Experiencing the uniqueness of Queen’s Freddie Mercury, an occidental bystander will mark him with the distinctness of being both masculine in his rock-star stage persona and feminine in his private-life affairs and outfits (by no means is this observation made in full). According to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Mercury exhibits heroism in avoiding the binaries of illusion—these illusions accounted by Nicholas of Cusa’s idea of the “’Wall of Paradise,’ which conceals God from human sight”—first experienced in the Old Testament’s myth of Adam’s exile from the Garden of Eden.[i] “The removal of the feminine into another form symbolizes the beginning of the fall from perfection into duality…and thereupon the building of the Wall of Paradise.”[ii] Adam experiences this fall from perfection and in doing so creates, in the conscious world, duality—found in the distinction between Adam/Eve, man/woman, or masculinity/femininity.
Resembling Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject—literally defined as “cast out”[iii]—femininity is cast outside, distinct from the “Self” with clear physical boundaries or barriers separating the two (according to the biblical text of Eve forming from Adam’s rib). The Self, not to be confused with identity, herein means humanity at large. It is this “binary opposition,” theorized by Markus Rheindorf, between bodies (the Self and the other) where “articulations of unresolved cultural conflicts” take place in an externalized, fictional world; Rheindorf further defines the “other”—in science fiction films—as “embodying fears of various cultural others such as the female, the homosexual, the technological, and the pathogenic.”[iv] In this essay, I will be focusing on the duality between the Self and the other in two science-fiction films in terms of technology and ideology as it relates to humanity, rather than physical bodies/boundaries and “grotesque” abjection.
Conflict naturally arises from opposites; Freddie Mercury dissolves his persona of the distinction between masculinity and femininity, and travels “between which the heroes always pass.”[v] For the films Metropolis (1927) and Alphaville (1965), the only conceivable resolution to their conflicts is in the hero’s journey in bringing to light all that is dark and repressed from the unconscious and dissolve the illusory duality in the conscious world. The hero today (circa 1949 according to Campbell) questions whether “to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the coordinated soul.”[vi] This draws a nice parallel to Lemmy Caution bringing light to those who need it most (will be discussed later). Campbell continues: “the lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two.”[vii]
Science-fiction films explore the conscious externalizations of the unconscious, where images of repression are present in the hard line between monster/other and the Self. In physical space, the boundary of the Self—represented with the human body as containing all that distinguishes subjectivity from objectivity—is constantly in threat of assault from the “other”—represented through technology in science fiction as distinct from subjectivity and humanity. The repressed represent the dangers of exploring the Self (both consciously and unconsciously) without what Campbell refers to as “lines of communication” to help guide the Self—previous guides in primitive cultures (before conscious maturity and the extreme scrutiny of the unknown)[viii] being myths, tales, and rites of passage.
This paper will examine the need for a hero in the two science fiction films to reveal the illusions of duality and restore humanity to societies and technologies that seek to control it. Rationality through technology becomes a force of oppression in these films, controlling the masses into uniformity (objectivity without subjectivity), thus creating an illusion or representation of reality. The inherent paradox of rationality through technology is this: attempting to control the natural order of humanity and culture through ideology by forming boundaries and reinforcing them with dualities that are not in themselves natural or whole.
In Metropolis, the working class (hands/irrationality) is in direct conflict with Fredersen (head/rationality). The former resembles a robotic-prison in their living and working routines underground while Fredersen sits high above on his tech-rational throne. Both socially and spatially, the two are separate at the start of the film—this separation acts as the externalized conflict of the world that needs redemption/mediation. The repressed unconscious of Fredersen’s modernity morphs the true, virgin-Maria (symbolizing pure emotion) into a vamp-figure, the “false Maria.” Through technological means, Fredersen creates this figure of oppression and false emotions to strengthen the borders of his externalized unconscious and make a false reality that he claims to be “natural”—specifically when the workers pledge allegiance to the false-Maria and follow her wicked ways. Were Fredersen to create a true reality of nature, no conflict would arise and therefore no film be made; but due to the inherent paradox of rationality, conflicts arise and the events of the hero’s journey develop into a grand spectacle.
The hero, or mediator according to R. L. Rutsky in the essay Between Modernity and Magic, is Freder,[ix] son of Fredersen. Applied to Campbell’s hero archetype, Freder, to achieve resolution, must embody “a perfect human spirit alert to the needs and hopes of the heart.”[x] Similarly, Rutsky finds that “[Freder] is supposedly the ‘heart’ that enables the division of the head and the hands, his father and the workers, to be overcome, transformed into a whole, living body once again.”[xi] This is evident in the resolution of the film: the last intertitle piece of dialogue from Maria reveals the “brain and hand want to join together, but they are missing the heart…You [Freder], as Mediator, can show them the way to each other…”.[xii] Thus, Freder joins the pair together, expels the binary, and leaves the world in a more natural, living order contrasted from the beginning.
