Films that Partake of Gnosticism, Cabballa, and Alcehmy
Films self-consciously inflecting these esoteric visions — films like The Matrix, A.I., and Dead Man — partake of this transcendental irony. The Matrix is aware of the fact that it is an illusory form that suggests that all forms are illusions. Viewers are urged to embrace this movie as an indictment of the stultifying status quo and to reject this same film as a part of the system of stifling givens.
A.I. knows that it is both a critique of our overly mechanized existence and a demonstration of how machines are more alive than humans. This conflict encourages watchers to take seriously this cinematic piece of vivid technological virtuosity and at the same time to demean this overly mechanized and ultimately lifeless film.
Dead Man is conscious of the fact that it emphasizes the virtues of conversion in a narrative fraught with static clichés. This bind invites audiences to participate in the film’s alleged metamorphoses and simultaneously to question the validity of these ostensible changes. In all three cases, moviegoers are asked to see the picture as a legitimate imitation of some probable state of affairs (as a realistic portrayal of an enduring human condition) and as a troubling parody of the very idea of authenticity (as a formal attack on the fabric of common sense).
Self-conscious Gnostic, Cabbalistic, and alchemical films thus take a middle road between the extremes of realism and formalism. Although these films tend to explore fantastical worlds — worlds of the past or the future, probable worlds and dream worlds — they nonetheless achieve a kind of realism, what we might call a mimetic integrity. Even if these movies do not depict familiar empirical events, they do represent probable, believable environments. Once the viewer accepts the premises of the films, he quickly comes to recognize their rules and conventions, to know what to expect, to enjoy the predictable logic. He embraces these movies as realistic depictions of psychological states or alternative universes, of what is on the inside and of what might be on the outside. He does not tend to view these movies — however outlandish they appear to be — as violations of reality, but as extensions of the real, representations of not-yet-realized potentials or not-yet-externalized interiors.
However, in subtle ways, these films do upset our notions of the real through their formal innovations. In stylistically undercutting their own premises, they drain authenticity from their narratives and vanquish the validity of their ideas. In doing so, the movies parody themselves. They laugh in the wings at their staged business. They are far too clever to take their own high-mindedness seriously.
Audience members who notice these sardonic smirks cannot help but feel unsettled. What are they to make of these films that want to be both realistic explorations of important ideas and formally astute rejections of serious realism? What are they further to make of the fact that these movies tend to be so secretive about their jibes? Indeed, one can hardly tell if these movies are serious or not.
This is the key to transcendental irony, a mode in the middle of spiritual realism and spiritual formalism: one is never totally sure if the irony is present or not. This distinguishes Romantic irony—serious philosophical, poetic, and religious seeking — from instrumental irony — a method good for rather obvious satire. To understand this distinction and its significance, let’s take some examples of the latter sort of irony.
Think of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The film is replete with ironic devices. The protagonist, played by Allen, provides commentaries on his plight as a character in the film. Characters enter into flashbacks and interview other characters from the past. An animated sequence provides interpretation of the live action narrative. A final scene features the rehearsal of a play retelling the movies story but with a happy ending.
Each of these elements highlights the fact that this film is a construct, an artifice, one of many possible representations of “reality.” This emphasis on the tenuous nature of this filmic imitation works for comic purposes — to deflate in a humorous way cinematic conventions that support notions of stable identity and linear narrative. The irony is obvious and uncomplicated, a visual trope designed to get laughs. The Coen Brothers use irony in this comic way as well, especially in The Hudsuckcr Proxy, an exuberant pastiche of the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturgis.
Instrumental irony need not always be comic. We can recall Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Every scene seems to be a pastiche of a moment from seventies’ popular culture: Kung Fu movies, spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation films, and film noir. These quotations of other films undercut the “authenticity” of the movie, emphasizing the possibility that every event is a mere simulacrum of pop cultural images, themselves simulacra of yet other elements of pop culture.
This is the Baudrillardian world of the postmodern, a flattening of depths to surfaces, “realities” to “copies.” As in the case of Allen’s film, the irony is obvious, this time not for laughs but to satirize and revel in the campy culture of the seventies. The Coen Brothers have used this glib irony too, especially in Blood Simple, a parody of the noir conventions of Hawks and Huston.
