) Sartre on Baudelaire: “He did want, no doubt, to create himself, but he wanted to create himself as other people saw him. He wanted to be this contradictory nature: a freedom-thing.” (« Il veut se créer lui-même, sans doute, mais tel que les autres le voient. Il veut être cette nature contradictoire : une liberté‑chose. ») My translation. Jean-Paul Sartre, Baudelaire, Gallimard, Paris, 1996, p. 65.
(4) C.G. Jung, “Phenomena Resulting from the Assimilation of the Unconscious,” in C.G. Jung, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Second Edition, 1977, Volume 7, p. 143. (Paragraph 227)
(5) Ricky Lyman, “Spreading the Wealth at the Academy Awards,” International Herald Tribune, March 27, 2001.
(6) Joan Dupont, “No Man’s Land: A Tale From Bosnia’s Trenches,” International Herald Tribune, May 18, 2001.
(7) For more on this subject, see this site, The Big Movida: The Third American Revolution. The Second American Revolution of 2008-9 was both cause and effect of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, in which a trillion public dollars -- out of a 14-trillion dollar economy -- was committed to private interests.
(8) (« [L]e révolté a soin de maintenir intacts les abus dont il souffre pour pouvoir se révolter contre eux. Il y a toujours en lui les éléments d’une mauvaise conscience et comme un sentiment de culpabilité. Il ne veut ni détruire ni dépasser mais seulement se dresser contre l’ordre. Plus il l’attaque, plus il le respecte obscurément ; [...] ») My translation. Jean-Paul Sartre, op.cit., p. 50.
(9) (« les explications n’expliquent rien. ») Related by Paul Matisse, « Avant-Propos » in Marcel Duchamp, Notes, Flammarion, Paris, 1999, p. 9.
(10) (« Dire qu’Auschwitz est ‘indicible’ ou ‘incompréhensible’, cela revient à euphēmein, à l’adorer en silence comme on fait d’un dieu ; cela signifie donc, malgré les bonnes intentions, contribuer à sa gloire. ») Giorgio Agamben, Ce qui reste d’Auschwitz, Bibliothèque Rivages, Paris, 1999, p. 40. My translation.
(11) Our post "Stupid Movies Explained" presented the economic basis of our position that, artistically and financially, Hollywood is running on only one cylinder. With minor changes, Hollywood could drastically change what follows:
"... many readers will hotly dispute our view that Hollywood is sputtering. They may even point to a report that 2012 was a record-breaking year for Hollywood. Box office ticket sales raked in $10.7 billion, without increasing ticket prices. International sales were even more positive: ´grosses almost tripled from $8.1 billion in 2001 to $22.4 billion in 2011.´ Impressive, no?
No -- not really. Those figures must be put in perspective. Picture in your mind´s eye the intimidating front gates and portentous emblems of Warner Brothers, Columbia Pictures, Paramount, MGM, Disney, Universal, Sony, Tri-star, Miramax, United Artists. Then, toss in every other Hollywood studio. Sorry, incorrigible movie fans and big cheese producers, loud mouth agents and big shot actors, but a single nonmovie company founded in 1976 beat the pants off all Hollywood companies combined.
In 2011, Apple Computer reported yearly revenues of $108 billion."
(12) We are speaking of the Hollywood of today. Before the Second American Revolution of 2008-9, thanks to the input of numerous immigrants a different sensitivity existed ...
Millions of years from now, the sun will heat up, then die. "The familiar constellations that illuminate our night will seem as they have always seemed, eternal, unchanged and little moved by the shortness of time between our planet's birth and its demise." That stunning, vintage existentialist statement comes not from Sartre or Camus, Kafka or Kierkegaard, but "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955).
(13) Historia de América Andina, Luis Lumbreras, Editor, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, Ecuador, 1999. Volume 1, pp. 164-5.
(14) Albert Camus, The Rebel, Vintage Books, New York, 1956, p. 290.
(15) The genocide agenda is merely exploiting and perfecting to a pathological degree a tendency found in the everyday world. The anthropologist Jules Henry explored how even a meal in a restaurant can become
"a study in as-ifness: everything takes place as if it were something else ... pathological extremes of as-ifness are merely special phases of the average cultural as-ifness we encounter in advertising and elsewhere. One might say that advertising simply exploits the ability of the ordinary citizen to live in an as-if universe. Everybody knows we often act toward people as if we like them when we hate them; as if we trust them when we know they are hypocrites; as if we believe them when we know they are lying, and so on. We are all very much alike ... " Jules Henry, Culture Against Man, p. 363.
(16) Tristan Tzara, « Pour faire un poème dadaïste » :
"Prenez un journal.
Prenez des ciseaux.
Choisissez dans ce journal un article ayant la longueur
que vous comptez donner à votre poème.
Découpez ensuite avec soin chacun des mots qui for-
ment cet article et mettez-les dans un sac.
Sortez ensuite chaque coupure l’une après l’autre.
dans l’ordre où elles ont quitté le sac.
Le poème vous ressemblera.
Et vous voilà un écrivain infiniment original et d’une
sensibilité charmante, encore qu’incomprise du vul-
Tristan Tzara, « Dada manifeste sur l’amour faible et l’amour amer », in Tristan Tzara, Dada est tatou. Tout est Dada, GF-Flammarion, Paris, 1996, pp. 228-9. My translation.
(17) William S. Rubin, Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1967, p. 41.
(18) Ibid., p. 68.