The Hero Awakens: A Comparison of Journeys in Star Wars

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Myths mirror human experience. We like stories because they reflect our lives and show us something we’d like to live up to. But mythology is no longer limited to old gods and Homeric epics—now they are all around us in our own everyday fictional interactions. Pop culture exchanges such as films, music, graphic novels, and video games provide us with a new framework of ever evolving mythology built around a similar purpose: to tap into our primitive brainwaves and muck about in the corners of our own consciousness. 

Joseph Campbell called this recurring storyline as the monomyth—the idea that every story throughout multiple cultures has a unifying principle that ties it into our worldly experience. But that does not mean the monomyth is a set formula. It is an ever-evolving mirror by which we judge our own journeys.

Last time, I talked about a new aspect of these mythological studies I’ve been reading about in Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey. Since then, it’s become impossible not to see this journey in any of the female-driven stories I’ve been seeing. Aspects of it were in I, Tonya and Three Billboards, Wonder Woman refocused the superhero film on it completely, and the entire plotline of the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel seems to come directly from this theory. 

Whereas the hero’s journey popularized by Campbell takes the hero away from society in order to rejoin it later with a renewed sense of purpose, the heroine’s journey is about separating from an oppressive society to rejoin more with one’s self—it is about seperating from the feminine aspects of cultural identity, embracing the masculine side of society, and then rejoining the feminine for a stronger sense of individuality and identity. This key difference—the focus on identity—may make the heroine’s journey an even more interesting take on the experience of human consciousness itself.

Looking at The Force Awakens while thinking of it the heroine’s journey takes that film from being a slightly humdrum remake of A New Hope into a reinterpretation of the same hero’s journey that made the original film so universal. In looking at it this way, the film becomes a mirror version of Luke’s original journey, but this time, the journey of the female in the universe of Star Wars brings out some key differences that for me, makes the entire movie and the series it is contained within much more interesting. Let’s take a look at these steps in comparison now.

STAGE ONE: THE ORDINARY WORLD

Before our journey begins, we see the hero in their normal environment, the “Ordinary World.” This is not unlike the womb for our hero—it is warm, safe, and free from conflict. But no one sticks around forever—otherwise, there would be no journey and no story. In life, every person has to make a journey toward being something better. This is what the hero’s journey represents—a path to follow in life. 

For Luke in A New Hope, the safe Ordinary World consists of living down on the farm with aunt and uncle, wishing for something to come along and take him off on some grand adventure. He is the anti-Bilbo, who in The Hobbit longs for nothing more than to stay in his womb-like hobbit-hole and never leave. Luke needs adventure ... he’s just not sure how to get it. He has responsibilities, after all.

 Luke down on the farm

Luke down on the farm

When we first meet Rey in The Force Awakens, she is not some passive farm boy working on droids and wishing for an adventure to carry her away from her family. Instead, she is an individualist, making her own way across a harsh landscape by scavenging what she can in order to survive. In fact, when we first meet her, she is genderless—just a daring scrapper in an identity-less mask. This is pretty important to the journey of the heroine, as part of her journey is going to be finding her identity and doing battle with forces of oppression. Her lifestyle oppresses her, her purgatory on Jakku oppresses her, and her picking up an identity from the trash around her (such as the fighter pilot helmet she wears while eating) keeps her from finding her True Self.

  Rey down on Jakku

Rey down on Jakku

Part of Rey’s journey has to do with her duality. She seems characterized by the mental programming that took place when she was a small child—the feminine side of her personality that wants to wait for her family to come back. While scrubbing her junk-finds clean, she sort of half-smiles at an elderly woman doing the same. Rey is hoping to be reunited with the mother and father who have left her behind. This is different from Luke, who is trapped on the farm with his aunt and uncle. Rey is not staying in the Ordinary World because she is trapped—it is her choice. This identity, longing for family, is key in her journey. In order to become her own person in society, she will have to move past this lock that traps her in place.

As she scraps, she is subjugated by the society that spurns her. The junk trader does not give her an appropriate amount for her payment. She scratches out the days on the walls of her junked out home—a symbol from an earlier time of other heroes. And as she watches spacecraft fly off her Ordinary World, she wears a helmet that suggests her dream of becoming something greater. This is when the Call comes.

