Saturday, July 20, 2013

CinemArchetype #25: The Fisher King

The cinema has done louhght and songed to the Fisher King. What are these two odd words? They wrong and right, sought and longed for mixed inextricably together -- fusing until body, mind, and soul bleed into each other. The point where they intersect and overlap is the wound of the Fisher King. It is what sets in motion the search for the Holy Grail--which can be anything from la sangre de Cristo to a a needle full of opiates, a sled or a stolen golf trophy. You a-silly English-a person! For without the blood of Christ there can be no cure, and so the land in turn is turned to waste, and the day is wasted if you're not. To paraphrase gentle Ben, up sluggard, and waste not the drinking day!

The grail in these cinematic contexts can be read as either deliverance or the final abandonment of the futility of hedonistic pursuits and the embrace of the divine. Imagine being, say, a rock star in the early 70s, living a nonstop drug-fueled orgy. Well, if you spent your painful pre-rock adolescence dreaming of such a life, then as a youth achieved it, then what ever will you dream of now that you are living it, a beat too long, 'til thou art old and irrelevant? Now the young groupies look at you askance. So, being a dad, try that maybe? To paraphrase Colonel Rutledge, any man who engages in child rearing at your age deserves all he gets. You're screwed, bra, wounded in exile. When one's desires are fulfilled beyond measure one is put in the painful position of being forced to realize one's desires were idiotic. Or as Mick Jagger says, "sexually satisfied, philosophically trying." He was debauched enough by then to know debauchery is only useful as an artistic tool, a perspective-widener, rather than something that builds long-lasting happiness.

Apparently, happiness can be found in one's children and one's art/music. The alcoholic, like me, compulsively chasing the next drink, would be destroyed within weeks if he one day inherited a fully stocked bar (as I almost was). The Fisher King's wound--a mirror to Christ's own wound from the Roman spear in the thigh--reflects the agony of achievement without God. It's Dr. Faustus painfully walking amongst his signed-for splendor without joy. No amount of gold can match a hunk of rock if the lord hath tossed it, so sayeth fans of the lord.

Depending on whether you're hearing Wagner or reading Wolfram Von Eisenbach or Maria Franz or Carl Jung, the Fisher King's wound is from either possessing the spear that pierced Christ and mishandling it, or being stabbed by a Muslim warrior (Parsifal's own long lost brother, in one version) who then flees with it or it's stolen from the Muslim warrior, or the Fisher King is just stabbed in a joust with a visiting Muslim knight and the spear and grail come later, or it's the spear that wounded Jesus on the cross or whatever. Whatever the cause of the wound, the Fisher King's power endures. Enough of cinema's most memorable patriarchs display some visible wound or weakness that mirrors their nation/family's current pestilence, something that can be symbolically healed and thus also the wasteland restored to Edenic flower.

This is an archetypal quest. We are given an unconscious purpose in life by the Fisher King, a chance to perhaps save our father from his lonesome death and thus stay our own irrelevance (we being next on mortality's gruesome daisy chain). Gandhi made himself almost die of hunger to give the newly freed Muslims and Hindus a purpose, to stop their escalating reprisal spiral. FDR's wheelchair made his resolve in the face of German and Japanese aggression that much more motivational, etc.

Watching Lincoln (2012) the other night made me aware that if the Fisher King archetype inspires only a single Parsifal on a hero's journey, it is enough. As long as leaders are smart enough to display their wound, their symbolic groin castration, to exploit the Jungian collective unconscious, they will always inspire the independent man who's heart craves a worthy cause. For true men are not inspired by the heat of the mob, the social contagion of mass hysteria, or the fear of others' power. True men, the best of us--if we are to walk, unarmed and unblinking, into the bloodied batons of salt mine sentries, or the spray of redneck fire hoses, or Japanese machine gun fire--must be reached on personal, mythic level. The Fisher King, the wounded leader, must activate the warrior spirit in us, so that we risk our lives in the service of his quest. Convincing free thinkers to lay down life and limb takes the kind of touch where a single speech or TV broadcast can galvanize a million individual human minds and hearts, like Martin Luther King, or Lincoln, or Kennedy, or Bulworth. And look what happened to them! They were given their wounds, too well. 

