Sunday, June 03, 2007

“At World’s End” Really Means Something

The third installment of The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End set in the mythic world of piracy is actually a great film about today's world, the war on terrorism, and the clash of mythologies currently going on throughout humanity. At World's End is a declaration in film art every bit as relevant today as Friedrich Nietzsche's "God is Dead" was over a century ago. In fact, At World's End in its heart is the continuation of that same discussion about the slow end of that old world God mythology and the yet to be born new mythology of the post-modern post-materialist world.

Yet, many of today's reviewers are beyond their film depths as they can only wade into the shallow waters with such comments as, "incoherent," "storytelling mishmash," "without logic," "disorienting," and "unfathomable." Even reviewers like Staci Layne Wilson from who, to her credit, recognize the film is "really more about the end of an era" don't seem to know which era. By in large the reviewers fail entirely to see that At World's End succeeds, and does so wonderfully, in presenting the disorienting incoherence of today's world by the film's great coherence and orientation within the symbolic language of art.

I’m amazed at the entire industry of film critics who almost entirely review films as if they don’t mean anything. Being in the generation where I could be the younger brother of Bob Dylan or Keith Richards, I suppose there is some ability to see the reason for it. I recall those comedic media interviews with Dylan when he was drowned in the projections of an age, and he was barraged by questions about what his songs meant. He would volley with the reporters like Rosencrantz to their Gilderstern returning questions with questions and quips, or he’d just flatly deny that his songs meant anything at all, “They’re just songs, man.”

One understands that the artist is not always in the best position to perceive their own muse or what it is saying. Many artists are like trance mediums channeling their art through creative genius they themselves don’t know how to describe. Thus questions about what a piece of art means can be embarrassing because the artist him/herself doesn’t know what it means any more than anybody else. After the work is created, the artist can stand as much in awe of the work as anyone. In order to avoid the embarrassment of frank talk about the art when the artist’s ego doesn’t really have the answer to “what is the meaning/” many artists merely mumble incoherent dodges, such as that unique form of the “artist’s self-statement” in which the artist uses a vernacular so arcane and arty that it is just another smoke screen, but one that sounds like they are somehow explaining their work.

Then of course there are artists, like Andy Warhol, who deliberately played hide and seek with their meaning, being moved by a muse of a different sort. These artists are not channeling the muse, there are possessed by it and it becomes embedded in their own identity as they identify with it. But they too then have to play with the world of meaning otherwise they become mere fabricators rather than artists. Though their meaning is clear to them, as deep or as shallow as it is, if they just said it plainly the muse’s work would lose its charm and glamour in the world.

But whether or not the artist knows the meaning of the art, the muse does; and it is for the experiencer of the art to see, listen to, and touch the muse communicating through the art itself in order to discover its meaning. In this sense art speaks for itself.

But to look at film reviews today one would be hard to find a critic willing to step up to the plate and try to hit the ball of meaning in a film. There are infinite comments on the technical aspects of film, on the lighting, the directing, the acting, the amount of sex and violence, and even whether the plot turns are “understandable,” but none of that has to do with the meaning of the film. Films present the pantheon of our archetypal psychological foundations and are the living mythology of our times. It is because the living mythology stirs up the mind that many prefer to stick with the dead mythology to be found in old books and doctrines. But the life of films is the same life that our ancestors 20,000 years ago experienced sitting in the darkness of the cave around the campfire watching the light play with the dancing shadows on the screens of our minds.

Films have meaning, and it is the singular task of the film reviewer to open the discussion of that meaning in the social context. Reviewers do a disservice to their art when they think that they can or should allow the art viewer to look for meaning, or not, as they wish, as a private affair. Especially with film because of its impact in society and the enormous resources and revenues that it generates, film demonstrates its mythic hold on the awareness of a people and their society. To simply advise about the level of violence or sex in a film, to remark that the plot was hard to follow, to say that the acting was exceptionally good, to applaud innovative directing, all these are secondary values to discerning the essential meaning of a film by asking what is this film saying? Why does it exist at this time and place in our society? What is this mythology telling us about ourselves?

Virtually every film critic working today fails at this central purpose of film criticism. They function as mere fan reviews stating whether they liked a movie or not. Just reaching for technical reasons to like or not like a film doesn’t change the core quality of the review as nothing more than a film fan comment. Many fans do better at that type of review. To say that they earn their money by providing parents with enough information to know whether their children are old enough to see a film is a compete abdication of the central purpose of film reviewer: to help the viewer discover the meaning of the art, discover what the muse is saying. If the reviewer remains just a fan, enthralled by the glamour of what is portrayed on the silver screen, or mesmerized by the flickering shadows, then the reviewer has taken on the reviewer’s role whose purpose is to bring out the fecundity of film, but remains a eunuch in the attempt. By this form of self-castration the film reviewer has lost touch both with themselves and with the living muse in the film.