STAGE TWO: CALL TO ADVENTURE

In order for the hero to begin their journey, something must draw them into it. This is sort of the birth of the hero, where they will begin the journey that will take them through growth, into their True Self, and towards spiritual fulfillment. Just as an infant has to leave the comfort of their mother’s arms, so too must the hero.

For both Luke and Rey, the Call comes in the form of a droid. R2-D2 and BB-8 are perfect Calls because they are droids that don’t even speak English. They come with a message, a task, that the hero must choose to undertake. Everything is left up to our heroes. For Luke, the droid comes with a message from Princess Leia that must be delivered to Ol’ Ben Kenobi up the block.

 Luke gets the call

Luke gets the call

For Rey, another droid delivery task must be met—her droid is looking for Poe Dameron, an already established hero pilot of this post-mythic Star Wars universe. Poe has been busy escaping from capture with the help of another rising hero, Finn. In some stories, Finn may have been the main hero, but Rey is already on her way towards this status (as her takedown of some potential BB-8 thieves shows both the audience and Finn).

 Rey gets the call

Rey gets the call

As Dowd writes in her analysis of the heroine’s journey, the first step in becoming the female hero is the shift away from feminine preconceptions to more masculine ones. The reason for this shift is not anti-feminist in spirit, but represents how society undervalues the feminine and prizes the masculine. However, the masculine can be easily poisoned (as Kylo Ren’s tale brings to light) and the heroine who journeys towards a duality of gender is more powerful.

Meanwhile—the idea of finding Skywalker is intriguing to Rey (much like finding her masculine side) as she believes him to be a “myth.” Myths hold power over all the characters in the film, and Rey sees this idea of finding Skywalker to hold some intrigue...it will make her heed the Call all the more. 

We also get to see some of the heroine status emerging in Rey during the chase through Jakku. She tells Finn to stop taking her hand, but finds herself having to offer her hand to him to help. Finn is in many ways the sort of anti-hero that Kurt Russell portrayed in Big Trouble in Little China; his presence subverts audience expectations and actually makes the true hero (here being Rey) stand out all the more.

Rey also receives “Supernatural Aid” in the form of the Millennium Falcon, a “garbage” ship that will also bring her to her eventual mentor and mythic figure himself, Han Solo. Stealing the Millennium Falcon also helps attack a societal force that attempted to subjugate her—the junk trader from earlier who screams out “That’s mine!” as she flies off.

But even though both Luke and Rey find themselves with an opportunity to leave their desert planets behind, they each have a hesitation to do so. After all, it can be scary going off on your own, abandoning the safety of your womb-planet, and leaving the Ordinary World. This is where the next stage comes in

STAGE THREE: REFUSAL OF THE CALL

Nobody ever said being a hero was easy. Refusing the Call is a typical part of any hero’s story. We do the same thing in our everyday lives—we say ‘no.’ The journey from childhood to adulthood and from adulthood towards death is scary and full of peril. The hero knows the journey will be uncomfortable, and leaving the womb is never easy. So they initially Refuse until a final push comes along to force the issue.

The Refusal creates a sense of tension for the audience, but it also shows us the human concern the hero represents for us. We are the hero, and the Refusal helps us identify with them. For Luke, the idea of being a Jedi is pretty out there. He’s no hero, after all. Plus, his uncle needs him for another season on the farm. Even when the Mentor is introduced (more on that later), Luke still refuses. The Ordinary World has become the only world for him.

Similarly, Rey wants to return to Jakku as soon as possible. After all...her parents will be back for her soon. Even though she has shifted more fully into the masculine side of her duality (shown when Han Solo is surprised that a young girl successfully piloted his ship), there is still a ways to go. For that final push, our hero will need a Mentor…

STAGE FOUR: MEETING WITH THE MENTOR

In our life’s journey, we all need a teacher. This can be a parent or a parental figure ... someone who has experienced the hero’s journey already and can give us aid to help us in our own quest through life. 

