Marvel and the moving image

 

As the gatekeeper of one of the richest holdings of comic book narratives in the world — over 8000 characters developed over nearly eight decades — Marvel’s move to the cinema screen was inevitable. They’d been dipping their creative toe in other media since the 1940s; under the name of founding company Timely Comics, they produced the 15-part, black-and-white film serial Captain America 1944 (Republic), while in the 1970s, CBS’s The Incredible Hulk 1978–82 and The Amazing Spider-Man 1977–79 were produced by Marvel Comics as live-action television series. However, even with these forays, Marvel had yet to find the right formula that would showcase their characters on screen with the same care and fidelity as depicted in their comics.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, amid a series of complex company mergers, Marvel continued its push into the moving-image market through a number of animated television series. The popular Saturday morning slot on the children’s network Fox Kids proved particularly effective for the Marvel-produced X-Men 1992–97 and Spider-Man 1994–98, and successfully embedded these characters, alongside Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk, into the wider pop culture lexicon. These series attracted a broad, non-comic book fan base and, in doing so, created a bridge between the comics and the films to come, a relationship that would develop in the 2000s to embrace the desirable teenage and young professional markets, which were primed for the forthcoming plethora of Super Hero films.

In the 1990s, Marvel licensed a number of premium characters across several major studios to capitalise on the growing interest in comic book film adaptations. It was an incredibly successful strategy. Of the 50-plus Super Hero films released in the ten years after September 11, nearly half — including their sequels and spin-offs — were based on characters from Marvel’s comics. The popularity of these films saw beloved Marvel characters reach new audiences in ways they never had before.1

By 2003, Marvel were seeking a more sustainable model. Although the company had enjoyed a global boost to their brand through several highly successful film franchises, the licensing of individual characters from one universe across multiple studios allowed little opportunity for the expression of character interconnectedness, a quality intrinsic to the Marvel Universe. This lack of a shared narrative also meant lesser-known characters were unlikely to be developed. In addition, over time, earlier licensed characters had begun drifting away from their central narratives. In the 1970s, Marvel had toyed with the idea of going into film production themselves, but the costs were prohibitive and the idea was shelved,2 but, by the mid 2000s, times had changed.

Adi Granov / Cover artwork for Black Widow: Deadly Origin 2009 #2 / Comic book / © 2017 MARVEL

By the end of 2006, Marvel had secured the necessary financing for their own major independent movie studio and began working on plans to bring together their fan favourites and rising stars — Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Falcon, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange and the team from the Guardians of the Galaxy — into their eagerly anticipated vision of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stepping into the arena with their debut film Iron Man in 2008 — drawn from a comic originally set during the Vietnam War (1959–75), but now adapted for the events unfolding in Afghanistan — Marvel brought to a wider audience the audacious charms of a reckless industrialist–billionaire–playboy–philanthropist and began a cinematic phenomenon that continues to this day.

Endnotes
1 Marvel co-produced Spider-Man 2002 and Spider-Man 2 2004 with Columbia Pictures, and X-Men 2000, X2: X-Men United 2003 and X-Men: The Last Stand 2006 with Twentieth Century Fox.
2 Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Harper Perennial, New York, 2013, p.215.

Amanda Slack Smith is exhibition curator ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ and Associate Curator, Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA

‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ is organised by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in collaboration with Marvel Entertainment. The exhibition has received additional support from the Queensland Government though Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) and Arts Queensland.

GOMA will also present a stellar line-up of pop, electronica and rock across six Friday nights when ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ Up Late kicks off from 28 July to 1 September 2017.

Creating the Cinematic Universe

 

We live in a complex world. We know this because we are told so on a daily basis.

From podium-pounding political leaders to experts of all kinds, an unending stream of dire predictions infiltrates our lives through our ever-present electronic devices — global warming, overpopulation, financial instability, prejudice, terrorist attacks. The chatter is so constant it has become the white noise of our mundane routines, blending with our myriad personal challenges, uncertainties and insecurities, and influencing the way we view the world and those with whom we share it.

