Shamanism in Cinema

Immediately upon their introduction, motion pictures were associated with magic and played along side traditional, theatrical magic performances. An early movie projector prototype was called the “magic lantern.” Now that we’ve been exposed to the technology for a hundred years, the supernatural sheen has worn off, but does that mean that magic has vanished from the movies? I don’t think so.

The invention of motion pictures had nothing to do with conjuring, sorcery or hocus-pocus. Its pioneers were grounded in mechanical engineering, chemistry, the physics of light, etc., but as soon as their ingenious inventions reached the masses magicians began to pump fog into their shadows and investors eagerly backed them.

Let us search for differences later and look at the similarities between magic acts and movies now. Both seem to control time and space, both depend on a strategy or script, both manipulate the attention of crowds. Movies achieve illusions with props, sets and actors. Magic utilizes fetish, ritual space and disembodied spirits. Both are offshoots of the much older art form storytelling.

Cinema is a culture of the lens. It frames for us our deepest fears, highest hopes and most far-flung dreams. Magic is a culture of illusion but juggles the same subjects. Socially speaking, any good story leaps cultural and political divides. Because movies can reach any human who possesses at least one good eye, they provide a virtual common experience for the entire human race.

The origin of the word “blockbuster” in show business parlance describes financial success, the status awarded to a motion picture that breaks box office records, but let us acknowledge how those movies serve to bust through perceptual blocks of the audience at large. When blockbusters like ”Star Wars,” “The Matrix,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Avatar” seep through global cultural boundaries, they penetrate social, geographical, religious and cultural strongholds, uniting the entire planet through a single story. If that’s not magic, what is?

Hold that thought and now let’s look at how pre-cinema cultures performed works of magic as a form of social medicine. Dr. Dennis Tedlock, renowned writer, teacher and anthropologist, in his essay “The Shaman as Magician,” discusses magic with a Zuni Indian guide. The natives of that remote southwest Indian Pueblo in New Mexico give a name to magic that corresponds to the seeping of something through one surface to another such as when rain oozes through a mud roof.

Notice how the Zuni word for magic describes ordinary process in the ordinary world. The term leaves no room for the uncanny, however, “all of these Zuni tricks, unlike those of stage magicians, have a purpose, a meaning that goes beyond trickery as such,” says Tedlock. He goes on to explain how the Zuni embrace folk magic for the ability to restore curiosity and wonderment in the community and for occasionally triggering spontaneous healing for its members. How could such a human contrivance as “magic” be responsible for physical healing?

Psychologists have proven not all illnesses originate in the physical body. Physical symptoms can be a result of clogged emotions and distorted perceptions. In such cases, health can often be restored through a mix of emotional catharsis, identifying, releasing and changing limiting beliefs. The challenge that shamans and faith healers face, in assisting with cures, is to interrupt the self-imposed limitations of their patients by presenting evidence of unlimited possibilities. I’m inclined to think modern stage and movie tricks soak down through the surface of our imaginations in a similar way to folk magic, and can compel positive changes in our bodies, minds, and spirits as well.

Like most modern film audiences, the Zuni are hip to the illusion and slight of hand of its shamans, but neither do they deny their healing value. Illnesses may not always curable with drugs and surgery, sometimes they’re just controlled with them. Real cures require total responsibility from the patient. A good shaman seeks to inspire total involvement, just as a good filmmaker does.

A movie camera is simply a clock with a lens.

Many vaudeville and cabaret illusionists were among the first to nurture film in its infancy, but let a professional trickster from France named Georges Jean Méliés be named first magician of motion pictures. He delivered audiences into the modern age mastering motion photography as his modus operandi. Anyone who wishes to travel back in time can meet the master.

He never claimed to be anything but a showman and frowned on any practitioner peddling the paranormal, but that is not to say that Méliés wasn’t serious about casting a spell. He was practiced at the art of shape shifting, among other things, where, in “The Conjurer” (1899), for example, we see a ballerina transform into a cascade of confetti. Then the conjurer himself turns into the ballerina and back again. Finally, he disappears in a cloud of smoke. Poof! Go ahead, try that at home.