The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Many if not most reviewers gave the film’s first two installments above average marks, but they did so for the acting, the action, the cinematography, the special effects, the costumes, etc., not for the meaning. Of course, it was a trilogy, so one can’t blame them for not comprehending the meaning at first, but they may be faulted for not discussing where the meaning was going, for not indicating what initial portents of a fuller meaning were to be found. Of course I haven’t seem them all, but of the reviews I have seen not a one could not see past the “eye candy.”

Yet when the third installment, At World’s End, arrived, reviewers still didn’t get the meaning. Reviewer Richard Roeper is a good example. He comments, “If Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Could see the ridiculously entertaining action sequences they’d drop their swords in amazement. The sets, the costumes, the stunts, the special effects are beyond what anyone could have dreamed about during the golden age of the pirate movie.” He goes on to add that he found this to be the funniest film of the trilogy, but he also found it to be a “long, convoluted and intermittently inexplicable pirate epic. But it’s definitely worth seeing for the jaw dropping action, the doses of irreverent humor, and of course for the star power.” Roeper gives not a word to the meaning of the film.

The guest reviewer on Ebert & Roeper that night was David Edelstein, film critic for New York Magazine, who is even worse. Edelstein gives it a thumbs down saying “all those people from those old movies would go, ‘Oh my god, these people can’t tell a story.’ Now of course I understood it all....NOT!” Edelstein admits that neither he nor his 9 year old knew what was going on. By this admission Edelstein shows he has no business critiquing films other than on the basis of childish fan commentary.

The collection of reviewer comments at Rotten Tomatoes shows the complete lack of the reviewers’ recognition of meaning. Rob Vaux of Flipside Magazine dares to say “Betrayal, unfortunately, is the most apt word for At World's End. Betrayal of purpose, and of promise, and of the grand, glorious finale that everyone wanted so dearly to see.” However, it is Mr. Vaux who betrays his profession by being illiterate in the language of imagery.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone is another reviewer who is lost to meaning and blames it on the movie maker’s “incoherence” instead of on his own inability to search for meaning and understand the language of mythology and image. Travers goes so far at to say “Producer Jerry Bruckheimer does deserve a shout out: It takes a kind of genius to sucker audiences into repeatedly buying the same party tricks.” Travers review is a proverbial demonstration of the deaf and blind claiming there is nothing to see or hear.

Roeper agrees with Edelstein (and Travers) that the film “is kind of a mess” and there were times that he had “no idea why some of these people who now seemed to be good guys, and they used to be bad guys, or which evil British India Trading soldier guy is a good guy or a bad guy, but I mean really, if you’re going to the Pirates Trilogy for story, that’s insane. It’s all about the action and the excitement and the relationship. And I think on those counts it delivers.”

In my view it is Roeper who is ignorant if not "insane" to be going to movies for their visceral entertainment only. He is more of a ghost than any of the characters in the Pirates trilogy. Both Roeper and Edelstein completely miss the coherent story within, as well as the meaning of, At World’s End. A fan interview on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show got closer to the truth of this film by asking, “What is going on with all these gang banger pirates being made into the funny good guys?”

At World’s End portrays today’s reality in a meaningful way. It does so in two ways, in a horizontal dimension of social political reality and in a vertical dimension of the psychological and spiritual realities. Horizontally, it is essentially about the phony war on terrorism and the current environment that the attitude towards “terrorism” creates and reflects. It is probably because no one today looks at meaning in films that this film was able to be made and to get made by the Disney Corporation. The “bad guys”.in this film are the transnational corporations protected by the Imperial power. The “good guys” are the people fighting the corporation called pirates or terrorists, and the independents who fall in with them. That Roeper and Edelstein had trouble following who was a “good guy” or a “bad guy” at any particular moment is not a negative, it is merely an accurate reflection of the machinations that go on in real life, for example, when one year Osama bin Laden is the USA protege against a common foe and the next year he becomes evil incarnate.