It’s an exhausting barrage. It disrupts our sense of peace and undermines our need for hope. It is little wonder that we escape to daydreams and fantasies to momentarily forget these competing realities, and to find control amid the chaos. Storytelling has been the release valve for our fears and anxieties for centuries. One of the most powerful forms of communication, storytelling gives shape to our lives and meaning to our experiences. No matter how destabilised our world, or how overwhelming the news and events confronting us, storytelling brings light to the darkness and certainty to the confusion, validating our feelings and illuminating pathways during difficult times.1

Once told around campfires, these stories are now found in numerous realms, but none quite so prevalent as the world of film and television. Communicators to the broadest of audiences, film and television have become the go-to forms of entertainment for our daily unwind, the fluidity and mutability of storytelling shifting and adapting to meet our needs in an ever-changing world. Whether solemn dramas or lighthearted comedies, these stories model ways for us to consider events and change in our own lives; they allow us to see how we might react and process similar circumstances or, simply, to find cathartic release through the experiences of others.

I don’t like bullies;
I don’t care where they’re from.

STEVE ROGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER 2011

On September 11 2001, the World Trade Center in New York was attacked. As a result of the horror felt around the world, our stories changed to meet this new emotional landscape. Audiences withdrew from the hyper-violent film spectacles popular in the 1990s,2 and instead gravitated to stories offering respite from the fear and frustration played out in the daily news. Stories of seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things became a cinematic mainstay. Tales of adventure and overcoming adversity dominated the box office in a resurgence of back-to-basics heroic escapades that saw characters running towards danger, rather than from it.3 Heroes (with a capital ‘H’) were in demand and, alongside the fantasy juggernauts of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001–03) and the Harry Potter series of films (2001–11), another phenomenon was beginning to emerge — the Super Hero film.

Ryan Meinerding / Keyframe for Marvel’s The Avengers 2012 / © 2017 MARVEL

Presenting scenarios of good triumphing over evil, the Super Hero film aligned moral fortitude with muscle. Vigorously defending the social order against those who would disrupt and destroy it, these Super Heroes embodied the aspirational qualities of courage and determination with an innate sense of rightness. Dispensing justice with a sock to the jaw, Super Hero films tapped into the broader cultural need for grand mythological narratives, and they did so with a satisfying level of inherent retribution.

While Super Hero films were not new to the screen in the 2000s, their success with audiences to this point had been mixed. With Richard Donner’s Superman 1978 and Tim Burton’s Batman 1989 (both Warner Bros.) as notable exceptions, Super Hero films were generally plagued by clunky character adaptations and B-grade movie aesthetics. By the late 1990s, however, studios began to shake up their pulpy interpretations of what comic book adaptations could be.

Buoyed by the critical success of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black 1997 (Columbia Pictures) and Stephen Norrington’s Blade 1998 (New Line Cinema), studios began hiring directors and screenwriters who were more sympathetic to the comic book source material than their predecessors. Perhaps more importantly, they were also open to seeing the worlds these stories inhabited as parallel to — rather than as parodies of — our own.

Converging with changing audience appetites and studio realignment, technology represented another important factor contributing to the rising popularity of the Super Hero film. From the early 1980s, the quality of computer-generated imagery (CGI) used in films improved exponentially. Some 20 years after the first human CGI character was featured in the Michael Crichton-directed science fiction–horror film Looker 1981, the first virtual actor award was presented to Andy Serkis for his role as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 2002.4 This technological leap meant the fantastical worlds created by comic book writers and illustrators were finally able to be transformed into a combination of emotionally resonant characters and dazzling visual effects, which not only intrigued audiences, but also captured the style and tone fans had been craving.

Adi Granov / The Avengers / Keyframe for Marvel’s The Avengers 2012 / © 2017 MARVEL

Endnotes
1 Ira Chernus, Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, Colo., 2006.
2 Action–thrillers dominated cinema screens in the 1990s. Films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day 1991, Speed 1994, Mission: Impossible 1996 and Independence Day 1996 were part of a trend toward big budget, big explosion films featuring themes of domestic and foreign terrorism.
3 Family-friendly fantasy and adventure franchises, such as the Star Wars prequel trilogy 1999–2005, The Mummy series 1999–2008, Pirates of the Caribbean series 2003–17, Chronicles of Narnia trilogy 2005–10 and the Shrek series 2001–10, were prominent in the 2000s.
4 Andy Serkis was presented with the Best Digital Acting Performance award at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards for his role as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 2002.

