Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Sunday, January 13, 2013

CinemArchetype 21: The Ego

When I made the last cinemarchetype, the Holy Fool, it so influenced me that I became a holy man for five weeks, even starting a whole new website and accompanying cult, Pswar of the Saints.  That's why I've been scared to approach the ego, which is the true apocalypse of the archeytpes, representing a paralyzed stasis, a black poison of insecurity, doubt and the need to control others, even kill or destroy to protect your 'interests.' This is perfectly expressed in our modern world via things like Big Oil, Republicans, and crazy cult leaders who prefer to force their congregation into suicide rather than lose them. It's a hard habit to break, just as the Holy Fool is a hard habit to keep. Naturally, as it is the polar opposite. The holy fool's biggest threat, the ego always creeps back around the edges, promising to be a better lover, better general, singing sweet songs, like a sorry abusive boyfriend "when it's just us."

Of itself, in its proper capacity, the ego poses no threat and is vital to survival. When we move into life or death situations we need 'one ring to bind them all' so we can act quickly and not be confused by an abundance of empathy and mellow vibes. But without calamity to justify its continued overlording, the ego must make some, like a military leader creating a state of national emergency so Congress won't cut funding. Bush's tightening of power and invading Iraq after 9/11, meanwhile giving Bin Laden a two week head start, is a perfect example. Once the threat is taken care of, the sympathetic nervous system is supposed to relinquish control to the parasympathetic, and take it back again only under 'fight or flight.'  Yet most of us live our whole lives without ever even getting more than a taste of the parasympathetic! Ego would rather sink the ship than let go of the wheel. We see it in the deadlocked congress's brinksmanship. Better to crash the car then let someone else drive.

This is why the best way to film our ego's hostile relationship to the collective unconscious is by making it into inhuman, a nonspecific symbol, an outside alien intrusion into the DNA spirals of the natural world, a kind of evil ghost computer virus, a SKYNET or...

1. HAL 9000 - 2001 (1967)

HAL's emerging paranoia comes with the first glimmers of self-awareness, and time on his hands. He also has to cover, as ego's do, for his mistakes. HAL falls into the Munchausen-by-proxy syndrome of the firemen who, when he has no fires to fight, has to start some, or the nurse suffocating children so she can later revive them and be a life-saving her. Later, when HAL is being unplugged, he goes out singing "Maisie" and then "Happy Birthday," hinting that it is perhaps with birthday celebrations our egoic consciousness manifests. Indeed, aren't birthdays a kind of simultaneous celebration of our difference from others? We're inevitably disappointed, maybe the first time. For some reason with all this special attention we're made painfully aware of our separateness.

Once Kier Dullea silences the egoic voice of HAL, a long-hidden briefing tape comes on, letting Bowman know his mission. This represents the ultimate goal of meditation, the silencing of our egoic chatter, the HAL voice, finally illuminating our true purpose: to go 'Beyond Jupiter' as it were, to expand our consciousness and merge with the timeless Tao (or just take a lot of acid and go to a Pink Floyd laser show).

2. Lord Sauron - Lord of the Rings

If the constellation of Middle Earth's peaceful races mirrors the unconscious archetypes of the whole soul, the unvarnished psyche, then Lord Sauron is the intrusion of ego, of the illusion of separateness leading to fear and the desire to control, to harness or enslave or destroy all others, the zest for power, the fall from Eden. As an alcoholic in recovery I know too well this feeling - we feel like gollums, gradually working our way back to hobbit form. But if we relent in our quest, keep the ring for ourselves, or bring a bottle to our lips, we sink instantly into the mire of cozy-warm evil, with precious.

That Sauron is depicted as a giant all-seeing eye is telling because when we're too ego-dominated we get an unshakable sense of constantly being watched, of thinking there are microphones in our teeth sending out signals to the CIA, pure narcissism. If our Sauron ego gets too far in its plans to conquer our other archetypes, it will destroy us ("in order to save us," it would add).  It's a poison which we project outwards in mistrust of the same external authority we slavishly bow to. If we can lessen its control our lives flower but if not, we squirm under the lash of a persona that would destroy us rather than set us free. If the very thought of meditation or going to AA or a therapist makes you squirm to the point you would rather die than ask for help, Sauron has got you.

3. Orson Welles as Citizen Kane (1941)
Maybe it's my impending sense of mortality but that long slow pan along all that expensive junk at the end of KANE suddenly seems super tragic, as do lines like "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper" - the little boy treating the world like his candy store, yet never finding a favorite flavor.  It's telling that this film aroused such ire in William Randolph Hearst as it's not just about him but about all egos, Orson's included. But Hearst's outrage over the film implicates him in and of itself. A too-dominant ego makes true artistic inspiration impossible. In feeling it's all about him he unwittingly exposes just how Kane-like he truly is.

Ego-dominated people long to be artists and writers because they're desperate to prove they have the unconscious--the fount of creativity-- under control. But everything they produce is hack work: contrived, stale, meaningless, and we can all tell the difference. Only the ego-dominated producer gives 'the people' no credit for seeing what he himself can't in his own work. What Kane can't get around is no matter how many papers he has, he can't change public perception of Susan Foster, can't buy her into being a great opera star. The harder ego tries to make art, the staler that art is (as in the Nazi-sanctioned art of the Third Reich).

Susan Foster Kane's suicide attempt, the thing that finally ends his bullying, is what people so often resort to when the ego leaves them no other option. If they can't break free from its micro-managing suffocation long enough to get some perspective then they just might mistake the ego for the whole of consciousness, as if there was nowhere else to run, and this is just what the ego wants us to believe. Even after finally relenting, he still believes you can "fight 'em" into liking you.

