DVD Review: The Book of Eli

Eli
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This is a Spoiler Alert people!  This movie has a bit of a ‘twist’ ending which I will talk about.  If you haven’t seen it and don’t like spoilers you might want to watch the flick before reading this.

Anyway…I was born and grew up during the Cold War.  Ah, the good ol’ days.  Younger readers might not know it but we were reasonably certain that the whole world was going to be blasted into the Dark Ages with Nuclear Missiles. 

Sound scary?  More like awesome!  At least according to the scads of movies I watched like A Boy and His Dog and The Road Warrior and Steel Dawn.  There were enough of them that post-apocalypse was a whole genre and they all had the same tag line–“In a post-apocalyptic world a lone warrior…” 

Of course the Berlin Wall fell and then the Soviet Bloc fell and I had a basement full of canned food and a crossbow I would never use to fight off gasoline pirates.  After the Cold War ended movies stopped being about nuclear winter and started being about horrible diseases (Outbreak, Twilight).  But then the Hughes brothers go retro and give us a classic post-apocalypse movie.  Written by Gary Whitta and starring Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. 

Everything is as it should be.  We have a blasted skeleton of a world where human life is cheap and soap and water are valuable.  We have the Lone Warrior walking through the desert.  No surprise that Denzel is both calm and cool but tough and menacing.  He fights and kills when he has to but tries to avoid trouble and just “stay on the path.”  In addition to his pump shotgun, bow, and sword, he carries a book.  He reads from it every day before locking it and carefully wrapping it up. 

We then meet Carnegie the Overlord of a small town.  Carnegie just happens to have road crews out searching for books.  For one book in particular and it’s not hard to figure out that book is the very one carried by our Lone Warrior.  It’s also not hard to figure out that the book is a Holy Bible.  The two men meet and when Carnegie finds out about the book he’s willing to kill to get it.  The Warrior fights his way out and retakes his Path.  He’s followed by a young woman named Solara (Mila Kunis) who’s curious about him and why the book is so valuable. 

Of course Carnegie and his henchmen pursue them and eventually the Warrior is cornered and has to give up the book in exchange for Solara’s life.  Carnegie takes the book and shoots the Warrior, leaving him for dead.  He doesn’t die though and manages to keep up his quest despite his grievous wound.  With Solara’s help he travels West to Alcatraz and finally names himself (Eli, of course) and tells the people there he has in his possession a King James Bible.  Alcatraz is apparently a sort of armed monastery where a small group of literati are saving books from the world that was. 

Of course as soon as the bad guy gets the book and the good guy just lets it go; savvy movie goers know that something’s up.  They start trying to figure out the twist and there is one.  Normally I don’t like to spoil endings but I’ve already gotten into an argument about this ending so I’m just going to say it.  Eli is blind.  When Carnegie gets the lock open on the bible it’s written in braille.  Back at Alcatraz Eli recites the book he’s read every day without fail for thirty years to be transcribed. 

This is how to do a ‘twist’ ending.  It’s a trick and a payoff to be sure but it isn’t a gimmick.  It affects the story but it isn’t the point of the story.  It’s subtle enough that I had to go back and watch it and say ‘I’ll be damned, that dude was blind the whole time.’ 

The movie obviously deals with religion and faith but this too is subtle.  By moving the story to a world where nobody has religion or faith, the storyteller can move past contemporary ideas of both.  In fact there’s no real preaching to the story.  The book means one thing to Eli and another to Carnegie.  Carnegie is the ‘bad guy’ no doubt but he’s not evil.  He wants the book to give people hope so he can rebuild a civilisation with safety and order.  Sounds kinda reasonable actually. 

So what we have here is a well paced and beutifully shot action movie with a couple of strong leads.  We also have an engaging story about what’s worth fighting for beyond mere survival.  The Wasteland Warrior character brought full circle to his archetypal roots of a knight on a spiritual quest.  In short, some good Storytelling.

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Nothing New Under the Cinematic Sun?

I finally saw Avatar. I realize it’s been out for months and earned an obscene amount of money at the box office, but I have a thing about crowds and prefer to wait until the hype has died down before I see a blockbuster like this in a movie theatre. I must say that James Cameron’s film certainly lives up to it reputation in terms of visual spectacle. The scenery is indeed dazzling, and the 3-D effects will likely spawn dozens of imitators for years to come—which is only fitting, since imitation is pretty much all you get with Avatar in terms of its storyline.