Amanda Slack Smith is exhibition curator ‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ and Associate Curator, Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA

‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ is organised by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in collaboration with Marvel Entertainment. The exhibition has received additional support from the Queensland Government though Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) and Arts Queensland.

 

Film Noir rises from the ashes

 

Cynical and seductive, film noir was born in the ashes of the Great Depression and fuelled by disillusionment and the paranoia of the postwar era. In March-April, the Australian Cinémathèque presents a curated program exploring the classics as well as their modern counterparts.

Film noir is one of the most visually seductive and enduring cinematic styles, conjuring evocative images of hard-eyed femme fatales lounging in smoky dive bars, and the down-on-his-luck private eye chasing petty criminals through murky alleyways. Sexy, smart and sinister, film noir rose to prominence in the 1940s and 50s, offering the viewing public escapism from the communal anxieties, paranoia, and feelings of alienation that had begun to build in the 1920s with the Depression. Further influenced by the disillusionment of those fleeing the rise of Nazism in Europe, World War Two, and the threat of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, these films resonated with the prevailing social discontent of the era.

As stylish as it was cynical, film noir married the aesthetic of German expressionist cinema — which employed unusual camera angles and explored the ways that light, shadow and contrast could strategically enhance the narrative — with Hollywood’s highly romanticised Depression-era crime films, to create an identifiably North American cinematic style. With its realistic settings and penchant for low, dramatic lighting, film noir was a natural choice for many studios unable to fund the big-budget musicals and comedies also popular at the time — a decision further supported by the development of lighter and more portable cameras and associated equipment during World War Two, which made location shooting an affordable alternative.

Production still from M – A Town is Looking for a Murderer 1931 / Director: Fritz Lang / Image courtesy: Praesens Film

The development of film noir, literally ‘black film or cinema’ as coined by French critics, was further enhanced by the paperback novels of this period. With their sharp, witty dialogue, edgy, venerable characters, and twisting plots of betrayal and greed, novelists Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain encapsulated Hollywood’s fascination with their dark themes of moral ambiguity and corruption, and attracted the attention of accomplished directors, including exiled European filmmakers Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger, alongside their North American counterparts John Huston, Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray.

Production still from The Big Sleep 1946 / Director: Howard Hawks / Image courtesy: Roadshow Entertainment

‘Film Noir’ considers a history of this distinctly North American sensibility. It brings together a selection of pre noir films from the 1920s and 30s, including beloved ‘American Gangster’ stories (such as Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties 1939 ) and influential German expressionist films (Fritz Lang’s M 1931), alongside film noir classics (Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity 1944 and Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep 1946). It also considers contemporary cinema with the themes and aesthetics of film noir (Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver 1976 and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive 2011) and its ongoing international influence (Ivan Sen’s Goldstone 2016).

Production still from Taxi Driver 1976 / Director: Martin Scorsese / Image courtesy: Park Circus
Production still from Double Indemnity 1944 / Director: Billy Wilder / Image courtesy: Universal Pictures– see this seminal classic screening on 1 & 5 April & 21 May
‘How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?’

[Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) musing about the woman (Barbara Stanwyck) who led him astray in Double Indemnity 1944.]

DOUBLE INDEMNITY 1944 PG

Walter Neff is a tough-talking insurance salesman who falls in love with the unhappily married Phyllis Dietrichson. Together they plot the perfect crime: the ‘accidental’ death of Phyllis’s tycoon husband so they can cash in on his hefty life insurance. The only person standing in their way is Neff’s boss Barton Keyes, who smells a rat! Billy Wilders Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir. The screenplay, inspired by the real life murderess Lorraine Snyder, was written by Wilder alongside detective writer Raymond Chandler and is equal parts hardboiled and tawdry. Told through a mosaic of flashback narratives, it takes place in a lonely Los Angeles, framed by sharp shadows and a mood of deep cynicism.

See this seminal classic screening on Saturday 1 & Wednesday 5 April plus Sunday 21 May 2017

The Australian Cinémathèque also presents two silent masterpieces with live musical accompaniment as part of Live music and film: Film Noir. Joseph von Sternberg’s thrilling Underworld 1927 is a forceful prototype for the American gangster film genre. The film will feature accompaniment from David Bailey on the Gallery’s 1929 Wurlitzer organ while Brisbane post-rock instrumental group hazards of swimming naked will provide a new live score for F.W. Murnau’s beloved The Last Laugh 1924, an emotionally powerful treasure of Weimar cinema.

