Movies as mythologically informed literature. Cinema Discourse looks at current and classic movies from a literary, and particularly a mythological, point of view.
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15th March 2014

On Nymphomaniac


A Review by John David Ebert

Lars von Trier’s new film Nymphomaniac–which opened on Christmas Day in Denmark in its five and a half hour version, and is just now being released in the US as two separate films, each approximately two hours in length–is not, in actuality, an erotic film at all. In fact, though it is being touted as the most “sexual” film ever made due to its reputedly “pornographic” imagery, it is the very opposite of an erotic film: indeed, watching it may very well do as much damage to the viewer’s sex drive as going on an SSRI. The film is loaded with close up shots of human genitalia from start to finish, but unlike the airbrushed images of porn, the genital images of Nymphomaniac have a sickly look about them that conveys von Trier’s evident disgust with the human body in clinical fashion. Some of these shots were reputedly taken from actors in the porn industry, but they invite comparison with photographs of genitals in science and medical textbooks. There is nothing in the least erotic about them. Or in the film’s sex scenes, for that matter, which are observed with a coldness and visceral brutality that is less shocking than nauseating.

So, let’s not get confused, people: this is Art, not Porn.

The film’s point, rather, is that it is the story not of a woman looking for pleasure, but of her attempt to create a private system of Transcendence using her body as a surface of inscription upon which to incise a network of signifiers that will serve to link her to the metaphysical Beyond. The only problem is that she doesn’t know this is what she is doing.

The film’s narrative is told as a series of confessions by a woman named “Joe,” to a man who finds her tossed aside in an alleyway, bruised and physically beaten. The man, played by Stellan Skarsgard, listens patiently and sympathetically to the confessions of Joe, serving her cups of tea while she rests in bed and unfurls her life story to him throughout the course of one night. The man, named Seligman, lives like a monk in a bare, sparsely furnished room with a Byzantine icon of Mary and the Christ child hanging upon the stained wall. He is highly literate and has built a life out of books and reading, and he listens to the shocking tale of Joe’s indiscretions with compassion and interest. The aura here, very deliberately constructed on von Trier’s part, is that of a Catholic confession to a priest. But of course, the sacrament of confession in the Western tradition was transferred to the analyst’s couch where it was intercepted by a Jewish doctor of the mind named, appropriately enough for his profession, “Dr. Freud.” And so it is no surprise that Seligman, as his name indicates, is a lapsed Jew. (Every detail of von Trier’s carefully constructed narrative counts).

Joe tells the story of a woman who discovered the pleasures of masturbation as a very young girl (she was not raped, or molested–rather surprisingly) and of her teenage loss of virginity with a young man named Jerome (played by Shia LeBeouf) to whom she forms a lifelong attachment. However, she very quickly develops a desire for intense sexual experiences that evolves, over time, to seeing a succession of seven or eight men a night, all carefully scheduled out into a series of appointments so that they do not overlap with one another. Joe, (the older Joe doing the confessing is played brilliantly by Charlotte Gainsbourg in one of her very best performances; the younger Joe is played, less interestingly, by Stacy Martin), eventually attempts marriage with Jerome, who, however, cannot satisfy her insatiable appetites for constant penetration (Joe’s elusive orgasms become fewer and fewer, in inverse proportion to the increase of her sex drive). They have a child, but Jerome knows that the marriage isn’t going to work, and so he tells her to go see other men.

In the second film, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg steps into the role throughout, Joe’s life very swiftly descends into a series of dark encounters with what she calls “dangerous men.” Still married to Jerome, she begins to see a sadist on a nightly basis, who bends her over a chair, ties her up, exposes her buttocks and whips them viciously, night after night. Her vagina, she tells Seligman, had long since gone numb by this point, and it was not until the sadist inflicted the 40 lashes upon her of the Via Dolorosa, that she finally managed to have a thorough orgasm, although it was entirely stimulated by pain, not pleasure (a true image of Lacanian jouissance in action).

