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
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.

1  Ira Chernus, Essays about America’s national myths in the past, present, and future,, 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.

Louise Brooks: Prix de Beauté 1930

Prix de beauté
Production still from Prix de Beauté 1930 / Director: Augusto Genina / Image courtesy: Cineteca di Bologna

Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté (Beauty Prize) 1930 features the luminous Louise Brooks in her last major role. It tells the story of bored Parisian typist Lucienne, who enters a newspaper beauty contest as a lark only to find herself the winning contestant. Glamour and romance beckon, including a royal suitor, Lucienne is caught between the opportunity to escape her mundane life and the desires of her jealous boyfriend.

As Dennis Harvey wrote for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

Beauty pageants were still a relatively novel object of public curiosity at the time, and Genina brings a near documentary feel to much of the early film. More novel still was the ambitious script’s gender dynamic [written by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and René Clair]. While a typical movie of the era (and for many years after) found the career girl coming to her senses and realising that all she really wants is to stay home and do hubby’s washing, here Lucienne is clearly oppressed by André’s controlling love.

Prix de Beauté was produced over the period when cinema was transitioning from silent to sound, and two versions of the film were completed, with the rather clunky early sound film more generally available. This presentation, with live accompaniment by David Bailey on the Gallery’s 1929 Wurlitzer organ (originally housed in Brisbane’s Regent Theatre), showcases recent restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna of the superior silent version.

The free screening is part of the Australian Cinémathèque’s ongoing program ‘Live Film and Music’, at GOMA. Prix de Beauté screens on 31 August at 11.00am.

Orson Welles: A Retrospective

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Production still from Citizen Kane 1941 / Director: Orson Welles / Image courtesy: British Film Institute

Opening this weekend, the Gallery’s Australian Cinématheque hosts a major film program of works by mercurial American film and broadcasting prodigy Orson Welles. ‘Orson Welles: A Retrospective’ is a ticketed program and screens at GOMA until 28 May 2014.

Acclaimed filmmaker, actor, theatre director, screenwriter, and producer Orson Welles (1915–85) worked extensively in radio, theatre, film and television. Hailed as the new wunderkind of American Theatre at only 23 years of age, he rocketed to international fame for his celebrated 1938 radio adaptation of HG Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898). Presented on the night before Halloween as a music program, with news bulletin-style interjections of an escalating alien invasion, the program caused panic to a listening public already fearful of potential war looming in Europe. Forced to apologise the next day to an onslaught of press outraged at the duplicitous delivery of entertainment as news, Welles survived the media storm and went on to be featured on the cover of TIME magazine the same year and attracted attention from Hollywood.

Wooed by RKO to write, direct and produce two films over two years, Welles demanded full creative control over the final edit of each film. Remarkably, this was granted, and after two projects were rejected by the studio, Welles co-wrote, directed and starred in his feature film debut: Citizen Kane 1941. A virtuosic achievement nominated for nine Academy Awards and winning the award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, the film was a critical success but failed to recoup its costs at the box office. Considered a thinly veiled attack on media giant William Randolph Hearst, the film was refused by many theatres and was prevented by Hearst from being advertised in any of his newspapers.

It was the beginning of a stormy relationship between Welles and the Hollywood studios, one that never fully recovered. Having taken two years to bring Citizen Kane to the screen, Welles’s original contract with RKO expired, forcing him to renegotiate for his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons 1942. The new contract no longer allowed Welles the final edit on the film and, while out of the country on another project, the film was re-edited without him before being released to a luke-warm response. Although the film would find critical praise years later, as was the case with Citizen Kane, the ensuing public battle between RKO and Welles saw him branded as difficult, which affected his ability to source independent funding for his subsequent films.

In a career spanning five decades, Welles’ was the creative force behind 12 completed feature films and two documentaries. His best known works also include Macbeth 1948, Othello 1952, Touch of Evil 1958, The Trial 1962 and Chimes at Midnight 1965. Welles was equally well-regarded as an actor, starring in films such as The Third Man 1949 and Compulsion 1959.

In addition to his feature films, the Australian Cinématheque’s retrospective will present his documentary F for Fake 1973, and a selection of his film and television appearances and radio broadcasts, including the infamous War of the Worlds recording.

Tickets are available online (booking fees apply) or at the GOMA Box Office from one hour prior to file screenings.

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Promotional still of Orson Welles narrating the radio adaptation of War of the Worlds 1938

Fairytale transformations

Production still from Pan’s Labyrinth 2006 / Director: Guillermo Del Toro / Image courtesy: Hopscotch Films

The Australian Cinematheque presents the free curated cinema program ‘Fairytales and Fables’ at the Gallery’s Australian Cinémathèque, GOMA until 30 March, and it’s not just for children. Coming soon is ‘Orson Welles: A Retrospective‘ from 5 April.

