Same way our phones handshake with the cloud, the deepest level of our dream basement connects to all other basements via this hub. And to the earth itself, filtering its blinding high-speed flashes through the lens of myth, rusheth other realities, McKenna's "high strangeness." Through this deep dream spelunking thou mayest widen the girth of your soul until it's a big as all outdoors. This is how you float to heaven; the demons cannot grab you when you're empty air, nor drown you when you are the ocean.
We haven't really discussed the anima mundi here in the CinemArchetypes, and that's as it should be. We've been wrapped up in the Self's little whirlpool smokestack of archetypes, and now it's time to look at the world's gnarled, breathing roots. There is a tree we're all tendrils of, and one by one, its own archetypes appear in dreams--the elementals.
Like a sock puppet slipped onto the hand of Gaia, so too slips a persona onto the amorphous shape of the natural world's unstoppable forces. A beautiful illustration can be found on a classic SNL sketch where Christopher Walken plays a "man who's very scared of plants" and so puts googly eyes on them--essentially creating earth elementals, showing--in a sort of emblematic sense--the reason for elementals in the first place. Which came first? Wrong!
Saying these personifications are all in our head is forgetting we have barely a handful of breadcrumbs by way of proof we've ever probed our inner forests. Our ego wants us to forget those woods are down there. Like a jealous lover trying to alienate us from our biological family, the ego wants to keep us home nights. With science being so logistical, it's understandable why its acolytes would consider "all in your mind" grounds for dismissal of any phoenomena. They're scared of their own darkness, a force which nags at them that the world view they've embraced may be just a case of forest denial.
When I say 'we' generate sentient autonomous energies through our belief in them, science scoffs, but exorcists and snake oil salesmen understand. We'll never know which came first, the demons or the humans whose fear gave them names and raison d'etres. But if they're not 'real' then neither are we. And as for faith healing, the snake oil heals all ills if the the salesman did a good job of pitching it. Placebos are the true miracle drug of our age, if you believe in them--which means you need a charismatic pitchman with the power of persuasion at their disposal, a kind of placebo reiki.
Say what you want about how exhausting these films get by their belated ends, Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean series is packed with termite imagination, ingenious art design and keen little details, all of which are impossible to absorb in one sitting (I like catching them on network TV already in progress, watching them in about one hour increments on idle channel-flipping weekend afternoons, often drifting off before the last reel from sheer overstimulation.)
A kind of oceanic ghost story, the delectably weird and Jungian archetypal 70s TVM, The Bermuda Depths sails the same lonesome sailor's anima currents as Night Tide and even Beach Blanket Bingo's touching affair between Bonehead and Lorelei. It's such a perfect illustration of the anima (i.e. a sexually frustrated sailor's desperate paeredolia-spiked mirage, so seals, even rocks, take the form of beguiling women in the oceanic haze) it's practically emblematic. But we're discussing the elemental aspect as well, which is much stranger and more unknowable and she functions this way too. We may think she belongs to us, our personal anima, but she is the ocean's anima, not ours.
Though this literal dream girl trope ("have I only imagined her?") often irritates me in other films, it works here as there's plenty of evidence she's more than just a fantasy or a psychotic hallucination. The men who don't believe she's real are--after all--trying to catch a turtle the size of a Victorian mansion in a rinky dink tug boat-- so they're not reliable arbiters of reality. And besides, she's real to Magnus (Leigh "will soon play the dick EPA guy in Ghostbusters" McCloskey) and to us. And she goes goes with the turtle, we learn, and the turtle might be the devil. Weird choice, Satan!
Sure it's an oblique connection, but that's the beauty of Hitchcock's film. In going to Bodega Baty--leaving the toy shop (as they say)--Melanie brings the birds with her, but it's Lydia's sky. Everything you bring to it will be used against you. in this case to create a poltergeist-style crypto-incestuous manifestation of crypto-incesteuos anxiety. Strong pre-Edenic human emotions,--the ones kept way down where Cronus eats his young--are the only fuel a 'Mother Nature' elemental manifestation needs to shriek its way into existence When it reaches its apotheosis you can even hear its Michael Myers-like breathing / killer POV up in the sky, gazing down at the flaming Bodega Bay gas station.
The more times I see him as God in The Green Pastures or Lucia, the Devil's son, in Cabin in the Sky the bigger my awe of Rex Ingram. For Thief, he's a terrifying but ultimately good-natured 'chaotic neutral' genie or djinn- no Robin William pally-wally stuff for Rex's genie, so don't mistake his boisterous good nature for allegiance beyond those obligatory wishes. And if one of those wishes is to set him free, like Calypso in the above, you have to just pray this nonhuman force decides to keep its word. So it is, perhaps, that dealing with elementals is like putting the gun down first in a stand-off- we can only hope we don't get blown, burned, drowned or buried as we step out of our magic safety circle and contend with the mercurial unknowable forces of the world. We take their love for granted at our peril. From a Jungian angle, keeping humble and granting them autonomy is a way to give yourself your wildness back. Without that kind of lunatic trust in wildness, life gets mighty stale, and then symptoms of hysteria break out -- a numb arm here, an earthquake there, hysterical blindness here, floods there--and fire always waiting to burn you out of the equation.