For Luke, the mentor is Obi Wan Kenobi. Not only does Luke’s Call bring him to successfully bringing the message to Kenobi, but Luke must now learn how to become a more spiritual version of his True Self, which comes from learning the ways of the Force. Luke receives “supernatural aid” from his Mentor, including not just the Force itself, but a lightsaber that will represent Luke’s journey from childhood to adulthood.

 “Hey, I’m not looking for adventure—blame the droid.”

“Hey, I’m not looking for adventure—blame the droid.”

For Rey, the mentor is one of those mythic figures from her universe’s distant past, Han Solo. Solo and Rey find common ground right away in their knowledge of the inner workings of the Millennium Falcon. This bonding experience begins to build Solo up to being a father figure of Rey’s—a sure sign of Mentorhood.

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Just like Obi Wan did with Luke, Han Solo confirms the existence of the Force to Rey. He then brings them a new “Special World” filled with more green than Rey has ever seen before and gives her some aid in the form of a blaster. Solo offers her a job on the Falcon—a permanent replacement for her identity-less place on Jakku. But Rey again refuses...to truly begin her journey, she will need to make a Crossing into the Special World proper.

STAGE FIVE: CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

For any journey towards adulthood or spiritual awakening, a rite of passage is required. This is called the Crossing of the Threshold by Campbell, in which the hero commits fully to change. Something usually pushes the hero to act; otherwise, the stagnation of their development would continue and no story would exist. Everyone has to change and everyone has to make the journey in their own way.

For Luke, meeting Obi-Wan gives him the tools he will need to Cross, but the final push comes when the Empire destroys his farm and kills his aunt and uncle. Without a family, Luke has the final push he needs to become “adopted” in a sense by his new father-figure Obi-Wan and pursue the life of a Jedi, becoming more his real father’s son and seeking vengeance against the Empire by joining the resistance against their oppression.

 Luke loses his motivation for staying still

Luke loses his motivation for staying still

For Rey, rejecting the feminine also means becoming “adopted” by a metaphorical father—Han Solo. According to Dowd, this father-figure is supposed to represent whatever aspects the heroine admires in the masculine. This figure has a dark side to his masculinity, and Han certainly fits this mold in his role as scoundrel-smuggler. 

Han’s offer of a job is an offer to Rey to reject her childlike attachment to the mother side of her nature and make her feel like she could succeed. Meanwhile, Han also rubs in the fact that she has the more lowly position in society of being a female when he doubts her abilities and refuses to praise her in saving the Falcon from destruction. This only makes her want to prove herself further. When he offers the blaster, and Rey roughly indicates that she can take care of herself, Han verifies that she can. Rey is gaining acceptance from the masculine father, and will soon discard the feminine-child keeping her on Jakku.

Meeting Maz is Rey’s first step in Crossing the Threshold. Maz will not just give her more aid in the form of Luke’s lightsaber, but will also show Rey a glimpse of what her future will hold. As Luke learned of the danger of the Empire and the dark side, so too does Rey learn of the danger of the First Order through Maz. Rey Crosses over as Maz (more of the feminine side of her duality) explains that the “belonging” she seeks is not behind her, but ahead. In order for Rey to move on, she will need to get over her past mental programming and seek her future. Only there does her True Self lay. In order to get there though, she’ll have to overcome a few Tests.

 WARNING: “Tests” here may include trippy visions.

WARNING: “Tests” here may include trippy visions.

STAGE SIX: TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES

In every journey, there are obstacles. The ones that help us are our Allies, and anything stopping us from reaching our true potential are our Enemies. 

Luke sees this first hand as he enters the Cantina on Mos Eisley and encounters rough bar patrons and stormtroopers. But luckily, Han Solo and Chewbacca are convinced to become his Allies on the journey.

 If you see these guys on your journey, they’re probably Enemies.  

If you see these guys on your journey, they’re probably Enemies.
 

Similarly, Rey enters a bar to meet Maz, along with her own Allies which now include Finn, Han, and Chewie (again). As the First Order commits genocide and attacks the complex, Rey finds out who her Enemies truly are and begins fighting back against the stormtroopers that have arrived. The true Test has come to see how our heroine will react under stress. Success will not come so easily now, and it becomes important to see how the hero will endure these obstacles. 