I foresee that the Andersen and Fairy Tale fashion will not last;
none of these things away from general nature do.
Mary Russell Mitford to Charles Boner, 18481

Mary Russell Mitford, talented writer and poet though she was, couldn’t have been more wrong about the fashion of fairytales, which are as popular today as they have ever been.

Since filmmaker and magician Georges Melies first began to explore the mutability of film and fairytale in the late nineteenth century, onscreen fairytales have been integral to the evolution of cinema and to a modern understanding of the fairytale genre. Considered by scholars as the founder and pioneer of the fairytale film, Melies brought to films his passion for illusion and transformation, born of his years as stage magician and the desire to play with viewers’ perceptions of reality. Through the narrative of well-known tales, Melies was able to produce spectacular animated tableaux, alluding to the existing fairytale plot, while experimenting with technical effects. While only 30 or so of his 520 films could be classified as fairytales, the technical innovation and experimentation these engendered provided inspiration for other filmmakers to stretch the boundaries of the art form both in terms of narrative structures and the underpinning technology.

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Production still from Bluebeard 1901 / Director: Georges Méliès / Image courtesy: British Film Institute

The word ‘fairytale’ is drawn from the French term conte de fées and is somewhat misleading: fairies are not often found in fairytales. It was an idiom devised in the seventeenth century by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Countess d’Aulnoy, to describe the inventive and risque magicaltales she told to entertain the intellectuals and aristocracy attending her salon in Paris. Formerly scorned as the vulgar province of peasants, these oral stories, derived from those told by nursemaids and servants, became highly popular in Parisian fashionable circles over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and found favour in salons as well as the Opéra féerie (operas and opera-ballets based on fairytales). Both the countess and her compatriot, Charles Perrault, a leading figure in literary fairytales, published collections of these stories in 1697, at the peak of the genre’s popularity: Les Contes des fées and Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l’Oye (literally, ‘stories or tales of times past, with morals: Tales of Mother Goose’) respectively. While the literary fairytale’s popularity declined during the eighteenth century, the genre returned to prominence in the early nineteenth century through the work of sibling scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, better known as the Brothers Grimm. Performances of fairytales had continued strongly until this time — the Opéra féerie was well attended until the early nineteenth century — and the culmination of performance and literary tales provided filmmakers later in the century with a unique opportunity: to use the audience’s familiarity with these tales to create films full of cinematic experimentation and excesses.

The literary fairytales are often referred to as ‘true’ or ‘original’ fairytales: however, this is not the case. While a record of the writer’s version of the tale was fixed, and often heavily modified in transcription to fulfil the moral and social obligations of the day, the oral traditions continued to change in response to the audience. Handed down through the generations, the fluidity and mutability inherent in storytelling allowed raconteurs to entertain while also resolving moral conflicts, addressing transgressive behaviours and reinforcing the social codes of the community. Set within the guise of a different time and place, with elements of wonder and the supernatural, these stories used archetypal characters — gallant princes, worthy princesses, wicked stepmothers and false heroes — to explore common anxieties surrounding the abuse of power, injustice and exploitation. While modern readers could find the content of these early stories to be gruesome and crude (the incidence of violent revenge, cannibalism, incest, paternal and fraternal cruelty and infanticide is marked), these stories offered the audience of the day a glimpse of hope through magical transformation, and favourable, if conditional, endings. While nearly every character in the earlier fairytales was capable of cruel behaviour, in the end, the most heroic triumphed and the evil force was destroyed.2

As Jack Zipes, author of The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films, writes:

Fairytales map out possible ways to attain happiness, to expose and resolve moral conflicts that have deep roots in our species. The effectiveness of fairytales and other forms of fantastic literature depends on the innovative manner in which we make the information of the tales relevant for the listeners and receivers of the tales. As our environment changes and evolves, so we change the media or modes of the tales to enable us to adapt to new conditions and shape instincts that were not necessarily generated from the world that we have created out of nature.3

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Production still from Valerie and Her Week of Wonders 1969 / Director: Jarome Jires / Image courtesy: Ateliery Bonton Zlin a.s.

This need to adapt and evolve these archetypal characterisations and narratives for contemporary audiences is evidenced in the genre’s ongoing cinematic development and recent resurgence in mainstream North American television. While Walt Disney’s cavalcades of animated adaptations since the 1930s have dominated contemporary understandings of fairytales, many other filmmakers have also drawn on the motifs and tropes of the fairytale genre to explore these tales from their own perspective. From fairytale procedural crime dramas to the appearance of well-known characters in modern-day America — as seen in television series Grimm and Once Upon a Time, respectively (both 2011) — to the experimental films of Jarome Jires (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders 1969), Jan Švankmajer (Alice 1988, Little Otik 2001) and Stephen and Timothy Quay (The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes 2005), these retellings move beyond the classic cinematic renditions and interpretations, integrating elements of the fairytale with those of parody, experimental film and horror.