Instrumental irony can escape comedy and glibness and instead bear serious meanings. We recall the films earlier mentioned as examples of “spiritual formalism,” experimental pictures that undercut cinematic expectations in an effort to question the status quo. We think of 8 l/2, a surrealistic dream that forces us to question the reality of the waking world and possibly to seek a deeper reality. We also notice Blow Up, a movie that blurs the distinction between art and life and makes us wonder if reality is illusion and illusion real. These subtle films — parodying reality with dream and dream with reality — find worthy imitations in the work of Tom Tykwer, whose Run Lola Run blurs reality and reverie to send us into a dizzying meditation on time and transcendence.
These profound films come close to Romantic irony. Blurring the “natural” and the “artificial,” they upset habitual relationships to the world and force new ways of seeing. Still, these pictures remain outside of the thoroughly ambiguous atmosphere of Romantic irony through their rather obvious uses of irony as one instrument among many.
In contrast, the film fraught with romantic irony is never obviously ironic. A filmmaker who exhibits a mastery of this mode is Kubrick. Watching Eyes Wide Shut, we are never sure if we should take Tom Cruise’s character, Dr. Bill Harford, seriously. Does Kubrick mean for us to take Cruise’s wooden acting as an earnest depiction of a sexually repressed, death-loving physician, or does he want us to view this seemingly bad acting as a parody of typical American maleness? Or, more troublingly, does Kubrick intend for us to take the character in both ways at once?
The Gnostic films on which I meditate in this book feature these Kubrickian qualities and thus leave viewers in a hopeless limbo between faith and doubt. This limbo, however, is potentially liberating. It can push audiences into the curious interstices between extremes, into the invisible gap between frames. While this cognitive emptiness can certainly result in acute despair or, worse, apathetic nihilism, it can also end in liberating vision, a new insight into relationships between opposites, a fresh intuition of a barely possible third term beyond all conflict. If Gnostic irony were too obvious, it would simply inspire doubt. If it were nonexistent, it would only encourage faith. Hovering in the vague middle, it invites unprecedented meditations, new broodings—hopes for mental travels into realms not yet seen or possibly even imagined.
Gnostic Film with a Gothic Flavor
It is not surprising that the favored filmic genres of the ironic Kubrick and equally ironic Gnostic directors are gothic in flavor. Regardless of important differences, science fiction, film noir, horror, and fantasy all share key gothic elements: the blurring of realistic depictions of the familiar world and formalists experiments in outlandish dreams; the ambiguous melding of perception and projection; the conflict between reason and the unconscious.
The root of these similarities is not hard to locate. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the definitive gothic tale, is a primary source of each of these genres — of the mad scientist of numerous science fiction films, the death obsessions of noir flicks, the murderous monsters of horror movies, the bizarre though possible worlds of fantasy. Given this gothic thrust of Gnostic film — every film I consider in this book, including Jarmusch’s western, is replete with gothic elements — it is worthwhile to consider the relationship, perhaps unexpected, between Gnosticism and the gothic.
The gothic mode is not unrelated to Romantic irony. Samuel Taylor Coleridge actually suggested this relationship when he described his goal in writing his gothic tale, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He set out to detail “persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”1
What Coleridge calls the supernatural, romantic tale is what we would now call a gothic story, a narrative like the Rime in which invisible presences, exotic locales, and extraordinary events hold sway. For Coleridge, this sort of work hovers between fact and fantasy.
To take the outlandish tale seriously as a semblance of inward truth, one must believe in occurrences that he would normally not accept. This middle ground between credulity and incredulity is ironic. It urges a reader to believe in the unbelievable. It encourages him to question the empirical. At every juncture in the tale, the reader is bewildered by psychological truths appearing as physical falsehoods and natural laws appearing as inaccurate reductions. Grasping the inadequacies of the opposing categories of belief and unbelief witnessing forms dissolve into the formless, the reader of the gothic tale must reach for some ambiguous third way beyond clarity.