God be praised.
Sorry. So yeah, I'm the Fisher King, too, as are all middle-aged warrior spirits too long left wandering in the woods, wounded by age, loss, irrelevance. My wasteland du jour: Park Slope, Brooklyn with its infernal stretches of brownstone front lawn flower bushes, willowy fairy children, co-op organic red kale jutting up from the cardboard boxes they carry with a sanctimonious sneer as I rush past in my Spotify and cigarette isolation. I, who feel born for war and abhor their comfort and ease in their own skins and if I'm too lazy and peaceful to fight, well, I can at least sneer back at that kale. In the words of Lana Del Rey, I got a war in my mind. Maybe that's enough as far as keeping it from bursting out into the real. Maybe that in itself is some kind of heroic deed, a Herculean act of containment; I see others with those wars outer projected: terrorists, street corner ranters, rageful feminists; the burning cross flame-fanners at Fox news... but in hating racists and misandrists, misogynists, what am I? I am more of the same. I am wounded, my knights. Wounded...

1. Charles Waldron as General Sternwood
The Big Sleep (1946)

"You are looking at the end result, Sir, of a very gaudy life." - General Sternwood isn't being self-pitying with these words. just rueful of the way wild women and whiskey has taken its toll without even leaving him much in the way of pleasant memories. Hell, I am rueful too, so is Bogart, who takes an instant shine to the General. Though alas he is only present in this one scene, the loyalty General Sternwood's searing honesy inspires in both Marlowe and the D.A. supplies impetus to keep digging into case even after Vivian calls it over. Sternwood is a capital Fisher King, the wheelchair providing apt analogy to FDR, with the blackmail letters concerning his wild daughters hanging like the grail spear of Stalin over his orchids.

2. Bill Murray as FDR
Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012)

The movie itself is one of those anemic too-pretty art flicks, a Merchant-Ivoried bit of dreary memoir where tiresomely reticent hearts, fields of flowers, arrays of butlers, polished silver, antique cars that look fresh off the assembly line, and the lack of any legit rhythm to the dialogue. The only actors with any ability to stand out from the wallpaper are Bill Murray as FDR and Olivia Williams as Eleanor. And it seems very disrespectful that the sexuality of a president is once again relegated to an off-the-wrist HJ, poorly and confusingly alluded to. Is this proper, to focus on a great man's Clinton-like indiscretions? Perhaps a great politician is by nature an emotionally stunted lover. Did Ken Starr produce and insist we add this quick one off the wrist down on the auld main drag to the lexicon of the presidential persona? The writer and director have no idea how to film a friendly genuine social interaction or even to provide a demonstration of presidential authority. FDR's mom orders her son around; she comes off as bitterly irritable; the visiting king and queen are portrayed as two squirrelly twits afraid of their own shadow. Having first referenced Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky via the off-the-wrister, they now go off to reference The King's Speech and Lincoln (insane shrew of a wife or mom trying to make a great man's home life as miserable as possible). The music rummages through John Williams' most corny and obvious passages while he's in the shower, not that he'd be able to prosecute, having stolen them in turn from long dead Russians. Laura Linney seems like she's rehearsing for a job reading Hallmark cards to her mentally-impaired grandchildren. Bill Murray fails to represent the full width and power of FDR; he seems too subsumed in mannerisms. In the end it all seems like a painful memory from the eyes of a very bored child stuck watching grown-ups talk, and remembering them only as a bunch of strained, uncomfortable simpletons. The men grit their teeth and wait 'til all the bitchy women (moms and wives) finally go to bed so the real drinking can commence, which then we don't even get to see.

Of course Murray's a Fisher King in and of himself, and FDR inspired an entire nation to rise up on a bloody hero's journey --you don't get more Fisher King than that. Too bad they're both left stranded in a doily-decked, sickeningly perfumed bed and breakfast, with the martinis measured out in eyedrops and the old lady owner banging on the ceiling with a broom if we so much as creak a chair after nine PM.

3. Nigel Terry - King Arthur 
Excalibur (1981)

My interpretation of the Fisher King might differ from various texts of Parsifal, but always Parsifal needs to answer the questions of the grail correctly to win the grail; the variants condensing in Boorman's Excalibur posit Arthur as the Fisher King, sort of, the wound inflicted not by a Muslim warrior but by lightning thrown from his evil sister, timed with his spotting Lancelot shacked up with Guinevere, leaving behind the sword of power - stabbing the earth in his sorrow, and having the sword run through Merlin, all timed to this double betrayal. "The king without a sword! The land without a king!"