Critical responses to fairy-tale films [are] shaped by presuppositions about the nature and function of the fairy tale. Film is a relatively new medium for the fairy tale, and to a great extent might be considered a different genre in its own right, with its own conventions and its own principles, although it may employ many narrative codes specific to the literary fairy-tale schemata . . . A criterion often adduced in discussing film adaptations is fidelity to the source, but unlike film adaptations of literary classics, for example, fairy-tale films cannot always be referred back to a particular source but many derive from a myriad of indeterminate intervening retellings.4

Production still from Alice 1988 / Director: Jan Švankmajer / Image courtesy: Athanor s.r.o.
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Production still from Little Otik 2001 / Director: Jan Švankmajer / Image courtesy: Athanor s.r.o

Subsequently, the cinematic fairytale draws on the structural elements of both the literary and oral fairytale traditions. While each film becomes a fixed insight into the world of the storyteller and their audience — a snapshot of social and cultural mores of the place and time of its creation — filmmakers are also engaging with the fluidity of the oral tale, with each filmic retelling built on the foundations of previous cinematic iterations and wide array of influence in popular culture such as theatrical and dance performances, opera, music, poems, books and illustrations. While told in modern times and through different formats, the function of the fairytale in society remains unchanged from its earlier roots: these contemporised stories still serve as a platform from which to express social concerns and anxieties. They help us to articulate the way we might see and challenge such issues and, through transformation, be it radical, magical or personal, triumph in the end.

1  Cited in MA Conny Eisfeld, A Literary and Multi-Medial Analysis of Selected Fairy Tales and Adaptations, Universität Flensburg, Germany, 2012, p.4.
2  Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1989, p.5.
3  Jack Zipes, The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films, Routledge, New York, 2011, p.1.
4  Jack Zipes (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, Oxford University Press Inc, New York, 2000, p. 160–61.

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Production still from Beauty and the Beast 1946 / Director: Jean Cocteau / Image courtesy: British Film Institute

New Media, Light and Movement

Robin Fox, Australia b. 1973 / CRT: homage to Léon Theremin (detail) 2012 / Interactive installation, cathode ray tube televisions, multi–channel sound, motion tracking system / Photograph: QAGOMA / © Courtesy: The artist

A significant element in the creation of new media art is the artist’s exploration into the unique possibilities that are still presented in working with every day and obsolete media. Both Robin Fox and Ross Manning, two artists in the Gallery’s 2012 National New Media Art Award exhibition, have a particular interest in established technology.

CRT: homage to Léon Theremin, by Robin Fox, is a highly responsive interactive audio-visual installation which recalls both the magical physicality inherent in playing a Theremin musical instrument coupled with the lurid colour fields of old CRT televisions.

Both elements can be traced to Russian physicist Léon Theremin, a flamboyant inventor who devised both the Theremin musical instrument and contributed to the earliest research which led to the development of the cathode ray tube television — specifically the interlacing vision to achieve a higher image resolution.

For Robin Fox the aesthetic potential of CRT television monitors has resulted in a playful celebration of old and new technology’s — in addition to the CRT television sets the work also incorporates a custom-designed motion tracking system — and an experience which teases out the connective elements between performer, space and technology.

Robin Fox, Australia b. 1973 / CRT: homage to Léon Theremin 2012 / Interactive installation, cathode ray tube televisions, multi–channel sound, motion tracking system / Photograph: QAGOMA / © Courtesy: The artist

In his work Spectra lll, Ross Manning combines off-the-shelf appliances such as coloured fluorescent lamps and motorised fans, to explore the aesthetic potential of the RGB additive colour model, the basis of screen based technology today. Manning’s elegant and mediative kinetic sculpture weaves a circular pattern at the point of balance between the twisted cables and oscillating fan heads, placed in the centre of a purposed built architectural space. The result is a conceptually rich investigation of video projection deconstructed to its basic components — light, aperture and screen. The sculpture recalls television resolution scan lines that have jumped off a screen and are twirling in space, overlapping different coloured wavelengths of light, or spectra, to produce new colours or, if by chance the lights meet and mix in equal measure, white light.

You can view the award exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 4 November 2012 which is accompanied by a richly illustrated publication.

Ross Manning, Australia b. 1978 | Spectra III (detail) 2012 | Installation, coloured fluorescent lamp, motorised fan, power board, extension cable, wood, rope | Photograph: QAGOMA | © Courtesy: The artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane