Sunday, December 11, 2022


Why Do We Tell Tales At All?

I am coming around to the perspective of Joseph Campbell, the philosopher of myth and legend whom we used to see in conversation with Bill Moyers of PBS many moons ago.  It has something to do with our capacity for empathy, and also the need for a narrative momentum in our own lives from which we surmise that we learn, and from which we grow, whether the narrative is a happy or a tragic one.  Set and setting are not so important as the odyssey, the odyssey that carries the protagonist forward, and we for a time in his shoes.

Three films that I have watched recently in quick succession.

In "1883," a beautiful, bold and headstrong young lady follows the Oregon Trail from Ft. Worth to Montana.

In "Electric Dreams," loosely based on Philip K. Dick's dystopian stories, a man played by Steve Buscemi grows bored of his day job, supervising the creation of hybrid pig/people, and makes covert plans to sail away to parts unknown on a wooden yacht that somehow has survived the long passage of time, between now and then.

In "Frida," we watch a tale unfold that we know quite well going in -- the bus accident that leaves young Frida Kahlo in pain for the rest of her life, her tempestuous marriage to Diego Rivera, her work at first in his shadow, but ultimately her work product to eclipse his own.

Without our capacity for empathy, these stories would be nothing.  We stand in the shoes of the heroes, transcending identity, time and place.

A fourth film, released early this year -- "You Won't Be Alone."  It was made by a young Macedonian-Australian by the name of Goran Stolevski.  It tells the tale of a baby girl in 19th century Macedonia who is struck mute and turned into a sorceress -- a "wolf-eateress" -- by the hideous "Old Maid Maria," herself a witch of the cruelest kind.  The film was met with "critical acclaim" per Wikipedia, but also failed at the box office, earning less than $50,000 in its second weekend.  The acclaim and the commercial failure stem from the same source I think.  The movie breaks new ground in throwing the viewer into an alien place and showing that place to him/her utterly from the perspective of the doomed protagonist.  It does have a narrative arc, and we do feel a certain empathy with the shape-shifting hero, but it is impossible to stand in her shoes for long; if one did, one would hurl oneself over a cliff to end the relentless agony.  She survives for as long as she does, apparently, out of nothing other than an animal instinct for self-preservation.

Is that Stolevski's message, contra Joseph Campbell?  If so, it's a radical one and we can applaud his ability to swim against the artistic tide, but likewise in that case he has made his movie.  There is no need to make another one.

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