Freud and Repressed Fear
Freud indirectly seconds Coleridge in arguing that the gothic feeling grows from intractable ambiguity. Freud claims that unsettling weirdness issues from an unexpected eruption of a fear that has long been repressed. The return of the repressed is uncanny, a troubling mixture of unfamiliar and familiar. On the one hand, the repressed material is shocking, monstrous, for it has long been hidden and forgotten. On the other hand, this same underground energy is intimate and integral because it has been an essential force of organization and motivation.2
Envision a man in a secular age, alone in a poorly lighted museum, who witnesses an inanimate doll come to life. He is horrified at the spectacle, but he undergoes a déjà vu, as if he has suffered this same moment many times before. He has. The animated doll embodies an archaic fear of the dead coining to life. It blurs the categories essential for a rational civilization. Because the man in the museum, a rational adult in a secular society, has long repressed this primitive, occult fear, the doll catalyzes in him repulsion and attraction. He is repulsed by an eruption of the intractable; he is attracted by a revelation of his own depths.
This uncanny instance of the artificial coming to life, played repeatedly in numerous films exuding the gothic atmosphere, places one in an intensely ironic condition. Unconscious energies overwhelm rational concepts; reasonable ideas demonize unconscious turbulence. The familiar — the empirical status quo — turns strange. The unfamiliar — the bizarre unconscious — becomes homely. Only a third way, ungraspable, might reconcile the rift.
In his work on the fantastic, Tzvetan Todorov emphasizes this connection between the uncanny and ambiguity. Although Todorov distinguishes between the fantastic and the uncanny, his definition of the fantastic actually supports and extends Freud’s sense of the uncanny. According to Todorov, irreducible ambiguity is the very essence of the fantastical — the inability to tell if an event is natural or supernatural. Todorov further claims that the uncanny in the end can be explained by natural events. Still, as we have seen, Freud’s uncanny generates an ambiguity similar to Todorov’s fantastic: the hopeless blurring between the positivistic (the natural, the familiar) and the mysterious (the supernatural, the unfamiliar).3
At the end of a fantastic or gothic tale — such as Coleridge’s Rime or Poe’s “Ligeia,” Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Kubrick’s The Shining — audiences are faced with at least two diametrically opposed yet equally valid interpretations. Has the Mariner experienced supernatural terrors or has he suffered insane hallucinations? Does Poe’s narrator really witness his dead beloved come back to life in the body of a later wife or is the speaker besotted with opium visions? Are the events in Weine’s film real or reveries of a lunatic? Is Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel literally haunted or infested with psychic projections? Each of these questions remains unanswerable. This confusion generates the horror associated with the gothic mode, the fright of the unknown, but this befuddlement also opens into the possibility of transcendence, of going beyond the given to new vitality.
The Gothic Induces a Gnostic Vision
Now we see how the gothic is connected to the Gnostic. If Freud is the psychoanalyst of how the uncanny can lead to neurosis or psychosis, then Heidegger is the philosopher of how the uncanny can inspire knowledge and energy. For Heidegger, as for Freud, the uncanny is a mode of exploration in which the familiar becomes unfamiliar and the strange turns intimate.
Sometimes, after a thinker has long meditated on the Being generating and sustaining all beings, on a certain day, perhaps when he is bored or in reverie, he feels common things fall away. The everyday objects — this particular volume of Proust, that grocery list — become crepuscular, ghostly, weirdly inaccessible. At the same time, the invisible ground of these existences strangely arises, becomes, though still unseen, palpable, attractive, luminous.
In a flash, the thinker knows. What he thought were the integral components of his life, the familiar objects comprising his particular biography, are superfluous, strange others seducing him from the essential. Likewise, what he suspected to be the mysterious dream, the abyss of Being, is the core of his life, the most intrinsic principle. Extended into this nothing, this abyss — not this or that — he is unsettled, insecure. Yet because this nothing is everything, the absence generating all presences, the thinker is also reassured, buoyed by a profound vision of the origin. This uncanny eruption is gnosis, intuitive knowledge of the whole.4
Gnostic films understandably migrate toward gothic genres — science fiction pictures devoted to ambiguous relationships between humans and machines; fantasy movies exploring blurred boundaries between dream and reality; noir movies hovering on the boundary between psychic projection and brute fact; horror films fraught with ambiguous meldings of monstrosity and miracle.
There are historical reasons behind this connection between the Gnostic and the gothic. As Victoria Nelson has shown, ever since the early modern age, esoteric ways of knowing, including Gnosticism, Cabbala, and alchemy, have been pushed to the margins of culture. There on the edges these heretical visions have attracted aesthetic mediums rejected by mainstream institutions. This confluence of occult religion and underground expression reached full force in the pulpy sub-world of the twentieth century, the lurid realm of weird tales, comic books, and gothic movies. These historical connections are valid and interesting.5
However, as I have been suggesting, there are also deep epistemological reasons for the merger between Gnostic vision and gothic cinema. Both modes are dependent upon mental failure: the inability of the rational mind to reconcile opposites and of the physical world to transcend dualistic conflict. However, these failures offer success: the possibility of the mind finding knowledge beyond reason, of the world dissolving into a unity beyond time.