Since motion pictures and magic tricks both blend the past, present and future, I’m going to propose that a movie camera is simply a clock with a lens for capturing time on celluloid. The thought first occurred when I learned Méliés was a clockmaker. It makes sense that a man well versed in its measurements would discover how to exploit it. Ironically, Méliés had the time trade in common with two other prominent magicians. Robert Houdin (from whom The Great Houdini took his name) and Houdin’s top rival, John Nevil Maskelyne.

Another interesting intersection took place when Méliés purchased Houdin’s theater in Paris. It was the dawn of the last century. Let that date and address mark the precise coordinate point where live magic performances morphed into motion picture presentations. Here, a clockmaker turned himself into a ghost and, with the advent of a new kind of mass hypnosis, generated the first special effects blockbuster grosses.

Méliés could have lost them entirely when he closed his popular live act and swapped it with a fake, but unprecedented crowds craved the new counterfeit variety and endowed the celluloid master with even greater notoriety.

Global distribution networks grew up exclusively to accommodate Méliés’ fame. His status went viral long before the web, before television or even radio. I’m not overstating when I say, the stalk that morphed into the information age, which links our globe today, sprouted partly from Msr. George Jean Méliés.

Let us examine this feat from the viewpoint of a practitioner of the magic arts. Vanishing into motion pictures, Méliés literally made his body disappear from the stage, leaving behind an immortal double with striking charisma and prodigious powers.

Like those clocks before, Méliés toyed with his audience now. Instead of springs, gears and trip mechanisms, he tinkered with human reasoning, response and reaction. An overflowing auditorium enabled the master to develop considerable finesse. Science and art became partners to help make Méliés a grand success.

The fraction of Méliés films that survive today are a treasure of early motion picture tricks. Effects of Méliés’ devising can be found in films that come afterword, from the early years all the way up to today. “The Wizard of Oz” throws a farmhouse up inside a tornado’s eye. The optical printing technique used for that sequence, can be observed 37 years earlier in Méliés 1902 film “L’homme à la tête de Caoutchouc.”

But it is not only his trickery that is imitated. His elaborate set designs from “Le Voyage Dans la Lune” was lifted for some of the of Hogwarts set in the “Harry Potter” series as well, so Méliés magnetism remains undisputed to this day.

While Méliés the man faded into semi-obscurity even before his life was over, his work has been digested and assimilated by succeeding generations, turning up in films made by the likes of Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Anger, George Lucas and Peter Jackson to name a few.

A disembodied entity, based upon Méliés life, is played by Ben Kingsley in the 2011 3D masterwork “Hugo.” This is an unparalleled achievement in the history of the magic arts. The master managed to have himself resurrected in 3D, in the present day, with the assistance of modern movie wizard Martin Scorcese. Thank you Marty. Long live Msr. George Jean Méliés.

By now, movies have documented the work of magician, wizard, sorcerer, jongleur, Jedi, witch, warlock, and conjurer. We’ve observed them practice with strange mystical attraction in supernatural settings beyond the far horizon.

These all represent literal examples of magic in the movies, but what about the role of the movie maker as modern shaman in the present day? A shaman is a healer, teacher and keeper of medicine in any society with which they identify. Filmmaker as shaman is the next subject examined as the magic in movies series continues in April on

Cooking Up a Surprise

In his 1958 dark comedy, “The Magician” Ingmar Bergman makes comparisons between his experiences as a movie maker, and the adventures of an itinerant magic troupe from the 1840’s headed by Dr. Albert Emmanuel Vogler.  An interesting side note: from about the middle of the 19th century to the turn of the 20th, my family trekked across America’s heartland with their big top show called The Eells Family Circus, replete with snake charmer, contortionist and disappearing act, so Bergman’s movie hits close to home.

Traveling entertainment became popular a few thousand years before the printing press and was an early form of mass media. Storytellers, from acting troupes and solo troubadours to freaks and medicine shows, were prime sources of information and culture for the common folk. In Bergman’s film, Vogler and a handful of collaborators are on a tour of neighboring lands. As the story opens, we encounter magician and crew, down on their luck, working their way home.