 Allies look more like this.

Allies look more like this.

Rey encounters Kylo Ren for the first time, but his mastery of the dark side (and ridiculous voice modulation and paintball mask) are too much for her at this time. The poisoned masculine force wins (for now) and Rey finds herself in a position where she will have to prove herself as being better and stronger than the male Allies she has surrounded herself with. She is taken in by the First Order—an event which will spur Finn on to his own Test as well.

In fact, we get to see some other sides to the hero’s journey here as well. Finn meets up with his Mentor, Poe, again and even receives an item of aid—Poe’s jacket. Once again, Finn is taking the more familiar approach to the hero’s journey alongside of Rey’s heroine approach. But Han is also on his own journey—approaching the son that has rejected him. In his decision to confront Kylo, Solo will also be attempting to create a more ideal version of himself. Interesting side note—we learn that Kylo’s real name is Ben Solo, a combination of the Mentors from each series, and a twisting of the lessons each of them could have taught him.

The Tests all occur along the road to what will be the final Ordeal to help our hero realize their True Selves. 

STAGE SEVEN: THE APPROACH

The Tests all serve to initiate the hero into the Special World, the place away from the Ordinary World of comfort. 

But upon entering the Special World, nothing comes easy. And so the hero has to make an Approach toward an “inmost cave,” a dark fear, a life-or-death Ordeal. Just as in our own lives, facing fears is often the only way to come out as a stronger and more realized person. 

For Luke, this is when the Falcon literally Approaches the Death Star and gives Luke the opportunity to become the ideal masculine vision—a hero who saves the princess. For Rey, it is when she is taken by Kylo Ren, the poisoned masculine vision. This leaves Han and Finn to create a plan of attack and approach the Starkiller planet themselves, a new stand-in for the original Death Star. It is her where Rey must finally face a real Ordeal that brings her closer to achieving a union of both her masculine and feminine sides.

  Different bases, same Approach

Different bases, same Approach

STAGE EIGHT: THE ORDEAL

The entire point of the hero’s journey is to be reborn as a stronger, better person. In order for rebirth to occur, a metaphorical death must proceed it. It is only in confronting death and successfully conquering it that the hero can magically seem to become “reborn” with greater powers. In traditionally myths, this involved the hero descending down into the Underworld, a place of literal death. In the Star Wars myth, the Underworld becomes the dark side’s base of power.

 Luke getting all nasty and “reborn.”

Luke getting all nasty and “reborn.”

Luke Skywalker faces his Ordeal inside of the dark underbelly of the Death Star when the trash compactor nearly smashes him flat. He also sees the Shadow archetype of Darth Vader—a Shadow that strikes down his Mentor, Obi-Wan. Of course, we realize that Kenobi actually struck himself down in the spirit of the truly enlightened, but that’s a whole other blog.

 Rey vs. the Dark Glove

Rey vs. the Dark Glove

Rey faces her own Ordeal inside of the dark Underworld of the Starkiller planet, where the poisoned masculinity that is Kylo Ren interrogates her, calling her weak and threatening to do with her what he pleases. But it is this Ordeal that “awakens” Rey to her latent Force abilities and helps her confront her fear, flipping the script and illustrating the fears of Kylo Ren and his desire to become the “masculine ideal” he subscribes to. 

STAGE NINE: THE REWARD

The hero has now overcome death—not too shabby. Along our own human journeys, this could be something as simple as being in a car crash, undergoing a traumatic injury, or facing an overwhelming emotional obstacle. Either way, overcoming adversity helps us on our journey to become stronger human beings, and almost seems to give us a “supernatural” edge over others.

 Luke is rewarded with a princess

Luke is rewarded with a princess

In terms of our hero’s journey for Luke, facing death allows him to rescue the Princess and escape the Death Star. Ben’s sacrifice also paves the way for Luke to begin using the Force on his own, and will help show him the way towards becoming a true hero, and his True Self.