Granted, it’s nothing new for artists to build on the work of their predecessors. George Lucas freely admits that he dove deep into the archetypal pool (via Joseph Campbell) when scripting out his Star Wars saga. Likewise, the Wachowski brothers drew from a host of literary and religious archetypes when they created the Matix trilogy. However, Cameron does not pay homage to these traditions so much as he downright steals from the work of other screenwriters and filmmakers.

While watching the three-hour long Avatar, I found myself making a mental checklist of the cinematic allusions being played out on the screen.  Dances With Wolves is there in bulk, as are the aforementioned Star Wars and Matrix movies.  There are also echoes of Braveheart, Pocahontas, Medicine Man, Independence Day, Donnie Brasco, Apocalypse Now, The Search for Spock, Total Recall, and Kingdom of Heaven. Cameron even seems to borrow from himself a bit with nods to the Alien and the Terminator franchises. Plus you get a movie with Romeo and Juliet-esque star-crossed lovers and a narrator who is divided between two worlds—much like the protagonist in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant novels.

Don’t get me wrong, many writers have built careers based on adaptations of other people’s ideas (William Shakespeare comes to mind), and James Cameron’s film is worth the price of admission if only to admire the work of a talented team of animators. But without the stunning visuals, Avatar’s storyline seems a bit shallow. Then again, this is Hollywood we’re talking about, and in a country whose reading habits continue to decline, perhaps movies are the only form of cultural transmission we have left.

Suicide Girls: Archetypal Females Choosing the Final Slumber

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 11:  Helen Morton...

As I think about some of the most famous female characters in literature and drama, I am struck by how many of them wind up taking their own lives: Antigone, Jocasta (Antigone’s mother), Eurydice (Antigone’s aunt)—and that’s just one ancient Greek storyline. If you throw Shakespeare into the mix, the list gets even longer: Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Portia, Cleopatra…et. al.

Moving into the modern era, the body count grows: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, Edna Pontilier, Joan Gilling (from Sylvia Plath’s The Belle Jar—and later, Plath herself). Even the character Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Kate Winslet) from the box office blockbuster film Titanic contemplates throwing herself off the back of the ship until Jack Dawson steps in to save her.

So why is it that so many heroines choose to consign themselves to oblivion (or as Hamlet describes it, “the undiscovered country”)? Statistically, more women than men attempt suicide. However, men are much more successful at it than women, often because they choose methods that are more violent. (In the U.S., for instance, male death rates due to suicide are at least four times greater than those for women. In other countries, such as Lithuania and Russia, the male to female ratio is five to one.) If men take their own lives more often, why are female suicides so disproportionately represented in stories and on screen?

To answer these questions, it may be helpful to examine the topic historically. In Classical myths, for example, women typically commit suicide for the following reasons: abandonment, grief, unrequited love, shame, rape, incest, madness, self-sacrifice, fear, and frustration. (Paradoxically, this last category seems to apply to immortals only; both the Sirens and the Sphinx leap to their deaths after Odysseus and Oedipus overcome their powers.) The methods these women use to do themselves in include hanging, drowning, jumping to their deaths, stabbing, leaping into fire, drinking poison, and or even being swallowed by the earth.

Victorian female characters often end their lives for similar reasons, and like today, they usually choose more passive means than their male counterparts, such as drinking poison or drowning. Even in modern stories, suicidal female characters will usually opt for a bottle of pills or a razor blade rather than jumping in front of a train or reaching into the gun cabinet.

Regardless of their methods, the women who choose the path of suicide seem to fall into two main categories: those who are downright delusional and those whose suicide is an act of desperation or defiance because they feel backed into a corner in some way. Ophelia and Lady Macbeth are clearly in the delusional camp (although some would argue that Ophelia’s delusion is the result of feeling trapped by male expectations). Others, like Edna Pontilier, feel so trapped by the male power-brokers in their world that they see death as their only way out. The doomed wife, April Wheeler, from the book Revolutionary Road definitely falls into this category.

