This trailer for the documentary Finding Joe should be of interest to those who are persuaded by Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m not a Campbell adherent to be honest but the documentary seems interesting at least. Here’s the blurb:
Rooted in deeply personal accounts and timeless stories, FINDING JOE shows how Campbell’s work is relevant and essential in today’s world and how it provides a narrative for how to live a fully realized life–or as Campbell would simply state, how to “follow your bliss”. The film features interviews with visionaries from a variety of fields including Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood, Tony Hawk, Rashida Jones, Laird Hamilton, Robert Walter, Robin Sharma, Catherine Hardwicke, Sir Ken Robinson, Akiva Goldsman and many more. While studying myths, and writing on the human experience, Joseph Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College for 38 years. His seminal work, “A Hero with a Thousand Faces” was published in 1949 and greatly influenced generations of artists and writers, including Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Jerry Garcia and others.
War as reach around
The History Channel has built an audience by offering US military veterans an endlessly repeated uncritical reach around so it should be no surprise that their much vaunted, Ridley and Tony Scott produced Memorial Day Gettysburg ‘documentary’ is both bad history and bad filmmaking.
The addition of the Scott brothers has added only increased production values and allowed slightly more graphic depictions of violence to the usual History Channel formula. For those unfamiliar with this kind of film, here’s a quick rundown of the main problems:
- The most important historical lesson of war is to be found in the heroism of the individuals fighting.
- Context is only important in so far as it places those heroic deeds within a predictable military academy narrative of tactical decision-making and strategic consequences.
- Focus on individual experience allows the channel to maintain a kind of unspoken, yet still pernicious fantasy of moral equivalence between the war aims of the United States and the rebels. This is a craven and transparent attempt to pander to one unpleasant – one might say unreconstructed – constituency within the channel’s audience. It is, thus, both economically motivated and complicit in sustaining the fig leaf narrative of doomed southern gallantry that still permits serious discussion of a War of Northern Aggression in some quarters.
Aside from the above, the film also manages to construct unnecessary and imaginary narratives around some of its chosen characters, notably Sgt. Amos Hummiston and, even as a straightforward account of military history, it offers a very confused and partial narrative of the battle itself. There is barely a mention of Lee and no mention of Longstreet, his fatal delays on the second day or his controversial complicity in Pickett’s charge. There is none of Buford’s delaying action on the first day – one would think the Iron Brigade held off the rebels single-handedly. Similarly the action at little Round Top gets no mention as everything is forced to tie in arbitrarily with the movements of Col. Rufus Dawes and Gen. William Barksdale, chosen for some reason as the film’s operational command protagonists. If a viewer was not already familiar with the general course of events I think they would find it hard to piece the sequence of the battle together from this film.
But of course Gettysburg is just another sermon preaching to the History Channel faithful so there is no need for any of that pesky historical complexity. In the end on The History Channel everything always comes back to the shibboleth of heroism and it found me out. Just because some of your audience wants to see themselves that way is no excuse for a broadcaster to pander. Indeed the sad truth is that for all its attempts at gravitas and paeans to the nobility of sacrifice, The History Channel and programs like Gettysburg are helping to keep America in a state of permanent historical adolescence.
The attraction of access
Some of the finest documentaries attain their greatness in large part through the simple gift of access. They allow us to go where otherwise we could never go. They allow us to see things that otherwise we would never have been able to see. Indeed access is one of the primary and most primal attractions of the cinema. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, travelling movie showmen like Lyman Howe would advertise their sensational entertainments on these exact lines. Cinema was about wonder in all its forms long before there were screenwriters wondering [sic] why they always had problems with story beats in act two.
The lessons of cinematic wonder have never been lost on Werner Herzog, either as a narrative (Fitzcarraldo) or documentary (Grizzly Man) filmmaker. He has built a career on introducing Western audiences to worlds at the very edges of our experience and culture in films such as Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Where the Green Ants Dream. In his latest documentary Herzog takes us underground to witness an instance of human culture unseen and untouched for at least 20,000 years. In simply allowing us even mediated access to the Chauvet caves and their wonderful treasure-trove of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings he gives the most important gift to audiences of Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
The film is Herzog’s personal, expository, yet somehow hesitant meditation on the birth of recorded human culture. The filmmaker uses 3D technology to help the viewer appreciate how the paintings are designed to flow with the contours of the cave walls. Herzog and his crew deploy this most contemporary of cinematic attractions astutely, yet when attempting to approach the meanings and use value of the ancient images he offers us flashes of possibility only. We learn that the cave is clearly a ritual space. We are told that ancient cultures believed in the permeability of the real and the spirit worlds, navigated by shamanic ritual. Herzog notes drawings of animals with multiple legs and persuasively argues this is a technique to hint at movement. Here we are in the presence, he suggests, of a kind of “proto cinema”.
Inhabiting the vast chasm between Herzog’s words and the world of the paintings, the viewer has to look inward for resonance. In so doing one thing at least is abundantly clear, the Paleolithic artists who drew these animals in the firelight cared deeply about representation. The exact cultural meaning and ritual purpose of their images may be obscure to us now, just as the surfaces on which they are painted are frequently obscured in the film by Herzog’s constantly moving portable lights. Yet the images are so beautiful, so accurate, so full of individuality and animation – perhaps in multiple senses- in sum so staggeringly aesthetic that we still feel a profound and surely authentic connection with them. In the 30,000 years between our world and theirs, Herzog’s remarkable film shows us, there has been at least one cultural constant and it brought tears to my eye: the transcendent power of human talent.