Daniel Crooks: Motion studies

 
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Daniel Crook / Imaginary Object #23 2006 / Lambda print / Courtesy: The artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery / © The artist

Daniel Crooks: Motion Studies’ currently showing at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 25 October traces the Melbourne artist’s sublime ‘time slice’ projects, from his early works in digital video through to his more recent sculptural forms.

‘The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche.’ 1
Gaston Bachelard

There is a shimmering moment, just on awakening, when a dream skims over your consciousness. A drowsy dance on the borders of awareness, a liminal moment — a reverie, as philosopher Gaston Bachelard calls it — when the mind is open to all possibilities, unfettered by the logical demands of the waking world. It is in this pliable drift that you will find the eloquent and striking spatiotemporal works by Daniel Crooks, one of the leading contemporary artists working in moving image today.

Known for his signature ‘time slice’, which creates a lyrical dislocation of time and space through the displacement of thin slices of pixel material in the video sequence, Crooks celebrates moments of the seemingly mundane, embracing the repetitive cadences of commuters traversing urban spaces or engaging with elevators, trains and trams, to reveal an eddying, dreamlike choreography at odds with the restlessness of the fast-paced modern life from which they are drawn. Using customised computer software and a precision camera motion control — devices he built to allow him to control the movement and speed of the camera during filming — Crooks harnesses the power of digital production and editing to give shape, structure and meaning to the material recorded. Creating expressive beauty in motion, the warped fluidity of his work alters the viewer’s perception of time with clever contextualisation. While Crooks intercedes to offer a fresh perspective on the explicit treatment of time as a physical, malleable material, he retains the familiarity of the core imagery, tethering it to a world that people know and experience every day.

‘Daniel Crooks: Motion Studies’ is the artist’s first solo exhibition at GOMA. It traces his time slice projects from his early works in digital video through to his more recent sculptural forms — a new area of practice made possible through an Ars Electronica Futurelab Residency in Linz and a recent Creative Australia New Work grant from the Australia Council, both in 2014.2

Born in 1973 in Hastings, New Zealand, Crooks completed a Postgraduate Diploma at the Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television in 1994 and has lived and worked in Melbourne since then. Originally planned as a whistle-stop on the way to New York, Melbourne ‘lured him in’ and has become his home base amid a growing schedule of national and international engagements, including such prestigious accolades as the Basil Sellers Art Prize, Inaugural Acquisitive Award, from Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum in 2008, and the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission in 2014; group exhibitions at the Barbican Centre and Tate Modern in London and the Singapore Art Museum; and solo shows in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Netherlands.

The early germinations of Crooks’s time slice project can be traced back as far as his formative years at school, through those who encouraged his interests in photography and geometry. However, it was his time at the Victorian College of the Arts that saw these ideas coalesce during the creation of his graduation project in 1994: a painstaking stop-motion process that required repeated photographing of microscopic movements to create a sense of movement over time. As Crooks describes it:

You’re working at this glacially slow pace and looking at all the individual static moments that make up any kind of movement. So as soon as you go into the real world, you just start seeing that everywhere. You see those moments when a hand floats for a moment and then stops moving. When you look at people walking, you see the infinitesimal lift of the toe that clears the ground as they’re swinging through, and the tenth of a millimetre that it misses by, and it’s all just perfect.3

His epiphany came a few years later while working with timelapse pan photography: having received a New Media Arts Residency at RMIT in 1997, through the Australia Council New Media Arts Board, to build the early iterations of the precision camera motion control devices he uses today, Crooks began digitally slicing the still images he was capturing into thin strips before reassembling the image and spreading these across the frame. By experimenting with the width of the slice, the angle of the view and the temporal resolution of the camera Crooks was able to determine the ‘plane of cohesion’ — a point from the camera where objects joined seamlessly across the multiple slices to create an undistorted image, as he puts it ‘a kind of spatio-temporal depth of field’.4

digital-blog-1-Train No

digital-blog-2-Train No
Daniel Crooks / Train No.1 (still) 2005 / Three-channel digital video, 4:10 minutes, 16:9, colour, stereo / Courtesy: The artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery / © The artist

