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Myths of terror

This year's best picture nominees each tackle the 'socio-myths' of terror.
By Jeffry John Stein

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Crash brings us face to face with the overwhelming expectation that at any moment 'others' might do us harm—the essence of a terrorized society. (Photo by Lorey Sebastian, Lions Gate Publicity)

I spent years in Hollywood as a feature film development and production executive. When I left Hollywood, I could not get movies out of my blood. I soul-searched, read intensively, started teaching about film at colleges and in workshops, and finally wrote a book about what good movies really do for us. Like many others in the industry now, I pay tribute to Joseph Campbell for initiating a breakthrough of understanding about how good movies deal deep down with our issues of identity and purpose. One of his concepts has to do with the distinction between sociological myth and cosmological myth. Sociological myths are prescriptions that we receive unconsciously from our cultures. They are often myths that divide us. Cosmological myths deal with the universal answers to the universal questions about life that human beings have agreed on no matter what their culture. They are the myths that bring us into what Campbell called at-one-ment. It became clear to me that the protagonist’s journey in good movies is one that exposes socio-mythic obstacles to cosmological atonement. What is at stake for protagonists, and for us as we identify with them, is whether people can overcome these obstacles to save their souls.

When I look at this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture through this socio-myth/cosmo-myth paradigm, an issue that links them all together emerges. In one way or another each film has to do with how terrorism gets control of our lives. But only one film shows us a way out.

Munich, of course, is explicitly about political terrorism. Its characters are impelled by the unconscious socio-myths—what I call mythic baggage—from which terror emanates. In this case that baggage includes the righteousness of rage that propels us to align with a particular group, superseding our connection with the rest of humanity. These religious, nationalistic, and cultural myths dehumanize others and are used to perpetuate endless cycles of revenge. Sadly, as in Munich, it is only by losing their souls that some people finally see how myths have trapped them.

Mythic baggage is impossible to escape. “All people in all cultures without exception hold myths to be true,” writes the Rev. Alice Blair Wesley, a Unitarian Universalist theologian. “Any who believe that others—less sophisticated—may hold myths to be true while they themselves do not, are themselves naïve.” What gives us control over our mythic baggage is our willingness to open it up and repack it ourselves with full awareness. Jungian psychologist Carol S. Pearson puts it this way: “[There is] power in making explicit the myths that govern our lives. When we do not name them, we are hostages to them and can do nothing but live out their plots to the end. When we name them, we have a choice about our response.”

Recognizing that socio-myths help create cycles of revenge doesn’t mean that retribution is automatically wrong. Nor does it necessarily mean that the largely unheeded dictum of turning the other cheek is always best. Rather, the message is that we have a better chance of coming through our lives with souls intact if we recognize that the social pressures that call us to retribution arise from myths that have become ingrained across cultures. Only through becoming conscious of these myths can we hope to see the consequences of the actions they call us to perform. With that consciousness we gain personal authority over our lives. And because of that authority we can choose to abide or dissent from presiding socio-myths, knowing there are always other legitimate choices that might better serve our salvation.

Whereas Munich deals with terror perpetrated by foreign forces, Good Night, and Good Luck deals with the fear by which we politically terrorize ourselves. The “Red Scare” that had many Americans worrying that next door neighbors might cut their throats was fostered by power mongers who manipulated socio-myths regarding communism and capitalism. They even pushed to legislate blind adherence to one system by condemning any attempt to investigate the pros and cons of alternative systems. Senator Joe McCarthy and his ilk pointed the red paintball gun at anyone who did not submit to their fascist myths of Americanism. But much of the population either participated in the witch hunts or allowed them to occur because they could not or would not question the myths by which they were made afraid. Only when a few like Edward R. Murrow had the courage to expose how these mythic strings were being pulled did many people chose to end complicity in the mania.

The terroristic mania that socio-myths instill is particularly apparent in Brokeback Mountain. The specific myths here have to do with the horror of homosexuality. More broadly, it is the terrorism of cultural strictures that cause people to live lies about their nature. Not only the two cowboy lovers but all the inhabitants of this landscape are unconsciously ensnared in “western” socio-myths from which there appears no escape. More than in Munich or Good Night, and Good Luck, we are left with the feeling that no one can be trusted because we don’t even know who is wearing masks.

In contrast to Brokeback Mountain, Capote is about a well-known homosexual who is revered both inside and outside his urbane cultural circle. The film treats Truman Capote’s homosexuality as a non-issue. Instead, the movie reflects other socio-myths that enable yet another aspect of terrorism. The subtext of the film is that the lies by which Capote makes the murderer love him in order to get his story are as cold-blooded as the murderer’s acts themselves. This is the terrorism of narcissistic hubris, which motivates individuals to use others—to keep them alive or hasten their deaths—to achieve triumph and glory. We see how the myths of success—that the ends justify the means, that art takes precedence over life—result in the loss of Capote’s soul.

Capote is an examination of cold-blooded white-collar terrorism. What haunts us is that Capote was only a writer, but other much more powerful people can act out a similar calculating vanity, using myths of preeminent domain to destroy thousands of lives.

Munich, Brokeback Mountain, and Capote are tragedies. That means that they take their protagonists down into a hell from which there is no resurrection. Brokeback Mountain, in particular, like much of director Ang Lee’s work, leaves us without any hope of redemption. He suggests, as in his 1997 film The Ice Storm, that humans are eternally trapped in the hollow hell of their socio-myths. Ascendancy, joy, and genuine love (as opposed to obsessive lust) are not even intimated as possible ways out of this hell.

Good Night, and Good Luck is not a tragedy because it does offer redemption in the form of courage and a sense that people can be awakened to make conscious responses once they become aware of their socio-myths. But it is a rather grim and intellectual movie.

Good as these movies are, however, none of them does for us what Crash does. Crash engages the socio-myths of terror so effectively that it is, for me, the best of the bunch by far.

The other nominees for Best Picture all take place in the recent past with embedded messages about the socio-mythic forces on which terrorism feeds. Crash is singularly about today, using multicultural Los Angeles as a metaphor for the collision of socio-mythic baggage that causes people to view each other as potential terrorists. Race, ethnicity, social status, and political power, have everyone angry at, fearful of, or stereotyping everyone else. (Curiously, homosexuality seems to have been left out.) Crash brings us face to face with the overwhelming expectation that at any moment “others” might do us harm—the essence of a terrorized society.

And yet, Crash is not a tragedy. In fact, much of it is comedy as well as a detective story in which we discover how connected to and dependent we are on each other. More still, it is a tale of love overcoming the terror that feeds on alienation.

In this world of crashes, real as any metaphor can be, people keep surprising us and themselves. When they collide, they rebound through journey arcs that bring them into awareness of their own socio-myths. Sometimes those who appear the worst do great good and those who appear the best unintentionally do the worst. But most go through transformations of consciousness that give us hope that they will not turn out to be terrorists in the end. Like Grand Canyon more than a decade earlier, this is an ensemble movie where the terror of contemporary life is paradoxically undone through conflict, allowing the miracle of human connection to happen. Love becomes atoning as it weaves through Crash’s intricate structure, unexpected mood swings, surprising twists, and socio-myth-exposing dialogue. Crash is honest as hell, and yet offers us a way out. That’s my kind of movie.

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