The Secret Life of Movies (Schizo Cinema)
Here's an interview I did for the upcoming book.
What prompted you to write The Secret Life of Movies?
I started the book back in 2000, and I wanted to write a follow up to The Blood Poets, which was about savagery and violence in American movies. The reason I wrote about violence was simple: I wanted a thesis that would include all my favorite movies, and I soon realized that the common thread running through them was violence, destruction. As I set about writing the book, I found out a lot about why I liked certain movies, and about the basic appeal of vicariously experiencing, via movies, things we would otherwise be careful to avoid in real life. If you narrowed it down to one thing, it would be “intensity.” Movies provide the kind of intensity which we would only experience in real life if we were in crisis, when such experiences tend to be traumatic; but in movies, as in Greek tragedy, they are potentially cathartic. During the process of writing The Blood Poets, then, I discovered a lot about the movies I liked and why I liked them, and therefore about my own psyche. These were movies I had seen many times, and in the process of writing about them, looking for ways to develop my thesis, it opened up a Pandora’s Box. I found out that, by writing about movies, I was able to go into realms of the psyche and of society that I normally wouldn’t have gone into. This gave me a clue: movies were like windows onto the collective psyche. The things I liked about movies at a conscious level were a lot less revealing than what appealed to me at an unconscious level.
That gave me the idea of the occult text. A lot of movies seem to be about fictional scenarios, but actually they are archetypal. Like myths, they allow us to uncover and map areas of the psyche that are otherwise hidden from us. If we scratch the surface of a sci-fi movie or a horror movie, for example, we find that they are using the same archetypes as ancient myths, and that they serve as a kind of psychological blueprint. But movies are unlike myths, in the sense that they are superficially much more sophisticated, more “realistic.” Even sci-fi or horror movies are more realistic than ancient myths, which often aren’t populated by human beings at all, and which are full of impossible possibilities. Even fantasy movies attempt to be realistic, and when they aren’t they are either considered to be kids’ movies or just bad ones. The realism of popular entertainment means that the mythic function of movies is more hidden, it gets suppressed through the process of conceiving and making the movie, to the point that even the filmmakers usually aren’t aware of it. Mythmakers were generally aware of what they were doing, of giving coded information in the form of a narrative so that the average person could enjoy the story, while “initiates” could read it in a more abstract way, as a mythic blueprint. But movies are different.
Movies are like myths at a different stage in our society, a stage when we are more ego-developed beings, when we have a sense of identity that is more rigid, and so our sense of reality is also more rigid. So we require our myths to be more realistic as well. We have disconnected from our subconscious, basically, and so movies have to be more covert in their mythic unfolding. It was only by analyzing movies for The Blood Poets that I found out about this occult text. It intrigued me, because it was like movies themselves had an unconscious. The filmmakers obviously had an unconscious, but unlike mythmakers they were not working from it—to some extent, perhaps, but not entirely. They might be aware of the subtext or they might not, but even if they were aware of it, there would be a still deeper subtext, and that was where the real juice was. Essentially, I was drawn then to look at movies not only that had hidden texts (all movies do), but that dealt with the unconscious in an overt fashion, and with the conflict between the conscious and unconscious mind of the protagonist. That drew me naturally to the idea of madness, and specifically schizophrenia: the idea that there could be a conflict between one’s perception of self and one’s reality, between what one consciously believed was real and what one unconsciously felt was true. Schizophrenia is to do with a splitting of the self from the environment, so that the self doesn’t feel a part of environment. You could even say that the more the ego develops, the deeper schizophrenia becomes; in which case, those diagnosed as schizophrenics and who experience a loss of identity are in a sense less schizophrenic than the rest of us—because they are more acutely aware of their condition. As I looked into the subject more, or rather as I was writing about it, I realized that this state paralleled the act of watching a movie itself: a disconnection from the reality we are seeing (on the screen), as well as from our immediate environment (the theater or living room). That’s the pleasure of movies – to be emotionally involved in a surrogate reality without having to take part in it. So the pleasure of movies—and the reason violent or tragic movies are often cathartic— relates to the schizophrenic nature of watching movies, the possibility of observing our environment without being a part of it. This is the schizophrenic experience: through the act of watching movies, one ceases to exist as a self.
Isn’t there a mystic tradition similar to this idea, that of dissociating from objective experience to view one’s life from the outside, i.e., “as a movie”?
That was also what I was looking for, the shamanic dimension of movies, that they shape our perception, which is a shamanic method. And also the parallels between schizophrenia and experiences of other realities. This idea brings it back to myth again, to ancient myths. They all tie in. The violence in a sense related to the symptoms: in Blood Poets, I was analyzing the symptoms and following them to the condition, which led me to a diagnosis, that of schizophrenia, the cut-off of the mind/identity from the physical world, which is schizophrenia in its most basic form. You could say that, having described the symptoms, I wanted to describe the condition itself, and even if possible to find a cure. That became The Secret Life of Movies. It was an attempt to use movies more deliberately, as a way to diagnose a culture. Movies are made by a collective of individuals to meet the demands of a whole population, so what we are seeing is not informed by an individual’s unconscious but by the collective unconscious. Movies are being shaped by collective dreams through the plastic medium of film. They are a shamanic tool that’s being used unconsciously, at least at this time. (There are cases where this tool is being used consciously, films like The Matrix or Fight Club that actually become shamanic experiences because the unconscious and conscious minds of the filmmakers are working together, and so text and subtext are intertwined rather than at odds.) What writing this book entailed, then, was allowing movies their occult function as collective dreams, dreams that, if analyzed, provide information in symbolic form as to the condition of society and of the species. It’s rather like taking a blood sample, a psychic blood sample from the collective unconscious. By looking at movies, we can find out what condition the system, our culture and society, is in.
