Monday, November 27, 2023

CinemArchetype 28: The Elemental

Getting into the pagan dark magic of the earth, air, fire, and water is as easy as doing almost nothing.... and as hard as doing less. Just like the truth about alien involvement in our evolution is--despite the mountains of evidence (19 seasons of the History Channel's Ancient Aliens and counting--almost impossible to fully accept consciously, our unconscious won't let go of it-- no one can stay truly neutral, truly objectively 'skeptical' (in the original definition) on the subject. That's because our unconscious--the basement of our mind--has connections... to the anima mundi. And the mundi has an airport.

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. 

Thus these forces are the basics, the root chords, the pigments from which our (cinema) 
archetypal world is painted. 

They're all in the world's head, of course.  Luckily there's a cure for that --and it's only a dolla. 


Both sympathetic and terrifying, like children of a certain age, these oceanic elementals can be temporarily captured and harnessed but never broken. Cage them and you rule the waves but gain an immortal enemy. Release them and you bring on yourself the mercurial mood swings of weather systems and underground earthquakes. Love them and be one with the sea, a drowned sailor slowly turning into both a jaunty skeleton and part of the sea itself. Now that's amore. 

1. Naomie Harris - Tia Dalma / Calypso
(series, starting w/ Dead Man's Chest - 2006+)
Dir. Gore Verbinski 

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.) 

And for me a big selling point is the cosmic archetypal romance between the ocean-floor bound Davy Jones--a truly virulent and mind bogglingly well animated character whose octopus head is covered in breathing bivalves (an under-appreciated bit of CGI mastery)-- and the sultry Calypso (Harris), the ocean elemental long kept bound to land by some magic spell that has been allowing men to sail her surface without being crushed by her stormy wrath when it's 'that time of the month', lunar-tidally speaking. And so she runs a cafe/bar where everyone hangs out when not aboard some ship or stranded on some desert isle. 

Harris' Calypso speaks in this sultry Jamaican accent where she kind of grabs the backbeat of normal conversational tones, so that her voice becomes like warm tea or whiskey, filtering in through the cracks of sailing man's bluster, suddenly turning the world a little more full and magical through her voice alone. The sequence in Dead Man's Chest, wherein the pirates free her from her chains, to allow her to return once more to the sea (so she can wipe out the advancing British armada), is full of questioning: will a water elemental, long-imprisoned, feel bound to any bargain with pirates?  Why would the ocean keep a promise to the mortals who've long enslaved her? It's certainly a unique situation. 

But maybe if you learn to love the hurricane, your own elemental immortality may result. It's about letting go of the mast and, with a hearty yell, plunging into the maw of the kraken with the free abandon of a trusting infant being thrown into the air and caught again and again by their giant, loving father, never once entertaining the idea dad's hands may slip.  Thus cavorts Depp's Captain Jack, feyly staggering to and fro with ingenuity and immorality. And what water elemental can't help but smule?

2. Linda Lawson as Moira 
(1961) Dir. Curtis Harrington 

A sense of desolate loneliness runs through Harrington's debut feature that makes it--watching it alone and sad at 5 AM--a little too close to home for comfort, yet comfort comes anyway, thanks to the lure of the sea. Harrington--hip to the power of elementals as part ot the California magick crowd--lets the sandy  isolation find solace with the caress of cold, lapping waves. So it is a a beautiful sideshow mermaid Moira (Linda Lawson) connects with a shy sailor on leave (Dennis Hopper)--the only other solo wanderer in all the deserted Santa Monica Pier, an eerie late night locale that feels like a NYC side street rolled up and smoked by the inky ocean. Harrington gradually let go of mer-perso mhystique as we realize another seafarer, a retired captain, is responsible, maybe for filling her head with whatever blarney will keep her tied to him. So will this Calypso find a new Flying Dutchman or stay landlocked with her retired captain semi-father?

Fortunately the film's unique spell is so strong (Harrington was/is all into magic with pals Kenneth Anger and  Marjorie Cameron --who has a small role as the film's equivalent to Elizabeth Russell's strange cat lady "sister" in Cat People - a clear inspiration') that any amount of sober explanation in the denouement doesn't detract from the archetypal spell. 

In the end, the young Harrington's lonely drifting "we're all ghosts here at the fair"-style poeticism captures well the personification of the ocean elemental (his style of occult magick gets most of its energy from these kind of forces, so it makes sense). Ask not if she's real or a wave morphed by pareidolia, just listen and hear her siren lure heard faintly in the roar of ocean wind passing ghostly through the sea snail coils of your cochlea. Yea, though she may be the corrosive effect of long term salt air exposure on your rum-soaked neurons and the prolonged sexual frustration of being too long at sea, that that doesn't make her any less real. She's the mystic crossroads where your desire and the Anima Mundi intersect, the phallic beam of your film projector giving shape and substance to the formlesss/all-forms silver screen ocean. She's the point of infinity wherein you may well disappear, for it is said no drowning man ever feels alone again. Wrapping you up in her permanent warm embrace, she's all you ever took to sea for. 