Not all gothic films exhibit uncanny mixtures of terror and insight. Most genre pictures featuring gothic conventions are unambiguous, predictable, and reductive: commodities, pure and simple, for consumer consumption. What is missing from these aesthetically uninteresting films is self-consciousness, the film turning back on itself to meditate on the potential confusions of the gothic.
Where most gothic genre films aspire for an untroubled dualism — good versus evil, human versus non-human—the self-aware gothic movie undoes distinctions between opposites and leaves viewers on a boundary between conflicting categories. This is the potentially Gnostic scene inherent in self-conscious gothic pictures. This is the visionary possibility of sophisticated pulp.
The Unexpected Duplicity of Gnostic Film
This is the bizarre but endlessly fascinating rhetoric of the self-aware gothic picture: it is a curious conjunction of sophistication and cliché, aesthetic complexity and commercial simplicity. This unique rhetoric — between the obvious stupidity of un-ironic genre films and the apparent intelligence of art house cinema — grants the Gnostic film another unexpected, almost unprecedented duplicity. It is a popular entertainment and an unsettling experience, an escapist bath and intense shock. Indeed, the Gnostic film is a challenge to comfortable habit precisely because it is a familiar diversion.
Watching a picture like The Matrix or A.I. or Dead Man or, for that matter, The TrumanShow or Blade Runner or Blue Velvet, one enjoys the familiar conventions of Hollywood but also senses that there is something strange lurking behind the clichés of the picture industry. This feeling of unease — ultimately emerging from the fact that these films are appearances questioning appearances — is like the splinter in the mind Neo experiences in The Matrix, a vague feeling that all is not quite right, a subtle disorientation.
But the more one broods about each movie, the more one suffers confusion. Is The Matrix a deep meditation on appearance and reality or a slick product from a cynical studio? Is A.I. a tractate on the relationship between fate and freedom or an instance of movie technology seducing the masses into buying tickets? Is Dead Man a sophisticated depiction of conversion or a hip, trendy pastiche of the Hollywood western? The answer to each question is, of course, both.
It is precisely this weird conjunction of vapidity and profundity that puts these films beyond easy classification. Released from stable descriptive categories, these films, though thoroughly artificial, come to resemble concrete things. It is exactly the “thingness” of these artifices, I would submit, that makes them repeatedly attractive and unsettling to audiences. Even if viewers don’t immediately recognize the films’ ironic erasures or push beyond the flickers to the ideal third term, they nonetheless, I would speculate, undergo the same strange sensations they feel when they behold a white square of Malevitch or a Pollock blur of colors — artifacts so concrete that they resist interpretation. This resilience to abstraction grants a sense of inexhaustible particularity. This intuition of immediate and unrepeatable presence, strange in an artifice, opens, ironically, to the infinite.
William Blake as Gnostic Prototype
The idea of the particular as liberating energy comes initially from William Blake. A prototype of the Gnostic filmmaker, Blake the painter and poet persistently undercut his words with images and challenged his images with words. This ironic interplay ensured that his works would escape easy conceptualization and strike audiences with the immediacy of particular things. Blake had good reasons for wanting to achieve this concreteness. Deeply influenced by Gnostic ideas, he wanted to escape the “mind-forged manacles” of oppressive ideologies — tools of the demiurge — and experience energies beyond conception, powers gesturing toward the plenitude.
Blake in his marginalia once intoned, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is Alone Distinction of Merit.”6 “General Knowledge,” he continued, does not exist, while “Singular & Particular Detail is the Foundation of the Sublime.” These distinctions reverse traditional expectations. Ideas — generally the essentials of knowledge — are delusions. Immediate perceptions — flashes usually corralled into concepts — are now revelations of the real. Theories are ignoble reductions. Direct apprehensions of particulars open into the sublime: the infinite.7
The Immediate as the Escape from Inhibiting Abstraction
Setting aside for the moment the fact that Blake’s statements are themselves abstract theories, let us pause on Blake’s statement on the sublime. Unlike Edmund Burke, who maintained that the sublime grows from terrifying empirical experiences, and unlike Immanuel Kant, who held that the sublime emerges from the mind’s transcendence of forms, Blake, taking a middle way, believes that the sublime arises from a sensual scrutiny so intense that it penetrates to an unbounded energy at the heart of distinct forms.
