- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Lisa Loucks Christenson Publishing, LLC (June 2, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1877275743
- ISBN-13: 978-1877275746
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,446,807 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons: Film as the Mythology of Electronic Society
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" a profoundly erudite look at the deeper meanings of cinema Ebert weaves a tale as engrossing as the films he analyzes." --Leonard Shlain, author of The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
From the Publisher
From the Foreword by William Irwin Thompson
John Ebert has found a very interesting way to track the transformation of Western Civilization that sneaked up on us while we were looking at television.
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And so as a great fan of Campbell, I often find myself wondering what Campbell would have said if he had been able to read Jean Gebser's magnum opus, The Ever Present Origin. Or if he had seen the evolution of his mythological theories not only in Star Wars (one of the two films he ever saw, along with Kubrick's 2001), but through the works of Kubrick, Spielberg, Aronofsky. Or if he could have read the works of the post-modern critical theorists Baudrillard, Virilio, Badiou. Or what he would have to say about zombie films and the fear of death. Or the internet and new media.
Mr. Ebert is taking the next step down the trail that scholars like Joseph Campbell have blazed. Campbell, Spengler, Mumford... in their day, these men were still concerned with categorizing facts and identifying historical patterns and forces, then elucidating them to the rest of us. It is hard to fathom today that it was not long ago that it would have been preposterous to claim to have identified historical patterns that applied equally to the social life of white European culture in the industrial age as to the pre-Aryan Dravidians of the Indus Valley, or of mythological motifs that governed the experiences of American Christians taking communion as well as Meso American Aztecs sacrificing humans. Today, this point of view is pervasive and common, but a hundred years ago this was not the case, and so many of our best minds were engaged in mapping the ground and naming the territory.
It is only today that our scholars are in a position to look at trans-historical global motifs in the diverse arenas of human action and comment on how they are at play in contemporary life. And this is precisely what Mr. Ebert does. He is one of the few scholars I know of who is doing this from a perspective other than the outdated (though still occasionally useful) Marxist one. Although his disappointment with the eroding force of materialist capitalism is apparent, I suspect he would share Adorno and Horkheimer's (as well as Spengler and other traditionalists from the right) pessimism about the cultural leveling and obliteration of value resulting from standard Marxism and multiculturalism (although that is me reading into his work). Mr. Ebert is a man who has read, taken in, and to a great degree understood the traditional, classical learning of Western culture AND the modern and post-modern critical theory that deconstructs and comments on that culture.
And so, like a good psychologist can listen to a patient's unique situation and identify common patterns playing out, we have an author here who is able to see universal motifs playing out in our most popular literature (film), and who can see in our reactions to 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina very expected reactions of a society at a particular phase in its development.
This book, in particular, is built around what Mr. Ebert sees as the central struggle of modern man. We have spent centuries building a machine to care for us and keep us safe in a dangerous and chaotic world - a machine that includes not only technological devices, but ordered governance, regimented lives, civil infrastructure, etc - but we now find ourselves enslaved to our creation, feeling like none of us, not even all of us together, can control it. We could rise up and attempt to destroy it - though it will fight back, and probably win, for we seem to have been clever enough to have built it with powerful immune systems - but taking control back in order to put it to conscious ends simply seems impossible. More and more, we find that the machine seems to be self-aware and malevolent, even as it turns us into something like automatons. For example, it is almost universal in our free country (the USA) that a perfectly law abiding working man or woman will tense up and become nervous when he sees a police car in the rearview mirror. Our pulse increases and our vision narrows, our body goes into the same mode it would if we were confronting a bully or enemy, despite the fact that the police officer in fact exists specifically to serve the law-abider and keep him safe. Turn on the news on a random day and you are sure to see a report of some law-abiding citizen, somewhere, getting droopped or tazed by an officer for what turns out to be a breakdown in communication or misunderstanding. The cop is not a swastika-adorned goosestepper; he is just a man going home to his family that night, same as the schmuck he tazed and threw in a cage. Both the citizen and the officer are simply acting out their roles, both are confused and insecure and afraid of the other. The machine turns us into its robot slaves acting out our parts even as it seems to act with more intention and consciousness than we do. We have spent centuries building it, only to realize that we have built it from the inside and are now trapped. Like any prison, we alternate between periods of bored anxiety and awkward or violent interpersonal relations. Most people don't know their hatred and fear of the machine, can't name it. But it bleeds out neurotically, in our dreams, international relations, and personal lives, as well as in our popular literature (primarily movies). The book is about the broad issue, but uses the narrative vehicle of reviewing several classic films from this perspective in order to get its point across.
Mr. Ebert deserves a wide audience. It should be clear that I'm a big fan. His books and website are, it's true, a little like liveblogging the apocalypse. It's a tough job, but I'm glad someone is doing it.
There are a few notable omissions from his overview---horror films and experimental cinema surely deserve an seat at this visionary table--but then, a work covering every conceivable facet of this subject would have required a series of volumes rather than just one, so that may actually be a blessing in disguise. All in all, an important work on the premier art of our time--cinema.
His journey is precise and with an overall purpose, however, one may skip to chapters that hold special interest, for me, I found that reading the entire book was far more satisfying, even when I arrived at dissimilar conclusions than Ebert. For example, Ebert has long been an admirer of David Croenenberg, a director I find distasteful and vulgar in many respects, but in reading Ebert's exploration of Croenenberg's films, I found a new prism in which to view the director, and upon seeing his latest work A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, watched the film with a deeper sense of what he was trying to achieve.
