Five Years, One Post

I talk about altered states of consciousness a lot, but it’s not all that often that I really dig in and talk about the mechanics of it or the magical perspective on it. I hate to really rehash what smarter, more experienced magicians have elucidated elsewhere so I’ll be brief here. One of the underpinnings of the school of thought generally referred to as postmodern magic (whose most famous iteration is probably my native Chaos Magic) is the concept of gnosis as a kind of magical fissile material. Traditional magic uses ritual to raise energy to apply towards whatever change the magician is trying to effect. You see that principle in pop culture whenever someone say sacrifices a person or an animal to achieve a specific end like Low Shoulder attempting to sacrifice Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body, or the latin incantations in the Harry Potter world.

English artist Austin Osman Spare however, developed a highly influential paradigm that hinged on his understanding of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind. He basically posited that in order to achieve your goal, you have to interrupt normal consciousness and embed the desire in the unconscious. Variations on this theme crop up frequently in the contemporary new age movement and seems to have achieved some measure of validation in the murkiest depths of theoretical quantum physics (more like hypothetical quantum physics, but i digress), but it’s the derivative of Spare’s work that post modern magic pioneers in the burgeoning UK scene in the eighties employed that is of interest here.

In order to achieve the necessary interruption of conscious thought necessary to fire the desired intent into the subconscious, authors such as Peter J Carroll and Phil Hine advocate the achievement of altered states of consciousness achieved by dancing, ingestion of certain drugs, intense fear, fatigue, orgasm, meditation and other such activities. In my five years of sporadic use of this paradigm, I’ve come to look at extreme emotion and altered states of consciousness as not being the products of certain thought processes or the arbitrary results of related stimulus, but as tools that can be manipulated and applied towards a number of effects in both magical and more prosaic pursuits which has lead me down some very interesting trains of thought as a writer and nascent film critic.

Almost every day I’m in a venue where not just the merits of individual films (which we can broaden to really include all narrative) are debated, but the merits of different critical paradigms as well. It’s really soggy earth that you tread on when you start trying to define what objective metrics you have at your disposal in judging something as mercurial and divisive as film. There is one objective metric that cuts across all art though, and that metric is emotion.

Discussion of The Notebook for example, will always skew towards it’s ability to make the audience cry to the point where it will almost be inevitably classified as having been engineered specifically to make the audience cry just as deliberately as the Jackass franchise was engineered to provoke unease and disgust. It’s hardly a mystery or a scandal that filmmakers from screenwriters through to producers, directors, actors, and art directors make a great many of their creative decisions based on the expected emotional response of the audience, sometimes to the exclusion of all other considerations. The sociologist and psychologist are drawn to questioning why we are drawn to these communal evocations of emotion. The magician (and the politician) are drawn to pondering to what ends the emotions evoked (or energy raised, to use the ritual magic vernacular) can be applied.

Basically, most films without an overt political or religious agenda that are engineered to provoke a specific (and usually intense) emotional response seen from a magical perspective are spells lacking a purpose. Equations lacking a result. You could of course posit that it’s all one big money spell, but I want to narrow the scope here to films that were produced with the overriding goal of producing an extreme emotional response, to the exclusion of profit. Generally speaking, writers and directors considered to be at the top of their craft working in the horror genre for example are enjoying the fact that they are making money at what they do but their passion lies in scaring or disturbing their audience. Money is not the primary artistic (which is interchangeable with magical) goal in terms of the phenomenon I want to explore.

I first found the outer edges of this territory when I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and happened upon a specific passage that I’ve come back to countless times in my writing. In a conventional three act screenplay it’s what’s called “plot point two,” the point at which the protagonist is at his lowest point and he is forced to- in the words of Zombieland’s Tallahassee- “nut up or shut up.” The dark night of the soul (which is the wordplay at the heart of that one movie’s title) in a microcosm.

In an uncharacteristically poetic moment, Hunter describes being able to see the high water mark of the zeitgeist of the 1960s and goes on to explain the root of it’s failure, which in his estimation (and a notion shared by many other observers), was that success was implied, assured. In terms approaching the occult he states that the general attitude was that their energy would simply prevail. My head was in a very strange place when I originally read the passage as around the same time I had been reading about the ill fated free concert at Altamonte, an essay on the occult potential inherent in raves, and The Invisibles among other things, and slowly a picture started to sew itself together in my head.