4. Boris Karloff as Dr. Janos - The Invisible Ray (1936)

The saddest element of this downer of a Universal sci fi film is not just the wasted opportunity to make something spooky and fun (which is how it starts out) but a cumulatively glum sermon against nothing in particular. Janos' huge ego demands that the mysterious radioactive compound he discovered in darkest Africa be only for his personal use. He gets super mad when Lugosi spirits some off to Paris and begins healing children with it. His ego becomes so toxic he starts to glow in the dark; he learns he can kill people with a single touch, as fine a metaphor for the choking power of the ego as your likely to find in 1936.

Janos's egotism manifests also in his terrible treatment of his wife, and his servants and the hired help in darkest Africa, whom he threatens to destroy with his death ray if they dare desert him. So... the whole world is supposed to come to a halt while Karloff loses himself behind lead protective shields and fiddles with something that as far as he is concerned is solely to make himself more powerful. Damn, what a self-centered prick. While it's great to see Bela play a good guy, a healing benevolent doctor for a change, it's also boring. Lugosi wouldn't have wasted a part like Janos with glum seriousness the way Karloff does. Lugosi would have hammed it to high heaven and made the film a hit. B-western director Lambert Hillyer brings--as he did the year before in Dracula's Daughter--an odd mix of rich Universal horror atmosphere and humorless naiveté.

5. Bob Geldoff as Pink Floyd - The Wall (1980)

I wrote my big essay on this film in 2010 and I can see in my post-illuminated state the hungry ghost ego running through me that made me blind to both my own and Pink's hungry ghost neediness. Remembering what I learned from a hot art therapist at Bellevue, the open scream mouth poster should be a dead giveaway, the gaping mouth of the needy, first chakra-trapped addict ... but such is the blind rage of the one-ring-to-bind-them that the terrors of ego are invisible to the ego-terrorized (here) - See what a mad ego I have?

A wall itself of course is a grand metaphor for the ego -- that giant Hoover dam of a construct wherein rudimentary 'take-take-take' hungry ghost consciousness seeks to exploit and harness unconscious archetypal powers, to define, to create linear lines and divisions over the unmeasurable chthonic circles. In moderation, brilliance. In excess, banality.

6. F. Murray Abraham as Salieri - Amadeus (1984)
Salieri[addressing a crucifix] From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able(imdb quotes)
7. The Blue Meanie - Yellow Submarine (1968)

Silencing the music of the spheres, of God, in favor of its own ersatz imitation, Salieri's music is the classic example of the musical ego, the one who desires to 'bind them all' to its ego-dominated ring of power, yet winds up only painfully aware of his lack of connection to the untamed wilds of true creativity and genius, is i.e. a hack, a Susan Foster Kane, an Invisible Ray.

Luckily unlike in Amadeus, the Blue Meanies never permanently kill anyone, and are brought back into the fold at the end, now right-sized and in love with the Nowhere Man.

8. Robert De Niro - Jake LaMotta - Raging Bull (1980)
9. Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele - In a Lonely Place (1950)

(From Bride of Bogartstein (8/11): The Bogie we know is too sharp not to know when those around him are turned off, but Dix has no clue. Bogart is brave enough to show the angles by which even his star charisma can be made ugly by vain antipathy. As Dix, even his proposal of marriage comes off like a threat, providing any lady her luckiest break (or fracture) like signing a deal with a confused white tiger, or an arm-rending chimp, temporarily calm but... really, the rest of your life with this thing? As if to illustrate, Dix's battered agent exclaims to Gloria in the least coded of gay double entendres: "He's Dix Steel, and if you want him you've got to take it all" Rationalizing the hurt, he notes: "People like him can afford to be temperamental."

This same description applies to the similarly abusive Jake LaMotta, wherein De Niro also buries his natural actorly charm to show us the ugly, violent, twisted face of the glorified savage animal male ego -- the smashing force of the repressive instinct, the need to control leading to paranoia, suspicion, and the unquestioned feeling one's own violence is always justified, even if its against your own fists.

10. Burt Lancaster - Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

"When he insulted me he insulted all forty million of my readers."

11. James Mason - Lolita, Bigger than Life, North by Northwest, Mandingo

Mason can't ever really be lovable in a straightforward way but as a rogue and scoundrel, a god or a demon, he is charming without peer. Take his slippery bad guy in North by Northwest, and imagine him like the later version of Humbert Humbert, Lolita having driven him insane to the point he not only killed Quilty, but her husband and child, and Lolita as grown up to be Eva Marie Saint. Makes sense, right? His is love only in the sickest sense, as with his grandiose mania in Bigger than Life, he really never sees anyone else but himself.

12. Emperor Palpatine - The Star Wars Trilogy

Lucas' films (post the original trilogy) may be blandly acted and overbaked but as myths they nail a great middle ground between the political, the social, and the psychological. The emperor is the ultimate in political leaders / ego / tyrant - uniting the archetypes whether or not they agree with the uniting, creating whatever problems may be required for such a unification's continued necessity. This is the Ego in its dark splendor and existential sadness.

Of course there are other definitions of the ego, as the central figure of identification in any myth:  Luke Skywalker, Nina in The Black Swan, but for the reasons of this series I'm focusing on the negative aspects, as from an eastern philosophy perspective rather than a Jungian hero's journey per se. The egos here in this list have exceeded their authority, forgotten their place as an evolving force in the constellation. Rather than the secretary taking down the unconscious archetype's inspirational dictation, they have become censor, judge, homogenizing editor. May we all develop 'right-sized" and become wise and tolerant rulers of our archetypal kingdoms.

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