For me, myth has always been the cornerstone of all great art, whether it be visual art (painting), films, novels, I find that all such works are enriched by a foundation that embraces the great mysteries and universal connections which are the lynchpin of myth. Ebert's gift is the uncanny ability to take interesting films and dissect them at a historical, mythological and sociological level, deepening our understanding and appreciation of what makes certain films imprint the mind with images that recur and haunt and amaze us. What's even more interesting is that many of us watch these films with only a subconscious understanding of why they grip us in their web, which is actually the point. Myth is anything but conscious, it's wellspring is the imagination, the realm of dreams and nightmares and visions, and as such, need not be fully understood to be effective. Ebert's gift is to be able to show us all the facets that arise from the world's myths, whether rooted in Western or Eastern culture, his erudition, knowledge and ability to make them all cohesive is amazing. He's a good writer, a better thinker, a good critic, a better scholar.
One would assume that such an examination of myth and films would be dry and turgid, but just take a look at chapter 3, which is an interview Ebert did for a magazine. The discussions range from APOCALYPSE NOW to GODFATHER 3 to 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, and the way Ebert breaks them down is incredible. On APOCALYPSE NOW, he describes the film as a hero's descent into the underworld, mirroring some of Dante's INFERNO, and then in the same sentence, makes a segue to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, where the sun god Ra, journeys down a river through a kingdom of the dead, encountering obstacles until he reaches the Lord of the Dead, Osiris. Sounds convuluted? You're wrong. Ebert makes the transition so seamless and obvious that I actually started laughing with sheer intellectual enjoyment at what he was saying. In the same chapter, Ebert takes on the notion that many of these mythological symbols are accidental and not planned by the creative artist, and again provided brilliant analysis. For some, Ebert agrees, these symbols are certainly not always intentional, but he goes on to say that they spring for a universal source of creativity that is tied directly into the mythological wonder that occurs when the creative spirit is open to anything. So, though Kubrick certainly knew what he was doing when the ape throws the bone that becomes a spaceship, other artists arrive at the same powerful symbols through their own inward journey, which manifests itself as something that has existed for thousands of years. If you're confused by this, don't worry. Ebert breaks it down far more eloquently than I can, that's why he writes about myth and I try to tap into them in my day-job as a screenwriter.
A few nitpicky comments so as not to give the impression that I agree with EVERYTHING Ebert writes, that would make me a less-than critical thinker, which I hope I will always be. I wish he'd gone more into the Western and its mythic underpinnings, specifically films like THE WILD BUNCH, THE SEARCHERS, RED RIVER, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, all of which seethe with classical mythological symbols and images (John Wayne standing in the open doorway at the end of the Searchers as civilization occurs within the house, while he's forever isolated from such comforts). Also, Ebert has a list of films he considers notable, and while "best ever" lists are always subjective, it's still a fun way to measure your tastes against others to see what you have in common and more importantly, what you don't agree on. Ebert has a top 16 of his generation, topped by 2001, and including JAWS and TITANIC. Every film on the list has been at least tangentially or substantively discussed in the book, but as with any list, there are some head-scratchers for me. I wouldn't include all 3 original STAR WARS films, I would only include EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and leave it at that. I would drop VIDEODROME, AI, and SCHINDLER'S LIST (Ebert has a great affinity for SPIELBERG, a director I think is visually brilliant, but intellectually facile). Other than that, the list isn't bad, considering Ebert limited himself to "my generation" freeing himself from having to go back to a number of other great films. He pretty much starts his list from 1968 and moves forward, leaving the omission of WILD BUNCH (1969) as a puzzler, but subject to lively debate. That's what makes the book great, Ebert lays out the foundation of these visionary films and their directors and then invites you to do your own investigation and arrive at your own conclusions. His, he states with force and logic and conviction, no getting around that. But the whole point is for you to leave the book wanting more and going back to favorite films and having a second, third of fourth look, seeing new symbols, new connections, previously unnoticed.
The idea that visionary films have replaced great novels as the preeminent creative force of our time is one that bears more exploration. In the old days, you had great writers like MANN, JOYCE, PROUST and HESSE. Now, you have prose stylists masquerading as "serious" writers, with nothing visionary and interesting to contribute. they write mostly to impress their brethren, the audience be damned. I'm no Thomas Wolfe fan, but I agree with his manifesto years ago, that today's writers have abandoned great, realist stories in favor of fancy prose and post-modern angst that makes for empty reading. Films admittedly have their share of bad writers and bad directors, but on the other hand, there are more interesting and talented and risk-taking artists in filmmaking today than in literature. You have SPIELBERG, TYWKER, VINTERBERG, CUARON, SALLES, COPPOLA (he has one last masterpiece, trust me), SCORSCESE, JACKSON, CARO, CAMERON, et al. They represent a vital, powerful force that is driving the great films of today and tomorrow. If nothing else, Ebert's book leaves you awaiting the next, great work of these artists, knowing it will draw on symbols and touchstones that go back thousands of years, to our universal connection. And that's all we really care about when we view art. We want to be moved, touched, transported, entertained, frightened.
Ebert knows this.
So should you