Another science-fiction film to exhibit an explicit hero in conflict with the tech-established order comes with Lemmy Caution in Alphaville. Chris Darke describes the film “as an allegory of cinematic light,”[xiii] with the generalized conflict as the city of Alphaville not having light—like humans before Prometheus.[xiv] Alpha-60, an omnipresent computer-based intelligence, controls the city, keeping humans in the dark: both physically and ideologically (humans as robots without emotions or thought).
The representation of technological life controlling humanity is more prominent in Alphaville than in Metropolis, where humans conform to robotic standards of puppetry and submission for the benefit of technology, rather than a greedy human (although this can be debated). As Darke notes, Alphaville reveals modes of hegemonic authority through various artistic techniques—light, character/camera movement, sound, and poetry—to reveal the artificial qualities of the idealized city: darkness (unenlightenment), circular patterns (repetition of oppressive-order), and controlled speech/thought (control over humans through ideology).[xv] With this influence, humans repeat their lives continuously, unable to record memories, with no way to escape or change the order—i.e. losing their humanity without the ability to recall it. Again, rationality is a paradox; but in this instance, an omnipresent force of technology—distinct from the organic Fredersen—tries to conform humanity to something not entirely human (resembling Freud’s uncanny).
Lemmy Caution, as the hero to restore humanity in the city of technological hegemony, enters this world “armed with light.”[xvi] Lemmy uses physical light (enlightenment) with planar lines (progression) and free-thought poetry (subjectivity) to defend against the hegemony and establish humanity once again—obviously an over-simplified summary but it works for now.
Ferdinand de Saussure from his Course in General Linguistics defines semiology as the study “of signs as part of social life,” with language being “a system of signs expressing ideas.”[xvii] Cultures express their ideology (signs of value and uniqueness) into physical consciousness through language; and through the control of language (like in Alphaville), one is able to control the ideology of a culture (famously abused by Hitler). The greed-king (Fredersen or Alpha-60) conforms the culture to fit their own “economic-political organization;”[xviii] in the context of science-fiction films, this malevolent force is some form of technology, monsters, or aliens that embody/externalize the fears of various cultural others attempting to assault the boundaries of our own cultures in the attempt to make us less human, more other. The hero means to mediate between cultures, between rationality and irrationality, and between the Self and other to preserve subjectivity and humanity.
PS: I split some of the larger paragraphs up from the original to make it easier to read through but in doing so may have caused some ideas and evidence to split into two or more paragraphs of thought.
Lastly, this short essay is designed to introduce the idea of hero and mythmaking, according to Joseph Campbell’s theories, into science fiction stories; by NO regards will this cover more than surface-level observations and assessments. If you would like to argue or add an obvious point I missed, simply send an email.
Alphaville. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. 1965. France: Athos Films, 1998. DVD.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato: New World Library, 2008. Print.
Darke, Chris. “The shape of things.” In Alphaville, 38-54. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2005. E-journal.
De Saussure, Ferdinand. Couse in General Linguistics. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1986. Print.
Metropolis. Directed by Fritz Lang. 1927. Berlin, Germany; Kino Lorber films, 2010. Blu Ray.
Rheindorf, Markus. “’The Line Must be Drawn Here’: The Body as the Final Frontier in Science Fiction Films of the 1990’s.” In Reconstruction (2007). E-journal.
Rutsky, R L. “Between Modernity and Magic.” In Film Analysis, a Norton Reader. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
[i] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato: New World Library, 2008), 73.
[ii] Ibid., 131.
[iii] Rheindorf, Markus. “’The Line Must be Drawn Here’: The Body as the Final Frontier in Science Fiction Films of the 1990’s,” in Reconstruction (2007), para. 14.
[iv] Ibid., para. 2.
[v] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 73.
[vi] Ibid., 334.
[vii] Ibid., 73.
[viii] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 333-334.
[ix] Rutsky, R. L., “Between Modernity and Magic,” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), 163.
[x] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 272.
[xi] Rutsky, Between Modernity and Magic, 163.
[xii] Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang (1927; Berlin, Germany; Kino Lorber films, 2010), Blu Ray.
[xiii] Darke, Chris. “The shape of things,” in Alphaville (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 39.
[xiv] Ibid., 41.
[xv] Ibid., 39-44.
[xvi] Ibid., 42.
[xvii] De Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics (Chicago and La Salle: Open Court Classics, 1986), 15.
[xviii] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 334.