 (1978) Dir.  Tsugunobo Kotani

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.

Maybe it's because I'm a Pisces, but I love this weird TVM, I'm even haunted by the theme song, "Jenny" ("Have I only imagined her?") I was dissatisfied with the end but, aren't we always dissatisfied when we wake up from dreaming about her? I watched it while switching back and forth to hurricane Dorian on the Weather Channel. Man, what a perfect symbiosis to my sailor psyche. I couldn't stop thinking about.... Jennie-- with her raven hair, perfect olive tan, waterproof no-smudge eyeliner and the ability to reflect light from her eyes so they glow like an inhuman fish, or like Dorian's twirling eye, which was heading towards Bermuda as I watched. What are the odds? It was like she and her giant turtle were letting me know they knew I knew this synergy was no accident. 

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! 

No matter how far down the bizarre Bermuda Depths goes, it never loses its Jungian "on-the-one" beat. The film itself is a dream within a dream, and there is no waking, thankfully, only a renouncement of one layer of the dream for another, which may or may not be a transition to adulthood but is certainly a tragic end of innocence and a smart adios to the ocean. Only the sailors yet to be, not yet castrated by their entry into the social sphere, are naive enough to think there is any difference between the sea, the sun and the land, or between dreams and 'reality.' Hopelessly enamored and ever risking being dragged to hi death, Magnus does what I had to do with alcohol. He turns his back on the one thing he loves most. He chooses not to drown in the arms of his warm oblivion. He self-beaches. One a mythic level, this is more than the usual castration needed to enter the social order--this is fishing out that which was cut away (the Lacanian objet petit a) feeling whole for a brief minute, then throwing it back into the ocean. The alternative? Drowning, in all it uncut glory.

The Anima Mundi's most abundant and strangest element. It's neither here nor there. Bullets cannot harm it, only H-Bombs, "exploding even the air itself" (-Eros) --the ultimate cheat/imbalance thrower. The Air controls the birds of the field, and wraps the earth in its love embrace.  

 5. Lydia/Melanie 
THE BIRDS (1963)

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.  

Notice that once Melanie is reduced to hysterical child--in shock and powerless--the birds are calm. Lydia doesn't have to worry about Mitch remaining in her nest, the threat has been neutralized. 

The air elemental has a similar elusive quality. It both is and isn't in any particular place at any particular time. When it inhabits a body, or any electromagnetic non corporeal matrix, it can always lift or melt away. Similarly the bird attacks are mostly terrorizing rather than deadly. They can get lucky and peck out some eyes or break the skin in enough places the victim bleeds to death (like Melanie's potential rival Annie) but basically it's the uncanny sudden surplus of them that's unnerving, that they can appear and disappear and choose their moment. The sudden surplus of Melanie's presence, too, in this very settled town, unnerves the locals who tie her to the disturbance, rightly, even thought they're not sure how. The beast's exitence isn't her fault, though, she's only the father. 

6. Anita Louise - Titania 

With that crazy proto-glam sparkling outfit, Louise shows a dancer's grace, waving and moving her hands as if she's the same density as the air around her, alight with night-tripping changeling stealing, breeze riding elegance. It's almost a relief that her falsetto voice is so annoying, maybe two registers above Louise's normal speaking voice, almost causing feedback in the recording equipment, but if she hit a low Hawksian woman register, like, say, Lauren Bacall or Margaret Sheridan, I'd probably have to kill myself to stop the pain of my ardor. Oberon, the king of the night, is also a night elemental but I just wrote about him in my Victor Jory appreciation. He the absence she fills, the black of the sky while she is the moon and/or stars. They are as one.

7. Rex Ingram - the Genie
Thief of Baghdad   (1940)

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. 

8. Sandra Knight - "The Girl" - THE TERROR (1964

While the Hellman style wasn't yet a recognizable 'thing' in 1963, after seeing his more acclaimed features (TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, THE SHOOTING),  you feel that innate "Hellman-ness" in THE TERROR's dreamy 'edge of forever' iconography: tidal pools, spinning compasses, crashing Big Sur waves., ambiguity of relationships, and the fluidity of feminine identity (they tend to be nameless, billed in the credits as "the woman" or "the girl"). Such anima ambiguity perfectly fits the ghostly figure played by Sandra Knight in THE TERROR, who is, like many of these elementals, also functional as anima. She can appear as a hawk, swooping or circling overhead amd/or swooping down on someone to kill them.  or wandering around the cemetery ether. Depending on which of the film's many directors was at the helm, she's an elemental hawk/girl spirit, a local girl possessed by a vengeful ghost, or a normal human girl who thinks she's a ghost thanks to hypnosis coordinated by the mother of the son who the Baron killed when he found her in bed with Ilsa, his young wife, or--as Wonka would say--reverse that. If that melange of identities seems unclear remember that Hill and Hellman were coming in for the second half of a project begun by Corman as a straight Poe-ish Gothic, and continued by Coppola as a folk horror tale of hypnotism and revenge. Rather than twisting further toward Corman's Karloff Gothic or Coppola's folk horror, Monte and Jack came along brought it farther out, turning Helene into an enigma reflecting transmigration of souls, the transitory nature of the flesh and the relentless ocean tide whiplash reframed as a mirror to eternity's corrosive caress --in other words, bring on the Hellman, and bring out the best. (full)


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.
10. Bob - Twin Peaks

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. 