9. The Fire Itself - BACKDRAFT (1991)
Ron Howard is too earnest for me a lot of the times, but he's a solid director, a kind of William Wyler of his time, and Backdraft has one great aspect, the portrayal of the fires these guys go against as a kind of conscious entity, eagerly surging ahead to, well, who could top Owen Glienerman's masterful succinction:
In Ron Howard’s Backdraft, fire comes roiling across the top of a room in billowy, black orange waves. It gets sucked behind the walls, like a genie pouring back into its bottle (for a few seconds, the film seems to be running in reverse motion), and then, fueled by a surge of air, it explodes outward with ever-greater lightning force. During a climactic inferno in a chemical warehouse, it seems to come at the fire fighters from every imaginable angle — an elusive, shapeless hydra with a thousand incendiary heads.Owen! You ruled the 90s, at least for me, with my free EW subscription and the world so much simpler.
There are several ways the dimensions between worlds--the dream abstraction of the Black Lodge, and regular mundane Twin Peaks, Oz and Kansas--can be bridged - one is deep meditation and/or DMT opening the usually closed halls and tunnels of the mind so that your consciousness can finally meet itself--another, is FIRE. Fire crosses over--if you look deep into the flames while listening to a story at night, the flicker acts as a kind of organic stutter-stop in a film projector, blocking the transition from frame to frame out of our vision. Bob then moves through those black shutters, jams up the sprockets so the film, whose images are so fleeting that, if one stays under the blazing lens for more than a few extra seconds, it starts burning a hole in the film. Isn't that what trauma does? It splits the film in two. This is how the Eyes Wide Shut / One Eyed Jacks crowd--also very big in Oz symbolism---use incest to turn young girls into normal people by day, sex slave assassins by night? To gain power you must corrupt the innocent, that corruption is the spark that starts the fire that--as the Log Lady warns Laura in Fire Walk with Me--is hard to put out once it starts consuming goodness.
And so Bob is always burning--Lynch often glazes him in fire overlays---a fire elemental--but is trapped in the void where fire must wait, dormant, contained until he's able to enter the minds of those who allow him to, from there to corrupt and kill like the fire he is. Putting him out to take a whole season, as we learned in Twin Peaks: The Return. But fire walks with us whenever a match is struck, ready to light a cigarette or burn down half of Nevada. And anyway, you got to have him to keep warm, and to make the slain creatures you consume taste good.
More than some abstract monster in the giant lizard vein, Smaug speaks, has a great sense of smell, and a tremendous lot of gold to horde. In Jungian terms, he's the anal chakra, that sense of power and control when infants first learn to hold in their poopies. As a fire elemental he materializes the full empty obession of greed, the way greed can run amok, destroying everything in it's --'ahem' ---past, determined to burn the world down to save the gold it ultimately has no actual use for, aside from a bed. The mountain he sleeps in is the perfect model for what we might imagine contains fire, keeps it out of sight--fire sleeps in the mountains.
Films like this highly uniquely otherworldly and long-unavailable episodic folk horror film is one of those regional recent rediscoveries, like Blood Beat, Death Bed, The Child, Lemora, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and The Bogey Man that reminds us how startlingly weird and fresh 70s-80s horror could be--the trick was finding them in the endless sea of hack cheap slashers. This one is drenched in horror-adventure period piece magical realism along the same general plot and time frame as The Witch --i.e. late-1600s America, when the wilderness was still largely the domain of Native Americans, a few British or French military-maintained outposts, wandering fur traders, and small, remote religiously uptight enclaves. And--of course--earth and fire elementals are around, luring and devouring the wee ones roaming unchecked in the woods. The elemental here is a witch doctor earth spirit hypothesized to be made from the blood of innocent creatures, killed to give life to other less-innocent monsters, pooling in the earth until it takes the shape on an avenging earth spirit. As with The Witch, we have a a delusional preacher patriarch of the kind that essentially made the laws privileging white males so deservedly obsolete--in this case an itinerant preacher who takes up with the wife of a long-absent fur trader and her gaggle of kids. They end up needing to escape downriver when the town tries to hang a redheaded girl stepchild just because she knows how to speak with the trees. Sailing on a wooden raft, shot at by Native Americans, they end up finding a place of their own in a patch of woods the local Shawnee fear to tread, haunted by a malicious soul collecting tree spirit magus who is soon sucking them all down to his web of interlocked roots and shroom filaments til all that's left is their faces jutting out of trees. Gradually the survivors barricade themselves into their fort walls defending against the ghost band of past settlers and Native Americans turned into a naked bunch of Woodstock style mud dancers, glowing with lysrergic red energy, and even an evil changeling shuttled into their midst that the preacher takes as his own.