Kirsten Strayer June 24 2018

Myth and Cinema


Narrating a myth and making a film are two arts that have very little in common. Based in an older time, myths are stories call up images of gods and heroes, of origin stories and naming narratives, or stories that attempt to illustrate the world and humanity’s place within it. Film, on the other hand, is an ultra-modern art form tied explicitly to its technology. Far from being ahistorical and timeless, films are anchored in the historical moment that they come from.

However, despite this difference, we can think of film is a productive vehicle through which modern and ancient myths can be told. Instead of isolating myths to a pre-modern past, films expose those myths that we tell ourselves and bring us closer to our earlier ancestors. As rationalists and products of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we may think that we are too advanced for mythmaking. If we disentangle ourselves from the idea that we are different from—or even superior to—the mythmakers of the past, we are more likely to see the myths in our own world, myths that we accept as true. Contemporary myths—bootstrapping, for example, or soul mates, or the invisible hand—carry us forward much in the way that myths of the past did.

The films in this Spotlight play with mythologies of the past and present. In so doing, they help us explore our own relationship to truth and story and to challenge the things that we often believe without question.

We Are Vagina (Leona Godwin, 2015) is an animated collage and soundscape that explicitly draws from and reworks the Apache myth of “vagina girls”—monstrous, toothed vaginas that chew up men. In the myth, the monstrous figures are eventually de-toothed and rendered harmless by the Killer-of-Enemies. In the film, the vaginas get the upper hand, as we see a young man travelling, then eventually being embraced and eaten by the human vagina monster. The film, however, posits this female space as warm and embracing (if terrifying), and much more hospitable than the dry, arid outside modern world. And these monsters, far being mythical, are more material—the one “monster’s” braces creates a materiality to the modern metaphor of the vagina dentata. The film blends the old the new, highlighting the history of toothed vaginas and their recurrent place in both older and modern societies.

We Are Vagina (Leona Godwin, 2015)

In Naiá and the Moon (Leondro Tadashi, 2010), the film recounts the story of an indigenous Amazonian myth, but uses the flatness of video to make the piece itself more myth-like and less tied to its cinematic history. The film combines dialog-free imagery, black and white flat animation, and minimalist setting to disentangle the film from realism. More specifically, the film’s lighting illuminates only necessarily people and objects—a tree, a flower, or Naiá running through the forest. The lack of visual depth expresses how the short film makes cinemas mythic, and enfolds form and content.

Naiá and the Moon (Leondro Tadashi, 2010),

Metamorphosis (Weekes and White, 2011) is part of The National Gallery, London’s larger project celebrating the Renaissance painter Titian, but it also plays with time, myth and history. The film resituates the myth of Diana and Acteon not in ancient Rome, or even in the present, but in a world that is neither the present nor the past. In a world that could be the 1920s, or present-day or some moment in an elite future, a woman gets her revenge on a man that is too forward with her. In creating such a timeless moment, the piece draws not from a particular moment in history but in imagining a time outside of history. Ironically, it is the 21st-century digital effects that allow for this seamless, mythic incarnation to take place. However, even as that locates the film in a particular technological historical moment, it disengages from the real world into an entirely mythic one.

Metamorphosis (Weekes and White, 2011)

The final film in this Spotlight, The 6th World (Becker, 2013), draws the historical world together with the mythical one to imagine the live space where myth begins. Sometime in the immediate future, the project Emergence is travelling to Mars to start the first colony. Under the guidance of Navajo woman Tazbah Redhouse, the ship attempts to bring a strain of bioengineered corn to Mars. The film draws from Navajo creation story (“The First World”) and the history of North American colonization to both celebrate the creation of the world and cast doubt on the project of space colonization. By intertwining technology, history, and myth, The 6th World conceives of a contemporary world where myth is taken as seriously as contemporary institutional structures are.

The 6th World (Becker, 2013)

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.

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