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October 1997, Week 3


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Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
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Thu, 16 Oct 1997 10:48:50 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (200 lines)
Mike Frank forwards:
>         I find that many American movies of the last twenty years or so,
> which depict an encounter with supernatural phenomena (e.g., Close Encounters,
> E.T., Contact, maybe 2001) tend to suggest the possibility of the supernatural
> offering an experience of transcendent redemption:  In each of these movies
> something fantastic arrives from far away, from the future, or from another
> dimension, equipped with superior intelligence, technology,  and --more
> important--sensitivity, and releases the characters in the film, and thereby
> the audience in the theater as well, from the intolerable or meaningless
> or repressive existence they have known. By contrast, encounters
> with the supernatural in American films of the 1930s and 40s like It's
> a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz seem to convey the message that in
> fact American life as we know it is just fine, and that when it comes
> down to it there really is no place like home.
>         Can you suggest any additional films that would serve as good
> examples of this contrast, or, if necessary, films that tend to undermine it
> and show that a desire for transcendence was as common fifty years ago as it
> seems to be today?   In addition, do you know of any secondary texts
> that explore this topic, or related topics?
>         Michael Sugarman
This is an interesting observation, although I think it has to be
tempered by considerations of the motives and motifs of individual
directors, the directives of the Production Code (and the Code's later
disappearance), and particular social phemonema of the times.  The
examples that you cite mostly involved some form of non-human
intervention to achieve transcendence but there are other types as
For example, there is Romantic transcendence involving a psychic
transformation of the character, sometimes involving an apparent
"supernatural" or "paranormal" experience--PETER IBBETSON comes to mind
as one example from the 1930s.
On the other hand, there is Existential transcendence in which an
isolated individual achieves some kind of personal apotheosis--this
seems to be a motif in some crime/gangster films, even when the
protagonist achieves that apotheosis through self-destruction. HIGH
SIERRA and WHITE HEAT suggest themselves as examples.
Although he cites few films that are diretly of these types, Peter
Biskind's take on films of the 1950s in SEEING IS BELIEVING might offer
some further food for thought.
Anyway, just from glancing at various Oscar nominees over the years (no
more arbitrary than most other lists), here some other titles that seem
MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (transcendence through self-sacrifice: Thomas
Pynchon plays off this image in relation to the death of Dillinger in
THE DARK ANGEL (more self-sacrifice)
THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR (and other biopics of literary,
political and scientific figures who become "heroes" as
transcendental role models from Emile Zola to Madame Curie)
LOST HORIZON--which finds redemption in Shangri-La but implies that its
principles can be found elsewhere with effort (but that's a Capra film,
of course)
A STAR IS BORN and STELLA DALLAS--More self-sacrifice (of husband for
wife and mother for daughter, respectively)
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN--Transcendence as Recognition of Destiny (see the
famous CAHIERS DU CINEMA analysis for more!)
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (with Fonda's Tom Joad taking up the
Christ-redemptor role from John Carradine)
OUR TOWN--the "ordinary" as part of the Grand Pattern of Life, Time and
HERE COMES MR. JORDAN--an especially interesting film that seems to
play your two trends off against each other.  You might compare how
Powell and Pressburger deal with somewhat similar matter in STAIRWAY TO
THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES--another heroic biopic
THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (there's actually a whole subcategory of such
specifically religiously-oriented films that do involve contact with
the supernatural, but mainly to convine humanity to mend its ways)
THE RAZOR'S EDGE--Transcendence in the Wisdom of the Mystic East (might
be interesting to compare to the recent spate of movies about Tibetan
Buddhism--from LITTLE BUDDHA to 7 YEARS IN TIBET and Scorsese's
forthcoming KUNDUN)
THE KILLERS (and other works based on Hemingway)--transcendence by
adherence to the existential Hemingway Code
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET--a good example of the "no place like home" theme
A LETTER TO THREE WIVES--If the disembodied voice of the temptress
Celeste Holme is "supernatural," then the film still proves there's no
place like home
THE MAGNIFICENT YANKEE--another Heroic Biopic
HARVEY--The exception that proves the rule?
MOULIN ROUGE--Transcendence through Art.  See the death scene at the
end, especially.
THE GLEN MILLER STORY--Transcendence of the Ordinary through Music (see
also THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY, but Goodman did not die for us)
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS--and other religious epics.  Also see THE NEXT
VOICE YOU HEAR, in which Nancy Davis (Reagan) hears God's voice over
the radio.
LUST FOR LIFE, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, etc.--more Apotheosis through
BECKET--interesting combination of Relgious with Existential Apotheosis
MORGAN!--Ironic transcendence through madness?
(also compare Fellini's JULIET OF THE SPIRITS)
COOL HAND LUKE--another Christ figure
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE--Ironic transcendence?  There's no place like home,
THE RULING CLASS--Ironic transcendence of a Christ figure
THE EXORCIST--actually we could go back at least to ROSEMARY'S BABY to
see the contact with the supernatural theme in relation to the Devil
himself, and of course that's been a genre of its own ever since
TOMMY and ALTERED STATES--Ken Russell proposing sensory deprivation as
a route to True Knowledge
The "Force" in the STAR WARS films seems less a route to transcendence
than to effective action.  Might be an interesting contrast to ET and
SUPERMAN--Knowledge of Kryptonian society still proves there's no place
like Metropolis (It will be interesting to see how Tim Burton and
Nicholas Cage twist the story next year)
ALL THAT JAZZ--Apotheosis of an artist through self-discovery and
acceptance of death
THE ELEPHANT MAN--likewise (sort of)
RESURRECTION--Encounter with the Afterlife leads to transcendent
Healing Powers.  See how John Travolta embodied a similar theme
recently in PHENOMENON (if I recall the title correctly) and MICHAEL
ZELIG and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY, among other Woody Allen
films, offer Ironic Transcendence
A PASSAGE TO INDIA--Forster's uncertain contact with the unknown in the
Marabar Caves
PLACE IN THE HEART--See the last scene for the return of the No Place
Like Home theme!
AGNES OF GOD takes an unusual twist on the possibility of contact with
the supernatural--Think of Kris Kringle in MIRACLE ON 34TH ST. accused
of being a child molester!
FIELD OF DREAMS--There's No Place Like Home Base?
GHOST--Another version of the HERE COMES MR. JORDAN theme
BARTON FINK, THE FISHER KING--Different kinds of ironic apotheoses
and so on.
Of course, many of the genres and themes mentioned above continue to
the present and have other representative examples.
I hope that's of some help and not just confusion!
Don Larsson
Donald Larsson, Mankato State U (MN)
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