Smaug (voiced by Bennedict Cummberbach) 
- The Hobbit movies

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. 

"These little shreds shall, indeed, stand for all."
                                          - Walt Whitman

12. Poison Ivy - BATMAN & ROBIN
13. Deborah Reed -Creedence Leonore Gielgud - TROLL 2

Bottle cap glasses-wearing, hair-in-a-bun, horticulturists by day, sexy wild-eyed wild Earth elementals by night--each using their beauty, evil and chemistry to greenify an undeserving world--sounds like your kinda gal? Well, rejoice! One is a cult classic that just gets better with repeat viewings.and the other--shot at about 100,000x the budget--is unendurable, but in each they transcend in the earth elemental sorcerous hotness. 

In BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997) Uma Thurman plays a bottle cap glasses-wearing horticulturist, hair-in-a-bun horticulturist by day, who becomes a sexy, wild-eyed Earth elemental by night, using psychoactive plant powders to create a green inflatable-muscled henchman (a way more fun Bane!), and to 'greenify' Gotham by eliminating its pesky human residents into mulch for her beloved plants. The rest of the film is awful as hell but she's great

Batman & Robin was poorly received with good reason--marred by terrible casting choices (Alicia Silverstone and Chris O'Donell are all wrong for Robin and Batgirl, like Sophia ----- as X-Men Phoenix). Hell, I walked out after the first ten minutes, to sneak into the movie next door (as one does at multiplexes). But now, later, catching it in a Sunday afternoon stupor on cable after seeing the infamous and much beloved TROLL 2 the night before, I officially love some of it it in all its terrible glory. The two actually make a great and terrible outsider fantasy double feature, especially when one considers the similarities between Batman's Uma Thurman (channelling Mae West) as Poison Ivy with - (channelling a tripping Margaret Hamilton) as Melora Cregar in Troll 2.

ALL THAT aside there's clear references to both the 1934 Black Cat and the 1932 Blonde Venus. And though her sub-par Mae West double entendre dialogue is badly written ("my garden needs tending" / "some lucky boys are bound to hit the honey pot"), pulsing with missed opportunities, Thurman seems to be having fun and looks great in her Miss Jolly Green Giant couture. Rolling her eyes, carrying on about Mother Nature having her day, and 'greening Gotham' after ridding herself of the feathered and furry caped crusaders, Uma alone finds that perfect balance between the high camp of the TV show (borrowing a page from Julie Newmar) and 'blockbuster'-style acting. As someone who always felt guilty over the purposeless murder of evergreen trees at Christmas, I applaud the tru-baller anti-veganism, which makes her the spiritual earth elemental sister of Deborah Reed in Troll 2 (1990)

And for TROLL 2, Reed is the bomb- overacting more than Batman and Robin's entire cast put together, she's truly a sight with her terrible teeth and wild hair as both the climactic full-on witch and the sinister-sweet librarian gardener of Nilbog. But she does have one scene where she sashays all sexy into the TV and trailer of one of the last morons standing and makes his cob pop something fierce. The bro just stands there, terrified, erect and immobilized, leaving us to wonder: is he waiting for a direction from off camera, maybe trying to hide his erection or not blow his first opportunity by saying or doing something awkward? Either way, his popcorn is soon so ready he'll want another bag.

Jennifer Lawrence is an idealistic pregnant Mother Nature who just wants to be with her man and have a quiet night at home while she works on fixing up the house and he labors on his poetry in the sky, or upstairs. But of course an out of control violent human population, driven mad with religious devotion to their poet hero, end up mobbing the place for an impromptu party that burns all out of hand, zigging up from the Old to New Testament. The way Aronofsky films the mounting chaos via going from room to room as J-Law tries to get these ragers from destroying her plumbing will ring eerily true for anyone whose ever had to call the cops on their own party to get the ravenous hordes of strangers out of their house before it's completely destroyed. Some critics and audience members can't handle certain scenes but anyone familiar with Catholic and pagan iconography surely won't object to seeing their symbols concretized. Lawrence has been very hit-or-miss lately but here it's a definite hit as she goes organically from happy wife to annoyed host to terrified home invasion victim and beyond into thunderous avenger of her own lost abundance. 

15. Skinwalker / Evil Tree Spirit - 
EYES OF FIRE (1983) 

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. 

And hey -- the 20th century brought us new elements to personify, most notable HEDORAH, the pollution elemental, and....
oops we're out of time.

But check out this full list of all of Erich's CINEMARCHETYPES!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...