 Rey is rewarded with an identity

Rey is rewarded with an identity

Likewise, Rey’s confrontation awakens her Force abilities, which she immediately begins using on one of her stormtrooper guards (the one played by Daniel Craig) to escape. Not only has Rey bested the oppressive masculine, but she is also beginning to embrace her own identity within her mythic society. Identity, for the heroine, is the major reward.

STAGE TEN: THE ROAD BACK

The purpose of the hero’s journey is not to transition from the Ordinary to Special World and never to return. Now that the hero has a Reward, it is time to return to where they came from with the Reward in tow. For Luke and Rey, this will not mean a literal return to Tattooine and Jakku because nothing of themselves remains there. Instead, it means joining an existing society (the resistance) with a new power in tow (the Force).

Usually, the Road Back involves an escape of some kind. For Luke, this Road Back with the newly acquired Force strength involves getting off of the Death Star and back to the Rebels with the plans in tow. For Rey, it means rejoining her Allies and escaping the Starkiller base. But the journey is not over, and both Luke and Rey will have to face death once again. This time, with the Force awoken within them.

 The Road Back is usually an escape, of course

The Road Back is usually an escape, of course

STAGE ELEVEN: THE RESURRECTION

One of the primary innovations of Joseph Campbell was his discovery that all religions were really based on one myth—the monomyth. And in these myths, a hero resurrects. Jesus underwent the Ordeal of dying on the cross, but he was reborn as his True Self—a messiah. 

Luke Skywalker and Rey could go back to their normal lives, but they still need to encounter death one last time—and it will be the most dangerous encounter yet. As Luke joins in on the fight against the Death Star, he uses his new Force abilities to land a direct shot right down the anus of the Star itself, destroying the thing for good (until it’s rebuilt again). Rey will also need to confront death—this time, in the form of red (danger!) lightsaber wielding Kylo Ren, who having overcome his own battle with his father and striking him down, now can further indoctrinate himself into his own idea of mythology.

For Rey, this battle with dark masculinity represents an important final step in her journey. After having found peace with aspects of her identity (accepting the feminine again), she must now recognize the masculine side’s negative influence and stop it from taking control. This is why her fight with Kylo is particularly aggressive—she uses her masculine impulses to positive ends and proves herself as being better than masculine Kylo by showing off her serenity and grace. She is uniting both aspects of her identity into one strong concept.

 “Serenity now, serenity now…”

“Serenity now, serenity now…”

STAGE TWELVE: RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR

Once the hero has confronted death and returned, purified, to the Ordinary World of the living, the cycle is nearly complete. The hero has their reward. For both Luke and Rey, it has been to utilize this mythical power within themselves to become stronger people.

 The scene that originated the “Chewie’s too tall for a medal” excuse...

The scene that originated the “Chewie’s too tall for a medal” excuse...

Luke gets some medals for his win—a sure sign that society has accepted his return. But Rey’s journey is more focused on the union between her feminine and masculine sides. She is now able to move on in the Ordinary World with this synergy between both, and will now become focused on using it to bring everyone together—including finding the lost jedi, Luke Skywalker. In this way, the dueling mirrors of hero vs. heroine are even more firmly established, and the way The Force Awakens takes the hero’s journey and flips it over to the heroine at least makes the film more interesting than simply seeing it as a “New Hope ripoff.”

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At the end of The Force Awakens, the two main heroes of the saga have been reunited, and their circles have become interwoven. Rey is ready to become the ultimate heroine, and Luke, having completed his journey, is ready to mentor a new generation. 

Next time, we’ll take a look at how the saga evolves from here, and the particular role mentors can have in a story and on our own conscious minds…

Best Versions: Lady Bird, Identity, and Separation

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The 2018 Oscars featured a whole slew of movies concerned with race, gender, and politics, but one theme I saw form as a sort of connective tissue throughout most seemed to be that of motherhood. Three Billboards featured a vengeful mother-goddess portrayed by Frances McDormand, who got the Best Actress trophy. Get Out and Phantom Thread featured male protagonists who had each formulated a deep-rooted psychological bond between their portrayed identities and the loss of their own mothers. The Shape Of Water? Well, the female protagonist took care of a monster by feeding him eggs, which has some heavily implied symbolism. But no film looked as directly on at the relationship between mothers and their children as Lady Bird, which focused on a young heroine struggling to shape her own identity and separate from her mother figure by any means necessary -- even if it means jumping out of a moving car.