Percival finds the grail at last by recognizing the Fisher King is Arthur, who is synonymous with the land, and the stuff of 'future legend.' Arthur sips from the grail, is restored, retrieves his sword from Guinevere, who has kept it all these years, and when Arthur and his nights ride forth to battle Mordred, the wasteland blooms as they pass by into a flowering kingdom, a beautiful brave scene scored to De Falla and bursting the stitches of Jungian archetypal symbolism into an operatic intersection between myth, psyche, music, and cinema. Boorman never made a better movie since, maybe even before.

4. Max Von Sydow as King Osric
Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan is the ultimate teenage alienation movie. The dark dad comes, kills the old, and kicks you out of your home life, shackles you to the wheel of woe (school), and you go deep into your room and comic books. When you finally make a friend, the movie's 1/4 way through. Before Subotai shows up there's no banter, no joy, just unrelenting grimness, we feel the release of a lot of tension when Conan finally has someone in his life who's not out to kill or enslave him. Conan gets a girlfriend after that, and the three of them are off and running, until they get brought before the king after robbing a cult of serpent-handlers. Rather than punish, the king salutes them. He seems not quite "now grown old and sotted" as Mako narrates, but he does have two hot babes at his side. And he hates the serpent-handlers since his only daughter ran off and joined them. They're like Woodstock if everyone smoked salvia divinorum instead of pot (if you don't know the serpentine menace lurking beneath the divine sage, you won't get that joke).  Osric isn't notably wounded, he has lost his daughter to a shady Eddy Mars of a grifter named Set (James Earle Jones) and wants Conan for a Sean Regan. Conan agrees because he's sworn to kill Set (he stole his fatha's swoahd), which right there tells you that Excalibur the mighty phallus is alive and the character of Conan is thus presented with the third father so essential to a fairy tale, and Conan's path to helping King Osric is his path to confronting the dark father, Vader-voice made flesh, James Earle Jones, and Max played his own dark father in Flash Gordon (1980)

5. Jack Harvey as Jeffrey's Dad in 
Blue Velvet (1986)

The sudden mortal vulnerability of the father is a terrible thing for any son to witness. Regardless of how mature the son may be, he is never ready for this, as he can't help but realize that he is next in line. The son will soon be in this exact spot, dying, wounded, vulnerable, a tube up his nose, unable to talk, only burble. The son will then perform the phallus, as it were, enact the father's stiffness in his absence. For me, for example, that consists of mirroring my dad's home life: sitting on the couch, drinking, smoking mounds of cigarettes, and yelling at the TV, presuming it hears my cutting japes. The severed ear Jeffrey finds is his first glimpse of the grail, the start of the breadcrumb trail, the purloined mail that Jeffrey returns. Sandy "heard a few things about the ear." Too much? Soon dad is back to mowing the lawn, and the beauty and banality of Lumberton is restored, all indirectly because of Jeffrey's dogged detective work, i.e. he's Hamlet if the dad was just in the hospital and the treacherous brother sucked on laughing gas while molesting his mother.

 6. Charles Durning - Warring Hudsucker
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

There are a lot of Fisher King archetypes in the constellations of the Coens, from the Colonel Sternwood-riff of the 'other' Lebowski (also Durning), to George Clooney's machine and oxygen-tube dependent old boss in Intolerable Cruelty, but the best for me is Durning as Waring Hudsucker because, though he may jump out the window, he's always present. His death a mystery but a sacrifice, his letter, never delivered by the incompetent Parsifal (Tim Robbins), figures out the riddle, at which case the angel Warring doth re-appear.

Katherine Hepburn is evoked (flawlessly, at first) by Jennifer Jason Leigh (with dashes of Marilyn Monroe, Vivien Leigh later, even Stanwyck); editors spitting out questions in the manner of the news reeler in Citizen Kane; two bum taxi drivers at the lunch counter do Lady Eve's Stanwyck talking to her mirror while discussing her rivals for Hopsy; Paul Newman chomping on cigars and showing off his incredible 70 year-old abs, a living connection to the invoked studio era. The only drawback is Tim Robbins' discomfort with playing such a reticent spazz; he seems to amuse the Coens--they give him long loving takes to do his business--but it takes a lot of forgiveness on our parts to stick it out and just appreciate the unified field theory, geometric symbolism, those horrible dreams you have that you're still at your last job and ordered on some unfathomable mission, and Waring's triumphant reappearance, playing ukulele and singing "Comin' Round the Mountain" like he wrote it.

7. Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab
Moby Dick (1953)

He turns the Holy Grail myth on its head; instead of a potion to cure his pain he seeks the strong venom of vengeance, but in this case it's far beyond mere retribution, and that's why I think Peck's strange performance is so great, and I fie and foo and even fum those critics who call him a confused Lincoln. I know Welles wanted to play him and wound up playing Father Mapple instead, wherein he does a grand job. I think the combination of a difficult water shoot and difficult Welles would ensure they'd STILL be working on it otherwise. What makes Peck so great is that he seems like a pretty normal, capable guy, but the combination of having been struck by lightning in the past, and losing his leg to Moby Dick has left him with a kind of unholy power. He won't be cured until Moby Dick is dead, so in this case the Grail is filled with the blood of the whale, and when it comes, he gets a chance to drink deep ere he departs, if not of the blood then at least the salty water Dick calls home. He in effect becomes part of the etchings around the lip of the Grail -- in addition to gold letterings of harpoons and scar, thar he lies, a skeleton caught up in mariner's ropes beckoning... beckoning to drink deep therefrom its whalebone rim, and let the hot blood within roil down into your inner furnace.

8. Daniel Day Lewis
Lincoln (2012)

While Spielberg makes sure Lewis is as penny-and-five dollar bill-like as possible, Lewis makes Lincoln gentle-but-fierce, and full of biblical anecdotes--new testament mercy and coiled old testament wrath, speaking in a Walter Brennan voice modulated like the ebb and flow of a leisurely incoming tide, until the zero hour at which point he becomes a paragon of democratic fire and initiative. When canons fire and the celebration hits the streets he becomes gentle once more... ebbing and flowing again.

This kind of long-game rhetorical strategy should of course be in any decent politician's schtickbook... but isn't, nor is it achievable for any ordinary actor no matter how talented. Lewis is miles beyond his closest competition in the modulation ebb and flow department --it goes beyond mere 'realism' or brio into something like a Beethoven symphony. For his inspiring fisher king wound, Lincoln also uses his terrible posture, his tall thin geekiness, the ache in his heart over losing his first son and having a bi-polar harridan for a wife. None of this is ever cured by the Parsifal grail of victory in his time. In fact, the bullet from John Wilkes Boothe may have been that grail in a dark hue.

Maybe men with mentally ill wives often succeed at their jobs because they never want to come home. The office becomes their place of comfort and relaxation. They dread weekends and look forward to Monday. When our dear Lincoln dies it's almost his own marital triumph, as if his spirit moves into every five dollar bill, painting, and film about him, and his wife can no longer find him to nag, even during her frequent seances.

As children we're brought up to think that 1776 was a long, long time ago, and that democracy is solid and inescapable, woven into the fabric of our humanity itself. But power corrupts and ambition kills those around it; America was constantly in jeopardy then, and so is today, both from within and without. In that sense we were in 1776 a lot like Israel is today; Israel is only 70-ish, right? That's approx. how old America was circa Lincoln. This is how I imagine history, through such leap-frogging. I try to be the Fisher King for the holy grail of 70s encounter group/open-shirted enlightenment, to make sure I record and remember a time of sexual and experimental freedoms that I witnessed in awe and envy but never got to experience. We choose now forget how far we went, to murmur it down to shag rug and black light panther poster that we wince at once in awhile, never looking past the tackiness of the chosen signifiers to recall there was something real behind them. It's something we hunger for.  For some people, real freedom is far scarier than any conservative tyrant's crushing grip. Goddamn it, I hope I'm one of them.

9. Bill Nighy as Viktor
Underworld (2003)

Vampire Kate Beckinsale's mentor Viktro hibernates in a state of freeze-dried blood-drained stasis for millennia while upside down and vertical in a giant ornate bronze tube and isn't scheduled to be rehydrated for another 200 years. But Kate needs his help because her lover's a werewolf and her ex-boyfriend is a vampire out to gun him down. This is really big, but she forgets it's only big to her. How dare she wake him up just to prattle about some boy? Does it turn out Viktor is evil --even for a vampire--and whatnot? Of course it doth. He's got dark secrets, and when your dark secret lord takes a drink it better be Christ blood in a pure gold chalice (not silver) if you wake him early.

Whatever you might say about the Underworld films, they have a great coterie of Brit thesps and a unified dark blue look. There hasn't been a ray of sun anywhere in the series' four film run, and for that I am truly grateful. Beckinsale is beautiful and can act, as can the mostly Shakespeare company-ish cast.

