Tuesday, March 25, 2008

CINEMATIC EXPRESSIONS OF THE ANIMA—Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World (2000)

Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World was prepared for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival, is only six minutes long, and purports to offer a founding myth on cinema itself. It was chosen by Vincent Canby of The New York Times as one of the 10 best films of the year 2000, surely a first for a film so short.

As Wikipedia summarizes the plot: Two brothers, mortician Nikolai and actor Osip (playing Christ in a Passion Play), love the same woman—scientist Anna, who studies the earth's core, or the "heart of the world." Anna discovers that the world is in danger. In order to save it, she must choose between the brothers, and finally decides on a rich industrialist, Akmatov. As a result, the very heart of the world has a heart attack. Realizing what she has done, she strangles Akmatov and enters the earth's core, replacing the failed heart with her own. The world is then saved by the new message, Kino.

Kino, of course, is Russian for "cinema" and is, likewise, the root of the word "kinetic", an adjective completely appropriate to Maddin's "founding myth on cinema." Maddin deliberately references and parodies soviet montage cinema of the 1920s, German Expressionism of the 1920s, and silent melodrama film. He cites Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and La Fin du monde (1931), which likewise employs an end-of-world scenario with tension between two brothers (a scientist and a Christ figure). Mark Peranson describes Maddin's short as a "Soviet-constructivist-cum-sci-fi head rush … shot out of an Uzi of inspiration." His City Pages cohort Rob Nelson describes it as a "six-minute music-video-cum-Eisensteinian-sci-fi-workout." Hyphenated descriptions abound to situate Maddin's mash-up of styles and techniques.

Beebe—cognizant of the "workout"—reminds us that he specifically chose to screen The Heart of the World because it privileges image over narrative. He encourages us to let the images of the film wash over us and stresses that watching movies is good training in "image sense."

State scientist Anna (Leslie Bais) is the anima of Maddin's The Heart of the World. Anima is, indeed, the archetype at the heart of filmmaking itself. Proposing that we watch the film three times to sift out and strengthen reactions (or as one IMdb user wrly phrased it: "watch, rinse, repeat"), Beebe asks us after the first screening for an adjective to describe our reactions. Several come up—agitated, melodramatic, frenetic, exaggerated, paniced, pressured, frantic, intense, visceral—all of which, Beebe offers, would be adequate to describe the anima. The film colonizes the body with somatized sensations, underscoring that the anima is a maddening urgency from within. Freudians don't much like the anima; for them it's the infantile psyche, hysterical. Many men would rather develop a strong persona than develop their anima. Rather than carefully dismantling defenses, they would rather shore up the persona.

I mention that one of the images that most struck me was the silent film convention of the aperture, the iris, as a means of access to the film's events. Beebe quotes Wim Wenders' comment that "film is seeing" and appends that the anima is seeing film with the anima eye. Whose eye is looking out from the screen? Is it Anna's as she looks into the machine that allows her to see the disconcerting and cephalopodic heart of the world? He thinks so.

Anna, however, is not an anima personal to Guy Maddin but more what James Hillman has described as the anima mundi: the soul of the world or culture's soul. Looking at her as she announces her dire predictions ("triple-checked") channeled through Soviet agitprop conventions, she exemplies what happens when one is caught in the grip of the anima; a kind of propagandistic impulse; a propaganda suffused with idealism; an idealistic urgency to save the world. There is this redemptive quality to the anima and, Beebe wonders if we identify with the anima when we wish redemption?

Beebe reiterates that The Heart of the World is a founding myth about how movies are made. It's heraldic, announcing the triumph of a new world order through cinema. And it details the historicity of the process by which cinema achieves integrity. Anima is implicated in the development of integrity. At the beginning of the film Anna is in love with two brothers: Nikolai (Shaun Balbar), the mortician-engineer, and Osip (Caelum Vatnsdal), the actor playing Jesus who is likewise suffering a Messianic complex. Both brothers are stricken by Anna's beauty and battle for her attention. When Anna pronounces the grim fate of the world, they compete for a solution.

Beebe suggests Nikolai, the mortician, represents cinema's initial murderous gaze, the original impulse to document and record through film, freezing (killing) things in time, nailing bodies in coffins (commensurate to finishing films up and putting them "in the can"). Osip, in his guise as Jesus, adopts the opposite position, representing a cinema that is a spiritual experience where bodies are resurrected and freed from their coffins. As an aside, Beebe admits to becoming "hot" at horatory cinema meant to exhort; cinema's popular usage to push spiritual agendas. Clearly, both approaches are fraught with peril and neither—in Maddin's film—serve to save the heart of the world. One rages forward with cold-hearted progress; the other performs miracles through reverse footage. One of my favorite images is the horror on Nikolai's face when he witnesses Osip's resurrected corpses. In a way, their opposing approaches negate each other.

