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"Only Man is an end in himself"
– Ayn Rand
In the final sequence of David Cronenberg's historical drama "A Dangerous Method" (2011), Dr. Carl Jung, commonly known as the father of analytical psychology and portrayed brilliantly by the versatile Irish actor Michael Fassbender, discusses the nature of his rivalry with an equally important figure of the 20th century, psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud, who Jung once considered as his greatest mentor until they both realised that they represented a completely different school of thought. "What [Freud] will never accept is that what we understand has got us nowhere", Jung passionately argues. "I don't just want to open a door and show the patient his illness, squatting there like a toad. I want to find a way to help the patient reinvent himself, to send him off on a journey, at the end of which is waiting the person he was always intended to be."
Despite the fact that Cronenberg's film is nothing more than a fictionalized take on the two scientists' troubled relationship, their complex personalities have been investigated thoroughly enough to safely look on Freud as a deeply rationalist and pessimistic figure, and Jung, who came from a more religious and mystical background, as a dedicated explorer of the "hero within". To give an example, it was Jung who first assigned a positive value to the unconscious, which had been labelled by Freud as the root of all the "discontents" one can detect in a civilized society. Needless to say, a great many things have changed since then; quite a few Freudian theories have proved to be damaging for the patients, leading contemporary psychologists to refer to Freud as "the most debunked doctor in modern times" amongst else. At the same time, Jungian psychology is enjoying a great revival, having broken into the mainstream after the world-renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson embarked on a tour around the globe to talk about the Jungian archetypes and how an understanding of them can lead to self-improvement.
Two years after Carl Jung's death, in 1963, Russian-American novelist and founder of the Objectivist movement Ayn Rand published an essay titled "The Goal of My Writing". Strongly influenced by Aristotle's dramatic theory – formulated in his "Poetics" – who believed that fiction, in contrast to history, represents things "as they might be and ought to be", Rand states that "the motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself." That, she believed, would be "the greatest value I could ever offer a reader." It is no wonder, therefore, that Rand's novels and screenplays, the best example being "Atlas Shrugged", which was first published in 1957, emphasize the sovereignty and worth of the individual whilst also disclosing the dangerous effects of collectivism, whose forces the leading character has to fight on his own; it's a battle of one against all, but somehow, the hero always manages to overcome the powers that want him blend into an anonymous mob and preserve his personal identity and qualities.
A triumph of the individual over the collective... That single phrase could summarise the concept of most Hollywood feature films produced before the mid-1960s. It is often said that what classical Hollywood narrative has taught us, if anything, is that the hero always wins in the end, even if that means battling against the whole world in order to achieve his personal goals. Despite of how improbable such an achievement may sound, it doesn't take special skills for a screenwriter to convince the audience that the fictional hero is deserving of such a success. On the contrary, the majority of the films that are featuring in the "Top 250" list of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) make use of that sort of continuity; for example, the 5th highest rated film of all time, "12 Angry Men" (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet, is a typical example of the theme of "individualism versus collectivism" that we previously mentioned. The film tells the story of a jury that is made up of 12 men, who need to decide whether an 18-year-old boy should be found guilty of murder. As the case is seemingly an easy one, all jurors confidently vote "guilty" except for Juror #8, who is played by Henry Fonda. As expected, over the course of the film, that brave jury member manages to convince all the others to change their vote to "not guilty", after proving that there's not enough evidence to justify a death sentence.
Despite their obvious deviation from the classical narrative norms, “New Hollywood” features have also dealt with the same subject matter, the greatest example being the hugely successful 1984 comedy film “Ghostbusters”, which was produced and directed by Slovak filmmaker Ivan Reitman. Reitman later admitted to the press that, being a conservative libertarian himself, he believed that the film had a very interesting point of view that resonated with the (Reagan Era) American audience: “The first [Ghostbusters] movie deals with going into business for yourself, and it’s anti-EPA – too much government regulation.” But who would argue that “Ghostbusters” would evoke the same positive response from the audience if it was first released at the present time? Surely not the fans of the original film, who were utterly disappointed with the female-led reboot that was released in 2016. It wasn’t hard to notice that the franchise has turned progressive – in accordance with the current political climate in Hollywood; the modern take had the government privately supporting the ghost-catching team’s work, while taking the “wise” decision to denounce their actions when speaking in public. An all-knowing authority whose shortcomings are due to the lack of more power and resources that would help eliminate the city’s problems.
But maybe that is the case with twenty-first century cinema, in general; looking at how new-wave social realism has become the current trend, as demonstrated by the critical success of films like “I, Daniel Blake” (2016), directed by the – well-known for his socialist ideals – British filmmaker Ken Loach, and “Patti Cake$” (2017), by debutant director Geremy Jasper. Loach’s film, in particular, achieved critical acclaim by the British press, despite openly criticizing the economic policies of the Tory government – which obviously caused a great amount of controversy in the United Kingdom at the time of the film’s release. Toby Young, a columnist for the “Daily Mail”, found himself in a dangerous position after inveighing against the film’s pro-welfare stance on Britain’s benefit system, as the public reaction to his article was so hostile that rival newspaper columnists had to defend his opinion in their reviews of the same film.
What should be noted, however, is that most social realist films produced in the West very rarely decide to drift away from the “safe” narrative templates that made films like “12 Angry Men” and “Ghostbusters” so popular among mainstream audiences. While Daniel Blake is fighting the good fight against the monsters of Jobcentre Plus and their evil American accomplices, the community of Newcastle upon Tyne seems to be shockingly “unwoke” and apathetic for a traditionally Labour-voting area such as the North East of England. Unsurprisingly, the film ends on a tragic note, largely caused by that lack of collective action that Loach believes is needed, in order for a significant change in British politics to be made. And yet, by going back to the origins of socialist cinema, you can’t help but wonder what Soviet film pioneer Sergei M. Eisenstein would have thought of this naturalistic approach. It was he who first replaced the universal pattern of the hero’s tale with the one of the collective action, as seen in his films “Strike” (1925) and “The Battleship Potemkin” (1925). Eisenstein’s films need no protagonist; all the single heroes act as one “heroic” team. Fighting against it would be a losing game.
Augusto Boal, drama theorist and founder of a radical leftist theatre movement in 1970s Brazil called “Theatre of the Oppressed”, would have also disagreed with the amount of verisimilitude that new-wave socialist films – similarly to their antecedents, the British “kitchen sink dramas” of the 1960s – are striving to achieve. Influenced by the acting techniques developed by Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski, who believed that a character is not a state, but something active, Boal argued that
“it is the wants of a character that bring an otherwise static individual to life; it is the wants that produce action.” And these wants certainly need to be very specific, as they are expected to carry the story forward. It is an undeniable fact that the most successful films have the most iron-willed protagonists; their will to act, alone, serves as the driving force of the whole chain of events that eventually leads up to the climax and the film’s conclusion. This is what the filmic audience expects from a so-called “hero”, after all.
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Did you watch the "Atlas Shrugged" trilogy? Oh, you enjoyed it? Really?! Are you taking the piss?
I'm not gonna lie; I would have voted for Trump in 2016...