Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Cinemarchetype #12: The Sage (Senex)

L-R: Ian McKellan as Gandalf; Richard Harris as Dumbledore; Nicol Williamson as Merlin; Alec Guiness as Obi Wan

The 'one who knows' (at least some) of the dark and light secrets of the world, the Senex/Sage finds the truth at the cost of petty human interaction. To achieve this knowing, first he must be free of the meddling and stale thoughts of the unenlightened, thus the sage goes into the wild to meditate and channel and commune with the plant spirits. He lives outside of the social order, all the better to teach the young warriors--or bullied teens or spiritual pilgrims or astronauts-- who seek him out, so that they might have both sets of tools--the social order and the outside/natural. He may bring harmony to these otherwise warring factions.
'If an individual has wrestled seriously enough and long enough with the anima (or animus) problem...the unconscious again changes its dominant character and appears in a new symbolic a masculine initiator and guardian (an Indian guru), a wise old man, a spirit of nature, and so forth'. (Franz, Marie-Louise von (1978). "The Process of Individuation". 
In other words, when you've done 'the work' - as we say in AA - you can walk out of the swampy nest of your old anima incarnations and into the new freedom of a life with minimal internal/projected conflict. That you've been around the block, and lost your testosterone levels to old age, surely helps in this. And now you are ready to sponsor the younger version of yourself!

Aside from fantasy cinema where he's always around; I skipped a few for sake of avoiding redundancy, like Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid and Rafiki (above) in The Lion King. At any rate, the sage is a pretty rare character in modern film, maybe because a) there are so few in our fucked-up modern age --the TV,  draconian drug laws, trite marital codes and dumbing down of media sees to that, and b) he's left behind earthly desire, and enflaming desire is what non-fantasy film is all about! So how does cinema make him interesting? Pull ze string! His story must be told! In the end, its all about the actor, and the animator, or puppeteer. Rafiki

1. Ian McKellen as Gandalf
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Frodo: It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him (Gollum) when he had the chance.
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

Perhaps in that lies the kernel of the sage's great wisdom --his sense of life and death is more genuinely compassionate, more wise than, for example, the ill-fated mercy gestures of Viggo Mortenson, who spares King Thoeden's sniveling turncoat advisor, Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), and has cause to regret it. Gandalf sees too far into the future and past to be limited by momentary squeamishness or flashes of compassion as befall Viggo. Gandalf's mercy is a more long range brand, and it doesn't extend to fighting his charge's battles. The only time he really steps in is when there's a demon up to his level of skill, so it's more a fair fight, as happens in the climax of The Twin Towers. What a bearded sportsman!

 2. Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) - 
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Back when Empire came out I was only 13 and Yoda became a training wheels guru. Hewas voiced by the man who also gave us Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, so it wasn't too hard to take him into our hearts. Was it an accident he looked a shriveled old Chinese kung fu master? We all considered Yoda the best thing about the film and Yoda fever took over. I can still talk like him! (my brother can too and we'd crack ourselves up saying "Teach you I will, eat you I will" ) Who's to say to what extent Yoda is the wellspring behind my generation's interest in things like yoga, meditation, and even LSD use?

If you ever see a kid trying to move something with the power of the force (see Mallrats), then you know the power and longevity of Master Yoda. While Ben Kenobi let himself get cut down by Vader in the first film, Yoda's too crafty to ever disappear, or even be anywhere specific, and it's with no shortage of bemused nostalgia that we finally got to see him fly into battle in Attack of the Clones, where he was once again the best part of the film, twirling through the CGI air like a hyper-ass curve ball.

3. Terence Stamp as Stick
Daredevil (2003) / Elektra (2005)

Maybe you have to be a Marvel comic book fan in the early 1980s, subsisting on a crumb diet of X-Men and Fantastic Four, to appreciate the neutron bomb force that was the moment Frank Miller took over full writing and penciling duties on Daredevil. Of course when Miller launched the next level of that game, The Dark Knight (for DC), I was  getting too old and drunk to read anymore non-underground comics, and the slick bled-page graphic novel paper (and racked up price) was a bummer to me as I loved the old newsprint smell. But the stint of prime Daredevil which saw the rise and sad slaughter (and fan-demanded rebirth) of Elektra--the hot Greek assassin--still lingers and now my generation rules Hollywood, so why did Daredevil bomb? And Elektra too? Why? Were they too moody? I like them both and amidst both is Terence Stamp as Stick - the blind sage / kung fu instructor and white ninja school operator. His breath of life brings Elektra back from the dead and that's why she gets her spinoff sequel - yer WELCOME!

Man, something about this sage archetype is regressing me to a very young and geeky time, let's fast forward to my jaded state of 1991..