The result was a sense of movement, a jitter, as Crooks describes it — an unfolding poly-ocular view of a moment with a depth of interpretation hitherto unseen. He quickly began to explore the technique with moving image, creating some of his most important early video works such as Elevator No.4 2003 and Train No.1 2005 incorporating these syncopated movements. It was also during this time, while filming the camera motion control device to check its calibration, that Crooks noticed the Lego block he had used as a measure was creating a fascinating helical image. Replacing the block with a piece of white crumpled paper he found in the studio, Crooks made another serendipitous discovery: by capturing timelapse images of paper spinning on top of the device he was able to create high-resolution swirling helical structures with a stunning depth of field. Highly sculptural, Crooks captured these malleable extrusions in his ‘Imaginary object’ series as both photographic and video form, varying the width of the displaced pixel slices to turn his humble crumpled paper into temporal objects with textural characteristics reminiscent of milk, silk and marble.

digital-blog-Daniel Crooks_Static No
Daniel Crooks / Static No.12 (seek stillness in movement) (still) 2010 / Single-channel high-definition digital video, 5:23 minutes, 16:9, colour, stereo / Courtesy: The artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery / © The artist

With each successive time slice work, Crooks has continued to push the boundaries of the process. His more recent works, such as Static No.12 (seek stillness in movement) 2010 and Static No.19 (shibuya rorschach) 2012, largely eschew the staccato rhythms of earlier works to embrace a fluidity in which the footage begins to stretch and melt to the edges of the screen. Most recently Crooks’s practice has also seen the actualisation of a goal he has held for a number of years: the ability to extend beyond the screen the temporal forms that have emerged through his practice, to be realised as three-dimensional objects. Constructed from sequences of two-dimensional slices through a combination of motion-capture technologies and depth-sensing cameras, Crooks likens the process to capturing movement ‘in the same way the surface of a lake experiences the body of a swimmer or a boats hull over time, I’m looking for a way to capture a sequence of cross-sections’.4 The resulting series ‘Truths unveiled by time’ reflect the warped extrusions of movement apparent in many of his time slice videos alongside the tactile and dimensional qualities of his ‘Imaginary object’ series.

digital-blog-Daniel Crooks_Truths unveiled by time 3_2014
Daniel Crooks / Truths Unveiled by Time #3 2014 / Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene plastic / Courtesy: The artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery / © The artist

Since the inception of Crooks’s manipulations of video through to his recent move into sculptural works, he has continued to challenge both the medium and outcome, creating extraordinary meditations on the relations between temporal and spatial displacement. This exhibition allows the viewer to trace the evolution of this practice which, like the works that it has created, moves with a graceful fluidity through time and space.

Endnotes
1  Gaston Bachelard, La Poetique de l’Espace (The Poetics of Space), Presses Universitaires de France, 1958, reprinted by Penguin Books, New York, 2014.
2  Crooks attributes the use of the phrase ‘time slice’ to Tim Macmillan, who created the first multi lens camera through which to capture extreme slow-motion 360-degree views of a single moment. Created in 1980, the technology is now more commonly known as ‘bullet time’ and is often used in Hollywood films such as The Matrix 1999.
2  Lawrence Weschler, A Conversation with Melbourne Video Artist Daniel Crooks, Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art University of South Australia, Adelaide, 2013, p.7.
3  Weschler, p.12.
4  Discussions with the artist, June 2013.

Storytelling and film myths in modern life

 

 

BLOG-6. Princess Mononoke (Classic tale)
Production still from Princess Mononoke 1997 / Director: Hayao Miyazaki / Image courtesy: Madman Entertainment

‘Myths and Legends’ celebrates the world of heroic deeds, epic journeys and sacred stories as depicted in film and explores the insights these narratives still provide into the mysteries and wonders of our existence. Here we elaborate on the powerful relationships between classic folklore and modern cinematic storytelling.

In modern usage, the word myth often indicates dismissive derision for a situation or action perceived by the speaker as fictional or false. In a world now dominated by technological advancements and secular reasoning, the notion that contemporary society — even outside the constraints of organised religion — still turns to mythic narratives to reconcile aspects of the natural world and our place within it, is unexpected. Yet millions of people engage with the patterns and themes that underpin all mythological narratives through our modern‑day forms of mythmaking: film and television.