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This “separation from the mother” aspect of the heroine’s journey comes from Maureen Murdock’s look at that exact phenomena in modern mythology, The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. In it, Murdock supposes that while Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is all well and good for men, women partake in their own version of the journey which is more focused on separating from the female aspects of their identity, entering the world of the masculine, and then reuniting with their feminine selves in order to become a “whole” figure.

This actually makes a lot of sense in terms of general mythology. Many myths have, for their ultimate achievement, an ascension to the godhead—which involves becoming both male and female—a whole, complete version of the human shell we’re stuck inside of.

Lady Bird herself confronts this struggle with identity head on when she demands to be called by a name of her own choosing: Lady Bird. This is her first step in forging her own identity. But in forging one’s own identity, a confrontation explodes. The person with whom we have originally created our own identity from—the image we have plagiarized in trying to create ourselves—comes from our parents. Just as God supposedly created mankind from his own image, so too do we create our own image from the gods that raised us.

Marion McPherson, Lady Bird’s mother, spends most of the film openly criticizing her daughter’s appearance and intellectual prowess. This conflict over Lady Bird’s identity ripples out to the other aspects of her life, including the men she becomes involved with, the friends she chooses, and the colleges she wants to apply to. When Lady Bird finally asks her mother why she can’t just approve of her decisions, Marion says, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.”

But as Lady Bird counters, “what if this is the best version?”

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As Murdock explains, there are two poles of motherhood in mythology. There is the “Great Mother who embodies limitless nurturance, sustenance, and protection and the Terrible Mother who represents stasis, suffocation, and death.”

Lady Bird seeks the Great Mother from Marion, but is constantly assailed by the negative archetype of the Terrible Mother. Marion represents stasis and suffocation for Lady Bird in that she seems determined to keep Lady Bird close to home in Sacramento, California, while Lady Bird wants to go to more culturally inclined places like, “New York, or Connecticut, or New Hampshire.” 

Marion’s desire to keep Lady Bird close is akin to death for Lady Bird, and this drives her to separate from her mother. The cast she wears for most of the film seems to represent this struggle -- it was, after all, her jumping from the car away from her mother that get her there in the first place. 

But the journey for Lady Bird must conclude with her separating from the mother and forging her own identity, no matter what. She enlists the father as an ally in this journey, who helps get her the financing she needs to attend college on the east coast. Even if Marion were not the smothering embodiment of the Terrible Mother, however, Lady Bird might have to cast her in that role to separate from the womb-like protection of the nurturing mother and forge her own identity.

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As Murdock explains, “in adulthood many people respond to female power and often to their own mothers in terms of the Terrible Mother aspect of the archetype” in order to complete separation, forge their own identities, and become the best versions of themselves. In doing so, “they fail to see their mother’s life in the context of the historical period in which she lived, her family background, and the opportunities available to women at that time.”

This is exactly what Lady Bird does as she sees Sacramento and her mother’s role in keeping her there as a smothering form of stasis and eventual death. However, once she does complete the separation, Lady Bird begins to recognize these aspects of her mother, and ends the movie with a message left for her in which she acknowledges both her and her mother’s feelings of Sacramento and thanks her mother for the journey. 
 

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Greta Gerwig shows this resolution of identity perfectly by intercutting scenes of both Lady Bird, who is now calling herself by the name her parents gave her, Christine, and Marion driving through Sacramento at sunset. Once the separation is complete, the female can forge ahead with her own identity and arrive at peace with the Terrible Mother archetype that once hounded her, allowing the Great Mother to once again take hold in her consciousness and lead her into the world she now finds herself needing to become a part of.

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Next time, I'll take a further look at this aspect of the heroine’s journey through the mirrors of perhaps the most famous franchise and example of hero mythology out there: Star Wars

Secrets in the Canvas: Phantom Thread, Timothy Leary, and the Mother-Goddess

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(Spoiler warning - the following article assumes the reader has seen Phantom Thread)

There is a key scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film, Phantom Thread, in which Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) confronts a silent, glaring fever-induced hallucination of his mother. As he looks at his mother, who is wearing the same wedding dress that he crafted for her and that would become the impetus of his life-long creation process, Alma—his new muse—enters to tell him that his fever has gone down. As Alma walks about the room, the mother figure disappears and only Alma remains. 

