As long as man has lived there has been myth, whether to explain events, to put meaning to the seemingly arbitrary, or to divine purpose into the moments of rudderless surrender.
Our myths have moved and changed over time. this is readily the case in reference to the birth of science in relation to the vicious battle between it and religion as the final arbiter of capital T-ruth. Most recently myths have both degraded and evolved with the advent and pervasive explosion of communication technologies. We’ve come to a point in which every second has an almost compulsory need to be filled with input and simultaneously a yearning for what we think/feel in any moment to be prolifically shared and universally affirmed.
Our myths project outward, become cartoonish full of spectacle so abstract they begin to dissolve into aimlessness. Yet just as the ability to look for any specific thing will more often than not find it in multitudes, I set to not simply point to what is wrong, but what’s right.
Cinema has always been a refuge for great mythos. When done with skill and awe, film can do things that literature cannot, can immerse us in narratives that resonate with multiple senses, blending what is with what could be in a way that is both honest and false in the correct proportions. The myths I am most interested in, the ones I think are the most relevant for us in modernity are those of normal men, stories with both glorious victories and well established taboo, but ones that allow for the vast middle ground in which they intermingle and create more convincing and telling forms of engagement.
The stories that can be eluded to here be them Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Sisiphys and the boulder, or Job and his God, set the framework for characters who come face to face with things turning out much differently than they expected. They are the predecessors to those I turn to here: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Biutiful”, Terrence Malick’s “the Tree of Life,” Derek Cianfrance’s “the Place Beyond the Pines,” and a Kate Tempest’s “Brand New Ancients.”
Iñárritu crafts a narrative about a man who makes his living in the underbelly of Barcelona as a part time wayfarer for the recently deceased. After finding out he has terminal cancer, the rest of the film is more of a context for coming to grips with one’s affairs. The question is: what do we leave behind for those beholden to us, gifts and curses both and how the excruciatingly banal dramas offer us no respite even when facing certain death. The scene below opens and closes the film, its main character Uxbal, meets his father in the liminal space between death and the afterlife, and they share a brief moment before, well we don’t know and that’s the point.
However what can be taken away is a man who was in no way ready to face his death with any grace, a man who looked back and saw only failed attempts at figuring it out finally finding it in the act of giving his daughter an object, his mother’s ring, one that bequeaths legacy, rootedness, and perseverance. The woods he comes out in are pristine for a reason, just as the river styx’s waters bear a perfect midnight blue. There is no foreboding, no judgement, only a reminder that age is irrelevant, only one’s actions within their lives can stand as the testament to them.
Malick’s film is as different as it is similar to Iñárritus. Over 40 years in the making, mostly autobiographical, Tree of Life is a cyclical ode to the human epic. Most notably it is the portrait of what disappointment, strife, and heartache can do to our hearts over time. Mr O’Brien, is angry that he never made something of his music, that he’s not the man he thought he’d be and now faces losing the job he never wanted in the first place. The scene below paints those moments of dumbfounded recognition, not only when he realizes how the choices in his life have manifested but that they are now beginning to take root in his son as well.
The question is how do we handle our lives when they begin to derail, in small moments, and then larger ones made more relative yet terrible by those preceding them. When the mess is real and abounding, when we feel for the first time that things cannot simply go back to the way they were, and the time it would take to mend them is time we don’t have.
And yet Malick is a romantic at heart, and we should be grateful. For in the middle of the torment and pain the most important lesson is teased out. The two of them together come to recognize each other, not as father and son but as human beings. This is how true heroes are born, when outside of societal roles we are seen as human beings, as other people who meet us across an ocean of chaos through the bridge of unconditionality. In this moment it isn’t just a recognition of grievance but an acknowledgement of the “glory” all around them. What is shared is the possibility through their relationship and themselves to be enraptured by the very fact of their existence.
Cianfrance tells the tri-generational story of three families, and the the weight of legacy. He ask the question: what are you setting up to hand off, and what are the consequences that your progeny will have to take upon their shoulders, what does it mean when the boulder isn’t just one man’s but is chained to his entire lineage? From the opening scene of Ryan Gosling walking across the fair grounds to this final one below, we get the sense that one CAN move beyond the choices that we are seemingly bound by. The house of Atreus doesn’t have to prevail, Jason the son of Luke, chooses NOT to fall prey to the sins of his father.
Throughout the film there are heroes and villains in the most unsuspecting places, and the grit of the everyday is thick. Jason is far removed from the world that his father, for better or worse has left him. And yet the crucible prevails, in this last scene we come to a purity in which the son not only doesn’t fall prey to, but in fact negates, and purifies his past. After everything that has happened, we see him purchase a motorcycle, we see his confidence and purpose and just like that he rides off into the afternoon countryside. We aren’t given a happy ending, instead we are given in Jason an opportunity, always coming back to action. In the end there are no clean slates, only ongoing journeys.
Finally, there is a groundbreaking work from Kate Tempest in collaboration with the Battersea Arts Centre of London to produce”
“An epic spoken word performance of every day Gods, Brand New Ancients follows two South London families as their respective generations grow and intertwine into a parable of modern life. Highlighting the immortal and very real truths of love and loss, Brand New Ancients is a call to arms for the modern day hero. Set over an exhilarating live score played by tuba, cello, violin, drums and electronics, that finds the gods of today all around us and reveals that our true heroes are much closer than we think.”
These are examples of normal characters not put to extraordinary circumstances but made extraordinary by the beauty found in making due. Each reach a point either by seeking it out or by giving into a denied truth, that life with a capital L isn’t quite as pure, easily garnished, or held onto as they were told, in fact it’s only as much so as we choose to believe in and fight to maintain. There isn’t a wealth of support at the ready or often time any, their acts are not done for recognition or affirmation but because they must be done, for for their merit, without guarantees of success or failure.
They teach us that we can face death, and just as importantly life, with a sense of dignity. They teach us that we are not beholden to assumption or socially constructed burdens, that instead we can make our own way and still honor where we’ve come from. They remind us that myth is integrative, it builds upon many moments and becomes a living thing, as much an heirloom as the ring that Uxbal gives to his daughter.
It is imperative that we remind ourselves that our lives are miracles, and the act of living them, miraculous. Great biblical floods, supernatural powers, or fantastical action sequences are not prerequisites for legend or myth. In fact the more we can entice and entertain our young around fires, telling the stories of our everyday lives with the ferver of Heracles great tasks the better off we’ll be.