Then there are those particular characters (some would say the statistical majority of women who attempt to take their own lives) who use suicide as a way of drawing attention to themselves—the proverbial “cry for help.” Susanna Kaysen (Wynonna Ryder’s character in the film Girl Interrupted) is a prime example of this, as is Charlotte Bronte’s character, Mary Cave (from the novel Shirley) who dies of starvation for love. Are these women desperate? Delusional? Or are there different psychological issues at work here?

Through the ages, critics have argued that some suicidal women demonstrate their own brand of heroism by becoming the ultimate masters of their fates. In certain cases this may be true, such as the two female leads in Quentin Tarantino’s movie, Inglourious Basterds (Shoshana, who embarks on a suicide mission, and Bridget von Hammersmark, a screen actress who understands the inherent risks associated with wartime espionage). However, whether or not other types of suicides are considered acts of courage or cowardice is as much a reflection of the audiences’ sensibilities as it is the characters’. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why writers have historically included suicidal women in their narratives. Not only does it reflect a disturbing reality of society, it also brings about powerful dramatic tension—a staple of good storytelling.

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“She’s A Lady…” (Female Archetypes in the Western Tradition)

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In examining heroic archetypes, I am struck by how few examples there are of heroic female characters in ancient narratives. Heroic male protagonists abound in the pre-Shakespearean canon, and they usually fall into distinct categories (warriors, teachers, fools, tricksters, etc.). By contrast, the heroines of the ancient world are not so easy to categorize, and their roles in a narrative often overlap into multiple areas—much like real life! Even among people who write about the topic, there is little consensus as to which categories exist or where individual characters should be placed.

One way we could approach the topic of female archetypes would be to start in the middle of the Western literary tradition and see what came before and after. In medieval Romances, for example, a woman is depicted as either an innocent maiden, a wife/mother, a temptress, or an old crone. Today, this pattern continues to hold sway, even in modern TV dramas and sitcoms (consider Gilligan’s Island or Desperate Housewives).

Maidens are certainly a staple of many fairy tales, like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Repunzel. Princess Leia falls into this role (at least until the gold bikini episode), and some would argue that Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia, is an innocent victim (although the jury is still out on her among critics). Other times, the maiden serves as a Platonic ideal of friendship and companionship, such as Dante’s Beatrice. For many, it is the girl’s innocence that adds to her appeal (think Nancy Drew, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, or Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz). Of course, there is also the type of maiden who is described as a “waif”—a poor girl who suffers at the mercy of the cruel or indifferent world around her. The Little Match Girl, Cinderella, and Jane Eyre fall into this category.

Like maidens, the character of the dutiful wife and mother has plenty of literary precedent. Among the Classical deities is Hera, the mean-tempered but long-suffering wife of Zeus. Penelope faithfully keeps the Ithican home fires burning while her husband, Odysseus, is gone for twenty years. Welthow serves drinks to Beowulf’s men while her husband, king Hrothgar, listens to the warriors’ speeches. And who can forget Elizabeth Bennet’s quirky mom in Pride and Prejudice or the ever-pleasant June Cleaver?

Another female archetype is the woman in charge—the boss or the crusader. The Greek goddess, Athena, is a good example of this, as is the Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales. Antigone of Greek tragic fame and the Biblical Esther are the two earliest examples of civil disobedience, and they demonstrate a woman’s ability to undermine male authority through their courage and their wits. Modern writers have crafted plenty of women who are in charge: Wonder Woman, Lara Croft, Emma Peele from The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Xena are good examples.

Along the same lines as the woman in charge is the survivor, with the main difference being these gals do not get to dictate the terms of their circumstances. Moll Flanders and Hester Prynne overcome enormous odds to emerge heroic at their end of their stories, as do Scarlett O’Hara and Celie from The Color Purple. Others like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, and The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier are not so fortunate, although many see them as making heroic—albeit, controversial—choices.

Of course, where would the heroic stories from both the past and present be without a temptress? The earliest piece of literature known to exist, the Epic of Gilgamesh, includes a harlot who seduces Enkidu, thus causing him to fall from grace. Odysseus faces not only the Sirens but also Circe (who turns Odysseus’ men into swine) and Calypso (who imprisons Odysseus and his men for seven years). The Romantic poet, John Keats, immortalized the siren-esque figure of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (“The Beautiful Woman Without Pity,” a title Keats borrowed from a fifteenth century French poet, Alain Chartier). Lolita functions as a temptress in Nabokov’s tale, as does the Lady of the Castle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (although she is also portrayed as a faithful wife, making her one of the more complex characters from the medieval tradition).