From the rituals surrounding rites of passage — birth, puberty, reproduction and death — the ancient patterns and motifs we use to make sense of our world remain relatively unchanged. It is largely through myth, and the metaphors, symbols and patterns through which it communicates, that we find our place in the universe, understand the how and why of our existence, and accept our inevitable decline and death. To modern scholars such as Ira Chernus and Joseph Campbell, leading figures in comparative religion and mythology respectively, myths are to be understood not as literal truths but symbolic ones. They are lenses through which we interpret our experiences, an indirect and often poetic way to challenge or reassure us intellectually, to shape, reshape or reaffirm the way we experience the world.1 As Campbell wrote:

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestations. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historical man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.2

Traditionally stories of supernatural beings, heroes or ancestors, myths served to explain aspects of the community’s worldview and customs. Modern usage of the word to mean falsehood denies us its function, which connects our everyday lives to the deepest roots of our existence. Myths continue to offer a pathway through the difficult aspects of life, and to validate and give meaning within a community. Just as a community adapts and changes with their environment however, these stories must remain relevant by adapting the forms they take. The advent of cinema in the late nineteenth century provided a fresh platform via which these stories could be presented to a contemporary audience.

A companion program to 2014’s ‘Fairytales and Fables’, ‘Myths and Legends’ continues to explore this powerful relationship between classic folklore and modern cinematic storytelling. It incorporates interpretations of classic tales from early silent cinema (The Passion of Joan of Arc 1928 and The Golem 1920) through to classical mythology such as Jason and the Argonauts 1963 and Clash of the Titans 1981. The program also considers contemporary reinterpretations of these classic tales in films such as Black Orpheus 1959, which sees the legend of Orpheus set in a favela in Rio de Janeiro during the annual Carnaval celebrations; as well as mythological stories and sacred tales from around the world such as the Inuit legend Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner 2001, the African tale Brightness 1987; and the Indigenous Australian ancestral story Ten Canoes 2006.

BLOG-The Golem (classic tale)
Production still from The Golem 1920 / Directors: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese / Image courtesy: Transit Films
BLOG-1. Clash of the Titans (classic greco-roman story)
Production still from Clash of the Titans 1981 / Director: Desmond Davis / Image courtesy: Roadshow Entertainment
BLOG-Ten_Canoes
Production still from Ten Canoes 2006 / Director: Rolf De Heer, Peter Djigirr / Image courtesy: Palace Entertainment

Known as explicit myths, these films tap into a broad understanding of mythology in film, which draws on supernatural adventures featuring gods, spirits, monsters and heroes. They offer audiences mythic narratives in their most clear form, often set in fantastical landscapes and beginning with variations of the ‘once upon a time’ or ‘a long time ago’ scenario. These adaptations often evoke powerful physiological and emotional responses to the identifiable cultural mores within them, which in turn reaffirm community values.

BLOG-2. O, Brother Where Art Thou (reinterpretation of a classic)
Production still from O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000 / Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen / Image courtesy: Universal Pictures
BLOG-Ben-Hur 1959 (Legend)
Production still from Ben-Hur 1959 / Director: William Wyler / Image courtesy: Roadshow Entertainment
BLOG-7. The Legend of Suram Fortress (Classic Tale)
Production still from The Legend of Suram Fortress 1984 / Director: Sergei Parajanov, Dodo Abashidze / Image courtesy: Qartuli Pilmi

In addition to these explicit myths, ‘Myths and Legends’ also considers what are known as implicit mythical narratives, stories that take a less obvious form; the heroic journeys of everyday life. These mythic narratives are imbedded in a range of cinematic genres, from film noir (The Maltese Falcon 1941), science fiction (Aliens 1986), adventure (The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938), drama (Fight Club 1999), romance (Pretty Woman 1990), comedy (Monty Python and the Holy Grail 1975) and the western (Unforgiven 1992). At first glance these have little in common with stories of supernatural beings or epic adventures, but they share similar patterns to the rites of passage depicted in the classic tales — separation, initiation, and the return of the adventuring hero. The hero is rarely the high-flying sword-wielder of the epic tales, and yet the structure of the narratives, and the life principles embedded within them, are relatively unchanged. For Joseph Campbell, who called these patterns the ‘hero’s journey’ in his seminal 1993 work The Hero with A Thousand Faces, the physical hero is equally matched by the spiritual hero, who identifies less as a warrior and appears more in the role of mother, wanderer, pilgrim or tragic figure. For the spiritual hero, the cycle of separation, initiation and return takes a quieter path than that of their physical counterpart, but the psychological obstacles are no less challenging, nor the prize of knowledge any less valuable.3