Then along comes the dark horse contender, a lustful industrialist named Akmatov (Greg Klymkiw), who seduces and sways Anna with his chest of gold coins. She swoons and is taken by him on their honeymoon. One IMdb user describes Akmatov as a "plutocrat", which—though it was not discussed at the seminar—is an intriguing mythic reference for me, in the sense that "Pluto" (aka Hades), is a Lord of Abduction (as in the Persephone myth) who as King of the Underworld has access to the mineral wealth—veins of gold and sparkling gemstones—beneath the surface of the earth. Though Dr. Beebe claims it's gold coins that are being shoveled into Akmatov's phallic cannon, I'm not convinced and can't quite tell from the film itself; they look more to me like diamonds and chunks of coal, in turn. Either way, gold or diamonds, they suggest underworld wealth. If the marriage of Hades and Persephone is, indeed, a configuration of a woman's marriage initiation, is it any wonder that a diamond ring set in gold is used to seal the contract?

Why would Anna choose the aggressive Industrialist? Does she really choose, or does she simply succumb? In the face of an assertive will, Beebe suggests, the anima can retreat into a vegetative state, much like the story of Apollo's pursuit of Daphne and her winsome smile over the shoulder as she transforms into an inaccessible laurel tree.

Unfortunately, by choosing Akmatov, the world suffers a seismic heart attack. This heartquake (earthquake?) jolts Anna back into conscious action, reminding her that her true mission is to save the world. She strangles Akmatov and sacrifices herself to become the world's heart transplant. By this act the world is reborn as cinema and is shown projected onto the hearts of the world's inhabitants.

There's a lot to tease out here. First, as a style of cinema—in contrast to Nikolai's documentary approach and Osip's horatory approach—Akmatov represents commercial cinema, Hollywood as we know it today, where the bottom line rules even as expensive movies are made about how bad money is. One could say that—because the movie industry is anima-driven—it is money-crazy. And therein lies the anima's dilemma. Just as Luis Buñuel vociferously detested Nicholas Ray's dinner party assertion that each movie he makes must cost more than the one he's just finished in order to remain a successful filmmaker, the temptation of financing must either be resisted or finagled in order for the integrity of creative vision to exist. Film is for the realization of an integrity of vision. This aligns with James Hillman's thesis in Thought of the Heart and Soul of the World, wherein the "thought of the heart" is understood as the capacity to imagine truly. In The Heart of the World, Maddin pleads a case for visionary filmmaking; his kind of filmmaking.

Anna has to kill her strange bedfellow the Industrialist in order to overcome her sellout and to return to her mission. Anna becomes an imagemaking faculty. She becomes a radiant star. When the anima is integrated, it becomes a function, hopefully a broadened transcendent function. This references the idea that the anima is also fate; that the anima is trying to live out her own fate. Anima integration is more believable in those who can be vulnerable. Anima starts out as an almost ridiculously-hyped subjectivity. If the anima is integrated, a balanced subjectivity becomes possible.

Dr. Beebe is fond of using Jungian typology to understand the characters in films, if not the filmmakers themselves. Basically, C.G. Jung proposed that individuals fall into primary types of psychological function. He said there were four main functions of consciousness. Two are perceiving functions (sensation and intuition) and two are judging functions (thinking and feeling). The functions are modified by two main attitude types: introversion and extroversion. Jung theorized that whichever function dominated consciousness, its opposite function is repressed and characterizes unconscious behavior. This compensatory model generates eight psychological types as follows: (1) Extraverted Sensation; (2) Introverted Sensation; (3) Extraverted Intuition; (4) Introverted Intuition; (5) Extraverted Thinking; (6) Introverted Thinking; (7) Extraverted Feeling; and (8) Introverted Feeling. It's upon these eight psychological types that personality questionnaires such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) have been developed.

Anima, Dr. Beebe argues, is tied up with the psyche's inferior function. An introverted feeling type thinks in images and he describes Anna as an extroverted thinking anima. I will confess straight off that I have a longstanding resistance to the formulaic structures of Jungian typology. It's not that I don't believe these psychic combinations are in effect; but, I find it very difficult to talk about them without it all turning into alphabet soup or a game of Scrabble on a shaking train. Along with such prognosticative systems as astrology and the I Ching, what I can appreciate about discussions of typology are the association of ideas they generate; but, other than for that, for me it all devolves into a big guessing game and, frequently, unnecessary argument. Like poetry, typology is approximate and inferential and, I confess, is my least favorite aspect of Dr. Beebe's methodology in discussing film. This will surely be something I explore with him when I interview him for The Evening Class.