Which Shaman?

It’s a strange kind of vindication when you see someone argue your ideas independently.  Even if they understand those ideas in a different way.  I suppose it’s necessary to say that in academia those who have university posts are assumed to be more authoritative than those of us who don’t. That’s not sour grapes, it’s simply a fact.  Some years ago, after having first seen Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I wrote a post on this blog suggesting that the Joker functioned as a shaman in that movie.  Being a blog by a non-university academic, the post had a few readers, but it is not peer-reviewed and therefore, officially just a matter of opinion.  I have studied religion professionally for decades now, however, and I would still stand by my assessment.

Recently I came across an article that argued Batman was a shamanic figure in that same movie.  It was affirming that another academic had come to a similar conclusion, however, we differ in our interpretation of who bears shamanistic characteristics.  It doesn’t help, I suspect, that shamanism isn’t well understood, and even the name is a bit of a misnomer.  We don’t really have a word for non-major religious practitioners of indigenous populations who may have little in common, so we call them shamans.  Their religious systems are too specific—“granular” is the favored business word these days—to categorize them easily.  And the reason for this is that we think of religions in the light of the large, organized conglomerations that arose in western Asia a couple millennia ago.  It’s difficult to make room for smaller exemplars.

Something larger religions have done is distorted the idea of religion as a local phenomenon.  Communities used to reflect the religious experience those who lived in them knew.  Catholicism divided the world into parishes and even tolerated some differences between them.  Protestantism gave Europeans (and their New World descendants) a set of choices, and towns in America often sport many steeples not because religion draws a community together but rather because it generally tears it apart.  Hierarchical religions are about as opposite of shamanism as Batman is different from the Joker.  They may have similar ends in mind, but their methods are quite different.  The shaman is a figure that leads to spiritual wholeness for the community.  Their methods seem questionable to larger, highly structured religions.  And the unaffiliated trickster may accomplish more than an establishment figure in a local setting.

Double the Magic

Since The Prestige came out over a decade ago I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers below.  This post also comes with another caveat: if you watch this film you’ll be left scratching your head and finding yourself strongly tempted to punch the replay button immediately.  Like most Christopher Nolan films, the movie is complex and intelligent.  It also plays on an age-old horror theme of the doppelgänger.  There be spoilers here!  

Following the rivalry of two stage magicians seeking the ultimate illusion, there’s a great deal of sleight of hand in the way this movie manipulates its viewers.  You are in the audience of a magic show and you’ve volunteered to go up on stage.  I watched this film on the recommendation of a friend without even checking the genre.  That can be a disorienting experience in itself.  One of the first questions we bring to movies as well as to texts is “what kind is it?”  I had the assurance that it was “the good kind” and that was about all.  That assessment was right.  While the credits rolled—it was already late at night, for me—I was strongly tempted to start it all over.  Sometimes people ask me why I watch horror films (and no, this is not horror) and I think the answer is related to what I find here.  Like most people I want the advice of others on what to do should things go wrong.  And in The Prestige they do go wrong.  Spoilers follow.

The crux of the film involves actual doppelgängers that result from Nikola Tesla’s experiments.  Tesla was a mysterious person in real life, and without knowing the genre you can watch this film and find it believable.  There’s a kind of faith involved in movie-going, after all.  One of the early exploiters of the doppelgänger was Edgar Allan Poe.  In “William Wilson” he narrates a tale of a double that might indeed be the real William Wilson.  The Prestige plays the same card.  Most of us live knowing that daily our senses can be fooled.  We actually enjoy it once in a while.  Stage magicians stake their livelihoods on it.  Nolan is a master of bringing complex twists to the silver screen.  In Holy Horror I briefly discuss his Memento.  I have a suspicion that I might’ve had more to say about it had I watched this film earlier, with a copy of Poe in hand.

Look Both Ways

Like many kids of the sixties I grew up watching Batman. I mean Batman—the campy, goofy, live-action version of the caped crusader that was must-see TV for young boys and other hero wannabes. This was all hung upside-down, as it were, by Tim Burton’s reboot of the troubled crime-fighter. Then came Christopher Nolan’s canon. The Dark Knight remains one of my favorite movies as it seems unstintingly honest. We are all part Joker and part Batman. Neither is ideal. More than that, this movie was my first introduction to Harvey Two-Face Dent. You see, I didn’t grow up reading Batman comics, and the television adventures never featured him. At least not as far as I can remember. Two-Face is a fearful foe because you can never tell when he’s telling the truth. That can be very scary.

The other day I asked my mother about someone I remembered from church growing up. This was a woman I hadn’t seen since the Nixon Administration and I was curious how she was doing, and even if she was still alive. My mother told me she was still around, but she doesn’t talk to her any more because the friend is “two-faced.” Among evangelical Christians this is one of the most feared of epithets. Telling different “truths” to different parties is a certain way to demonstrate want of moral fiber. Hypocrisy. It’s also a non-refundable ticket on the bus heading south, if you get my meaning. Christians want to be thought of as honest, if nothing else. Harvey Dent would’ve had real trouble being an evangelical (with some noteworthy exceptions).