This is the moment when Alma finally achieves what she has wanted - replacing Woodcock’s mother-figure within his own consciousness and making him “open” to her. It is no coincidence that this marks the moment when Reynolds stops keeping Alma at a distance. He proposes to her the next day.

  Reynolds and Alma enjoy some nourishment together after being married

Reynolds and Alma enjoy some nourishment together after being married

What has happened here is an interesting case of reprogramming the mental imprinting of consciousness -- a theory proposed by Timothy Leary and expanded upon by the great Robert Anton Wilson. As Leary theorized, our brain operates on eight circuits of consciousness -- different “brains” imprinted on us throughout our lives that determine our experiences of reality. The first circuit—that of the oral bio-survival circuit—is concerned with nourishment, safety, trust, and suspicion.

Joseph Campbell, in his Jungian-inspired writing on the monomyth, would say that a hero’s search for a “mother-goddess” figure would correspond to our need for nourishment and security. Once we are out of the womb, our hero’s journey begins; the mother-goddess figures prominently in the search for meaning.

  Demeter: Earth Mother-Goddess of Home and Hearth

Demeter: Earth Mother-Goddess of Home and Hearth

Woodcock spends the majority of the film psychologically searching for a mother to replace the one he has lost -- though he does not know it. He simply identifies the fact that “curses” seem to exist for people, and his mother’s absence seems to be his. 

His sister has replaced his mother in a certain sense; she is stern, protective, and “always right.” She gets rid of Reynolds’s girlfriends for him when they have outgrown their usefulness. She addresses Reynolds’s issues of trust with the protective instinct of a mother, and not coincidentally, seems to be around Reynolds during every meal.

  Reynolds dines with his two mother figures

Reynolds dines with his two mother figures

Nourishment is important for Reynolds. When he orders breakfast, his list includes nearly half the menu. He is a man of appetite because he is searching for nourishment -- the kind that a mother provides. It is also not a coincidence that Woodcock’s attraction to Alma begins at breakfast when she waits on him. He asks Alma to memorize his order, keeping the order she wrote down for him. It is a test -- if she can provide him with the nourishment he wants from her own memory, of her own volition it would seem, then perhaps she can be the mother he needs. She passes the test and is invited to dinner -- even though a prepared note indicates that she already knew the invite was coming. Alma calls Woodcock “the hungry boy” because she seems to know exactly what he is underneath his tough exterior. Not a strong solitary creative genius, but a boy looking for a mother to take care of him. He even seems to understand this problem of his himself—it keeps him alone, after all—a bachelor. As he says, he is “incurable.”

When Alma does not receive the attention she feels she deserves from Woodcock, she knows she needs to make her impression on his survival-circuit stronger. But while Reynolds’s sister provides one half of the circuit through her work on helping Reynolds feel safe, Alma goes after the other half of the circuit by becoming the helping goddess that can nurse him through his ailments. She is not just his muse, but the ultimate ally as well.

This is why Alma poisons Woodcock just enough to make him sick. When he is ill, his other programmed defensive circuits are dropped and he is reduced to infancy - then, Alma can swoop in and reprogram his circuitry herself, putting her back in charge of Reynolds. But the effects do not last. Reprogramming a circuit created in infancy is difficult. For many, years of therapy cannot even begin to touch the surface of the issue. It requires a sort of recurring reprogramming. And both Alma and Reynolds seem to recognize this.

  Reynolds with his muse

Reynolds with his muse

As Reynolds falls back into keeping Alma at a distance after marriage, Alma tries to get back into his mental programming. She gets rid of everyone at the “House of Woodcock”—including the safety net of the Woodcock sister—and prepares a surprise dinner for Reynolds in a attempt to return Woodcock to his original bio-survival mode. But it doesn’t work because Reynolds does not trust her actions - he accuses her of being a spy, of being treacherous -- his trust and suspicion circuits are on high-alert. He cannot even seem to help the defenses -- they are simply there, always on, always ready to secure him and keep him safe.

