Pagan Cinema I: The Establishment

The folks who have been producing ‘Another Pagan Podcast‘ spent episode 24 talking about cinema and paganism: which films pagans should and definitely should not see. The conversation was so enjoyable that I instantly started thinking about my own choices for these lists.

After thinking about it, I’ve come up with a top ten list of films that I believe 1) evince a pagan perspective and 2) are edifying to the pagan mind. My criteria are simply that a film needs to express a pagan viewpoint and needs to be of good quality according to my own sensibilities. You will notice that I’ve not included films that simply have a mystical or medieval feel to them.

My Top Ten Pagan Films:

10. Excalibur (1981)

John Boorman’s adaptation of Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur is actually one of my favourite movies. It evinces a pagan veneration of the Earth through its equation of Arthur with the land and all reality with ‘The Dragon.’ It all hinges on the conflict between the divine calling of kingship and what would otherwise become a polyamorous relationship between Arthur, Gwynevere and Lancelot. Arthur’s character is torn between his desire for a mortal life with Gwynevere and his calling to become the Jungian archetype of the King. The quest for the grail thus becomes a quest for Arthur’s strength — a strength that hinges on his knowledge of his social role. It only occupies the tenth place because 1) its basis, Mallory’s book, is a thoroughly Christian tale in which the grail is a symbol of the supernatural mystery of the Christian mass and 2) it’s pretty dated.

9. The Last Unicorn (1982)

Another one of my favourites, The Last Unicorn is Rankin Bass’ animated feature film starring Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, and Christopher Lee, with Angela Lansbury in a minor role. The plot centres around a unicorn who, discovering that the haunted and obsessive King Haggard has trapped all the unicorns of the world, must free them by overcoming the mindless brutality of the ghostly Red Bull. The story, written by Peter S. Beagle who also wrote the screenplay, defies the typical conceit of fantasy by subtly breaching its pseudo-medieval setting and centres around the nature of humanity as something which invariably yearns for wonder and glory: precisely what unicorns represent and manifest. I include it here because it actually winds up crossing so many borders, representing reality as a complex rite of initiation in which not everyone succeeds.

8. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Another of my favourites, I include this here because it is predicated on the idea that there are these different realms that impinge on our reality at seasonal festivals. Each has its own king and you can move between these ‘Holiday Worlds of Old’ by traveling through sacred trees.

It’s a little pagan.

It also addresses the basic need for these festivals and their realms, i.e. the necessity for seasonal mythology that goes beyond explaining why the world is the way it is. Too often have our ancestors’ rites been interpreted as attempts to ensure the rising of the sun or the return of Spring, as if they did not know that the world moved through cycles. Without even trying, Burton’s film gives us a vision of the world behind the world, the one with which our cycles engage us. These Holiday Worlds are, in my opinion, spiritual realms very much like the Sídhean of Celtic mythology, but they go further in that they represent spiritual realities that meet in our world, their influences waxing and waning as the year turns.

7. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Terry Gilliam’s adventure with one of my favourite early modern characters is really a treatise on the importance and power of narrative, telling how stories shape the world. It is a devious little movie that delivers an enormous message by disguising it as a quaint little fantasy. I see it as mirroring a polytheistic view because it defies and undermines our modern insistence on a monolithic, unitive and thereby objective reality, insisting that what we experience as reality is a kind of disruption pattern formed by the confluence of all our own, private stories.

See? I told you it was devious.

6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Ok, before you think I am crazy, you have to really know this film to get where I am going with it. At its very beginning we are looking out into the heavens, and two galaxies start speaking to each other, discussing one George Bailey (note the combination of a Germanic forename and an Irish surname). One is called ‘Joseph’ but the other is never actually named, though they are both referred to on IMDB as ‘Senior Angels.’ The goodness of George’s life is then reviewed so that a new angel, Clarence who died just after the American Civil War, may know how to save him from committing suicide. This goodness is rooted in his selfless commitment to supporting his community and family at the expense of his own dreams. Suffering a sudden calamity in which all he has done seems meaningless, he contemplates committing suicide. Clarence intervenes and shows him what the town would be like had he never been born.

So why is it pagan, you ask?

George’s selflessness is perfectly in line with the Greco-Roman ideal of pietas: a blending of humility before the gods and social duty. His dreams are of exploring and building, and so his sacrifice is not for the sake of a transcendent divinity or even ideal but for the practical welfare of his people. More importantly, the world of the film is not intrinsically monotheistic. Divinity is manifested as a plurality of consciousnesses in hierarchy that are mapped onto celestial bodies and phenomena. At least some were once human and ascended, so the movie allows for both the gods and veneration of our ancestors. George prays to “God,” but it is never clear that it is the Christian god who hears and takes action.