On well-worn tracks wanders the enigmatic Vogler and his ragamuffin regiment, calling themselves the “Magnetic Health Theater”. Our magician arrives by carriage to the latest village. His reputation has preceded him. Disturbing reports from the south suggest the stranger may exert an unsavory influence.

A bewigged police chief and monocle-ed coroner interrogate Bergman’s hero on suspicion of skullduggery. Vogler pretends to be mute, while his wife presents herself cross-dressed as his manservant. Vogler provokes a good deal of suspicion by playing games but also avoids having to answer their awkward questions. Bergman, the filmmaker, is demonstrating the importance of silence and obfuscation in spinning a good yarn.

Through their own projections, conscious and unconscious, it seems that everyone becomes part of Vogler’s web.  That includes us, the audience, but only for awhile. In act one we are left in the dark. By the time Vogler starts his manipulation in earnest we are allowed to watch behind the screen. In the third act, by showing the audience more than all the other characters but not as much as the magician himself, Bergman manages to bamboozle us once more.

The most magical moment for me is when an itinerant actor, whom Vogler regards with great tenderness and respect, dies in the opening scene and appears quite alive again in the third act, only to die for real this time in Vogler’s arms. The magician manages to fulfill the dead fool’s dying wish by weaving him into his web of illusion.

Bergman, the storyteller, displays a knack for cooking up surprise, so that in this moment, we cannot tell that we are observing a secret. From the outset, the story keeps us off balance making sure our expectations are continuously upended as we watch the game played out. Things only add up after the spell is broken.

Of course the magician’s luck has improved by the end. This is a comedy after all. By the time Bergman’s film is over, his magician is summoned to the court to entertain the King and Queen–an obvious promotion, but we’ll never know the fate of the magician after that. Perhaps he went on to become a movie director in the dawn of cinema.  One of Dr.Vogler’s contemporaries was motion pictures’ first great pioneer. I mentioned his name in the last post. He will be the subject up next.

Magic and Movies – Part 1

This begins a multi-part series on magic and movies. Does magic really exist? If so, what is its definition and who are its practitioners?

The digital reproduction above comes close to being, itself, a kind of magic spell by depicting the famous encounter between Circe the sorceress and Ulysses, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. The painter’s treatment of his subject is an example of the kind of visual tour de force that storytelling artists were able to draw on and enchant motion picture audiences with as soon as they were invented.

This type of painting makes use of our imaginations the same way as movies do, which is to prompt us to fill in essential information that is left out of view. In order to help his audience fill in the missing story with strictly visual cues, a pictorial storyteller must exercise complete control over the frame. The same goes with a magic spell or enchantment.

Whether attempted by a painter, filmmaker, magician or any other artist, a well-performed trick keeps our reasoning brain busy while it plays with our subconscious. Film appears to defy nature’s laws by shaping the action at 24 frames per second. Magicians can swap sets and props to string together a series of illusory events. Painters have only a single canvas with which to cast their spell, but we can study it for as long as we wish.

The convenience of being able to freeze the action in painting will give me an opportunity to read into every detail of Waterhouse’s interpretation of Homer and see if we can dodge Circe’s trap.

To be effective a spell or enchantment must be worked out in intricate detail. In “Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses,” we see a gorgeous woman garbed in silvery gauze, seated on some kind of throne. Sunlight accentuates her left breast–a rosy nipple peeks out over the sharply slanted whisper of her gown. On a totemic footstool, her naked toes bathe in the sunbeam with her breast. On the floor to her left is an intoxicated swine–one of Ulysses companions that drank from Circe’s cup. A wary Ulysses, which you will detect in the circular glass that comprises Circe’s backrest, stands before the sorceress. He appears behind her in the mirror, like he is bowing to her breast.