In order for Alma to get her autonomy and control on Reynolds back, she goes back to her original strategy: poison him, reduce him to infancy, and reprogram him all over again. This time, however, Alma’s secret—her own “phantom thread”—is shown to Reynolds. She explains it to him in direct terms, saying, “I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open...with only me to help.” She wants him reduced to the “hungry boy” that she knows he truly is, with only Alma as mother-goddess to nourish him.

He gets this nourishment from her in the form of a poisoned mushroom omelette that he watches Alma cook, which leaves him with his suspicions on high-alert. And Alma confirms for him her own thread -- that the poison will slow him down, take away his control, and allow her to reprogram him. The thing is -- Reynolds is in agreement. He eats the omelette willingly, and later, in the bathroom as the poison takes hold, says, “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.” They have reached an understanding and even agree to call in the doctor in case it gets too bad.

  Alma pours some water for her “hungry boy” Reynolds

Alma pours some water for her “hungry boy” Reynolds

Reynolds needs to be taken care of - he wants his mother. And Alma wants a life with Reynolds that includes motherhood. The result is unconventional at best: a recurring pattern of reprogramming that keeps their mental circuits operating in renewal of their love. Disturbing? Sure. But at least they have arrived at a common understanding of each other’s secrets -- the phantom threads weaving their patterns together. Because the circuits our brains operate on—the mental programming that underlies our every actions—are the phantom threads that keep us operating in the same patterns, for better or worse. Being aware of the need to reprogram them in order to achieve better versions of ourselves, if only for a little while, may be the best some of us can hope for.

Review: Casanova Variations

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I’ve always been vaguely interested in attending an opera. But after Michael Sturminger’s film Casanova Variations, I’m rethinking my own curiosity. Sturminger’s film follows two intertwined narratives about Giacomo Casanova: one a period piece about a woman (possibly an ex-lover) trying to get the rights to publish Casanova’s memoirs, and one about the opera production of the incident playing out in modern times. Both versions of Casanova are played by John Malkovich, who does his best with the material but mostly comes off as just being John Malkovich. This is kind of the point ... I think. The problem is that it becomes hard to discern the reasoning behind either of these narratives, let alone both.

Why am I supposed to care about any “variations” on Casanova? I kept expecting the film to make its point made to me, but I was left disappointed time and time again. The film’s dual narratives, filmed using distracting handheld cameras for some reason, never really takes off. The further problem is that the narrative snooze-fest is interrupted by longer scenes of actual opera, which translate about as well to the screen as watching Malkovich take a fifteen-minute nap off-stage.

It seems that Sturminger, however, finds it all very interesting -- the opera, the historical figure of Casanova, the Malkovich -- but it just does not translate to the audience very well. The audience of the opera even seems bored with the whole production, which is probably not a good thing to show the movie audience who is ALSO having to sit through it all. 

The meta-humor of stunt-casting Malkovich as an opera singer seems wasted, since we’ve already seen it done better in Being John Malkovich. When a character who calls Dangerous Liaisons her “sexual awakening” asks Malkovich if he’s gay, it’s clearly supposed to be for a laugh ... but all it does is make me think of Being John Malkovich and how I’d rather be watching that film. The period scenes of Casanova do not work much better. In fact, they also make me think of better films, like Fellini’s Casanova. Why am I spending time on this far inferior “variation” of those other films anyway?

All of this begs the question: what is the purpose of this film? It seems to be a clever concept if you were talking about it at a dinner party, but making a two-hour film out of the idea is too much of a stretch. I’m not even sure what audience this film should be marketed to. It seems too loose for intellectuals and too stuffy for the film-going public. It certainly does nothing to entice the audience into letting itself into their approval, instead seeming more an act of intellectual public masturbation than seductive love act; in other words, it’s less Casanova in the bedroom, and more jerking off in the shadows off-stage. Ego may be helpful in attracting lovers or getting a concept financed for a movie, but it certainly isn’t much fun to watch.