I wondered- from a magical perspective- about Woodstock as a mass ritual given the constant refrain of energy, consciousness raising, and vague occult principles surrounding it. The problem- as Hunter pointed out- wasn’t that there was a lack of energy raised, it was the lack of a direction for it. An equation without a result. An incomplete spell. Interestingly enough, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea tapped into that principle in the climax of their Illuminatus! trilogy, resulting in an apocalyptic struggle for control of the energy raised between the forces of absolute control and absolute chaos.

Without delving too far into occult theories of etheric energies, we can still say that emotional responses can be used to inform and contextualize rational thought, sometimes to the point of overthrowing reason. In the context of film, the easiest example is the religious fervor whipped up by Passion of the Christ or the polarizing political effect of Michael Moore’s filmography.

Violence in film is an interestingly complicated issue though. You can’t simply wield it like a club and expect to get a uniform, lazer like response directed at the target of your choice. Prior to the release of Saving Private Ryan, the Second World War- and the Normandy invasion in specific- was a vague specter in the collective unconscious. It was a valiant victory far away from the visceral horror of Vietnam until Spielberg left the most indelible mark on cinematic violence since The Wild Bunch. At the time of production, he mused that it had been rather difficult to capture a level of violence that exceeded what contemporary audiences were used to processing without trouble. In a particularly inspired move, he used video (rather than film) cameras on an unprecedented scale in the opening invasion sequence to capture the invasion from a disarming first person perspective. It went on to become possibly the most critically lauded war film in history.

Less than ten years later, Fight Club was vilified in the mass media ostensibly because it celebrated violence, when in reality it was a deeply misunderstood film that ruthlessly criticized the rapid desensitization of western audiences to glamorized violence in film by using the very same techniques as Spielberg to portray young men so lost that they had to resort to violence in order to feel something genuine. It was further criticized for intentionally and deeply disturbing audiences with it’s portrayal of violence, much like what Spielberg was celebrated for but quite unlike the widespread praise lavished on The Exorcist for driving audiences to flee theaters if they were able to escape them before fainting, with no apparent justification or reasoning behind the offending content than to produce that exact response.

What I’ve come to recognize about violence in film is that you are essentially free to provoke as extreme an emotional response to it as you want as long as the content and it’s context do not provoke uncomfortable questions in the social and political power structure. Over the past year, I’ve explored film to a depth and breadth far surpassing anything I’ve ever been capable of before and I’ve run across what seems like an ever increasing amount of extreme content in film from a whole host of countries ranging from Japan (Ichi The Killer, Audition) to France (Martyrs, Irreversible), Russia (Cargo 200), and Sweden (Millennium The Film).

I wouldn’t say that I’m drawn to that kind of content, but I’ve long been curious about it and why it’s there. I don’t have any blanket answers, but I can safely say that the one that got me thinking the most was oddly enough Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. Far from being a cartoonish slaughterfest like it’s predecessor House of a Thousand Corpses, it was one of the decade’s most haunting and well constructed films that balanced the inhuman sadism of it’s protagonists with jarring scenes of innocent joy and familial love. It wasn’t so much that people who could cut a man’s face off and force his wife to wear it like a mask could then drive off down the road eating ice cream; it was that they seemed completely well adjusted and even endearing while arguing about the ice cream.
Again, and by complete admission by Zombie himself, The Devil’s Rejects is essentially an answerless equation. He created a portrait of extreme villainy so deft in it’s subtle strokes that it’s lack of statement or agenda becomes almost maddening. It did get me thinking though. About how if I could learn how to create something that unsettling and aim it in the right direction, it could take a kneecap off. Until it got that whole ball of yarn unrolling- which brought together the threads of all the most persistent topics I’ve covered in the five years I’ve been throwing words at the Internet- I didn’t really have a coherent answer for why I should elect to dig as deep as I could into disturbing content in my narratives as I was considering. It wasn’t so much that I was toying with arbitrary violence, but that I was unsure what the final point might be that would vindicate it’s usage until I was contemplating the brutal efficacy of The Devil’s Rejects and how envious I was of Zombie’s ability to make the audience feel something that intensely and arguably did it most effectively in a sequence in which not a single drop of blood was spilled. Emotion, especially extreme emotion- as I reminded myself- is a tool and in this case a tool that I could use like a whetstone to sharpen my narrative’s dialectic into a knife point.


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