As Blake proclaims in his verse, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.” This cleansing requires enhanced sensation: “the whole creation will appear infinite” only through “an improvement of sensual enjoyment.” Favoring the abstract over the concrete, one “sees all things only thro’ the narrow chinks of his cavern.”6Practicing immediate perception, one apprehends infinity in a grain of sand and, in a bird, an unseen world of delight.
How does abstraction, seemingly attuned to spirit, lead to narrowness and illusion? How does intense perception, ostensibly shackled to matter, open to infinity, to eternity? For Blake, abstraction is egocentric and retrospective. One’s concepts, no matter how putatively universal, arise from past personal experiences. My conception of my ego is an abstraction extrapolated from a selection of past experiences that arrange themselves into a consistent narrative. My ideas of love and redness and black cat and whatnot are ghostly précis arising from numerous particulars of my past, mostly forgotten.
These memorial abstractions are necessary for negotiations of experience; however, if one believes that the retrospective ego and its abstractions are the only realities, then one reduces the present to a cipher of the past. He flattens the world to a double of his interior archives. He is doomed to undergo the same experiences over and over. He turns and turns and turns in what Blake calls the “same dull round.”8
Intense perception is charitable and prospective. If one breaks through egocentric, retrospective abstractions and immediately apprehends a particular moment, then one does not encounter an example of one’s past, a reduction of the world to the ego’s double. He experiences the concrete event as a discrete, unique pattern of a transpersonal, ungraspable energy. Scrutinizing this thing, here, now — his beloved, or a crocus — he moves from self-consciousness to other-consciousness. He becomes entranced by this particular “isness.” He gazes with increasing intensity. Suddenly, he senses, in this entity, naked existence, the mystery of being. The thing becomes an event: a confluence of form and energy, of other and same. This vision is of eternity in time.
But what is eternity? It is not unending duration, time everlasting. It is the pure present, not bound to memory and fraught with nostalgia or regret, and not bound to foresight and vexed with fear or anticipation. Not troubled by the pressures of history, eternity is not tensed, not tied to finite verbs. It is infinite.
Infinite does not mean boundlessly large, space unceasing. Infinity is pure presence, beyond comparison with other presences that have surrounded and will surround, beyond environmental limitation. Transcending temporal and spatial distinctions, eternity and infinity — negations of the abstractions of minutes and points — are abysmal openings into a realm in which before and after, here and there, blur into a hum of ungraspable being.9
Blake’s Analysis: The Thing and the Thought
These meditations on the particular suggest two problems and two points that I should cover before returning to Gnostic cinema. First, this theory of the thing is itself an abstraction and thus part of a system of expectations that could easily divorce one from immediate perception. If I approach an event — a crocus, say, or a man sewing — and expect it to bloom into eternal glimmers and infinite currents, then I am imposing onto the instant a set of general suppositions that blind me to unique resonances. How, then, is this theory of the concrete perception distinct from other abstractions that preclude immediate witness?
Blake’s theory, though abstract, separates itself from other abstract theories in this way: its only reason for being is to undercut abstract theories. It is an ironic proposition, a map to be discarded once the destination appears over the horizon. Hence, even if it is difficult to escape abstractions once and for all, at least this vision of the particular questions the power and reality of abstractions and thus possibly opens an uncanny space where the long-repressed thing can return.
But what if it is impossible for humans to transcend abstractions? What if, as the disciples of Foucault and Baudrillard maintain, everyone is inscribed in a sign system that dictates what can be seen and said? What if Blake envisions not the sublime sun but the discourse of his day? If there is nothing except simulacra, nothing beyond the discourses of power, then things are but ciphers of the human rage for order.
But surely something inhuman existed for the millions of years before the eye opened into consciousness. The same endured for the additional millennia upon millennia before the tongue began to speak. An unfamiliar current springs and dives beyond thought and word. Even if humans are incarcerated in a prison house of language, these same humans have coursing through their veins the curious rhythms that have been thumping since the primal soup first felt lightning. If we are ever going to break through this prison to the sublime indifference of nonhuman things, then in the cells themselves hides the key: a theory (ironically comprised of words and thoughts) that says that the prison of languages and ideas is only half real, a phantom through which one might one day slide and find on the other side palpable bloods and saps that were formerly only the sceneries of dreams.