So your book presumably draws on the work of Carl Jung?
So although the basic idea of this book can be compared to psychology and dream analysis, that’s really just a way to update it into terms the modern, rational person can understand. A more primitive or “superstitious” mindset could understand this book’s premise more easily, since the “superstitious” mindset is also more open to the realities of the psyche, for example, to the idea that our whole culture could be a sort of collective dream, “the imagination of God,” say, or the perspective of an animistic universe, a living conscious system. These ideas are acceptable to a primitive understanding without resorting to psychological terms. Within that frame of reference, then, what I’m doing predates psychology: it’s a form of scrying, based on the understanding that nothing in nature is random. Whether it’s goat’s entrails, tea leaves floating in a cup, an egg in a glass of water, or whatever, the patterns these things create is a coded language that can be deciphered, according to the present moment, to find out whatever the shaman wants to find out. This is what myths are, except that myths are consciously designed in this way by sorcerers or shamans so that others of their kind will recognize them. Movies are both less and more pure than that. Being shaped by the unconscious makes them more pure, but they are also being shaped by conscious agendas of commerce, propaganda, popular taste, and so forth, agendas which overlay the work, rather like a person who edits their dreams to make them more “wholesome” or entertaining. Movies have been heavily edited and filtered, but the basic components still come from the unconscious , because everything does. So as long as you can sift through the noise and get to the signal, you can still use them to diagnose; and even the noise can be diagnosed, too, because we can see the ways in which we are blocking out our unconscious.
So in writing this book you are acting in the manner of a contemporary shaman?
Well, it’s an armchair shaman, isn’t it, because I’m just watching movies and writing books. So far as I apply what I write to my own life, that would be shamanic.
But presumably one of the functions of the shaman is to steer the community into healthier, more integrated directions?
I don’t know if that’s one of their functions. Shamans tend to live on the outskirts of town and work one-on-one with sick people. I don’t think they tend to go and preach to the community. They might give them guidance if there was a catastrophe or some such, but I think that they are generally marginalized even by the culture that depends on them for healing. I would say that they only have the influence that you are referring to when people are desperate enough to actively seek them out, and the same probably applies to what I’m doing.
So how do you prevent your subjective perception of films from interfering with your objective analysis of the culture?
I don’t. The more wholly subjective you can be, the more objective you are.
That seems counter-intuitive.
It’s counter-rational, perhaps, but not counter-intuitive. But it would be impossible to explain rationally without going into shamanic terms, or at least Jungian psychology, which academics are not generally open to.
But surely filmmakers are?
Some of them perhaps. If you think of a collective unconscious, by definition it is shared, so that means our own unconscious is part of the collective. So anything that communicates from the unconscious, even though in the process of writing a book or making a film it passes through the conscious mind and is shaped by it, it is still sourced in the collective unconscious. This means it has a dimension, an under layer, of universal or so-called “objective” reality. So if we allow ourselves to be fully in our subjective experience, both of reality and of ourselves, then we are not blocking it to the same extent with futile attempts to be “objective.” We are dropping into the unconscious state, and so objectifying the subjective, as it were. By allowing our subjective experience of conscious reality to deepen, we are allowing it to overlap with our unconscious, which is collectively subjective, let’s say, and therefore is “objective.”
Like a herd of cats?
There’s no such thing as a herd of cats.
So what you’ve done is you’ve viewed these films in the manner of lucid dreaming?
Well, the dreams are somebody else’s dreams, so I can’t do that. I view the films as a Jungian analyst would listen to a patient’s dreams. The lucid dreaming element comes in when I am using the information of these collective dreams—the movies— in my own daily life.
So if you continue on this course, ultimately you will arrive at a project that would be more or less incomprehensible to the rational mind?
Like James Joyce? I hope not. (pause) Life as theatre is the end to which we are evolving, at which point we would become playwrights and play actors and directors in our own lives, alchemists. We will become that, we will turn ourselves into fiction. It’s inevitable. We will eventually allow ourselves to realize ourselves as narratives, seeing as that is what we already are, and cease to cling to the illusion of being a leading player in the narrative. It’s a paradox, but by insisting on being the lead player, we become puppets. By allowing ourselves to become the story, we can attain a level of surrender and begin co-authoring our stories. In our present culture, this is a religious or mystical perspective, and hasn’t evolved into one that is scientific or shamanic, and therefore practicable. It can only be talked about under the rather flimsy guise of “faith.”
© Michelle Fornasier