10. Gabriele Ferzetti - Morton
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

If you got into Italian cinema via Leone, you may have wondered why you instinctively didn't like the romantic lead in Antonioni's L'Aventura (1958). That's because you first saw the same actor as a sweaty railroad baron in a film made a decade later called Once Upon a Time in the West. As a Fisher King railroad tycoon crippled by polio and losing control of his body, and his men, Mortn needs his champion blue-eyed death-dealing knight to bring him the grail cure, which in this context is getting his train car all the way to the Pacific Ocean-- to know the railroad made it all the way west--before he dies.

In Leone's hands this is no Jungian self-actualization but the scourge that is capitalism, big business, ambition and naked greed at the cost of decent wages and fairness. Apparently this cross-country rail-laying odyssey started out pretty well but out here in the endless wastelands of Monument Valley it's a bit like Aguirre, Wrath of God or Apocalypse Now --only the darkness-infused hearts can survive. In the end, Morton hits the dirt to a nice little Morricone death cue, and a few final goodbye bullets from his anti-Parsifal, a brilliant Henry Fonda. Not every Fisher King gets to live through his wound's rough cure. At least God and Leone grant him a gaze at his long-longed-for Pacific ocean, even if it is just a painting on the wall and a merciful, angel wave crash foley mixed in with the heavenly choir.

11. Brando - Vito Corleone
The Godfather (1972)
"There just wasn't enough time, Michael."

 12. Burl Ives - Big Daddy
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  (1958)
The family basement is packed with souvenirs and statues from a Cook's tour to Europe Big Daddy took with his wife, who takes after the mendacity side of the family. What could be just a cliche'd rendition of Charles Foster Kane's big ole basement becomes a mythic underworld, with Burl Ives as a kind of pot-bellied troll king, and cobwebs on tall lamps draped to resemble stalagmites and tree roots. There's moments for Burl and Paul to each smash stuff in a clutching heart attack way as their illusions of immortality and glory are dashed on the altar of passing time and irrelevance. Facing finally the full horror of all existence, they are redeemed by embracing what they as men fear and recoil from the most - genuine feeling and human love. 
I've had those breakthroughs before with my own big daddy. Maybe you have too -- the late night boozy moments of truth when you can look at him and suddenly see--instead of a paragon or symbol of authority--a fellow aging human, ever trying to escape his future by ignoring his present, just as you do, and if alcoholism runs in your veins you can bond quite well until the hungover morning when you scarcely remember the progress you made. Like many of Williams' plays, it seems made for me, made for a brooding drunk writer by a brooding drunk writer - with booze as the thing that both gives you the brio to stare into that void, and at the same time shorten the distance to the bottom, where the teeth of Sebastian's Venus fly trap garden go Click-clack!
13. Jeff Bridges - Jack
The Fisher King (1991)

Man, if I wanted to see an alcoholic artist slacker in the late 80s taking advantage of the kindness and fierce protective instinct of a goodhearted Italian-American girl, I would just look at my photo album, which I didn't want to do. That's why when I eventually did watch this film I was so happy to see Jeff Bridges finally becoming.... Jeff Bridges. Robin Williams in prime 'who's crazier, the crazy guy or the 'sane' one in an insane world?" mode is the Parsifal, making our friend Jeff the Fisher King by restoring his faith and stealing him a golf trophy grail.. Look at him the dude There, above. Aren't you proud? Grail achieved! 


  1. Great one - and great cross-section of films to show your theme.

    Makes me NOT want to waste time to watch the FDR movie.... Maybe I'll pop in Gilliam's "Fisher King" again instead, because it's been a long time.

  2. Thanks, Katy, and good idea. Aside from everything else, Williams makes a great crazy person and Jeff Bridges and Mercedes Ruehl have great chemistry. On a personal note I've been in that relationship, with three different Italian American girls, spanning 1989-1996 in total, drinking bourbon like a fish every step of the way! God, no wonder I hated this film when it first came out. xoxox

  3. Ah, you're reading my mind again. Was on a BIG Grail kick from April to June, reading & watching-wise. Screen-caps galore!:, ...and books!: I hope that made it through your spam filter. Only the penitent may pass.

    All in light of a Grail-esque project (contemporary, not medieval) I hope to write one of these days, only to find myself intermittently stricken by writer's block and intimidated by the prospects of actually executing it. A bit Fisher King-esque myself there I guess. Aren't we all?

  4. Peck on Moby's back, arm wailing from whaling, gotz ta be in the Top Ten of all
    inadvertently hilarious scenes.


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