Deep Realism, Part II: The Upper World of Cinema

Cave and Cosmos Cover

In this and the prior post the comparison of cinema and shamanism is not meant to arrive at a precise one-to-one correspondence. Neither experience is reducible in meaning or import to the other. Rather, I am comparing shamanism to cinema analogically so that something known and well elucidated helps us understand something else which is less well known. The world of shamanism as detailed in the books referenced here is brought to bear on the mysterious power of cinema to fascinate us through image and narrative.

In Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality Michael Harner outlines the Upper World of the shamanic cosmos in ways that prove quite revealing when applied to certain films. For example, Harner relates that with the aid of steady drumming, or auditory driving, shamanic practitioners often depart for the Upper World from a raised platform located in the Middle World. Ascending through clouds into the sky or sometimes flying along what is called the trail of heaven, practitioners often are accompanied by a bird such as an eagle or themselves transform into a bird or man-bird deity. Such magical flight and transformation brings feelings of out-of-body levitation, love, beauty, and ecstatic spiritual union.

During the journey shamanic practitioners also often hear celestial music such as heavenly choirs, and they meet famous figures from history and religious tradition. From such figures they learn answers to hitherto unanswered questions. Finally, the advice or wisdom gained from such answers helps move them and others further down the path of spiritual, psychological, and physical healing once they have returned to the Middle World.


The opening images of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) alert viewers that they are about to accompany protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) on a cine-shamanic journey. That is to say, as the film’s title sequence begins so does a steady drumbeat. Then a strand of ominous music briefly joins the drums, and the first visual image of the film, a bright light shooting across a darkened sky, fills the screen. A comet, Icarus falling to his fiery death, or perhaps Birdman himself, the light (pictured above) also resembles an apocalyptic trail arcing down out of heaven.

This image gives way to one of Riggan alone in his dressing room on an upper floor of a Broadway theater. Legs crossed in front of him, Riggan levitates a couple feet off the ground. He meditates on the question that comprises the first spoken lines of the film: “How did we end up here? This place is horrible. We don’t belong in this s—thole.”

Virtually every scene in the film provides the answer to the question just posed. It is “that little prick called ego”—to quote Iñárritu in accepting the Oscar for Best Director. Or, as I noted in my earlier post on Birdman it is inflation, arrogance, grandiosity, and a sense of entitlement. On a collective level it is what Jung called the spirit of this time. No wonder that when I left the theater after seeing the film the phrase from Wordsworth “the world is too much with us” popped into my head.

The solution or cure to the “too much-ness” of ego and world is found in another exquisite and much lauded film of the past year: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Like Birdman, Boyhood also begins with an image of the sky and as such signals that we are about to take a journey into the Upper World of cinema. We are about to encounter teachers and wisdom figures—some of whom through their behavior instruct us how not to lead our lives. In the case of Boyhood, the second and third husbands of Olivia (Patricia Arquette) come to mind in this regard.

Love, beauty, and ecstatic spiritual union are also evident in Boyhood, perhaps most noticeably in the film’s concluding scene. I look more closely at the wisdom contained in this scene and in the film in its entirety in a future post. For the moment, however, what is important to note is this: whereas the cine-shamanic journeyer returns from the Lower World of cinema better able to meet the demands of his or her material existence, the journeyer to cinema’s Upper World having received an answer to one or more of life’s hitherto unanswered questions returns ready to face his or her spiritual existence.

In the context of the two films discussed, if Birdman asks and answers “How did we get here?” the question at the heart of Boyhood is “Where do we go next?” The presence of “we” in both questions reveals a final tantalizing possibility. The lessons learned or wisdom imparted in cinema’s Upper World have collective implications not found in the Lower World’s emphasis on individual adaptation and empowerment.