4. TIE: Cecil Humphreys as The Holy Man
The Razor's Edge (1946)

The 1984 Bill Murray remake gets a little bogged down in craftsmanship but the 1946 version of W. Somerset Maugham's opus has retained its fleet-footedness thanks to Edmund Goulding's gift with soapy angst and a solid cast including the delightful Clifton Webb. All the commotion is a great prelude and post-lude to the mystical stillness of the mountaintop where Garfield learns at the beard of Cecil H.

Sam Jaffe -- Lost Horizon (1937)

"We believe in moderation," notes Jaffe, "a little bit of everything." Somewhere I have a poem about seeing Lost Horizon, over and over, high on Percocets this girl Kate sent me and an intense, hallucination-ridden fever after a drunken / Ritalin-spiked weekend trip up to Syracuse in the dead of winter (see my tale of hallucinating a demon in my bookshelf here). It was awesome, being delirious, sweating and freezing at the same time up on my twin bed (I'd boomeranged back from Seattle and was living in my old bedroom) and floating on Percocet and watching a VHS dupe of Lost Horizon on a small TV at the foot of my bed, the tracking streaks like footprints through safe, warm, icy snow on the voyage to Shangri La. And then of course, 'missing scenes' restored with sound and still photos only - which merely added to the surreal ecstasies, as to my hallucinating eyes the pictures' lips were still moving to the words. I still think of Shangri La as a magick place where, as Peter Gabriel once sang, they talk in pictures not in words.

All of which segues masterfully into Sam Jaffe as the Anti-Kurz, dwelling in the heart of lightness, and creating a nice paradise for tepid Ronald Coleman, until said Coleman gets cold feet and lets his sourpuss little brother drag him back down the mountain, all just so the brother's wife can age 100 years in front of his eyes. What a sourpuss, that brother!

Still, the brother had a point - Fuck Moderation!

 5. Nicol Williamson as Merlin - Excalibur (1981)

Another mystical keepsake from my past. My kid brother and I still quote Terry's weird Merlin voice from this film: "Behoooold tha sword of power!" and "A dream to some.... a NIGHTMARE TO OTHERS!"

Excalibur is convoluted enough that ten viewings later and I'm still noticing odd new details and connections; my dad loved the music-- "Siegfried's Funeral March" from Wagner's Parsifal-- and that kept his interest so he helped explain parts I was too young to understand during my first viewing/taping. Now that I'm Merlin's age the brilliance shines, with Williamson a weird half-human asexual elder god splitting the difference between metaphors and 'the real'--the human and the myth-- 'the dragon' in this case becomes a mix of 'the force', 'the matrix,' and the green man spirit of the woods, all tied together into a terrifyingly ambivalent intelligence. I've seen the dragon myself on wet streets at night and in the serpentine glistening of bathroom tiles...

6. Robert Morley as Andrew Undershaft ("Dandy Andy")
Major Barbara (1941)

I came to this movie very late in life, and it's easy to see why since G.B. Shaw's most famous work is Pygmalion which I find a tad shrill and misogynist. I love most of his other work though, especially this film adaptation, a covertly pro-industrial tract that finds the allegedly decadent Undershaft promting his capitalist ideology against his Salvation Army daughter Barbara (Wendy Hiller) and her Ancient Greek teacher fiancee (Rex Harrison). Tussling with him over his choice of fortune-amassing industries, namely arms, as his stodgy ex-wife laments "you can't trust someone who preaches immorality but practices morality," which is like my motto. He's full of wise oaths and bearded like the bard with a pop-eyed curiosity about nearly everything, and a refusal to get dragged into his bourgeois exes dogmatic drippiness, He and his daughter strike a deal: he is willing to grab a trumpet and march with the S.A. if she'll come to his armament factory. "You've learned something, my dear, and that always feels at first like you lost something." I cry every time. Morley's Undershaft is what I hope to grow up to be, not necessarily a weapons manufacturing titan but a guy who even as an aging father can stay in the moment and guide others towards it without real agenda or malice; and Rex Harrison has never looked sexier in his all black S.A. tunic, eyes alight with detachedly ironic religious fervor forty years before its time! And what's worse, the Criterion edition is CUT of the best Undershaft scenes (his showing Harrison his row of framed photos of ex-mistresses, what he has around instead of a wife, and man who amongst ye swingers can't relate?