At World’s End is a film that depicts today’s politics which are clearly at wit’s end when one looks at them with an eye to following any threads of integrity among the political players of today. The Bush administration is accurately portrayed through Lord Beckett’s deceit and use of torture. The opening scene of people being marched to the gallows should have been the tip off that something mythological is going on here. Yet, when a boy is hanged, some moralistic reviewers were repulsed and couldn’t sustain any interest in the film thereafter. But moral indignation of the killing of that boy is exactly the point of the film’s muse. Rather than be repulsed at the film makers for putting the scene into the reel story, a reviewer needs to ask why are we not repulsed by such child killings in real life, where we easily accept the killing of children once we label them “terrorists” or “killers”? Such is the hypocrisy of reviewers who are blind to the living meaning of film.

Mary Ann Johanson, the flick filosopher, is one of the few film reviewers who actually perceives the horizontal dimension saying, "It’s Guantanamo Bay in the Caribbean as At World’s End opens." Johanson also recognizes that the Great Mickey Trading Company, Disney, has "cast itself as villain." Ironically, Disney gets the last laugh of taking millions to the bank with a film that portrays it as the bad guy. Fortunately for Disney, since most reviewers are so adverse to meaning, most film reviews havn't mentioned this aspect with anything approaching the insight of Johanson. But I suspect that this view of corporations is clear to many more of the audiences (if not the reviewers) than Disney would prefer.

The vertical dimension needs to be seen and appreciated as well. Today we hear about the war on terrorism as a “clash of civilizations”, yet Joseph Campbell was more accurate in stating that the clash is about the current mythologies that have become outdated attempting to prevent the emergence of a new mythology as much as their clash with each other. We are at the world's end and the world that is ending is the dominance of the current mythology. The mythologies of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam warring with each other in the Middle East are all three faces of a patriarchal Father War God who had conquered the power of the matriarchal nature Goddess of the geographical areas of their conquest. The fundamentalists of these religions seek the abortion of the birth of a new pluralistic mythology as much as they are in conflict with each other. This confusion is also accurately portrayed in the film by the shifting allegiances between all the parties trying to get an advantage for themselves. It is unfortunate that the meaning of this realistic degree of shifting complexity goes unnoticed and actually is used against the film by reviewers like Roeper and Edelstein.

At World’s End shows this underlying conflict between the Corporate Imperial power and the Pirates’ power (as well as the conflicts between the Pirates themselves) and the independents represented by Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, all as being within the larger context of the current mythology that has succeeded because of the repression of an even older mythology has been captured and kept trapped in human form by today’s Father-God mythology. At World’s End doesn’t say let’s continue to worship the Father-God and His ways which leads to this corporate greed. At World’s End says in order to find our way in this new world and way of things, it is time to release the female Goddess from her entrapment in human form. This is the essential meaning of the film.

It is not that people should return to Goddess worship, but that, in order for a new balance to be gained and for a new mythology to be discovered, the older mythology must be reclaimed and released back into our nature. In other words, to find the new mythology of the new world, we have to recognize all the archetypal forces within our mind and heart and not keep one archetype in bondage and service to another. This fixation of the archetypes in patriarchal moralism is a core component of fascism in whatever guise it takes, the dictatorship of Transnational Corporatism or the factional petty powers of Piracy (e.g., Christians, Jews, and Muslims).

The other dimension of archetypal fixation in the film is the capture of Davy Jones’s heart which puts him and his ship The Flying Dutchman under the control of the Imperial Corporation. This is an interesting point. This shows how materialism (the East India Co.) gains control of the spiritual life, by the corruption of the spiritual life when the spiritual life betrays itself and acts to entrap the feminine. Calypso, the sea Goddess, was captured because of the betrayal by Davy Jones who had at one time been her lover (i.e., devotee) when Jones told the Pirate Lords how to trap her in human form. This portrays how spirituality (including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) has trapped the feminine archetypes in their mundane forms and elevated only the Father to chief spiritual status, but it is this process of entrapment of the feminine by these forms of spirituality that leads to the entrapment of spirituality itself by materialism.

Every so often a film comes along that uses the language of mythology to reflect accurately upon the social, psychological, and mythological issues of the day. The muse speaking through At World’s End has done just this. It is an important film series that, contrary to Roeper, does tell the story of our time. Going to the cinema for the action, the excitement, and the relationships as Roeper and most reviewers do only trivializes film and the life portrayed in film. Whether or not one sees the meaning of At World’s End as I have described it, and there is much more to the films imagery than I have discussed here, the important point for awareness and our society is that we ask what is the meaning of the film, and come to some consummation about that in our own minds. To simply say that art, and films in particular, have no meaning is to demean art and turn it into mere decoration. That is turning live art into ghost art. Bringing the life back into art by appreciation of its living mythology is going to the world’s end and rescuing Jack Sparrow from Davy Jones’ locker. And what a wonderful adventure that is.

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