The Gods have become movies

The Gods have become movies

18 May 2010

Prolonging anxiety of change is proving a popular option for film and television

Movie Clapper

It’s the drawcard for viewers, says La Trobe University’s Terrie Waddell, who has just released a penetrating study that challenges us to look anew at some of the deeper psychological devices that underpin modern visual culture.

A senior lecturer in Cinema and Media Studies, the examples she deals with in her book Wild/Lives range from esoteric cult classic movies like Solaris and Grizzly Man to television’s popular Deadwood, Lost, and Biggest Losers series.

Launching the book, Associate Professor in English, David Tacey, said cinema, media and popular culture today simply ignore ‘high culture’s insistence that God is dead and the gods are no more.

Dr Tacey, a specialist in literature, cultural studies and depth psychology, is author of eight books. He says: 'Our lives are literally shot through with mythic themes, motifs, cosmologies, and archetypal patterns that suggest that – far from being dead – the gods are having a field day at our expense.

'The prevalence of myth in contemporary movies and media productions is too great to be ignored.

'Thankfully, we have media analysts like Terrie Waddell who have the courage to draw our attention to the persistence of myth in a world which purports to be free of the gods.'

Dr Waddell says traditional narrative structure engages viewers in three stages: ‘separation, transition – or limbo – followed by re-incorporation’.

‘The more I looked at screen texts concentrating on this sense of limbo, the more I realised just how pop-culturally passé the old three-pronged approach has become.

‘The most riveting stuff happens when we as viewers have been separated from reality – that is during the transition, or liminal, stage of the film.

‘For television more so than film, keeping situations and characters in this state of transition prolongs both the intrigue and longevity of a series.’

Dr Waddell is a former actor turned academic. She says the seven examples used in her book all revolve around characters in ‘isolated locations, cut off from civilising social structures’.  They are either forced into these situations or enter them of their own free will, thus magnifying crisis points in their lives.

‘Then, through conscious or unconscious dialogue, people’s facades are peeled away and their emotional vulnerabilities exposed. There is a continuous crossing of boundaries where shifting realities interact with each other.

‘Rules are broken and a sense of self is reshaped. There is no ideological restraint. Convention and civility often give way to a more primordial mindset, making this fringe experience either terrifying or exhilarating.’

For example, she says the TV series Lost – ‘a typical example of televisual pastiche’– relies on ‘allusions to diverse forms of popular culture in its drawn-out themes of dysfunctional fathering, dystopia and tribalism’.

‘This ensures the characters will never be saved from their conflicts or the island, and will remain in limbo without ever finding the inner sense of transformation they have been desperately seeking.’

Dr Waddell says in the TV series Biggest Loser, players ‘not only battle their bodies, but the self-loathing that (we’re repeatedly told) drove them to audition as a last resort’.

‘While there’s always a prize for the contestant who sheds the most amount of weight, no one escapes the relentless vigilance of the body. ‘It’s a moot point as to whether anyone ever leaves the mindset of the house.’

Each film and television example calls us ‘to enter the wilderness and engage with wild lives’.

Where do you feel most alive, Waddell asks her readers, ‘in the dream or the waking state, the liminal or the structural, the feral or the domestic?’

Dr Waddell can be contacted on Tel: 03 9479 2396,  Email:

The full text of Dr David Tacey’s book launch speech can be viewed below

Wild/Lives - Trickster, Place and Liminality on Screen (published by Routledge) is aimed at scholars and members of the public interested in screen culture and analytical psychology.

The Gods Have Become Movies

By David Tacey, La Trobe University Associate Professor in English.

Book launch speech on  Terrie Waddell, ‘Wild/lives: Trickster, Place and Liminality on Screen’ (London and New York: Routledge, 2010) held at Readings, Carlton, (6pm Thursday 13 May 2010)

I am pleased to be able to “say a few words” about this new book Wild/lives by Terrie Waddell.  

Something that Terrie and I have in common is that we both look at cultural texts through the lens of Jungian Psychology. For various historical reasons, Jung is not a major figure in Australian university life, and so taking on his psychology as an interpretive lens or point of view is, in fact, a controversial task. There are quite a few Australian intellectuals who are convinced that Jung is worthless, wrong, or passé, even though many of these people have not read him. Nevertheless, they are sure he is wrong. Many Australian intellectuals are unaware that Jung is experiencing a revival of interest in universities in other parts of the world, especially in fields such as Cinema and Media Studies, Religious Studies and Psychoanalytic Studies. But if scholars like Terrie and myself here in Australia take on Jung, we have to do it well, because others are keen to see us fail.