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Deep Realism, Part I: The Lower World of Cinema

The World of ShamanismMentioned at the close of my December post, the concept of deep realism owes a substantial debt to the time-honored practice of shamanism. The present post outlines a few ways in which the cinematic and shamanic experiences overlap and is drawn from a lecture I gave last year entitled “The Cave of Cinematic Dreams: Film & Shamanism.” This initial description of deep realism concludes next month with reference to my February 20, 2015, lectureBoyhood: Richard Linklater and the Sensitive Soul.”

According to Roger Walsh in The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition, “Shamanism can be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) interacting with other entities, often by traveling to other realms, in order to serve their community” (15). Although the present post focuses on spectators as shamanic practitioners, filmmakers themselves are the first to undergo and then make possible this journey to other realms. In other words a writer-director like Linklater is something of a modern-day shaman as is anyone else, e.g., cinematographer, editor, film score composer, et al., who helps facilitate the spectator’s own cine-shamanic journey.

Walsh and other writers such as Michael Harner note that a natural cave often serves as the point of departure from this world into shamanic worlds or realms. The trip down into and time spent within the cave is characterized by sensory deprivation, severe exertion including movement through narrow passageways, and darkness. The darkness however does not remain. Once seated practitioners fortunate enough to enter into an altered state of consciousness find that the darkness is replaced by a most luminous inner and/or outer revelation.

As the shamanic cosmos is often divided into three realms or worlds and the ordinary world in which most of us live is called the Middle World, the revelation experienced by the journeyer takes him or her out of the Middle World to one of the two remaining realms. One of these realms, i.e., the Lower World, affords the journeyer an experience characterized by tests and challenges ideally leading to transformation, adaptation, and empowerment. Once all is said and done, the shamanic journeyer returns from the Lower to the Middle World better equipped to handle the demands of his or her material existence.

Parallels between the shamanic and cinematic experiences may already be apparent after reading the above description. For spectators, the trip from their home or point of origin to the movie theater sometimes can be an ordeal unto itself. After parking the car, making their way up and down escalators, standing in line to buy tickets and refreshments, using the restroom, et cetera, they walk through the narrow entrance leading into the theater’s main hall toward the comfort of their seats. Sitting down, they await the cinematic journey before them and as lights dim sink further into a relaxed state characterized by what Coleridge called a voluntary or willing suspension of disbelief. As the curtain parts they are primed for inner and outer revelation.

nibiruEntrance into the Lower World of cinema is often marked in the dialogue or camera-work at the very beginning of a film. The descent out of the night sky to the streets of Paris in Hugo and the daytime descent to a city bench in Forrest Gump signal to spectators that they are entering another realm in which they will experience tests and challenges through identification with one or more on-screen characters. Similar descents also can be found at the start of Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness, the opening image of which is pictured above.

One film in which descent into the Lower World is noted through dialogue is The Graduate with its memorable opening line: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are about to begin our descent into Los Angeles.” Over the course of the film spectators follow Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as he ventures out into a very uncertain post-graduation world. He faces numerous tests and challenges such as those posed to him by the seductive Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Benjamin’s story is all about personal transformation and adaptation to the new world he finds himself in, and yet it is an adaptation that ultimately is empowering and victorious especially over the expectations of others around him.

The impact on spectators of their journey into the Lower World of cinema varies in accordance with the degree of conscious reflection they bring to that journey. In Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams circusman-turned-archaeologist Julien Monney remarks that he experienced such an emotional shock from viewing the ancient cave paintings in France’s Chauvet caves that he had to leave the cave, relax, and take time to “absorb” what he saw. He experienced something deeply real and such an experience that lasts long after the film is over is a hallmark of what I call deep realism. Next month’s post continues the exploration of deep realism in the context of cinema’s Upper World.

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Batman: The Spirit of the Depths



The subject of last month’s post was director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s critically acclaimed film Birdman. A scene from the film which connects the prior and present posts involves protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and toilet paper. Sam shows Riggan the many dashes she has drawn on a roll of toilet paper with each dash representing one thousand years of Earth’s existence. Extending a single sheet toward her father she remarks that the one hundred and fifty dashes on the sheet signify the comparatively short length of time human beings have been on the planet. In case Riggan has not gotten the message Sam then proceeds to berate him, his blind ambition and grandiose sense of self—all of which are laughably insignificant next to the age and longevity of Earth.

