N. 29: “Myth”

 If the myth is both a story of foundation – a sacred story suspended from history – and an original form of narration, then one can read the history of images through its twofold meaning. If cinema has been able to draw from the numerous narratives of the myth in order to create worlds, contexts, subjects and stories, it has also questioned the strength and the sacred power of the myth; in other words, cinema questioned the myth’s capacity to be an ‘image’ in the the full sense of the word. The myth causes the ‘resurrection of a primordial reality in the form of narration, which is told to meet profound religious and moral needs’, Bronislaw Malinowski stated. The myth is placed in a time-space which is separated from history but it is not, however, out of the world, because it acts in it, permeating human beliefs and the ways in which we see ourselves and in relation to what is outside of us. Above all, the myth is closely related to the world order, because each mythical narrative is an explanation of the world, of its foundation and of its laws.

The twofold declination of the relationship between cinema and myth thus implies a new approach to this question; an approach that can be exemplified in some directions of research, which in turn trace possible fields of investigation.

The myth as a source of narratives. In the first direction (the myth as the origin of cinematic narratives), the image is called upon to give visibility to gods and heroes, often immortal and all-powerful anthropomorphic beings that intervene in human affairs through creation or destruction. From Méliès and the tradition of the Italian peplum of the sixties, up to the recent american reinterpretations (from 1981’s Clash of the Titans by Desmond Davis to Tarsem Singh’s Immortals of 2011), the Homeric or Virgilian myths coexist with Hesiod tales and the legends of heroes such as Hercules; also Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ tragedies coexist with the tradition of classic greek and roman mythology. In the transition from the myth to cinematic storytelling, the former usually loses the sacred value suspended in time and actualizes itself in a purely spectacular and fantastic form. The first direction of this relationship represent, therefore, the possibility to unveil the cinematic imaginary and its ability to show, as Bazin said, ‘the contradiction between the irrefutable objectivity of the photographic image and the extraordinary nature of the event’. It is therefore something that has to do with the specificity of cinema itself, as well as its perpetually entailed open relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

The myth as the origin of the image. The second form of this relationship investigates, instead, the creative power of the myth, that is, the ability of cinema to put into play the symbolic power of the mythical narrative through the timeliness of a body or an image. Seen from this perspective, the image moves always backwardly. The image discovers in itself the ability to be something suspended from time, something whose strength lies in the very origin of each story. This was Pasolini’s path in the sixties; in films such as Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), the founding narratives of Western culture were retraced in order to rediscover their original power, through a work on images intended as the powerful capacitors of symbols and references of the out-of-time of the myth. From Fellini to Angelopoulos and Spielberg, cinema has become a tool of investigation of archetypes, according to a Jungian perspective, or of ‘original forms’, sometimes hidden into apparently distant narratives while instead being true re-actualizing instances of the power of the myth.

The myth of the image. The third aspect of the relationship between cinema and the myth concerns a semantic shift, a further meaning that the word ‘myth’ brings along with itself. Namely, the exaltation for an event, for a character or a form that over time takes on an almost legendary shape – precisely a ‘mythical’ shape. In this perspective, the film itself is a powerful mythopoeic device, as it creates its own modern myths (places, characters, recurring images): from the (often tragic) figures of movie stardom (Marilyn, James Dean), to the myths of traveling, wandering, wilderness (Western films by Ford or Hawks), as well as to the heroes and worlds created by authors and sagas (Star Wars) that have powerfully influenced the collective imaginary. Cinema has created, shaped, transformed, taken, interpreted the forms of the myth understood as a product of the imaginary, deeply penetrating into the imagination of generations of people, sometimes making reference to ancient narratives, and sometimes to its own specific capacity of being a great machine of creation of myths. It is perhaps in this last sense that (across the history of cinema) such aspect of the relationship between cinema and the myth has shown its fullest meaning.

Mythos as mimesis praxeos. In Aristotle’s Poetics the relationship between mythos, plot, and imitation of action is explicitly thematized. In this fourth direction, the mythos has been one of the main ways of creation of sense within the cinematic representation, not only intended as the origin of a fictional construction of the discourse – that is opposed to a logical one -, but also as the carrier of an instance opposed to the pure act of showing, of ‘documenting’ (considered as something embedded in the cinematic apparatus itself). Reflecting upon the relationship between the practice of telling a story as a plot (as a mythos, in fact) and an instance of ‘documentation’ means thinking of a crucial issue of cinema.

Myth, history, politics. This is the fifth direction of the relation between film and myth. When cinema configured itself as a ‘mythological machine’ (in the terminology used by Furio Jesi, generated from his dialogue with a mythologist such as Kerenyi; See Letteratura e mito e Materiali mitologici), politics and the fictional-story link have interacted with the mythologizing potential of images. Totalitarian regimes have ‘projected’ on the screen the mythical forms that founded their aimed hegemonic power on the masses. Riefenstahl’s films for the Nazis, and films such as Scipione l’Africano or La corona di ferro for the Fascist regime are examples of this practice. The historical past is amplified as a mythological tale and as a myth of the origin of the race; while in the case of the democratic foundation of the American myth, the epic and heroic mythologies of the come-back and of the frontier have flown into the typical epic form of the Western. The thesis of Vernant’s and Detienne Vidal-Naquet’s school of historical psychology – which has investigated over the links between politics, anthropology and myth – could also lead to consider Straub-Huillet’s cinema within such horizon, starting from their recent retracing of Pavese’s mythopoietic writing in Dialoghi con Leucò, with the aim of building up a relationship myth-landscape-nature-history (or post-pre-history) that also characterizes the work of recent Italian authors such as Piavoli, Cipri/Maresco, Martone, Gaudino.