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Businesses, however, are disciples of Janus. I often ponder the sheet number of items that companies classify as “public facing.” What, I wonder, is the antonym? I’ve even heard of corporations that will take legal action against former employees who honestly admit how business is done. No one is permitted to speak of what happens in the entrepreneurial boudoir. Corporations, under the law, are persons. They are afforded the secret inner life of real individuals. There was a “naked business” craze in early in the millennium, but that petered out. We have a public facing face and a reality that no one is allowed to know. Trade secrets. Information that only one corporation may have. Over in Gotham, Two-Face slips into a dark alley and escapes. In little white churches across the country, those who speak different truths are shunned. In the corporate high-rise, businesses are now people. They are, however, two-faced. I miss the Batman of my youth.

Earthbound

Major news outlets have been raving over Interstellar, the new Christopher Nolan film. I’ve not seen it yet, and it hasn’t had the same kind of hype that Noah received earlier this year. It isn’t, after all, biblical. Still, the reviews for the movie borrow liberally from religious language. One of the obvious reasons is that the vastness, the incomprehensibility—I think I’m safe to say it here—the impossibility of space, almost demand such language. Ironically, it is considered unsophisticated to say similar things of religion, that fall-back for those of weak intellects who, well, believe the impossible. Whether science or religion, we are faced, when we look at interpretations of reality, with something we barely comprehend. Even by conservative measures, on the scale of the universe, we are somewhere around the level of a sub-atomic particle to an earth-sized universe. And yet, with great confidence, indeed, at times arrogance, we claim that we have it all figured out. God? Not possible. Science, less than a millennium old? We’ve got it all figured out. And we haven’t even stepped beyond our own satellite yet.

Having grown up in a rural setting, I was used to seeing stars at night. From a young age astronomy fascinated me. My high school, built during the era around Sputnik, had a working planetarium (and this was not an affluent community). I took astronomy as a junior elective and ran into my teacher at a weekend retreat for lay preachers. A man of science who looked at the universe and came away with wonder. On clear winter nights, away from the light pollution that has become my daily bread here in the orbit of New York City, I would shiver and look upward, knowing that I was reaching both the limits of what the earthbound could see, but also infinity at the same time. The vastness of space still weakens my knees. Even more than my age does naturally.

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In at least one of the many interviews, Nolan admits to having been influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the genesis of the believable space movies, giving Star Wars a jump start and we’ve been exploring deep space in our celluloid fantasies ever since. The constant in all of this is the humility of humanity. “Humility” derives from Latin humilis, literally, “on the ground.” It is no accident when the concept of divinity began to emerge that the human, or perhaps porto-human, gaze was cast upward. The gods, whatever else they might be, weren’t down here with us. They have access to up there. And even a scientist can get away with calling the sky “the heavens.” This journey of Interstellar began long before Kubrick, and we are flocking in numbers to see what the latest rendition might be. Wonder might just be what the doctor calls for on a dark night, when the hope of humanity could use a little humility.

Bible According to Batman

DarkKnightRises Biblical tropes are alive and well in popular culture. Many would choose the flight option rather than admit they enjoy a good Bible story. They may anyway, however, without realizing it. Although The Dark Knight Rises came out over a year ago, I only just had the chance to watch it. For a kid who grew up on the campy 1960’s television series, Christopher Nolan offers adult fare. Put the kiddie menu away and sit up straight at the table. I don’t read reviews, in general, before seeing movies because I don’t enjoy spoilers. I had no idea whether Batman would come out of this alive or not. I wasn’t really even sure who Bane was (even before The Dark Knight everyone knew who the Joker was, or thought they did). The Dark Knight Rises places the whole of Heilsgeschichte (sacred history) before the viewer with verbal cues. Unless you’re reading while watching, you’ll miss it though.

Bruce Wayne is clearly cast as the wounded healer in this final installment of the trilogy. Physically and psychologically crippled, he hobbles around in a combination of Jesus and Yoda figures, somehow supernatural yet fully human. Death and resurrection transpire twice for him in this film. When Bane breaks Batman’s back (an often fatal injury) even Catwoman thinks he might be dead. He is very much alive, however, in the prison only “Bane” escaped (resurrection one). Not only does he rise from the grave, he also ascends into heaven by escaping the well—anyone who’s read Jeremiah, or even Genesis, knows the origin of that motif. Risen, ascended, and glorified, Batman returns to beat the crap out of Bane. But the bomb is still on the loose and before Batman faces his nemesis he tells Commissioner Gordon to arrange “an exodus”—Joseph’s descendants must get out of Egypt. At the Red Sea (the Hudson River) the Pharaoh’s army blocks the exodus of the children of St. Swithun’s who, in response, bow their heads in prayer (am I the only one seeing this?)