Now I have no doubt that the filmmakers were thinking in terms of popular Christianity, but I would argue that popular Christianity is far more pagan than just about anything else. The muses, at any rate, often slip much under the radar. Why else would George’s last name be ‘Bailey,’ an Anglicization of the Irish word for town: baile? George is Bedford Falls, and his selflessness and sense of proper justice, his fír flathemon, makes him de facto king in the Old Irish sense.

5. Troy (2004)

A lot of people did not like Troy. I guess I can see why. It was very glitzy, and Brad Pitt’s Achilles was not imbued with an unrelenting machismo. Personally I thought his depiction was spot on to my vision of the Greek hero, but that’s just me.

This film is in fifth place because it has no problem depicting polytheistic cultures but shies away from depicting them as expressly as Clash of the Titans (1981: so far as I am concerned, the remake does not exist). It beats out Clash of the Titans because it comes to its milieu with more seriousness. Titans was a throwback to Jason and the Argonauts (1963) while Troy is something else. If nothing else, it was brilliant to see Cú Chulainn’s feat of the shield rim on the big screen.

4. Ring (1998)

Just in case you didn’t notice the date, I don’t mean the wretched little escapade with Naomi Watts (fine actress though she may be). The original Japanese Ring is about as pagan a film as you can get, though I believe that it owes its view to traditional Shinto in its Japanese folk-religion form. Nevertheless, it is very similar to Celtic paganism: a woman becomes pregnant by consorting with a sea-spirit, produces what I can only call a half-Fomorian daughter, and then binds her spirit to a well when she can’t take the weirdness anymore. Even the curse that falls on those who watch the video-tape smacks of a geis: ‘don’t watch this video or you will die, cursed by the spirits!’

3. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I love this film. I know that Tim Burton had no idea that he was doing it, but he has made the perfect Celtic pagan film. Complete with the cult of heads, witches in the woods and a portal into the Otherworld that opens in the side of a hill on which stands ‘The Tree of the Dead,’ Sleepy Hollow is only marred by the fact that there are no actual Celts in it (unless you count some of the actors). Washington Irving, who wrote the original ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ was not in fact telling a Dutch story, though it is true that that region of New York had many Dutch settlers there. In actuality, the area was highly populated by Scots and Irving’s own father was an émigré from Orkney — you know, Orkney: that little archipelago just off the north tip of Scotland. That’s right; Washington Irving was as Celtic as haggis (which might not be as Celtic as you might think … but I digress …). His other famous tale, ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ is a straight transplanting of Scottish fairy stories into Dutch settler culture.

2. Agora (2009)

Featuring The Mummy‘s Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in the lead of this period drama, Agora tells the story of Christianity’s rise to dominance in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, where the famous library once existed but was destroyed by an angry mob of the divine lamb’s own zealots. It’s a bitter but amazing tale of love, hope, beauty and failure all bound up in the artistic conceit of historical objectivity, a point driven home by the camera zooming into outer space at key points in the plot to give us a satellite view of the earth. I place it here on my list because it is unapologetic in its criticism of religious zealotry and Christian audacity. I would not go so far as to say that it is entirely pagan — if anything it is atheistic — but it depicts the time with more candour than I have ever seen before.

1. The Trollhunter (2010)

Originally titled Trolljegeren in its native Norwegian, this recently-released gem has quickly become one of my all-time favourites. It takes its cue from The Blair Witch Project in that a student film team comprised of two men and a woman set out to interview what seems to be a bear poacher, only to find that he actually is after … well, the clue is in the title. What puts this at the top of my list is that it unabashedly places itself in a pagan reality where trolls can actually smell the blood of Christians. It is never explained exactly why belief makes such a difference, but this is just the tip of the ontological iceberg on which this brilliant little film rests.

Two that I considered but were cut from the list were Tron (1982) and The Dragonslayer (1981). Tron might seem a strange choice to some, but the whole conceit of ‘users’ being the gods of the programs’ world is just too fascinating an idea. I also thought about The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986), but there are only ten spaces available.

Ok, now for the dumpster list: those films that you might have thought I should have included and didn’t.

1. The TV series Merlin, Camelot, Robin Hood (the most recent incarnation from the BBC) and all the other modern television shows or mini-series that have a medieval flare to them. This includes The Mists of Avalon.

The problem with these is that they aren’t really pagan in perspective. They might show a pagan sensibility here and there whether in aesthetics or social orientation, but the soul of their plots is very suburban. I should add that Robin of Sherwood is totally different and might have made it onto the Top Ten list if I could remember it better.

2. Remakes and affectionate/nostalgic throw-backs to the old monster movies: The Mummy, The Scorpion King, Van Helsing, the Wolfman etc.