If Gnostic cinema really does proffer an experience of immediate particularity, then we have come a long way from our opening meditations on the unreality of film. Likewise, we are faced with yet other troubling contradictions: a worldview devoted to the idea that matter is illusion opens into striking experiences of the concrete; a medium that is obviously artificial gestures toward the infinite and the eternal.
However, these contradictions dissolve fairly quickly when we realize that what Blake calls the “particular” is not some static hunk of matter but immediate experience of the world as exuberant energy. This raw sensation does not lead to a fixation on stable matter. It inspires a transcendence of space and time to intuitions of the infinite and the eternal. The Blakean “thing” is not a thing in the traditional sense at all. It is not based on a subject cognizing an object. It is grounded on a streaming consciousness becoming acquainted with quick energies. Blake’s thing is an event, an interchange between mental and physical that yields a third term, a gnosis of enlivening powers beyond yet within thing and thought.
Gnostic Films Urging the Viewer to Question
The unreality of Gnostic cinema challenges all alleged realities, especially those abstractions that most take for real. Dissolving abstractions back into the immediate flows of experience from which they arose, the Gnostic illusion does, in fact, grant viewers sensations of the particular — the world not yet conceptualized. To sense such a world is to open to powers beyond space and time, to eternal and infinite potencies. Such sensation can only be a prelude to gnosis. Gnostic films challenging appearances strip away veils blocking intimacy with the invisible. Flickers of artificially produced dark and light point beyond longitude and latitude, the tick and the tock. The ghosts turn palpable, and what was dead, lives.
The self-consuming cinema demonstrates the opposed directions of self-consciousness. On the one hand, the self-awareness urged by the Gnostic picture obviously can simply stoke the ego, encouraging one to fixate on his personal fears and desires, his terrors of the world outside his skin and his lusts to control this world. This is the narcissistic potential of all movie watching, the invitation to voyeurism: the ego as consumer of commodities fulfilling its most selfish urges. We cannot forget that Adam and Eve east of Eden immediately felt shame, the negative side of self-consciousness, obsessed with watching the lurid world of jealousy and envy, libido and domination. On the other hand, the reflexivity inspired by the Gnostic film can also move in the opposite way. It can invite an infinite regression of perspectives that eventually pushes one beyond the ego to powers beyond abstractions, that carries one from self-consciousness to other-consciousness.
This is the possibility for transcendence in movie going: the artifice on the screen intimates the artifice of everything and thus urges the viewer to question all assumptions, even the assumptions surrounding his ego, even the assumption that he should question all assumptions. Now we recall in a new way the old idea of the felix culpa, the happy fall, the realization that the result of the fall, egocentric self-consciousness, is also the potential rectification of the fall, self-awareness pushing beyond the boundaries of space and time to something resembling infinity and eternity.
By now, we have reached one of the greatest ironies of all: the Gnostic film, far from reinforcing the abstractions of the culture industry, actually shatters these ideas through its presentations of the particular. Escaping conceptualization, the Gnostic movie becomes precisely Adorno’s sort of rebellion: an aesthetic eruption of concrete immediacy that severs untroubled connections to abstract ideology. The Gnostic picture is not an enemy of social theorists like Adorno and his followers. It is an ally in the grand revolution against the demiurges of the corporate world, those greedy purveyors of stifling abstractions and hallucinatory commodities. This sort of movie is a kinetic blur that stops the circulation of stuff.
The Sacred Cave – Not Plato’s But Eleusis
Now at the conclusion of this brooding on gnosis and film we still probably think that the idea of the movie industry as a dream factory is inadequate for capturing the negations of cinema. We also likely still believe that equating the movie house with Plato’s cave grants the flickers too much reality, gives them the quasi-substance we call shadow.
However, at the same time, in a vertiginous leap, we might well be ready to accuse the dream factory and the Platonic cave of inaccuracy for the opposite reason: to call certain movies dreams or shadows does not do justice to the vitalities they bear, their infinite expanses and eternal energies. We might wonder, in fact, if the Gnostic picture merits a cavernous description to be sure — not Plato’s chamber of hallucinations but the holy caves of Eleusis, subterranean holes in which initiates passed through flickering images to enduring power.