Birdman oscillates back and forth between such scenes of deflation and inflation. However, throughout the film the importance given the attainment of creative highs and critical acclaim suggests that inflation is desirable over and above deflation. Images of super heroic skyward flight at the beginning and end of Birdman seem to confirm this suggestion. The belief in and realization of one’s dreams, abilities, and self-worth is paramount.

This (over-)valuation of the heroic spirit in Birdman is not meant to be taken seriously. The film after all is a satire: even its scenes of inflation are inflated, i.e., over-the-top. Nevertheless, as noted in last month’s post the film provocatively lends itself to a discussion of the psychological concept of persona and the philosophical notion of the spirit of this time. Whether understood individually or collectively, both ideas represent the adoption of beliefs and behaviors useful in the achievement of a desired aim or end. These beliefs, behaviors, and ends also result in external approval and admiration.

While an inflated sense of self and purpose can lead to advancement and growth, in the extreme inflation inevitably leads to deflation. For instance, athletic steroid use which had resulted in victory and adulation is discovered and gives way to the loss of fame and fortune. Or a nation’s belief in its exceptional role defending freedom at home and abroad leads to human rights violations and the shame and distrust those violations incur. What had been raised up as individual and/or collective aims and ideals is brought low.

In The Red Book Jung describes this reversal as an experience of incapacity which leads to the death and rebirth of the heroic spirit. He writes, “We cannot slay our incapacity and rise above it. This is precisely what we wanted. Incapacity will overcome us and demand its share of life” (240). In other words an experience of humility, inability, slowness and common membership in a larger community will overcome the arrogance, ability, haste, and narcissistic individualism which previously defined our identity.


Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises provides a particularly evocative example of a character’s attempt to slay his incapacity and rise above it. Identified with his role as Batman, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) descends into the darkened sewers beneath Gotham and takes on his archenemy Bane (Tom Hardy) in hand-to-hand combat. Bruce loses. Bane not only breaks Bruce’s spirit but his body as well. At one point Bane taunts him: “Oh, so you think darkness is your ally? But you merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it . . . . The shadows betray you because they belong to me.” In short, if Bruce is going to rise again and defeat Bane he needs something more than a heroic spirit born of the shadows. He needs something more than his adopted persona of the caped crusader.

Deposited far from Gotham in a deep and inescapable pit Bruce can only watch as Bane slowly brings Gotham to ruin. However, over time and through conversations with older wiser prisoners Bruce learns what he needs to do to heal his body and spirit. He also learns that decades earlier a lone individual—a child—successfully escaped the pit. If Bruce is to succeed in escaping, then, he must recognize and embrace his own incapacity or fear. He must replace his attitude of heroic superiority and godlikeness with one of unassuming childlikeness—a transformation mentioned by Jung in a footnote in The Red Book (229).

In another footnote Jung writes, “When I was aspiring to my highest worldly power the spirit of the depths sent me nameless thoughts and visions that wiped out the heroic aspiration in me as our time understands it” (240). Jung conversed with these thoughts and visions as he would a living breathing person and what he learned from them humbled him and healed him of the pathological aspects of the spirit of this time described in the present and prior posts. The Red Book contains these most illuminating conversations.

Bruce Wayne’s time in a pit in a foreign land conversing with other prisoners was his own experience of the spirit of the depths. To the degree that filmgoers are moved by the thoughts and visions that comprised Bruce’s experience they too are moved by this spirit and the power of cinema to effect a psychological realization and transformation. In this manner the super realism mentioned in last month’s post gives way to what might be termed deep realism, i.e., a deep and abiding experience of the reality of the psyche to heal and transform through image and emotion. Future posts further explore the healing images and emotions found in motion pictures such as Birdman, Batman, and the latter’s modern incarnations.


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