humphrey bogart, claude rains, paul henried & ingrid bergman - casablanca 1943
Production still from Casablanca 1942 / Director: Michael Curtiz / Image courtesy: Park Circus
BLOG-4. et-extra-terrestrial (Modern Myth)
Production still from ET the Extra-Terrestrial 1982 / Director: Steven Spielberg / Image courtesy: Universal Pictures

While Campbell was criticised for ‘flattening’ international cultural differences in order to highlight their similarities, those commonalities still found their way into the cinematic landscape long before Campbell’s scholarship, from the very beginning of the medium. Their universality is further articulated in the work of Campbell devotee Christopher Vogler and his book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters (1993), which breaks down Campbell’s structure for scriptwriters and has been fundamental to the development of Hollywood films for more than 20 years, which is more a sign of the importance of the mythic narratives to contemporary society than a call to a prescriptive structure. At its core, mythical stories continue to provide structure and support to our lives at both conscious and unconscious levels. They guide us through the rituals and rites of passage that are as relevant to contemporary society as they were in ancient times. That we tell these stories in cinemas and lounge rooms rather than around campfires does not lessen their importance and relevance to an understanding of our own lives, our place in the community, the country and beyond.

The ‘Myths and Legends’ film program screens at GOMA Cinemas 9 January – 8 March 2015. Tickets are available online through QTIX or at the GOMA Box Office from one hour prior to film screenings.

Join me for a special talk entitled ‘Play It Again, Sam: Film and Modern Mythology‘, 1.00pm Saturday 7 February. Free, no bookings required.

Endnotes
1  Ira Chernus, Essays about America’s national myths in the past, present, and future, http://mythicamerica.wordpress.com/the-meaning-of-myth-in-the-american-context, viewed 6 October 2014.
2  Joseph Campbell, The Hero with A casablancasand Faces, Fontana Press, London, 1993, p.3.
3  Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, Macmillan, London, 1993

Forbidden Hollywood: The Wild Days of Pre-Code Cinema

 
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Production still from Blonde Venus 1932 / Director: Josef von Sternberg / Image courtesy: Universal Pictures, British Film Institute

This spring, the Gallery’s Australian Cinematheque at GOMA presents a curated cinema program which focuses on the pre-Code films of early Hollywood.

Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound cinema in the early 1930s delivered some of the most risque films seen onscreen until 1934, when the Hollywood studios were forced to adopt a code of moral standards known as the Motion Picture Production Code.

Often referred to as ‘pre-Code’, these films offered audiences a diversion from the grim economic climate instigated by the crash of Wall Street in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Transitioning to sound had come at a high financial cost to the Hollywood studios and, faced with falling ticket sales, their films became increasingly salacious, pushing the boundaries of social acceptability in a bid to attract audiences. By 1934, conservative groups who had railed for years against what they saw as Hollywood’s attack on traditional family values had succeeded in making studios adhere to the censorship guidelines of the Production Code, a move that would affect audience viewing until 1968, when it was abandoned in favour of a rating system.

A mix of realism and glamour, these films tackled issues of sexuality, crime, social criticisms, and a growing mistrust of authority with gleeful enthusiasm. Strong women dominated the screen, scorning the prevailing Victorian-era ideals of passiveness and purity. Stars like Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow epitomised the modern woman, unapologetic in her desires and achieving her independence by any means necessary. Newspaper headlines also provided studios with storylines as the Prohibition gang wars came to a close in 1929. Inspired by real‑life events, the first gangster films emerged, such as Little Caesar 1931, The Public Enemy 1931 and Scarface 1932.

While it has now been 80 years since the enforcement of the Code, the films which preceded it have been delighting audiences with their wit and earthy frankness since they were rediscovered by film historians in the 1990s.

Forbidden Hollywood: The Wild Days of Pre-Code Cinema’ screens at GOMA from 26 September to 2 November 2014.