Her face tilts back in a wily, come-hither gaze while she raises the potion in her right hand and steadies a long wand over her head with her left.  Gold-cupped incense fumes waft up from lower right toward the raised-cup in the upper left.  Her forty-five degree neckline ups this rapport. The painter invites us to notice how these details combine to stupefy Circe’s subject with multi-sensual assault.

Supported on the backs of roaring lions, each with a serpent coiled around its neck, the painter poises the sorceress, literally, between the man and his reflection. She reigns there on her altar, capturing his eye, her ready cup and rod held high. Classic columns fill in the glass, interspersed with shards of Aegean sky.

Circe’s leonine throne recalls the wild cats Ulysses encountered outside, wandering her domain. They were strangely tame and approachable, having been drugged by this demonic dame. So the painter manages to articulate the essential mark of a good magician, who begins weaving his or her spell even before the audience has entered the dark. Let us not overlook the profusion of purple flowers tumbled down from the diabolic shadows. No doubt this is the wicked herb. It looks so fragrant and appealing.

I have left out, until now, the erotic charge of the image. It portrays a naked woman most desirably and represents a clear case of high-class smut. Sexually stimulating paintings, for the past 500 years, have been socially accepted in the west. Why? Their ability to arouse and enchant is highly prized.  If you wore the fashions of The Guilded Age, long before porn went pop, this picture could put you in touch with your passion, provoking potent and inspired thoughts.

Even today, if your imagination is given to flights, you might readily put yourself in this scene with a keen thirst for her drink and the aftertaste of regret. For it is quite intentionally the same moment when you will be close enough to appraise her exquisite skin, navel, knees, hips. Voila! Are we swine yet?

The circular censor and tiled rings repeat the cup and mirror in shape and theme. Graduating circles emblemize the enclenching cinch of Circe’s ingenious scheme.  Notice too the stoop that raises her above the rabble has a radial indent, to impress upon us one more way that we are ensnared already by her intent.

Now she may be imposing her illusion on you and me, but Ulysses was warned about Circe’s treachery. He has drugged himself to resist her with the Holy Moly.  Holy Moly!  To this day, when we see something unexplainable, those two words are sometimes exclaimed.  It stems from ancient superstition, invoking the antidote with which Ulysses foiled Circe’s aims.

With that in mind, there is a peculiar detail in the upper right corner–a very important feature of the painting–that slice of light above the sorceress’s left hand. Why that shape in that position? It appears most distractingly strong up there in the darkest zone of the composition and makes her hand look deformed, projecting from it like a dagger or a talon.

Why did the artist paint that? Why there? What are we looking at? He fails to completely conceal some background behind a large curtain or tapestry which subtly dilutes the illusion of Circe’s magic trap.

We can escape the fate of Ulysses friends, through this brilliant detail, in which the set is left slightly open for us to see, so that we don’t fall victim to Circe’s spell. Ulysses sees through her deception and anyone who finds this antidote in the painting can too and avoid becoming plump, languid and jowly with a snout and a squiggly tale. That little up thrust dagger of light becomes our counter-spell.

Needless to say, this is superb pictorial storytelling. It took more than 800 words for me to briefly make plain the narrative evident in one single pass over Waterhouse’s exquisite frame. We will have to leave it now in order to take Homer’s allegory to it’s logical extreme, but we’ll take it up again in a subseqeunt part of this series in which we introduce the first magician of motion pictures, Georges Jean Méliés.

To conclude the tale, when Ulysses leans over to sip the potion, Circe taps him with her wand and is shocked when he does not go porcine. Since he can resist Circe, her yearning for Ulysses grows. Swine are turned back into soldiers. Circe now moves to Ulysses’ tune. His men stay on her island with him for a year, eating, drinking, and nursing their wounds.

By the end of the stay they are such good friends Circe sends her lover to seek council from the ghost of the prophet Teirisias in the underworld. She wants Ulysses to avoid certain pitfalls that await him on his way home.

When I recalled this episode of the Odyssey and decided to explore it as an allegory for connecting motion pictures to magic acts, I had forgotten about the Holy Moly. It ends up providing the perfect metaphor for how movies themselves are the antidote to the many spells of our modern day.