In short, Joe’s desire for sexual experiences destroys her life, ruins her marriage and cripples her abilities as a mother. She loses everything, as the addiction creates a tensor field around her life that bends and warps all events inside it like the mass of a planet in space whose curvature causes objects to go tumbling towards it. Eventually, Joe renounces her sexuality altogether and becomes a debt collector, in which she sadistically helps a group of thugs to collect debts from gambling deadbeats, one of whom eventually turns out to be her ex-husband Jerome. After training a young girl to be her apprentice–and having sex with her–the girl ends up having an affair with Jerome, and one night, Joe hides in the alleyway with a gun, waiting for Jerome and her young apprentice to show up. When they do, Joe fails to cock the gun and it does not fire, giving Jerome the opportunity to beat her up and humiliate her by having sex in front of her with her young apprentice, who then finishes by urinating on her.

Which brings the story full circle back to where Seligman happened upon her and took her in for cups of tea while listening to her tale of woes.

And so, back to my original point, which was, namely, that Nymphomaniac is not a film about sex and eroticism–it is far too repulsive for that–but about a woman’s attempt to trace a private line of flight out of the Animal Body and into a Transcendence that her society can no longer provide for her. All of us, nowadays, are on our own in precisely this same sense: we must find ways to construct conduits to Transcendence because all the traditional systems for providing that Transcendence for us in an a priori fashion–church, nation, family, etc.–are in ruins. We are living in an age in which each individual must find a way to the Light on his or her own, and Joe’s attempts to construct private Transcendence are traced out using her own body as a surface of inscription.

At first, her Animal Body, through her vagina as a conduit, inscribes intensities of pleasure upon this surface, but over time, the pleasure waves turn to intensities of pain that, under the hands of the sadist, mark her flesh with the inscriptions of the guilt of her own crimes, much as Kafka’s character in his story “In the Penal Colony,” has his sins carved directly upon his body with a machine that writes it on his flesh as though his skin were a form of displaced parchment.

And indeed, in an age when traditional systems of Transcendence have broken down, the body inevitably comes back as the main surface of inscription–as it once was during the presignifying regime of oral and tribal societies, whereupon it served in place of clay tablet and papyrus as a writing surface to bear the marks of tattoos and mnemonic scars in such a way that the body functioned as one’s own cathedral, a cathedral of pain marks whose incisions correspond directly to the images of stained glass in a cathedral. They are the signifiers, that is to say, from out of which one’s Body without Organs–to use the language of Deleuze and Guattari–is constructed as a surface of inscription for Transcendence.

Nowadays, with the breakdown of all our Transcendental Signifieds, the Animal Body has returned as the primary surface of inscription to serve as a tablet in the age of “secondary orality,” as Walter Ong once called it, in which literacy, together with all its signifieds, is crumbling. Two of the most important of these ancient signifieds were, of course, the Virgin Mother of the Byzantine Tradition (itself derived from the Byzantine conquest of Egypt, where she originated as Isis with Horus on her lap and was transformed into the Virgin) and Mary Magdalene of the Western Christian tradition: virgin and whore.

The Virgin served as the primary Transcendental Signified of Western Civilization throughout the age of the cathedrals and well on into the Renaissance, whereupon she was replaced by the signified of Infinite Space. But in the age of Systems Breakdown, Mary Magdalene as the archetype of the Whore comes forth as the appropriate signified because the whore corresponds to the body as a surface of inscription that hides and conceals the connection to spirituality through and by means, precisely, of the flesh.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, then, is a retranslation of the Magdalen for the age of secondary orality and public Systems Breakdown. During the time of the Romans–another age of Systemic Failure–the Magdalen was the goddess Isis, who was both Virgin and Whore (the West, like the later splitting of the atom, cut her into pieces). Hence, the plight of Lucius, the man who is transformed into a donkey in the Roman novel The Golden Ass, and who becomes a devotee of the cult of Isis, who liberates him from the Animal Body of his somatic prison.

And indeed, Roman literature–in texts like the plays of Seneca or Petronius’s Satyricon–is filled, like the “disinhibiting media” of our own day–with vulgarity, obscenity and pornography, as well, since there again, the body is the only vessel that counts for creating Transcendence during a time in which nobody believes in the old systems anymore. The nomadic body is a portable cathedral and can always be reverted to when the architecture of Public Signifieds becomes, for one reason or another, delegitimized.

Hence, on the historical turn of the spiral two thousand years later, our civilization has come back once again to bear the same character of obsession with the Animal Body as was once the case during the age of the breakdown of Republican Rome into the Empire.

Thus, the return of the nymphomaniac Messalina–the depraved third wife of Claudius whose antics shamed him so much–in the form of von Trier’s character “Joe.” (Messalina at one point, actually appears to Joe, in a vision).