Other female characters use their feminine powers and personalities to destroy. Storytellers and theologians sometimes blame Eve for humankind’s downfall, and Pandora’s mistake echoes these same sentiments. Delilah uses her womanly charms to trap Samson. Salome conspires with her mother, Herodias, to trick Herod into killing John the Baptist. Shiva is the Hindu destroyer, and Morgan Le Fay devotes her life to undermining everything her stepbrother, Arthur, tries to build. Helen of Troy functions as both a temptress and a destroyer in bringing about Troy’s downfall, and likewise, Guinevere’s involvement with Lancelot unravels the chivalric fabric of Camelot.

Old crones are not as common as many of the other female archetypes, but they certainly have their place in narratives. Fairy tales are replete with wicked old witches, and many of them seek to do harm to innocent maidens. Modern sitcoms have made ample use of older women, but usually in a more positive sense. Alice from The Brady Bunch, Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith Show, and Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies are all reliable caregivers, and their role is to function as protectors and advisors to the younger cast of characters.

To me, it is interesting that in ancient stories, most of the female archetypes exist not so much in the human sphere but among the deities. It is not until after Shakespeare that narratives begin to incorporate females who display the same level of complexity as their male counterparts, and this became even more the norm after Jane Austen, the Brontes, and other eighteenth and nineteenth writers brought the novel into its own as an art form. Today there is certainly no shortage of literature written by, for, and about women, but even so, these writers continue to borrow from types and forms that have existed for centuries.

I am sure there are many other categories of female character types I’ve overlooked in this brief overview. So let me know what I’ve missed so that we might continue the discussion.

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“Come, trusty sword…” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.335)

by Scott

 

I’ve written before about using archetypes to help my students make connections between various stories and films.  One of the most common archetypal devices storytellers use is the notion of linking a particular object to a hero.  This association often occurs early in a story, and it is a process Christopher Vogler refers to as “seizing the sword.”  Sometimes the object is literally a sword.  For example, the young Arthur Pendragon must successfully draw a sword from a stone and anvil in order to become “King of all England by right of birth.”  Later, he is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, and with it, a magical scabbard.  Likewise, Beowulf uses his ancestral sword Hrunting to defeat various monsters, and when this sword breaks during the fight with the dragon, it signals the hero’s impending death and the eventual demise of his society. 

 

In Greek mythology, the fourteen year old Theseus lifts a giant boulder to find a sword and a pair of sandals that had been left there for him by his father.  This discovery sets the young hero on a quest to defeat the murderous monsters Sinis, Procrustes, and the Minotaur.  In the same vein, Luke Skywalker’s journey toward his destiny begins when he receives his own father’s “sword”—a futuristic light saber. 

 

While there are plenty of other examples of heroes seizing sharp, pointy weapons to fulfill their quests, storytellers sometimes use other objects to convey the same idea.  The God of the Israelites gives Moses a staff which helps to defeat the Egyptians and lead his people to the Promised Land.  Gandalf also has a staff which proves useful on numerous occasions in The Lord of the Rings saga.  In the film The Natural, Roy Hobbs carves a baseball bat (an interesting variation on both the sword and the staff ideas) from a tree that had been struck by lightning.  This bat would go on to serve Hobbs faithfully on his path to Major League greatness.  When Josey Wales finds a lone, wooden-handled pistol in the smoldering debris of his family’s cabin, he teaches himself to shoot and becomes the killing scourge of the fallen Confederacy.  And of course, what would Indiana Jones be without his Fedora and bullwhip?

 

I find it intriguing that so many storytellers down through the ages have relied on such simple concepts to bring their heroes to life.  Yet as simple as this archetype may be, the range of personalities associated with these swords and sticks is as wide as the human spectrum itself.  So while weapons and technologies may have changed, the basic motivators of human behavior have not, which is certain to make for countless more archetypal heroes in the centuries to come.