7. Walter Pidgeon- Morbius
Forbidden Planet (1956)

Based around Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Morbius is an interesting example of the Lacanian non du pere, with its implied understanding of the dualistic nature of prohibition and enjoyment. For in the end, Morbius is all talk when it comes to prohibition. He verbally forbids the captain to land his craft, forbids his hot daughter to go visit the spaceship and flirt with all the crew, but she does anyway and Morbius doesn't discipline her or even seem upset. He listens to her swoon about boys and doesn't get all James Mason in LOLITA on her ass, which surprises and delights us. He listens attentively and withholds his opinion, hardly the actions of a typical 50s dad. And yet, almost to put on a show, his questioning and addressing her in the men's presence becomes patronizing: "Then my little girl never feels lonely or confined?" It's almost like he's posing as the 'anal father' when he's actually the wise sage and is just testing our hero's wooing mettle... like Sarastro in The Magic Flute! (To Dream some Impossible Tree Sloth)

Sarastro, bitches

8. Alejandro Jodorowsky as the Alchemist in 
The Holy Mountain (1973)
"The grave receives you with love. Surrender yourself to the Earth. Return what was loaned to you. Give up your pleasure, your pain, your friends, your lovers, your life, your past, what you desire. You will know nothingness, it is the only reality. Don't be afraid, it's so easy to give. You're not alone, you have a grave. It was your first mother. The grave is the door to your rebirth. Now you will surrender the faithful animal you once called your body. Don't try to keep it, remember, it was a loan. Surrender your legs, your sex, your hair, your brain, your all. You no longer want to possess, possession is the ultimate pain. The earth covers your body, she came to cover you with love, because she is your true flesh. Now you are an open heart, open to receive your true essence your ultimate perfection. Your new body, which is the universe, the work of god. You will be born again, you will be real. you will be your own father, your own mother, your own child, your own perfection." (courtesy IMDB)
Most cinema sages are either fatherly or cuddly or at least not terrifying, but real sages are probably so weird you want to shit your pants and run the minute you see them coming, their damned goats bleating behind them. As he leads a rag-tag group of castrati soldiers and military toy manufacturers up onto the titular mountain, Jodorowsky gradually becomes more human, but the sheer next level craziness of his vision ensures we descend much less so.

9. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing in 
Dracula (1931)
"For someone who has not lived even one lifetime, you are a very wise man, Van Helsing."
Like Dracula, he comes from the continent, and brings musty arcane knowledge to the relatively sane manners of GB. He easily outguns doubting skeptics like Dr. Seward, noting that "the superstition of today can become the scientific reality of tomorrow" and talks almost as slowly as Lugosi. With his overgrown crew cut, bottle cap specs, and hawk nose, old Van Sloan reminds me a lot of my late German grandfather and/or childhood physician, the terrifying Dr. Scherzinger.

10. Victor Wong as Egg Shen
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

My favorite scene in this favorite John Carpenter film is when Egg Shen, having led Jack (Kurt Russell) and the crew through the underground passages to Lo Pan's secret lair, finds a handy bar and pours them all drinks from a special gourd. When Jack asks what it for, Egg says "it's a good buzz!" then adds this, quoted from IMDB:

Egg Shen: Can see things no one else can see. Do things no one else can do.
Jack Burton: Real things?
Egg Shen: As real as Lo Pan!
Jack Burton: Hey, what more can a guy ask for?
Egg Shen: Oh, the six-demon bag!
Jack Burton: Terrific, a six-demon bag. Sensational. What's in it, Egg?
Egg Shen: Wind, fire, all that kind of thing!

Wong is so great in these scenes, and the way the buzz ("I'm feeling kind of.... kind of invincible!," Jack notes) takes hold is inspiring. Why wouldn't there be a magic alcohol potion that makes people better fighters when  they have to go up against magic evil? Only the mighty JC seems to have thought it through, and that's why he is our lord and king, and the Hawks of his time.

11. Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley
The Runaways (2010)

He's sketchy to the nines, but I admire Fowley's rock resonance and with Shannon's reptile cunning he becomes a live wire priest of 70s streetwise gutter rock. There's no sign of him hitting on or being heterosexually pervy with his young charges, other than for the purpose of perfecting their pervy image. It's only rock and roll he cares about, when Curie quits the band Fowley even salutes her spirit of rebellion! The true sage accepts--and even facilitates--being abandoned by his students, and fades into obscurity with glitter-era grace if it completes the myth, unlike...

12. Viggo Mortenson - Sigmund Freud in 
A Dangerous Method (2011)

What a tragedy John Huston's 1962 Freud isn't out, it would make a great double bill with ADM, since in the former's climax Freud is booed out of the seminar where he's presenting his radical theories on infantile sexuality, as Freud boos Jung's radical theories on a myth and magic in the collective unconscious. Thus the anti-establishment becomes the establishment and one of the 20th century's first sages becomes, once more, just an old man clinging to his tattered strands of his old cocoon.


  1. Great post. Are you going to write about the puer/puerella archetype?

  2. Oddly enough, quite a few of these film sage characters freaked me out when I saw them. I have no idea what that says about me ...

  3. thanks Amy, that's a great idea! And Doug, you're not alone... that response is what Joseph Campbell would call 'the hero's refusal of the quest' - i.e. the stretch of time Luke refuses to help Ben Kenobi because he has farm duties, or some other refusal to recognize the inevitability of the horrible sacrifice the hero must make to undergo their journey. The point is, you embraced them eventually!


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