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.


Update: For another trip into the Lower World of cinema, click here.

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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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Birdman: The Spirit of This Time

I’m Birdman.This and next month’s blog post respectively discuss the spirit of this time and the spirit of the depths—two ideas found at the beginning of C. G. Jung’s The Red Book. If the spirit of this time has to do with consciously embraced attitudes and values, the spirit of the depths concerns relatively unacknowledged or unconscious energies and potentialities. For Jung the ideal scenario is to have the two spirits in dialogue with one another; the result of domination of either spirit over the other is madness. The film we are going to look at in the present post exemplifies what happens to the spirit of this time when cut off from the spirit of the depths.

One of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2014, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a dark satire about the perils of human ambition. The story concerns actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his attempts to resurrect a career most widely identified with his starring turn years earlier in Birdman, Birdman 2, and Birdman 3. Riggan has written, directed, and produced a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and the film takes us through the play’s rehearsals, previews, and opening night. All the while Riggan not only contends with external challenges having to do with his fellow actors, his daughter, and one particularly obstreperous Broadway reviewer but he also must deal with his own internal problems such as hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations.

These schizoaffective voices and hallucinations are linked to Riggan’s earlier successful run as Birdman. In fact by the end of the film he believes he is Birdman, possessing the ability to fly, a heightened discernment of right from wrong, and the entitled sense that normal rules need not apply to him. It is as if Riggan has been identified so often by others with his performance as Birdman that he, too, has finally come to identify himself with the character.

Psychologically we might say that Birdman is not Riggan’s alter ego but his persona with which he unfortunately has become identified. In Jung’s Map of the Soul Murray Stein writes that the persona is the mask a person wears in public, i.e., the attitudes and behaviors displayed so as to better meet social demands and expectations (111). The persona is worn, then, to achieve specific ends and gain approval or admiration. Ideally, though, the persona is only one aspect of an individual’s personality and can be taken off when out of the public eye so that a fuller relationship to oneself and others is possible. Riggan’s inability to separate from his persona when and as needed is suggested by the following paraphrased statement from his ex-wife: “That’s how it always was with you – always confusing admiration with love.”

On a collective level the persona arguably corresponds to what Jung calls the spirit of this time. In The Red Book he writes “the spirit of this time would like to hear of use and value” (229). In other words the spirit of this time shares with the persona the adoption of beliefs
and behaviors which are valuable precisely because they are useful in the achievement of a certain end. Belief in the power of scientific reason and individual ambition and innovation exemplify this spirit.

Poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had his most famous character Faust declare “What you call the spirit of the times / is fundamentally the gentleman’s own mind, / in which the times are reflected” (Faust I, lines 577-79). In Birdman the internal monologues and external actions of Riggan Thomson reflect the unhealthy or pathological extremes which so often characterize the spirit of the times today. According to Jung these extremes include haste, arrogance, and self-righteous or heroic commitment to truth and advancement. Such characteristics can be found in the manic pace of most scenes in Birdman, the arrogant, grandiose, and entitled behavior of Riggan and other characters, and the willingness to go to any lengths to create something human and real on stage.

Such willingness to go to extremes is lauded at the end of the film even to the point that a new term is coined for this powerful approach to acting: super realism. However, viewers may be forgiven for feeling that Birdman itself as a film though well-crafted and powerful is a bit too cleverly told. Jung writes that “The spirit of this time considers itself extremely clever like every such spirit of this time” (237). Birdman perhaps is too much a product of this spirit and therefore strives too hard through innovative camera-work and storytelling to gain the audience’s admiration. What it communicates it does so a bit too much on the nose. The next blog post continues with the superhero theme and investigates how dialogue with the counterpart spirit of the depths helps heal the pathology of the spirit of this time.

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Tribute to an Early Mentor

In Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives, author Phil Cousineau includes a chapter on “The Mythic Power of Mentorship.” Here he recounts the role of wise counsel played by the figure of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey:

“In this role, the ancient Greek wisdom for guiding young people through the ordeal of adolescence is suggested by [Mentor’s] very name. For the word mentor comes from the Greek root men—to think, remember, counsel—and the Indo-European word mens, for ‘mind.’ Mentor is the ‘mind-maker.’ By his very nature he will help the son of his friend to ‘make up his own mind,’ even ‘re-mind’ the youth of his destiny, which is so easy to forget but so crucial to the Greek concept of character” (119).

Just as Mentor re-minds Odysseus’s son Telemachus of his destiny so, too, do mentors twenty-five hundred years later still impact the lives of many young men and women. This blog post represents a tribute to one such mentor in my life. Dean Dougherty was my first private saxophone teacher for the several years bridging my middle and high school experience. He also taught me how to play clarinet.

Attending My Sax Recital June 29, 1991

Attending My Sax Recital
June 29, 1991

Mr. Dougherty passed along several nuggets of wisdom that stay with me to this day including “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect” and “The first time you play a wrong note, it’s a mistake. The second time it’s a bad habit.” Most resonant of all for me, though, remains what he told me upon hearing that I got nervous when auditioning at band competitions. With a twinkle in his eye he looked at me and said, “There’s nothing wrong with having butterflies in your stomach. The trick is to get them to fly in formation!”

Whatever musical success I experienced in those and later years in large part was made possible by such pearls of wisdom. Equally important was Mr. Dougherty’s patience, his confidence in my abilities, and his many kindnesses. He truly was a Mentor to my young Telemachus–for which I am eternally grateful.

Dean Dougherty passed away October 14, 2014, at age 88.

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