We also have to do it well because not many of our Australian readers will be familiar with this psychology. This means we cannot hide behind jargon or assume that our readers know the jargon in advance. We have to be efficient, concise, and crystal clear in our writing; otherwise the task does not work. Terrie Waddell is a very good and clear writer, and a wide range of readers from various backgrounds can pick up her books and make sense of them. To write in an underexposed area like Jungian studies places a considerable burden on writers, and Terrie carries this burden in an impressive way, helping the reader out right through her texts.

Now in one sense, Jung is simply a modern interpreter of ancient myth, and some Jungian writers take Jung’s word for it and do not go back to the ancient sources. Terrie is not among these ranks, for she does go back to original sources, and in this book the reader is as impressed by her knowledge and grasp of ancient myth, as he or she is by her grasp of analytical psychology. This makes the current book multi-layered and quite complex: Terrie is critiquing seven screen texts from television and cinema, and subjecting those texts to a Jungian methodology, as well as counterpointing her narrative with sources from ancient myth, modern reworkings of myth, and myth criticism. To make it even more layered, Terrie is doing something else at the same time: Jung in his original form has dated to some extent, especially where matters of race, class and gender are concerned, and so Terrie is not only doing the other things I mentioned, but also updating the Jungian opus and thus creating a post-Jungian critical methodology. She is thus operating at about a half dozen levels at the one time. And yet, and this is her trick, all this is does with seemingly effortless ease – at least it comes across to the reader as seamless, even though those of us who are writers know the amount of hard work that goes into producing the final seamless effect.

Jung famously declared in 1929 that the ‘gods have become diseases’. He meant by this that the archetypal forces that govern our lives have so thoroughly been suppressed or ignored by modern reason that they have nowhere else to go but to appear in distorted form in symptoms, psychosomatic disorders and physical afflictions. But Terrie Waddell has another take on this situation. In relation to Terrie’s work, I think we could almost declare: ‘the gods have become movies’.

As in Jung’s day, in the early to mid 20th century, the gods are still off the official radar and most of us today do not ‘believe’ in the gods. They are as much banished from official consciousness today as they were in the time of Nietzsche, Freud or Jung. But as Jung  might say, we don’t have to believe in the gods, because they have taken possession of us unconsciously. They do not require our belief to maintain their existence, because if we ignore them they simply move into our lives and take over, granting us less personal freedom than before. This is one of the big themes in media and cinema texts today. We consider ourselves to be free agents, secular persons in a free society, but this is a mere illusion or veneer which masks the fact that we are entirely conditioned by forces we do not see and over which we have no control.

In this regard, cinema, media and popular culture generally have served us well in recent times. These popular forms of expressions simply ignore high culture’s insistence that God is dead and the gods are no more, and they tell a very different story about our lives. Our lives are literally shot through with mythic themes, motifs, cosmologies, and archetypal patterns that suggest that, far from being dead, the gods are having a field day at our expense. The prevalence of myth in contemporary movies and media productions is too great to be ignored. Thankfully, we have media analysts like Terrie Waddell who have the courage to draw our attention to the persistence of myth in a world which purports to be free of the gods.

Terrie seems to stand alone in the Australian scene – the only seriously engaged, well published and internationally regarded media analyst who I am aware of who reads the gods and archetypes in popular culture. She reads the mythic patterns in the way that others read only the external events, or the happenings on the surface. Where others see only characters on a screen, Terrie Waddell sees the modern expression of ancient myths, the presence of Hermes the Trickster or Persephone/Kore in our screen stories. She sees ancient patterns of rebirth and initiation, of separation-transition-return in our ordinary patterns of experience. We think of our lives as fairly ordinary for the most part, but Terrie shows us the extraordinary in the ordinary, the survival of pagan gods in our domestic routines and crises, the continuation of myths thought long dead and utterly defunct in our culture.

Of course, Terrie can see these ancient resonances because she knows a great deal about ancient cultures and civilisations. Nor is she saying that these mythic patterns are present in media texts because some clever director or script writer put them there. She is careful in this book not to fall for what many inexperienced observers fall for – namely, the intentional fallacy. The presence of a myth in a screen text cannot be assumed to be ‘there’ because an author/director/script writer put it there. Terrie is too sophisticated to fall for this kind of reductive myth criticism; nor does she argue that all the movie directors have read Jung and that’s why their works are so Jungian. No, Terrie has too much respect for the authority of the text itself, and for its capacity to reveal imaginative, mythic and archetypal structures that are there simply because they are there. They are part of the structure of human creativity and imagination, and not because of the operation of any external influences.