So there is nothing in the least bit “erotic” about Nymphomaniac, in which the Animal Body becomes a space whose smooth surface is disrupted by the striations of the genitals, which “fold” (in the Deleuzian sense) so much cosmic power into them that, like releasing energy from the atom in the Bomb, it is only the jouissance of intense pain that can liberate the energy for Joe in the atomic release of her enormous (and the film’s final) orgasm.

Make no mistake about it, though: Nymphomaniac is a great film from one of today’s greatest living directors and, although it is slightly marred by a cynical and sarcastic ending (which I haven’t revealed here), it will stand as one of von Trier’s greatest achievements. His talents are rivaled, perhaps, only by those of David Cronenberg and David Lynch–both of whom, however, seem to have given up–and the three directors constitute what’s left in the time of what I have termed “postclassic cinema” of the tradition of the auteur who pursues a Vision that remains uncompromised by Hollywood sell-outs and future film “fundraisers” that only further mire the director in logistical and financial problems. (These were hard lessons learned by Coppola, for instance, and Philip Kaufman, whose Unbearable Lightness of Being, by contrast with Nymphomaniac, is an example of a truly erotic film).

Nymphomaniac is too gritty and full of genuine repulsion at the human body for it to be an erotic, or even pornographic work: it is more like a Catholic mass turned upside down in which the Animal Body stands in for the wine and the wafer but unlike those cultic relics refuses to function as a vehicle for transubstantiation that allows the Light to come pouring through.

But note that final detail: in von Trier’s film, the female body replaces the Corpus Christi as the vehicle for the mystery of transubstantiation.

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12th March 2014

El Topo: From Cult to Classic

A movie review revisited by Griselda Steiner of a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky

With Frank Pavich’s movie, Jodorowsky’s Dune, about to open at Film Forum in New York, and the article in the New York Times Magazine of March 14 titled “The Psychomagical Realism of Alejandro Jodorowsky” discussing Jodorowsky’s first new film in 23 years, The Dance of Reality, John Lobell decided to ask Griselda Steiner to revisit her review of Jodorowsky’s 1970 cult classic, El Topo. But first a note on Jodorowsky’s Dune from Wikipedia:
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a 2013 American documentary film directed by Frank Pavich. The film explores Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to adapt and film Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune in the mid-1970s.

In 1973, film producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned the film rights to Dune but died before a film could be developed. The option was then taken over two years later by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who proceeded to approach, among others, Peter Gabriel, the prog rock groups Pink Floyd and Magma for some of the music, artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud for set and character design, Dan O’Bannon for special effects, and Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine and others for the cast.

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31st January 2014

On Gravity

Some Reflections on Gravity

by John David Ebert

The appearance, in science fiction history, of a narrative like that of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a cultural watershed indicating that the Twilight of the Space Age is now upon us, despite all appearances to the contrary. By contrast, for instance, with the vectors of the science fiction narratives of the 1950s in the novels of Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, in which the earth was always seen as something to escape from into the ecstatic Transcendence of outer space, all the vectors of Cuaron’s narrative point decidedly downward. The earth, in Gravity, is no longer seen as an obsolete artifact of the Age of the Great Mother to be escaped from at all costs into the heavenly realms of the Father, but precisely as what, in fact, it really is: a basin of attraction toward which all bodies fall as a cosmic shelter of protection from the starry vacancies of a hostile Outside. “Life in outer space,” as the film’s opening title card states, “is impossible.” Precisely.

In the pre-metaphysical age (also known as the mythical consciousness structure, according to Jean Gebser), being-in-the-world always connoted being on the inside of a uteromorphic container of one sort or another. For the Egyptians, the earth was surrounded by Nut, the starry goddess of the heavens, and Nun, the watery amniotic abyss which the Mesopotamians called “apsu,” and from which our word “abyss” actually descends etymologically. The earth was always embryonic and the human was always inside the body of the Great Mother, like one of those Gothic wooden sculptures of Mary which open up to reveal the Crucified One in her womb (shown below).

But in the metaphysical age beginning in the Mediterranean with Plato and in the deserts of Judea with the Old Testament, being-in-the-world meant being in the paternal womb of the Great Father, in which the Word as an embryo always lay waiting, ready to resonate a cosmos into being from out of the magical intonations of the creator’s utterance. This was the logocentric age critiqued by Derrida, in which goddesses like Athena were always popping out of male skulls like Zeus’s, and in which Adam gave birth to Eve, rather than the other way around. This was the age in which the Logos, the Word as eidos, was the creative instrument, and in which all material things were subordinated to the power of the Ideas, which shaped them like a magnet organizing iron filings.