Though we do not know exactly what occurred during these famous rites of the ancient Greek world, we do understand that these rituals were centered on the deaths and resurrections of Persephone and Dionysius and grounded on the idea that descent into darkness and death is required for light and life, that one must suffer painful dissolution to achieve infinite consciousness. To go down into the cave in Eleusis was to undergo an intensely cinematic experience, to meditate on strange images and actions meant to rip away the ego for a moment so the energy of eternity could flow through the rocks and into the naked soul.10
Although the secret cave ceremonies of Eleusis, early Gnostic cinema, were overtly based on the philosophical vision of Pythagoras—his theory of a soul imprisoned in a body— these dark rituals proved rather recent incarnations of the primal films shown in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, Chavet Pont d’Arc, and Cussac: quivering bison and horses and mammoths on the most profound walls of the cavern. Little but scale separates the primordial cinemas of Cussac and Eleusis from the famous movie palaces of twenties, those spaces of fantasy, excess, and escape in which audiences could witness moving images in ancient tombs and temples.
Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, opened in Hollywood in 1923 — the same year the crypt of Tutankhamen was discovered — featured four hieroglyph-covered columns framing the screen, an auditorium fiddled with sphinxes and scarabs, a ceiling bursting with strange pictographs. Cornelius and George Rapp’s Oriental Theater, first opening its doors in Chicago in 1926, constituted an Eastern paradise, a blend of Islamic and Buddhist imagery, including gorgeous domes and shimmering Buddhas. The Mayan Theater of Morgan, Walls, and Clements, completed in Los Angeles in 1926, was reminiscent of an ancient Mayan temple, teeming with intricate sculptures and vivid paintings.11
These and many other such spaces of the twenties and thirties were obviously designed to seduce audiences. Builders hoped that fantasies of oriental sensualism would get customers in the door to consume other kinds of reverie—the packaged dreams of the cinema. These architectural spectacles betokened the very worst of American capitalism — the exploitation of other cultures for financial gain.
Perhaps underneath this crass materialism and vulgar imperialism, however, lurked stranger energies, the same forces that led the prehistoric shamans of Lascaux to paint mammoths in the cave, that inspired the priests of Eleusis to choose caverns for their rituals. Possibly, the builders of these twentieth-century monstrosities were expressing an enduring archetype: the idea that transformative visions of the spiritual plenitude, the perfect human being, the miracle of metamorphosis, best occur in outlandish spaces untainted by habit, where for a moment one can set aside the ego and experience the immensities of the universe.
How quickly, with the slight turn of an eye, can the labyrinth, the deceptive maze harboring the deadly Minotaur, turn into the mandala, a symbolic geometry of wholeness, one and many gathered. The same abrupt conversion in sight can transform the cave of Plato into the cavern of Eleusis, the tomb of knowledge into the womb of everlasting life. This same optical metamorphosis, sometimes no more than a tilt of the head or a slight fever, can transmute the commercial cinema from a den of iniquity into a temple of virtue. The Gnostic films capable of causing this conversion must be as sly as Mercurius, the great shape-shifter of alchemical lore. They keep the corporate clergy sedated and manifest the standards of the status quo. At the same time, they erase these conventions, and leave behind those horrors that kill rigid men but generate fluid adepts.
1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 2:5-6.
2. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” 217-52.
3. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic, 33. 52.
3. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 176-77.
4. Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets, 1-24.
5. William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose, 641. My remarks are largely informed by Northrop Frye’s still brilliant study, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake,3-30.
6. Blake, Complete Poetry and Prose, 647.
7. Ibid., 39.
8. Ibid., 2-3.
9. I am here also influenced by Frye, Fearful Symmetry, 45-48.
10. Of the many books on the Eleusinian mysteries, some of the most lucid and thorough are Carl Kerenyi’s Eleusis, Marvin W. Meyer’s The Ancient Mysteries, and S. Angus’s The Mystery Religions.
11. Three excellent studies of the golden age of theater building are Edwin Heathcote’s Cinema Builders, 11-23 ; David Naylor’s American Picture Palaces: The Architecture of Fantasy, 31-140; and David Sharp’s The Picture Palace and Other Buildings for the Movies, 69-84.