The problem with these movies, even though they cite the gods and have people throwing around spells, they’re really just fantasy in the same way that Star Wars is a fantasy. I would class this as a kind of fantasy intrinsically different from The Last Unicorn because, in that movie, the plot-points are determined by the nature of humanity and its relationship to reality. In these remakes of the old monster movies, reality serves the plot-points. Some, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), are unabashedly Christian. I should note that I actually really like these movies. They just aren’t really pagan in my viewpoint.

To conclude, there are a lot of films that I love but did not make it onto the list. I am a big fan of good horror movies, and many have a pagan viewpoint but are simply too hypothetical to warrant a place. Some films that fall into this category are Rare Exports (2010), The Relic (1997), and Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983: this one came really close to getting on the list).

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3 responses to “Pagan Cinema I: The Establishment

  1. Thank you for offering such a fun exercise. These are intriguing, wonderful choices, and I’ve not heard of Trollhunter at all! I do love Excalibur. Many of Boorman’s films explored dimensions of myth and magic, even the bad ones like Zardoz. I think his Emerald Forest is both excellent and quite pagan.

    If the topic was “good pagan films” in general, there are hundreds of course. You could pick ten good ones just from the subset of magic and food (Like Water for Chocolate, Woman on Top etc.) Or just from pagan historicals, which might include The Warrior Queen (Boudicca), Pan’s Labyrinth, and King Arthur (the Clive Owen one where they are all Legionnaires and Myrddin is a pantheist). Or you could stick to literary adaptations and include Beowulf, The Wicker Man (1973 version), and Don’t Look Now. There are even plenty of pagan movies for kids such as The Dark Crystal, Three Lives of Thomasina, My Neighbor Totoro, or even The Lion King. I saw a wonderful animated film last year called The Secret of Kells, in which that most famous of illuminated manuscripts was made possible by a gift of color bestowed by nature spirits to a boy apprentice. I have to force myself to stop, but I’ll add one more for us Celtic islanders – The Secret of Roan Inish.

  2. I love ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (though the cat-bus is a little creepy). A number of the films that you mention I am not sure that I would classify as pagan: ‘The Lion King’, ‘Like Water for Chocolate,’ and ‘The Three Lives of Thomasina’ all defy a pagan view in my opinion, though I would love to be contested in this perspective.

    I love the original ‘Wicker Man’ and it is very pagan in perspective, but I was going for films that would expressly edify a pagan viewer. When all is said and done, ‘The Wicker Man’ unashamedly depicts the pagan focus on sacrifice, so I don’t see it as being as edifying as, say, ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.’ I’ve not seen ‘The Warrior Queen,’ and I’m trepidatious as I love her story but distrust modern filmmakers.

    I love ‘The Secret of Kells’, but it is VERY Christian in perspective: it privileges textual tradition, valourizes peace, and … well, it takes place in a Christian monastery and the great conflict occurs against the evil, pre-Chrsitian god, Crom Cruach! ‘The Secret of Roan Inish’ is much harder to classify.

    So you’ve forced my hand, Mikey! The title of this blog (Pagan Cinema I) belies my purpose in starting a series of posts on film and paganism. I am planning on addressing animated films (headed by ‘Princess Mononoke’) and children’s films, but I wanted to start with a general top-ten before getting into all the other subtleties.

    For the record, I cannot stand ‘King Arthur’ and most … ok, all of the ‘Beowulf’ films, and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ I don’t really think is pagan but rather a psychological fantasy.

    • I think our differences are mostly a matter of specificity of boundary ones. You were selecting best and most pagan films. I was accepting anything with pagan elements contained within a “good” film in very broad terms. Thomasina is the easiest to make a case for. It’s told from the cat’s POV, and she accepts her status as a reincarnated Egyptian deity. The most sympathetic human character is a folk medicine practitioner and empath (who the locals call a witch). She’s able to heal animals (and people) both physically and psychologically when the unsympathetically portrayed vet is not. Regular medicine is emphatically shown to be inadequate, and modern scientific attitudes are portrayed as draining to the spirit. The witch and the cat win in the end, and everyone else changes to become more like them.

      Part of the question we are also dealing with is how to estimate the presence of a minority view expressing itself within a collaborative, industrial art form controlled by cultures opposed and insensitive to that view. The reason why most films about any aspect of paganism portray it negatively is because viewing pagans negatively means the movie is more likely to make money. All minority views get short shrift in the majority of films, including good ones. One must balance advocacy against evaluations of quality storytelling. The philosophy and worldview in John Ford westerns is overly sentimental, jingoistic and/or racist, but they are nonetheless great, enduring films. Studying them teaches us all about film making and visual storytelling, but viewers will gain little of value about native culture, meanwhile accepting thousands of historical inaccuracies as fact.

      I’ll look forward to learning more from your future posts!

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