Commissioner Gordon, found guilty of betraying the common man, receives the sentence of Exile (“death, by exile” to be precise). Again, those sensitive to Jeremiah know that exile is a kind of death, but death with a noble purpose. The Heilsgeschichte of Israel involves exodus and exile. The Christians added on death, resurrection, and ascension. Christopher Nolan put them together in one Dark Knight. But I mentioned two resurrections, no? Flying the bomb out of Gotham, Batman is definitively blown to smithereens—the blast radius was, after all, six miles. And yet, Alfred has a post-resurrection visitation, where no touching occurs (Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father) sees his savior. Was the Bat the Holy Spirit on autopilot? Is that Catwoman with him? Might I be so bold as to type Mary Magdalene? Well, I may be over a year late with my observations of The Dark Knight Rises, but as I think Christopher Nolan understands, the Bible has been lying around even longer. If the success of this movie is anything to go by, it will be around for a long time yet to come.

Resurrinception

Inception_ver3Like most profound movies, Inception keeps me coming back repeatedly. I’ve already written a post on how the Theseus and minotaur myth lurk deep within the labyrinths of this film, but upon my most recent viewing a new angle caught my attention. In the first level down into Fischer’s dream, when Saito is unexpectedly shot, Eames asks Cobb, “What happens when we die?” It could be the question of a child faced with a dead pet for the first time. Of course, Eames refers to death in a dream under sedation, and limbo is the closest thing to spiritual death that a person can experience. The timing of that question, however, triggered in my head the number of resurrections that take place in the movie. I have frequently noted here that resurrection is a standard part of the tool kit for western movies, particularly American ones. We expect resurrection. So, finally, three layers down, a dream within a dream within a dream (even Poe would be proud), Saito dies. He is lost in limbo.

Limbo is a fuzzy theological construct thought up by the church for those who don’t deserve Heaven, or Hell, or even Purgatory. Some, it seems, end up in limbo. In Inception limbo is unconstructed sub-conscious, an area even Freud would fear to tread. Saito dies and goes to limbo. Fischer, meanwhile, also ends up in limbo because Mal shoots him dead in the third-level dream. Mal is already in limbo because she killed herself in real life—or was it a dream? Cobb, of course, must die to return to limbo to retrieve Saito so that he won’t be arrested when the plane lands. In limbo, three of the four escape, riding the kick back up to consciousness. Only after baptism in the first level dream, when the van plunges into the river, do the lost souls emerge. What happens after we die? Resurrection.

I’m not suggesting that Christopher Nolan planted a Christian idea in the viewers’ subconscious mind. Resurrection is part and parcel of our culture. Perhaps, however, this helps to explain the durability of some religious concepts. We long for resurrection on such a deep—maybe subconscious—level that we want to see it on the big screen. Even ghosts, we’re told, haunt because of unfinished business. It is Saito, the Japanese business mogul, however, who undergoes the most resurrections. He dies in the van underwater, in the fortified mountain hospital, and in limbo (perhaps in the elevator as well, but this is uncertain). His is a regular reincarnation of resurrections. Inception, I’m sure, will keep me coming back for more. One of the questions that none of us escapes while alive, is that uttered at the level of the dream.

Another Dark Knight

Batman was dreamed up in the late 1930s as an ambiguous character that fought crime and protected innocent civilians. The backstory emerged that he had witnessed his parents being shot down as a child, and eventually adopted the identity of a bat to frighten the perps. Batman never, in principle, used guns. Of course, the DC Comics character eventually scored a wonderfully campy television series that entertained many of us as children. It even spawned a movie. Then, fifty years after the original, Tim Burton gave us a darker, more serious Batman. The series of promising movies degenerated into the unforgivable Batman and Robin, and many assumed the flash in the pan was over. We didn’t need any super heroes. Christopher Nolan resurrected this bat in Batman Begins, and when I first saw The Dark Knight I was stunned. Good and evil danced a waltz so delicate that you were never sure who was leading. The frisson was palpable.

Thursday night the Nolan series’ final episode was released. I’ve not seen it yet, but from the moment I step out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square until I arrive at work, I will have seen several multi-story Batmen looking down on the real life Gotham, explosions erupting and everyone wondering if Batman will survive this film. Yesterday morning the news opened with a horrifying story from real life in Aurora, Colorado. A gunman opened fire on a crowd of opening night movie viewers, killing at least twelve. Several children were shot. The gunman, like a real-life character from Arkham, was apprehended and claimed to have explosives in his house. I stared at the story and wondered what has become of humanity.

Facebook has turned into a venue for flying political banners. I’m always surprised to see how conservative people I knew in school have become—in those days no one had me beat for non-progressive thought. I’m truly amazed, at times, by the glorification of America’s gun culture that accompanies conservative causes. People want to shoot and want to glorify their right to shoot. I have, on rare occasions, shot rifles for sport—only at targets and only when others have asked me to. There is no denying the rush of power one feels, knowing that, like God, you can destroy the thing far distant from you with just a squeeze of the finger. I’m not sure I’m happy in a universe populated by such gods. I grew up a conservative, but also a pacifist. I grew up watching Batman defeat evil so clearly defined that no room remained for ambiguity. Yes, I grew up a conservative, but then I just grew up. I will watch The Dark Knight Rises and will not know what to expect.

Neither good nor bad.