It is now a truism of postmodern philosophy that we live in a posthistoric (Flusser), post-metaphysical age (Sloterdijk) in which we are simply thrown, at Heidegger’s insistence, into a shell-less and unprotected world in which all structures are technomorphic and must be man-made as replacements for mythical and Platonic Ideas.

However, in Cuaron’s Gravity, it is significant that the protagonist is a woman, for she is the ancient Great Mother–Demeter mourning the loss of her daughter Persephone–in disguise, tossed into exospheric orbit by the techno-manipulations bequeathed to us by the metaphysical age, still very much present with us, and functioning as the source and root of our conquest of the earth and now the exosphere with satellites. The Great Mother, in this age, does not give birth to anything, for she now finds herself (in a reversal of the wooden Mary sculptures) trapped and encased on the inside of the paternal Mind with all its exoskeletal structures.

The various techno-flotation devices which the Sandra Bullock character hops to, from one to the next, are actually three-dimensional incarnations of the Father’s Platonic Ideas realized upon the grid of perspectival space (via Leonardo’s drawings, in origin) and transformed into floating world islands. In the absence of the protective body of Mother Earth, the Sandra Bullock character finds herself on the inside of the paternal womb and its techno-realized Ideas which attempt to substitute for the natural productions of her bounteous body: i.e. gravity, oxygen, air, plants, food, etc.

In outer space, in other words, it is not the Mother who provides, but the Father. On his world-islands, you are trapped in Plato’s realm.

But in the Twilight of the Space Age, it is the Mother who now becomes the savior, since the arc of escape to the Heavens that began with Plato’s leaving the cave-as-womb behind in favor of the father-as-sun is now in the process of running its course. The aptly named private corporation known as “Virgin Galactic” promises to send us all to Mars by 2028, yet they seem to have forgotten–or pretended to know nothing about–a phenomenon known as the “Kessler Syndrome,” which predicts that the collisions of space debris in orbit about the earth will slowly accelerate and produce more and more debris over time. And since, as the disaster of the Columbia taught us–in which an entire spacecraft was destroyed by a mere two pound piece of foam rubber insulation–it only takes One Small Thing to disrupt an entire mission, the practicalities of leaving the earth behind and flying to other worlds on a routine basis seem increasingly more and more remote.

Let us not forget the collision of two telecommunications satellites that crashed into each other, for the first time ever, in the exosphere in February of 2009 as the ominous prelude to the onset of Kessler’s Syndome which, like entropy, can only ever get worse, producing more and more debris, not less, over time.

The onset of the Kessler Syndrome, of which Gravity is a stunning illustration, marks the beginning of the end of the Platonic Project bequeathed to us by the metaphysical age of using techno-incarnations of the Father’s Ideas as world islands to escape the body of the Great Mother.

Virgin Galactic–a name which promises to use technology to carry the Virgin herself away to the heavens, just as Christ, once upon a time, carried his mother at the moment of her death–can pour all the money they want into space travel, but cleaning the debris out of the exosphere which will pose a perpetual threat to such flights is another matter entirely.

Welcome to posthistory, the age in which Down is the new Up.

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30th January 2014

A New Book by John David Ebert

To order this book, click here:

Introduction to the Last Days of Celluloid:

An Excerpt from Post-Classic Cinema

by John David Ebert

Film, today, now finds itself in exile.

But in exile from what? And from where?

After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the Romano-Jewish Wars of 70 AD and then with the erasure of the Jews from the geopolitical map of Palestine by the emperor Hadrian in 135 AD, the Jews found themselves in exile from their homeland, to which they did not return until 1948. Their particular model of society has been termed “diasporic” by Arnold Toynbee,[i] and appropriated by Arjun Appadurai as the social model of the “diasporic public spheres” configured today by non-local and post-national social formations such as Al-Qaeda, Anonymous, and other revolutionary movements and criminal organizations which now pose the major threat to the world’s locally based Big National governments.[ii]

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19th November 2013

On the Metaphysics of Being a Porn Star


The Life and Death of Shauna Grant

An Essay by John David Ebert

“‘Transcendence’ always involves departing from the known and familiar “beings” and going out in some way beyond them.”

–Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event)


On March 21, 1984, Colleen Applegate – known to the porn industry as “Shauna Grant” – shot herself in the head. It was a little after 7 in the evening, and her friend Brenda Rosenow, after hearing a loud pop from the other room, rushed into the bedroom and found Colleen lying on two beds that had been pushed together, with a .22 caliber Long Rifle at her side, and a hole in her right temple where the bullet had penetrated, and exited through the left temple, leaving a star-shaped wound as it hit the wall. Brenda saw that her friend was still breathing, so she called for an ambulance, which rushed Colleen to Desert Hospital in Palm Springs, California. There, she was put on life support systems for two days, but she was already brain dead and the life support systems were unplugged. She was buried by her family on March 28.

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19th October 2013

On Michael Douglas as Liberace

File:Behind the Candelabra poster.jpg

The Celebrity Morphodynamics of Liberace:

Behind the Candelabra

A Review by John David Ebert

According to Arnold Toynbee, in his monumental work A Study of History, pre-Civilizational societies are locked into a state of arrest because they derive their particular form of “social mimesis” from imitating the dead ancestors, which therefore orients them toward the past. Civilizations, on the other hand, develop into a higher species of human society precisely because their “social mimesis” has shifted from an orientation to the past and the cult of the dead, toward the present, where their social mimesis is derived from imitating the living creative personages of their societies. The living pharaoh, for instance, is an incarnation not of Osiris, the god of the dead, but of Horus, the living and vibrant sun god which soars across the heavens on a daily basis. Everyone, in ancient Egypt, wanted to be like him, including the nobles of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties who modeled their tombs after his and demanded to be mummified just like Pharaoh.

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25th September 2013

On Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

A Review by John David Ebert

Walter White has a problem: the model that he has been following as the “imaginary signification” to shape his life by isn’t working. He is an affable high school chemistry teacher whose wife and in-laws do not respect him. They regard him as an amusing and powerless individual whom life has passed by. And indeed, he is a spineless, castrated husband and father who, for the most part, does what his wife tells him to do. She possesses the Phallus. He has to get it back.

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21st September 2013

Riddick: The Animal Side

a movie review by John Lobell

Somewhere along the way I lost a step, got sloppy… dulled my own edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all: I got civilized. So now we zero the clock. Gotta find that animal side again…

I am a big fan of the Riddick series—Chronicles of Riddick is one of my favorite movies, and I like the latest, Riddick. (Check Wikipedia for the renamings of the movies.) I wrote a long piece a while back about Chronicles (click here), and as in that case, this is not a critique of the current movie but thoughts on what it is about. Which is going to involve some digression, so I hope you enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

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16th May 2013

On Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness

Reviewed by John David Ebert

Star Trek Into Darkness is a perfect specimen of what I have termed “post-classic cinema,” which refers to the characteristic nature of the cinema of the past decade or so, which is a type of cinema with a completely different ontological status from that of the Classic period of the 1970s and 80s. Post-classic cinema eschews all forms of originality, and proceeds by means of Cloning, Grafting, Folding and Hybridizing all previous forms of cinema. Star Trek Into Darkness essentially “folds” Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan into the inside of its narrative topology (in the same way in which Derrida said that he could have “folded” his book Of Grammatology inside Writing and Difference), and then, using that as its basic narrative skeleton, proceeds to Graft and Sew onto its anatomy various scenes and motifs from previous films. The helicopter assassination scene from Godfather Part III, for instance, is “cut” from that film and then “grafted” onto the new Star Trek narrative in a sequence in which the film’s primary antagonist, Khan, attempts to assassinate all the heads of the Federation who are present at a single meeting. The look of the futuristic San Francisco, likewise, has been cut and grafted from the city of Coruscant in The Phantom Menace. (For some reason, these films never take sea level rise into account: by the 23rd century, most of San Francisco is going to be under water).

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10th May 2013

On Iron Man 3


Iron Man 3:

Reviewed by John David Ebert

In ancient Mesoamerican myth,the superhero was the figure of the Aztec eagle warrior: with the jaws of the eagle wide open, the hero’s costume revealed him as a human being swallowed up into the gullet of an astral creature, for the great superhero of Mesoamerican civilization, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs, was the shaman who could shape-shift into an eagle or a jaguar and commune with the earth’s elemental spirits.

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