Terrie is especially interested in what might be called the postmodern turn in media and cinema narratives. The classic hero’s journey or quest of initiation was mapped in 1908 by Arnold Van Gennep in his classic work, The Rites of Passage. The typical rite has three stages: separation from society and family contexts, transition to a new state, and return to society with new knowledge or the boon of initiation. Terrie shows in Wild Lives how the second stage of this process has become the object of attention for many of our most successful productions. We want to skip the first bit, the story of separation, and get straight to the interesting bits about transition, which involves liminality as Terrie calls it, namely, a state which is between and betwixt the other states of separation and return. Limen is a Latin word meaning threshold, and it is the liminal state where we experience a constant stream of thresholds, borders, transgressions and overcomings. This seems to be what grips viewers today, and to my knowledge Terrie is the first to advance this theory about the postmodern screen text. These liminal experiences are what keep viewers ‘glued to the screen’, to see what happens when fictional or real-life ‘reality tv’ subjects are subjected to trials, total liminality, and constant exposure to that which is outside the normal borders and boundaries. ‘Where do you feel most alive’, Waddell asks her readers, ‘in the normal waking state, or in the liminal or dream state?’

This is where we see a tension between her postmodern position and classical Jungian thought. Because Jung would say that prolonged liminality is meaningless unless there is a return to society and some experience of closure. Terrie goes against classical Jungian assumptions by not even asking for, let alone demanding, a closure to the liminal experience. She recognises that our interest today is in prolonged exposure to the betwixt and between, and we are less concerned about bringing it all back home, or things returning to ‘normal’, whatever that could mean. Jung would see constant liminality as a sign of mental illness, but Terrie refuses to pathologise in this way, admitting that our time has some attraction for continued liminality which the great modernists such as Jung would probably fail to appreciate.
Terrie has honed her beautifully crafted skills and delicate myth detection over decades of training and dedication. Her training, for the most part, has mostly been self-training, because apart from herself there are no other teachers in this country who specialise in this kind of mythic or archetypal reading. Like myself, Terrie is fairly dependent on what is going on overseas in this field. There is a flourishing field in other countries, but not, alas, in our own. There are no benchmarks here, no local traditions or patterns to consult. Those few of us who work in this field have to benchmark ourselves, and rely on our own intuition and gut instinct, rather than find the way paved by those who have gone before. There is the occasional, and very important, overseas trip to international conferences, where one can breathe a sigh of relief and realise that there are others out there like oneself. Without these excursions one would die of loneliness in this country because we are still old world and overly rational in many ways, still committed to the idea that there are no gods, no archetypes and no need for old fashioned myths.

Meanwhile, we all flock to the cinema to see the latest blockbusters which are commercially successful precisely because they are full of the ancient gods who have refused to die. We sit excitedly before our favourite television show or reality series, seeking our regular fix of mythic contents and themes. We fob our habits off with a self-deprecating text to our friends: ‘Please don’t disturb me now, I am watching my favourite crappy tv show; call you later, kisses and hugs’. We may call our fav tv show crap but it is more than crap, it holds us in its grip. We are possessed by something which is greater than ourselves, and even though the movie, the reality tv series or the sit-com may be a bit rough at the edges, it nevertheless holds us in inexplicable and quite irrational ways. It holds us because we are moved to see mythic patterns live themselves out.

As Nietzsche said in 1872: we are starved of myth today, and we are prepared to seek it out wherever and whenever can:

And here stands modern man, stripped of myth, eternally starving, in the midst of all the past ages, digging and scrabbling for roots, even if he must dig for them in the most remote antiquities. What is indicated by the great historical need of unsatisfied modern culture, clutching about for countless other cultures, with its consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, the loss of the mythical home, the mythical womb?

(Nietzsche 1872: 109-10)
Nietzsche, Friedrich 1872: The Birth of Tragedy. Trans Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin, 1993.

The modern hunger for myth suggests that our instinctive nature is filling in for what our minds reject. Our minds continue to call myth crap, but we must have our regular fix of the mythic diet. We are at war with ourselves in this regard, and I would describe this as a conscious aversion for gods and myths, versus an unconscious addiction to these same realities.

Terrie Waddell helps to make our unconscious addictions conscious. She tells us why we are so addicted, what it is that we are seeking when we sit mesmerised before the screen. With the insight of an initiate in the halls of Asclepius or Apollo, she puts on her mythic glasses and reads the cinematic text through different eyes. While others are watching Avatar with 3D glasses, Terrie is watching the same text with 4 Dimensional glasses, always alert to the missing perspective, the mythic subtext that lies below the conscious level, a subtext that reveals the text in a new light once it is developed and written up. So let’s thank Terrie Waddell for performing this hermeneutic task for us, and recognise that we owe her a great deal. So long as the ‘gods have become movies’, she is one of the few who is able to keep track of the gods and tell us about their movements in our lives. 





La Trobe Media Release RSS